The Muslim Brotherhood and nostalgia for the caliphate

An unrealistic idea lures young people into seeking refuge in the illusions of the past to escape the cruelty of the present

Hamas supporters carry a portrait of Muslim Brotherhood founder Sheikh Hassan al-Banna while celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Hamas Islamist movement on 14 December 2012 in the West Bank city of Tulkarem.
Hamas supporters carry a portrait of Muslim Brotherhood founder Sheikh Hassan al-Banna while celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Hamas Islamist movement on 14 December 2012 in the West Bank city of Tulkarem.

The Muslim Brotherhood and nostalgia for the caliphate

Throughout Islamic history, the concept of the ‘state’ has been mired in significant theological (kalam) and jurisprudential debates, revealing a profound crisis in distinguishing between the religious and the secular.

This crisis stems from the dominance of the ‘caliphate’ concept over the perception of an Islamic state among the elites who have discussed statehood, both in ancient times and in the modern era—specifically during the period of interaction with Europe and following the collapse of the last regime that identified itself as an Islamic caliphate.

One issue that merits attention is jurists' preoccupation with topics rooted in ancient times rather than striving to apply jurisprudence (Fiqh) to the realities of contemporary life.

For example, the issue of zakat on camels and crops now pertains only to specific groups within limited societies and is no longer a general norm among all Muslims. Similarly, the concept of the ‘Islamic state’ no longer reflects the reality experienced by most Muslim-majority countries.

Sovereignty and governance

A pertinent illustration is the concept of sovereignty, as understood by political science scholars. This concept defines the state's authority within a geographical area inhabited by a group of people (i.e. citizens).

Because sovereignty is absent in Islamic literature, governance (hakimiyyah) exists solely as a term denoting the right to rule and enact laws. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, the 12th-century scholar, defined hakimiyyah as “obedience to God and to those whom God has commanded to be obeyed”.

In doing so, he drew on the Qur’anic verse: “O believers! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. Should you disagree on anything, then refer it to Allah and His Messenger if you truly believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is the best and fairest resolution.” (Quran 4:59).

According to this interpretation, God is the ultimate source of hakimiyyah, derived solely from Him, then from His Messenger, and subsequently from those who hold ‘command’ after the Messenger, as their authority also demands obedience.

Based on religious heritage, the term ‘guardian’ was established to describe someone who holds command on behalf of sacred authority (God and the Messenger), thereby possessing absolute authority in Islamic society, particularly in relation to the interaction between state and religion.

The concept of hakimiyyah has been utilised by a group of Islamic reformers as a foundation for advocating the establishment of constitutions that aim to merge the state with the jurisprudential conception of governance.

As with the concept of sovereignty, ‘authority’ in its modern political sense is also absent from religious discourse.

This absence can be easily explained: the concept of the geographical homeland overlaps with that of the nation in such a way that it links the issue of governance and political systems to the national state or the Islamic nation.

Muslim devotees offer night prayers at Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta on March 11, 2024, marking the start of Islam's holy fasting month of Ramadan.

While the broad concept of the nation is straightforward, indicating a country where Muslims are in the majority, the concept of the guardian is more complex from a jurisprudential perspective.

It carries ideological and historical connotations, leading each group or sect to define it in a manner consistent with its own literature, which has been developed over centuries.

Claiming the caliphate

Political discussions among Muslims often focus on the issue of the caliphate and who has the right to claim it. Although the era of the caliphate in its international sense has ended, it remains a fundamental element in the worldview of Islamists.

The issue extends beyond the Saqifat Bani Sa’ida as a historical event, which saw the Shura of Ahlu al-Hall wal-‘Aqd (decision-makers) legitimised in exchange for divine appointment.

Debating the legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s caliphate versus Ali’s imamate serves as more than just a historical starting point. It forms the basis for a body of knowledge that has evolved into a rich doctrinal and jurisprudential discourse, which is relied upon in formulating scholarly theses.

Today, the battles are not fought to prove the legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s caliphate or Ali’s imamate. Rather, they mobilise the public for what is intended to result from these historical narratives of ideal ruling models.

The legitimacy of the caliph (whether chosen through the consultation process of the Ahlu al-Hall wal-‘Aqd, as in the Rightly Guided Caliphs, or by the power of the sword as in the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman Caliphates) hinges on the concept of a strong ruler’s authority.

This authority does not depend on the ruler’s level of piety but on his absolute power over the nation, requiring allegiance from all, including Sharia law specialists.

On the other hand, within Shiite belief, the imam is the legitimate ruler, whether he possesses actual power or not. Even if deprived of the right to rule, he retains ultimate authority over the nation’s affairs.

Thus, even if power resides with someone other than the imam, it inherently belongs to the infallible imam or his representative, the jurist who meets specific criteria (jurisprudential diligence, justice, masculinity, etc.).

Although the era of the caliphate in its international sense has ended, it remains a fundamental element in the worldview of Islamists.

Sunni and Shiite

Historically, most Islamic countries were governed by Sunni rulers. This reality solidified the Sunni narrative through practical experiences that made the concept of the caliphate tangible to the general public.

Even during periods of a fragmented caliphate, there was debate over the legitimacy of the temporal caliph based on his dominance. This resulted in each geographical area potentially recognising a different caliph, as endorsed by the Ahlu al-Hall wal Aqd of that region.

Conversely, the Shiite perspective centres on the notion of a 'usurped right' throughout the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates.

In these eras, those who assumed the caliphate were viewed by Shiites as illegitimate usurpers who seized the right of the infallible imam.

According to Shiite belief, when Imam Ali ascended to the caliphate (35-40 AH), it was seen as the rightful restoration of authority as originally designated by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during his lifetime.

Subsequently, the narrative posits that all twelve imams were the rightful leaders but were deprived of their authority, culminating in the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, who is expected to return at the end of times to restore justice in a world filled with tyranny and oppression.

While Sunnis and Shiites believe in Al-Mahdi al-Muntazar (the Awaited Mahdi), their respective traditions diverge significantly. Thus, we are presented with two distinct historical narratives, each underpinning a significant school of thought.

These perspectives on the roles of the Caliph and Imam, grounded in historical context and religious conviction, have significantly shaped Muslim interpretations of what is referred to as 'sultanic rulings' or what later became known as state jurisprudence.

Nostalgia of succession

The concept of the caliphate is predominantly rooted in the Sunni Islamic tradition. The caliph is seen as the leader who unites the Muslim nation, reflecting his role as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad, who was divinely appointed.

The process of selecting a caliph, whether through consultation or conquest, is viewed as a worldly affair, yet it remains theoretically valid. Historically, the Sunni caliphate governed most of the Islamic world until the early 20th century, culminating with the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924.

Thus, the foundations for the caliphate's legitimacy appear robust both in historical narrative and in practice.

Ataturk's abolition of the Sultanate in 1922, which reduced the caliphate to a mere symbolic role stripped of power, sparked a significant jurisprudential-political debate across the Islamic world.

The last Caliph Abdelmejid II in Nice, France, during his exile.

Read more: This day in history: Turkey abolishes the Caliphate

This debate, fuelled by the growing burdens of European colonialism post-World War I, spanned from the Indian subcontinent to the Atlantic coasts.

The Brotherhood is born

Islamic scholars intensely debated the importance of preserving the caliphate as a unifying symbol that could inspire Muslims to strive for independence and progress.

This fervent discussion peaked between 1922 and 1924. Four years after these debates subsided, Hassan al-Banna established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.

This movement began as a preaching group that advocated for Islam as a framework for societal governance and state administration. Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood has aligned itself with a constitutional monarchy system that supports political pluralism within a monarchical framework.

The organisation expanded its reach by establishing headquarters in various countries, managed by locals. Despite numerous political conflicts, the group remained resilient even after the assassination of its founder in 1949 and the succession of Hassan Al-Hudaybi as its new leader.

Although the Brotherhood did not officially pledge allegiance to King Fouad or King Farouk, it neither renounced nor openly contested the monarchy system.

The group initially maintained a positive relationship with the Free Officers Movement in Egypt until the relationship soured during the Manshiya incident when President Gamal Abdel Nasser accused the Brotherhood of attempting to assassinate him.

Read more: This day in history: The birth of the Egyptian Republic

This accusation led to the arrest and execution of several of the group's leaders. It marked the beginning of the Brotherhood's exile to Arab Gulf states and the West, including Europe and North America.

In exile, the Brotherhood evolved into advocates for what they termed the "Islamic project". This idealised the Islamic caliphate and critiqued secular ideologies without overtly advocating for a coup in their host countries.

When Abdel Nasser accused the Brotherhood of attempting to assassinate him, it marked the beginning of their exile to Arab Gulf states and the West.

Idealism and realism

The concept of a comprehensive caliphate remained a nostalgic theme within the Brotherhood, as members mourned its loss and focused on education and preaching in a non-confrontational manner.

Their primary conflict was against the military regimes in their home countries, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.  Aware of how uneasy Gulf monarchies felt towards the revolutionary rhetoric of these military governments (which often labelled the Gulf states as reactionary), the Brotherhood leveraged this tension to promote their anti-secularism agenda.

They criticised the spread of secularism in the Islamic world, attributing it to the "infidel West" and other forces within the Islamic community.

In this context, the Muslim Brotherhood directed criticism towards Ataturk for allowing Western culture to permeate Turkey, a trend that extended to Arab countries formerly under Ottoman influence.

The Brotherhood's narrative (mourning the loss of the Islamic Caliphate and framing it as the primary cause of the nation's misfortunes) did not concern the Gulf states.

Criticising Ataturk also implicitly criticised military regimes that oppressed their people while labelling conservative political systems as reactionary.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic

However, the Brotherhood's lamentation over the caliphate was notably selective. They grieved for the demise of the Ottoman Empire despite fundamentally disagreeing with many aspects of its rule.

The Brotherhood historically took issue with monarchic and dynastic governance, as reflected in Sayyid Qutb's criticism of the Umayyad shift from consultative (Shura) to hereditary succession.

Additionally, certain practices under Ottoman law, such as legalised prostitution, clashed with the idealistic image of the caliphate that the Brotherhood espoused.

Nostalgic vision

The nostalgia for the caliphate, as propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood, embodies a vision to establish an oligarchic state that would govern a vast expanse of the Islamic world.

This vision includes fostering a sense of loyalty across national borders, uniting Muslims under the banner of a caliph, and potentially calling for a general mobilisation towards these ends.

It is argued that while the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood (including the Guide and other prominent figures) did not overtly call for establishing an Islamic state or caliphate, the broader impact lies in the ideology they disseminated.

When adopted and interpreted, this ideology can potentially be used to justify more extreme actions.  For instance, the Islamic State (IS) leveraged a similar narrative about an enduring and expanding Islamic state.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State (IS).

This illustrates the risks associated with ideological movements, where the core messages propagated by a group may be adopted and adapted in ways that lead to radical and violent interpretations and actions by others.

The Muslim Brotherhood has entrenched the belief that the dismantling of the caliphate was part of a Western strategy to dominate the Islamic world.

They have written books and articles and given lectures, advocating for the caliphate's significance as inherently linked to their slogan: "Islam is the solution." They use this slogan to counter opponents they accuse of succumbing to Western influence.

Romanticising the caliphate

The Brotherhood crafts a selective yet coherent narrative that romanticises the caliphate by recalling ancient history and integrating it with modern events.  The jurisprudential framing of the caliphate bolsters this narrative as a political system and a divine mandate over the Muslim faith.

The evocative power of slogans like "Islam is the solution" is hard to dismiss, especially when they appeal to a sense of religious and cultural identity.

The terminology used by the Brotherhood, specifically its preference for 'Islamic State' over 'Muslim State,' strategically reinforces the notion of the caliphate as an immediate concern in cultural perceptions.

The evocative power of slogans like "Islam is the solution" is hard to dismiss, especially when they appeal to a sense of religious and cultural identity.

Within Sunni Islam, the notion of an Islamic state inherently implies the presence of a guardian or caliph. This contrasts with the titles used in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, where the king is referred to as 'the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques' and 'Amir al-Mu'minin' (Commander of the Faithful).

While evocative of Islamic leadership, these titles align with the modern concept of the nation-state as defined by internationally recognised geographical boundaries. They do not imply a broader guardianship over all Muslims, which delineates a significant divergence from the broader caliphal concept espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thus, in these contexts, Saudi Arabia's title is more aligned with national sovereignty—distinct from pan-Islamic rule.

The Muslim Brotherhood's stance against hereditary rule presents a notable contradiction within their advocacy for the caliphate—a system historically dominated by monarchs who passed leadership within their dynasties.

Furthermore, the Brotherhood's vision of a caliphate with cross-border internationalism directly conflicts with the concept of the modern nation-state, which they criticise as a Western colonial construct designed to fragment and disperse the Islamic ummah.

Selective memories

Another critical aspect of their narrative is the idealisation of the caliphate period. The Brotherhood and similar groups often portray the caliphate as a pure embodiment of Islamic principles.

Historically, caliphates like the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman empires were marked by significant jurisprudential transgressions, including the licensing of brothels during the Ottoman era.

These historical nuances are frequently omitted in the nostalgic portrayal of the caliphate, suggesting a selective memory that serves ideological purposes.

Nostalgia, in this context, is not merely a longing for the past but a deliberate reshaping of it to construct an idealised, utopian image. This reconstructed past is then invoked as a model for contemporary governance.

Proponents of this idealised caliphate are often fully aware that the historical reality is far different from the pristine image they promote. This selective remembrance and idealisation galvanise followers' support, even if it diverges significantly from historical truths.

A portrait of Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire.

The concept of Islamising the state, as envisioned by fundamentalists, often involves reinstating a caliphate led by a caliph.

This vision goes against democratic governance principles like monarchy or republicanism, which the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentally opposes due to its stance against hereditary rule and general elections.

Instead, their preferred model leans towards an oligarchic form of governance, where power rests with a select group committed to the ideology, reminiscent of the governance structures seen in organisations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and IS.

These groups illustrate different approaches to the idea of a caliphate. The Taliban, for instance, restrict their governance to Afghanistan under the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' brand, with a white field flag. Meanwhile, IS promotes a transnational, expanding caliphate under a black field flag, calling for global allegiance from extremist factions.

Structures and ruptures

Beyond these groups, the caliphate also garners attention from certain academics and intellectuals within the Sunni Islamic community. They argue that it offers a potential alternative to current geopolitical structures, which they perceive as dominated by Western colonial legacy.

In his 2018 book Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order, Salman Sayyid explores this viewpoint academically. In it, he critiques the international system led by Western powers and posits the caliphate as a framework for reasserting Muslim identity on the global stage.

Sayyid's critique of the nation-state, particularly as implemented in Muslim regions by Atatürk in Turkey, highlights how this Western model has disrupted traditional Islamic societal structures.  He identifies three major fractures or 'ruptures' relating to heritage, the nation-state, and society.

The 'heritage rupture' concerns the shift away from a unified Islamic identity under a collective caliphate, which historically aimed to bring together Muslim territories under a single political and religious leadership.

The 'national rupture' is the evolution of distinct nation-states from what was once a more unified Muslim community. This has led to divergent interests and policies, reinforcing barriers between segments of the ummah (community).

Finally, the 'societal rupture' comes from the imposition of the nation-state model, exacerbating divisions within the Muslim community and fostering nationalism and sectarianism that contribute to the fragmentation of the Islamic community.

Proponents of this idealised caliphate are often fully aware that the historical reality is far different from the pristine image they promote.

Caliphate and Sharia

While departing from the more ideologically driven views of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid's analysis touches upon a significant tension in the discussion of Islamic governance: the relationship between the caliphate and Sharia law.

The enforcement of Sharia as part of a caliphate model necessitates a dominant juridical authority, which would likely be tied to a specific Islamic school of thought within a particular sect.

This could lead to exclusivity and discord, as different interpretations and practices within even the Sunni tradition would need to be reconciled or sidelined.

Thus, as envisioned in these discussions, the concept of a caliphate would not be a broadly inclusive Islamic state, but one constrained by particular doctrinal interpretations, aiming to minimise internal conflict over jurisprudential differences.

This points to the inherent challenges of implementing a caliphate that genuinely reflects the diversity within the Islamic faith.

Identity crisis

Sayyid's book delves into the crisis of Islamic identity, arguing that this identity has become fragmented whether Muslims are in a majority or minority position, removed from power.

He attributes this fragmentation to the association of the caliphate with Sunni Islam, suggesting that revisiting this connection could help overcome feelings of loss and marginalisation among Muslims.

As an expert in post-colonial thought and a Muslim expatriate in Britain, Sayyid's personal and intellectual context enriches his analysis of Islamic identity.

His viewpoint considers both the philosophical underpinnings and the practical implications of these identity crises, emphasising the importance of addressing foundational issues to find solutions to contemporary challenges.

His discussion on reintroducing the caliphate into the modern world navigates significant political and economic hurdles, particularly the modern concept of national sovereignty, which clashes with traditional Islamic jurisprudence of governance (hakimiyyah).

He draws on the influential writings of Islamic thinkers like Abul A'la Maududi, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb, whose ideas continue to influence contemporary groups, including IS.

Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a photo dating back to 1929.

While these figures and their ideas may attract followers with a range of views, from extreme to moderate, Sayyid's analysis stresses the difficulty of separating historical jurisprudential legacies from the political contexts of empires like the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman.

Each of these empires had their own strategies and political norms shaped by their specific historical and geopolitical contexts, making it unrealistic to expect them to adhere to modern political norms that did not exist at their time.

This nuanced understanding of historical context is crucial in evaluating today's relevance and application of the caliphate concept.

Continuing attraction

The idea of reviving the caliphate in the modern world, which involves transcending national borders and potentially engaging in continuous 'offensive jihad', indeed poses significant challenges.

This notion often leads to a perpetual state of conflict with non-Muslim entities, which typically possess superior military, economic, and technological capabilities.

Thus, the concept of the caliphate can appear both romanticised and impractical, lacking clear benefits when its proponents attempt to articulate them.

While some may view this discussion as purely academic or indulgent, given the lack of a contemporary caliphate outside of extremist groups, many young, educated people from developed countries joined IS. This illustrates a tangible and concerning impact.

They were drawn to an extremist ideology that emphasised a sharp dichotomy between loyalty to the caliphate and rejection of non-Islamic states, encouraging disdain for non-Muslims.

This ideology is further bolstered by jurisprudence that may dehumanise the 'other', sanctioning acts of violence, exploitation, and degradation.

Historical narratives of Islamic conquests are used to legitimise such views, making them part of a broader theological and legal framework that supports the extremist agenda.

Addressing this challenge requires a nuanced understanding of the motivations behind such ideologies and the social, political, and religious contexts that allow them to flourish.

The Islamic State (IS) emphasised a sharp dichotomy between loyalty to the caliphate and rejection of non-Islamic states, encouraging disdain for non-Muslims.

I am not accusing the figures mentioned earlier of establishing extremist thought, as the philosophy they contributed is used by those espousing extremism and moderation alike. 

The challenge, however, lies in separating the jurisprudential heritage that emerged under empires with their own political agendas governed by the norms of their times.

It is unrealistic to expect the Umayyad or Abbasid empires to have established political norms that did not align with their strategic needs to confront the Byzantine Empire.

Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, which neighboured Europe, adhered to the traditional imperial model, placing it in a distinct context from its European counterparts.

Seen within a culture

Each culture has its own unique narrative, often using a variety of literary works and historical records to justify extremist views.

Historically, colonial discourse provided the West with rationales for suppressing dissenting voices according to its own evolving principles, which are subject to change and revision.

Despite these changes, the West often expects the rest of the world to follow its lead. Additionally, Western colonial crimes in vulnerable regions have often been paired with missionary efforts aimed at imposing Western religions on local populations, leading some to forsake their original beliefs to escape the oppression of occupation.

In this light, the focus is on dissecting the concept of the collective caliphate and breaking down its components built on unrealistic nostalgia. This nostalgia frequently appeals to many young people, who find comfort in romanticised views of the past as a means of escaping the challenges of the present.

These challenges are not limited to economic and political issues but also include the crises of materialism and post-materialism, exacerbated by the pervasive influence of technology and artificial intelligence in our daily lives.

The lack of pragmatic narratives in contemporary intellectual discourse allows for the flourishing of nostalgia based on a selective interpretation of history.

Consequently, transboundary ideologies may appeal to young individuals, drawn by emotionally potent messages that promise divine rewards in exchange for earthly sacrifices.

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