Tuesday, March 21, 2006

On Khilafat

I wrote earlier about why the Galactic Republic is not a good model for budding state builders and reformers. Many of my brothers in the Muslim world however often talk about another model — the Khilafat, by which they mean not the Ottoman Empire but the Khilafat of the Rashedin, the Guided Ones. This is the first of three pieces addressed to those brothers. This one provides a brief history of Khilafat. The next one shows how the people clamouring for the Khilafat — that is, the Taliban and their ilk — are the ideological heirs of an icon of the secular Indian Republic. The final one argues that the Khilafat of the Rashedin is not much of a model to emulate.

Khilafat is usually taken to mean a state ruled by the Khalifa in accordance with the Islamic injunctions. Khalifa originally meant successor. Pre-Islamic Arabia had no concept of monarchy. Now, Muhammad was not only a Prophet, he was also the founder of a new state. It is interesting to ask whether succession would have passed to his son if he had one, but the fact is, he did not, and so there wasn’t any hereditary succession — the Quran specifically prohibits women to lead affairs of state, hence Ayesha or Fatima could not become head of the state that the Prophet founded.

Instead, the Prophet’s companions (Sahaba) chose Abu Bakr as the Khalifa-e-Rasul-Allah — successor to the Prophet of Allah. Abu Bakr did not have any divine pretence, and the Sahaba did not envisage him as a king. Abu Bakr ruled with the help of a consultative assembly (Shura) composed of the Sahaba.

Upon Abu Bakr’s death, Omar was chosen by the Shura. Omar could have titled himself Khalifa-e-Khalifa-e-Rasul-Allah — successor to the successor to the Prophet of Allah. Instead of choosing that absurd title, Omar designated himself Ameer-ul-Muminin — the Commander of the Faithful. Omar was much more charismatic than Abu Bakr. He did away with the Shura, and relied on his military campaigns — Omar was the founder of the Arab Empire, and builder of the Dome of the Rock — as the basis of his legitimacy.

There was a succession crisis upon Omar’s death. One group suggested that the office of the Commander be retained within the Prophet’s family, putting forward Ali as their nominee. Fearing that the Islamic State would turn into a dynastic kingship, others chose Usman. Usman was neither a charismatic military leader like Omar, nor an astute politician like Abu Bakr, and soon there were political upheavals that led to Usman’s death, then to Ali’s, and after the battle of Karbala, the rise of the Shia faith.

The orthodoxy that rejected Ali’s followers centred on the state build by Muwaiya — the governor of Syria. Muwaiya founded the Umayyad State which ruled from the late 7th century to the 8th century. While Muwaiya was succeeded by his son, the Umayyad state was not a hereditary one. Like Omar, Usman and Ali, the Umayyad rulers titled themselves Ameer-ul-Muminin.

The Umayyad State collapsed in 750 and was succeeded by the Abbasids. Abbasids derived their support from the Mawalis – people of Mesopotamia who accepted Islam as their religion and Arabic as their language. Mawalis were different from the Arabs of the desert to whom the Prophet belonged in the fact that unlike the desert Arabs, Mawalis had lived under dynastic monarchy for centuries.

Abbasid power was soon challenged when Abd-al-Rahman set up an independent emirate in Cordoba. To legitimise themselves as the sole sovereigns of the Muslim world, Abbasids assumed the title of Khalifa-e-Rasul-Allah. They claimed to be the Prophet’s successors in their own time. To distinguish themselves from the ‘Khalifas’ of the early days of Islam, they named Abu Bakr, Omar, Usman and Ali as the Rashedin — the Rightly Guided Khalifas.

The Abbasids also introduced the idea of dynastic monarchy in the Islamic world. Their court mannerisms were modelled after those of earlier near eastern despots. The Abbasids were monarchs, and just like monarchs elsewhere they were not bound to any consultative assemblies when they were strong, bowing to such bodies only in their times of weakness.

Before long there were a score of Muslim states large and small. Essentially the rulers of Baghdad, of whatever dynasty, controlling the Holy Cities, claimed to be the temporal successors of the Prophet, and thus rightful holder of the title of Khalifa. This was largely accepted by rulers of other Muslim states, who assumed titles of Sultan or Shah or Ameer. By the 9th century it became common practice that a Muslim ruler required recognition from the Khalifa to legitimise himself. However the Khalifa’s recognition did not mean that Baghdad exercised any sovereignty over the far-flung states. Most Muslim states, far or near and including the domain under direct sovereignty of Baghdad, were dynastic monarchies.

After being sacked by Genghis khan in the 1220s, Baghdad ceased to be the centre of the Muslim world. As a result, every Muslim potentate claimed to be the Khalifa. For example, Bahmanis of South India and Hussein Shahis of Bengal both minted coins with that tile. No one other than these rulers themselves took their pretension seriously.

Khalifa as far as at least the Sunni Muslims were concerned was purely a secular office, not a theocratic one. From the Abbasids onwards, Muslim kings when claiming to be the Khalifa meant that they were ruling as the Prophet would have done. Khalifa was never the Islamic equivalence of the Pope as far as the Muslims were concerned. That divine angle was added by the Christians. The Crusaders and their successors claimed that the Caliph was to the 'false prophet' what the Pope was to the Lord.

It was the Christian West that conferred on the Ottoman Sultan the title of Caliph of Islam because he held sovereignty over Jerusalem. Turkish Sultans happily accepted the title, but the contemporary Muslim rulers never acknowledged any superiority of the Turks. Akbar’s empire was grander than that of Suleiman’s, and it’s hard to imagine the Mughals would need a letter of authorisation from their Turkic brethren when it came to deciding who ruled over Desh.

The Ottoman Empire collapsed under its own weight after the Great War, and with it ended the ‘Caliphate’. Nowhere was the Caliph more bemoaned than in Desh. And its champion was someone usually bracketed with Gandhi, Nehru and Patel as a founder of the secular Indian Republic. But this is for the next piece.