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Caliphate, Ataturk and the Modern Era

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Strict segregation of men and women, the unequal relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims and the institution of slavery were part and parcel of the medieval tradition of the caliphate

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed *

I have argued … that no general political or constitutional theory exists in Islam. Equally, in the last sermon delivered by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a huge public gathering where thousands of his followers had assembled during the Hajj in 632 CE, he had nothing to say about temporal succession.

On the other hand, he expressly and categorically rejected the continuation of prophethood after him. Among other things he said the following: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white; [none have superiority over another] except by piety and good action.”

Then he continued: “O people, no prophet or apostle will come after me, and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O people, and understand words, which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Quran and my example, the Sunnah, and if you follow these you will never go astray.”

Under the circumstances then, the caliphate, as temporal succession to the Prophet (PBUH) should be considered a human innovation that took place within the cultural milieu of seventh century northern Arabia, known as the Hijaz, in which the rudiments of an urban settled lifestyle of formerly nomadic tribes relied on the leadership of a wise and respected patriarch. Equally, the rival concept of imamate too was fashioned by parallel traditions of those times especially those of god kings in southern Arabia. The idea that all Muslim men are equal and therefore entitled to lead the community originated in the deep recesses of the desert where everyone, clan leader and ordinary member, lived a frugal and austere life and, therefore, equality was taken for granted. The last sermon of the Prophet (PBUH) actually lent legitimacy to this most radical position on equality present in the variegated Arabian cultural heritage.

The Muslim jurisconsults who established the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali schools of jurisprudence among Sunnis and the Jafari school among Shias were engaged in intellectual projects that sought to translate Quranic injunctions into law with a view to establishing justice. Some of their prescriptions were far advanced than what medieval Christian societies practiced. One fantastic example would be a ruling in the early eighth century by the ulema (clergy) at the Umayyad court in Damascus that the Hindus of India should also be treated as people of the book because they, too, ultimately believed in the same true God.

Consequently, Muhammad bin Qasim was instructed that, since the Hindus had agreed to pay jizya (tax), they were entitled freely to practice their faith and maintain their temples. Nevertheless, strict segregation of men and women, the unequal relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims and the institution of slavery were part and parcel of the medieval tradition of the caliphate, imamate and Islamic jurisprudence.

Such a heritage was impervious to the modern human rights assumption that men and women were free agents entitled to inalienable rights. Let me underscore that the position in the west and elsewhere in the world was the same till about the time when colonialism began to be called into question not only in the colonies but also by conscientious intellectuals in metropolitan countries. It is, therefore, always important that politics and laws are evaluated in comparable time frames.

Consequently, I would argue that the decision in 1923 of the Turkish Grand Assembly to abolish the caliphate was perfectly legitimate because it had become dysfunctional and reactionary, and was merely a creature in the hands of British imperialism. A material basis for resurrecting the caliphate did not exist any more as all nationalities had ceded from the empire and only the Turks and Kurds remained part of what became Turkey in 1923.

The Young Turks did have sections that believed in latching onto empire but they lost out to those committed to the republican type of modern state with sovereignty vested in the people. Ataturk was the leader of the latter type of Young Turks. Consequently, a state system that separated the spiritual from the mundane and profane made more sense than hanging on to past glory, real and imagined. Ataturk succinctly expressed this new vision when, on March 1, 1924, he addressed the Grand Assembly on the question of establishing a secular state. He remarked, “There is a need to separate Islam from its traditional place in politics and to elevate it in its appropriate place. This is necessary for both the nation’s worldly and spiritual happiness. We have to urgently and definitively relieve our sacred and holy beliefs and values from the dark and uncertain stage of political greed and of politics. This is the only way to elevate the Muslim religion.”

No denying this decision of Ataturk was viewed with dismay by some conservative Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. It can be discussed whether their main concern was the caliphate as an institution as such or the fear that colonial control of India would strengthen if the Middle East was also captured by the British. However, as pointed out earlier, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad understood that Ataturk’s standpoint was anti-imperialist and, therefore, he strongly supported him and not those supporting the deposed sultan. Even Allama Iqbal wrote in favour of Ataturk’s republicanism. Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru, rivals to each other, were united in their admiration for Ataturk. I shall review some of Ataturk’s reforms in follow-up articles and finally say something on the jihadists produced during the cold war, especially the Afghan jihad and in its aftermath.

* The writer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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