Caliph Wanted

Why An old Islamic institution resonates with many Muslims today


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.

Practically the only area where caliphal oversight would not intrude, it turns out, is in the realm of worship. Hizb ut-Tahrir believes that such freedom would make it possible for Shiites and other minority Muslim sects to live under an office that was, for most of its history, an almost exclusively Sunni institution.

Promoting "ideological struggle" through its many websites and large pro-caliphate conferences (one in Indonesia last summer drew around 100,000 attendees), Hizb ut-Tahrir boasts more than 1 million followers in 40 countries. In November, the group raised its previously low profile in the West Bank by organizing Palestinian protests against the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, which a spokesman denounced as "a conspiracy against the Islamic nation."

The group has been banned in many countries and came under investigation in Britain after London's July 7, 2005, bombings. Zeyno Baran, a program director at the Hudson Institute, sees the organization as an ideological factory and "de facto conveyor belt for terrorists." But many other analysts see it simply as a refuge for disappointed utopians in search of alternatives to capitalism and liberal democracy.

Historically, in fact, the caliphate model poses huge problems, including the crucial schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that is now playing out so dramatically in Iraq. That schism began with a dispute among the early Muslims over who qualified as a legitimate successor to the Prophet. Those who insisted that only a relative of Muhammad could do so claimed that Ali, the fourth caliph, and his kin were the only legitimate office holders. But the party of Ali (Shiite) lost out to the majority Sunnis, who held that the consensus of the community should determine the selection of the caliph.

Questions about who the caliph should be and what he should do have sparked other controversies, both theoretical and real. The problem begins, Voll says, with the Koran: It never discusses a caliphal office but refers only to Adam as "God's caliph"—a usage that some have taken in an almost environmentalist way to mean God's appointed steward of the Earth.

Spiritual authority. Another contentious question is the amount of spiritual and political authority caliphs actually had. Some historians claim that the first four caliphs exercised even greater religious authority than most standard pro-Sunni accounts suggest, making the office more closely resemble that of the imam in Shiite Islam. At least up to the ninth century, caliphs weighed in on interpretive matters.

But the office started to become more exclusively political in the 10th century. And even the century before, a social class consisting of learned scholars, the ulema, assumed the dominant role of interpreting the sharia. "The job of the caliph was now not to interpret the law," Voll says, "but to enforce what the ulema thought was correct." Even the political authority of the later caliphs grew shaky, particularly when there were simultaneously competing caliphates in different parts of the larger Islamic empire.

Despite debates over such historical realities, is there any reason to think that a new kind of caliphate, something more closely resembling the Roman Catholic papacy, could restore needed authority and order to the currently chaotic situation in which almost any shopfront imam or mullah can issue rulings on life-or-death issues, including the legitimate uses of jihad? Most scholars think not. "I cannot see a caliphate that would be embraced by all Muslims," says Baran. "Hizb ut-Tahrir says it doesn't care where the caliph comes from, but the Brotherhood would say that it has to be a Sunni."