The changing nature of the institution of Caliph, the definition of Ummah, and how these have an effect on the concept of an Islamic state Part II – Ummah

In Religion and philosophy on 31. January 2016 at 18:14

Essay is also published at Eqbal Ahmed Centre for Public Education.

The institution of a central religious and political authority in Islam is something that has been changing drastically through times. Furthermore, what constitutes a Muslim – the pure definition of being a believer – is something that has not a consensus. These two concepts become quite central when some movements talk about the so called revival of a Islamic state. Is there a canon for an Islamic state, the community and the political leadership of this?

This series on three articles will focus on these three subjects, the institution of the Caliph, what the Muslim community (Ummah) is and what is in this concept of an Islamic state. Focus will be on the plurality in understanding these institutions and concepts and how through history they have developed.

Part II – Ummah

The community, nation or society – there are many variations in understanding the concept of ummah, the Muslim community, and still it is vague as it has been since its birth.


In the later 20th century political landscape the term of a global Muslim community as a unitary block became the utopian goal for many an Islamist movement. Especially as a counter to the atheist-communist Soviet block and the democratic-capitalistic block led by USA. In these environments, the geopolitical and ideological lines shaped concept of ummah. Thus, the definition of laid emphasis on military might, political unity, civil rights and duties and the related economic system.

However, this is only a fraction of the story behind this concept. For what is in this ummah. If it is purely faith based, there are multitude of groupings that needs to sit together. What about a political unity consisting of Muslim majority states and territories? Or rather, is it a spiritual community defined by the common ground with belonging to the Muslim creed?

How has this concept been understood, and what relation does it have to the definition of what constitutes a Muslim?


The reference point for all those who look back to the pure, untouched Islam is the early days of Islamic political rule, most notably the rule of Mohammad after his proclamation of state in Medina and the period of three decades after his death.

Mohammad launched a social contract in Medina following his ascension to power in 622. This contract Mithaq-e-Madina (Medinan constitution) defined the rights and duties of citizens of the city-state. Among its subjects was the personal law of citizens, which were to be based on his/her religious affiliation. Some early Muslims dub this contract as the definition of Ummah – i.e. that any inhabitant living under this constitution were considered a part of the community, for which rights and duties exist.

In other words, the community was not to be defined on religious lines, rather on the line of a society and its contract with its citizens. Some contemporary clerics interpret ummah based on this early course to be that of a local city or neighbour community. This to define what constitutes the scope of ones obligations on alms giving.

Other clerics and authorities, heavily influenced by political Islam, see the contract as a preamble to an Islamic state, in where Islamic law was supreme and where Muslims within and without the borders of such a state were to be considered a Muslim community. The non-Muslim community living under such a rule were to be second-class citizens (the Dhimma concept), and Muslims living as minorities in non-Muslim areas were to be struggled for.

Thought both models were overall unknown for majority, the first one was convenient and already existent throughout Muslim history, while the latter became convenient and automatically implemented in times of conquest, turmoil, rebels or wars.

But then again, one cannot overlook faith in this, most of the interpretations do focus on a faith-based community. However, in order to define a Muslim community, one needs therefore to define what constitutes a Muslim.

The principles

Apart from the political infightings among early Muslims, there was also in presence a debate on the fundamental parameter of Islamic faith. Monotheism was perhaps the prime and ultimate aspect of Islamic faith.

Ashadu an la ilaha illallah wa ashadu anna Mohammad’an RasulAllah

I testify that there is no God but God, and that Mohammad is his messenger. Could this simple line be a easy definition for a Muslims? Certainly not, for Gods attributes, his essence and nature, his word and his creation was to be debated by scholars and philosophers. Since difference in opinion already existed in the classical era, there was never a unitary understanding in the concept of tawhid (oneness of God), even though it being the most central pillar of faith.

What several Muslims today consider the ahqam (principles) of faith, was in its early stages recently discovered. Belief in one God (tawhid), belief in Gods Prophets (rusool), angels (malaika), books (presented to certain Prophets), and predestination had all its proponents, opponents, and off course those in between

For instance the debate of Quran being created at a given point, or its opposing view that of being eternal managed to become a vibrant one. Such debates entrenched the intra-sectarian positions later on. While one part claimed that Gods speech (The Quran) was uttered at one given point, and is separate from God’s essence, the other claimed his speech (i.e. the revelation) to be eternally a part of his own self, and thus never being created because God was never born, he was eternal. Most famous are the rationalists of the Mutazili camp in their debates against what later became traditionalists.

While oneness of God and other fundamental topics became criteria, another debate erupted. That of being a Muslim. In the political fights between Prophet’s disciples, some segments decided to mark support for opposing fraction as that being of an apostate. Kharijites were quite dogmatic about this and considered supporting an unjust ruler for being an act of blasphemy, one that excludes the person in point from the faith.

In addition, punishment was not delayed to the judgement of God alone, Muslims themselves were to establish this justice and hence death to those considered apostates were to become a duty. Murjia creed believed in delayed justice, as in that God was the sole judge and human could not punish or reward a person for his/her sins. Kharijites became their ardent opponents. The later traditional schools of thought adopted a modified Murji position in where repentance from a cardinal sin also became a factor. Recent decade’s development among traditionalists indicate a shift towards the kharijite position.

The schools of theology (aqida) were heavily interested in human nature and human action, and thus tried to define when a sinful act is committed, and whether or not man is fault in it. Especially was the tussle between Maturidi and Asharis regarding faith (iman) and piety (taqwa).

Maturidi creed argued that the level of Iman in each human being was the same, and therefore, that faith was a part of human nature. In other words, if a man unknown to the message of God died without a belief in God, he would err and thus punished. Asharis on the other hand believe that faith could increase and decrease, and that the mere necessity of Prophets and Gods words in form of books would go astray if human was to find out about the truth on their own.

This was a continuation of a trademark debate of the time, the one about predestination (qadar) and free will. For how could man sin if God had already planned what was to happen, asked the Qadarites, the counterpart in the form of Jabarites emphasised Gods will and knowledge though time, and thus were locked in this dilemma.

The qadarite and jabarite rites would be incorporated in the creeds of Mutazila and Asharite/Maturidi that would influence Sunni and Shia theology. Shias would until Allama Majlisi have a huge emphasis on the Mutazili standard on free-will, while Ashari and Maturidi creed took a determinist approach, claiming free will of the intention. Although, Shia Zaydis and Kharijite/Ibadi creeds would continue with a doctrine of free will. Sunni schools of theology took the middle ground. Thus, a matter of fundamental belief became truth by making a compromise – so much for the eternal word of truth.

To challenge the divine truth on predestination, one can analyse why the schools of thoughts aligned with Ummayad rulers were to adopt a political stance similar to those in power, while those in opposition, primarily the Shia would have an opposing position. Ummayads are known for defending the murder of Prophets Family and the siege of Mecca and Medina as the will of God, and thus the faults could not be laid on them.

Even though Shia diverged from Sunni thought on this, both schools evolved in synchronisation and ended up with the same answers, despite different tools in theological methodology. One can ask why the answers became the same for many theological questions, was it because God after all took care of his word, or that clerics had made up their mind, before they tested certain positions through their frameworks and tools?

The pillars

The result of the debates from classical Islamic era became the codified theological methodology and most notably the religious jurisprudence dubbed traditional and so called orthodox Islam. For contemporary Sunnis and Shias the pillars of faith defines the fundamental criteria for being a Muslim. Both have primary and secondary pillars and obligations, any deviation from these and one is out of the fold.

Shias emphasise monotheism (tawheed), judgements day, justice (adl), Prophethood (nubuwwah) and the solely exclusive imamate. Sunni pillars of faith include tawheed, belief in angels of God, Authority of the books of God, Prophets of God, judgements day and supremacy of Gods will (predestination).

Now analysing these principles, the Shia define their fundamental difference with Sunnis by placing imamate as a primary principle, Sunnis define their fundamental difference as secondary i.e. the overt focus on a piety among the first generation of Muslims and the hadith literature which they transmitted, while elevating belief in predestination as a pillar of faith. For the rest there are no major differences, yet dialectics and interpretation can always create debate.

While pillars of faith defines the individuals belief, the pillars of Islam defines what the different sects consider the fundamentals of Islam.

Sunnis define five pillars of Islam, as goes; Shahada (declaration of faith in one God and that Mohammad is his messenger), Prayers, Zakat (charity), Fasting and Pilgrimage. Shias have ten points as central pillars, among them prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, as Sunnis, in addition to khums (one-fifth tax), jihad (struggle), commanding what is good and forbid what is evil, expressing love towards Good (tawalla) and expressing disassociation from evil (tabarra)

Even though Shias have a longer list, Sunnis do agree on several parts as secondary principles. Some contemporary societies as Iran and Saudi Arabia have even institutionalised the commands on doing good and forbidding evil through religious moral police force.

Sunnis operate with an even longer list of secondary points of creed, which varies in between 70 to 105 key points. The list sums up some fundamental points mentioned above, but do addresses the doctrinal differences as emphasising respect for prophet’s wives and his disciples – stark in contrast to Shias tabarra that is critical of some of the wives and disciples following early civil wars.

Kharijites and the later Ibadis would have an even more critical outlook on the earlier generation, thus be of those most critical of secondary sources collected by both the camps.

The list also include several absurd points, as that of a slave running away from his master. In other words, it is a cardinal sin to escape from slavery, even though the Quranic emphasis on equality and freeing those bonded. Another point is to despair or commit suicide. Many of these points are sometimes recycled through fatwas and create outcry for its absurdities.

Take a break from the reading now and do consider the following as mentioned before; Mohammad was delivered an easy message, one of monotheism, now compare this to what became Islamic theology and jurisprudence.

The irony is that clerics always emphasise that God made Islam easy to adopt, yet in all its details and criteria, it has become a bureaucratic mess. What is certain is that the graasroot, the working force among Muslims, only cared for the message as was convenient, all else was details – and thus, even though doctrinal differences were huge, the commoner had figured out the secret on his own, that of tolerance.

As the doctrinal differences are indeed huge at some fundamental points, it is important to note how certain efforts to reconcile them has either demanded one part to concede to the other, or to ignore doctrines and rather tolerate each other.

However, before looking into the historic and recent moves to define a Muslim community, there is this important step to look at the scope that is acceptable to the two major branches of Islam. At the same time, once one defines a legitimate definition of Muslim, one also do exclude those who do not fit in. The concept of takfeer has been a weapon to stifle opposition, delegitimise opponents and in the worst consequence provoked persecution.

In faith by proxy

Even though history tells of how vicious this weapon of takfeer has been used, there has also been incidents, movements and trends to do the opposite. While division was handy during political conflicts and search for power, the same applied in times of compromise, when battles were in stalemates, or when society were simply fed up.

Nader Shah, dubbed the Napoleon or Alexander of Persia was a proponent of Shia-Sunni unity in the face of external threats. His motivations may be many, and among them most clearly was the Sunni-Ottoman enmity against a Shia-Safavid Persia, while domestically to cripple the vast powers of Shia clergy that emerged during Safavid zealous rule.

Nader sought to ease this pressure of constant warfare, while at the same time be ordained as a legitimate ruler for both Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East. His proposal of Shia Twelver school of thought as being the fifth legitimate tradition among Sunnis was somehow revolutionary, in a time where sectarian warfare was identical to the Ottoman-Safavid/Persian wars.

Ottomans though rejected such a plea, Jaafari School (The Shia Twelver sect) was to be considered heretic and opposed. To insult it even more, Ottomans launched wars with Persians by claiming they were committing blasphemy, and whenever peace treaties were presented, they demanded an end to tabarra practices.

Through centuries the Sufi creed, which had a base within Sunni Islam, but where certain orders were quite independent, worked as a glue that united both Shia and Sunni creeds, and secondly presented an easy folk Islam to natives, in their language, and within their cultural context. What became a zealous Shia Safavid rule in Persia was beforehand a sunni-Sufi order that emphasised unity.

The Nurbukhsi Sufis of Gilgit practices an Islam that has doctrinal elements from both the fundamentals of Sunni and Shia Islam. Certain Sufi-Sunni movements in South-Asia also practice a likeminded combination, though some elements are quite zealous for not accepting a difference from what they consider the canon. The Al-Ahbash movement in Levant is a modern unitary creed that emphasises a combination of both major blocks.

While Musa Sadr alongside the new order in Iran accepted Alawi creed of Syria and Lebanon as legit Muslims in order to gain political stability, the Iranian regime of Khomeini sought the same in order to have political advantage in the Levant. While intentions were political, and while they went against doctrinal differences, they still seemed to be of a higher priority. Hafez and Bashar al-Assads regime tried for long to make Alawi practices more aligned to Sunni, as to get more legitimacy, only to overtly focus on distinct identity when the recent conflict flared up.

Sunnis did operate in the same way, especially during the days of Nasserist Egypt that tried to eliminate sectarian differences and secure a political union with Syria. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mahmoud Shaltut gave a religious edict in 1959 proclaiming Shia Jaafari/Twelver School alongside Shia Zaydis to be within the fold of Islam. This era marked a rather interesting relationship between the giants among Sunni and Shia Muslims. Imam Shaltut and the Shia Grand Marja Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi sought both to fight the enmity and sectarian tension between the camps, though it did not last for long, it created indeed a modern precedence.

In 2004, the Jordanian Government launched a similar effort to define legitimate Islam, and to forbid takfeer on those within this fold. Among the accepted schools of thoughts were the traditional Sunni madhabs; Hanafi, Maliki, Shafei and Hanbali, and the Shia Jaafari, Zaydi and Ismaili-Mustali creed. In addition, the Ibadi sect, the sunni-literalists dubbed Zahiri (known as Salafi or Wahabi) and Sufi-orders were included. This is at present perhaps one of the widest definitions of a Muslim.

Although certain groups were excluded, either to the objection of one of them (mostly Sunnis) or to them both, and here comes the ironies. While Shias could accept Zaydis and Mustalis, who have a different imami line, they could not include Ismaili-Nizaris merely because their Imam is still present. And while Sunnis objected to Nizaris because of their definition of Imamate, they accepted Mustalis because of similar theology. Even more, the Nizari Imam, Prince Karim Aga Khan was signature of this declaration, even though his community was excluded.

The smaller Zikri/Mahdavi and Ahmadi community were left out, ignoring that the latter practices the Sunni jurisprudence, yet the objection was on it having a founder who claimed to be a Prophet of God. What is interesting in all this is that Ahmadis don not consider their founder to be a new law bearing Prophet, and thus de facto the definition of the Prophethood of their founder is none different than the definition of the twelve Imams of Jaafaris.

The question of Ahmadi Muslims was debated in the Munir Report of 1954 following mass-violence against Ahmadis in Lahore led by religious groupings of islamist and Sufi leaning. The report is an interesting reading, as it proves how several Muslim groupings could not define what constitutes a Muslim, further on the dilemma of revelation vs. man-made laws, Caliph and Islamic state were debated by all parts in this. Ironically, what became an inquiry of mass-violence ended up decades later in declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims, the very same community that was persecuted.

Salafist object even on the traditionalist Sunnis methodology and call Sunni interpretation as something freewheeling and duped with excessive flexibilities according to H. A. Hellyer. The counterpunch is by traditionalists to call Salafist approach as having poor command of the complexity of tradition.

While the major schools of Shia and Sunni Islam agree to define each other within the parameters of Islam, their own parameters gives in total a wider range. Thus in the end – by proxy – include a huge mass, and thereby making what originally is considered controversial, now more digestible.

For example if Sunnis accept Shia Jaafari school as legit, and the latter accept the Alevis of Anatolia and Alawis of Levant, then by relation the latter two are within the fold, because one legal school has said so. Such notions are rejected though, and even if the Amman Message of 2004 had big names to support it, it was merely a piece of paper, as will be elaborated later on.


The concept of the community gives Muslims a feeling of belonging to a bigger family, for a bigger cause, an understanding of the common beliefs and practices. The suffering of one part of this community becomes the suffering of them all, and the fortunes of one, the same. Several religious duties are ordained into this community, as the one of fardh-e-kifayah, which loosely translates to the duty that benefits the community even though performed by some – all receive the religious reward as the tradition goes.

In other instances, Muslim duty of alms gives the weaker segments of the community a rightful share, and thus it is bound upon Muslims to care for one another by religious obligation. However, what happens in a village consisting of Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis and Salafis? While ethics of alms giving, caring for the weak is preached in the mosque, the same instance lays emphasis on giving alms to the ‘right’ receiver. Is then empathy limited to people’s faith?

These paradoxes has been addressed through times by laying emphasis on giving the alms and charity to those in need and not by criteria of belonging to one set of beliefs. The second Sunni Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab introduced a piety scale in order to give state benefits, but had to retreat as such an absurd criteria was impossible to govern. Now he backed from something he considered a fault, while Iran practices a democracy in where candidates are filtered amongst other based on their piety, Pakistan has similar criteria for its candidates to National Assembly which was introduced by a zealous dictator.

The smaller religious communities have through times tended to make it obligatory to make inter-sectarian welfare systems which is paid for by the community. The Shia khums system guarantees a steady flow of incomes, which benefits the community. This is the result of being persecuted, not cared for, as one is not a part of the wider community.

Ismailis of both the rites have huge networks of NGOs and relief organisations which works for the community, but also for the greater good in education and health, as for example the Aga Khan Development Network, and Aga Khan University Hospital which stands for a major part of biomedical research in Pakistan. The Mustalis of Dawoodi rite have extensive projects, which has renovated Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala, and the Fatimid legacy in Cairo.

In other instances, especially when it comes to movements that have caught the islamist wind, there is this tendency to lay weight on the number of Muslims on this planet, and how this force if united could become a superpower. The very same movements are eager to exclude a vast number of these Muslims as infidels (kafir) and apostates.

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the celebrity cleric from Egypt was one of the signatories of Amman message, but who after the civil war in Syria declared his work for unity with the Shia community null and void. From being an advocate of Shia-Sunni unity, Qaradawi became a fierce opponent, considering them to be apostates, and the Alawis to be worse than Christians and Jews.

Such a drastic shift happened with the eruption of a political conflict – but it does trigger the question, was Qaradawi, and several others, true to their heart, when they signed peace declarations of unity? Were they merely doing a mimicry for the press, for in the end to show the true face when facing a difficult situation?

In 2012 the Al-Azhar institution reacting themselves on the modern eruption of Shia-Sunni enmity reversed Imam Shaltuts fatwa of Shia-Sunni unity. Forbidding praying behind Shia Imams or to consider their religious opinions as legal source of emulation.

This salafisation of Sunni orientation has cost the Sufi orders hugely. Following Arab spring the many Sufi tombs and places of worship were demolished, put on fire and crushed by islamists and Salafis throughout Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

The argument goes, as per Salafi tradition, that veneration of saints and their graves is against the concept of tawheed (monotheism) and thus anti-Islam. It was the case when the early Saudis attacked Shia holy city of Najaf in early 19th century, sacking the city, massacring and destroying the central tomb. They continued this policy in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, arguing theologically domestically, while internationally calling it a necessity due to increased number of pilgrims.

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi used the same arguments when his network attacked a Shia shrine in Samarra in 2006, provoking a massive sectarian conflict in Iraq. Recently Zarqawi’s legacy in the form of IS did the same to a Shia shrine in Syria, with the same justification and with the wish to increase sectarian conflict even more.

The situation is same among certain streams of Shia Muslims. Especially in the battlefield in Syria and Iraq where some militias are predicting messianic battles between good and evil and the second coming of the hidden Imam. Sunnis are equated with the more militant Salafis as IS and jihad is used as weapon to justify human rights violations.

Other clerics, amongst them Ayatollah Ali Sistani has kept the calm, following the old Shia jaafari nature of quietist approach, and promoted stability and unity. This tradition among Shias was weakened when Khomeini took power in Iran, and Musa as-Sadr suddenly disappeared in Libya. The more radical islamist movements among the Shirazi howza and consensus in Qom became sectarian in not only theology, but also in use of political power.

So here we are, talking about a Muslim community, a united block which has a huge potential, but we cannot agree on who is to be considered a part of this. Fact is that in political terms, there has never been a united ummah from since the day Prophet died, and soon afterwards, this became a fact on religious terms too.


According to the late Asghar Ali Engineer, the leader of the breakaway non-clerical Dawoodi branch of Mustali-Ismailis ‘Islam had a social agenda, aimed at reforming not only the individual but also the whole society. It knew that the roots of exploitation and oppression lay in social structure, not only in individual avarice’.

In other words, faith was to lay emphasis for the betterment of those who are exploited or oppressed. Taken this into consideration, which is quite in tune with Mohammad’s early activism, it is quite a distorted picture that paints considering blasphemy laws in certain Muslim countries, religious edicts that proclaim death for apostasy or difference in thought, or merely being born into the wrong sex.

What was meant to be an easy faith has by time become quite so complicated, with occasionally dire consequences. While the Muslim community (ummah) was to give relief to those in needs, instead, it works as a tool for some groups to oppress, and to put one parts will over the other.

While the community was an idea of a local civil society, in a time where welfare for the people delivered by a state was unknown, is has now become a political idea and tried entrenched into state institutions.

And while some boast of the numbers of Muslims on this limited planet, the reality is that a majority of these will in the end not even be considered a part of this community by certain chunks of this ill-fated ummah. Some majoritarian argue that it is a reason why their creed has a majority among those claiming to be Muslims, and that there must be truth into this, effectively ignoring the historic demographic sizes.

The minority groups argue of being the persecuted lot, the underdog, which stands by truth and endures the challenges as many a Prophets have endured before them. For both groups, all of the sudden sheer number of followers becomes the criteria to prove that what they follow is the truth.

Quran has certain ethical values for the individual, those of doing good (amal salih), be truthful (haq), observe patience (sabr) and show compassion (rehmah) – and for the society it has the moral code of justice (adl), equality (mosawat) and karamat (dignity). The latter moral values are the guidelines for a civil society, a community, a local neighbourhood, or the global village, presented in the early message. These values are bound to be understood widely. What is to comprehend is that something is worth more than the petty infightings for doctrines solidified by chance, by reaction or by circumstances.

The ultimate definition, one that holds the individual believer in the centre, is to let him/her define if they consider themselves Muslim or not. Thus, the definition of a global community lies in the hands of the individual member of this community.


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