Interview with Prof. Bruna Soravia History of Islamic Countries – Luiss University – Rome

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Q:  Can you tell us about the Sunni Caliphate history and its appeal in the contemporary Islamic World ?

A: Almost a century ago, on March 3 1924, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey abolished the Ottoman Caliphate. The decision was by then unavoidable, after the abolition of the political Sultanate, on November 1922, followed by the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, on October 29 1923, and the proclamation of Ghazi Mustafa Kemal, the leader of the Turkish nationalist struggle, as its first President. While the symbolic meaning of the caliphal function scarcely resonated within the new secular state, its abolition had wide and unpredictable consequences in the Muslim Sunni world at large, where the mere presence of a Caliph leading a large part of the Umma was a sign of continuity with the tradition of the early Islam, and a guarantee of a legitimate direction, both religious and political. The disappearance of this symbol marked then the very end of the Islamic ancien régime and the entrance of the first Islamic nation states in the modern political world system.


As a matter of fact, the Islamic caliphate, the one beginning with the four Orthodox Caliphs following the Prophet Muhammad, between 632 and 661, came to its end in 1258, trampled under the hooves of the horses of the Mongol warriors who invaded Iraq and sacked Baghdad. The only survivor to the slaughtering of the entire Abbasid family was an otherwise obscure individual, whom the Egyptian Mameluks took to Cairo and proclaimed as their legitimate Caliph with the name of al-Mustansir II, under their tutelage to be sure. In 1517, the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, led by Selim I, interrupted the series of the Mameluk-backed puppet-caliphs. The Ottoman sultans seemed to be indifferent to the appeal of a Caliph, choosing instead to establish a strong relation with the traditional ulema, and especially with the Hanafite juridical school. This wise political strategy obtained them the legitimization of their political power (the Sultanate), against the full recognition and the protection of the Sunni ulema’s religious and juridical authority.

In fact, the Ottoman sultans couldn’t claim the caliphal succession under the terms laid down in the classical political theory by the V/XI century thinker al-Mawardi. According to Mawardi, the Muslim Caliph has not only to be male, of sound mind, brought up in the Islamic tradition but he must descend from the Prophet’s tribe (that is, to be Arab and Qurayshite). This last condition was of paramount importance in the Sunni tradition and even more so in the Shiite one, where the imamate, that is, the spiritual caliphate, has a direct biological link to the Prophet and His close family, as formed by His daughter Fatima, His cousin and Fatima’s husband ‘Ali and their sons.

However, it had lost weight by the end of the XII/XVIII century, when the Islamic societies and their Law, the shari’a, underwent the beginning of a radical transformation, under the violent pressure of the expanding European states. It was then that the Ottoman sultan rediscovered the importance of being the Caliph of the Muslims, both in the calls for resistance against the European powers (Russia between the end of XVIII century and the second half of the XIX century, and the Allied Powers during World War I) and in his function as Lawgiver (for instance, in the text of the 1878 Constitution). The highest Sunni authorities approved the reclaiming of the title, in spite of the weakness of its legal principle. Likewise, it won the favor of the Arab populations, who, under the attack of the European colonial powers, were willing to consider the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the legitimate Muslim ruler who would protect the Umma. Even the anti-colonial Indian national movement, uniting Muslims and Hindus, adopted the idea of the universal Caliphate as a solution to the problem of the coexistence of different religious communities in the future Indian independent state, to the point that Gandhi himself adhered to the Khilafat (Caliphate) Movement.

As stated in the beginning, the newly reclaimed Ottoman caliphal authority didn’t survive the First World War, which brought the empire to its end. What Mustafa Kemal abolished wasn’t but an empty shell, but the symbolic meaning of the universal caliphate continued to appeal to the political aspirations of the Islamic community, undergoing a peculiar transformation. Between 1924 and 1926, the former sharif of Mecca and Hashemite ruler of Hijaz, Husayn b. Ali, claimed the title of Caliph on the basis of his own descent from the Prophet’s close family, in the vain attempt to salvage what was left of his plan for an Arab kingdom, and to resist to the prevailing military power of his enemy, the emir ‘Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa’ud. In the same years, the Egyptian king, Fu’ad I, was sponsoring a series of religious conferences aiming at reviving the need for a Sunnite Caliphate, for which he would be the chosen candidate. Needless to say, Fu’ad himself, being the heir to a military dynasty of Albanian stock, didn’t have either the genealogical title to back his pretense or the necessary political consensus beyond Egypt. In fact, neither ruler received the ulema’s final backing and both claims were soon relinquished.

As a matter of fact, a new movement was coming to the fore in the same period, following the abovementioned events, and it would soon inherit the call for the political and religious guidance of the Umma. In 1928, at Isma’iliya on the Suez Canal, Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, whose program dictated the institution of a supranational Islamic state, based on the Koran and governed by a political élite of religious training. Al-Banna’s political vision aimed at substituting the universal Sunni caliphate, embodied in a real ruler, with the collective guidance of the community led by the Islamic parliament, the shura, charged with the duty of enacting the religious Law, the shari’a, as the state law.

Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for an Islamic state has been construed as the most likely heir to the Sunni Caliphate, as well as the most influential model for a modern political and religious guidance of the Umma. (Among the rare and marginal alternative claims in the Sunni world, one could mention the attempted seizing of Mecca, in 1979, by a rebel group of apocalyptic inspiration, led by a self-styled Mahdi; or the Taleban chief, the reclusive mullah Omar’s mock-bay’a (the caliphal investiture) as amir al-mu’minin in 1996). In the same frame of mind one could understand the reference to a “sixth Caliphate” (after the Orthodox, the Umayyad, the Abbasid, the Fatimid –this latter being in fact Ismaili- and the Ottoman ones) that echoed in the Islamist milieu after the Arab revolutions of 2011, alarming the Western media. In the sense, that is, of the call for a religiously inspired governance of the Islamic community, leading the Umma beyond the national borders of the contemporary Arab states.