Skip to main content
Map Of The Umayyad Caliphate Empire In 750 And The Islamic Empire In 1215. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In Search of the Vanished Caliphate

Alexander Orwin

The renewed prominence of the Caliphate in Islamic politics is a good reason to revisit historical debates about it. Ibn Khaldun perceived the weakness of the medieval Caliphate but opposed its abolition, on the grounds that it would weaken the religious legitimacy of governments. Muhammad Iqbal admired and cited Ibn Khaldun but favors Ataturk’s recent abolition of the Caliphate, in the hope that it signaled the end of imperialism and the beginning of the gradual formation of a Muslim League of Nations. Until that league is formed, Iqbal rightly anticipated considerable upheaval, but he saw this upheaval as a necessary part of Muslim adjustment to the modern world. In its midst we have witnessed questions about the legitimacy of Muslim governments and renewed calls for the return of the Caliphate by groups such as Islamic State and Hizb al-Tahrir, validating to a large degree the worries of Ibn Khaldun.

From Ibn Khaldun to Hizb al-Tahrir

The Caliphate has long been viewed by Muslims as the legitimate representative of God and Islam on earth, heir to a chain of uninterrupted succession reaching back to the prophet Muhammad. Terse Qur’anic verses such as 2.30, 10.14, 10.73, and 38.26 already contain the general meaning of the term, without explaining its specific implications. By means of a long and murky historical process that we cannot begin to explore here, the requirements of divinely ordained rule and succession expressed in these verses came to be embodied in a concrete institution. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates ruled the entire Muslim world. Long after these mighty empires went the way of all powers on earth, the sacred aura surrounding the Caliphate refused to dissipate. Deprived of all real political power by the 10th century, the Caliphate managed to subsist more or less continuously for another millennium, outliving countless empires and dynasties. It succumbed to the powers-that-be only in 1924, when Ataturk sought to usher in a new republican age by putting the old imperial Caliphate to rest. Its last figurehead, Abdulmecid II, was bundled ignominiously onto a train bound for Europe.

Nearly a century later, it is safe to say that the Caliphate is not yet dead. Not only has it been resurrected, for a short time at least, by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but a broad spectrum of Islamist movements supports, with varying degrees of urgency, its restoration. The resilience of the idea of the Caliphate in modern times prompts us to consider what major classical authors said about this institution, and its integral role in Islam. The leading historian Ibn Khaldun (1338-1406) remains particularly interesting on this point. He was well aware of the centuries-old impotence of the Caliphate, but nonetheless saw only danger in abolishing it. Ibn Khaldun’s influence lasted into modern times, so that even those writers who justified the abolition of the Caliphate in the twentieth century cited his views. After discussing one of the most significant of these writers, Muhammad Iqbal, and compared his view of the Caliphate to Ibn Khaldun’s, we will then return to the modern history of Caliphal revivalism, in light of what we learn from Ibn Khaldun and Iqbal.

Reconciling Theory and History: Ibn Khaldun’s Symbolic Caliphate

Ibn Khaldun’s unique approach to the Caliphate stems from his stature as both a scholar of Islam and a historian. In the former capacity, he understands the great power that the Caliphate is supposed to wield over the Muslim community. Its sweeping authority is reflected in Ibn Khaldun’s initial definition: the Caliphate succeeds the prophets in enforcing the dictates of shari‘a, and “forces everyone to act as required by legal (shar‘i) reflection with regard to their well-being in the next world and in this one.”1 A Caliphate exercising such overwhelming material and spiritual power might possibly have existed in the time of the Umayyads and Abbasids, but certainly not in Ibn Khaldun’s day, when kings generally did what they pleased without consulting the Abbasid Caliph, who had been reduced to a mere puppet of the Mamluk dynasty in Cairo. As a historian, Ibn Khaldun does not hesitate to acknowledge the actual fate of the Caliphate: “its significance has vanished, and only its name remains,” while every single one of “its honors and offices have been absorbed into royal and political authority in all the dynasties of this era.”2 Ibn Khaldun bears witness to the chasm that separated the historical Caliphate, as it was in the 14th century, from the Muslim Caliphate as it ought to be.

Ibn Khaldun might have concluded that the gap between traditional expectations and reality could be closed only by restoring the Caliphate to its former glory. Yet he dismissed any such project as dangerously impractical. The original, unified Caliphate was a one-time historical phenomenon, built around the uniquely powerful group feeling (‘asabiyya) of Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe and the new religion they propagated, which was for a brief moment strong enough to encompass the entire Islamic world. Following the gradual erosion of Qurayshi power and the dynasties built by it, the Islamic world has become permanently divided into multiple group feelings and therefore multiple dynasties, few of which are inclined to subject themselves to a single Caliph in any given place.3 In the aftermath of the decline of the Quraysh, the hope for the reunification of Islam through the appearance of a member of the Prophet’s family or tribe has gradually passed from the historic into the Messianic realm, as reflected in numerous ḥadith. Ibn Khaldun fears that such eschatological longings could have a disruptive effect on actual history, so he does his best to cast doubt on these ḥadith, pointing to both their unreliable chains of transmission and political implausibility.4

Alternatively, Ibn Khaldun could have dismissed the Caliphate as a dinosaur that ought to be mercifully laid to rest. If Qurayshi power has vanished, should not the institution dependent on it disappear as well? Such an idea had already been proposed by certain rebellious Kharijite groups and rationalist Mutazilite theologians. Ibn Khaldun responds that these critics are decisively refuted not by reason, or even by divine law, but by Muslim consensus (ijma‘).5 Contemporary scholar and Hizb al-Tahrir sympathizer Reza Pankhurst echoes Ibn Khaldun’s view, marshalling an impressive list of medieval authorities who defended the necessity of the Caliphate.6 The institution built by Qurayshi power had become more firmly rooted in Muslim consciousness than that power itself, and therefore outlived its creator. Abolishing the Caliphate would shock Muslim opinion so severely that it might provoke more disputes than it would resolve. Still, one could ask how unconditional Ibn Khaldun’s support of the Caliphate really is, since Muslim consensus, unlike reason or divine law, might change over time. However, Ibn Khaldun suggests that this consensus is grounded on a fundamental and unique feature of Islam, setting it apart from all other religions, namely, its bringing together of religious and political authority, and therefore of royal authority and Caliphate, for the sake of the broadest possible propagation of the religion.7 Ibn Khaldun justifies this combination with a political argument of his own. Since even the best royal authority contains elements that are tyrannical and unjust, every successful civilization thus far has both sustained and restrained its rulers with widely accepted political rules. These rules may have been secular in the case of ancient Persia, but they have become religious after the rise of Islam and the Caliphate.8 In the Muslim era, political authority is therefore strengthened when linked to religion.9 The severing of the Caliphate from its worldly alliance with Muslim rulers entails two main risks: it could undermine these rulers’ religious legitimacy among the people, and remove religious inhibitions against their own temptations toward tyrannical behavior.

By grounding the Caliphate in Muslim consensus, Ibn Khaldun does not permit its abolition. But he surely permits changes in how the Caliphate is understood, as consensus shifts according to novel circumstances. Ibn Khaldun gives two related examples. Originally, the position of Caliph was reserved for the members of the Quraysh. This stipulation made sense when the Quraysh were in fact the only group that had the power to govern the Muslim community, but became obsolete as their power evaporated. In Ibn Khaldun’s time, it needs to be reinterpreted as meaning that whichever group is most capable of ruling ought to lay claim to the Caliphate: the Quraysh held that capability in the distant past, but other groups have assumed it today.11 Second, the insistence on the unity of the Caliphate made sense when the a single Caliph was the undisputed ruler of the entire Muslim world, but not after that world had been divided up among multiple, competing dynasties. When the mid-tenth century ruler Abd al-Rahman III of Spain declared his own Caliphate in response to the growing weakness of the Abbasid original in Baghdad, the opinion of local religious elites quickly began to acknowledge the legitimacy of multiple Caliphates, as long as each asserted its authority only in its respective region. This novel opinion may have been questionable from a strictly religious point of view, according to which there could be only one legitimate successor to Muhammad, and has therefore continued to be opposed by a large number of scholars. Yet it is salutary from a political point of view, allowing every local dynasty to derive its legitimacy from its own Caliphate or that of whichever of its neighbors it chooses to swear allegiance. Ibn Khaldun might have hoped that the idea of a multiplicity of Caliphates, all devising some kind link to the prophet Muhammad, would gradually gain greater acceptance over time.

Seeking neither to extinguish nor restore the Caliphate, Ibn Khaldun takes upon himself the challenge of reconciling the Muslim community to its feeble remnant, despite lingering memory of what the institution used to or ought to be. He begins to do this by immediately modifying his initial definition: “in reality, the Caliphate is a substitute for the lawgiver, with regard to the guardianship of religion and the politics of this world.” Proving that this change is no mere accident, Ibn Khaldun repeats the new definition almost verbatim at the beginning of two other chapters, each time speaking of its “reality” (haqiqa).12 According to the first definition, cited at the beginning of this section, the Caliphate ought to influence by force the destiny of all Muslims in this world and the next, while according to the second, more ‘realistic’ definition, it may not even dispose of any force at all, and has the more modest goal of preserving the religion of Islam after the death of its lawgiver in the face of the vicissitudes of this-worldly politics. The first definition would make it hard for Muslims to reconcile themselves to the Caliphate’s largely symbolic authority; the second would make it relatively easy for them to do so, provided that its nominal prestige as the heir to the prophet Muhammad serves a useful role in protecting the integrity of their religion and the legitimacy of their governments.

Ibn Khaldun bolsters his theoretical arguments against the abolition of the Caliphate through a pertinent historical example. The Almohad Mahdi appears to have been one of the few medieval Muslim rulers who dared to disavow the Caliphate by publicly proclaiming the well-known truth of its longstanding incompetence and weakness. Seeking a new source of religious legitimacy, he found it in a novel mixture of Ash‘arite theology about the unity of God with Shi‘a teachings about the infallibility of rulers and imams, through which he elevated himself above the impotent descendants of the Caliphs in both Spain and Baghdad. The Mahdi replaced the traditional Caliphate with what we may call a hybrid religious ideology designed to legitimize his own rule.13 Ibn Khaldun refrains from criticizing the Mahdi directly, but indicates doubts about his reforms in three ways. First, he recounts that they were not preserved by his successors, who reverted to claiming the Caliphal title of Commander of Faithful.14 Second, he displays his own preference for the Mahdi’s Almoravid predecessor Ibn Tashfin, “a good and conservative man,” who chose symbolic deference to the remnant of the Abbasid Caliphate over openly flouting its authority. He went so far as to send a distinguished emissary to Baghdad with the goal of obtaining official permission to use the Caliphate’s flags, colors, and titles.15 Third, he describes elsewhere how the Mahdi’s religiously-inspired revolt not only offended respectable Muslim opinion, but led to a gruesome jihad that uprooted the powerful Almoravid dynasty at the price of innumerable deaths.16 It seems likely that the ravages of this war hurt Muslim Spain and abetted its reconquest by the Christians, which gained momentum in the waning days of the Almohads. A dynasty that began as fiercely Muslim was eventually reduced to handing over territory to Christians in exchange for their support.17 The strong implication of Ibn Khaldun’s narrative is that the violent religious and political disputes likely to fill the vacuum occasioned by the rejection of the Caliphate will only weaken Muslim societies and their rulers.

We conclude that Ibn Khaldun opposed not only the abolition of the Caliphate, but also its open disregard by rulers. He understood that inexorable historical processes had caused the original Caliphate’s decline, and rendered hopes for its reconstruction implausible at best. Yet the destruction of what remained of this hallowed institution would not solve the problems caused by the disintegration of the Muslim community into several competing dynasties. On the contrary, it would only exacerbate these troubles, by removing the dynasties’ traditional source of religious legitimacy without establishing any widely acceptable alternative. A better policy for rulers would be to follow the example of Ibn Tashfin in seeking the support of one of the existing Caliphates. Given the effectual weakness of the institution, this could be done without the slightest risk. It would lend the Caliphate no hard power but some symbolic authority, and considerable flexibility to adapt to the rise of new dynasties by offering or in some cases withholding its support. The new Caliphate would preserve the legitimacy of the old, but barely a semblance of its unity and grandeur.

Towards a Muslim League of Nations: Iqbal’s Critique of the Caliphate

Over half a millennium passed after Ibn Khaldun’s death before an unusually audacious Muslim ruler finally decided to get rid of the Caliphate. Yet the great historian himself had not been forgotten. Two of the most impressive figures who sought to justify Ataturk’s decision, Ali Abd al-Raziq and Muhammad Iqbal, as well as one of its most prominent critics, Rashid Rida, all felt obliged to engage Ibn Khaldun’s arguments.18 For our purposes Iqbal, who composed most of his political writings in English, remains the most interesting and accessible of these three writers. By examining his critique of the Caliphate and attitude toward Ibn Khaldun, we hope to bring the issues created by the abolition of the Caliphate and its aftermath into focus.

Ibn Khaldun had warned against shattering the prevailing Muslim consensus surrounding the preservation of the Caliphate. While Ataturk’s elimination of it was not universally condemned, it did provoke widespread consternation across the Islamic world. In a country as distant as India, the Khilafat movement made a popular but futile effort to defend the Caliphate between 1919 and 1924. Their enthusiasm, however, did not rub off onto India’s most famous Muslim philosopher and poet, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who would attempt to bury the old imperial Caliphate once and for all. At the same time, Iqbal warmly praises Ibn Khaldun. How should we understand this praise, in light of the former’s aversion to the Caliphate and latter’s support of it?

Iqbal’s affinity for Ibn Khaldun stems partly from their shared critique of Arab imperialism within Islam. According to Iqbal, Ibn Khaldun understood that the fall of the Quraysh meant the end of Arabian imperialism and its replacement by a number of distinct but equal local authorities, non-Quraysh or even non-Arab, each of which could serve as the effective “Imam in the country where he happens to be powerful.”19 This is an accurate representation of Ibn Khaldun’s position. As we have seen, however, it did not entail the abolition of the Caliphate, but rather its multiplication, as local claimants seek to sanctify their political authority in their particular countries. There is evidence that the younger Iqbal agreed with this aspect of Ibn Khaldun’s attitude toward the Caliphate. Writing around 1910, he invokes Ibn Khaldun’s claim, “contrary to the old Arabian idea,” that many different Caliphates may coexist simultaneously, provided that none contest the authority of another in its respective country. Iqbal notes that multiple Caliphates have been a feature of Islam for a long time: in that particular era, he might have been alluding to the Turkish Caliphate and its lesser known Moroccan counterpart. He gives no sign in this early writing of seeking the abolition of the Caliphate, a goal he ascribes to nearly-defunct Kharijite groups.20

Writing around 1930, the later Iqbal has been emboldened by Ataturk’s resolute action. He comes to identify the Caliphate not merely with Arabian imperialism, but with the “Empire of Islam” as such.21 This empire could be Arab, as it was in the early centuries of Islam, or Turkish, as it became much later. The unfortunate thread that runs throughout Islamic history, from the Umayyad period onward, is imperialism, which hijacked the original, egalitarian spirit of Muhammad’s religion. While the rulers may have deceived the Muslim masses into regarding the Caliphate as a symbol of religious unity, it is better understood as a symbol legitimizing their despotic power. The elimination of the Caliphate represents not the “separation of church and state,” but rather the liberation of Islam from imperial despotism. Ataturk, knowingly or not, has helped to restore the authentic “spirit of Islam.”22 His decision to abolish of the Caliphate is necessary, but not sufficient, for this purpose. Unlike ‘Abd al-Raziq, who also dwelt on the despotism of the Caliphate but did not propose any alternative form of political order or religious unity,23 Iqbal believed that Muslim unity would eventually be restored by the realization that “Islam is neither Nationalism not Imperialism, but a League of Nations,” composed of a “living family of republics.” Establishing Muslim unity from the ground up, this league would no longer require any “merely symbolical overlordship” such as a Caliphate, whose location would inevitably favor a particular city or region and therefore serve only to divide its members. “Far from serving any useful purpose,” Iqbal concludes, “it has really stood in the way of a reunion of independent Muslim states…All these rupture [sic] in Islam for the sake of a mere symbol of a power which departed long ago.”24 In contrast to Ibn Khaldun, Iqbal despises a purely symbolic Caliphate as worse than useless, providing both a justification for despotism and then a pretext for various local quarrels.

Iqbal’s modern vision of an Islamic republican league breaks dramatically with Ibn Khaldun’s more conservative acceptance of the Caliphate and of monarchy. Iqbal quietly recognizes this fact, in crediting Ibn Khaldun with “the first dim vision of International Islam,” but certainly not the final vision.25 Ibn Khaldun perceived the decline of the Quraysh, and the consequent need for several equal centers of power, but not the corruption inherent in imperialism itself. Besides, Iqbal’s summary of the various opinions on the Caliphate listed by Ibn Khaldun leaves out any mention of consensus (ijma‘), the concept that most strongly justifies the Caliphate in the eyes of Ibn Khaldun. This omission can hardly be accidental, since Iqbal himself gives an impressive account of ijma’ later in the same chapter.26 It stands rather as a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that ijma‘ was still mainly on Ibn Khaldun’s side, with much of the Muslim world chafing at the sudden removal of their ancient, unifying figurehead. The most audacious critic of the Caliphate, Abd al-Raziq, had been censured and expelled by the Council of Grand Ulama’ in 1925.27 Iqbal replaces consensus with a concept that is nowhere to be found in Ibn Khaldan, namely expediency, invoked to justify the abolition of the Caliphate by sovereign command once it no longer serves the purpose of rulers.28 The Caliphate was abolished not, as Iqbal sometimes pretends to think, out of deference to any consensus reached by the Turkish people or assembly, but by the formidable hand of Ataturk himself, in the face of intense opposition.29 Although Ataturk’s notion of expediency went against the ijma‘ of the present, Iqbal hoped that it would be confirmed by the ijma‘ of the future. This new consensus would have to be represented not by the juridical schools of the past, which were largely subservient to monarchs, but by independent Muslim legislative assemblies, “the only form ijma‘ can possibly take in modern times.”30 Once the republican form of government and the new consensus surrounding it has come to prevail in Islam, controversy over the Caliphate will gradually subside.

Observing the fractious, disunited state of most Muslim countries today, not to mention the tumultuous relations between them, one may be tempted to dismiss Iqbal as extravagantly hopeful. In Iqbal’s defense, he does not regard the Muslim League of Nations as something that would sprout up overnight. It requires, first of all, that “every Muslim nation must sink into her deeper self, temporarily focus her vision on herself alone, until all are strong enough to form a living family of republics.”31 The implementation of Iqbal’s universalist project can commence only with the national self-examination and reform of every particular Muslim people. The abolition of the Caliphate and the end of any hope of empire might facilitate this soul-searching, but does Iqbal expect every Muslim country to engage in it? He repeatedly voices concern about the conservatism of most Muslim peoples and elites, especially in his native India, and the fact that thus far only Turkey has begun to shake off its hold.32 Centuries of historical accretions, beginning with the triumph of imperialism and despotism in the Umayyad period, are not likely to disappear from Islam overnight. Iqbal does expect them to be questioned everywhere at some point. The initial result, however, will not be a flourishing Muslim League of Nations, but something closer to chaos: “the upheaval which has come to Turkey… is likely, sooner or later, to come to other Muslim countries…almost wholly determined by forces within.”33 This upheaval may in the long run dissolve into the calm of a Muslim league, but even on this point Iqbal speaks less definitively than one might expect. He gives three possibilities for the character of this league, ranging from “a world-State (ideal)”, to “a league of Muslim states,” to “a number of independent States whose pacts and alliances are determined by purely economic or political considerations.”34 Finally, “history alone can answer” how non-Muslims, and especially the frustrated European ex-colonialists, will respond to the challenge posed by “politically united Islam.” Iqbal does not attempt predict the future any more precisely than this because he acknowledges its uncertainty: “Islam is passing through a period of transition. It is shifting from one form of political solidarity to some other form which the forces of history have yet to determine.”35 Iqbal foretells a new era for Islam, but he is not quite sure whether it will be an era of peace and republican freedom, or one of prolonged uncertainty and turmoil. He is nonetheless willing to foretell it, because the alternative appears to be the perpetuation of a sterile conservatism that has left Muslims completely incapable of revitalizing their own religion or coping with the modern world.

We conclude that Iqbal agreed with Ibn Khaldun that the immediate aftermath of the abolition of the Caliphate would bring massive experimentation and upheaval, as new modes of political and religious legitimacy strove to replace the old. The decades of chaos that followed the abolition of the Caliphate could have been predicted by Iqbal no less than by Ibn Khaldun. Yet it seems probable that each would have viewed this period in a different light: Ibn Khaldun as proof of the dangers of destroying the traditional religious sanction of earthly Muslim rulers, and Iqbal as an inevitable period of transition that may still hope for a salutary end, in the form of a new, more successful principle of unity, embodied in a harmonious Muslim League of Nations. Yet Iqbal remained strikingly tentative in defining the characteristics of his league, or offering any historical timeframe for its emergence. Efforts to form effective Muslim leagues have indeed been made, but have generally borne little fruit.36 According to Iqbal’s understanding, this failure seems inevitable, so long as individual Muslim states have yet to join the “living family of republics.” With so many Muslim countries continuing to languish under the thumb of dictators or disintegrate under the pressure of civil strife, it may be hard to find a single Muslim state that meets the criteria for this select group. In this atmosphere of prolonged disappointment and growing frustration, longing for the vanished Caliphate has intensified. Unfortunately, nothing has happened to facilitate its effective reconstruction. In the final section, let us briefly examine this earthly Muslim limbo and its consequences.

‘I Miss the Caliphate’

The most notorious resurrection of the Caliphate comes from none other than ISIS. I quote from their proclamation of the restored Caliphate:

There only remained one matter, a wajib kifa’i (collective obligation) that the ummah sins by abandoning. It is a forgotten obligation. The ummah has not tasted honor since they lost it. It is a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer. It is a hope that flutters in the heart of every mujahid muwahhid (monotheist). It is the khilafah (caliphate). It is the khilafah – the abandoned obligation of the era. Allah (the Exalted) said, {And mention when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a khalifah”} [Al-Baqarah: 30].


Imam al-Qurtubi said in his tafsir (Quranic exegesis), “This verse is a fundamental basis for the appointment of a leader and khalīfah (caliph) who is listened to and obeyed so that the ummah is united by him and his orders are carried out. There is no dispute over this matter between the ummah nor between the scholars, except for what has been reported from al-Asamm [the meaning of his name is “the deaf man”], for his deafness prevented him from hearing the Sharia.”37

It goes without saying that most Muslims have not recognized this peculiar Caliphate. Even Muslims with Islamist leanings, like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, tend to denounce it as illegitimate.38 There is no accepted juridical rule as to how the Caliphate, once abolished, should be restored, and a charismatic rogue whose rule rests on fanaticism and brutality will never manage to create a new pan-Islamic consensus. Nevertheless, this declaration makes two valid points. First, as we have learned from Ibn Khaldun, Muslims did enjoy something resembling a consensus concerning the necessity of the Caliphate in medieval times, and second, the fractured Muslim ummah has yet to recover its honor and prestige in the post-Caliphal period. Perhaps these considerations explain why many Muslims who do not support ISIS, including al-Qaradawi himself, dream of resurrecting the Caliphate, albeit in a more patient and deliberate manner. The depth and breadth of this longing is described in a useful anthology entitled Demystifying the Caliphate. Informative and accessible, it illustrates how the symbol of the Caliphate, and in many cases hope for its restoration, continues to motivate Muslims from Britain to Indonesia in a wide variety of ways. Before discussing some of these movements, let us briefly trace the futile history of efforts to reconstruct the Caliphate.

The early efforts, which began immediately after Ataturk had laid the Turkish Caliphate to rest, centered mainly around two claimants: King Hussein in the Hijaz, and King Fuad in Cairo. Both attempted to bolster their claim by organizing conferences, each of which put all of the myriad disputes among and within Muslim countries on full display. Iqbal was right to assert that the Caliphate had become a cause of strife rather than unity. Even if Muslims mostly agreed about the general need for Caliphate, the independent nations and rulers that gradually emerged from the ruins of colonialism and empire could never agree on which of them should host or represent it. Hussein would soon be deposed by Ibn Saud, a Wahhabi with no interest in the Caliphate, while Fuad would effectively abandon his claim.39 Having grasped that neither Turkey nor Arabia could offer a plausible home for the new Caliphate, Rashid Rida held out hope that the Arabs and Turks would agree to construct it in Mosul, in between the lands occupied by each nation, but this project never got off the ground.40 Humpty Dumpty had fallen, and could no longer be put together again by any power on earth. Yet it was not sufficient, in the Islamic context, to honor his memory only in nursery rhymes. Recollections of the Caliphs and the authority they represent remain too vivid to permit them the gentle fate of the English kings and prelates who once bestrode the earth, but now populate only tabloids and children’s tales. Thomas Arnold, who wrote landmark history of the Caliphate around the time of its apparent demise, rightly predicted that the Caliphate “is likely to survive as a hope in the hearts of Muslim peoples for many generations to come.”41

Many hoped, of course, that the failure of the new Muslim rulers to renew the Caliphate in the midst of their own bitter rivalries would “seem to indicate a more secular trend, rather than a revival of the Caliphate.”42 This remark by Sylvia Haim, in her epilogue to Arnold’s work, held truer in the 1960’s than it does today. It has become evident that the abandonment of the Caliphate by Muslim rulers has led not to its oblivion, but rather the passing of its mantle to subversive, non-governmental groups. Hizb al-Tahrir, founded by Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani in the 1950’s, was the first to aggressively call for a new Caliphate, conceiving its restoration as the primary goal of a new political party and ideology that could stand up to the twin Western evils of communism and capitalism.43 Himself a learned jurist, Nabhani decried the absence of the Caliphate as “one of the greatest sins, to be punished harshly by Allah,” and sought to prove his claim by numerous citations from Islamic sources.44 Unlike the consensus surrounding the Caliphate formed by the experience of later generations of Muslims, these sources do not appear to discuss the Caliphate in any clear, unambiguous manner. A generation earlier, ‘Abd al-Raziq probed the very same sources, concluding that the Caliphate is not really mentioned in them at all.45 Yet while al-Raziq did not found a political party and appears to have enjoyed only limited influence, al-Nabhani’s Hizb al-Tahrir has established a presence in dozens of Muslim countries.

This is not to say that the party has been a resounding success. Like so many enthusiastic theological-political movements, it seems to have greatly overestimated its initial prospects. Al-Nabhani consciously modeled his plan on the career of the prophet Muhammad, giving the impression that he expected to assume the reins of power in a least one country during his lifetime. The Caliphate would first arise in a particular country, and then gradually spread across the Muslim world. The party drafted a detailed constitution for this purpose.46 Al-Nabhani seems to have harbored some hope of taking over Jordan, possibly by military coup, in the 1970’s, but by his death in 1979 this scheme had come to naught. The failure to accomplish its original aim within the expected timeframe brought about a period of prolonged crisis for the party, which hemorrhaged membership during the 1980s.47 Like the idea of the Caliphate itself, however, it stubbornly refused to die. As hopes for renewing the Caliphate underwent a resurgence, the party began to interpret itself less as a political failure than as an ideological success.48

The party has still not succeeded in seizing control of any country, and may not even be close to doing so, but it has established some presence in many of them. Originating in the center of the Muslim world, it has penetrated its most far-flung regions. It has flourished both in resistance to dictators in Central Asia, and under the relative tolerance afforded by democracy in Britain and Indonesia. In every case, the party has cleverly adapted its strategy to local conditions, without compromising on its extravagant long-term goals. Let us briefly examine each case in turn.

In central Asia, persistent government corruption and endemic poverty breeds discontent, while decades of Soviet rule have loosened the hold of traditional strains of Islam, opening the way for the growth new-fangled religious ideologies. Ḥizb al-Taḥrir has tens of thousands of members and many more sympathizers.49 It has spread quickly in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, post-Soviet dictatorships each run by the same president since the early 1990’s, as well as in Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it has learned to distribute clandestine leaflets and even solicit recruits in prison, where its members frequently find themselves. Widespread hatred of the dictators, whom the party is wont to blame on Americans and Jews, have clearly helped its cause.50 In Kyrgyzstan the party has attempted, during more liberal periods, to operate in the open, although this has often provoked renewed repression by the authorities. Emmanuel Karagiannis concludes: “Hizb ut-Tahrir follows a different strategy in every central Asian country, adjusting to particular socio-political environments.”51

In Britain,52 Hizb al-Tahrir’s early activities in the 1990’s struck many commentators as overtly homophobic, anti-Hindu, and anti-Semitic. Once the party’s global leadership realized the backlash this had caused, they urged their cadres to lower their public profile. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and 7/7, followed by the inevitable British and American reaction to them, soon offered a new opportunity for the party to exploit Muslim grievances. They began to present themselves as the authentic voice for all Muslims, and their desired Caliphate as their future protector against the ravages of Western neo-colonialism in the Middle East and perceived hostility to Islam in Britain. Sensitive to allegations of extremism, the party has sought to deny or downplay the virulently hostile or conspiratorial statements about Western intentions that have periodically crossed the lips of its members. The party has adroitly taken advantage of the liberty afforded by British civil society by setting up a number of front groups, which often pose as educational charities. As Ahmed and Stuart conclude: “The party has not rescinded its neo-fundamentalist aims. But the image it presents to British Muslim communities and wider British society is one of a legitimate Islamic political party.”53

Its Indonesian, a newly democratic Muslim country that was never actually governed by any of the great medieval Caliphates, the party has become quite influential on university campuses. While American students agitate for social and racial justice, some of their Indonesian counterparts call for a Caliphate, as an alternative to the injustices of both socialism and capitalism.54 Poems and songs of the movement, one of them entitled ‘I Miss the Caliphate,’ are apparently posted on YouTube.55 These student groups are fond of emphasizing their peaceful nature: “With our soul, we declare to all that our struggle is verbal and intellectual, and not violent.”56 Taking advantage of the democratic right to peaceful protests, the group that once plotted military coups in Jordan now claims in certain countries to be strictly committed to non-violence.

According to Taji-Farouki, the party’s proclivity to non-violence may derive from the view that military jihad can only be conducted under the rule of a Caliph.57 Since it remains extremely unclear how that rule could be acquired peacefully, even in democratic societies, many commentators distrust the party’s official pretension against armed struggle.58 Former British member Majid Nawaz, who makes use of his inside knowledge of the movement to present a brilliant critique of it, is skeptical of this pledge to non-violence. Nawaz maintains that the real goal of the movement, recognized internally, is still to establish a Caliphate by coup in a particular country, and then to wage war against those Islamic countries that refuse to join the new Caliphate voluntarily. To this end, it urges its members in the armed forces of various Muslim countries to prepare for a coup, while preaching peaceful action to its civilian members. At the same time, Nawaz argues that the party’s immediate effect, especially in democracies like Britain and Denmark, is to encourage Muslims to pass their time in idle talk and dreams of the Caliphate, rather than profitably participate in the local political system.59

Hizb al-Tahrir does not currently constitute an imminent threat to Islam or Western civilization, but it should not be dismissed as an isolated phenomenon. Among fundamentalist Muslim groups in general, calls for restoring the Caliphate have grown shriller over time. The influential Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, officially calls for a Caliphate, but has never taken any real steps in that direction. The Brotherhood tends to believe that in the absence of genuine Muslim unity on the ground, the time for choosing a Caliph is not yet ripe. It has focused on mobilizing and uniting Muslims within the confines of particular countries and political systems rather than establishing a Caliphate.60 Another famous Islamist of the mid-twentieth century, al-Mawdudi of India, interpreted the Caliphate metaphorically as a form of government reflecting God’s will, rather than any concrete institution.61 Osama bin Laden demanded the restoration of the Caliphate with somewhat more urgency, but he, too, refused to offer any practical details, holding that its return depended on “the permission of God.”62 He spoke elsewhere of a council of Muslims that ought to meet in an undisclosed location, far away from the oppressive, illegitimate regimes of his time, to elect an imam who would lead Muslims in jihad, but the details of this proposal, and its relationship to the traditional Caliphate, remain murky.63 Finally, ISIS emerged as the first jihadi group to take the matter of resurrecting the Caliphate into its own violent hands, relying neither on human agreement nor manifest divine blessing. Such developments could hardly occur in a vacuum of public disinterest: one poll taken in 2007 shows almost two-thirds of Muslim favoring, in principle at least, the restoration of the Caliphate.64

Nawaz expresses the wish that fanatical Muslim groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir will fizzle, just as communism did in the past century. In laying bare the extremely tenuous link between the party’s inflexible, tyrannical view of the Caliphate and the more adaptable concepts prevalent in classical Muslim tradition, Nawaz is certainly contributing to that desirable end. Yet we may suspect that yearning for the Caliphate has deeper roots in Muslim societies than communism ever had in Russia or China. Communism was a Western import, with little historical basis in Russian or Chinese culture, which collapsed once it had failed to deliver the promised economic and social benefits. The existence of the Caliphate, in contrast, had been part of the Muslim theological and political consensus for over a thousand years. Even the great rationalist historian Ibn Khaldun refused to challenge this consensus, while the modernist poet Iqbal believed that it could be broken only if eventually superseded by a new consensus that better reflected the original, egalitarian spirit of Islam.

As the centennial of the supposed coup-de-grâce against the Caliphate approaches, the questions surrounding its future have never appeared farther from resolution. Ibn Khaldun attempted to reconcile the Muslim community to the largely symbolic Caliphate of his time, but since that effort presupposed the continued existence of the latter, it is hard to see how it could be replicated today. The efforts of Iqbal and Abd al-Raziq to persuade that same community to regard the Caliphate as a pernicious outgrowth of imperialism, rather than an integral part of their religion, have failed to take root. Iqbal’s newer, firmer consensus based on republican government and an international Muslim league also appears as elusive as ever. Of course, so does the effective restoration of the Caliphate, at least in a way that would be accepted by a large majority of Muslims. In the course of the turmoil of the past century, any sort of meaningful Muslim consensus surrounding the Caliphate seems to have been irrevocably shattered. This contributes to a troubling absence of political and religious legitimacy, reflected in the frequent dismissal by Islamist groups of all or most existing Muslim regimes as jahiliyya, kufr, or taghut. In order to fill this vacuum, various invented ideologies have flourished. Combining reinterpretations of classical Islam with notions taken from modern politics and totalitarianism, they could be viewed as contemporary versions of the Almohad alloy of Ash‘arite theology and Shi‘ite politics that briefly replaced the Caliphate in medieval Spain, to the chagrin of Ibn Khaldun. The new Islamist ideologies also resemble their medieval predecessor in their capacity to overturn governments and shed indiscriminate blood. Increasingly, they center around the resurrection of the defunct Caliphate.

It is possible that the destructive nature and eventual defeat of ISIS’ Caliphate could dampen future attempts at restoration, but we should not count on it. These movements seem too varied in their goals, methods, and location, to be deterred by the failure of one particular group in one particular region. Furthermore, the political, religious, and historical factors that instill longing for the Caliphate are bound to remain in force. I am not about to predict the successful restoration of the Caliphate, but merely that movements aspiring to that end are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

1 Ibn Khaldūn. The Muqaddimah. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, 3.23, vol. 1, p. 387. In Arabic. Muqaddima. Casablanca: al-Dār al-Bayḍāʼ: Khizānat Ibn Khaldūn, Bayt al-Funūn wa-al-ʻUlūm wa-al-Ādāb, 2005, Vol. 1, pp. 327-328
2 Ibid, 3.26, vol. 1, p. 427 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 355), 3.29, vol. 1, p. 465 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 381)
3 Ibid., 3.24, vol. 1, 399-401 (Ar. vol. 1, 335-37)
4 Ibid, 3.51, vol. 2, p. 156 ff. (Ar. vol. 2, 124 ff.)
5 Ibid, 3.24, vol. 1, pp. 389-92 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 330-31). Ibn Khaldūn begins by invoking both divine law and consensus, but in the refrain mentions only the latter.
6 Pankhurst, Reza. The Inevitable Caliphate. London: Hurst & Company, 2013, pp. 17-19
7 Ibn Khaldūn, 3.29, vol. 1, pp. 448-49 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 370), 3.31, vol. 1, p. 473 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 388).
8 Ibid 3.23, vol. 1, pp. 385-86 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 326-27)
9 Ibid, 3.29, vol. 1, p. 449 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 370)
10 Ibid, 3.24, vol. 1, pp. 396-402 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 334-37)
11 Ibid, 3.24, vol. 1, pp. 392-94 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 332), cf. 3.30, vol. 1, p. 468 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 384)
12 Ibid, 3.23, vol. 1, p. 388 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 328), 3.24, vol. 1, p. 388 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 329), 3.29, vol. 1, p. 448 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 370)
13 Ibid, 3.30, vol. 1, pp. 471-72 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 386)
14 Ibid, 3.30, vol. 1, p. 472 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 386-87)
15 Ibid, 3.30, vol. 1, pp. 471 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 386)
16 Ibid, Introduction, vol. 1, pp. 53-54 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 38-39)
17 Ibid, 3.9, vol. 1, 335 (Ar. vol. 1, p. 279), 3.32, vol. 2, p. 45 (Ar. vol. 2, p. 33)
18 al-Rāziq, ‘Ali ‘Abd. al-Islām wa-Usūl al-Ḥukm. Baghdād: Dār al-Mada lil-Thiqāfa wa-an-Nashr, 2004, p. 11, 14, 19, 28, 32, 34, 45, 46, 50, 73. Riḍā, Rashīd. 1988. al-Khilāfa. al-Zuhrā’ lil-Ā’lām al-‘Arabi. al-Qāhira, pp. 149-52. Iqbal, Muhammad. Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
19 Iqbal. Reconstruction, pp. 125-26. The term “Imām” is used by Iqbal as a synonym for Caliph.
20 Iqbal, Muhammad. Speeches, Writings, and Statements of Iqbal. Ed. Latif Ahmad Sherwani. New Delhi: Adam Publishers and Distributors, 2015, pp. 145-46, 152
21 Iqbal, Reconstruction, p. 125
22 Iqbal, Speeches, pp. 152-53, 234-35
23 al- Rāziq, pp. 27-28, 32-33, 63
24 Iqbal, Reconstruction, pp. 125-26
25 Ibid, p. 125
26 Ibid, p. 125, 137-140
27 Demystifying the Caliphate, eds. Madawi al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin. London: Hurst and Company, 2013, p. 6, p. 53
28 Iqbal, Reconstruction, 125. Iqbal claims that Ibn Khaldūn ascribed the notion of expediency to the Mutazilites, but this too is plainly inaccurate. Ibn Khaldūn criticized the Mutazilites, along with the Kharijites, for dogmatically denying the necessity of the Caliphate. See Ibn Khaldun, 3.24, vol. 1, pp. 390-91 (Ar. vol. 1, pp. 330-31). Iqbal, in contrast to Ibn Khaldun, distinguishes Mutazilite from Kharijite views (Iqbal, Reconstruction, p. 125).
29 See, for example, Demystifying the Caliphate, pp. 43-44. In the Reconstruction, Iqbal emphasizes the role of the Grand National Assembly in disbanding the Caliphate (p. 124), but in a later writing he acknowledges that the major responsibility lies with Ataturk himself (Iqbal, Speeches, p. 234).
30 Iqbal, Reconstruction, p. 138
31 Ibid, p. 126
32 Iqbal, Reconstruction, p. 117, 129, 131, 134. Iqbal, Speeches, pp. 116-17
33 Iqbal, Speeches, p. 232
34 Ibid, p. 238
35 Ibid, p. 239
36 For a long list of stillborn or ineffectual projects, see Landau, Jacob. The Politics of Pan-Islam. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, pp. 267 ff.
38 Qaradawi's views are discussed in a recent issue of this journal. See Barnhard, Gavi. “The Patient Preacher: Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Long Game.” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, March 2015.
39 For a summary, see Demystifying the Caliphate, 48-51. For a detailed account of these conferences, and methodical disentanglement of the disagreements that doomed them from the start, see Kramer, Martin. Islam Assembled: The Advent of the Muslim Congresses. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 80-122
40 Riḍā, pp.81-86. In a somewhat ironical historical twist, the Caliphate finally has been brought to Mosul–by ISIS.
41 Arnold, Thomas. The Caliphate. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1966, p. 182
42 Haim, Sylvia G. Concluding chapter to Arnold, p. 244
43 Taji-Farouki, Suha. A Fundamental Quest: Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr and the Search for the Islamic Caliphate. London: Grey Seal, 1996, pp. 37-45
44 Nabhānī, Taqī al-Dīn. al-Khilāfa. Qāhira: al-Zuhrā’ li-a’lām al-‘Arabi, 1966, pp. 3-12
45 See al-Rāziq, pp. 20-23. Nabhānī regularly glosses terms such as “oath of allegiance” (bay‘a) in the ḥadīth and “those in authority” (awwala al-amr) in the Qur’ān as referring to the Caliph, an inference that al-Rāziq denies (cf. Nabhānī, p. 4, p. 8 with al-Rāziq, p. 20, p. 22).
46 For an English translation, see Taji-Farouki, pp. 193-218
47 Taji-Farouki, pp. 90-105
48 Ibid, pp. 105-07
49 Karagiannis, Emmanuel. Political Islam in Central Asia: The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir. New York: Routledge, 2010, p. 58, cf. pp. 58-72. See also Naumkin, Vitaly V. Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, pp. 139-94.
50 Naumkin, p. 54
51 Karagiannis, p. 71
52 For the early history of the party in Britain, see Taji-Farouki, pp. 171-87. The party’s activities in Britain have been subject to an extensive analysis in this journal: Ahmed, Houriyya and Stuart, Hannah. “Profile: Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK.” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, vol. 10, pp. 143-72. available at http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1293/ahmed_stuart.pdf
53 Ahmed and Stuart, p. 157, cf. pp. 150-57
54 Demystifying the Caliphate, p. 192, p. 195
55 Ibid, p. 197
56 Ibid, p. 192
57 Taji-Farouki, pp. 109-10
58 For example, see Naumkin, pp. 153-58
59 Nawaz, Majid, and Masieh, Dawud. Explaining Hizb ut-Tahrir. 3 video discs. London: Quillam Foundation, 2008. Nawaz’s fellow prisoner in Egypt, Reza Pankhurst, remained a member of Ḩizb il-Taḥrīr upon his return to Britain, and has now published a book on the modern struggle for the Caliphate, cited in n. 6 above. It strikes me as an interesting mixture of genuine scholarship, mild apologetics for Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr, and virulent rants against American and British foreign policy, which for reasons explained earlier have become characteristic of the party in Britain.
60 Demystifying the Caliphate, pp. 127-28, 137-38
61 Ibid, pp. 91-92
62 Bin Laden, Osama. 2005. Messages to the World. Ed. Bruce Lawrence. Trans. James Howarth. Verso: New York, p. 121
63 Ibid, pp. 229-30
64 Pankhurst, p. 2

Related Articles

Deconstructing Daesh

Ahmed Abbadi

A transcript of Dr. Ahmed Abbadi's remarks given at Hudson Institute's event "Morocco's Fight with Violent Extremism"...

Continue Reading

Pakistan's Descent into Religious Intolerance

Farahnaz Ispahani

Today, Pakistan's religious minorities face discrimination and persecution....

Continue Reading

How al-Qaeda Survived the Islamic State Challenge

Daveed Gartenstein-​Ross & Nathaniel Barr

The evolution of al-Qaeda’s model for growth over the past decade and how the group has repeatedly overcome challenges through planning and patience...

Continue Reading