Caliphate, Ruling

5. CALIPHATE CONTENTIONS: Historically, there was rarely a single unified caliphate, and therefore it is an unrealistic, utopian idea

This article has been reproduced from Prophetic Politics.

Discussion of the Historical Precedence Argument –  summed up as “the practical reality was that there were several competing caliphs or sultans, and therefore it is not an obligation or realistic to have a single Imam”.

Without debating the premise of the argument (which could itself be considered historically problematic) – it is important to consider that Islam came to deal with the human condition, in all its aspects – political, social, personal. And in doing so – while laying down ideals and normative standards, it also provided Muslims with a reference for correction – hence the entire corpus on enjoining the good and forbidding the evil for example.

The fact that the Prophet – peace be upon him – made the statement that if two caliphs are appointed then the second should be killed – is evidence that disunity will occur among Muslims, and that there would be situations where authority would be contested. The direction of the Prophet to kill the second claimant to the caliphate both ascertains the seriousness of the issue – by making deliberate attempts to violate political unity a capital offence, mandating death if necessary in order to remove the conflict – as well as the clear injunction that political unity of the Muslim ummah is a general and all-encompassing rule.

It is indisputable that disunity, competing claims and alternative power bases around the caliphate reaches back to the first centuries of Islamic history. With contested opinions over ruling and authority throughout history, and the spread of Islam to as far as Spain and India, such realities were considered by all of the scholars who talked upon the subject. And the vast majority conveyed that the normative position was that despite whatever the status quo was at the time, the Islamic rule was that a single ruler was mandated – as can be read in detail here

As for what to do in the situation where there is division due to the shortcomings within the Muslim community, Sheikh ibn Taymiyya wrote that it is imperative that each leader still implements Islam in their authority.

والسنة أن يكون للمسلمين إمام واحد، والباقون نوابه، فإذا فرض أن الأمة خرجت عن ذلك لمعصية من بعضها، وعجز من الباقين، أو غير ذلك فكان لها عدة أئمة، لكان يجب على كل إمام أن يقيم الحدود، ويستوفي الحقوق

According to the sunnah, the Muslims should have a single Imam, and the other leaders are his assistants. If it was the case that the Muslim ummah were no longer united under a single ruler, due to the sinfulness of some of the Muslims (by separating from the leadership), and the inability of the rest of the Muslims to prevent that from happening, or for any other reason, and as a result there were numerous leaders – then it is obligatory upon each leader to establish the hudud and ensure that peoples’ rights are fulfilled

A brief survey of Islamic history highlights that during the period of greater disunity, greater calamities befell the Muslim ummah such as the fall of al-Andalus, the long occupation of the Crusaders across Muslim lands including al-Quds, the sacking of Baghdad, and ultimately the abolition of the caliphate itself. These are just some of the examples of the loss of authority and security which can be contrasted to the spread of Islamic authority and security during periods of relative unity and stability.

Historical precedence is not an evidence for permissibility. That it is not a source of Islamic ruling should be clear – if taken to its conclusion that would mean that we can point to the actions of some of the leaders historically to align themselves with groups hostile to the Muslims such as the crusaders or Mongols, or enforced hereditary rule, or other indiscretions of specific rulers which went unchecked, whether personal or otherwise – and suggest that they were also permitted since they took place. Such an argument is irresponsible, incorrect and contrary to Islamic thought.

This lesson is even more pertinent today, a period of greater disunity than any other, among the consequences being the attempted genocide of Muslims in places are distant as Bosnia, China, Burma and Palestine, the killing between Muslims due to nationalism and tribalism such as in Yemen, the Iraq-Iran war, Sudan, and the displacement of Muslims who do not fit into the current nation-state forms such as the Kashmiris, the Kurds, the dispossessed in Kuwait and elsewhere, along with too many other issues to be listed here.

In conclusion – Islam mandates a unitary rule for Muslims and it is obligatory to seek such a polity, and historical precedence is not an excuse for inaction or pessimism.

Dr. Reza Pankhurst is the author of The Inevitable Caliphate (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Untold History of the Liberation Party (C Hurst & Co, 2016)