Islamic Perspectives

Which political system suits Muslims

The unity, prosperity and well-being of Muslims as individuals, groups and countries is so important that by the time we come to the end of an article we realise that far more has remained unsaid than what has been said. The political order in most Muslim countries is not appropriate to their requirements, their worldly aspirations, their material growth, political freedom and spiritual fulfillment. There is something grossly amiss.

It is often debated as to what kind of a political order will suit the Ummah. To answer this satisfactorily, we will have to keep in mind that the Ummah does not consist of a single racial, national, ethnic or cultural group located in a single geographical area. It consists virtually of people from all racial, ethnic, national and cultural groups spread over a vast and diverse terrain, globally.

To accommodate such diversity, Muslims all over the world will have to decide what kind of a political order will satisfy their needs. A section of Muslims (mostly Islamists) believe that Islam allows only one political system, that is caliphate. That, at best, is a debatable assertion. The fact remains that both caliphate and something resembling monarchy, was existing within years of the passing away of the Prophet (PBUH). The Prophet’s surviving companions and later ulama recognised the legitimacy of both Hazrat Ali’s caliphate and Amir Mu’awiya’s non-caliphal rule, which has been described by some as mamlikat (kingdom). This position holds even today among Sunni Muslims who cite the efficient and powerful rule of Amir Mu’awiya, which led to great expansion of Islam. In mainstream Sunni Islam, both models of state are recognised from the time of the last rightly guided caliph, Hazrat Ali.

However, those who insist that caliphate is the only legitimate model should keep in mind that Islam has flourished under every system of government, from caliphate to sultanate, emirate to imamate, different kinds of dictatorships to some imperfect, poor version of democracy. It is not basically a matter of the survival of Islam, but the well being of the people, because Islam (the deen of Allah) is capable of surviving in all kinds of conditions, but people cannot live happily under a bad government.

The fact remains that Islam has been resilient enough to survive and prosper in all times and climes, including in the wake of the rise of nationalism when national sovereignty does not allow supranational authority. That is, Kuwait cannot be ruled from Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia cannot be ruled from Turkey. Sovereign authority cannot come from outside the borders of the nation-state, which is a primary feature of the earliest caliphate. Because the exclusive idea of nation was not found in the 7th century, the early four caliphates could rule different countries (sometimes precariously) from one place. In the age of nation-state, it is not possible, although a union like European Union is possible for the Gulf countries (GEC) or a larger grouping of Muslim states (OIC), but even a well-knit body like EU cannot fully replace national authority. Bodies like GEC, OIC and others don’t have even that much of coherence. Still, the OIC, with a rotating presidency, can have features of a loose, 21st century version of caliphate of sorts. Such things need a lot of innovation as well as clarity of purpose, all of which are scarce today in the Ummah.

The Muslim experience of caliphate has been extremely difficult. Three out of the four first caliphs, the “rightly guided” ones (Khulfa-e-Rashidun) were assassinated. To have a clear picture of the enormity of the situation, imagine the United States. This is like the assassination of 33 of the 45 US presidents. Could the US survive such a calamity? Could any nation-state survive such a situation? With the assassination of the fourth caliph the institution of caliphate staggered and could rarely regain its pristine glory after that over the last 1400 years.

With the demise of the Turkish Ottoman caliphate at the end of World War I the institution practically ended. The fears of Indian supporters of the Turkish caliphate, that with the end of this institution, Islam’s survival would be endangered, did not come true. The fervent appeals to the British to save it were at best nonsensical because the British had no interest in saving it, and at worst futile, because the Turkish revolutionaries were determined to sack the Turkish king, who was also the caliph.

The most significant, however, is that the caliphate had not come to the Ottoman Turks in a recognised, legitimate manner. When the Ottomans captured Arab lands, the Ottoman king simply removed the Arab caliph and declared himself the caliph. The caliphate that ended at the end of World War I was acquired thus. Even when it was alive it had no authority or influence over Mughal India or Safavid Iran, and a lot of other Muslim lands.

The point here is that the idea of khilafat (caliphate) in the present context is a mere abstraction, with little substance. The problem still remains as to how the Muslim world should rule itself to ensure maximum representation of the people in corridors of power, how can people get their fair share of the economic cake, how can they enjoy maximum social, economic and political freedom. At present most of the Muslim world is not getting it. People have a right to representation, to be masters of their own destiny. Most of the Muslim world is not getting any of it. All this has to be ensured for Muslim nations and societies to function smoothly. Badly governed states are their own worst enemies. People in such states and societies do not see themselves as one. Political reform is a must for the Muslim world on an urgent basis.

To understand some of the content of khilafat, one has to remember that in the Quran God calls the first man, Adam, His khalifa (caliph), which means “deputy”. God being the King of all creation, Adam was the vicegerent of God on earth. But the caliphs of caliphates are different. The first caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr, was designated Khalifatu Rasulillah (the Prophet’s [PBUH] caliph, or deputy). Abu Bakr took over the reins of the nascent Islamic state on the death of the Prophet (PBUH). Hence, he was Khalifatu Rasulillah. When he died, Hazrat Omar took over as Khalifah Khalifati Rasulillah (the deputy of the Prophet’s [PBUH] deputy). In short, khalifah. However, Omar chose the title Ameerul Momineen (the chief of believers). This was a more reasonable choice as the caliph next to him would be called Khalifah Khalifah Khalifati Rasulillah. And this title would go on protracting.

A point to be noted here by the proponents of khilafat in India is that this country was never ruled by a caliphate at any point in its history, much less by the Ottomans. During all the centuries of caliphates this country was ruled by sovereign rulers without the overlordship of a caliphate at any time. Even during the 600 years of the Ottoman caliphate, Delhi had the Turko-Mongols (Mughals), and before them Turks ruled it without any guidance from, or overlordship of, the Ottomans, who were removed by Turks themselves as Arab lands abolished their rule with the help of the British. Keeping all this in mind, we can guess how unrealistic the recurring movement for khilafat in India has been, especially the one that peaked in the 1990s.

Without making a definitive choice of a particular form of government for the Muslim world one has to assert that the forms of government under which the Muslim world has been ruled since World War I have served them poorly, oppressed the people, denied them representation and often worked in the interests of Western powers rather than the interests of their own people. Such unrepresentative governments must be done away with at the earliest.

Mulukiyat (kingship) came early in Islam. Amir Mu’awiyah, who was the founder of the Umaiyad dynasty, was the governor of Syria when the third caliph Hazrat Osman, married consecutively to two daughters of the Prophet (PBUH), was assassinated by self-claimed supporters of Hazrat Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH). The assassins were roaming freely in Medina, the capital till then, during Ali’s caliphate. Ali called governor Mu’awiyah from Damascus to Medina. Mu’awiyah, a kinsman of Osman (the assassinated caliph), demanded that he would come to Medina only after assassins of Osman were caught and punished and Medina was cleared of rebels.

He rightly feared that he would be assassinated like his kinsman if he went to Medina. He refused to go there till his conditions were met, which were never met. Instead, Ali was assassinated by his own supporters. Thus ended the life of the fourth (and last) rightly guided caliph while Mu’awiyah was ruling independently in Syria. The Umaiyad kingdom took Islam to great victories and its expansion. Mu’awiyah was a companion of the Prophet (PBUH) and many of the surviving companions as well as the Prophet’s wives supported the Umaiyad kingdom. Sunni ulama of following generations have vouchsafed for the legitimacy of kingdom as much as caliphate as equally appropriate for governance in Islam. That shows Islam does not exclusively insist on a single form of government.

There are people in the Muslim world who still want to establish a caliphate (not being sure where). There are extremists among them who use objectionable language for the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) who were with Mu’awiyah. One such person was Hazrat Mughira who was one of the most revered ten companions (Ashrah mubashsharah) who were proclaimed by God in their lives as residents of Paradise (Jannah). The point to consider is whether Muslims should go by God’s vindication of these men or the condemnation of today’s lovers of caliphate. Are these men wiser than God?

Advocates of caliphate today (like ISIS) ignore the basic principle that “politics is the art of the possible.” One such arm-chair political thinker from the Arab world writes self-righteously that democracy is bad and only khilafat is acceptable. He goes on to declare that a khalifah has to be Arab. (What about the 600 years of Turkish caliphate? Was it illigimate because it was not Arab?) Then he insists that the caliph should be Quraishi. Horror of horrors! Two people should contend for the caliphate and a panel of four persons should select one of them and cut the head of the second one. How great! He does not say what the supporters of the slain aspirant will do to the caliph and the people around them. The Shia-Sunni schism originated from there: Muslims drew their swords on each other and the sword never went back into the sheath, and the schism never healed.

For peace and unity, we need an appropriate political order, which allows choice, representation, equal opportunity, peaceful (periodic) transfer of power, not mutual mass annihilation as we have been witnessing over the centuries.(

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