Realising A Caliphate – Analysis


By Reza Pankhurst

A recent piece in the Economist entitled “Dreaming of a Caliphate” investigates how some thinkers are struggling with the concept of Islamic rule in the “modern” age where it appears the only acceptable polity is that of liberal Democracy. The constant refrain of accusing ‘Islamists’ of wanting to impose an “Islamic dictatorship” or “theocracy” against the will of the people and the West, which then evokes a defensive response from spokesmen of aforementioned groups who claim that they only want the opportunity to participate in any democratic system formulated by the elite (normally the military and former establishment), has effectively sidelined any serious discussion about Islamic government as an alternative to the status quo in the political domain. This is problematic, given that there is public sentiment in support of the idea, and the debates have clearly been carrying on between people away from the glare of the media only to explode onto the scene of public consciousness as occurred at the Tahrir square demonstrations in Cairo at the end of July which witnessed the consistent explicit pronouncement of Islamic political slogans repeated in unison by hundreds of thousands if not millions of demonstrators.

The hegemony of a liberal democratic discourse is reflected in a lot of thinking in the Middle East by Islamic scholars and intellectuals, termed “New Islamists” by Raymond Baker, with their belief that “democracy in modern times affords the best means to justice”[1]. Not only in the Middle East, Muslim intellectuals in the Western tradition have also formulated their own ideas about how polity in the Islamic world should be organised. There are those who talk about a separation between religion and the state, though not politics, with Islamic values informing the views of the Muslim part of the population, such as Muqtedar Khan who firmly states that “Muslims must widely and unambiguously accept that Islam and democracy are compatible”; those who do so are approvingly referred to as “Muslim democrats” whereas others are scolded as “Muslim isolationists”[2]. The economist article mentioned earlier also seems replete with thinkers searching for ways to make Islam “compatible” or “acceptable” to Western philosophy such as the how far could an Islamic polity be compatible with a John Rawls-like democracy. Others such as Khaled Abou el Fadl make the case for liberal democracy as the most effective form of government to protect and promote Islamic values. But as mentioned by Saba Mahmood in her response to Abou el Fadl, rather than ask how Muslims could become better liberals, can we not ask whether the World could be lived differently, with alternative visions being explored rather than succumbing to the hegemony of Western political ideals?[3]

This hegemony of the superiority and universality of democracy has underlain much of the approach to analysing the politics of Islamic individuals and groups across the Middle East and general Muslim world. Briefly, analysts normally fall into two broad camps – the first approach holds the incompatibility of Islam and ‘modernity’ as the trigger for regional discontent and the support for various Islamic movements, whereas the second contends that factors such as the failure of secular nationalist movements to resolve the societal problems of poverty and denial of political representation are the main causes of the backlash. However, for all their differences and arguments, since the end of the Cold War both sides implicitly make liberal democracy as the ultimate reference in their approach to analysis, such that Michael Salla has previously noted that “the relationship between liberal democracy and political Islam is unidirectional: Political Islam either responds to liberal democratic norms by demonstrating their consistency with the Islamic heritage; or reacts to them as contrary to the Islamic heritage”[4].

Submitting to or enforcing a hegemonic discourse that assumes the universality of a “democracy”, which is in any event contested, with anything else labeled as “authoritarian” will hardly help in understanding what each side is positing. The reaction by some prominent Islamic groups, to the events of July 2011 in Tahrir square, was to position themselves as the “moderate” face of Islamic politics, ready to play by the “rules of the game” as defined from outside – by Western democratic on-lookers – and a small number of secularists within the region. This kind of politicking, though perhaps understandable (and to some extent expected from the more pragmatic elements), actually hinders and clouds any possible discussions regarding the role of Islam in the polity of the region.

There is clearly a rising religiosity in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, and so the perceived authenticity and genealogy of the various claims about whether “Islamic government” exists and what it looks like will likely play a greater role in garnering support, though the continued imposition and participation in “democratic discourse” may simply dilute and undermine the authenticity of the ideas of all sides of the debate. While there are continuing discussions about the right of different cultures to develop their own “indigenous” form of democracy, or widening definitions of hybrid-regimes, the possibility that a vision of an elected, accountable government can be articulated outside of the paradigm and vocabulary of universally claimed democratic ideals remains either overlooked or dismissed, arguably narrowing the potential for meaningful dialogue and understanding. It can be proposed that the orthodox Islamic theories of the Caliphate system represent an elected, accountable government and the rule of law – all of which address the core grievances felt by the protesters from Tunisia through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Jordan to Bahrain – is such a vision and deserves to be taken seriously in its own right.

Islamic Political Theory – a brief overview

The most famous exposition of the Islamic theory of State was by the scholar al-Mawardi who claimed that the establishment of the Caliphate was an Islamic obligation agreed upon by the scholars[5]. His treatise al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (the rules of governance) remains one of the major classical references for Islamic political theory. In it, he explains that the ruler is either elected by the peoples’ representatives or through being nominated by the previous Caliph. The Caliph’s responsibilities include implementing thehudood (punishments explicitly proscribed in Islam for acts such as theft, rebellion, public acts of extra-marital intercourse), collecting and distributing the taxes according to the Sharia prescriptions, and to protect and expand the borders of the Islamic State. There is a contract, known as bay’a, between the Caliph and those who elected him, that basically pledges allegiance to him as long as he fulfils his responsibilities to rule by the Quran and Sunnah. Though there are differences over the validity of those who usurp the power, the majority consensus is that bay’a is “not contracted without consent and choice”[6].

These ideas were not articulated by al-Mawardi alone. His claim of a consensus upon the obligation of the Caliphate is mirrored by everyone else who wrote on the subject in the period, and based upon earlier sources which articulated Islamic political thought. Early political treatises written to advise the Islamic government can be found dating back to the 8th Century, when for example the Persian scholar Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa argued that government only merited obedience if it obeyed Quran and Sunnah[7]. Recourse to some of ibn al-Muqaffa’s original text finds him telling the ruler that he has the sole responsibility for applying the hudood and other rules from the Sharia, and that “whoever disobeys the Imam in those issues or abandons him” is blameworthy, which can only mean that he considered establishing a ruler to govern as obligatory since it was the only way for the rules of Islam to be applied. Ibn al-Muqaffa also held the ruler accountable for applying the Sharia and stated that if he “prohibited prayer and fasting and pilgrimage” or “prevented the hudood and permitted what Allah had made forbidden” he was not to be obeyed[8].

This concept of accountability based upon the ruler’s application of Islamic law is traced back to words attributed to one of the foremost early Muslims called Abu Bakr who was the first Caliph appointed after the death of the Prophet through the choice of the people – in words attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib the son in law of the Prophet – “the Prophet did not direct us to anyone to take leadership – and so we decided upon Abu Bakr as his successor”[9]. Amongst the first words recorded by Abu Bakr after taking this position was that “if I do good then support me, and if I do wrong then straighten me”. In his first speech addressing the Muslim community in Medina he made it more explicit, stating “obey me as long as I obeyed Allah and His Messenger, and if I sinned against them then I have no claim to obedience over you”[10].

Thus the precedents for elected leadership who had the consent of the governed based upon application of and adherence to the rules of Quran and Sunnah, in other words the Sharia, are found in records of the first generation of Muslim rulers.

The contemporary conceptions of the role of the ruler being chosen by the people to rule them in accordance with the dictates and prescriptions of their Islam and to be accountable accordingly can be seen as coming from the same tradition as the original classical Caliphate theory, basing them on what they consider to be an authentic understanding of the original sources of revelation accepted by mainstream Islam. Without going into the detailed arguments and theological justifications for their various positions regarding the structure that government would take which would require its own independent study, their theories were built upon the foundations that sovereignty was for the Sharia, that the ruler is elected and accountable for applying Islamic law upon the community within the territory under their authority, and that in origin there should be a single ruler for the Muslims as a nation[11].

The Caliphate and Hizb ut-Tahrir

Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstrating in Copenhagen.
Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstrating in Copenhagen.

The most explicit proponents of the Caliphate upon the orthodox theory mentioned thus far has historically been Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic political party which was established in Jordan in 1953 and now operating across several countries in the Muslim World from Indonesia to Uzbekistan to Tunisia. The group is currently in the media as being under pressure in Pakistan by the regime there who view the ideas of the movement as a threat, especially as their anti-government discourse highlighting the role of Pakistan in America’s deeply unpopular actions in the region from predator drones to other forms of illegal and illegitimate actions resonates with the general public as well as government and military figures. Their detractors would consider them to be the most “anti-democratic”, and their vision of the Caliphate the most “dictatorial”, and so it is useful to briefly consider their understanding of the role of the Caliph and his relationship with his subjects.

In line with the classical position, they consider the Caliphate to be a contract of “consent and choice”. The choice of the people is to be found through a process of nomination and election carried out by a directly elected council named the majlis al-ummah (theUmmah council)[12] in a manner which appears to be largely inspired by the practice which occurred at the time of the nomination and selection of the third Caliph Uthman bin Affan[13].

Regarding the contractual basis between the Caliph and the people, in the book “The Ruling System” their second leader Abdul Qadeem az-Zalloom writes that unlike the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan where the King is effectively the owner of the country and the source of its laws, the Caliph has no “special privileges or rights” and is subject to the law as any other citizen since he is their “representative…in ruling and authority” with his selection being from the people who give him their pledge of allegiance “willingly” in order to “implement the Sharia of God upon them”. Therefore the Caliph is “restricted in all his actions, judgments and looking after the affairs of the Muslim nation” by the Sharia and he only takes his position “when the Muslim nation willingly gives him the pledge of allegiance”[14].

At the same time, “accounting the ruler is an obligation upon the Muslims”, and even if there are Prophetic narrations which council patience if the ruler acts unjustly, this is taken to mean that “obeying them is obligatory” while at the same time “holding them accountable for their actions is obligatory as well”. This accounting is to take place through personal means, the establishment of political parties to hold the ruler to account, a consultative council of elected representatives and an independent court which would deal with cases against the executive[15]. However, if the ruler went beyond personal malpractice and injustice and extended their actions to implementing un-Islamic laws, in other words laws which ran in contrary to what was agreed in thebay’a agreement between them and the people, it would be obligatory to remove them at all costs whether through the courts at first or if necessary by force if they refuse to abide by the court’s decision[16].

It appears that their conception of the Caliph, his selection, and the contract between himself and those who chose him bear close resemblance to original orthodox theory which is claimed to be based upon original practise of the first generations of Muslims. It is these original orthodox elements (as opposed to subsequent historical practise) that were accepted even by the famous Orientalist Bernard Lewis as potentially “helping democratic development”, attaching importance to “the classical Islamic concept of supreme sovereignty” which was “elective, contractual, in a sense even consensual and revocable”. Of particular interest are the following passages describing his view of the theory of the bay’a: “The bay’a was thus conceived as a contract by which the subjects undertook to obey and the Caliph in return undertook to perform certain duties specified by the jurists. If a Caliph failed in those duties—and Islamic history shows that this was by no means a purely theoretical point—he could, subject to certain conditions, be removed from office. This doctrine marks one of the essential differences between Islamic and other autocracies. An Islamic ruler is not above the law. He is subject to it, no less than the humblest of his servants. If he commands something that is contrary to the law, the duty of obedience lapses, and is replaced not by the right but by the duty of disobedience.”[17]

Though the comparison with democracy/ autocracy is made this is aside from the main point that Lewis highlights – which is that the Islamic political theory has always articulated the concepts of the rule of law and accountability. These two concerns are consistent grievances felt by the population across the region, with the symbolism of former President Hosni Mubarak being seen being bars in the courtroom having such a cathartic effect for precisely this reason. As the peoples of the region are able to find their voices more and able to articulate their demands for good governance publicly, it would be unrealistic to try to sideline those who propose Islamic solutions given their growing constituency and the likelihood that in the more open discursive environment the popularity of their ideas will continue to rise as they can articulate the authenticity of their vision of government from Islamic sources rather than a largely discredited Western civilisation self-destructing in front of our eyes.

Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics Government department, and also blogs at This article is an updated and abridged version of an academic article previously published in the Political Theology journal entitled “Muslim Contestations over Religion and the State” found here

[1] Raymond William Baker, Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp.171.

[2] M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “The Politics, Theory and Philosophy of Islamic Democracy,” in Islamic Democratic Discourse : Theory, Debates, and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).

[3] Khaled Abou El-Fadl and et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[4] Salla, “Political Islam,” pp.737.

[5] al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyya (Beirut: Dar Al-Kotob Al-ilmiya).

[6] Ibid., pp.9-19.

[7] Ann K.S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp.53.

[8] Mohammad Kurd Ali, Rasa’il Al-Bulughaa (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Arabiyya al-Kubra, 1913).

[9] ibn Kathir al-Dimashqi, Al-Bidaiyat Wal-Nihaiyat (Beirut: Dar Al-Kotob Al-ilmiyah, 2003), vol 5 pp.272.

[10] Ibid., vol 5 pp.270.

[11] The consensus within traditional belief in the origin of the necessity of a singular overall Caliph or Imam for the whole Muslim nation is mentioned by both Abdul Jabbar and al-Mawardi

[12] Hizb ut-Tahrir, Muqadimma Al-Dustoor Qasm Al-Awwal (Beirut: Dar al-Umma, 2009), pp. 145.

[13] For narration of the events leading to the election of Uthman bin Affan as Caliph based upon the opinions of the people of Medina, refer to : al-Dimashqi, Al-Bidaiyat Wal-Nihaiyat, vol 7 pp.140-42.

[14] az-Zalloom, Nitham Al-Hukm Fil-Islam, pp.31-2.

[15] Hizb ut-Tahrir, Muqadimma Al-Dustoor Qasm Al-Awwal, pp.171.

[16] az-Zalloom, Nitham Al-Hukm Fil-Islam, pp.254-7.

[17] Bernard Lewis, “Islam and Liberal Democracy,” The Atlantic Monthly, Feburary 1993.

New Civilisation

New Civilisation is an online political journal which provides a unique source of insight and critical analysis regarding the pressing political, economic and ideological issues of the time. Its motivation is to provide an authentic alternative to the standard analysis often found in mainstream outlets – opening a channel for advocates of alternative Islamic political models to present their critiques of other understandings and put forward their own opinions while allowing them to be discussed and challenged within an environment of informed and respectful discourse.

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