The Caliphate and Its Poetic Possibilities – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

This is a guest post from Asma Afsaruddin, Chair and Professor, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington.

With the term “caliphate” being bandied around so much lately, often in a negative vein, S. Sayyid’s thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of what this term has come to signify for contemporary Muslims is to be welcomed.  As he eloquently phrases it, “The caliphate is in a state of suspension between the ideal ethical state represented by the Medina polity and the various Kemalist states in which the historical sequence that began with the revelations to the Messenger of God is ruptured. The strategy for recalling the caliphate cannot have the character of a blueprint, but rather of poetic possibilities, which inspires and reorients Muslims to the practical task of protecting the ummah and projecting it into the future”.   Recalling the caliphate, he states further, is ultimately a political project that strives to decolonize the umma.

I am intrigued by Sayyid’s reference to “poetic possibilities” in contemporary Muslim reimaginations of the historic, idealized caliphate of the early period, specifically that of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs as they are named by the majority of Muslims who are Sunni. The Shi‘a idealize the reign of the fourth caliph only – ‘Ali b. Abi Talib – but basically for the same reasons that Sunnis revere all four. The author is right to emphasize that this recalling of the caliphate is not a call for a restoration of the institution itself and certainly not of that historical era — for in this poignant recollection is embedded the memory of “something less than perfect.” So if it is not the institution itself nor the period that is the goal of these collective reimaginings, then what is it? Here we are invited to dwell on what the range of poetic possibilities of such a project might be.

Certainly the modern nostalgia for the caliphate is tied up with the desire to create “a space in the world for the ummah,” that would allow for the prospect of reorganizing the current global political order. Yet this description still does not cut to the core –at least for me — of this intense nostalgia for the caliphate among some. The present global order is indeed enormously dissatisfying, and the caliphate does become a metaphor for Muslim struggles “to reorder the postcolonial world.” But this characterization still does not capture, as I see it, the primary reason for this deep-seated dissatisfaction. It is a dissatisfaction, which I would emphasize, has to do with contemporary global systemic injustices and Muslim aspirations to uproot them and replace a fundamentally unethical system with something much better. Sayyid does not articulate this desideratum explicitly, although it can be teased out from much of what he has to say on this subject. Justice and its realization, is after all the common leitmotif of all Muslim reformist enterprises today, as it has been in the past.

The umma – the transnational Muslim community — is the locus of this desired justice. The caliphate in its pristine conception was meant to ensure justice and law and order for all who lived within its geographical purview: Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The period of the first four caliphs is idealized particularly because in the umma’s collective memory, these successors to the Prophet attempted in good faith to deliver justice to their people. These rulers, who were the first among equals, were understood to be in possession of great moral excellence on account of which they had gained precedence in their community, not on account of wealth or blood-kinship. They promoted egalitarianism in their time and sought the consent and consensus of the people they ruled over through consultative processes. And, most importantly, they held themselves accountable to the people and, as Abu Bakr (the first caliph) is reported to have proclaimed, were liable to be removed from political office if they became despotic, unjust, and/or corrupt.  There is no denying it – the early caliphate is remembered as being democratic in its tendencies and challenges the Orientalist grand political narrative focused on the simplistic dichotomy distilled in the statement: “Democracy is Western and despotism is Oriental,” as pointed out by Sayyid. Just, democratic, and egalitarian – excellent attributes for any polity, especially one that wants to be remembered by posterity as having ushered in a golden era.   Certainly the golden era was imperfect as all golden eras ultimately are; it was witness to civil war, political assassinations, and rebellions. But the Rightly-Guided Caliphs are remembered for having risen above the fray with their personal integrity and devotion to the highest ideals within Islam drawn from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s lived example, even under the most trying circumstances.

The Arabic term shura – meaning consultation — came to encapsulate all that was right with the Rightly-Guided Caliphate, despite the vicissitudes of the era. The caliphate was not a divinely-mandated institution; there is no reference in the Qur’an to any kind of political entity that Muslims are duty-bound to establish. It was a pragmatic arrangement arrived at by the early Muslims through consultation with one another and represents one of the earliest and most significant practical enactments of the Qur’anic principle of shura in the post-prophetic period. When Muslims today conjure up the term caliphate, for the most part they are paying homage to the values enshrined in this concept, not necessarily to the institution itself. The caliphate becomes a synecdoche for righteous and just governance in any era and in any place.

This fundamental fact is lost upon people like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the imposter caliph) and his ilk in Iraq today, who believe that the mere evocation of the term caliphate will cause Muslims everywhere to rally around his cause. But as Sayyid reminds us forcefully — it is the ethics, stupid! The author’s emphasis on this critical point is worthy of notice; ethics, he says, “describes the constant possibility of a better union between what is and what ought to be” and seeks to be true to the spirit of the law, not its letter. A caliphate devoid of ethics and the principles it must seek to uphold is a moral outrage; when murder, mayhem and oppression are carried out in its name, it represents a gross travesty, as is the current situation with ISIS. There is no genealogy of ethics between al-Baghdadi’s sham caliphate of the twenty-first century and the Rightly-Guided Caliphate of the seventh century. This is a critical point that is lost on Graeme Wood and other gullible political commentators who would reduce Islam to mere political and legal shibboleths denuded of moral content, much like ISIS does.

Although Sayyid and I are on agreement on these larger issues, I must disagree with him however regarding his characterization of the umma as a diaspora. I would argue instead that the transnational concept of the umma allows Muslims to feel at home wherever they may be and wherever they are free to be Muslims – veritable global citizens of our time. If by the very notion of the umma Muslims are not bound to a nation-state as such, they are perforce called upon to realize their Muslimness wherever they are and rise above parochial nation- or region-bound designations. Some pre-modern jurists, like al-Mawardi in the eleventh century, were already able to articulate this when they conceived of an expansive Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) as the physical manifestation of the metaphorical umma. In this capacious conception, the Dar al-Islam was wherever Muslims could practice their faith safely and openly, regardless of whether such a realm was ruled by a Muslim ruler or not. The bottom line is that a just world order is what ensures the well-being of Muslims and of people of other faiths and no faith. “Caliphate” is what some Muslims today choose to name this elusive but highly desirable just world order.

Sayyid in the SCTIW

Our event on S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate is kicking off on Friday and readers interested in an appetizer can find his review of Cotton, Climate, and Camels over at SCTIW. A small sample:

The same conflict between ideology and knowledge can be seen in the so-called culture wars in US academies. The significance of these campus culture wars is more than just an account of a bloodless game of thrones that characterizes academic careers (who is promoted, who has been tenured, who blocked who, etc.), for the battle lines are drawn between those who want to promote the idea of a self-contained Western canon and those who want to decolonize it. Those who want to imagine something that transcends the Western order of things are very often admonished not to worry about the color of cats but to focus on catching mice. In other words, an “ideological” critique is invalid and the academic should undertake research and teaching that adheres to the old verities and virtues of academia, that is, disinterested pure knowledge easily accessible and unencumbered by obtuse postcolonial or postmodern thought, the assumption being that academic knowledge, done properly, would be an uninterrupted tale of a world that goes from Plato-to-NATO.

Find the rest here, and tune in this Friday for more disruption of the Plato-to-NATO pipeline.

Upcoming Book Event: Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Worlds Without End

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverIn August we will be hosting a book event on Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s latest, Worlds Without End.

…in which are discussed pre-, early-, and post-modern multiple-worlds cosmologies; the sundry arguments for and against them; the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors; the shifting boundaries of science, philosophy, and religion; and the stubbornly persistent question of whether or not creation has been “designed.”

I’ve had the good fortune of hearing her speak about the book, and it is an exciting, transdisciplinary tour of the history of philosophical reflection on cosmology, contemporary science, and perennial questions of religion. Catherine Keller will be introducing this event and we have a great list of contributors:

  • Marika Rose
  • Jonnie Russell
  • Anooj Kansara
  • Rebekah Sinclair
  • Lisa Gasson-Gardner
  • Beatrice Marovich


Upcoming Book Event: Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate

9781849040037In late May we will be hosting the next AUFS book event on S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order (Amazon). Sayyid was formerly the Director of the International Centre of Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia and is currently based at the University of Leeds. His faculty page can be found here and a description of the book is included below. Be sure to order a copy of the book so that you can follow along! There should be some great discussion around this incredibly timely text.

We have an excellent line-up of contributors, some AUFS regulars and a few new folks:

  • Basit Iqbal
  • Asma Afsaruddin
  • Adam Kotsko
  • Selim Karlitekin
  • Yasmina Raiani
  • Nadia Sariahmed
  • Anthony Paul Smith

From the publisher:

As late as the last quarter of the twentieth century, there were expectations that Islam’s political and cultural influence would dissipate as the advance of westernization brought modernization and secularization in its wake. Not only has Islam failed to follow the trajectory pursued by variants of Christianity, namely confinement to the private sphere and depoliticisation, but it has also forcefully re-asserted itself as mobilizations in its name challenge the global order in a series of geopolitical, cultural and philosophical struggles. The continuing (if not growing) relevance of Islam suggests that global history cannot simply be presented as a scaled up version of that of the West. Quests for Muslim autonomy present themselves in several forms – local and global, extremist and moderate, conservative and revisionist – in the light of which the recycling of conventional narratives about Islam becomes increasingly problematic. Not only are these accounts inadequate for understanding Muslim experiences, but by relying on them many Western governments pursue policies that are counter-productive and ultimately hazardous for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “Recalling the Caliphate” engages critically with the interaction between Islam and the political in context of a post colonial world that continues to resist profound decolonization. In the first part of this book, Sayyid focuses on how demands for Muslim autonomy are debated in terms such as democracy, cultural relativism, secularism, and liberalism. Each chapter analyzes the displacements and evasions by which the decolonization of the Muslim world continues to be deflected and deferred, while the latter part of the book builds on this critique, exploring, and attempts to accelerate the decolonization of the Muslim Ummah.


Cloud Precipitates – Response from Catherine Keller

Cloud of the ImpossibleFor An und Für Sich

Sunday 2.8.15
Cloud Precipitates

Let me announce, not without celebration, that this is my first time to participate in this sort of virtual book conversation. Thank you Stephen, for initiating this exchange on if not in the Cloud—and Amaryah, Carolyn, Kate, Austin, Karen, Marika and Beatrice for offering such serious responses. I’m glad for the chance to offer a brief response—somehow—to all of you, all at once. I’ll riff a bit on my general sense of the joint challenge your responses offer, the trouble you together make, and perhaps offer a few more specific elucidations.

The most recurrent concern that comes across—in very different ways—is not surprisingly that of my commitment to relationality as the site of theological thinking. Relationality an und für sich! And worse—I seem to lay out an ontological interconnectivity as the site of anything that is. No getting around it: I admit it, I don’t think there is any salvation from a boundlessly entangled universe, or from the supreme entanglement we sometimes awkwardly nickname God. S/he/it doesn’t escape either. Though my language may be peculiar, that thought is hardly original, as Cloud is at pains to show along a (really long) western lineage. But it has been and remains a marginal thought, rarely tolerated among academic and cultural elites. Continue reading “Cloud Precipitates – Response from Catherine Keller”

Clouded Judgement – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

This is a guest post from Catherine Tomas. She is finishing her Dphil in theology at Oxford University.

Catherine Keller’s book opened up a multiplicity of thoughts for me. And ‘The multiplicities come attached systemically, perspectivally, with interest conflicting’ (216). The project of writing any form of theology is daunting. Perhaps because when one attempts to put onto paper a collection of thoughts, feelings and ways of knowing, writing itself can never seem an adequate medium. Cloud of the ImpossibleWhen one is writing a theology, or theology, one is attempting to pin down some type of amorphous being, a ‘cloud of impossibility’ as Keller has it, onto and through a type of form. I am acutely aware of this struggle and Cloud of the Impossibile is clearly an attempt to wrestle, or perhaps, charm, this essentially free moving and liberating entity or energy, into something that can be printed and re-printed and read.

As theologians, or (as someone not comfortable to call themselves a theologian) as those whose work it is to offer new theologies or ways of understanding the theology we have inherited, we have a responsibility to do this job in a way that is liberating, and reduces suffering. When engaging with the Christian tradition; a tradition permanently stained by an horrific history of abuse, suffering, oppression and violence – and by this I mean a tradition which has caused the abuse, suffering, oppression and violence – we have a particular responsibility to write theology that does not continue this tradition. There is no doubt this is what Keller is attempting to do. And I want to ally myself with this project. Continue reading “Clouded Judgement – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event”

Reflecting in the Dark on the Cloud of the Impossible-Apophatic Entanglement and Adoption

This is guest post from Carolyn Roncolato. She holds a Ph.D. in Theology, Ethics, and the Human Sciences from Chicago Theological Seminary.

In Cloud of the Impossible Catherine Keller asks, “How shall we think the relation between the nonseparability encoded in entanglement and the nonknowing minded by apophasis?” (7). Not surprisingly, the response that unfolds throughout this text is neither simple nor linear but rather an exploration of the many layers of what Keller calls “apophatic entanglement.” Using theories, reflections, musings, and theologies of nonknowing, Keller sheds new light (or better said, new darkness) on relationality, a theme that has been central to her theology since the beginning.

This text’s invitation to explore non-knowing, luminous darkness, and planetary entanglement comes to me at a most welcome moment. My partner and I have been waiting to adopt for six months; we have been waiting for a child for six years. Theoretically affirming the unknown is one thing, living it is quite another. As such, I take this opportunity to examine these concepts in light of my own embodied reality with the hope that Keller’s insights can help make meaning of the experience and the experience can help give flesh to the text. Continue reading “Reflecting in the Dark on the Cloud of the Impossible-Apophatic Entanglement and Adoption”

Introduction: Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement is one of those rare books with a counter-intuitive thesis that, once one is looking for it, can be seen in unexpected places. Traditionally, negative theology has been understood as a purely epistemological enterprise, the nullification of positive statements about God. KCloud of the Impossibleeller’s innovation is to read apophatics as a prophetic praxis that calls us to respond to the urgent sufferings of the world. In preparing this post to introduce the book event, I discovered a prequel in Keller’s earlier, groundbreaking opus The Face of the Deep: her interpretation of the “comi-cosmic epiphany” of Job.

Keller reads Job as a theological parody that subverts a perpetually dominant logic of justice that blames victims. After tragedy befalls him, Job’s friends prefigure this common Christian, and now secularized piety: telling those who are suffering that they got what they deserved. Job protests his friends’ interpretations, but they insist. Finally, there is a dramatic moment in the story when God speaks out of the whirlwind and addresses the sufferings of his servant “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I made the clouds the earth’s garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band?” God’s speech continues with a bombastic litany of cosmological and zoological figures. In other words, God becomes a theologian whose negation of propositions entails a mindfulness of relations. Keller states “To the raging question of theodicy (How could a good and all-powerful God permit such injustice) the voice from the whilwind replies: Look at the wild things.” Countering the interpretation of the Joban narrative as an affirmation of God’s sovereignty, she instead finds an ancient call to relate to God and world, not through knowing, but unknowing: “The limits of our knowing, like the limits of our lives, trap us with an often tragic finality. Yet here shadows of ignorance begint to suggest the bottomless mystery not only of death but of life.” The non-knowing of God thrusts Job into a mindful relationality to cosmos and creatures. “The whirldwind rhapsodizes astronomical bodies, weather and wild animals because these resist human dominance.”

Keller’s queer marriage of deconstruction and social ontology moves to the forefront in Cloud. This impressive text is truly interdisciplinary, deftly moving between the early centuries of Christian theology, contemporary physics, Deleuzian metaphysics, Whitman’s poetry, and Butler’s queer ethics. Special importance is given to Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century polymath, and Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher of process. Keller revels in uncovering ways that they were thinkers ahead of their time. Throughout, the figure of the cloud connects discourses of nonknowing and nonseperability. Keller expounds what she terms ‘apophatic entanglement’: “the perspective of a possibility and the possibility of a perspective that come[s] to light in the dark zones of relation itself…The perspective of apophatic entanglement springs open just there where knowledge, which happens only in and as relation, exposes its own knowable uncertainty. Epistemology here folds in and out of ontology.”

I’m excited about the contributors that we have lined up for this event and the conversations that will follow. This page will stay updated with links to new posts.

• Friday, Jan 16 – Amaryah Armstrong – Participation and Imposition: A Question for Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible
• Monday, Jan 19 – Carolyn Roncolato – Reflecting in the Dark on the Cloud of the Impossible-Apophatic Entanglement and Adoption
• Wednesday, Jan 21 – Kate Tomas – Clouded Judgement
• Friday, Jan 23 – Austin Roberts – The Kataphatic Drift of Keller’s “Cloud”
• Wednesday, Jan 28 – Karen Bray – Un-reconciled Relation: atonement, attunement, and fumbling the notes
• Friday, Jan 30 – Marika Rose – The Cloud of Unknowing and the Stone of Stumbling
• Tuesday, Feb 3 – Beatrice Marovich – Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation
• Monday, Feb 9 – Catherine Keller – Cloud Precipitates

Worst-sellers of the world, unite!

In Blood, Gil Anidjar, reflecting on the futility of writing a book (in this day and age!), appends a curious note:

The sheer weight of accumulation, fifty shades of clay and mountains of waste (not to mention, horribile dictu, footnotes), among other expansions and past all counts, nonetheless counts for something, that is, for nothing, if only because it accounts for and testifies to the victory of the quantitative—by attrition. Was it ever other- wise? This may or may not be a reason to stop writing books (though I suspect it is). Cunningly endorsing Marx’s take on the “gnawing criticism of the mice,” Lacan suggests somewhere that praise might be in order when producing a worst-seller.

Of course, despite ample room in 170 pages of footnotes, in this case he leaves it to the reader to track down this petite suggestion of Lacan’s. Challenge accepted–with no little resistance, psychoanalytically speaking of course. Turns out there are two quips in Seminar 17 worth quoting:

To spell it out for you, to clear my own name, what saves Écrits the accident that befell it, namely that people immediately read it, is that it is a “worst-seller” nevertheless. (222/192)

An issue of a journal called Études freudiennes has appeared. I cannot recommend reading it too highly, never having hesitated to suggest to you bad readings which themselves are in the nature of best-sellers. (229/199)

There you have it–the virtue of the worst-seller, the vice of the best-seller. Amazon rankings be damned!

Book Event: Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

Cloud of the ImpossibleWe are excited to announce that our next book event will be on Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible, which is now available from Columbia University Press. Keller’s faculty page has links to her other work:

Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. In her teaching, lecturing and writing, she develops the relational potential of a theology of becoming. Her books reconfigure ancient symbols of divinity for the sake of a planetary conviviality—a life together, across vast webs of difference. Thriving in the interplay of ecological and gender politics, of process cosmology, poststructuralist philosophy and religious pluralism, her work is both deconstructive and constructive in strategy. She is currently finishing Cloud of the Impossible: Theological Entanglements, which explores the relation of mystical unknowing, material indeterminacy and ontological interdependence.

In addition to some AUFS regulars, several of the new contributors to this event are current or former Ph.D. students under Keller. The combination of inside and outside perspectives on her work should make for excellent discussions. As is our recent style, the moderator (me) will introduce the book and contributors will engage thematically, placing Keller’s work into dialogue with their own interests.