Osama bin Laden and his fellow jihadists repeatedly claim that the ultimate goal of their violent struggle is to restore the Islamic caliphate, the system of political-religious leadership that originated with the first successor to the prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century. But they are not alone in favoring its return. A number of nonviolent Islamic organizations, such as the pan-Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), champion the same cause. And more than two thirds of people recently polled in four Muslim nations say they support the idea of unifying all Muslim countries in "a single Islamic state or caliphate."
The idea of the caliphate is a poorly understood, vaguely threatening concept in the West. But it is deeply rooted in cultural memory throughout the Muslim world, where the caliphate existed in various forms for almost 1,300 years. By the eighth century, about 100 years after Muhammad's death, the authority of the caliphs extended over parts of three continents, from what is now Pakistan across the Mideast and North Africa to what is now Spain and Portugal."Ninety-four percent of Muslim history took place under the caliphate," says Jamal Harwood, a former chairman of Hizb ut-Tahrir's London-based executive committee, giving perhaps the simplest reason his party works to restore the institution that Kemal Ataturk—the founder of modern, secular Turkey—abolished in 1924.
But what does the caliphate really mean to those who claim to favor its return—or, for that matter, to those who oppose it, whether Muslim or not? Does such a proposed restoration involve a practical political agenda, with usable historical precedents? Or is it merely convenient political rhetoric, a slogan and rallying cry for those seeking power or at least change?
While most scholars and analysts conclude that it is mainly the latter, they also say that the "caliphate debate" goes to the heart of the current crisis of authority and leadership in the Islamic world. That crisis is complicated by a view held by many Muslims, and particularly by Islamists, that political and religious authorities are ultimately inseparable.
"The notion of reinstating the caliphate is the way that some Muslims struggle with the colonial and postcolonial situation," says Tamara Sonn, a professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary. "It's the reflection of people's dissatisfaction with politics in the postcolonial Muslim world."
That dissatisfaction traces back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when various Muslim intellectuals sought to reform Islam so that it (and particularly Islamic law, or sharia) could be used as a source of practical social and political guidance. This, they believed, would liberate Muslim societies from European-imposed laws and institutions. Hassan al Banna, the Egyptian schoolteacher and founder (in 1928) of the Muslim Brotherhood, coined the word Islamism to assert the political character of his faith, but he believed he was only trying to recapture the political and spiritual unity of the first four (so-called rightly guided) caliphs, who spread Islam in the years following Muhammad's death in 632.
Global politics. The Brotherhood and its offshoots nevertheless devoted little effort to restoring the caliphate. They focused on welfare projects and the institution of Islamic justice within the structure of the existing nation-states, while only more conservative figures like King Fouad I of Egypt made any effort to revive the caliphal office in the early years after its abolition.
By the 1990s, though, Islamists were changing, having lived through the failure of Pan-Arabism and disappointments with national leaders like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who refused to implement Islamic law and cracked down on the Brotherhood, which he saw as a threat to his power. "You begin to see groups that do not see the world according to the state-oriented model of politics," says Georgetown University historian John Voll. "You get postmodern Islamists, notably jihadists, who see politics in a global way...and with Ayman al-Zawahari [the Egyptian physician who became bin Laden's chief strategist], you get the idea of global jihad."
To name the transnational order they now sought to create, the jihadists resorted to the word caliphate as what Voll calls "a term of conceptual convenience."
Hizb ut-Tahrir officials would partly agree with that assessment. "Al Qaeda has never elaborated its meaning of caliphate," says Harwood, a Canadian-born convert to Islam. By contrast, ever since it was founded in 1953 by a Muslim scholar and jurist in Jerusalem, the Hizb ut-Tahrir party has been elaborating its own program (including a provisional constitution) for a modern caliphal state. That agenda includes a popularly elected caliph whose paramount executive function (subject to monitoring by the highest court) would be to guarantee the application of sharia to all areas of civic, economic, and national life. "We don't distinguish between political and religious," says Harwood.