A Global Caliphate: Reality or Fantasy?

Groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) are vocal in calling for the unity of Muslim nations under one global Caliphate. Unification can bring about peace and prosperity, provided this is achieved through mutual cooperation, instead of being forced through military invasion. Even tiny Kuwait fought for independence from Saddam Hussein’s invasion back in 1991, despite the fact that both nations have a common language, religion, culture, and history. A similar attempt to unify the racially diverse nations of today would certainly result in war on a larger scale, given the size and diversity of these nation states.

It is a historical fact that the Muslim world never unified fully as one body under a single Caliphate for the large part of its history, which begins from the first Islamic state in Medina to the collapse of the Ottoman State in 1924. A large section of the Islamic world was never under the authority of the Caliphate; some parts for only a short period of time. Just 25 years after the demise of the Prophet (saw), unity fractured as wars flared up. Muawiyah, the governor of Syria from the clan of Banu Ummayah refused to submit to the authority of the new Caliph, Ali (ra), who was from the rival Banu Hashim clan. Muawiyah demanded that the murderers of the third Caliph, Uthman (ra), are captured and put on trial first, since Uthman was from the same tribe. This suggests Muawiyah was partly motivated by tribal allegiance.

Is there any legal justification for Muawiyah’s action? Did Ali (ra) refuse to capture and bring the criminals to the court? To demand that the Caliph does a certain action before he is given the bay’a (approval through the oath of allegiance) is surely undermining his authority. This pretext of avenging the blood of Uthman (ra) manifested in the resurfacing of the pre-Islamic tribal feud between the two tribes and led to war. Eventually, a ceasefire was put in place, which meant Muawiyah became an autonomous ruler over Syria and Ali was in charge of the remaining territories of the Caliphate. Although Muawiyah did not lay claim to the Caliphate, it was effectively divided into two, with two rulers co-existing.

After the demise of Ali (ra), Muawiyah succeeded him. He then imposed his son and firmly established his family in power to form the Umayyad dynasty that lasted for around 150 years; then a major split occurred as the Abbasids took over the Caliphate and Umayyad rule was largely confined to Spain. With the passage of time, more nationalistic conflicts broke out; for example the costly Arab-Berber wars. Consequentially, the Caliphate fragmented further.

The Caliphate was largely nationalistic in terms of its ruling authority; the Arab Umayyad only produced a ruler from within; the Abbasids did the same, as did the Turkish Ottomans; the other racial groups remained subordinate. The racial feud between the Turks and Arabs was a major cause of the destruction of the last Ottoman State. The Caliphate could not erase nationalism.

One cannot ignore this historical experience. It testifies something about human nature; achieving full unity through force amongst the diverse groups is virtually impossible, unless it comes from within and that is unlikely to happen. If full scale unity could not be sustained in the past when the Caliphate was relatively monolithic and small, the chances of that happening now is negligible, because racial and geographical boundaries are far more entrenched, compounded by the size and complexities of the various nations. Yet, the view of HT is that a new caliphate can use force to unify, if the initial encouragement fails to achieve unity. It demonstrates naivety, because any attempt to force unity will definitely lead to costly wars, and resentment, defeating the purpose of the Caliphate in the first place, which is to unify and strengthen the community.

If the Companions were of the view that more than one ruler is not permissible, they would have cited the relevant Hadiths, and demanded that Muawiyah should submit to Ali and reunify the regions. Throughout Islamic history, the scholars, thinkers and movements never called for reunification of the Islamic lands under one Caliphate, even as the Caliphate disintegrated in front of their eyes. Given that scholars are experts, it is unlikely that they have all overlooked this issue out of negligence or shortcomings. A more plausible explanation is they considered reunification of the Islamic lands as secondary, as long as the rulers were applying Islamic laws.

Moreover, if this reunification was an important issue, this would have been stated in the classical texts with frequency and elaboration, as we see with subjects like prayers, fasting and Hajj. This gives further credence that the subject of appointing a leader and unification of the lands is left for the people to determine amongst their community as they see fit; thus, appoint an Imam at the Masjid like you appoint a ruler over your society. It is also plausible that those who were of the view a single Caliph is obligatory for the entire Muslim world, have resigned to the reality that such an opinion cannot be achieved in practice, as shown by the long turbulent history of the Caliphate. Indeed, the Sokoto Caliphate in Africa, the Muslim rule in India and Indonesia, existed for centuries side by side with the Ottomans. Some of them may not have carried the title of Caliph, or Sultan or Imam or Amir, but in reality they were rulers just like a Caliph.

This also raises the uncomfortable question: would the Creator oblige something on the community which it cannot fulfil as shown by the long history? Maybe the obligation to unify is in reality an ideal that the Muslims should aim for, something recommended. This means a re-examination of the evidences is required with a view to applying them to the current situation that is unique.

One of the main evidences cited by groups like HT in support of a single global Caliphate and the prohibition of having multiple rulers is the well-known Hadith narrated in Sahih Muslim and other books: which states that if a Caliph is established, and if a second Caliph emerges to challenge his authority, the latter should be killed, as such an act constitutes rebellion. In that case, why did the Companions not cite this Hadith and demand that Muawiyah should be fought against and tried for his clear rebellion? Ironically, some even sided with him. Were they not aware of this Hadith, and which was narrated through them? This anomaly is for the scholars and the Muhaddiths (experts on Hadiths) to explain. If you rely on this Hadith, then there are grounds for arguing that Muawiyah and possibly Aisha (ra) should have been put on trial. On this point, groups like HT have been conveniently silent! If you cite this Hadith then you have a duty to explain why the companions collectively failed to apply this. No one is above the law, as the Prophet (saw) said he would even cut the hand of his beloved daughter Fatima if she stole.

Moreover, the Hadith is referring to a second Caliph challenging the authority from within the same state. If the Caliph emerges in another distant land, in practical terms they could not be fought unless a full scale war is declared. But can a Caliph elected in one country, go and invade another Muslim country and impose himself? This brings us to the point of the scope of the Caliphate.

As stated earlier, HT believes that a Caliph can impose unity through force, yet they say the Caliphate is a contract between those who give their bay’a and the ruler. Which means his jurisdiction should be confined to that nation as only they have given him the permission to rule over them. Therefore, if a Caliph is appointed in China, why should he have the right to invade Africa, where he may not even be known by his name? Also, if the Companions and scholars tolerated the fragmentation of the Caliphate over the years, then by greater reasoning, distant nations where the Caliphate never entered can exist as independent states.

The notion of bay’a means a global Caliphate requires a global bay’a. He is not a legitimate Caliph for all Muslims but only those who have given him bay’a. Therefore, the evidences cited to appoint a Caliph or an Amir or a Sultan or an Imam, pertains to the community one is taking the baya from. Also, the context during the time of the Prophet and, subsequently, the Caliphate was that the Ummah (Muslim People) was relatively small and monolithic, so the appointment of a Caliph was synonymous with all the Muslims who happen to reside in one place. In those days, the borders were fluid, whereas today the Muslim nations are much larger, diverse and firmly established with borders.

However, it could be argued that there is a duty on others outside the state to join the new Caliphate, but this has to come from within, and it will only happen if others accept the new Caliphate elsewhere and give their bay’a.