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Essays, Sacred Texts, Traditions

Caliphate, Sharia law and “Islamist Extremism”

In the wake of the Woolwich murder in the UK on 22 May, an assortment of various British politicians, commentators, “counter-extremism experts” and self-described “ex-extremists” have stated that holding certain ideas are indications of what they have termed as “Islamist extremism.” Among those mentioned is the belief that Muslims are obliged by their religion to establish a single unified caliphate (Islamic state) which would rule over them in accordance with Islamic law, commonly referred to as Sharia law. This belief is labelled as “Islamism,” which the public is told is a perverted understanding of Islam, and part of the extremist mindset.

There are a number of questions and contentions that can be raised with such statements, ranging from the fact that all the “conveyor belt” type theories used as the basis for such assertions have been proven as academically incorrect due to several methodological and substantive shortcomings, the downplaying of the role of foreign policy as a primary causal factor of attacks carried out in the West by those inspired by Islamic belief and the use of discourse to exclude others from participation in society by labelling them with pejorative terms such as “extremism” and “Islamist.”

This article will focus upon whether the belief in the necessity of a universal caliphate is a perverted version of normative Islam tradition or not. It will be shown that far from being a modern anomaly referred to as “Islamism” or “Islamist extremism,” the belief in the obligation of establishing a caliphate is part of an overwhelming consensus in traditional Islam. Ironically, denying the obligation is in fact considered to be a perversion of Islam, a historical position limited to a small number of heretical sects.

What is meant by normative Islam are those opinions and views based upon an understanding of the Qur’an and those Prophetic traditions (sunna) which are widely held to be authentically traced back to the Prophet, supported by the opinions of historical traditional scholars whom the majority of Muslims would consider as representative of Muslim orthodoxy. If belief in the caliphate which would implement Sharia law is part of such a consensus, then obviously labelling it as “Islamist extremist” would naturally mean the labelling of any Muslim who believed in normative Islamic tradition as an “Islamist extremist.”

There are numerous verses from the Qur’an which have been used historically by Muslims as evidence that revelation is the basis of legislation, and that it is the law as ordained by God that should be used to judge between men (to give but one example among many – “But no, by your Lord, they can have no Faith, until they make you (O Muhammad) judge in all disputes between them). This led to the consensus of understanding among Muslims that in Islamic law the legislator is God, meaning that His revelation, as represented in the Qur’an and the words of His Prophet, form the basis for legislation.

For this reason, in the traditional books of the Islamic jurists who authored the science of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) there is agreement that God is the legislator (al-Hakim) and that legislation is for God alone. The difference between a system that adopts this legislation as its basis and what would be termed a theocracy in the Western sense, is that in normative Islam it is the role of scholars and rulers to discern the law from the sources of revelation, and to implement it while being held to account upon that basis by the public.

There are also numerous texts found amongst the Prophetic narrations in the books considered the most authentic in traditional Islam (the two most authentic collections considered to be Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim) which articulate that the role of the ruler is to rule by Islam. Amongst them is a well-known long narration that ends with the words “and then there will be caliphate (once again) upon the Prophetic method.” Yet another is the shorter narration “If the pledge of allegiance is given to two caliphs kill the latter of them,” one of the most common evidences used as a basis for unitary leadership being obligatory.

There are several other examples of Islamic evidences that have traditionally been used, to the point that it is considered that there is a consensus of orthodox opinion that the Muslim nation must have a single ruler who is responsible for the running of their affairs in accordance with Islamic law, something articulated in detail in books specifically on Islamic governance.

The most famous exposition of the Islamic theory of State was by Abul-Hasan al-Mawardi, who claimed that the establishment of the caliphate was an Islamic obligation which was universally agreed upon. His 11th century treatise, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (The Rules of Governance), remains one of the major classical references for Islamic political theory. These ideas were not articulated by al-Mawardi alone. His claim of a consensus upon the obligation of the caliphate is mirrored by everyone else who wrote on the subject, including prominent authorities well known within Islamic scholarly tradition such as Mohammad bin al-Hussain al-Fara Abu Ya‘la, Abdul Qadir al-Baghdadi, Ali bin Ahmad bin Said bin Hazm al-Dhahari and Abu Abdullah Al-Qurtubi, amongst others.

This point of Islamic law is confirmed in practically every single book written on Islamic governance up until the twentieth century, all of which narrate an agreement on the obligation to establish the caliphate which goes beyond that even of orthodox scholarship, which also includes practically all of the minority sects. This is summarized by al-Dhahari – an 11th century scholar born in Cordoba – who stated “all of ahl al-Sunna, all of the murji’a, all of the Shia, and all of the Khawarij have agreed on the obligation of Imama [another term used for the caliphate], and that the Umma is obliged to appoint an Imam who will apply the rules of Allah and look after their affairs with the rules of the Shari‘a which the Messenger of Allah brought, except for some of the Khawarij [who did not agree upon the obligation of the caliphate].” Ironically, the Khawarij sect – some of whom  denied the obligation of the caliphate but were all fervent believers in ruling by Sharia law – are considered to be among the most heretical groups responsible for much of the bloodshed in the early Islamic era.

In conclusion, there is such an overwhelming consensus on the issue of the obligation of a single leadership who is responsible to rule by the law of God that any opposition has historically been rejected as an anomaly and in contradiction to normative Islam and traditional scholarship. This is something recognised in Western academia – for example in the 13 volume Encyclopaedia of Islam published by Brill compiled over several years by a number of leading Western authorities on Islamic theology and history, it states regarding the idea of a singular caliphate that “[m]ajor points in the fully developed Sunni doctrine were the following: The establishment of an imam is permanently obligatory on the community…There can be only a single imam at any time.”

Therefore it is clearly inaccurate to state the obligation to establish a caliphate is not a part of orthodox Islamic belief. Rather, according to Islamic tradition, a denial of that obligation would actually be considered a perversion of the religion.


REZA PANKHURST is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he previously completed his Masters degree in the History of International Relations.

His book “The Inevitable Caliphate?” (Hurst/ Oxford University Press 2013) will be released on 20 June 2013.


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