The caliphate in Islam: Why Muslims need to evolve with time

Faisal Gazi’s Guardian article The first Muslim Secularist brought up Ali Abd al-Raziq, and his controversial 1925 book, Islam and the Foundations of Government. It is interesting and very informative to know in these times how much he was opposed to for merely suggesting an alternate history and trying to set up a debate about the origins and legitimacy of the Caliphate concept in Islam in 1924-25, a watershed moment for Muslims. He was stripped of his credentials after an outcry in Egypt and the ulema at Al-Azhar, Cairo accused him of propagating seven impermissible doctrines.

These were:

1) His interpretation of sharia as purely a spiritual law;

2) His description of Islamic war efforts as monarchical decisions (al-mulk) rather than transmission of God’s word (al-dawa) decisions;

3) His view that the early system of government established by the First Muslim Believers was disorganized and vague;

4) His own belief that the original mission was sharia to be apart from justice and administration (al-tanfid);

5)He had doubts regarding the consensus of the Companions (Suhaba) concerning the necessity of establishing a Caliphate.

6) He doubted the judicial office of the sharia

7) He asserts that the government of the caliphs was not religious.

In Al-Raziq’s words according to the Guardian article, his basic thesis of the book was that the Caliphate had no basis in the sharia; that the Prophet never founded a government; that those who did after his death believed they were creating a secular worldly govt; that God has left Muslims free to establish whatever system of government they judged best.

James Broucek, in his 2012 dissertation at the Iowa State University, The Controversy of Shahykh Ali Abd Al-Raziq, defended al-Raziq’s book as basically a refutation of Islamism. Broucek highlighted how Al-Raziq reiterates that Muslims cannot use their religion to justify public policies or particular systems of government. Broucek also criticizes the book for not giving the Muslims a vision or an alternate to sharia governance. There is no argument in the book about the benefits of a secular state or why secular regimes better enable Muslims to live in submission to God.

In all fairness, there are Muslim scholars who defend Al-Raziq’s book, and protest his ouster from Al-Azhar by the ulema in 1925. Majd Fakhry, Souad T. Ali, Abdullah Ahmed An-Naim go far enough to term his efforts as departing from tradition, which was the basic accusation of the ulema in 1925. A silly accusation since tradition is invented as well as inherited. The Prophet’s life showed this with the tradition of Abraham living in submission to God rather than as a Jew or Christian.

Non-Western scholars such as Noah Feldman, Fred Donner, James Broucek, and Eric Hobsbawm with Terence Rangers also give the reasons why Al-Raziq’s book was necessary in the aftermath of Mustafa Kemal’s abolishing of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. All of them term Raziq’s book as a revisionism of the Prophet’s mission, and that even the First Caliph never believed his government was part of the revealed sharia.

That is exactly what Raziq builds on in his book. The main points are firstly, Islam did not determine a specific regime nor did it impose on the Muslims a particular system according to the requirements of which they must be governed; rather it has allowed us absolute freedom to organise the state in accordance with the intellectual, social and economic conditions in which we are found, taking into consideration our social development and the requirements of the times.

Raziq built his argument on these specifics

– that the two main sources of Islamic law (sharia), the Quran and the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet), neither demand nor reject the rule of a Caliph or imam.

– that there is no real ijma (consensus) of the necessity of the Caliphate.

– that experience shows that the Caliphate was a series of disasters for the Muslim community, and there is no single rational argument for the re-establishment of the Caliphate.

Now understandably, there was much opposition from the ulema at Al-Azhar, Cairo and subsequently elsewhere, considering the millennium situation of things and how much ISIS/Daesh type regimes want to establish a Caliphate. It is also reflective of the resistance that any reform or even the mere suggestion of a debate on this concept will generate if it were to be reintroduced. But in Raziq’s own words, “If the Muslims don’t want to be annihilated, they need to change with the times and possibly revise their definitions, understanding, and interpretation of the Caliphate and its origins.”

We owe it to the inheritors of our faith, who given a choice in a secular setting want to continue with their faith and derive spiritual satisfaction from it. We owe it to them to ask for an alternate to the tribal politics that have so plagued our history and continue to in our present.

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