Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Pining for Caliph 03-01-10

Pining for Caliphate

Mirza A. Beg
Written, Jan 2003

Muslim Observer February 2003

A segment of the vocal Muslims from Britain worked their way in the news some time ago by asking Muslims to work to bring back the Caliphate. This yearning to bring back the glories of past centuries is naive yet quite understandable. It is up to the Muslim intelligentsia steeped in analytical thoughtful understanding of the religious ethos as well as historical dynamics to educate the public in the realities of life as it used to be and what is the reality today. What is possible, what is permissible and what is desirable?This of course is easier said than done. Because all of us from extreme loony left to extreme rabid right consider ourselves educated and therefore right. Being right is wonderful but the problem is "absolutism", we often try to stifle and snuff out those who do not agree with us. Our education is often stilted. There is not enough freedom of expression in the so-called Islamic countries (It is a modern construct) to write history in its various shades. Shades of honestly arrived-at opinion that may upset some, especially those in power.

For example, imagine a person writing a critical biography of the first four Caliphs. To my knowledge (which admittedly is limited) there are many hagiographies available but no effort (that are readily available) have been made to write a biography that treats them as human beings with human frailties. People in the past have paid a heavy price for this much needed academic freedom.

We really do not have much of an insight into what individual human tugs, pulls and follies these men went through. The pain and suffering that comes from not wanting to, yet making pragmatic decisions that were wrong or made with insufficient thought in the midst of fast breaking events. The compromises they made to achieve a personal ambition or a social goal. We eulogize them with antiseptic adulation but do not examine them. Without honest fearless effort towards examination using full human parameters, the resulting learning is bound to be circumscribed and stilted.

All peoples when facing turmoil leading to a possibility of a bleak future tend to look to the past. A golden age beckons them to emulate a great past, if one did not exist, it is invented shrouded in the mist of history, failing that in mythology. Islamic civilizations did have great periods, but in popular histories the time and contemporary world is neglected. Popular histories are painted in colors with beautiful patina, of "us good, them bad".

Caliphate has just such an overwhelming pull. Most Muslims do not realize that Caliphate as a unified institution existed for a very short time, at a time when there was if at all a rudimentary concept of a nation state. During most of its history, the Caliphate was even weaker than the Papacy of the pre-modern world and often as corrupt.

When faced with the walls crashing from all sides, people tend to subscribe to two opposite reactions.

Let us unite and on the basis of the fundamentals of the religion. It will usher the glories of the selectively idolized past. Those who subscribe to this are intelligent and vocal, but read history very selectively. They do not ponder the fact that people have been going to fundamentals according their narrow interpretation for the last 14 hundred years. Each time a charismatic leader takes their helm; instead of uniting, a new sect is created.

Religion is the root of all evil. It should be abolished or at least suppressed. This genus used to be a miniscule minority in the past, but in the 20th Century it has acquired power under the onslaught of the west. People who subscribe to this are often reasonably well read in western thoughts and impressed with what the west has achieved through "enlightenment" and liberty to think and express. They are an outspoken minority; they want to jettison the old system for a quick fix. They put all the blame on the uneducated Mullah.

Both extremes have considerable following though less intellectually inclined. They have the certainty of convictions. Therefore they can speak more emphatically with short slogans. The first type quotes Hadeeth at the drop of the hat and uses it to shut up those who may have other views. The second type is turned off at any reference to religion, yet they think of themselves as Muslims. Neither side entertains a dialogue because the nuances of reality would punch enough holes in the slogans to destroy them.

There are sizable number in the middle who are struggling and groping to keep what they perceive to be the essentials of the religion and try to think of ways to grow, evolve or co-opt a functioning system leading to the vision of a future, not a grafted past.

They are looking for what could be, but is not. They are often not even sure of their vision because they are only nascent ideas with outlines, a skeleton without muscles. Therefore they do not have short pat answers and thus not much of a following. They know that blaming the poor Mullah is only self-serving hypocrisy. Mullah never had much power. Mullahs are traditionally ill paid to keep the ignorant masses in pursuit of the "hereafter" and not to question the ill begotten authority of the rulers "here and now". Islam in general was never controlled by clergy, except for very short times in very localized instances. It is the temporal ruler that controlled the clergy and got edicts (Fatawa) to suite the purpose and occasion.

For the first time in the history of civilization the gates of learning and knowledge are readily available and open to almost all, especially in the west. Therefore the onus is on the Muslim intelligentsia to rise above the easy non-answers and work for a promising tomorrow rather than being blindsided as has been happening for the last 300 years.

We hope, in this country and eventually in "Islamic countries" young Muslims would take it upon themselves educate themselves and us in the mechanisms, nuts and bolts of the grandeur of the Islamic past, warts and all. They would make an effort towards understanding history not eulogizing it.It is not surprising that the purveyors of the past want Caliphate. They also seek media attention, which in the present climate in the west they can command. Airing their stilted ideology adds to the bottom line of the news outlets. Rational thoughtful opinions are not sought after, especially on the Islamic side of the artificial divide. We have an uphill task to enlighten and educate ourselves, and in time others.

Mirza A. Beg can be contacted by email at

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