On The Caliphate

The word caliphate, or khilafa in Islamic political theory, has been bandied around a lot over the past two years by opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and sister movements of political Islam. Whether the Brotherhood would like to recreate this political institution or not is one issue, but the term itself needs some clarification since it is being misused, in often hysterical tones, to suggest a theocratic system along the lines of the Shi’ite innovation in Iran since 1979.

In terms of what has come to be defined as Sunni political history, there are two key phases of the caliphate: the early period of the Arab conquests, when the nature of the caliphate is unclear and subject of much debate among scholars, and the ‘classical’ period of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. As for the early period, scholars of early Islamic history have been engaged in a dispute since the 1970s over what or who it was that the caliph was ‘successor to’ or ‘deputy of’ (khalifa/caliph). Was he khalifat rasul Allah, or khalifat Allah (‘successor of the messenger of God’ or ‘God’s deputy’), for example?

Fascinating though this issue is, the key issue is the classical period of Arab-Islamic imperial power when the caliph was clearly styled as the successor to the Prophet as leader of the Islamic community, or umma. But he was not his successor in the sense of law-giver or interpreter of the Quran or lived example of the Prophet – that was the job of the class of religious scholars (ulama). The caliph was in essence a temporal figure whose duty was to ensure the sanctity of the Islamic realm where God’s law prevailed. That meant three main things: allowing the clerics the freedom to adminster Sharia law via courts and preaching, seeking the counsel of the clerics, and securing borders against non-Muslim powers.

In other words, the caliph was not a religious scholar himself. Since he was not a cleric, the Iranian example does not technically apply. Ayatollah Khomeini established a system whereby sovereign power lies ultimately with a Supreme Leader whose rights to the position depend on his status as the most appropriate Islamic jurist, or faqih, agreed upon by the Shia clergy. Thus the system is termed wilayat al-faqih (or velayat-e fagih in Farsi), the ‘guardianship of the jurisprudent’. This was Khomeini’s idea of making sure the state enjoyed divine sanction in the absence of the 12th imam of the Shi’ite legal tradition often referred to as Jaafari (or the Twelver tradition after the number of Shi’ite imams).

Khomeini’s theocracy was partly a response to problems of Shi’ite political history (in deciding what to do about sovereignty without Imam #12) as well as issues thrown up by colonialism. Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, are their own response to colonialism but within the Sunni tradition. European powers brought their legal systems with them to the region, and the Ottoman empire and others thought it might be a nice idea to apply much of it, since they suspected that the Sharia courts had been one of the reasons why they had fallen behind and come under foreign sway. Sharia has thus been reduced largely to personal status courts and it is there if anywhere that you fill any clerics left on the bench  functioning as judges in most Arab and Muslim countries today.

Political Islamic movements such as the Brotherhood and its calques do not by and large want to return the courts to the clerics, but they would like make sure that scholars review legislation, sit perhaps as delegates in parliament and act as advisors to modern rulers – a redistribution, if you will, of the divinely-sanctified realm that Sharia had guaranteed, pre-colonialism. So it may well be true that at the end of the day a Brotherhood state could resemble Iran from the perspective of the ordinary citizen who finds him/herself living in a ‘religious state’ in which clerics and their zealous followers are running riot and the government applies intrusive rules on how you live your life, but Mursi is no cleric and neither is the Murshid. Far from it: they’d like to keep the ulama in their place – at their beck and call.

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