The term “Islamic caliphate” often stirs fear of an Islamic uprising where Muslims will acquire global political control. Some, like Sean Hannity, claim that giving control to al Qaeda will lead to an Islamic caliphate. And although caliphate is the English rendition of the Arabic term khilafat, the two terms have different connotations.
Since the revolution began in Egypt, many pundits have continually warned of a possible radical takeover in Egypt that will ultimately resurrect an imperialist caliphate. The system of caliphate is apparently obligated to wage war to bring the world under Islamic rule — and then to enforce Sharia law.
This is a far cry from the actual origins and significance of khilafat. Whereas caliphate implies a politico-religious Muslim state governed by a political leader, khilafat refers to the Islamic institution of spiritual successorship. The word khilafat means succession, and the khalifa is a successor to a prophet of God, whose goal is to complete the tasks of reformation and moral training that the prophet instituted. Therefore, khilafat can exist and flourish without a state, much like the papacy in Catholicism, which provides spiritual guidance and unity.
The Islamic understanding of khilafat is based on the Quran, the teachings of Muhammad (the prophet of Islam), and the examples of the first four khalifas in Islam after the Prophet’s demise. Prophet Muhammad prophesized that a period of khilafat would follow his demise, then monarchy, autocracy would follow, and, after a hiatus, khilafat would be re-established upon the precepts of prophethood.
The first four khalifas were close associates of the Prophet and known for their integrity and great devotion. Of great significance is the qualification of “rightly-guided” that has been used to distinguish them from the caliph-kings who followed.
The reign (632-661) of the rightly-guided khalifas is often remembered as a golden age of Islam. Muslims would often define themselves and their theology according to the way they assessed the glorious, albeit turbulent and short-lived, events of that formative period.
After the assassination of the last of the rightly-guided khalifas, debate over successorship resulted in a major split in Islam into Sunni and Shia branches. Spirituality was lost and replaced by a political institution, or caliphate. Muawiyah declared himself leader of the Muslims and, thereby, laid the foundations of a long line of caliphs or dynastic monarchies — in accordance with Muhammad’s prophecy.
This reign of caliphs continued for centuries until Ottoman sultan Selim I captured the last caliph of Cairo in 1517. The Ottoman sultans then claimed the title of caliph and brandished it for four centuries until Kamal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, abolished it in 1924.
Osama bin Laden and a number of fundamentalist political parties have called for the restoration of caliphate to unite Muslim nations — either through peaceful political uprising or through force. Two influential and radical pan-Islamic groups, Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood, seek to restore the caliphate as a militant Islamic institution.
But, what Muslims need is a spiritual khilafat. Any attempts to impose caliphate are doomed to fail not only because it diverges from the true Islamic system of khilafat but also because of the disunity among Muslims to elect a leader.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, however, stands out. As Muslims who believe in the Messiah — Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India — the Community was founded in 1889 and spans over 195 countries with membership exceeding tens of millions. After the demise of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1908, a large number of followers gathered and unanimously elected the first khalifa. Since then, four more khalifas have been elected, who have focused on serving the faith and transforming the faithful, as opposed to establishing a Muslim state.
From its inception, the Ahmadiyya Khilafat has categorically rejected religious militancy in every form. When faced with bitter persecution, it practices patience and perseverance. When subjected to intolerance, it preaches peace and tolerance. It champions the cause of the dispossessed and works towards uplifting the oppressed through international humanitarian efforts. It has conquered no land and possesses no earthly dominion, but it wields its influence over the hearts and minds of millions as a force for good in the world.
So there need not be any fear of the true Islamic concept of khilafat. This Islamic system of leadership does not threaten to gain any political control, nor does it pursue the establishment of a politico-religious state. Let us walk away from this understanding of caliphate and understand that khilafat can serve to guide Muslims and spiritually reform the world.