Islam and the Foundations of Political Power

Islam and the Foundations of Political Power

Islam and the Foundations of Political Power

Islam and the Foundations of Political Power

Excerpt

The question of the caliphate, as it re-emerged in the 1920s, galvanised wide circles of people, mainly among learned elite Muslims. As an institution, the caliphate had until then experienced a rather turbulent thirteen-century history. It was created immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad to manage the community he had founded and to maintain the momentum created by the then new religious message. The title of caliph, meaning “deputy” or “successor”, was also created shortly after the demise of the Prophet. It was initially given to some of the Prophet’s prominent companions who had been co-opted by circles of influential members to lead the community. Each of the first four caliphs, considered afterwards by the Sunni majority as the “legitimate ones”, was appointed in a different manner.

Eventually, the caliphate was taken over by a succession of ruling families, beginning with the Umayyads and ending with the Ottomans. The change from co-opted and religiously inspired rulers, as they were later perceived, to a monarchical caliphate was considered by many in the community, and recorded later by historians, as a kind of coup détat, constituting a violation of the principles associated with Islam and of the integrity and freedom of the umma or Muslim community. These monarchical systems which ruled over Muslim communities were generally accepted as more or less unavoidable. However, they were not considered to be fully legitimate. Over the centuries, the title of caliph lost its prestige. The Ottoman rulers, following many others, initially claimed for themselves the title of sultan or king rather than caliph. During the eighteenth century, at a time when their authority was seriously challenged, the Ottomans felt the need to reclaim the title of caliph. Early in the twentieth century when

1 Historical surveys of Islam’s “founding moments” are numerous. Among the scholarly works that attempt an overall survey and understanding of the deep processes of change one should mention, in the English language, Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975 and Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. See also J. P. Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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