Amidst the continuous stream of harrowing pictures of the Rohingya people in recent weeks, in the UK we’re seeing a resurgence of calls for the establishment of the Khilafah or Caliphate. It’s an eerie feeling of déjà-vu, reliving the 1990s when groups, largely made of kids in their late teens to early 30s, appeared touting Caliphate ideology as a means to restoring Muslim identity to its past glory. Following 9/11 and 7/7, greater counters by Muslim communities and increased public scrutiny partially arrested the growth of Caliphate ideology. Many of course matured and simply moved on with their lives. Some continued touting, but took a less confrontational and rabble-rousing approach. But, in what looks like a more recent development, a few in their capacity as ‘spiritual leaders’ have now quite publicly joined the call, albeit on what they reckon are theological grounds rather than out of mere membership of a so-called ‘Islamic’ political group. So what’s actually changed to bring this about?
No doubt, social media has a larger-than-life role in amplifying fringe voices and opinions, which didn’t exist in the 1990s as they do now. Opinions and news items decay as quickly as they become popularised on social media. The sheer volume of recirculating information – data points and opinions hitting us every day, seldom contribute independently and meaningfully in the world outside. To cite an example, in a conference held at the London Muslim Centre on the Rohingya situation, there was a show of hands to see who had contacted their MPs to urge the British government to take action. Out of perhaps a thousand attendees less than 50 had. In other words, when it comes to the hard graft (even as simply as sending a templated email) and actually do something meaningful, few will overcome barriers of laziness, inability, time or other constraints. My point is, calling for a Caliphate, in the end, amounts to little more than hyperbole.
Oddly, none of the ‘spiritual preachers’ and activists who call for the Caliphate are known for their experience in international law and diplomacy, their deep knowledge or expertise in al-siyasah al-shar’iyyah, or for their involvement in local or national government not to mention foreign policy bodies, or have any track record in academia. Yet, the seeming authority with which some preach on how to resolve geo-political problems through political intervention would have many believing otherwise. Preaching this kind of idealism on social media, or from the pulpit, perpetuates a great disconnect with the way Muslims actually experience life. It’s like what Imam Ghazzali noted in his Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, observing juris-consultants (fuqaha) of his time being far too engrossed with the minutia of legal practices, that they became disconnected from what really mattered for the lay masses. Fast forward to the late Ottoman period and yet again the same. The authors of the Majallah al-Ahkam al-‘Adliyya very early on criticised the lack of grounding amongst juris-consultants in the practical propositions of shari’.
Even a simple reading of the Prophetic example (Sunnah) indicates that the objective is to offer workable solutions as appropriate to the circumstances. This begs the question, what exactly is a Caliphate today? Is it fulfilled only if the entire Muslim world lives under a single contiguous central political authority: one presidential-style leader and a single shar’i legal code implemented in its entirety (what is ‘entirety’?)? Or is it sufficient if it covers a single region or country? What if the country is as small as Qatar, or as poor as Ethiopia, or as sprawling as the Maldives? Does it have to include an axis of Egypt-Saudi Arabia-Turkey, and, if so, why should it be these countries which account for only a fifth of the world’s Muslims and don’t share borders with each other? What is so different about Iran’s theocracy with its own implemented Islamic legal code and a supreme spiritual leader? What makes the caliphate of ISIS any different to the one espoused, beyond their theological excommunications? Is it a federal republic like the USA, built on a single constitution? Will the constitution simply be the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and if so, whose interpretation will be authoritative?
The point is, it seems there is no hard and fast rule. At best, there is a lot of conjecture and conceptions remain highly subjective. Given this, can it be expected of the average Muslim to evaluate such subjectivity in pursuance of the Caliphate’s formation? Is it even Prophetic to pursue such a vague expression, especially where it is at the cost of actually doing something meaningful in the now? The point here is not to discount Muslim governance as a means of Muslim self-determination, nor political philosophy found within revelatory texts (nass), nor to downplay the role of Islamic law, but to highlight the simplistic rhetoric that serves for little except chest-beating and comforting one’s lack of meaningful action.
Of course, pundits would advance that they’ve got all this worked out. They will mine classical texts on the matter of a Caliphate, which despite being linguistically and politically rooted in the exigencies of the medieval era, and presented doctrinally as a particular manifestation and in a specific vernacular, taken as a determined theological tenet. Some advocates have suggested that the most important action for us is to realise the importance of re-establishing the Caliphate in the Muslim world by firstly studying its economic and military benefits. Yet, if most Muslims haven’t even studied economics to GCSE level can we really expect them to know where to begin? The farce that the Brexit vote became, with the absurd expectation that the masses might evaluate economic pros and cons should be informative here.
As for military benefits, to believe that a Caliphate would simply intervene in Myanmar is to assume that international law would not be a barrier, and that other nations will simply cast away their own strategic interests. The reality is that Muslim countries cooperate poorly with each other, and have a hard time overcoming their own political wrangling. Just look how dismally GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) members have failed so far to get Qatar to comply with some rather strange demands. Worse still, look at how Saudi Arabia and Iran cannot come to a mutual understanding and instead continue to be invested in a proxy war in Yemen, while the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in the world today goes on.
My question then is, if most Muslims cannot even write to their MPs what makes activists so sure that under a Caliphate they would be so willing to wage war? Besides, where would the fiscal budget for such military prowess come from if at least 25% of the world’s Muslim population are in abject poverty, youth unemployment stands at 33% in places like Egypt, and infrastructure investments can hardly meet the needs of growing populations. The point is, preaching about the idealism of a super state, supreme-leader ruled, with basic legal codes referenced as the shari’a and that only seem to manifest with the linguistics of violence (jihad and hudud), lacks a shockingly basic awareness of the environment we live in and to know what God is asking of us.
The brunt of the nationalist xenophobic resentment meted out by extremists intensified only after Myanmar was no longer administered as a province of the British Raj in 1938. But when colonialists first entered Myanmar, where was the Caliphate of the time? Are calls to re-establishing a Caliphate a sign of unconscious bias among the new breed of ‘spiritual leaders’ (as it was for political activists of the 1990s) that views the 1300-year history of Muslim ‘unity’ and political union through rose-tinted glasses?
In all of this, what is most disconcerting is that social media broadcasts encouraging Muslims to embrace Caliphate ideology is to step back into the 1990s which evidently got Muslims nowhere and significantly, stunted a mature political outlook. What activists and ‘spiritual preachers’ fail to recognise is that when preaching to thousands of people on social media they take on a scatter-gun approach; there is no way of knowing if what they say is being internalised with the right nuance or if it simply ignites uncontrollable emotions. Rousing calls to the Caliphate in the 1990s led to a whole generation of activists becoming narrow-mindedly distracted with unrealisable rhetoric in the shape of unsubstantial doctrinal commitments, and, in turn, caused a great deal of pain for Muslim identity. Knowing this, we are at liberty to challenge such rhetoric in order to safeguard future generations from such simplistic ways of thinking and imbue them with attitudes that are imbued with revelation-based guidance, that by its nature, is actually feasible and reflects what God wants of believers reflecting their capacities and situations.