Caliph: Tyranny? Democracy?

by Paul L. Heck (July 6, 2014)

The new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first public appearance on Friday, July 4, when he delivered the Friday sermon at the grand mosque in Mosul. His words combined piety and warfare. He spoke of the month of Ramadan as a great blessing from God. If you fast, you will receive mercy, forgiveness, and emancipation from hellfire. The same is true of jihad. Believers may not want to fight, but it is the only way to establish religion, East and West. It will gain them entry into paradise.

First sermon of the ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Is that what the caliph is—a kind of piety coach, urging believers to undertake their religious duties, both fasting and fighting? The new caliph asked believers to support him so long as he adheres to the truth and to advise him if he falls into falsehood. These are the words of the first caliph, Abu Bakr (r. 632-634); repeating them is a way for the new caliph to claim his mantle. (And it is no coincidence that the chosen name of the new caliph is the same as that of the first.) But these words also suggest that caliphal rule has limits. The caliph can’t do whatever he wants. But what is he limited by? It is not the will of the people. ISIS is not about democracy. Rather, his rule is limited by the truth of Islam. He can’t overstep it. If he does, believers are to offer him counsel, but it is not clear they can remove him from office once they’ve pledged allegiance to him. So long as he follows God’s commands and prohibitions, they are to be obedient to him. In any event, the idea of caliphal accountability is very much a non-issue in the new caliph’s first sermon. Emphasis is placed on the promise of God, which al-Baghdadi explains in reference to a verse in the Qur’an that speaks of believers inheriting the earth. If you fight, the land is your inheritance from God. And fight they have for the establishment of a caliphate as evidence that God’s promise is now being realized. So fight!

What is the caliphate? A bit of historical perspective is in order. It’s a vast topic, so here we focus on a single event that illustrates the idea of caliphal sovereignty but also the ambiguities surrounding it. In the year 656, almost twenty-five years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Uthmān Ibn ‘Affān, third of the rightly guided caliphs, was killed by fellow Muslims. It is difficult to know what happened exactly. The reports are contradictory. (And maybe that’s the point.) His assassins, including people who had known Muhammad, charge that ‘Uthman had deviated from the precedents of Islam set by the prophet and the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr (r. 632-634) and ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattāb (r. 634-644). They accuse him of tribal nepotism, favoring members of his own Umayyad clan, and also of seeking to kill those who oppose him. This makes him a tyrant deserving of death. Could the caliphate turn into a tyranny? The caliph’s assassins did not intend to kill him, at least not initially. They sought to get him to reform his ways and lead the community of believers as his predecessors had. More to the point, they saw the caliphate as the possession of the community of believers as a whole. In addressing ‘Uthman, they demand the return of “our caliphate.” This doesn’t mean the caliphate is a democracy, but it does suggest accountability to the community. Specifically, there is the expectation of justice. The caliph can’t be a dictator! In their view, ‘Uthman failed to uphold justice.

‘Uthman had his own argument to make. The rebels, he says, as the rest of the community, had pledged their allegiance to him. They are obligated to follow him as God has commanded. Here, we have a rather different notion of caliphal sovereignty. It is God’s caliphate, not the people’s caliphate. If you oppose the caliph, you oppose God. Did God go wrong in making ‘Uthman caliph? The believers—or a select group of them—may have elected ‘Uthman to be caliph. But once elected, he argues, he is to be obeyed. He may have made errors of judgment, but he has not renounced Islam, and he has committed no sin. Finally, he adds, if violence becomes the way believers bring about political change, the umma will never be free of civil strife. Better to endure injustice. By spilling his blood, he claims, they will set a precedent for the use of violence as the way to redress one’s grievances. In the end, they break into ‘Uthman’s chambers and kill him, a copy of the Qur’an on his lap.

The killing of ‘Uthman is a ghost that continues to haunt the umma. (Shi‘a have a very different view on the matter. For them, the history of Islam went off track when ‘Alī Ibn Abi Tālib was prevented from taking up leadership of the community, as the Prophet Muhammad had designated, following the latter’s death.) However, it is worth noting the historical context. By the time ‘Uthman became caliph, many lands had fallen to the Muslims through conquest. Were these lands to be divided among the fighters as the spoils of war? Or were the conquered lands and peoples to be put under the administration of a central state? It depends, of course, on one’s understanding of the caliphate. For ‘Uthman’s assassins, the caliphate was “our caliphate.” The fighters were to inherit the conquered lands. In contrast, for ‘Uthman, the caliphate in the form of a central state was to assume control over the conquered lands and the extraction of tax revenues from them. The state was caliph.

In other words, the needs of state building form the backstory to the killing of ‘Uthman. His assassins object to this new development. They want things to continue as they did when the proceeds of conquest were divided among the fighters, people like them! Islam was born into a pietistic community, but conquest would link it to empire. The caliphate would never be the same. It would never again be “our caliphate.” Henceforth, it would be the possession of particular dynasties, Umayyads and Abbasids, which stood at the epicenters of imperial organization.

However, even today, there is a longing for “our caliphate.” For many, the likes of ISIS, the caliphate is about the supremacy of Islam. Many a preacher over the last decades, from the UK to Indonesia, have bewailed the loss of Islam’s power and called for the restoration of its glory. In other words, the desire for Islam to be supreme is not limited to jihadists, and the idea is now coming home to roost for those who had advocated it. Be that as it may, for many others, nostalgia for the caliphate has to be seen against the dictatorial forms of rule in the Middle East. For these Muslims, the caliphate has a quasi-democratic basis. They might also have a desire for the return of the glory of Islam, but for them the caliphate is first and foremost about limited government: rule in which all believers have a say and which is measured by standards of justice for all. In contrast to the rule of kings and life-term presidents throughout the region, the caliphate would give the community of believers the right to choose their ruler and also the right to remove him.

There are a lot of questions to be addressed. What about non-believers? What about other kinds of believers? Would they enjoy the same rights as true believers? What exactly would citizenship mean? How would laws be made? I humbly suggest that this kind of caliphate, too, is not viable amidst today’s pluralist realities, among Muslims themselves to say nothing of others. Be that as it may, the idea of the caliphate here is not about tyranny. It is very much the opposite. It is about taking the religious ground from under the feet of modern-day tyrants who claim to rule in the name of Islam. It would also be opposed to the ISIS idea of the caliphate, which is based on rule by force, making it not unlike the dictators in the region whose claim to rule in the name of Islam barely veils their essentially authoritarian nature.

Still, one might ask, why a caliphate? If the goal is limited government, why not a democracy where all have equal say as citizens irrespective of their beliefs, values, and personal practices? In other words, whence this desire for a caliphate? Doesn’t the caliphate belong to a day long past? Why would any Muslim want it to be restored? The issue has many sides to it, and many Muslims, of course, do not want a caliphate. Still, in addressing the issue, one cannot overlook the rise of Salafism and also a particular saying (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad about the caliphate.

Let’s first get the prophetic saying on the table. In it, Muhammad speaks of the stages of Islam’s history. The first stage is the stage of prophecy, that is, the lifetime of the prophet. The second stage will be a caliphate according to the prophetic method. The third stage will be a fierce (literally, biting) kingship. The fourth stage will be tyrannical kingship. Finally, in the fifth stage, there will once again be a caliphate according to the prophetic method. The hadith doesn’t specify details, but the pious circles that today look to it to understand the history of Islam have a very clear understanding of its import. For them, the second stage is the period of the rightly guided caliphs, the first four successors to Muhammad. They ruled as the prophet had. However, in the third stage, rule passed to dynasties, from the Umayyads and Abbasids all the way to the Ottomans. It was not all bad, but it was a degenerate form of rule in comparison to the rightly guided caliphs. The fourth stage, tyrannical kingship, is associated with colonial and post-colonial rule—that is, the dictators currently in power—and is judged to be a time of humiliation for Islam and of triumph for the military state. However, all is not lost. The hadith predicts the restoration of “the caliphate according to the prophetic method.”

The hadith is widely recognized but is particularly meaningful in the world of Salafism. Salafism is a complex and diverse phenomenon with many trends. What they share in common is a desire to purify the Abode of Islam from what they see as innovations to Islam in its original condition, including the practices of Shi‘ism and Sufism. In their view, these innovations threaten the integrity of Islam, turning it into something Muhammad did not receive from God. In other words, until these innovations are eradicated from the umma, it cannot be said that Muslims are following what God sent down to them. This is to define Muslims as infidels of a sort, degenerate believers, if they do not worship God in the manner of the companions of Muhammad and their followers, known collectively as the Salaf (hence, Salafism, a term that those of this mindset apply to themselves). Islam needs to be revived!

How is such a purification project to be carried out? Most who identify with Salafism are content to limit the project to their own individual acts of worship in the company of other like-minded believers. Their goal is to make sure no innovations, no superstitions, and no implicitly polytheistic beliefs sully their own acts of worship, since that would make their acts of worship unacceptable to God.

Others in the world of Salafism take things to the political level. For them, it is dictators that pose the greatest threat to Islam’s monotheism. The mission of Islam thus depends on purging its abode of dictators no less than innovations in worship.

Muhammad al-‘Abd al-Karīm: author of “Monotheism Awakening: A Study in the Crisis of Islamic Political Discourse”

Some might find this puzzling. How exactly do dictators pose a threat to the monotheism of Islam? Bad as dictators may be, what do they have to do with the faith of Islam? To be sure, many of the leading voices within the world of Salafism have been more than willing to accommodate dictators so long as they allow Muslims to pursue innovation-free worship. Indeed, these voices almost seem to equate dictatorship with rule by Islam. How else to enforce that the nation is worshipping God correctly? However, a new generation of thinkers has appeared in the world of Salafism in recent decades. They reject the naturalization of authoritarian rule in Islam. Many of these thinkers come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and are known well beyond scholarly circles. (To name only a few of the more prominent ones: Hākim al-Mutayrī of Kuwait and Muhammad al-‘Abd al-Karīm and Salmān al-‘Awda of Saudi Arabia.) This discourse includes the idea of the caliphate as a quasi-democratic entity. The idea is that rule by force rather than consultation and consent is a violation of the monotheism of Islam. After all, the Qur’an calls for justice no less than the worship of Allah as the one and only god. It even associates the two. Islam cannot be reduced to individual acts of perfectly monotheistic worship. Justice is essential to the integrity of Islam, making it a religious duty to remove tyrants, the likes of Pharaoh who made himself a god over those he ruled.

This, in turn, implies that in Islam sovereignty lies with the umma, not those who happen to hold power. No one is God. Therefore, no one is above public accountability. Those in power can thus be removed from power if it is in the interest of the umma to do so. In other words, it is a call for the return of “our caliphate.” The polity is still to be shaped by the values of Islam, which, as noted above, raises questions about membership. Is the polity about being fellow citizens, or is it about being brothers in the faith? And whose faith? Still, in this view, the caliphate is not about the supremacy of Islam. It is at its core about the accountability of rulers to the ruled. The idea is that “the caliphate according to the prophetic method” is quasi-democratic. Election of the caliph is to be by the consensus of the entire community, not only the elite, and allegiance is conditional on the maintenance of justice. All of this changed, it is claimed, when the caliphate was remade in the image of dynastic kingship. One became caliph by inheritance, not by election. The irony, as argued by such thinkers within the world of Salafism, is that this form of rule, rule by force, was accepted by a majority of religious scholars. They may have had good intentions in doing so. They acquiesced to “fierce kingship” rather than demand a return to the caliphate according to the prophetic method as a way to avoid strife in society. Better encourage the community to endure injustice than open the door to the chaos and strife that would result from the violent overthrow of those in power. In other words, according to this line of reasoning, the religious establishment is implicated in making heavy-handed rule the norm in Islam. This is exactly what a new generation of thinkers in Salafism wants to unmask, and the hadith on the caliphate is a very effective way for them to overturn the assumption that dictatorship is the form of rule proper to Islam.

A lot more needs to be said on this matter. ISIS has established its caliphate. With ISIS, the caliphate is about the supremacy of ISIS beliefs, justifying the suppression if not eradication of those with other beliefs as well as the destruction of religious buildings associated with beliefs that for ISIS fall short of monotheism: the shrines of Sufism, Shi‘i mosques, and crosses displayed on churches. Here, the caliphate is the antithesis of democracy, which is based on the idea that citizens have inalienable rights. A few voices in the western media have suggested a democratic impulse. The idea is that ISIS is a political project in which the youth of the region are called to participate. ISIS in this sense is about political participation rather than subservience to dictators. Is this not a democratic impulse of a kind even if the project is not one we like? ISIS does encourage individual responsibility for the welfare of Islam. In other words, it encourages a kind of individual activism (ḥarakiyya) on behalf of a particular political project. The idea that to be a believer means not simply to worship God but to engage in a kind of civic activism has been at play in the various streams of Islamist discourse over the course of the last century. However, this activism has generally included participation in the democratic process: candidates, election campaigns, and voting. With ISIS, civic activism is given a violent twist. It means jihad in the sense of killing and being killed. It is not about ballot boxes. It cannot be compared to democratic citizenship. It may be useful to see the expression of democratic citizenship in the faith-based activism promoted in other corners of the world of Islam, but not in that of ISIS.

The ISIS caliphate is ultimately about tyranny, not democracy. But there are other quasi-democratic understandings of the caliphate at play in the discourse of the umma. The ISIS caliphate may not have a long life in the end, but the longing for “our caliphate” is not going to disappear so long as there are dictators who continue to rule in the name of Islam. What does it mean to be a caliph? Non-Muslims have a stake in the discussion. One question we can ask our Muslim brothers and sisters is what being caliph means for them today. After all, as we’ve seen, the idea has always taken new meaning in response to historical developments. The concept of caliph has never been static. How do Muslims understand it today? What does it mean today to say that God has made us caliphs?

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