A Space for Thought – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

Settling in to write this introduction to our new book event, I was led on a memorial YouTube detour through the late 1990s/early 2000s. An LA hip hop group called “Soldiers of Allah” was then popular among young Western Muslims. Their politics are clear from their song titles — 1924, Bring Islam Back, Muslim for Life, Imaginary Walls, Fake Scholars, Political Manipulation, Method of the Prophet. Their lyrics were blunt and their music unexceptional. Looking back at that moment now, the albums I had downloaded over dialup, it is easy to focus on how shortsighted was their faith in a politics militant. (The New York Times mentioned the group in the course of an article on “internet jihad”.) But they captured something else: an appeal to the ethical. Against the ruin wrought by nation and state, race and ideology, against the corruption of the world, of fatal divisions and scholarly misguidance, a claim for the possibility of justice.

Articulated with far more poetic finesse and in a more scholastic register, a similar possibility is the passion of the “Sword of Ibn Nasir,” Muhammad al-Dar’i‘s (d. 1085/1674) “Nasiri supplication” (translations by Aisha Bewley and Hamza Yusuf) to be freed from the aggression of foreigners, that wrongs be righted, that righteousness reign, that the destitute be restored, the adversary be crushed, divine mercy extend and sustain – a poem which so inspired Maghrebi resistance against the French occupation that they banned its recitation in mosques (it also exceeds whatever appropriations of it by Sunni quietism today). This is the echo of the tenderness and admonition in Q 27:62: Is He not Who answers the wronged one when he cries to Him and removes the evil and has made you caliphs (khulafa’) of the earth? Is there any god beside God? Little do you heed!

Recalling the Caliphate obviously belongs to an entirely different order than either of these, and comparing the messianic glimmer afforded by each may be less instructive than reading Dune against Star Trek (chapters 5 and 6). But completing this book also has a resonant effect: it re-activates questions whose answers were compulsively taken as granted (and sustained through the global police). It insists though on the possibility of rupture with the given order of the world (kharq al-‘ada). In short it seeks a miracle.

Introducing this book event, and excited to read the engagements by our illustrious lineup (June 1: Adam Kotsko; June 3: Asma Afsaruddin; June 5: Selim Karlitekin; June 8: Yasmina Raiani; June 10: Nadia Sariahmed; June 12: Anthony Paul Smith), I here want only to touch on the kind of book it is. For me it stands clearly (creatively) against Wael Hallaq’s Impossible State (given Hallaq’s amor fati with the state) and the host of other ontic renderings of Islamism. And it stands next to Jonathan Boyarin’s Thinking in Jewish and two of Talal Asad’s recent essays (those occasioned by his father and by tradition today). Its genre is elusive, as shown even by its structure. Eleven chapters are organized with reference to a name (Names, Liberalism, Secularism, Relativism, Democracy, Futurology, Diaspora, Caliphate, Order, Hermeneutics, Ethics). Their interventions are overlapping and eventually interlocking. The first chapters engage the ways Muslim mobilizations toward autonomy (destabilizing coloniality) are “inflected” (deflected, deferred, disavowed). The later chapters stage possibilities (“speculative fictions”) to reconceptualize the caliphate (rather than simply remember or restore, as though a blueprint would be adequate).

The received ways of thinking Islam and politics (ontically) are insufficient because what is at stake is precisely the tension between Islam and Islamicate (i.e. what is inspired by venture of Islam) (15). And it cuts both ways: a resolutely decolonial double gesture (critique and possibilities) to avoid fatal attachment to its object of critique. So it first tracks compromised efforts to render clash into a dialogue of civilizations, iterations of colonial secularism, the Eurocentric relapse between critiques of essentialism and critiques of universalism, uncoupling the Western logo from democracy. This is a project that has to compose its own idiom (“Critical Muslim Studies”). This means that it takes for granted much of the critical work that has been done in Islamic studies, political theory, area studies, anthropology — without allowing itself to being disciplined by them. Refreshingly, fiercely independent, and authorizing itself to be so, it opens with reference to Ibn Khaldun and cites Agamben and Shari’ati and Zizek, engages Khomeini and al-Azmeh and Mawdudi and many others, is clearly informed by Heidegger and Schmitt. But the book does not oblige itself to perform close readings (however virtuosic) of any of these. They are not its authorities (that would accede too much). Instead they serve as condensations, touchstones for another thought.

Each of these citations/engagements could be further elaborated, and the contributors to this book event might take up some of them. For now, in this introductory post, I just note that the caliphate to come will answer to the umma, the anti-nation (thus: to the diaspora form, rather than to the ulema: 178). As a great power, it will be both the voice of the umma and its echo, the expression of Muslim autonomy as well as its engine (131). This requires a tutoring of the umma of “how to place it in a context that decolonises the Islamicate past as a way of clearing the ground for the future for Muslims” (145). Thus the book analyzes the conditions of possibility for a successful Islamist hegemonic project, namely one that prepares the way for a polity based on an ontological (rather than ontic) understanding of Islam (see 149: “only an understanding of Islam that emphasised the ontic would be reducible to a set of its key features, but because Islam is an ontological category for Muslims such a reduction is unsustainable”).

One aspect of this “tutoring” takes place through the cultivation of a Muslim subjectivity that rejects the “decontestation” of the Qur’an, that is, its reduction to transparent, instrumentalizable scripture. (The politics of the caliphate to come exceed the flanks of conservative and progressive, traditionalist and salafi alike.) Instead the relationship between Qur’an and umma must be “preserved in a form in which the Qur’an is a horizon towards which the ummah has to move. This means that the Qur’an cannot be absorbed into the ummah” (162). Tradition is not part of the world because what is at stake in its contestation (what Sayyid calls “ethics”) is precisely its relationship to the world (Anthony’s “Against Tradition to Liberate Tradition” and Norman O. Brown’s Challenge of Islam). This is why the thought of the caliphate to come (as too Islam as form of life: 177, and see Agamben) is not normative or moral. It cannot be thought through rules or criteria: there is no given matrix against which it can be measured. Instead it is political. It requires not spiritual cultivation or armed struggle but a proliferation of Muslim counterpublics, irrupting into whatever spheres of culture or religion. This is the decolonial declaration. Its horizon is that much closer with the release of this book.

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