Monday, March 19, 2007

New Caliphate New Era

By Akmal Asghar

The Muslim world is suffering at the hands of a failing political architecture that continues to hold back the region. Few now doubt this, but while for the west talk of change has centred on promoting a model rooted in liberalism, political movements indigenous to the region increasingly assert a political model rooted in Islam - the Caliphate. Akmal Asghar introduces a discussion on the Caliphate and concepts that form a distinct political system.

"What we are fighting against is the prospect of a new evil empire". Joseph Lieberman's words hark back to Ronald Reagan's epic depiction of the Soviets, but the Senator's warning was of an emerging threat - an 'empire' he describes as: "a radical Islamic Caliphate which would suppress the freedom of its people and threaten the security of every other nation's citizens".1 The Caliphate is increasingly included in the lexicon of debating the future of the Islamic World. Its advocates take centre stage in Central Asia and increasingly assert themselves throughout the Muslim world, as Senator Lieberman warned in Iraq. Their activities may yet yield results: the CIA's National Intelligence Committee, for example, forecast that a Caliphate may be with us by the year 2020. Such a prospect requires serious and objective discussion rather than the dire and ill-informed judgements of some who dismiss its form of politics and condemn it outright as a new global enemy.

It would be unfair to present Senator Lieberman's protest as the benchmark for how the west regards the Caliphate. Few know what it is or regard it viable enough to consider seriously. For some it represents the resurrection of an Ottoman government; the last to lay claim to being a Caliphate and a state whose decay earned it the unenviable label: 'the Sick Man of Europe'. Therefore, the Caliphate lies beyond the consideration of most in the west; a political system belonging to a bygone age whose fate was sealed by the birth of Mustafa Kemal's Turkish Republic. It is not unusual - in fact quite common amongst some western schools of Middle-East commentary - to hear calls for its resurrection in the Muslim world interpreted as an attempt to relive a romantic imagination of some former glory, which is neither a serious nor workable political system in a world of space travel and virtual communication.

A discussion on the Caliphate must lie, however, in a broader context: there is a need for alternatives to the failing political leaderships in the Muslim world. Autocratic, authoritarian regimes litter the Muslim world and represent the single biggest obstacle to progress. Consent is notoriously absent from the processes that legitimated presidents, kings and premiers. Staged elections have never changed this fact, conducted as they are in a climate of fear and intimidation preventing public expression of any organised opposition. Ruling elites owe their status to acts of foreign installation and often represent striking departures from the demographics of the lands they govern. If it is an evil empire that we must fear, then surely this is it: entrenched primitive and thoroughly repressive political structures aggregated to represent one of the most poorly governed regions in the world. The UN's 2004 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) makes similar observations. It refers to the failing political architecture in the Arab world, the crisis in governance, authoritarian and totalitarian government, the lack of transparency and accountability, repression, corruption, and a broad crisis of legitimacy that faces Arab governments. It concludes that in the three years of an annual AHDR, little has changed. But repressive governments have long characterised the region and significantly pre-date the report's findings.

It is in mapping a way out of this malaise that alternatives need consideration. For the authors of the AHDR, the template for change is the western model: democracy, liberty, and the institutions and assumptions that underpin the western liberal political philosophy are its benchmarks for reforming Arab governments. The report boldly equates the crisis in the Middle East to a democracy deficit and commentators widely acknowledge that the report has moved to suggest the 'universal' desirability of democracy, most resolutely in its 2004 report. Rumblings from Washington over the report's publication - because of its recommendation of indigenous, home-grown democracy over promotion by foreign donors, a subtle snipe at the US invasion of Iraq - may have threatened US funding for the UN's Human Development Programme, but that should not delude one into thinking it recommended something other than democracy; the argument raged over how not what. And in the now tiresome routine of Islamicising foreign notions to give them legitimacy amongst Muslim populations, the report provides a cultural context to its recommendations by drawing on notable names from Islamic history to argue that key aspects of the west's liberal political philosophy have an Islamic precedent. Such claims to universality are open to a number of significant criticisms - some of which have been presented in previous editions of New Civilisation. But the wider debate demonstrates that while there is growing appreciation of the plight of Muslims living under repressive regimes, a change in the political landscape of the Muslim is talked of occurring in one of two ways: the emergence of a Caliphate following the success of indigenous political movements, considered an unwelcome prospect by many western governments, or some form of liberal democracy, possibly with a cultural adjustment.

The current consideration of the Caliphate as an alternative political model to western liberalism, however, suffers in too many ways, and is compounded by errors in western discourse on Islam in general and Islamic political thinking in particular. 'Orientalist' writers who draw on sociologist Max Weber's reading of Islam, for example, regard it as a pre-modern political system that collapsed because of the challenges of modernity. Such essayists consider it a closed system, total in nature; unable to address Europe's innovations in industry and political thought, and that it is the principle impediment to progress unless Islam is able to reform; a primitive political system whose literature on government is concerned only with the piety of ruler and subject.2 Apart from their particular critique of Islam, these - among many other - western writings are premised on the belief that the liberal political model is built on a series of values deemed universal, and currently provides the most economically efficient and ethically desirable form of governance.3 This assumption, however, creates the problematic framework in which the Caliphate is studied because the approach typically follows the route of comparison, one that takes as its norm the western state and its form of politics, and measures against provisions in the liberal political model.

Where such comparisons fall short is the failure to acknowledge that the Islamic political system has its own independent configuration and a distinct constellation of political principles and ideas. While overlooking this distinct and different configuration of politics, comparisons that impose one system as the norm act only to highlight differences between the two systems without, importantly, questioning the original configurations of both. In this case, it merely highlights the lack of liberal ideas in Islamic politics - which says no more than that they are different - but does not question whether liberalism should be taken as the norm; the approach is relative and offers no universal merit to the discourse. Measuring through a filtered prism obscures an objective picture of the Islamic political system and misconstrues a thoroughly distinct assemblage of political ideas. The Islamic political system must be understood according to its original texts and meanings, not in relation to the western state.4

Leaving aside ruling elites, who seek only to entrench their positions, the oft discussed lack of appetite for democracy in the Muslim world is no surprise. Increasing demands amongst Muslims populations for the rule of law, transparent, accountable and representative government, and an independent and efficient judiciary do not de facto translate into a call for democracy. These provisions are not the monopoly of liberal political philosophy; the Islamic political system addresses each of these but through a model that understands society, the individual, the goal of government and the role of the state differently. The Islamic political system - rather than inherently deficient - is characterised by its own relationship between ruler and subject, authority and sovereignty, law, property and power.

Let us now take a brief look at the Caliphate system.

The Caliphate

The subject of the Caliphate - the Anglicised version of the Arabic word 'Khilafah' - has been addressed in numerous, detailed works throughout Islamic history and by some of the most eminent jurists. Amongst such writings are those that detail only aspects, such as Mohammed al-Shaybani's works on international relations (Kitab as-Siyar), Qadi Abu Yusuf's works on taxation (Kitab al-Kharaj), and Imaam Abu Ubayd al-Qaasim bin Salaam's works on state funds (al-Amwaal), through to more comprehensive works that address the system as a whole, such as Imam Mawardi's treatise on Islamic rule (al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah) and works by Imam Aamidi (al-Imamah). The twentieth century's most elaborate works on the Caliphate are arguably those by Taqi ud-Din an-Nabhani (d. 1977), in his Nidham al-Hukm fil Islam (the Ruling System in Islam)5 and Shaksiyyah Islamiyyah volume 2 (the Islamic Personality),6 who also went on to publish a draft constitution for an Islamic state, with detailed explanations of each article, in his book Nidham al-Islam (the System of Islam)7 in the 1950s. His writings provide extensive insight into the conceptual configuration of Islamic political ideas and details of the Caliphate's organs together with their practical workings, but which also detail comparisons with other forms of ruling including western liberal models.

The Islamic political system can at best be summarised in often only rather crude form in short essays, but that does not detract from the need for a brief overview of its key features and areas of important distinction from the western political model. The overview of the Islamic political system presented here summarises key aspects of an-Nabhani's work.

An Overview

The highest executive post in the Caliphate is that of the Caliph (Khalifa), who appoints ministers (muwain or wazir) with general powers to assist in ruling, governors for various regions and administrative assistants. The Caliphate system is characterised by an independent judiciary, representative consultation, the rule of law and citizenship regardless of ethnicity, gender or creed.

Authority, sovereignty & representative government

The subject of representation has historically featured considerably in the evolution of western political discourse. In justifying government and the right for some to rule over others, the social contract theorists argued individuals could not assume a position over others in a ruling capacity without prior voluntary consent from those they govern, although exactly how consent is determined practically is an area of extensive disagreement. The proponents and originators of this approach in western political theory, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, derived their theories principally from perspectives on the State of Nature, a theoretical state used to understand man before the advent of government and law. These theorists disagreed over the reality of life in the State of Nature and subsequently over the principle aims of government, whether it should be the protection of property (Locke), the resolution of civil disputes (Hobbes) or the provision of liberty (Rousseau) or a combination. All agree, however, that government cannot claim legitimacy unless it can demonstrate that it has the voluntary consent of the people. The works of these theorists provide the most prevalent justification for the state and the right for some to rule over others in western political discourse.

The Islamic approach to governance does not rest on a theoretical analysis of man in a state without government and his subsequent relationships with power following the onset of a body politic. The Caliphate, and the legitimacy of the Caliph at its head is based on representation; the principle, "the authority lies with the Ummah", is a cornerstone of the Islamic ruling system. The Shariah places the original authority of managing the affairs of the people in the hands of the people themselves, but requires them to appoint a head of state to do so on their behalf and so the head of state is legitimate only through popular consent. The process of direct elections or an election by a representative assembly consisting of individuals elected to their respective positions can be utilised to evaluate popular consent. Men and women over the age of fifteen are granted the right to vote and the process can be supported with the use of any complimentary technologies, whether internet, mobile or postal voting, provided their merit in improving efficiency is proven. Once elected, the head of state is bound to an agreement with the people through the bayah contract. It stipulates a number of conditions for his leadership of the state, including the condition that he manages the affairs of the people on their behalf, to do so exclusively according to the Islamic sources of legislation, and the non-violation of the criterion of leadership. Authority is at no point transferred to the head of state through the bayah contract and remains permanently with the people. Thus, if the head of state violates any of the terms of the bayah contract, the people can demand, through the independent judiciary, he vacate his post, a point expanded on later.

However, the discussion on representation in western political theory rests on a secular framework and its logic consequently extends to the function of lawmaking. That is to say, it regards the function of lawmaking the right of the people, whether exercised through representative or direct democracy, or on an approach structured around one of these. In Islamic political thought, however, there is a distinction between authority and sovereignty, between sources of law and the reality of the state as a representative body. Authority permanently rests with the people who exercise it through electing a head of state, but law originates exclusively from the sources of Shariah. Therefore, while the Caliphate is a representative body, it is not rule by the demos.

Accountability and the rule of law

Following closely from the discussion of authority in Islamic political discourse, is the ability to ensure the head of state will not violate the terms of the bayah to which he is contracted by the people; in short, architecture for effective accountability (muhasabah). The Islamic political system enshrines mechanisms for binding the Caliph to his agreement and protecting citizens from state violations and oppression (dhulm), and provides direct and transparent channels for accounting the executive, any state official, policy, conduct, administration and all other facets of governance.

The issue of accountability features very prominently in the Shariah; ruling is regarded as a form of guardianship (riayah) and a trust (amanah), and the causing of oppression (dhulm) by the head of state a grave crime - the corpus of Islamic texts refers to each of these in an unequivocally serious manner. Accountability lays firstly in the general right - and sometimes obligation when the excess is flagrant - of every citizen to take the state to task, secondly in institutions that guarantee the process of accountability continuously takes place, and thirdly in a general requirement for political parties.

The principle institution dedicated to the task of accounting the state is a special component of the state's independent judiciary: the 'Court of Unjust Acts' (Makhamat al-Mudhalim). It is presided over by only the most eminent and qualified judges in the state and granted extensive powers by the Shariah. It has the power to remove any official of state regardless of their role or rank, including, most importantly, the head of state if he persists in pursuing a path that lies outside of the terms of the bayah. Citizens who have a complaint against the state register it with the Court, which has wide-ranging powers of investigation that extend to all organs of the state's machinery. Importantly however, the Court does not rely on a plaintiff to register a complaint before problems are investigated because it is tasked with the permanent and continuous responsibility of scrutinising state conduct. In addition to the Court of the Unjust Acts, the 'People's Assembly' (Majlis al-Ummah) is another important institution that forms part of the Caliphate's accountability architecture. It is a representative assembly whose members are elected directly by citizens and can be from any ethnicity, creed or gender. The assembly provides extensive consultation (shura) on issues of state and public policy but, importantly, it has the power to scrutinise practically all matters related to the state; it can oblige the Caliph in key areas such as in the removal of state officials, regional budgetary control and matters of public interest through consultation; and can scrutinise every cannon issued by the Caliph and, in some cases, reject them once again binding the Caliph.

The Caliphate, however, does not rely on institutions alone to provide inherent checks and balances but depends upon the politicisation of its citizenry as its fundamental layer. Holding the rulers to account is a duty - an obligation - upon every Muslim, and citizens are encouraged to do so in a direct and open manner. Examples from the Caliphs that immediately followed the Prophet Muhammad - whose consensus (ijma) is a source of Islamic law - demonstrate that they proactively encouraged forthright accountability. This obligation is not restricted to the individual, but stipulates a requirement for the permanent existence of political parties tasked with 'enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong', a political activity designed to challenge error and incompetence. These civil bodies undertake activities without interference from the state and, as the Islamic political system has no concept of a 'ruling party', neither do they have any association with the state; their purpose is principally to highlight inadequacies in state conduct and in the condition of society. While various schools within western political theory have long struggled with the question of justifying 'political obligation' - whether the utilitarians or social contract theorists or others - Islamic obligations such as 'enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong' take on a unique dimension for the Muslim citizen: they are considered good in their own right and an act of worship, not measured by their expediency or purely by the effect they yield.

From institution, through political party to individual, the mechanisms for accountability in the Caliphate provide the backbone to what is a considerably rule-based society. The Caliph is not beyond the law nor protected by special exemption that provides him immunity from prosecution; if he commits a crime he will be punished, if he transgresses the terms of the bayah he will be eligible for removal. Unlike monarchies and authoritarian governments who place monarch or premier beyond the constitution with the sole right to interpret or alter it, no individual in the Islamic state's apparatus, from clerk to Caliph, is above the law and an independent judiciary monitors the Caliph's legal adoptions with the power to demand revocation.

From 'total' to 'totalitarian'?

For some commentators, the comprehensiveness of Islam in articulating both a spiritual and a political system renders a government founded upon its law, totalitarian. The 'total' nature of Islam is thought to suffocate progress through seeking to 'control' every element of a citizen's life and denying an autonomous space for science and cultural pursuits. This logic bears little relevance outside Europe's experience with the excesses of the Church, for the history of the Islamic state demonstrates that being founded on the Shariah did not impede scientific or technological progress, or excellence in legal, intellectual and cultural pursuits, but rather acted to propel them.

Whilst Islam is a comprehensive system, the Shariah confines the Islamic state's remit to managing only temporal matters. The state can only adopt law in matters that relate to its responsibility: managing the affairs of society and achieving the goals of the Islamic state. The head of state therefore is not allowed to enter the privacy of the home, adopt law that stipulates matters of personal life or interfere in the private affairs of the citizen, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. If it does, it is considered to have transgressed its jurisdiction, for which the judiciary may take action if it finds the state to have committed an act of oppression (dhulm). This principle arises from numerous Islamic texts that deal with the subject of remit and responsibility that do not permit the assumption of a responsibility one is not originally charged with, whether spouse, parent, child, relative, head of state and so on.9

The Caliphate bears no resemblance to a totalitarian state therefore, but to understand the error in believing Islam's comprehensive nature impedes progress, there is a broader point to appreciate. Islam does not, nor came to, define reality or to dictate sensory perception. That is to say, whether the earth orbits the sun or vice versa, whether water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, whether HIV leads to AIDS and other such judgements on reality are for the human mind, and for scientific and intellectual inquiry to decipher human sensory perception. The role of the Shariah is to provide solutions, guidance and a legal framework in which to conduct human activity whether personal, social, economic or political, and is in this sense comprehensive. Thus, the universe, life within in it and the material world is analysed purely through human observation and rational tools, whilst mapping appropriate human activity is determined through principles and rules extracted from the Shariah. The Shariah therefore does not interfere with nor inhibit progress through insisting people believe, say, the world is flat or that the earth is the centre of the universe but articulates a system through which individual and society can best structure their environment and tackle common human problems, dilemmas and challenges.

If not rule by the 'demos', then rule of 'theos'?

Does the place of the Shariah - a divine law - in the Islamic political system render the Caliphate a theocracy? The role of a divine text in ruling marks, for the western mindset, a return to medieval Europe when the excesses and abuses by kings and princes were justified by references to sacred Christian texts. As interpretation was the preserve of the literate Christian clergy and those in power frequently justified their status as acts of divine will, there were no means of challenging official interpretations of sacred law or accounting abuses of power for they would represent a challenge to God's will, no less an act of blasphemy. It is for this reason that some consider the Islamic ruling system to be concerned principally with the piety of the ruler: if there are no workable mechanisms of checking power in a 'religious' state then citizens of a Caliphate, similarly, can rely only on the piety of the Caliph to ensure he does not abuse his position.

Applying this western matrix on the Islamic political system however fails to acknowledge a number of key points: the Caliphate is neither a theocracy nor its practice similar to medieval Europe. There are some very important differences. Firstly, the head of state in a Caliphate system is not divinely appointed nor can lay claim to divine merit: the people appoint the head of state. The post of Caliph is open to anyone who meets the criteria for a ruler without reference to divine privilege. Secondly, a corollary of the first point, while the head in a theocracy is beyond reproach because of claims to divine right, the Caliph is monitored by numerous institutions, the independent judiciary of which has not just the right but the duty to remove him if he violates the terms of the bayah contract, force him to repeal the adoption of a particular law, demand compensation, declare policy invalid amongst other powers. He is thus not beyond the law, but subject to it as any other citizen. The Islamic political system does not rely on the piety of its head alone as the principal mechanism of accountability as it is a system designed for human beings understanding the potential for human error and malevolence.

Thirdly, the Caliphate is not rule by clergy, or by a religious elite that claims to have a monopoly on interpreting Islamic law. The head of state may be a jurist or a legal advocate by training, but that is not a condition for assuming the role. And the origin of law being from a series of divine sources, principally the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah), does not mean there is a limited, or no, role for questioning, debate, disagreement and challenge. The Qur'an is not the constitution of the state as such - it is a source of the constitution. Law has to be derived for new problems; to tackle new issues which have not previously been judged requires the extraction of law from Islamic sources through the mechanism of ijtihad, a process open to all those qualified and is not the preserve of a privileged elite. Ijtihad undertaken by different jurists may result in differences of opinion, disagreement and debate, and in Islam, there is no concept of a Pope to make a declaration of divine preference. The Caliph, as head of state with the responsibility for adopting law, will adopt one opinion to bind society to a set of common standards within a declared legal framework, but that does not prevent further debate and amendment.

In all, the Caliphate is a system run by fallible human beings who implement law derived from the divine sources of the Shariah over society, removable from office if they violate the terms of their agreement - not rule by 'theos'.

Surely dictatorship?

Amongst the fanfare that surrounds democratisation in this post 9/11 climate, it is often easy to forget that a number of western political philosophers had their own reservations about its workability. Rousseau thought democracy would only work if one could guarantee that the public would always vote in the interest of the collective - the 'general will'- not selfish, individual interests and went on to articulate a rather stringent, almost unworkable, set of social conditions he believed would achieve that. Despite his elaborate works on a theory of direct democracy, he nonetheless says: "If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for many to govern and the few to be governed."10 John Stuart Mill believed a democracy should afford the intelligent and educated greater voting power to protect society from the tyranny of the ignorant majority for that would be the result of simple majority rule, and his proposed representative - over Rousseau's direct democracy - is for its critics no less a move away from the essence of democracy itself. But while Rousseau, Mill and others tried to fill the gaps, one of the biggest critics of democracy per se was Plato. His guardianship by philosopher-rulers - or 'benevolent dictatorship' more crudely put - was he believed better at delivering good governance and justice than a democracy because in classical Greek, the word 'demos' is the 'mob' as much as it is the 'people', and so democracy is no less the rule of the mob than it is the rule of the people. Of relevance to our discussion, such theories represent nodes on the spectrum of western political theory, with democracy at one end and - because of his wholesale rejection of democracy and thus thought to represent the alternative - Plato's dictatorship at the other: if not democracy, rule by the people, then the alternatives are considered either rule by theos, the few, or one.

The Islamic political system's rejection of democracy does not render it a form of dictatorial government, as one may conclude if confining its study strictly to the above spectrum. The Caliphate is not a dictatorship for authority lies with the people not the head of state; nor is it premised on the belief that the office of the Caliph is a privileged position beyond the law, the occupant of which can be trusted to manage the affairs of the society without being accounted for how he does so. The Caliph, like every other citizen, is a subject of the law, not beyond it, and an independent judiciary can act to curtail his activities and even remove him. Sovereignty belongs to divine law, but humans understand it and apply it; this human exercise, though entrusted to the Caliph to make final legal adoption, is subject to considerable human accountability and herein lies the distinction between the Caliphate and the totalitarian dictators that were the scourge of the last century.


The Caliphate system does not resemble any of the world's current political structures. It is nether similar to western liberal models - which few may contest - and represents a sharp contradiction to the dictatorships, monarchies and totalitarian governments that litter the Muslim world. The Islamic political system does not grant authority to a divinely appointed individual or to a clergy, nor does it lie in the hands of one individual and thus the Caliphate is neither a theocracy nor a dictatorship; it is a representative system of governance albeit quite different in the sources of law to the western state, and so neither is it a democracy: it is a distinct model of governance.

We are, possibly, in need of a new set of terms to describe the Islamic system in rhetoric familiar to a western audience for it is characterised by a distinct set of political ideas and political relationships unfamiliar to western political theory. That alone is a big undertaking, but will only be of use if it is first recognised that the Islamic system has of its own a political tradition, extensive corpus of political literature and, indeed, a considerable precedent through the Caliphate's thirteen hundred year history. Talk of future political models for the Muslim world must acknowledge not only this, but the Caliphate is with indigenous precedent, founded on a value system consistent with, not alien to, those of Muslim populations. The prospect of the Caliphate emerging in the near future would mark an end to the repressive political architectures that plague the Muslim and represent a departure from the ailing dynasties, dictators and monarchs who now come under pressure from both their own populations and the west. Such an event could either be hailed as a significant move forward or condemned as step into the past; but it would be unfortunate if, even after increasing awareness, such opinions lie on a western-Muslim fault line.


1. Lieberman, J (2004). Iraq’s Future and the War on Terrorism. To the Symposium Sponsored by Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Committee on the Present Danger. Mayflower Hotel, Washington, DC. 16 June 2004. [] Accessed 21 June 2005.

2. Roy, Olivier (1994). The Failure of Political Islam. Harvard University Press. pp7

3. Ibid, pp8.

4. The comparative approach is also critiqued by Olivier Roy. Roy, Olivier (1994). The Failure of Political Islam. Harvard University Press. pp8

5. Nabhani, T (2002). The Ruling System in Islam. 5th ed. London: Al-Khilafah Publications.

6. Nabhani, T (1995). al-Shaksiyyah al-Islamiyyah. Beirut: Dar al-Ummah. 4th ed. Volume 2

7. Nabhani, T (2002). The System of Islam. London: Al-Khilafah Publications.

8. ‘Ummah’ is the Arabic term which refers to the Muslim collective but in this context refers only to the portion residing in the Caliphate.

9. An example of this is the Prophetic tradition (hadith): “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards. The ruler is a guardian and responsible for his subjects; the man is a guardian and responsible for his family; the woman is a guardian and is responsible for her husbands house and his offspring; and so all of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards.” Sahih Muslim


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