The declaration by the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS) of a caliphate, with its chief Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as Caliph, shows, if nothing else, the gap left by the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate amongst Muslims. It also shows the theological difficulties faced by any group or state claiming Islamic provenance.

It is almost as if ISIS had attempted to solve the problem never properly done by the Taliban when ruling as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which it still claims to be. Emir of what Caliph? Islamic theology is familiar with the concept of a virtually independent Emir; one delegated with all the caliph’s powers. However, what if there is no Caliph to delegate those powers? That is the question Mullah Omar had, and which Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi seems to have solved by becoming Caliph himself.

With the Ottomans, the Caliphate became a much more vibrant institution, as the whole of the Muslim world, except Iran, Indonesia, Central Asia and India, came under its rule. This lasted until 1918, when the Turkish Empire was defeated in World War I, when it was parceled out to the victorious Entente. The Caliphate was abolished in 1924, and Turkey became a Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. There was a Caliphate Movement in the Subcontinent, which merged into the Independence Movement.

That reflected a number of dimensions still relevant now. First, the concern of all Muslims in the Caliphate. Islam requires no baptism beyond the declaration of faith. Second, the Caliphate is political. It is only theological because Islam does not accept the church-state division, and thus every action involves the divine. This is logical only if the Almighty’s omniscience and all-seeingness are accepted.

It is only when one separates religion from the state, that there is the Western dislike of what is called political Islam. Islam provides instructions for politics, and the default model for it is the Caliphate. That does not just mean having a caliph, but implementing all the Islamic systems of social life. That explains why the bait, or the oath of office, has such great centrality to assuming the office of Caliph.

There was an element of free choice in the appointments of the first four rightly guided Caliphs, but the Umayyid dynasty saw its conversion into a hereditary office. However, the person assuming the office, had to receive the allegiance of the ahlul hal wal uqd, ‘the people who loosen and bind.’ Even if this oath was reduced to one made by one person, as it was in the time of the Ottomans, this was the only means of attaining the Caliphate.

That is itself one measure of the new Caliph, or of anyone claiming the office. In principle, any Muslim capable of entering a contract, or of offering prayer, is capable of accepting the Caliphate. However, that person must also swear to rule by the Book and the example of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). The office can be held by any Muslim, and the conditions which have appeared in the press, such as being from the Quresh, are conditions of preference, but are not essential.

One dimension of Baghdadi’s declaration is that the office is viewed as a sectarian one. It is true that the Abbasids and Ottomans were Sunnis, but even the original martyrdom of Imam Hussain was over the Caliphate. The office is supposed to be universal, and the accusations reflect an overwhelming desire by opponents of the Caliphate idea to make the current conflict a sectarian one.

Another issue that needs consideration is the standard the new Caliphate has set for itself; that of being on the Minhajun Nabuwa: the method of the Prophet (pbuh). That would indicate a standard to which the new Caliphate must be held. By it, it has announced that it is not to be held responsible for any deviations by any predecessors. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) sought help from many tribes after being rejected by his native Quresh, and finally won acceptance in Medina. He went there only after the Second Pledge of Aqaba, in which representatives of the people of Medina promised to defend him even by fighting.

It is important to note that it was in Medina that he began to administer a state, and that he not only provided the safety that a state was supposed to provide, but also enjoyed that safety. The Caliphate is merely a continuation of the state he established. The Caliph should be able to function independently, and freely. That implies that there must be a proper area in which the Caliph enjoys authority to implement Islam, and that too in totality. The reports of Al-Baghdadi being wounded in an attack show that that standard has not been met.

The call to all Muslims to offer allegiance to the Caliph, superseding national loyalties, is orthodox. The Islamic ruling system does not contemplate Muslims being separated by national boundaries. It is also true that many of the national frontiers in today’s Muslim world are just lines drawn on a map, and that too by colonial powers. Thus the territory over which a Caliphate is established need not correspond to national boundaries.

However, the call for the bait does not seem very practical, nor are there any efforts beyond the call. In principle, the bait now to be offered is that of obedience, not of appointment. Once the appointment is made, and the Caliph-designate has accepted, then everyone else offers the bait of obedience which must be ‘open and secret.” So far, no one has offered the bait, which means the governments and the people do not acknowledge him.

The new claimant received the comment that he would attract condemnation from other jihadi groups. While Al-Qaeda has remained silent, the Hizbut Tahrir has made a statement rejecting his claim. The Hizb is a political party which has worked for the restoration of the Caliphate. It has been banned in Pakistan since the Musharraf era, as it is in several of the countries where it operates. Still, it is the only party which is present in the entire Ummah, including in the Islamic State’s territory. It has neither offered its bait to Al-Baghdadi, nor asked for it to be given to him. As the Hizb has pointed out, the declaration of a Caliphate ought to be a game-changer, not the butt of jokes, as seems to be the case. The Caliphate’s declaration might lead to people becoming disappointed in Islam, to which they are turning, now that all the other means, tried across the Muslim world to solve their problems, have failed. That cannot have been the purpose of the declaration, but that seems to be its fate.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

maniazi@nation.com.pk