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.
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."
Ebrahim Moosa, a Muslim legal scholar at Duke University, entertains an intriguing idea: a caliphal synod, or assembly of thinkers, with representatives of the laity as well as members of the ulema, collectively recognized as the successor to the teaching authority of the Prophet. Yet Moosa's hypothetical "caliphate redux" cannot withstand even his own pessimism about the real cause of the crisis of authority in the Muslim world: corrupt, authoritarian regimes. "I'm afraid that a caliphal body would be used by existing governments, he says, "and caliphal authority would just end up reinforcing tyranny in religious disguise."