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New Texts Out Now: Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin, Demystifying the Caliphate

[Cover of Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin, [Cover of Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin, "Demystifying the Caliphate: Historical Memory and Contemporary Contexts"]

Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin, editors, Demystifying the Caliphate: Historical Memory and Contemporary Contexts. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?

Madawi al-Rasheed (MAR): The concept of the caliphate has become a scary term invoked by both politicians and activists. Since 9/11, politicians in the West and the Muslim world invoke the word to scare constituencies or justify certain policies that often lead to war and destruction. Many politicians, among them George Bush and Tony Blair, have talked about the caliphate as a totalizing political system in which the oppression of women, discrimination against non-Muslim religious minorities, and the rule of sharia prevail. They cite statistics to prove that all Muslims have suffered a crisis after the Ottoman caliphate was abolished in 1924, amounting to a Muslim psychosis erupting every now and then. Muslim activists, on the other hand, use the caliphate as a mobilization tool playing on images of glory, strength, and unity, all of which are believed to appeal to young and alienated contemporary Muslims from London to Jakarta. We are told that despite the fact that the caliphate is no longer a reality, its past glory continues to linger in the minds and hearts of some contemporary Muslims. We wanted to subject these claims to serious scrutiny. There was one way of finding evidence, and this was to organize a conference on the topic.

Faced with a deluge of rhetoric and images, we felt that it was the right time to look at the caliphate in a dispassionate academic way. We did not want to examine the history of various Islamic caliphates, as historians of the Muslim world have already built a huge literature on this topic. Rather, we wanted to explore the mystique of the caliphate as a concept from the past invoked in the present across many geographical locations by living Muslims. We realized that the caliphate has been a feature of the social, political, and intellectual landscapes that we studied in our own research projects. In our discussions over lunchtime breaks and in more formal meetings, we came to the conclusion that we need to test the hypothesis that the caliphate, or at least its memory, is still relevant. As we delved into the details of our own research findings, we realized that rather than consensus over how contemporary Muslims talk about the caliphate, there is in fact simultaneously diversity, rejection, and endorsement of the idea of the caliphate.

These informal discussions became a research proposal to hold an international conference sponsored by the European Science Foundation. The three editors have research expertise in the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and Southeast Asia.  We invited other academics in order to share our own findings and listen to their ideas, with a view to publish a collection of papers on the topic. We were keen to have an interdisciplinary approach that combines the humanities and the social sciences, which is often not done. We wanted historians to provide evidence from the past, especially that critical moment in the twentieth century when the concept of the caliphate was either denounced or adopted by Muslims in different countries. Social scientists gave a balanced assessment of the slogans that some contemporary Muslims raise, for example in university campuses and political rallies. This interdisciplinary approach allowed us to see the caliphate as nostalgic memory rather than simply a commitment to a political project shared by all Muslims. It came as a surprise that calls for the resurrection of the caliphate have not been strong in what is considered to be the heart of the Islamic world, but is in fact stronger among Muslims whose ancestors may or may not have lived within the boundaries of a caliphate.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MAR: The introduction to the edited volume captures recent academic debates about political Islam, Islamic intellectual history, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the status of Muslims in non-Muslim majority countries. Theoretically, the volume adopts constructivist and interpretive approaches that allow us not to take for granted calls for the resurrection of the caliphate, but to explore the social, historical, and political conditions that underlie such calls. We also examine the literature on globalization with its new media as relevant contemporary contexts in which calls for the caliphate tend to be amplified and propagated.

In terms of the geographies that the book covers, we tried to have a balance between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. The three regions offer a comparative approach that is necessary in a world where globalization and transnational connections are now taken for granted. Of course, both globalization and transnational connections have always been features of the Muslim world. The only difference now is the speed by which images and slogans travel across the globe. As a supra-national political, legal, and social sphere, the caliphate, or at least calls to resurrect it, seems to flourish today among sub-sections of the Muslim population. 

We concentrated on Sunni Islam in the three regions, as there was serious diversity with regard to the meaning of the caliphate and its resurrection. While the most vocal groups calling for the resurrection of the caliphate, such as al-Qaeda and Hizb al-Tahrir, are represented in the book, we wanted to go beyond these cases and look for the memory of the caliphate among lesser-known groups. We found rejection of the Ottoman caliphate in Saudi Arabia and calls for its return in London, the Northern Caucasus, and Jakarta. What was most interesting about the case studies is their diversity, reflecting the Muslim imagination that remains grounded in historical and sociological contexts.

We would have liked to include case studies from Africa, but unfortunately this was not possible. We would have also liked to explore the concept and its contemporary invocation among Shia Muslims. However, we hope that the volume stimulates interest among specialists to explore these missing dimensions

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

MAR: The three editors are specialists in the study of religions. Yet each one comes to this area from his/her own disciplinary specialization. We are specialists in intellectual history, anthropology, and sociology; all offer a nuanced approach as these disciplines bridge the gap between ideas and contexts over time and at specific moments. While we remain embedded in our research areas, the comparisons that we made enhanced our understanding of the diversity of Muslims. We considered the project as a joint effort to pursue comparative research that is complemented by the excellent chapters of our contributors. They introduced us to important facts and critical analysis from their research regions that offered a panoramic view of a plural Muslim world, which continues to surprise and enchant. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

Carool Kersten (CK): First of all, academic colleagues and students of course. However, the book also holds valuable information for international and domestic policymakers working on issues relevant to the Muslim world and involved in integrating Muslim communities in Western societies. An improved understanding of the subtleties of Islamic political and social thinking should help them in coming up with more suitable strategies for maintaining relations with Muslim countries in global contexts, and realistic schemes for building community cohesion on the domestic level. Journalists and other media professionals dealing with the Muslim world can likewise benefit from this book and produce more insightful coverage of developments and current affairs in that often-volatile part of the world.

We hope the book will stimulate the curiosity of all readers, because it invites them to question received opinions and accepted conventional interpretations of the Muslim world. By developing a more critical engagement, new knowledge will reveal the diversity of Muslims and the differences within Muslim world, making it an even more fascinating subject to explore.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MAR: I am currently working on the impact of the Arab uprisings on Saudi Islamists. I am looking at the current mutations that these uprisings have precipitated, especially the recent shift from militant Jihad to civil society, peaceful mobilization, and human rights.

CK: I am completing a project on the role of Islam in contemporary Indonesia, a country often ignored in the study of Islam, even though it is the largest Muslim nation state in the world. The book looks at the intellectual debates set in motion in 2005 by a very controversial fatwa issued by Indonesia’s semi-official Ulama Council, which declares secularism, pluralism, and liberalism as un-Islamic concepts. I also just finished co-editing a volume of essays on alternative Islamic discourses and the question of religious authority, looking at new ways of engaging with religion in Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?

CK: Since this book is the outcome of a collaborative effort bringing together scholars from varying academic backgrounds and with different regional specializations, the product has been put together by using an extensive heuristic toolbox. Covering a wide geographical scope through the lens of different academic disciplines, it has become a very interdisciplinary book. The findings of the social scientists are grounded in extensive fieldwork, based on quantitative methods using questionnaires and surveys and qualitative work involving structured and semi-structured interviews. Political scientists approach the subject from different theoretical perspectives in order to test their hypotheses or explain hitherto ignored phenomena through new analytical frameworks. Scholars of religion and historians tend to be more text-oriented, engaging in close readings of material in order to offer interpretations of historical and newly emerging discursive formations. Others have opted for multidisciplinary methods from media studies to look at representations of historical figures associated with the Caliphate in films and television series. So the book cannot be reduced to one specific field of academic inquiry.

Excerpt from Demystifying the Caliphate: Historical Memory and Contemporary Contexts

From the Introduction

In this volume we are not concerned with the history of various Islamic caliphates from Medina and Cordoba to Damascus, Baghdad, Istanbul, and beyond. Historians of the Muslim world have dealt with the rise and fall of previous Islamic caliphates in the heartland of the Muslim world and on the periphery. Ottoman historians excelled in interpreting the evolution of the last Islamic caliphate, the Ottoman empire, and its political evolution. Instead, we hope to demystify contemporary calls for the resurrection of the caliphate, with the objective of moving away from alarmist interpretations and unfounded generalizations. In order to demystify the present concern over the caliphate we take the twentieth century as our starting historical time. While we acknowledge that there are contemporary Muslim activists who consider this call a central theme in their political agenda and have succeeded in rallying Muslims across the globe behind this powerful slogan, we do not consider this late development a main feature of the decades that immediately followed the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, nor is it a general demand by all contemporary Muslims. In fact we show that in some Muslim localities there had been consistent attempts to break up previous caliphates by appealing to ethnic, national, and religious/sectarian sentiments.

In order to understand this diversity we adopt an approach grounded in history and social sciences. The first aspect allows an exploration of twentieth-century local contexts, mainly at that critical moment when the Ottoman empire ceased to exist, while the second permits contemporary investigation of current trends among diverse Muslims. Contributors to this volume include both historians of ideas within Islamic studies and social scientists conducting research in diverse countries. This interdisciplinary approach provides analysis of historical trends and ideas as a precursor to understanding the meaning and implication of the caliphate as a contested concept rather than an aspiration that is taken for granted in modern times.

We explore two themes. First, the immediate historical responses to the fall of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 among Muslims as far as Jakarta are one main focus of this book. Rather than perpetuating an unfounded claim that Muslims have not recovered from the fall of the Ottoman caliphate, and are continuing to suffer a humiliating crisis and a desire to reverse the turn of events, we find that Muslim reactions were as diverse as the cultural, historical, and national contexts in which they lived. We therefore dismiss sweeping sensational generalizations about the psychological communal trauma suffered by all Muslims the day after the Ottoman caliphate was abolished. Rather than this being a communal crisis touching religion and politics and amounting to a historical psychosis, intellectual elites and societies across the Muslim world demonstrated a far from uniform response. While some intellectuals and political leaders had envisaged an alternative caliphate to the vanishing one, not all Muslims mourned the demise of the longest-surviving caliphate in Islamic history. For some intellectuals and leaders a new era encapsulating the promise of imagining an alternative to religious politics had just begun. Of course there were those who longed for the continuation of the tradition of caliphate rule, but these longings must be understood within the contexts of each society, the pressures exerted on them by colonial powers, and their own interpretations of religious texts, rather than as an indication of nostalgia or crisis following defeat.

Second, contemporary Muslim debates that either glorify the caliphate, condemn it, or reinterpret it draw on that diverse historical memory following 1924. The historical diversity at the level of responses is also present today. There are very loud voices both in the Muslim world and among diaspora Muslims calling for the re-establishment of the caliphate, but these voices do not represent all Muslims or reflect their aspirations; both remain anchored in local contexts with their own political constraints. Globalization and the wide availability of new communication technology have definitely sharpened a sense of belonging to one Muslim community, but have not created consensus over the resurrection of the caliphate. There is no doubt that a virtual Islamic umma is well represented and articulated on the internet and in real regional and transnational institutions, but the caliphate is something totally different. What is most obvious in the real and virtual worlds is a deep sense of sharing common grievances, wealth and dreams, but real mobilization around the caliphate remains limited despite the spectacle of images and speeches during conferences, open marches, and ceremonies.

We have seen how throughout the twentieth century calls for the re-establishment of the caliphate were modest and unsuccessful in Arab lands and more vigorous but equally unfruitful in South-East Asia and outside Muslim-majority countries. In contemporary contexts the situation reflects an equally mixed response. While the notion of an umma is well anchored in Islamic texts since the advent of Islam, and lived as a reality in Muslim rituals such as the pilgrimage, conditions of modernity—especially globalization as its latest dimension, with its intensified circulation of people and ideas—seem to have revived the utopian ideal of a caliphate. In other words, the more Muslims encounter each other in the real and virtual world, the more strongly some of them may desire to give a framework to these encounters. Furthermore, in the de-territorialized conditions of the diaspora some of them seem to have developed an acute longing for an Islamic territoriality, which the concept of a caliphate rather than that of nation-state can encompass. As a result we find that calls for the resurrection of the caliphate are stronger among those Muslims who have been immersed in the conditions of modernity, from the nineteenth-century pan-Islamist scholar and activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) to Usama bin Laden (d. 2011) and the contemporary director of Hizb al-Tahrir, Abdul Wahid. It is unsurprising that Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani, who was forcibly “de-territorialized” from his

Palestinian homeland, was the first to systematically theorize the resurrection of the caliphate in the mid-twentieth century, a call that finds echoes among some from the second and third generation of Muslims living in the West or some young activists emerging out of decades of Soviet rule in Central Asia and Northern Caucasus, or among urban youths in Jakarta and elsewhere. Consequently, calls to re-establish the caliphate are not anchored in a pristine, traditional, scholastic longing for a bygone past but are a response to modernity and its conditions. Within this framework we can begin to comprehend the twentieth-century responses to the fall of the caliphate and the contemporary calls for its revival, either as a restoration of the historical polity or as a concept and vision of the ideal global society. Rather than being brushed aside as dreams and fantasies, these responses and calls can be better understood as modern manifestations of conditions that many Muslims have experienced in various degrees. The caliphate becomes an old idea, rejuvenated by contemporary reflections on the modern conditions that can only persist and intensify.

[Excerpted from Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin, editors, Demystifying the Caliphate: Historical Memory and Contemporary Contexts, by permission of the editors. Copyright © 2013 by Oxford University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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