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Nostalgia for Caliphs and Lost Unity

Why doesn’t a moral authority exist that is qualified to represent Islam in the high international representative bodies? Are the Muslim states irreparably incapable of establishing a unifying body capable of offering Muslim peoples a new opportunity to confirm their presence – and their values – on the scene of history?’. These are the questions that led Ali Mérad, scholar of modern Islamic thought and emeritus professor at the Paris III University, to consider one of the pivotal institutions of Islamic culture and society: the caliphate. After over eighty years since its abolition, decreed in 1924 by Atatürk’s laical nationalist Turkey, the possibility of reinstating it continues to raise the hopes of many Muslims. The author explains the reason for this: ‘For almost thirteen centuries (632-1924) the caliphate represented for most Muslim peoples the model of the Islamic state par excellence’.



And yet, the institution of the caliphate is as evocative as it is problematic, as shown by the schism between Shiites and Sunnites generated by the different conception that the two sides had and continue to have of the caliph. Even though deeply rooted ‘in the original background of Islam’, neither the Koran nor the prophetic tradition are particularly explicit with regard to its nature. The caliph, from the Arabic khalîfa, is literally the vicar of Mohammed. Nevertheless, it is not clear who has the right to come after him, nor what his prerogatives are, that is, in what way he can exercise the religious and political-military functions once united together in the figure of Mohammed.



According to the classical Sunnite doctrine, well summed up for Mérad by the conception of the great Ibn Khaldûn, Islam is both dîn (religion) and dunya (temporal sphere). The caliph is therefore the holder of both powers, which remain however distinct both by nature and end: political power has a rational foundation, even though always dutifully enlightened by faith, and earthly ends that can be summed up in the justice (‘adl) and charity (ihsân) binomial; religious power, on the other hand, depends exclusively on the canonical sources and in this field the caliph must limit himself to protecting what is contained in them.



Apart from his functions, however, what perhaps truly counts is his symbolic significance as a representative of the unity of the umma, also because – a fact that is perhaps not sufficiently highlighted by the author – not always in the course of history in the nominal presence of the caliphate has its actual capacity to exercise power been reciprocated. For this reason the author stresses that, for most Muslims, its abolition is merely a historical circumstance and in no way can it be considered irreversible. In fact, since 1924 to present day, many Muslim scholars have devoted their time to the formulation of theories that would give an explanation for this vacancy. In this debate there are principally three positions: the first, which finds origin in the controversial position of the jurist ‘Alî ‘Abd al-Râziq, postulates that the caliphate finds no legal justification in the founding texts and therefore Islam does not need it: the second, inspired by the thesis of ‘Abd al-Razzâq Sanhoury, considers that in the contemporary world the caliphate must take on the form of a ‘society of the oriental nations’; the third, which sees the possibility to set up a real Islamic state in the reinstatement of the caliphate, calls for its restoration according to the Medinese paradigm and the first four caliphs, the so-called well-guided (râshidûn).



Regardless of the single positions examined, an evident nostalgia can be read into the book for one of the most tangible signs of the unity of the Muslim community. And even more so the desire, shared by Mérad and quite obvious in his lexical choices (apostolic succession, magisterium, ecumenism), that the Islamic world too can be endowed, using the example of the Catholic Church, with a figure which permits it to express itself through one voice.



In combining personal passion and scientific thoroughness, the book gives, even in its synthesis, an accurate reconstruction of the history and nature of an institution that well represents the dreams, but above all the labour, of contemporary Islamic societies.



Michele Brignone

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