Open main menu

The Caliphate: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

AT the time when the Caliphate agitation was at its height one of its spokesmen in England asserted that, unless there were a Caliph who was an independent sovereign, the daily prayers of all Sunni Moslems would be invalid. This person was a Shii lawyer, and therefore of doubtful authority on this matter ; and indeed the Sunni Lawbooks, which enumerate the conditions whereby prayer is rendered valid, do not seem to know of this condition. At the time when these lines are being written there is no longer a Caliph who is an independent sovereign ; for, though the^abolition of the Turkish Caliphate in March 1924 was immediately followed by the assumption of the office by the King of the Hejaz, who was then independent, this Caliph has since been driven from his realm, and, having abdicated his kingship, though not his Caliphate, can no longer give validity to Sunni orisons, if the condition mentioned be really required. The North African Caliph lost his independence in 1911 ; and it would appear that no other potentate of consequence holds the office. The conference summoned to meet in Cairo in March 1925 has been postponed for a year ; should it, on convening, succeed in making an appointment, and should that appointment obtain recognition among Sunni communities, the fact will be that for many months the Islamic world will have remained without an independent Caliph. This has not happened since the death of the Prophet ; many a dynasty which claimed the Caliphate has fallen ; but hitherto there has always been another ready to take over the torch.

The question of the Caliphate is rendered obscure by certain assumptions, which, unless they are scrutinized, are apt to mislead. The word khalifa mean "substitution," or " substitute." In pre-Islamic Arabic it is used for " viceroy " ; 'when the Prophet left his capital for raids, pilgrimage, or for some other purpose, he would appoint a " substitute " to discharge his duties during his absence. When he had departed on his last journey, a substitute was required. Such a substitute should, of course, have been a prophet ; but his followers made no claim to be the recipients of revelations, and no credence was given in official circles to those persons who took the opportunity to urge their claims to prophetic gifts. The substitute could* then discharge only the sort of duties which were executed by those who had acted as the Prophet's substitutes during his lifetime. They could administer ; but they could not legislate.

A man's natural substitute is his son ; the hereditary principle was even rpore widely recognized in the East than in the West, y/fead Mohammed left a son, his right to the succession would probably have been at least for the time unquestioned ; but his sons/died in infancy. He had, however, allied various influential persons to himself, either by giving them his daughters, or by himself marrying theirs ; and from the relations thus obtained tys first five followers were chosep. The, first two were/fathers-in-law ; the second two* sons-in-law ; the fiftfTa brother-in-law. The "substitute 11 was in each of these cases a membey of the Prophet's family ; the last of this series founded a dynasty. Although it is strictly correct to say that with this dynasty the hereditary principle became established in Islam, yet the fact should not be ignored that its founder's predecessors were all of them allied by marriage to the Prophet.

The reign of the first of these was very short ; the second, third, and fourth met with violent deaths ; the precedents for getting rid of an obnoxious Caliph by violent means were thus established at the commencement of Islamic history. The causes of the insurrection wherein the third Caliph fell are obscure ; if the clue of cui bono ? (who was the gainer ?) be followed, suspicion must rest on Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, whose adherents, the Shia, to this day look upon his three predecessors as impious usurpers. But that murder led to a war of succession, since the Prophet's favourite wife, whose father had been the first Caliph, had a grudge against Ali, and was determined that he should never sit safely on that throne ; she lent her influence to another cousin of the Prophet, who presently fell in battle, but whose son after some years set himself for a time on the Prophet's throne ; while a brother-in-law of the Prophet, who was related to the third Caliph, and claimed to be his natural avenger, found in the Koran a text which justified him in assuming the sovereignty, and, being a man of consummate ability, founded, as has been seen, an hereditary dynasty. Since the commencement of the first War of Succession, just a quarter of a century after the Prophet's death, there has been no unity in Islam.

The word khalifa, then, if taken literally as substitute for the Prophet, but limited to administrative functions, implies that the Moslem community remained somewhat as he left it : an Arab nation/ruled from Medina. But in fact, after his death it spread by rapid conquest over large portions of Asia, Africa, and Europe ; and the difficulty of communication, together with the sentiment of nationality, rendered these provinces far harder to retain than to conquer. Moreover, it was not forgotten that the founder of Islam had organized an army and raised himself to a throne in the character of religious reformer ; this furnished a precedent which able and ambitious men could follow. Numerous persons in this capacity took the title Substitute for the Prophet ; several, finding it easier to advocate the claims of someone else rather than their own, founded kingdoms and placed supposed heirs of the Prophet on the throne.

Now all these Caliphs were legitimate in the opinion of their adherents. Sometimes those adherents were few in number ; in several cases, as in those of the South Arabian and in some of the African dynasties, the terri- tory over which they ruled was neither extensive nor thickly peopled ; but the title which was won by the sword was defended by argument. One who is a member of the Moslem community may well hold that one dynasty was legitimate and another usurping ; but those who are outside the community have no criterion whereby they can thus distinguish them. In modern Europe, owing to the popularity of The Arabian Nights, the word Caliphate naturally suggests Baghdad ; but the Abbasid dynasty, with that city as capital for nearly the whole of its duration, was at no time in control of the whole Moslem community ; the family which they had displaced founded a dynasty in Spain and North Africa, and presently felt strong enough to resume the title of Caliph, and ere longTyet another Caliphate was established in Egypt. It is an accident that the fame of these Caliphates has found little echo in modern Europe. The rulers whom they produced were, in the opinion of large masses of men, " substitutes " for the Prophet.

When an Arab made himself master of an Arabic-speaking population, he usually took the title of Caliph ; for to decline it would imply that he considered himself dependent on, or at least inferior to, some potentate who held it. The simultaneous existence of three Caesars in Europe was due to similar considerations. But when a foreigner made himself master of an Arabic-speaking population, there was an incongruity in his assuming the title of Substitute for the Prophet ; hence another plan was followed. Some member of the legitimate family was left in possession of the title, whereas the real power was in the hands of the usurper. The date A.H. 324 (A.D. 936) is of capital importance in Islamic history, since in that year a Turkish officer, one Ibn Raiq, for the first time made such an arrangement with the Abbasid Caliph. For more than two centuries this system prevailed in Baghdad, and it was afterwards in a somewhat excessive form continued in Egypt.

In Baghdad, where the Abbasid family represented the founders of the city, the Caliph was revered by the population, and, though the foreign usurpers thought little of deposing and blinding a Caliph who gave trouble, they found it worth their while ordinarily to keep on good terms with the Caliph, and were eager to ally themselves by marriage with the imperial family. The Caliphs, therefore, under these usurpers enjoyed considerable influence, and exercised it in judicial and religious affairs ; in consequence, they were able ultimately to shake off the yoke and for a time assume independence. The case was different in Cairo, which had been founded by another branch of the Prophet's family, and where, in consequence, there was no tradition of loyalty to the Abbasid dynasty. When, therefore, the able though unscrupulous Sultan Baibars accepted the claim of a supposed representative of the Abbasids, and received investiture from him, on condition that all the functions of sovereignty were delegated to himself, the sacrifice which he made to the sentiment of legitimacy was small ; for the suzerain whom he appointed was entirely dependent on himself, and had no natural following in the country. If, as a foreigner, he could not be Caliph in an Arabic-speaking country, he by this expedient secured himself against dependence on any other Caliph. And these Egyptian Abbasids were allowed no interference with any branch of public affairs.

When a foreigner was sovereign of a foreign (non- Arab) Moslem population he had not to reckon with the sentiment that has been mentioned, and could, if he thought fit, assume the title Substitute for the Prophet. This happened both in Turkey and in India. Other titles were more familiar in these countries, just as in England, though the King has the title " Defender of the Faith," it is rarely used. Only the Ottoman Sultan or the Moghul Emperor was Caliph not because he had inherited the office from a relation of the Prophet, but because he was a Moslem king.

The question therefore, Who is the legitimate Caliph of the Moslems ? has about the same amount of meaning as the question, Who is the legitimate king of the Christians ? Neither of these communities constitutes a political or even a religious unit ; both are divided into nations and into sects. The nations will have their political and the sects their religious heads.

Yet there is one feature of the Islamic system which involves unity, and that is the Pilgrimage. Every Moslem ought at least once in his life to make a pilgrimage to Mecca ; and reverence to the Prophet requires as well a visit to Medina, where his grave is. This is not feasible unless these Sanctuaries and their approaches are in the hands of a Moslem power ; it must be the business of some such authority to secure to the Moslems the chance of discharging this obligation. Hence the power that is in possession of the Sanctuaries occupies a peculiar position in the Moslem world ; and sovereigns who were not in possession of these Sanctuaries have hesitated to take the title Caliph in consequence. Normally, it may be said, they have been in the possession of the most powerful Moslem government of the time ; and so, when the Caliphate of Egypt had come to an end, and a century later that of Baghdad also terminated owing to the Mongol conquest, the Sherif of Mecca of the time applied to the Moslem sovereign whom he supposed to be the best qualified from the point of view of power to take over the obligation. When the two Caliphates of importance were the/Uttoman and the Moghul, the latter proposed that eacn of them should have possession of a Sanctuary.

Although, then, the Ottoman Sultan could claim the title Caliph on the principle that has been explained, he first became de facto Caliph when he entered into possession of the Sanctuaries ; and with the loss of them his title lapsed, inasmuch as the Moslem community no longer depended on him for the possibility of discharging their duty of pilgrimage. At the time when the Ottoman president abolished the office, which he could do only for Turkey, there was good reason for thinking that this question of the pilgrimage would soon become a practical one ; and the danger which this astute man foresaw has materialized. The Sanctuary of Mecca has passed out of the possession of the King of the Hejaz into that of the Wahhabi ruler, whose attitude towards pilgrims cannot be certainly foreseen ; correspondents of the newspapers assure us that this ruler, so far from interfering with the pilgrims, will encourage their arrival, if only for financial reasons ; but the ruler's fanatical followers may have something to say in this matter, and they may well impose such conditions on pilgrims as may make them unwilling to visit the Sanctuary so long as the Wahhabi regime prevails Moreover, while these lines are being written, Jidda/ the port of Mecca, is still in the hands of the new King of the Hejaz, and serious difficulty would be occasioned to pilgrims by the port and the Sanctuary being occupied by mutually hostile Powers. Possibly the ex-King of the Hejaz still clings to his title Caliph because he hopes he may be able to restore the situation. Certainly any real Caliph would be compelled to clear it up. For the Sanctuary of Islam ought not to be in the hands of a sect which, in proportion to the others, is exceedingly small and notoriously fanatical in its attitude towards those others. When this difficulty is pointed out to Moslems, they reply that the duty of pilgrimage is in the Koran made conditional on ability ; if the pilgrimage became impossible owing to the occupation of the Sanctuary by a Power that did not permit it, then the obligation would lapse. This view is clearly sound ; but therewith the sole factor which maintains unity in Islam would also disappear, for it was by separating the religious from the political capital that the founder of Islam secured for his system the ability to outlast the constantly increasing divisions and the rise and fall of dynasties. The fall of a Caliphate could not affect this ; the possession of the religious capital by a fanatical sect would seriously impair it.

There would seem, at the moment, to be two proposals before the Moslem peoples : one, that representatives should meet in Mecca to determine the future of the Sanctuaries ; another, that such should meet in Cairo to settle the question of the Caliphate. It is difficult to suppose that the former of these congresses could do more than register the wishes of the Wahhabi Sultan ; he has on his side the logic of the " stricken field/' which few if any Oriental potentates have ever declined to emphasize. The persons who attend such a congress will certainly be unaccompanied by forces which would enable them to resist legislation of which they disapprove, and it is unlikely that those whom they represent would be in a position to back them up. It is asserted that the Wahhabis, on their entry into the Sacred City, proceeded to perform a series of acts which would certainly move the indignation of the bulk of the Moslem world ; the " Station of Abraham " itself with difficulty (according to this report) escaped being broken up. The business of the foreign representatives will, then, at best be to communicate to those who despatch them the conditions on which the Wahhabi conqueror intends in future to permit the pilgrimage. Those conditions may be acceptable to the Moslem community, or they may be otherwise.

The Cairene project admits of far greater liberty of expression of opinion, for it is improbable that free speech will be suppressed. On the other hand, thougt the sheikhs of Al Azhar might well be consulted or points of religious law, it is not clear how either the] or the delegates whom they invite could have any exe cutive power. They themselves, in their manifesto asserted that the Ottoman Caliph had forfeited his rights owing to his proved inability to defend himself. In order to be consistent, they will have to confine their choice to a powerful prince. To select the Wahhabi Sultan would be equivalent to identifying Islam with Wahhabism : but the difficulties of choosing any other Moslem potentate would seem to be enormous. If the functions of their Caliph were to be purely passive, that is, to be mentioned in public prayer he would certainly not be mentioned on the coins of any but his own State, it is improbable that the ruler of one Moslem State would allow this to be done in his dominions for the ruler of another State ; and it is improbable that any one of these personages would grasp at such a distinction. If, however, the Caliph is to have duties as well as rights, the recovery of the Sanctuary from Wahhabi hands would be the first which would be incumbent on him. It is exceedingly improbable that the sheikhs will find any prince who is willing to undertake this.

Moreover, the appointment of a Caliph^ by sheikhs and delegates is an innovation. Historical appointments of Caliphs were appointments of sovereigns, heads of governments ; and these could naturally be made only by those who were actively engaged in public affairs and had personal acquaintance with the possible candi- dates. The ship of State could not be left for a moment without someone at the helm ; and, where there was no actual law of succession, the court intrigue was the natural and probably the best method of securing a helmsman when the emergency arose. There is now no State requiring a helmsman ; the Moslem world has dispensed with a Caliph for a considerable period, and it would be difficult to show that any Moslem had suffered, at any rate to any extent which the existence of a Caliph would have prevented. This fact was conceded by the sheikhs when they decided to postpone their congress. So far as a Caliph has any administrative duties, each Moslem State has its Caliph, or government, already. It is not conceivable that the choice made by sheikhs and delegates will affect this matter even in the slightest degree.

If, however, the Caliph to be appointed is to be merely an ultimate authority on religious questions, his character will be very different from that of former holders of the title. If we take Harun al-Rashid as the type of a Caliph and his is the name most familiarly associated with that title it is quite certain that he, at any rate, ostensibly subordinated his judgment to those who had made a profounder study of the law than himself. Having caught his son in the commission of a capital offence, he would have executed judgment, but held his hand when a jurist explained to him that he could not act on his personal knowledge, but only on the attestation of others. Certainly, among those who took the title of Caliph, there were persons who were themselves religious reformers ; the title was taken, in most of these cases, after sovereignty had been won, and not in virtue of their claim to purify religion. The interpreter of the law is rather the Mufti, or the Sheikh al-Islam. Qualified jurists usually are tenacious of the right to dispute the rulings of the government Mufti, as the famous Mufti, Mohammed 'Abdu of Egypt, experienced. Would the jurists resign this right in favour of a Caliph ? And would the orthodox schools, which have lasted for eleven centuries, agree to amalgamate ?

Forecasts that are based on general considerations are at times rendered false by the sagacity of statesmen ; such persons can find outlets where those who have neither the experience nor the astuteness see only a blank wall. Hitherto, however, those students of Islamic history who declared the Caliphate agitation to be factitious and frivolous have been shown by the event to be right. It remains to be seen whether the future has any surprise for them.