Islamic State/Caliphate: An Anachronism

Dr. Ameer Al,
School of Business& Governance,
Murdoch University,
Western Australia

Afghanistan has fallen for the second time to Taliban, not as military victory against US forces and US-trained Afghan soldiers, but because of pre-negotiated settlement between Biden administration and Taliban on the one hand, and between Taliban and other ethnic tribes on the other. That explains the swiftness and relative bloodlessness of American withdrawal.  It has now come to light that the bomb exploded in Kabul, which killed more than one hundred innocent people was the handy work of another terror outfit, ISIS-K. The chaotic scenes at Karzai Airport captured by photojournalists should not come as surprise to students of history, because with horrific memories of Taliban’s misrule in 1990s, which are still haunting people there, it would be natural for many of them to escape to a greener pasture for a better life. However, the fact of the matter is that after 20 years of military occupation at an estimated cost of $300 million a day, Joe Biden, contrary to what the Republicans are trying to portray as the “worst defeat” in US history, has actually salvaged his country from getting bogged down deeper and deeper into a financial quagmire at a time when the size of US economy is shrinking and its superpower status challenged. Meanwhile, Afghanistan also needs be congratulated for having kept its historic record of being a graveyard for all imperialist adventurers.

With the fall of Panjshir Valley Taliban’s control over Afghanistan is complete, unless outsiders intervene and start a proxy war to enhance their own regional and economic interests. Taliban’s real war will start only now when it starts forming a governing and ruling the country. To start with, Taliban’s Islamic Emirate like its counterpart, al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate of Mosul in Iraq are both misfits and anachronisms among the family of modern nation states. In this context, certain facts of history have to be understood without prejudice to show that the caliphate and Islamic state represent a mirage and lost causes. Of the two, Islamic state was senior and its origins go back to Prophet Muhammad’s Medina in 7th century CE. Of all the 124,000 prophets supposed to have been sent to this world by the Almighty, according to Islamic tradition, only the names of 25 are mentioned in the Quran; and even among that lot, only Prophet Muhmmad succeeded in establishing a political entity that may be called an Islamic state in which he was the ultimate legislator, executer and adjudicator. It was Islamic state, because its founder and ruler embodied Islam, and his sayings and practices based on revealed knowledge became the unwritten rules and constitution of that polity. After that founder’s death in 632 the purity and originality of that polity waned incrementally, and today, after 1441 years, the Prophet’s Islamic state remains a model to be studied with curiosity, but impossible to recreate in its substance. History did not stay still with 7th century, but moved on changing relentlessly with new political ideas, economic changes and scientific discoveries. Islam could not stand aloof and remain untouched by these novel forces. What happened after Prophet Muhammad, except during a brief interlude of 29 years, when his immediate companions, known in Muslim history as Rightly Guided Caliphs (the name caliphate originated from this period), tried to make their regimes closer in outlook and substance to that of the original, was a history of power struggle dominated by secular ideals, not dissimilar to many a contemporary regime outside the fold of Islam.      

With the expansion of Islamdom into non-Arab regions, believers in the new religion became a heterogeneously amorphous community speaking different languages, adopting different cultural practices, cherishing different historic traditions and exhibiting different social values and norms. It was this heterogeneity that prompted medieval Muslim jurists and intellectuals to derive from the original sources of Islam, rules and regulations, which later came to be known as sharia laws, with the intention of providing guidance to the umma to live within its religious corpus. It was purely a contextualised human endeavour undertaken to achieve some sort of religious cum ethical homogeneity in an otherwise heterogenous community. In spite of this effort however, there is no such homogeneity even today. (For a brilliant discussion of this amorphousness and complexity, see Shahab Ahmed, What is IslamThe Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton University Press, 2015).  In spite of this juristic fence building to protect the purity of Islam, Muslim societies could not be quarantined against intrusions and influences of political, economic, intellectual and cultural forces unleashed from outside the world of Muslims. As a result of this confluence Muslims are living in a world in which religion itself is fast losing its relevance. This is why there is demand in democratic societies not only for freedom of religion but also freedom from religion.  Muslim societies are no exception to these developments.

Given this snapshot of history and development, the idea of an Islamic state or caliphate governed by sharia laws is a misfit and anachronistic in today’s world. The most recent avatar of the idea owes its origin to two interrelated developments: one was the Iranian revolution of 1979, which was secular in origins but hijacked by Shiite mullahs to call it Islamic, and the other was the unimaginable accumulation of petrodollars in the Arab world. From these two developments was born a rejuvenated religious fervour, mistakenly dubbed by some as Islamic renaissance, which saw Islam not simply as religion but a talisman to all ills of humanity. “Islam the answer”, became the catcall for these Islamists. Their ultimate goal was to establish a New Islamic World Order, and accordingly, they wanted to resurrect as first step the Prophet’s Islamic state and his companions’ caliphate wherever possible and at any cost. This venture has not succeeded anywhere except perhaps in Shiite Iran where also it survives not because the people wanted it but because it is imposed militarily by the mullahs and their Pasdaran or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the Sunni world however, establishing an Islamic state with sharia laws became a convenient strategy for several Muslim political rulers so that an Islamic veneer could be added to their otherwise corrupt, nepotistic, patrimonial and autocratic regimes. Even Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler in Pakistan, called his regime Islamic by implementing sharia laws selectively. What was comical and ridiculous about these laws was that only the criminal code of shariah was elaborately implemented while sharia’s relevance to more important branches of human life, such as the economy, health, education, public welfare, environment, public administration, human relations, etc. was not even spoken about. Incidentally, the birth of the so-called interest free Islamic banking was a by-product of this selectivity, and if one cares to study its operation one would realize that there is nothing Islamic about it.

When Taliban and ISIS created their version of the Islamic state or emirate and caliphate, and made sharia the sole denominator of every branch of human life, all they produced was chaos and bloodshed. After twenty years in wilderness, if the new generation of Taliban fails to learn from history and change its art of governing to make it inclusive, democratic and rational, its country and people will be condemned to dwell in the backyard of modernity and civilization. A Muslim does not need an Islamic state or caliphate to remain faithful to his core religious belief.

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