History of Caliphates Provides No Solutions to Muslim Politics, Prof. Says

The history of caliphates in the Muslim community has been vast, but the groups have never provided solutions to Muslim politics, according to Douglas Streusand, a professor of international relations at Marine Corps University.

Streusand spoke to students and faculty about the history of the Islamic Caliphate on Thursday night. He is also the author of two books, Islamic Gunpowder Empires and The Formation of the Mughal Empire.
Streusand opened by explaining that in his talk he would not be presenting the audience with new facts, but instead a new synthesis of existing facts.

He defined the caliphate as the concept of the caliph as a sovereign over the umma, the Muslim community, or as the source of legitimate political authority for the umma. The caliph, he said, is the political and religious leader of this office.

In 1924, the Ottoman Empire was abolished, and with it, the caliphate collapsed. Streusand explained that today some Muslims claim that before the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, there had been a legitimate caliphate since the time of the prophet Muhammad and that the absence of the caliphate left a hole in the Islamic world that can only be filled by its reestablishment.

Streusand argued that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate did not have as dramatic of an effect upon the Muslim world community as some claim. He based his argument on the diminished power and influence of the caliphate after the 13th century.

The caliphate began with Abu Bakr, the successor to Muhammad, as the first caliph. He and the next three caliphs, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, are known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. They led the quick expansion of Islam and the boundaries of the caliphate. This period of history is what many Muslims would want a new caliphate to emulate.

Streusand addressed the fact that there are no completely accurate historical accounts of the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

“We cannot retreat to the past because we don’t know it,” he said.

After Ali’s death, the caliphate existed under the Umayyad Empire from 661 to 750. Streusand argued that after 692, the Umayyad Caliphate operated like any other empire of the time. He explained that the empirical transformation reflected pre-existing government norms of conquered places. At this point, the caliphate was drifting away from the religious control that set it apart from other governments.
He explained that at the beginning of the caliphate, the caliphs did have religious and legal power, but it shifted to other authorities.

“Caliphs had no authority over Islamic law and that belonged exclusively to the ulama, to the experts of Islamic law,” he said. “But the current scholarship suggests there was a gradual transition of the authority of the law from the caliphs to the ulama and that transition was complete in the early 9th century.”

The Abbasid Empire began in 750 and was conquered by the Mongols in 1258. It flourished in the 8th and 9th centuries with Baghdad as its capital. Streusand explained that the caliph became a figurehead with the real political authority coming from the sultan and the religious authority coming from the ulama.

After the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, they moved the capital to Cairo and established a “shadow caliphate.” This “shadow caliphate” had an Abbasid leader placed in power by the Mongols and was not recognized as legitimate by the majority of the Muslim world. The terms caliph and caliphate lost the original meaning and became almost synonymous with emperor and empire.

The caliphate returned, Streusand explained, during the Ottoman Empire. In the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, the Empire did not claim to be a caliphate. Mehmed I was the first of the Ottoman sultans to use the words caliph and caliphate in reference to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire did not act like a caliphate until 1774 with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. This treaty gave the Ottomans religious authority over Muslims living in the Russian Empire.

Streusand explained that the lack of power of the caliphate was shown in 1916, when the Ottoman Empire asked for help from Muslims all over the world to fight for the caliphate and it did not receive the support they needed. In 1924, the caliphate was officially abolished with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The caliphate had been decreasing in power in the last 800 years of its existence. Streusand argued that because of this, the collapse of the caliphate was not as dramatic of an event as it is claimed by some to be today.

“Since the caliphate did not provide the solution to the problem of Muslim politics in the past, it unlikely to in the future,” he said.

Featured Image by Jake Catania