I was interviewed last month by a couple of BBC journalists eager to elicit my views apropos of the Caliphate ruling system. It was a hot summer’s day in late Ramadan and I’d only just recently stumbled out of bed. In addition I wasn’t sure just how open I really wanted to be with the BBC so as a result my replies were somewhat laconic and on occasions – especially with respect to IS – a little reticent. I could discern on occasions a palpable sense of frustration on the part of my interviewers so in order to put the record straight and to share with others my own particular insights on this topical subject I’ve penned this article.
But first a disclaimer: current UK terrorism legislation forbids expressions of support for proscribed groups, of which Islamic State is one. Given the zeal the Met and CPS have displayed in recent years in prosecuting (persecuting) any Muslim who would presume to expound the rather self-evident truths about Western foreign policy in the middle east and Afghanistan I obviously had, and still have, no desire to become another victim of their relentless campaign to silence dissent. Of course this, and what follows, should not be misconstrued in any way (appreciate that’s asking a bit much of certain individuals) as a tacit or implied admission of support for any proscribed group(s). I am simply saying that given the very broad sweep of these terrorism laws and the expansive definition (but selective application) of “terrorism” currently employed by the authorities I cannot be as forthcoming as I might otherwise have liked to have been. C’est la vie.
The primary questions/talking points of the interview were:
- What is my personal background?
- When did I become interested in the Caliphate?
- Why does the idea of a foreign Caliphate resonate with British Muslims?
- How have my views evolved on this subject?
- What do you make of IS?
- How would life be under a caliphate?
- Would I move there?
I don’t intend to speak too much about (1) for obvious reasons but will do my best to articulate my thoughts and feelings on the remaining points bearing in mind my opening disclaimer.
My personal background
As are around 1 million other British citizens, I’m of Pakistani heritage. Born and raised in England though. That’s all I will say on that at this point, I’m afraid.
When did I become interested in the Caliphate?
At the age of 16 I encountered several activists from the Islamic political party, Hizb ut-Tahrir (well who else!) and they introduced me to the concept of the Caliphate. At this point I was already familiar with the history of the Crusades, the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain and the attempts by the Muslim Ottoman Empire to wrest Vienna from the Hapsburgs. I also had a basic awareness that Islam had some form of a judicial system. What I didn’t have was an understanding of how the Islamic scriptures could provide a framework for a comprehensive, organised system of governance. Similarly I was unfamiliar with notions such as ijtihad and the various juristic schools of thought. It might also be worth mentioning that at the time my understanding of jihad was that it was a purely a defensive mechanism to ensure the safety and well-being of imperilled or oppressed Muslims. My exposure to the teachings of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) instilled in me an impetus to investigate these aspects of Islam in more detail which I did both during a period of association (although I was never a member) with the party and then subsequently outside of it.
Why does the idea of a foreign Caliphate resonate with many British Muslims?
Well quite. After all why should the goings-on of a foreign land situated the better part of 3000 miles away concern us? To answer this question I must introduce the concept of the Ummah – the global Muslim community. The Qur’an and the Hadith are replete with references to the universal brotherhood of all Muslims and to the precept of Muslim unity; this concept lies central to understanding the psyche of Muslim communities resident in the West. Islamic political theory does not allow for the current nation state paradigm of a divided Ummah and even less so nation states whose borders were delineated by non-Muslim hegemons in the wake of their defeat of the previous Caliphate. The Ummah is a global community transcending distinctions of race, language, class or any form of interposed barrier between its constituents. Although greatly attenuated over the course of the preceding century the idea that, in principle, all Muslims are members of this single community and singular body politic is one that tens of millions of Muslims would still readily identify with. Amongst the predominantly South Asian Muslim community of Britain it would be safe to say this idea has considerable traction. In his monograph on the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate and the subsequent attempts at forging new forms of pan-Muslim unity the Israeli academic Martin Kramer presents a succinct, insightful summation of the Muslim psyche vis-à-vis the idea of one Ummah:
“Yet the congresses did more than inform…they created, demonstrated the tenacity of Muslim adherence to the concept of a united world of Islam…Muslim nationalism had the singular quality of authenticity. It was not a modern contrivance but drew on the traditional concept of the umma, the universal, indivisible nation of Islam…The congresses represented a standing protest by Muslim cosmopolitans against the arbitrary division of the Muslim world by foreign powers…” [Islam Assembled: The Advent of the Muslim Congresses]
From a scriptural viewpoint we find the ahadith (sing. Hadith) on the subject of unity are numerous and compelling.
“The Believers, in their mutual love, mercy and compassion, are like one body: if one organ complained, the rest of the body develops a fever.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
The sad reality today is that the Muslim corpus today is suffering from what can only be described as an acute case of multiple organ failure. From the Central African Republic to Palestine, from Kashmir to Burma – the settings might vary but the same incarnadine scene features in all. The flow of Muslim blood is as constant and unremitting as is the oil from the Saudi wells yet it seems our only recourse is to sign the latest obsequious e-petition, constantly importuning the same coterie of non-Muslim men (they are overwhelmingly male) to take up our cause. Sadly, all too often these occasion to be the very same men responsible for, or at least complicit in, giving rise to the malaise we seek to ameliorate – a case of the foxes soliciting the hounds for protection.
Of course it once wasn’t this way; in fact quite the opposite. There was a time, a mere two centuries ago in fact, when the United States would pay tribute to Muslim rulers (nominally vassals of the Ottoman caliph) for the safety of their ships on the high seas. There was a time a couple of centuries prior to that when the army of the Caliphate was hammering at the gates of Vienna and Western Europe trembled at the very real prospect of subjugation to the Islamic yoke. It was a time when the crescent waxed mighty; when the blood and honour of a Muslim was respected and held inviolable.
In another hadith the Prophet (saw) alludes to the tangible benefit of unity under a single leader:
“Only the Imam is a shield, behind whom you fight and you protect yourself with..” [Muslim]
The word ‘Imam’ in the above hadith is synonymous with the words ‘caliph’ and ‘sultan’. Commenting on the relationship between the word ‘sultan’ and the German word, ‘schild’ the instigator of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther, wrote: “For the Saracens call their king or prince ‘sultan,’ that is, lord or ruler or sovereign…It is as though one wished to say that a prince or lord must be his subjects’ shield, protection, and defense, if he is to be a true judge, sultan, or lord,”
Luther then proceeds: “Among the Saracens, for instance, the sultan’s scribes or secretaries, his doctors, teachers, and scholars, are those who teach, interpret, and preserve the Koran as the law of the land…. For every country, if it is to endure, must have these two things: power and law. The country, as the saying goes, must have a lord, a head, a ruler. But it must also have a law by which the ruler is guided.” [On the Jews and Their Lies]
It seems Luther was well acquainted with the concept of the Caliphate [note: in the same tract he also laments the fruitless endeavours of Christian Europe against the Egyptian sultanate over the preceding 6 centuries]. What becomes apparent from all of the above is that the Caliphate was indeed a means of protection for the Muslim Ummah in much the same manner as a shield might have provided protection for a Middle Eastern warrior of late antiquity. It may not have provided perfect coverage and of course some blows were bound to get through but without one you surely stood no chance. The Caliphate embodied the ultimate expression of Islamic unity providing for an appeal of last recourse for those Muslims residing outside of its dominion; an idea which naturally resonates forcefully with the many contemporary Muslim communities currently sojourning in the West. There were numerous instances scattered across its 400 year time line of the Porte rendering assistance, military or otherwise, to vulnerable Muslim communities as far afield as Indonesia. For those of us old enough to recall the horrors of the Bosnian holocaust of the 1990s the incalescent fever of Muslim-hatred currently spreading across Western Europe is the cause of much angst. Just as in the 19th century when the Caliphate was increasingly called upon to provide safe haven for those Muslims fleeing persecution or for those simply unwilling to accept subjection to the expanding non-Muslim dominions of the colonial era, so today many British Muslims look towards a future Caliphate as a place of potential refuge should conditions in Britain deteriorate to such a point as to necessitate hijrah (emigration).
And what of this ‘law by which the ruler is guided’? Indeed what of this ruler – Imam/Caliph/Sultan – himself? What of their significance and what particular resonances do they carry for British Muslims?
The Shariah – that is to say the canons and principles derived from the Islamic scriptures – to orthodox Muslims (those who follow the traditional understandings of the classical scholars of Islamic history) constitutes a legal code encompassing every conceivable sphere of human activity. From actions as mundane as drinking a glass of water right up to fiscal policy nothing is beyond the remit of the divine law. The enactment of these laws, however, is contingent upon the availability of the mechanisms of a state and, as already mentioned, every state needs a head. Writing in the 13th century CE the renowned luminary and savant, Ibn Taymiyyah stated:
“It is imperative to know that the office in charge of governing the people [the caliph] is one of the greatest obligations of the deen [religion]. Nay, there is no establishment of the deen or the dunya [temporal affairs] except by it.….
Further, [appointing a leader is obligatory] because Allah has obligated enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, and this is not executed except through a power and authority. The same applies to other obligations such as jihad, establishing justice, organising the hajj, jumu’a and the eids, assisting the oppressed, implementing the Hudud; none of these are able to be executed except by a power and authority. For this reason, it has been narrated that, ‘The sultan is the shade of Allah on Earth’, and it is said, ‘Sixty years of an oppressive imam is better than one night without any leader,’ and experience substantiates this.” [al-Siyasah al-Shari’yyah]
With the absence of a Caliphate a major part of the Islamic religion must necessarily lay in abeyance. For those of us who understand Islam to be a comprehensive way of life, an ideology governing both the spiritual and the temporal, it is much akin to having the engine removed from your (well those of you lucky enough to own one anyway) Mercedes AMG. It might still look pretty from the outside but impress the ladies it will not as it rusts away on your drive. As impressing, non-Muslims as to the greatness of Islam that is, and proselytising Islam – internally and externally – is one of the functions of the Caliphate it is hard to envisage a more debilitating calamity for the cause of Islamic propagation than the absence of it. Living a truly Islamic lifestyle requires the presence of a society built upon the Islamic ethos which in turn requires the comprehensive implementation of Islamic rules and regulations across the board. Such a society can only exist within the confines of the Caliphate.
And so to segue to the matter of why the existence (or absence) of a Caliph might resonate with British Muslims. Once again I make extensive recourse to the Prophetic traditions – which after all constitute a ubiquitous guidance for all Muslims.
“The tribes of Israa’il were ruled by the Prophets, every time a Prophet deceased he was followed by another Prophet, and there will be no Prophets after me, and there will be Khulafaa (caliphs lit. ‘successors’) and they will be many.” The companions then asked “What do you order us?” To which the Prophet replied “Fulfil your pledge of allegiance to them one after another, and give them their rights, and truly Allah will ask them about their responsibilities” [Bukhari & Muslim]
If one’s pauses for a moment – as I did at some point – to consider the implication of this hadith one is struck by the magnitude of its import. The Prophet (saw) has clearly paralleled the succession of the Caliphs to his seat of temporal authority with the continuum of prophethood amongst the Israelites. Although there is to be no continuance in the line of prophethood after him (saw) in the spiritual sense there is clearly a sense conveyed therein that it will continue in the temporal sense via the succession of the Caliphs. For centuries the accession of a new Caliph after the death, abdication or even killing of the previous one represented the next link in an unbroken chain stretching back to the Messenger of Allah (saw). It was as if their presence somehow adumbrated that of the Prophet (saw) himself. After all, did not the Prophet (saw) state in another famous hadith:
“Whoever obeyed me he would have obeyed Allah, and whoever disobeyed me he would have disobeyed Allah. And whoever obeyed the amir [the leader] he would have obeyed me, and whoever disobeyed the amir he would have disobeyed me.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
The desire to see someone occupy the office of Caliph can be seen as an emanation of an atavistic yearning immanent in the Muslim psyche for propinquity to the primeval purity of the original Madinan community under the leadership of the Prophet (saw).
Finally the Prophet (saw) also placed an obligation on us to render a pledge of allegiance to a Caliph and not to die without having given it:
“Whosoever takes off his hand from allegiance to Allah (swt) will meet Him (swt) on the Day of Resurrection without having any proof for him, and whoever dies without the Bayah (allegiance) on his neck dies the death of Jahiliyyah.” [Muslim]
The word “jahiliyyah” (lit. “ignorance”) refers to the pre-Islamic time of ignorance before the coming of the Prophet (saw) and for Muslims evokes a sense of revulsion and loathing being as it was an era of idolatry, divination, infanticide and unremitting internecine warfare.
I could enumerate many other traditions of the Prophet (saw) but I think what I’ve provided so far is sufficient to convey why, from the religious purview so many British Muslims hanker after the re-establishment of the Caliphate. I hope it goes someway also to explaining the hoopla over the June 29th (2014) announcement by the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
I’d like to conclude my answer to this question by touching briefly on one other aspect of why the idea of a Caliphate carries resonance with so many of us British Muslims. While undoubtedly the desire for a Caliphate stems from a sense of religious obligation there is concomitant to this a belief that it can also deliver a better standard of living for its citizens than the secular-capitalist ideology that prevails across the world today. There is a growing perception amongst the working and middle-classes of Britain (in which almost the entire British Muslim community lies subsumed) that the current set up is failing them. Be it the endless boom-bust cycles we have witnessed over the past 60 years, to a widening gap between the rich and everyone else, to a sense (backed by an abundance of facts) that the system is rigged in favour of a small elite. In the social sphere we have witnessed the rise of the one-parent family, previously an oddity now increasingly the norm. That in turn has led to a whole array of social ills which politicians are increasingly at a loss to remedy. The twin problems of drug and drink addiction are only too familiar to millions of Britons. The riots of a few years ago brought to the fore the worrying reality of a growing underclass of feral youths who, alienated from mainstream society, have in places coalesced into loose-knit gangs intent on wreaking havoc on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities. As the family unit has broken down we have seen a rise in the number of elderly and infirm being abandoned in so-called “care homes”. In summary a society characterised by anomie. The aforementioned are the type of ills which many British Muslims believe under a Caliphate would find effective remedy, thereby serving to demonstrate to those millions in the West currently pondering if there might actually be a viable alternative to the current set-up, that their worldly interests would be better served as citizens of this state. Yes, I kid you not. 🙂