Searching for Khilafatopia by Sadek Hamid

In a speech on 5 September 2006, US President George Bush warned that al-Qaeda wanted to establish a ‘violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call caliphate, where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology.’ For some observers, that predication partly came true in July 2014 when ISIS seized large chunks of territory in Iraq and Syria. Its self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Baker al-Baghdadi declared that they had re-established a religious institution formally terminated in 1924. Most Muslims worldwide rejected ISIS’s claim and even supporters of the concept of a caliphate have been horrified by the barbarity of ISIS over the last two and half years.

For Western political elites, the idea of a twenty-first century, pan-Islamic polity that unites postcolonial Muslim nation states inspires fear and loathing. Nonetheless for many believers, despite the barbarity of ISIS, the idea evokes a mix of hope and nostalgia. This is because the concept of caliphate or khilafah is infused with memories of the unified community governed by the pious al-khilafah al-rashida – the rightly-guided four successors to the Prophet between 632–61. Populist Muslim discourse paints the khilafah in an idealised way – a sort of Islamised ‘Garden of Eden’, where all was well until Muslims were colonised, oppressed by Western foreign policy and persecuted by corrupt rulers. It is an image of a lost utopian, universal Muslim ummah that transcended borders, where faith superseded ethnic, linguistic, cultural and political differences. History, however, records a far more complex story, one in which the concept of khilafah held multiple meanings and whose reality was manifested simultaneously in many great achievements as well as dark episodes.

In Arabic, the term khilafah denotes successor, proxy, or deputy. In the Qur’an, it is referenced to the idea of human vice-regency, or trusteeship, on earth. Historically it refers to the landmass of smaller states that made up the Muslim empires that spanned the seventh to early twentieth century. This includes the periods ruled by the Umayyads (661–750), Abbasids (750 –1258), Fatimid dynasties (909–1171) and Ottoman Empire (1517–1924). Despite different interpretations and realisations, the idea of khilafah was in its essence about leadership and the just ordering of Muslim society according to the will of God – as the Historian Hugh Kennedy points out in his recent book The Caliphate. Modern debates on the khilafah began in the mid-1920s after the abolition of the Ottoman khilafah and conversion of Islam into a stateless religion for the first time in its history. At the time the sense of loss and resulting turmoil triggered unsuccessful attempts to address this absence through international conferences – in Cairo organised by King Fuad of Egypt and in Makkah, hosted by King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud. Enthusiasm for a restored khilafah waned between the interwar years and remained dormant during the post-colonial, independence period as nationalist sentiment and politics dominated the newly created Muslim states.

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