The Caliphate and Its Poetic Possibilities – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

This is a guest post from Asma Afsaruddin, Chair and Professor, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington.

With the term “caliphate” being bandied around so much lately, often in a negative vein, S. Sayyid’s thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of what this term has come to signify for contemporary Muslims is to be welcomed.  As he eloquently phrases it, “The caliphate is in a state of suspension between the ideal ethical state represented by the Medina polity and the various Kemalist states in which the historical sequence that began with the revelations to the Messenger of God is ruptured. The strategy for recalling the caliphate cannot have the character of a blueprint, but rather of poetic possibilities, which inspires and reorients Muslims to the practical task of protecting the ummah and projecting it into the future”.   Recalling the caliphate, he states further, is ultimately a political project that strives to decolonize the umma.

I am intrigued by Sayyid’s reference to “poetic possibilities” in contemporary Muslim reimaginations of the historic, idealized caliphate of the early period, specifically that of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs as they are named by the majority of Muslims who are Sunni. The Shi‘a idealize the reign of the fourth caliph only – ‘Ali b. Abi Talib – but basically for the same reasons that Sunnis revere all four. The author is right to emphasize that this recalling of the caliphate is not a call for a restoration of the institution itself and certainly not of that historical era — for in this poignant recollection is embedded the memory of “something less than perfect.” So if it is not the institution itself nor the period that is the goal of these collective reimaginings, then what is it? Here we are invited to dwell on what the range of poetic possibilities of such a project might be.

Certainly the modern nostalgia for the caliphate is tied up with the desire to create “a space in the world for the ummah,” that would allow for the prospect of reorganizing the current global political order. Yet this description still does not cut to the core –at least for me — of this intense nostalgia for the caliphate among some. The present global order is indeed enormously dissatisfying, and the caliphate does become a metaphor for Muslim struggles “to reorder the postcolonial world.” But this characterization still does not capture, as I see it, the primary reason for this deep-seated dissatisfaction. It is a dissatisfaction, which I would emphasize, has to do with contemporary global systemic injustices and Muslim aspirations to uproot them and replace a fundamentally unethical system with something much better. Sayyid does not articulate this desideratum explicitly, although it can be teased out from much of what he has to say on this subject. Justice and its realization, is after all the common leitmotif of all Muslim reformist enterprises today, as it has been in the past.

The umma – the transnational Muslim community — is the locus of this desired justice. The caliphate in its pristine conception was meant to ensure justice and law and order for all who lived within its geographical purview: Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The period of the first four caliphs is idealized particularly because in the umma’s collective memory, these successors to the Prophet attempted in good faith to deliver justice to their people. These rulers, who were the first among equals, were understood to be in possession of great moral excellence on account of which they had gained precedence in their community, not on account of wealth or blood-kinship. They promoted egalitarianism in their time and sought the consent and consensus of the people they ruled over through consultative processes. And, most importantly, they held themselves accountable to the people and, as Abu Bakr (the first caliph) is reported to have proclaimed, were liable to be removed from political office if they became despotic, unjust, and/or corrupt.  There is no denying it – the early caliphate is remembered as being democratic in its tendencies and challenges the Orientalist grand political narrative focused on the simplistic dichotomy distilled in the statement: “Democracy is Western and despotism is Oriental,” as pointed out by Sayyid. Just, democratic, and egalitarian – excellent attributes for any polity, especially one that wants to be remembered by posterity as having ushered in a golden era.   Certainly the golden era was imperfect as all golden eras ultimately are; it was witness to civil war, political assassinations, and rebellions. But the Rightly-Guided Caliphs are remembered for having risen above the fray with their personal integrity and devotion to the highest ideals within Islam drawn from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s lived example, even under the most trying circumstances.

The Arabic term shura – meaning consultation — came to encapsulate all that was right with the Rightly-Guided Caliphate, despite the vicissitudes of the era. The caliphate was not a divinely-mandated institution; there is no reference in the Qur’an to any kind of political entity that Muslims are duty-bound to establish. It was a pragmatic arrangement arrived at by the early Muslims through consultation with one another and represents one of the earliest and most significant practical enactments of the Qur’anic principle of shura in the post-prophetic period. When Muslims today conjure up the term caliphate, for the most part they are paying homage to the values enshrined in this concept, not necessarily to the institution itself. The caliphate becomes a synecdoche for righteous and just governance in any era and in any place.

This fundamental fact is lost upon people like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the imposter caliph) and his ilk in Iraq today, who believe that the mere evocation of the term caliphate will cause Muslims everywhere to rally around his cause. But as Sayyid reminds us forcefully — it is the ethics, stupid! The author’s emphasis on this critical point is worthy of notice; ethics, he says, “describes the constant possibility of a better union between what is and what ought to be” and seeks to be true to the spirit of the law, not its letter. A caliphate devoid of ethics and the principles it must seek to uphold is a moral outrage; when murder, mayhem and oppression are carried out in its name, it represents a gross travesty, as is the current situation with ISIS. There is no genealogy of ethics between al-Baghdadi’s sham caliphate of the twenty-first century and the Rightly-Guided Caliphate of the seventh century. This is a critical point that is lost on Graeme Wood and other gullible political commentators who would reduce Islam to mere political and legal shibboleths denuded of moral content, much like ISIS does.

Although Sayyid and I are on agreement on these larger issues, I must disagree with him however regarding his characterization of the umma as a diaspora. I would argue instead that the transnational concept of the umma allows Muslims to feel at home wherever they may be and wherever they are free to be Muslims – veritable global citizens of our time. If by the very notion of the umma Muslims are not bound to a nation-state as such, they are perforce called upon to realize their Muslimness wherever they are and rise above parochial nation- or region-bound designations. Some pre-modern jurists, like al-Mawardi in the eleventh century, were already able to articulate this when they conceived of an expansive Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) as the physical manifestation of the metaphorical umma. In this capacious conception, the Dar al-Islam was wherever Muslims could practice their faith safely and openly, regardless of whether such a realm was ruled by a Muslim ruler or not. The bottom line is that a just world order is what ensures the well-being of Muslims and of people of other faiths and no faith. “Caliphate” is what some Muslims today choose to name this elusive but highly desirable just world order.

One Response to “The Caliphate and Its Poetic Possibilities – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event”

  1. Michael S. Pearl Says:

    Sayyid says that “we are at home in the world when the world around us seems to be our mirror” (p. 112) and that “it might be helpful to think of the ummah as a global diaspora, because Muslims are homeless in the world” (p. 118). However, as Asma Afsaruddin correctly notes, Muslims are “called upon to realize their Muslimness wherever they are and rise above parochial nation- or region-bound designations” which means that “wherever Muslims [can] practice their faith safely and openly, regardless of whether such a realm [is] ruled by a Muslim ruler or not” can well be regarded as part of Dar al-Islam.

    Does this mean that Muslims in any part of Dar al-Islam can never feel homeless? Certainly not. And Sayyid’s very brief description of what he refers to as ethics (and which he well distinguishes from morals and morality) indicates just how such a feeling of homelessness can arise. Insofar as ethics is “the constant possibility of a better union between what is and what ought to be” (p. 174), and insofar as this ethics might well be(come) recognized as the ultimate ontological feature of Islam (and, as such, distinguished from the more outwardly apparent ontic aspects of whatever gets called Islam), it is to be hoped and expected that Muslims as individuals would develop their “Muslimness” as a never-ceasing ever-increasing ethics-sensitivity. This ethics-sensitivity necessarily manifests as an acute awareness of the gap between the “what is” and the “what ought to be”, and, more often than not, even articulation of this awareness will result in a sense of homelessness in a world amongst others who, even when they acknowledge the soundness of the ethics issue, nonetheless can rather easily rationally justify the already extant (even if unethical) moral order. Such a rationalization is that much easier when ethics is not mis-taken as justice.

    On this understanding, a recurrent sense of homelessness might well be a feature of (idealized) Muslimness, but, then, this is not an exclusively Islamic matter either. Since the very term Muslim in itself is supposed to indicate a submission to God, when this submission is taken (to use Sayyid’s distinctions) ontologically rather than simply ontically, ontological Muslimness indicates Godliness (or, if one prefers, Allah-liness).

    Then again, even if the substitution of some form of Godliness for Muslimness is legitimate, such word choice might not fit well with what Sayyid wants to emphasize in his book. It might be that, for the purposes of this book, it is thought to be important to begin to establish a veritable semantics hegemony – including by re-defining, re-describing, or co-opting terms such as diaspora as well as by putting terms such as caliphate beyond determinate description. This is to be expected certainly to the extent that this is a book about the political (“any situation in which it is possible to make a distinction between friends and enemies” (p. 87)), but semantics in (and for the sake of dominance in) the political risks amounting to little more than sloganeering whereby the indeterminateness (or undecidability) of the infinite (or the Infinite) is veiled to appear to mitigate (if not outright hide) the uncertainty which should always be openly acknowledged – including the uncertainty associated with the sense of homelessness.


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