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Sunni Caliphate Theory-2

Based on the explanations made in the previous article, we can say that an expression such as “Islamic political theory” is still open to a debate and is in need of explanation, since there is no such theory or model put forward by the Qur’an and Sunnah. However, we can talk about the theories put forward by Sunni or Shiite scholars and say, for example, “the political theory of Sunni or Shiite scholars”.

Islamic scholars developed a detailed ‘caliphate theory’ based on the statements and explanations of the Qur’an and Sunnah about the subject, during the practice of Prophet Muhammad of (pbuh), especially during his life in Madinah, along with the practices of the four caliphs. Particularly, the views of scholars such as Juvayni, Ghazali, Maverdi, Abu Ya’la al-Ferra, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Kayyum al-Cevziyya about the ‘caliphate /imamate’ are very important. Books written on this subject are generally called as “Ahkam-ı Sultaniye” and literature of “Siyaset-i Şer’iyye”.

It should be stated here that it is not correct to see all the views regarding the caliphate in the classical sources of Islamic law as the final provisions of Islam. Because the sociopolitical conditions of the period had a significant impact on shaping jurisprudence. Therefore, it is more appropriate to see the judgments and jurisprudence developed by Muslim scholars in the light of the general principles of Islam in order to establish a fair state and a virtuous society. Undoubtly, these include some provisions that could not change over time. But it is not right to look at it all with this perspective. It is necessary to be aware that there are provisions that depend on custom and tradition, time and place that they may change over time.

The Order of The Caliphate

It has been stated that there is a consensus among the Sunni scholars regarding the necessity of the caliphate. Because when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed away, the Companions immediately dealt with the election of the caliph without wasting time. As a result of long negotiations, they made allegiance to Abu Bakr and handed over the management of both religious and state affairs to him. Although there were different views on the potential candidates, no one in the Companions said that the election process of the caliph was unnecessary. It is emphasized that the practice of Muslims and the ‘consensus of Muslim Scholars’(Ijma) took place in this direction and continued similarly in the following periods as well. (Ijmā is an Arabic term referring to the consensus or agreement of Islamic scholars on a point of Islamic law.)

In addition to ‘Ijma’, the Quranic verse that commands the obedience to ‘rulers’ (Ulü’l-Amr, those who vested with authority, Surah An Nisa, 4/59), and the hadiths which say that any person who die without obeying any imam will die like the pagan Arabs before Islam, are also considered as the evidences of the concept of Caliphate.  (Bukharî, Ahkâm 4)

Another evidence that those who claim that the ‘caliphate’ is obligatory is that it is not possible to fulfill religious duties without power and authority. Fullfilling the duty of of ‘Al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-n-nahy ʿani-l-munkar,’ Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong,’ providing justice, protecting religion from superstitious ideas, punishing criminals, resolving disputes, preserving Friday and holiday prayers, and pilgrimage and almsgiving, helping the orphans and the needy are considered as the main examples of these duties. When some obligatory prayers rely on the institution of caliphate and can be carried out with its existence, it makes the caliphate itself obligatory as well.’ (Taftazanî, Şerhu’l-Akideti’n-Nesefiyye, pp. 116-117)

Those who suggest that the caliphate is essential are divided into two. While the Sunni scholars believed that the source of this necessity is religion, to Mu’tazilah school, it was mind. (Mu’tazila is a school of rationalist Islamic theology known as Kalam. Practitioners, Mu’tazilîs, stress the supremacy of human reason and free-will (similar to Qadariyya) and went on to develop an epistemology, ontology and psychology which provide a basis for explaining the nature of the world, God, man and religion. The evidences put forward above belong to those who believe that Caliphate is rooted in Islamic law. Those who believe Caliphate is a matter of mind and intellect try to prove its necessity based on some rationalist arguments. They suggest that a compassionate and powerful Caliph is needed to prevent the disputes and chaos among the people, to provide justice, fundamental human rights, law and order. 

Although it seems that all these are worldly benefits and matters, to fully exercise the religion depends mostly on acquisition of these conditions. That’s why Gazzali said that ‘it is impossible to ensure the order of religion before securing the order of the world.’  (Al Gazzâlî, Al-İktisad fi’l-i’tikâd, s. 127)  

Mu’tazila and Kharijities, (Kharijites, or the ash-Shurah, were a sect that appeared in the first century of Islam during the first crisis of leadership after the death of Prophet Muhammad. It broke into revolt against the authority of the Caliph Ali after he agreed to arbitration with his rival, Muawiyah I, to decide the succession to the Caliphate following the Battle of Siffin (657), have the same view with the Sunni scholars regarding the necessity of the caliphate. But along with some Kharijities, Mu’tazila scholars such as Abu Bakr al-Asam, Hisham b. Amr and Ibad b. Suleyman suggests that appointment of Imam in Islam is not mandatory, but “permissible”.  Because, according to theme, there is not a commanding provision about this subject. This is why there is no religious duty for the Muslims who do not elect a Caliph for themselves. For them, what is obligatory is exercising the religious duties and commands. Should the Ummah-the Muslim society-fulfills Allah’s commands and maintains their jobs with justice, there would be no need to appoint a Caliph or Imam. Kharijitiies suggested some other evidences that it wouldn’t always be possible to find a just Caliph to rule Muslims adding taht the selection of Calips sometimes led sedition in the society. (Rayyis, en-Nazariyyâtü’s-siyasiyyeti’l-İslâmiyye, s. 143-146)

According to Ibn Khaldun, the factor that prompts the Kharijities to such an opinion is that they wanted to avoid the oppression, tyranny and domination that may come from the state along with the blessings and pleasures of the world. Because all of these were condemned by religion. (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima, 1/272) However, assuming that people can live in stability, peace and justice without a political authority means ignoring the human nature and historical realities.

However, it is important to see that they prioritized implementation of religious provisions, the provision of justice, Muslims’ unity and peace. Because, according to this point of view, ‘caliphate and imamate’ cease to be the main goal and become only a vehicle. Some Mu’tazila scholars assume that selection of caliph/imam is permissible in comfortable and safe environments; while they see it obligatory in times of sedition and turmoil. However, even though it seems reasonable to them that people can live in peace and security without a head of state, it is not possible. It is possible to say that this approach is quite theoretical, ideal and even utopian.

Is it permissible to have more than one caliph at the same time?

Scholars living in the first centuries of Islam state that only one caliph can exist at the same time and says that there is an agreement on this issue. The actual situation in the first three centuries of Islam developed accordingly. They bring to their views evidence of verses and hadiths that emphasize the unity and integrity of Muslims and prevent them from separation and conflict.

With his announcement of the caliphate, Ubeydullah al-Mahdî, who founded the Fatimî State in the year 297, a Shia-Fatimid caliphate emerged alongside the Sunni-Abbâsî caliphate and started to threaten the Abbâsîd Caliphate. After that, more emphasis was put on the uniqueness of the caliphate in order not to endanger the unity and unity of Muslims.

However, one of the sultans of the Andalusian Umayyad State, Abdurrahman the 3rd, declared his caliph in 316 in order to fight the Shiite-Fatimids, which spread rapidly in North Africa. Probably due to the influence of this incident, the Imam Al-Juwaini, -although advocates the necessity of a single imam in principle- he reveals a new view about the legitimacy of the ‘two imams’ in case of the expansion of Islamic territories whereas one single imam cannot dominate the entire Islamic land.  (Al-Juwayni, Gıyâsü’l-umem, p. 126-131)

His approach is accepted by the following scholars and is repeated referring to him. For example, Abdülkadir al-Bağdadî, states that if there is a sea between them, there may be two caliphs at the same time. (Bağdadî, Usûlü’d-din, p. 274) Likewise, Adudüddin el-İcî states that it is not permissible to have two imams in a country with narrow borders suggesting that it should be a matter of jurisprudence to have two imams where one single imam can’t easily dominate a territory. (Icî, al-Mevkâkıf, 3/591)

Is the caliphate a religious or political institution?

It is not emphasized whether the caliphate is a religious institution in classical sources. Because the separation of religion and state emerging based on secularism is a modern concept. Such experience is actually based on the medieval experience of the religion of Christianity. In fact, it took centuries to separate religion and state in the West. Western peoples dismissed religious and clergy from politics in order to get rid of the dignity of the Church, which holds all kinds of authority throughout the Middle Ages, harasses the people with persecution and oppression, and is constantly in conflict with reason and science. However, as the state structures and the understanding of religion in the Islamic world began to change in modern times, the religion-state distinction was also on the agenda of Muslim intellectuals and started to be a subject of discussion.

It is not possible to see the Caliphate as either religious or political institution. On the contrary, these are intertwined. Because Islamic provisions do not allow to divide life into different compartments and to exclude some of them from religion. Of course, there is a broad “permissible area” left to mind, experience and jurisprudence. However, it is not possible to completely isolate any field such as economics, art, culture, or politics from Islam, and accept it as purely rational and worldly. Because there are some orders and prohibitions and principles that Islam has imposed regarding all these areas.

However, it is not possible to compare the caliphate to the ‘Papacy’ in Christianity and identify it as sample of theocracy. Because, the caliphs take their authority from the people, not from a sacred and divine source, and govern the state in their own names, not in the name of Allah. However, they have to protect Islam and adhere to religious provisions. Therefore, it is possible to state that the caliphate is a unique form of administration.

As seen in the previous definitions, the caliphate is essentially about management and is rather a political issue. Caliph Ali stated that, “When the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) died, we started to consider who we should choose as a manager. Later, starting from the fact that the Messenger of Allah appointed Abu Bakr as an imam during the prayer, we agreed on the person and chose him as the caliph for our world because our Prophet had consent with his religion, (Ibn Sad, et-Tabakâtü’l-kubra, 3/183)

However, it is unthinkable to maintain politics and administration independent of religion. Because the caliph has to be adhered to religious references on the one hand, on the other hand, it has been deemed to be a duty to protect and spread Islam. This is the reason why the Islamic scholars of the first period caliph especially emphasized that Caliph also should be an Islamic Jurist.

Although this is the theoretical framework, the caliphate practices in history did not always continue in this line. In some periods, the caliphate lost its political powers and turned into a religious and spiritual institution. Some of the caliphs, who were at the head of Islamic states, had very weak ties to religion, and they were mainly engaged in politics.

Types of Caliphate: Absolute and Weak Caliphate

Islamic states, founded during the fourteen centuries, were organized around the theory of caliphate. However, there have been some important differences in their understanding of management.  Sometimes, some incompetent people took the office and they abused their power, oppressing and persecuting Muslims whereas the function of election process was ceased.

Most important of all, the method used to choose the four caliphs through Ahlu-l-hal ve’l-akd, (The committee which was entitled to elect and abolish a Caliph when needed) was chosen by the people of the state, and then the application of the people’s consent and approval through the allegiance was abandoned. Therefore, a significant part of the fiqh (Islamic Law) provisions put forward around the theory of caliphate have not been observed in the practice of the Islamic states established later. A fair system could not be established as it was during the time of the four caliphs.

Some researchers who were aware of this break after the four caliphs divided the caliphate into two; They called the caliphate, which was applied during the four caliphs, as “Perfect, Absolute caliphate”, and “weak caliphate” in later periods. (Senhurî, Fıkhu’l-hilâfe, p. 225)  

In fact, Prophet Muhammad said, “Caliphate will last thirty years among the Ummah. Sultanate will come afterwards.” His statements (Tirmidhi, Fiten 48) inform that the true caliphate will end after four caliphs. The caliphate, which is reported to be thirty years in the narration of Abu Dawood, is called the “prophethood caliphate”. (Abu Davud, Sunnah 9) Thus, the caliphs after the Umayyad could not succeed Prophet Muhammad in a literal sense.

To put it shortly, the jurists call it as the Absolute/Perfect caliphate, whereas the caliphs carry on all the necessary requirements, elected and approved by the Ummah and loyal to the Islamic Law. According to them, the real representation of religious and worldly authority of Prophet Muhammad was only possible with a Perfect/Absolute caliphate.

For example, if one or more conditions required for Perfect/Absolute caliphate is missing it is called a weak caliphate. For example, lack of some qualifications such as the president’s state of justice or knowledge, taking the office without the consent and approval of the people or using it forcefully, abandoning the consultation and acting according to his pleasure makes it a Weak caliphate.

Along with the Weak caliphate, the level of relationship between religion and the state has started to change. Religion was gradually controlled by the state, instrumentalized and even abused in the name of legitimacy. The weak caliphate that started with the Umayyads and Abbasids continued until the end of the Ottoman Empire. Ibn Khaldun describes the change in the caliphate with the following words: “The caliphate was first without sultanate, then mixed with sultanate and finally only the sultan remained.” (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima, 1/292)

Of course, the weak caliphates were not at the same level. Some of these have been closer to perfection and some have been far.

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


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