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Post-Ottoman Caliphate debates

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the effective abolition of the caliphate, Muslims found themselves without a central authority. This led to the fragmentation of the Islamic world, with approximately 80% of Muslim countries being colonized. The Islamic world experienced a significant decline and collapse in terms of knowledge, politics, and economy. These circumstances further elevated the caliphate in the eyes of some Muslims, who saw it as a sacred institution and an ideal position to overcome existing problems. In nearly all of the Islamic world, it was considered necessary to unite around the caliphate in order to restore Muslim unity and regain the glorious days of the past.

In an environment where the Islamic world was highly sensitive to the issue of caliphate, the views on caliphate expressed by Ali Abdürrazık, one of the scholars at Al-Azhar, in his book titled “Usul al-Hukm” published in 1925, caused great controversy among Muslims, particularly in Egypt, and created a significant shake-up. Two years after its publication, the book was translated into Turkish by Ömer Rıza Doğrul under the title “Islam and Government.”

In his book, Ali Abdürrazık summarized that Islam has no connection with politics and governance, that there is no basis for the caliphate in the Qur’an and Sunnah, that it is purely a rational and worldly matter, that the Prophet’s mission was entirely religious and spiritual, and he had no intention of establishing an Islamic state, and that issues related to governance and politics were not among the Prophet’s duties as a messenger. Abdürrazık claimed that no one could be the Prophet’s successor, neither in religious nor political terms, after his death. He argued that Abu Bakr established a new state and that the institution of caliphate had become a source of conflict and discord among Muslims. Therefore, according to Ali Abdürrazık, there was no religious justification to continue the traditional caliphate system.

Ottoman Caliphate

At that time, Ali Abdürrazık’s views, especially as a scholar with a classical education, were considered radical and marginal. Although the book was written in a journalistic style rather than a scholarly and academic tone, the claims made were quite serious. As a result, this small-sized book sparked significant debates. Many scholars, particularly those from Al-Azhar, quickly responded to Ali Abdürrazık’s views and wrote refutations. Works written by scholars such as Muhammed Bahit, Reşit Rıza, Muhammed Hıdr Hüseyin, Tahir b. Aşur, Mustafa Hilmi, Ziyauddin er-Rayyis, and Muhammed İmara provided responses to the views expressed in the book.

The reactions received were not limited to refuting his views using scholarly methods; he was also declared an enemy of Islam and an atheist. He was accused of demolishing the structure of Islam and leading generations astray. It was claimed that his intention in writing this book was to attack the Ottoman Empire and serve colonial powers. Ultimately, Ali Abdürrazık was expelled from Al-Azhar on the grounds that his views were contrary to Islam, his scholarly title was revoked, and he was dismissed from his judicial duties. Both Ali Abdürrazık’s views and the responses against him have had an impact that continues to this day.

Muhammad Imara described the intensity and violence of these reactions with the following words: “Since the printing press entered our cities, no book has caused such discussion, chaos, noise, and conflict.” (Muhammad Imara, “Al-Islam wa Usulu’l-Hukm li Ali Abdurrazik,” p. 5) While some of the responses to Ali Abdurrazik were based on scholarly methods, others were quite reactionary, emotional, and impulsive.

Ali Abdürrazık did not engage in such debates again until his death in 1967. In the following years, he was reinstated, and his reputation was restored. It is also stated that towards the end of his life, he expressed regret for the views he expressed in his book.

The sole reason why his work received such a strong reaction was not merely because he stated that the caliphate is a rational, worldly, and historical issue. In history, there have been proponents of this view, including Mu’tazilah scholars. Therefore, the main cause of the controversy was his claims that the Prophet did not establish a political system in any way, that Islam is only a spiritual religion, and therefore does not interfere in political and administrative matters.

Furthermore, the author’s selection of the worst examples from the era of the caliphate to reject the institution, attributing the misdeeds of oppressive and despotic caliphs to the caliphate itself, his selective and fragmented approach to verses and hadiths to support his thesis, his inconsistencies within his own arguments, his making unrealistic and speculative interpretations to deny that the Prophet held political office, his disregard for many of the administrative, political, and military actions of the Prophet, his provocative style, his inability to present his ideas in a systematic and coherent manner, and his failure to clearly state his purpose, all weakened the book from a scholarly perspective and made it inconsistent.

Setting aside whether the presented arguments are correct or not, the mentioned book has allowed for a renewed discussion on the meaning of the caliphate institution and the nature of the relationship between religion and the state. The fact that 25 refutations were written after the publication of the work also indicates this. In fact, the views expressed by the author continue to be debated even today, and various articles, theses, and books are being written on the subject.

Another figure who partially deviates from the classical views and offers new interpretations regarding the caliphate is Seyyid Bey. On March 3, 1924, when the abolition of the caliphate was being discussed, he made an important speech in the Parliament on the issue of the caliphate, which was later published as a booklet titled “The Nature of the Caliphate in Sharia.”

Seyyid Bey’s views on the caliphate still have an impact. According to him, since there are no detailed explanations about the caliphate as a political form of governance in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, he concludes that the caliphate is not a matter related to the essence of religion. In his opinion, the caliphate is entirely a worldly and political matter. Therefore, Seyyid Bey often states that the caliphate is nothing more than a “government.” Thus, the purpose expected from the caliphate will be achieved with the establishment of a just political system.

Seyyid Bey emphasizes that the caliphate is a matter belonging to the people, based on the concept of delegation and guardianship, and that the people can determine different forms of governance according to the requirements of the time. According to him, individuals in society can delegate their authority and responsibility to an individual or to a council.

With these words, Seyyid Bey sought to legitimize the adopted new political model, namely the republic: “According to the noble Sharia, the purpose of the caliphate is government; it is to establish a just government. Today, we want to establish the method of administration as consultation (shura) as much as possible. We want to establish the government on the principle of consultation, and we have even done so. What is the point of having a caliph like a monster on our heads?” (Yıldırım, Hilafet Tartışmaları, p. 107)

Seyyid Bey, like Ali Abdürrazık, tried to demonstrate that fundamentally the institution of the caliphate lacks a Sharia basis and expressed that it was no longer possible to sustain this institution in the conditions of his time. Both of them voiced these ideas around the same years. However, notable objections were not raised against Seyyid Bey, and there was no reaction. In fact, the number of those who supported him was greater than those who objected.

Probably one important reason for this is the way these two authors approached the subject. Unlike Ali Abdürrazık, Seyyid Bey viewed politics as a part of the Islamic religion and focused on the regulations of Islam in this field. Similarly, in his view, the Prophet’s duty was not limited to the spiritual and metaphysical realm. On the contrary, he personally took on the task of governance and implemented Sharia rulings. Furthermore, Seyyid Bey did not directly target the caliphate institution but carefully distinguished between the period of the four caliphs and the subsequent era. His explanations regarding the legal nature of the caliphate, the method of caliphate election, and the conditions it should meet were repetitions of the views mentioned in jurisprudence and theology books. That is why the quantity and intensity of criticisms directed at Seyyid Bey remained much lower.

With the emergence of modern-nation states in the Islamic world, the West’s stance against the caliphate, the rise of secular culture, and the imposition of pluralism as a reality, the caliphate issue gradually lost its predominant place on the agenda of Muslims in later years. However, it continued to be part of the discourse and goals of some political Islamists and radical Islamic groups, as well as a subject of discussion in academic circles.

It appears that disputes and discussions regarding the caliphate started with the election of Abu Bakr and have persisted until the present day. The deviations of Shia and Kharijites from the Sunni line, major tragedies such as Karbala and Harra among Muslims, and the bloody wars that arose due to the appointment of the caliph all revolved around the caliphate to some extent. However, contrary to what some claim, the cause of all these is not necessarily the caliphate issue but the struggle for power and authority. It can be said that conflict and strife are inherent in power and politics to some extent. Similar events have occurred in other systems and forms of governance as well.

However, the short lifespan of the fully established caliphate and its failure to institutionalize adequately created a fertile ground for a great deal of dispute on this matter. As mentioned earlier, although the governance understanding that emerged with the Umayyads continued to be referred to as the caliphate, it largely became a system of monarchy. Therefore, most of the views expressed around the caliphate remained theoretical and could not find the opportunity for institutionalization. Legal regulations could not be made on many issues such as the method of appointing the caliph, reasons for dismissal, duties, form of governance, limits of power, consultation method, political participation, and the form of opposition. As a result, exemplary practices and legal arrangements could not be established for subsequent periods.

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

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