The Caliphate is the Sign of Islamic Unity

By April 4, 2017 One Comment

In previous essays I discussed the topic of religion and state in the Western world, notably the role of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, in the development of Western civilization. For centuries the Catholic Church had authority in temporal affairs and collected taxes in much of Europe. Following the Reformation in the 16th century there were instances where Protestant Churches had authority in temporal affairs. Geneva under the rule of John Calvin (1509-1564), the founder of Calvinism, was governed according to the Ecclesiastical Ordinances which were administered by the Consistory. The Enlightenment in the 18th century introduced new thinking in the natural rights of man and the place of religion in society. Enlightenment thinkers valued religious liberty, but also favoured a strict separation between religion and the state. By the end of the 18th century there were the American and French Revolutions which introduced constitutional law and separation of church and state. In the 19th century the last vestiges of church authority in temporal affairs were swept away with capture of Rome and the Papal States in the drive to unify Italy as a nation. Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and separation of religion and state make religious pluralism an integral part of Western societies in the present, while Christianity remains the dominant faith, people are free to practice any religion they wish or none at all. How does the history and development of the Islamic world then compare to that of the Western world?

Islam is founded on the Constitution of Medina which was drafted by Muhammad (c. 570-632) in the 7th century and formed the first Islamic State, essentially creating a constitutional theocracy. This document established Muhammad as head of state and spelled out the rights duties of all citizens and the relationship of the different communities in Medina, including that of the Muslim community to other religious communities, specifically to Jews, Sabians, Magians and Christians, that is Peoples of the book. The rights of non-Muslims were articulated in the Constitution of Medina, specifically:

  1. The security of God is equal for all groups,
  2. Non-Muslim members have equal political and cultural rights as Muslims. They will have autonomy and freedom of religion.
  3. Non-Muslims will take up arms against the enemy of the Ummah and share the cost of war. There is to be no treachery between the two.
  4. Non-Muslims will not be obliged to take part in religious wars of the Muslims. (as cited in Wikipedia)

Following the death of Muhammad (the original head of the Islamic State) a successor, the caliph, was appointed to serve has head of the Islamic State that became the Caliphate. This succession is not unlike the theology of the Apostolic succession in Catholicism and a dynastic chain of succession unfolded with the following series of Caliphates: Rashidun Caliphate (632–661), Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) and the Ottoman Caliphate (1517–1924). Throughout the history of the Caliphate, the head of state, the Caliph, and other state officials were representatives of both the people and of Islam and governed according to constitutional and religious law (Sharia) developed from the tradition of Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence that flourished under the Caliphate. Throughout the history of the Caliphate, the distinction between religion and the state with which we are familiar in the Western world never developed. It remained a constitutional theocracy with authority over religious and temporal affairs.

The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War (1914-1918). Ottoman Turkey sided with Germany in the war and was soundly defeated. Former Ottoman lands in the Middle East including Syria, Palestine, Transjordan and Mesotopamia (Iraq) came under the control of the United Kingdom and France under the auspices of the League of Nations mandate. Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) seized the moment and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 as a secular nation state with a president as head of state. The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished by the Grand National Assembly on March 3, 1924, the last Caliph Abdülmecid II and his family were banished from Turkey and lived out their days in exile. This was a bold, if not drastic, move to end the authority of Islam in temporal affairs in Turkish society. It was not an attempt to eradicate Islam from Turkish society. Islam remained the dominant religion in Turkish society and remains the dominant religion in the present.

The abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate was not welcomed across the Islamic world beyond the borders of the the Turkish Republic. Efforts to restore the Caliphate and the authority of Islam in temporal affairs got underway very soon after. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, adheres to the credo “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” (as cited in Wikipedia) The Muslim Brotherhood has branches across the Islamic world. There are currently a number of Islamic states, that is, societies where Islamic religious law is the primary basis for governance. These include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia, societies where the separation of religion and state is either blurred or non-existent.

Unfortunately, nostalgia for the restoration of the Caliphate and the inability of much of the Islamic world to develop the separation of religion and state gave rise to totalitarianism (as is the case in Iran) and religious intolerance, as seen in the internecine fighting between the two most prominent Islamic denominations: Sunni and Shia. The brutal civil war raging in Syria is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. This is not unlike what the Western world experienced in the aftermath of the Reformation in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) where Catholics and Protestants fought over the balance of power in the Holy Roman Empire. There is no going back, in my opinion, any more than the Western world could hope to restore the Holy Roman Empire. It took several centuries and a great deal of bloodshed for the Western world to develop the separation of religion and state while preserving religious liberty. We can only hope the Islamic world can follow the lead established by the founders of the Republic of Turkey in continuing this trend. Until then, social development across the Islamic world will remain arrested and the fighting will go on unabated.

Geoffrey Wale

Geoffrey Wale

I am a blogger and librarian living in Ottawa, Ontario. I have a B.A. in sociology from Queen's University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Western University.

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