3:19 pm - Tuesday February 23, 4602

Caliphate Dream

With the proclaimed aim of the Islamist ISIS in Iraq to establish a ‘ Caliphate ’  including large parts of Europe and Asia, as well as India, many of us must have wondered why the ISIS needs a geographical boundary outside Iraq to define itself.

The answer to the question will lead to the difference between Islam and other religions. Islam is not just a system for prayer. It has a political aspect and a social structure which is equally important. The political aspect of Islam demands that, ideally, the faithful be ruled by the ‘Islamic caliphate’ and live in geography under his control. The search for this geographic, political structure which will automatically ensure an ‘Islamic social condition’ with its Sharia jurisprudence lies at the heart of the present Islamist activism and violence all over the world. Even local instances of Islamist disturbances get eventually linked to this dream for a Caliphate. It can be said that this ‘Caliphate dream’ flows under the Islamic consciousness like a subterranean stream. It must be remembered that Taliban chief Mullah Omar too had announced a caliphate for Muslims, though his caliphate did not go beyond Afghanistan.


The hordes holding aloft black flags while wrecking havoc across Iraq and Syria are re-enacting history associated with their earlier Caliphates which ruled the Islamic faithful since Prophet Mohammed. This new ISIS Caliphate, they believe, is also the essential prerequisite for the arrival of their prophesied Islamic messiah – The Mahdi.

The ISIL’s Caliphate

Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of tawhīd (monotheism), rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala.

The Muslims are honored. The kuffār (infidels) are disgraced. Ahlus-Sunnah (the Sunnis) are masters and are esteemed. The people of bid’ah (heresy) are humiliated. The hudūd (Sharia penalties) are implemented – the hudūd of Allah – all of them. The frontlines are defended. Crosses and graves are demolished.

The ummah has not tasted honor since they lost it. It is a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer. It is a hope that flutters in the heart of every mujāhid muwahhid (monotheist). It is the khilāfah (caliphate). It is the khilāfah – the abandoned obligation of the era.

_ From the declaration on the Caliphate released by the ISIL


ISIS holding black flags executing captives in Iraq


Only three weeks after it surprised the world with its lightning advance across north and central Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) , delivered an even more audacious surprise. On June 29, it  announced the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate  and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph. It also released a Ramadan message from Baghdadi directed at the whole ummah (Muslim community).  In Baghdadi’s Ramadan message, he calls on Muslims around the world to join the Islamic state. Using his title as the ‘Emir of the Believers’, Baghdadi declares immigration to the caliphate an individual duty, one that all able Muslims must obey.

Simultaneously ISIL destroyed the internationally recognised border post between Syria and Iraq thus acting out the rejection of the borders separating Muslim countries – a common rhetoric of jihadis, In its prior incarnations, ISIL had already maintained that it was a state.

The ISIS, in its areas of control, have promised implementation the traditional socio-political concepts in Islam include leadership by a Caliph, Islamic law or Sharia, and a consultative Shura for administration. These concepts have been exactly in line with the political aspects of Islam derived from the Qur’an, the Sunna (the sayings and living habits of Muhammad), and Muslim history.

However, the ISIL has yet to show it has been able to change the position of prominent jihadi scholars who had rejected the group’s authority claims before.

To understand why the ISIL found it practical to announce the re-establishment of the islamic Caliphate we need to understand the pull these concepts have on the worldwide Muslim community and the historical events/religious beliefs that made these concepts relevant.


Shia mosques at Nineveh province, Iraq destroyed by ISIS



 Caliphs after the Prophet Mohammed

After the death of Prophet Muhammed, the Muslim Ummah in the Arabian peninsula, was ruled by a series of Caliphs. The term Caliph or Khilafa means – “Commander of the Believers” (Amir al-Mu’minin) of the Muslim world.

Abu Bakr Siddique was the first one. Umar ibn Khattab, the second caliph, was killed by the Persians. His successor, Uthman Ibn Affan, was elected by a council of electors (Majlis). Uthman was killed by members of a disaffected group. Ali then took control faced two major rebellions and was assassinated by Abdl-alRahman, a Kharijite.

Ali’s tumultuous rule lasted only five years. This period is known as the Fitna, or the first Islamic civil war. The followers of Ali later became the Shi’a (“shiaat Ali”, partisans of Ali.) minority sect of Islam and reject the legitimacy of the first 3 caliphs. The followers of all four Rashidun Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) became the majority Sunni sect. The Sunnis killed Ali’s son Hussein and his family at the Battle of Karbala in 680, solidfying the Shia-Sunni split.

After the first four caliphs, the Caliphate was claimed by dynasties such as the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans(1453–1924). The expansion of the Islamic state took place during their period (in the periods of Abu Bakr, Umer and Uthman )  to include the whole or Arabain peninsula Persia and even Spain.

Thus the concept of the Caliphate is thus woven intrinsically with Islamic history.  Political Islam being as important as religious Islam,  this ‘Nation of Islam’ became a necessary point  honour for the worldwide Ummah and the rule of the caliphate – a sub-conscious pull.

Since the 15th century, the Caliphate was claimed by the Turkish Ottoman sultans beginning with Fatih Sultan Mehmed. The sultan also enjoyed some authority, although substantially diminished,  beyond the borders of his shrinking empire as caliph of Muslims in Egypt, India, and Central Asia.


The collapse of the Turkish Caliphate and beginning of modern Islamist Terrorism

Till the 1920’s Islamic societies around the world rested reassured under the presumption that somewhere out there was this ‘Caliphate’ – a land ruled by a according to the principles upheld by the faithful since Prophet Mohammed – a land which would provided a measure of pride and remind them of their ‘ glorious past ‘ when caliphs conquered the whole of Arabia for the Muslim Ummah.

However, everything changed in the 1920s.  The Turkish Ottoman Empire which represented the base of the Caliphate was under grave threat following the defeat of the Central powers with which it had sided during the first World War.

The Ottoman Empire in Turkey, which represented the last known Caliphate, finally  collapsed. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a cent percent secular ‘ Muslim’  officially abolished the system of Caliphate in Islam (the Ottoman Empire) and founded the Republic of Turkey, in 1923.

The loss of the caliphate was a body blow to those who clung to the glories of the past and awaited a rerun of the same.

It was at this collapse and the psychological blow to the ‘honour’ and identity of the Islamist world that triggered a new wave of violence last century. This violence, in one form or another, continuous to this day.  This article aims explain the intrinsic relationship which the idea of the ‘Caliphate’ has with the worldwide Muslim Community ( Ummah)

Christians crucified in by ISIS in Raqqa - Syria
















The social pressure guiding the Caliphate dream

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its Caliphate left a void in the Islamic psyche. It broke the historical connection to the religious – political institutions which succeeded the Prophet. But this was not all. The Caliphate represented an institution which provided a ‘ just ‘ socio-political structure which the disaffected believers could turn to while faced with the failures they saw all around them.

The Islamic disaffection with the growing influence of the west in Islamic countries and the marginalisation of Islamic ideals among their own elite made more and more Muslims to look towards their past to resurrect structures from their tradition and history which could serve as bulwarks against the cultural invasion of the west.  The most successful of Muslim leaders who shaped the socio political landscape of Islam in modern times was the Egyptian Hasan-Al Banna. It is not a co-incidence  that it was in the 1920 that Hasan Al Banna’s call for the Islamic  revival found resonance across the Arab world – the same period when the Ottoman Caliphate ( Which had followers in Egypt ) collapsed.

Although these were largely concerned with domestic affairs of Egypt, and subsequently of the other countries, in which branches were established, the idea of universal Muslim state was constantly implied due to the his focus on Islam. For his Muslim brethren,  Islam was of course both religion and state. He articulated Islamic solution to all the problems he saw around him – a common methodology we see in such revivalist movements around the world. While studying in Cairo, Hasan immersed himself in the writings of the founders of Islamic reformism (the Salafiyya movement), including the Egyptian Muhammad “Abduh (1849-1905). It is not surprising that the todays Islamists operating in Syria and iraq call themselves Salafists.

This pattern, wherein Islamic societies turn towards their history and comfortable, known social structures as a reaction to their failure to confront the needs of the modern world can be seen elsewhere too. Thus what the idea of the Caliphate promises, in a addition to ‘ honour and glory ’,  is this social comfort zone for a patriarchical set up. The Calipahte, it is believed, will provide the structure which has a legitimacy of History and the backing of an ‘ Islamic state’.


The religious imagery guiding the Caliphate dream


“At the end of the time of my ummah, the Mahdi will appear. Allah will grant him rain, the earth will bring forth its fruits, he will give a lot of money, cattle will increase and the ummah will become great.”

                                         – Reported by al-Haakim in his Mustadrak, 4/557-558).


The idea of the Caliphate is not just a product of Islamic disaffection with modernity and their political marginalisation following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its caliphate.

Large sections of the Ummah feverently believe that the establishment of the Caliphate is a necessary precondition for the arrival of the prophesied Islamic redeemer – the Mahdi

The Mahdi is personified as a Islamic saviour riding a horse, holding aloft a black flag who will save the Ummah and restore it to its glory. And what is the relation between the Caliphate and the Mahdi ? According to Islamists, the establishment of the Caliphate is the essential condition for the arrival of the Mahdi and the subsequent victory of Islam over other peoples. In other words, the ISIL, by establishing its Caliphate ( as they want the Muslim Ummah to believe )is  setting the stage for the arrival of the Mahdi who would signal Islam’s final vctory. The Mahdi is supposed to arrive at ‘ the end of times ‘ when the Islamic society is at its lowest level.

The preparation for the Mahdi is not just a necessity but a mandatory religious requirement :

The hadith clarifies by its implied meaning (mafhum) that it is not permitted for a Muslim to live without the presence of a Khaleefah as it censures the one who dies without his presence. Consequently, it becomes obligatory on the Muslim to work for the presence of a Khaleefah


The Khilafat in India

The collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Turkey in the 1920s  had a resonating impact in India also since the Turkish Caliphate had followers mainly in Egypt, Central Asia and India.

The Khilafat movement (1919–1924) was a pan-Islamic, political protest campaign launched by Muslims in British India to influence the British government and to protect the Ottoman Empire during the aftermath of World War I. It won the support of Mahatma Gandhi and the predominantly Hindu Congress movement because of its anti-British overtones. Thus although mainly a Muslim religious movement, the movement became known to be a part of the wider Indian independence movement

Mohammad Ali and his brother Maulana Shaukat Ali led this moment. They aimed to build political unity amongst Muslims and use their influence to protect the caliphate. In 1920, they published the Khilafat Manifesto, which called upon the British to protect the caliphate and for Indian Muslims to unite and hold the British accountable for this purpose.

The movement collapsed by late 1922 when Turkey gained a more favourable diplomatic position and moved toward secularism. By 1924 Turkey simply abolished the roles of Sultan and Caliph.With the Caliphate dream in tatters, they no longer needed to fight in India and  the leaders of the Khilafat moment in India simply withdrew from their alliance with the Congress.

Many of us have through decades been taught in our schools and colleges about the glorious Khilafat moment as being a part of India’s freedom struggle against the British.

I only shall quote Sri B R Ambedkar’s comments on the Mappila Riot which was the manifestation of the Khilafat moment in Kerala.

The aim was to establish the kingdom of Islam

“ The Moplas were suddenly carried off their feet by this agitation. The outbreak was essentially a rebellion against the British Government The aim was to establish the kingdom of Islam by overthrowing the British Government. Knives, swords and spears were secretly manufactured, bands of desperadoes collected for an attack on British authority. On 20th August a severe encounter took place between the Moplas and the British forces at Thirurangadi. Roads were blocked, telegraph lines cut, and the railway destroyed in a number of places. As soon as the administration had been paralyzed, the Moplas declared that Swaraj had been established. A certain Ali Musaliar was proclaimed Raja, Khilafat flags were flown, and Ernad and Walluvanad were declared Khilafat Kingdoms.

As a rebellion against the British Government it was quite understandable. But what baffled most was the treatment accorded by the Moplas to the Hindus of Malabar. The Hindus were visited by a dire fate at the hands of the Moplas. Massacres, forcible conversions, desecration of temples, foul outrages upon women, such as ripping open pregnant women, pillage, arson and destruction- in short, all the accompaniments of brutal and unrestrained barbarism, were perpetrated freely by the Moplas upon the Hindus until such time as troops could be hurried to the task of restoring order through a difficult and extensive tract of the country. The number of Hindus who were killed, wounded or converted, is not known. But the number must have been enormous.”

Sri B R Ambedkar ( Pakistan or Partition of India )


The Idea of the Caliphate might be a dream for the Ummah. But, for large sections of the world – it might turn out to be a nightmare. The Calipate in Iraq which is reportedly receiving large number of ‘ fighters ‘ from around the world, including from India indicates what the Islamic state would mean to the rest of us. The experience with such a state in North Kerala during the 1920’s reinforces this apprehension.


We learn from History.

I sincerely hope we do.

P Gireesh























































































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