The intellectual debate over the caliphate’s demise

  • 3 May 2016

The abolition of the caliphate in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was a key event in the history of Arabs, Muslims and the world at large. An important aspect to note, however, is that the caliphate had ceased to exist several years before its abolition. Following the defeat of the Ottomans in the First World War, the caliphate’s territories had been under European control and the Ottoman Caliph, stripped of both his political powers and the title of “Sultan" in 1922, was a religious symbol rather than as one of authority. Nevertheless, the end of the system that had dominated the Muslim world for 13 centuries was only officially marked by the abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924 and by the expulsion of Abdülmecid II, the last Ottoman Caliph.

The emergence of the nation state in the Arab and Muslim worlds followed suit, and was led by the transformation of Turkey into a nation state. As Turkey had once been the seat of the caliphate, it relinquished control of its non-Turkish territories and established clear borders. Under the rule of Atatürk, Turkey was liberated from occupation and protected from further division.

The most important effect of the abolition, in my view, was the removal of the notion of the caliphate’s religious sanctity – an aspect that had been affixed to the legitimacy of the caliphate throughout the centuries, barring any discussions regarding the nature of its relationship with religion or its suitability to changing circumstances.

In 1925, just a year after the abolition of the caliphate, Al Azhar scholar Ali Abd Al Raziq published Islam and the Foundations of Governance: A Research on Caliphate and Government in Islam, arguing that the caliphate had no foundation in Islam and that Islam did not designate a specific form of government or authority for Muslims. Rather, the matter is left for Muslims to decide amongt themselves, as neither the Quran nor the Sunnah provide any reference to the caliphate. Abd Al Raziq even stated that the caliphate had been “a disaster for Islam and Muslims, and a source of much vice and corruption".

The author had courageously opened the door for revisiting the misconceptions that had surrounded the caliphate over the centuries. His book was like a stone thrown in stagnant water. It left a significant impact; and yet, as seems to be the fate of reformers in each time and place, Abd Al Raziq was faced by a ferocious campaign that culminated in his excommunication and dismissal from Al Azhar. He was a religious scholar, and his opinion about the religious legitimacy of the caliphate is that of an expert and specialist in the field. As such, the attacks against him led many intellectuals to support him. Such support broke the barrier of fear that had previously been used to prevent any discussion of the caliphate or its position in Islam. Although many long decades have passed since the late Abd Al Raziq’s book was first published, his ideas are still relevant today.

This highlights a large-scale and extended intellectual crisis in our modern history: our significant intellectual battles never cease and many questions remain unanswered. Hence, the questions raised by the pioneers of the Arabic renaissance at the end of the 18th century are still debated in the 21st century.

It is indeed astonishing that some had once considered, and still do to this day, that the abolition of the caliphate was a setback, a conspiracy against the Muslim world and a rejection of a pillar of Islam. They have been trying to restore it ever since despite the fact that under the Ottoman Caliphate, for example, Arab and Muslim countries were occupied by foreign powers. Additionally, as a result of the rigid systems, laws and restrictions imposed by the caliphate, these nations fell behind modern civilisations. Religion was used as merely a slogan or cover by the “caliphs" or “sultans" to control the people, justify their policies, consolidate power and to expand their rule.

In this regard, the Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 as a reaction to the abolition of the caliphate and raised under the banner of restoring it. Other groups and movements, have since manifested themselves under the same guise used for regulation, as evident in the methods used by ISIL.

Despite the passage of more than 90 years since the abolition of the caliphate and the dominance of the nation state concept globally, it seems as though the advocates who call for the caliphate to be restored with religious legitimacy are adamantly holding to their antiquated thoughts.

The battle is an intellectual one – a battle in which further research and brave intellectual endeavours are paramount.

This is particularly the case following the arrival of political Islamic groups who have achieved or shared their power after the so-called Arab Spring. Regardless of the absurd caliphate as declared by ISIL, it is indeed clear that such groups have placed the establishment of a “caliphate" as their main objective.