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Caliphate in Islam-1

Caliphate has always been one of the most debatable topics of Islamic Political thought. Since the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924, there started extremely aggressive discussions about the future of the institution of Caliphate especially in the countries such as Turkey, Egypt and India and with highly different approaches regarding the matter.

While some intellectuals supported the Caliphate suggesting that it represented the only legitimate religious ruling authority and identified it with the destiny of Islam, along with the independence and unity of Muslims, some others believed that it was only a historical institution and thus rejected it as a necessity in contemporary world.

Along with these two opposing tendencies, there has been a broad intellectual debate about the role of the Caliphate in Islam and modern times. Even though the volume and impact of the discussions have relatively decreased throughout the time, the discussion is still on the table.   

However, even though it has been a broadly debated topic, it is not adequately well known by both Muslims and non-Muslims be it what it means, where it stands in Islam, and how it has developed during the history.

Therefore, in this article and the upcoming ones, I would like to clarify the vagueness of the topic, elaborating the religious and legal meaning along with the true nature of the Caliphate.

The Concepts of Caliph and Caliphate

As well as ‘Caliphate’ means succeeding or replacing someone, ‘Caliph’ means one who has replaced or succeeded someone, in other words, one who has been the procurator or representative of someone. (İbn Manzûr, Lisânü’l-Arab, 9/83)

Caliphate represents the institution of ‘head of the state,’ while the word ‘caliph’ represents the ‘head of the state.’ Since the succeeding rulers represented the religious and political authority of Prophet Muhammad -except his prophethood-, the rulers in Islamic world were called ‘the Caliph.’

With Maverdi’s words, Caliphate is succeeding the prophethood to protect religion and carry out world affairs. (Maverdi, Ahkâmu’s-sultaniyye, s. 15)

Actually, the concept of caliphate basically is about Governance. But in here, we are talking about the society, the Prophet Muhammad’s Ummah, which was responsible to exercise, protect and spread Islam. The duty of the Caliph is to implement an understanding of Governance, according to the demands of the Prophet Muhammad’s Ummah in that direction. Hence, it doesn’t only aim to carry out duties of the worldly affairs, but also the duties and matters belonging hereafter. This is exactly a distinctive subject than the acts and rhetoric of Political Islamists. What they want to do is to design the society from top to the bottom by seizing the power and state. However, what happened right after Prophet Muhammad was Muslims shaping the governance due to their demands about Islam as the citizens of the state.        

What separates Caliphate than the other governance models is its relation to religion. In Caliphate, religion determines lifestyles of both the individual and society as well the rulers and state. As a matter of fact, it is asserted that the most important duty of the Caliph is to protect, spread and enforce religion and religious provisions. For instance, Abdurrazık es-Senhurî, who has studied the topic extensively, notes that Caliphate has three fundamental features: Implementation of both religious and worldly issues together without any negligence. 2-Enforcing the Islamic Law as the source of ‘law and order’ of State. 3-Sustaining the unity of Islamic World. According Senhuri, these are the three essential imperatives of a Governance to be considered as Caliphate. (Senhuri, Fıkhu’l-hilâfe, s. 80)

Ibn-i Haldun, on the other hand, explains the relationship between religion and Caliphate.

‘The intention the Lawgiver has concerning mankind is their welfare in the other world. Therefore, it is necessary, as required by the religious law, to cause the mass to act in accordance with the religious laws in all their affairs touching both this world and the other world. The authority to do so was possessed by the representatives of the religious law, the prophets. (Later on, it was possessed) by those who took their place, the caliphs.

This makes it clear what the caliphate means. (To exercise) natural royal authority means to cause the masses to act as required by purpose and desire. (To exercise) political (royal authority) means to cause the masses to act as required by intellectual (rational) insight into the means of furthering their worldly interests and avoiding anything that is harmful (in that respect). (And to exercise) the caliphate means to cause the masses to act as required by religious insight into their interests in the other world as well as in this world. (The worldly interests) have bearing upon (the interests in the other world), since according to the Lawgiver (Muhammad), all worldly conditions are to be considered in their relation to their value for the other world. Thus, (the caliphate) in reality substitutes for the Lawgiver (Muhammad), in as much as it serves, like him, to protect the religion and to exercise (political) leadership of the world.’ (Ibn Haldun, Muquaddimah, 1/270)

The jurists, however, mostly examined the Caliphate regarding its legal nature in accordance with the provisions of contracts. According to this, caliphate is a kind of contract of guardianship.  Simply putting that it is just a ‘guardianship of public’, they concluded that caliphate is the ability to use power and authority over the Muslims. Therefore, according to that definition, Caliph is the person who is entitled to use power for the public. Caliphate is also a contract of representation. Caliph is the representative of everyone in the public. Public is the actual entity. By electing and obeying the Caliph, the citizens actually assign the Caliph as their representative to get the public duties and works done.    (Mehmet Seyyid, Medhal, s. 99-109)

The words ‘Imamate’ and ‘Imam’ are used for Caliphate and Caliph. Imamate also represents the office of head of the state. The word imam also refers to head of state. It means leader. Since the head of the state rules the society and leads the public, they are simply called ‘imam.’ Remember that ‘imam’ is also used for those who lead the people during the prayers. In order to distinguish these two, they called the imamate in mosques, ‘the little imamate, the one for the state, the big imamate. There is no difference between imamate and caliphate regarding the usage of these words. Sunni scholars use both ‘imamate’ and ‘caliphate’ for leadership position in state. Shia, on the other hand, considered the imamate as part of their belief system. They also believed that imams are innocent like prophets and considered them as the source of Islamic knowledge such as ‘Qur’an and Sunnah and claimed that ‘imams’ are appointed through divine designation.  

Kalam scholars have included the “imamate” section in the books of kalam in order to respond to these Shia claims, and they dealt with some issues related to the head of the state. (The Arabic term Kalām means “speech, word, utterance” among other things, and its use regarding Islamic theology is derived from the expression “Word of God” (Kalām Allāh) found in the Qur’an.)

Jurists also examined the issues related to the state administration and the head of state under the title of “imamate”, but they also emphasized the caliph and caliphate from time to time.  The historical events studied by historians that started with Caliph Abu Bakr and continued until the end of the Ottoman Empire were examined through the concepts of caliph and caliphate. In other words, while the issues related to administration were examined with more theoretical perspective, the words imamate and imam were mostly preferred. But when it was about real events and situations, the concept of caliphate has been more distinct throughout the history.  

Caliphate in the Qur’an and Sunnah

First of all, it should be noted that in Qur’an and hadiths, detailed arrangements about the issues related to the state and state administration are not included. The provisions put forward on these issues consist of a very general but very important part of principles and objectives such as ensuring justice, making decisions through the council, assigning competent people for some particular jobs, adhering to law and order. Therefore, issues such as how to choose the head of state, which form of administration to adopt, what kind of state organization Muslims will establish, are left to the jurisprudence and preferences of the Muslim community.

The most important reason why Islam does not elaborate on state and administration issues, although it has brought quite detailed arrangements in matters such as belief, prayers, halal and harams, punishments, marriage, divorce and inheritance law, is because it is flexible and a universal religion. In other words, it appeals to people who live in all time and places, and it helps to meet all their needs.

In other words, Islam has left it to Muslims to decide on what kind of political organization they would establish after developing awareness on the subjects such as rule of law, conscious of justice and democracy culture. Thus, in the light of the general principles of Islam, it has been possible for various political structures, customs and cultures with different education and development levels to establish their own healthy and fair political systems in line with their realities.

As can be understood from these statements, there is no detailed caliphate theory put forward by the Qur’an and Sunnah. The word caliphate is used as an attribute of the person who was created by Allah in the Qur’an and ascended to the earth in general, who was given the ability to learn and knowledge, and who was given the power to use over the other entities. (See Surah Al-Baqara, 2/30, Surah Al-Anam, 6/165, Sura-Al-Antar, 35/39) In some verses, it is noted that some tribes and nations have been replaced by the previous ones and were given power in the world. (See Surah Araf, 7/69; Sura Surah, 10/14) “[We said], “O David, indeed We have made you a successor ( a Caliph) upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow [your own] desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah.” Indeed, those who go astray from the way of Allah will have a severe punishment for having forgotten the Day of Account.” This is the only place where ‘caliph’ is used in the meaning of the ruler in Quran. (Sâd Surah, 38/26).

In the hadiths, the words caliph and caliphate are included in addition to the ‘imam and emir’. In the hadiths, the qualities, duties and responsibilities of the person who will be the caliph, the conditions under which he will be obeyed, the adherence to the allegiance, the fairness of the administrators, the avoidance of persecution, and the lack of aspirations for management are emphasized.

 Undoubtedly, all these provisions regarding administrators and state administration (caliphate and caliph) assigning the competent people with merit, protecting fundamental rights and freedoms, eliminating all kinds of oppression, persecution, mischief and turmoil and consequently ensuring social peace, order and harmony is extremely important. However, since there is no mention of any state model, government mechanism or form of government in the hadiths, it will be the society itself that will ultimately decide on the form of states, governments, regimes that will be established.

Quran and hadiths leave the detailed regulations regarding the form and form of the state administration to the Ummah and emphasize the basic principles that administrators must adhere to and the main goals they must achieve. Because, in the eyes of Islam, the state has never been the main goal to be reached. On the contrary, it consists of a vehicle that is obliged to serve the society, to ensure the security of the country, to fulfill the wishes and demands of the individuals, to resolve conflicts and disputes, to ensure rights and justice.

As a matter of fact, Islamic scholars state that imamate is not an imperative, but a necessary position for the duties expected to be done, such as the abolition of persecution, the protection of the country, and exercising religious provisions. (Bakıllanî, Temhîd, p. 477) Therefore, the state does not have a value in itself. It becomes valuable to the extent that it achieves these goals.

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.


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