PART 1: ONE RULER
It happened in 1924 they say; the Caliphate ended and the Muslim world was broken up into nation-states. This is one of the opening lines used by some movement-oriented groups in their proposal to bring back the Golden Age of Muslims.
But, the idea that the Muslim world was ruled by one ruler in a contiguous caliphate until 1924 is actually a myth. Multiple rulers governed different regions at the same time very early on in Islamic history, as early as the 8th century CE.
The Abbasid Caliphate came into power after overthrowing the Umayyad Caliphate. However, the Abbasids were not able to bring Andalus, which was founded by the previous Umayyad Caliphate, under its control despite many attempts. As a result, Andalus became a State with a series of its own Caliphs while the Abbasid Caliphate simultaneously existed. In North Africa, other movements created another parallel State with its own succession of rulers who were known by the name- the Muwahidoon.
Other neighboring regions transitioned into their own states from initially recognizing the Abbasid Caliphate as a figurehead to eventually becoming completely independent states.
As a result, multiple Caliphates with their own series of caliphs existed at the same time. Each society was required to follow the law of the land and recognize the ruler of their region.
While it was ideal for the Caliphate to have remained as one Union, Islam deals with the reality on the ground instead of insisting on idealism.
Andalus, which was part of the Umayyad Caliphate, resisted the revolt of the Abbasids successfully. On one hand, the Abbasids claimed to be the legitimate caliphate since they were in power over most of the region. On the other hand, Andalus claimed their right to the caliphate since they were part of the original Umayyad caliphate and did not want to give in to the Abbasid revolt. In a situation like this, the reality on the ground will be that two caliphates will emerge. Which one should be declared illegitimate?
The above scenario was not restricted to the early part of Islamic history, rather the frequency of similar predicaments increased over time. Scholars had to deal with these dilemmas. As a result, scholars issued statements regarding the emergence of multiple rulers. Below are just a few quotes:
Ibn Taymiyah recognizing the validity of multiple rulers said, “The sunnah is for the Muslims to have one ruler, and the rest to be his governors. If it happens that the ummah leaves that condition due to some sinning and inability from the rest, such that there are multiple rulers, it becomes an obligation for the rulers to establish the penalties and fulfill the rights.”
Ash-Shawkani said, “After the spread of Islam, its expansion, and the distancing of its borders- it was known that in each country or countries rulership was assumed…so there is no problem with the multiplicity of the rulers, and the obedience is obligated for each one of them after the allegiance is given by the people of that country in which his ordinances are carried out.”
Al-Uthaymin states, “The ummah was divided during the era of the Companions. You know that Abdullah ibn Zubayr was in Makkah, Bani Umayyah in Shaam, also in Yemen there were others, in Egypt others as well and the Muslims continued to believe that allegiance was due to the one that had authority in the area they were in. Thus, they would pledge allegiance and call him Amir of the believers and no one condemned that.”
Therefore, the existence of multiple rulers is not a reason to call for a tear down of such governments to establish a caliphate.
But can we call these rulers caliphs? Is the term caliph reserved only for those that ruled like the first four caliphs?
If these rulers can not be called caliphs then that would put the question of establishing the caliphate back on the table.
Answers to these questions and more in Part 2 of the Caliphate Myth: The Dozen.