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Caliphate in the Modern World

It can be said that there are fundamentally three different approaches among the modern Islamic scholars and intellectuals regarding the caliphate. Those specializing in jurisprudence, such as Reşit Rıza, Senhuri, and Abdülkadir Udeh, believe in the continuation of the classical caliphate theory with some modifications and adaptations in modern times.

Writers like Allal el-Fasi, Seyyid Bey, and Muhammed Asad argue that based on the fact that the caliphate is a historical institution rather than a religious one, other forms of governance can exist while remaining faithful to Islamic principles and ideals. The third group, represented by Ali Abdürrazık and others, who have expressed similar views, regards the mission of Islam as pertaining to the spiritual realm, and they claim that politics and governance should be treated as entirely separate from religion, as a secular matter.

While these three groups have significant differences in their approaches, it should not be overlooked that they are all aware of the changes that have taken place in the modern era and agree on the need for certain modifications to the institution of the caliphate. However, there are also views expressing a longing for the past and a desire to revive historical periods as they were. Nevertheless, these views may simply be expressions of nostalgia, sentimentality, or excessive idealism. There is no need to dwell on these thoughts, which are ignorant of the level at which the world and humanity have reached, detached from realities, and based on mental constructs.

Undoubtedly, the abolition of the caliphate has led to a search for alternative governance models among Muslims. However, the main reason for the confusion and heated debates surrounding the nature of an Islamic government or the relationship between religion and the state in today’s world is the nature of modernity/postmodernity, which has been influential for several centuries and is now progressing towards establishing a new world civilization.

With modernity, equality, freedom, and human rights have become the highest values worth fighting for. Under the influence of rationalist philosophy, reason has been almost sanctified and excessively exalted. All of this has resulted in the weakening of social bonds and individualization. Significant secularization has taken place in social and cultural spheres, educational institutions, and political and administrative mechanisms. The awakening of nationalist thought has given rise to modern nation-states. With globalization, societies and states no longer have the possibility of leading isolated lives, and even the meaning of independence has begun to change. The reality of pluralism emerged as people belonging to different ethnic groups, religions, and cultures lived together, intertwined, and under the same state structure.

In essence, as some Islamic scholars have also pointed out, the caliphate itself is not a religious purpose; it is merely a means to achieve specific goals. Some of these goals are religious, while others are worldly. The religious purposes include preserving and disseminating the religion, enjoining good and forbidding evil, implementing Islamic law, ensuring that Muslims can freely practice their religion and perform their worship, and maintaining the unity and solidarity of Muslims. The worldly purposes include establishing justice and fairness among people, protecting fundamental rights and freedoms, preventing oppression and injustice, punishing criminals, ensuring public order and security, maintaining order and stability, meeting public demands and societal needs, attaining peace and prosperity, and distributing national interests equally.

In fact, one way to understand how suitable the historical practice of the caliphate was for Islam is to evaluate it based on these criteria. If this can be done, it will be sadly observed how the caliphate, particularly after the Rashidun Caliphs, deviated from Islam in certain aspects. Therefore, contemporary Muslims should focus on essence and content, purposes and outcomes, rather than getting caught up in names, institutions, models, forms, and structures. They should ensure that the structures and models they put forward to achieve these purposes are acceptable to the public conscience.

The compatibility of established structures with Islam also depends on their reliance on societal demands and desires. It should not be forgotten that one of the main dynamics that gave rise to the caliphate after the Messenger of Allah was the desires and acceptance of the members of society in this regard. The purpose of the essential principles of consultation (shura) and allegiance (bay’ah), which are indispensable for the legitimacy of Islamic governance, is to base the political system to be established on the consent and approval of the people. Because all political systems established against the will of the people will lead to tyranny and despotism.

The names “caliphate” or “Islamic state” are not important in themselves. Even if it is called caliphate, the resulting governance approach will be totalitarianism. There is no doubt that this will not serve Islam but rather alienate people from the faith and strengthen negative perceptions about Islam. Islam places extraordinary importance on human will, human intellect, and human choices, and it builds religious obligations upon them. Therefore, it is the fundamental duty of Muslims not to disregard this truth in all political systems they intend to establish. Unfortunately, this is the biggest mistake of political Islamists.

On the other hand, the state itself is not an institution that determines values and imposes a certain lifestyle on people. The laws applied in Islamic states (jurisprudence and rulings) are compiled by civilian scholars. The main task of the state is to make the values generated by civil society livable and protected. In fact, according to Islam, the primary addressee of religious, legal, and political duties is not the state, but the Islamic ummah (community). The head of the state fulfills these duties on behalf of the ummah. Therefore, even if the state falls short in fulfilling certain religious commands, it should demonstrate the utmost effort on the part of society. For this reason, societal transformation and awareness are crucial.

Similarly, as an institution, the state is not religious; individuals are the recipients and targets of religion. The state is shaped according to the religious or worldly preferences of those who govern it, and more importantly, according to the choices of the people who entrusted them with this duty.

Looking at events such as the Constitution of Medina and the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, it can be seen that the convergence of individuals in minimum common grounds, the development of a culture of coexistence, and the resolution of conflicts through a culture of reconciliation and agreement are among the primary ideals of Islam, which aim to establish peace and stability in society. For this reason, it is essential to fight against ignorance, spread knowledge, achieve economic development, eliminate all forms of despotism, and attain political and economic independence. Muslims who devote all their energies to bringing about the caliphate or establishing an Islamic state must also take these factors into account, and they need to realize that these are the priority issues they must address and resolve.

Finally, we would like to emphasize that Muslims cannot remain indifferent to the perceptions and reactions of contemporary states in a globalized world. In a globalized world where states, societies, cultures, and civilizations interact with each other like never before, Muslims need to think globally. They must realize that chronic problems that have taken on a global nature cannot be solved solely with a state model and should contemplate on a universal societal project. Instead of allowing Islamic values to be depleted amid empty debates, they should highlight the humane and universal aspects of Islamic civilization.

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

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