The World and Deracination — Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

There are a number of questions I have for Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate that I simply lack the resources and framework to ask well. For example, the question of violence came up for me at many times reading his book. Violence of Muslims against Muslims, what it means to speak of Islamism without speaking explicitly about takfiri Islamism, what it means to talk about the caliphate and an Islamic state in the midst of others who claim that they have brought about this very thing. All these questions feel like well-devised traps, though, set to disempower any real engagement or meaningful criticism of Recalling the Caliphate. Such questions will need to be asked, and in many ways have been asked throughout this book event, but in my own attempt to phrase they remains questions that are framed by what Sayyid has called “Westernese”. Under this framework certain questions of Western violence—especially American imperial violence—are purposefully obscured, even from me, as a colonized-colonizer subject. So I want to ask these questions, but I do not know how to do so as someone who, if I were a Muslim, would likely never rightly pass for one. Such “rightly passing” would be denied me in part because of the binary logics at play in politics between the West and the rest or the umma and those who remain in ignorance and do so ontologically.

Instead of asking these questions, which perhaps would betray personal stakes that, precisely because of the frameworks involved, would be embarrassing and laughable, I want instead to focus on the question that I take animating the book. For whatever issues I have with Sayyid’s argument, I accept that there is a subtly to it and that many of the issues, say regarding the question of authoritarianism that arises with the setting of any state or institution, are not unknown to him. But there are a number of concepts which continue to frame his attempt to think a decolonized umma that strike me as retaining significant characteristics of colonialism. Continue reading “The World and Deracination — Recalling the Caliphate Book Event”

“I am a Thing, Not a Person”: Rethinking Difference in Recalling the Caliphate

Yasmina Raiani


Do they seek for other than the Religion of Allah?―While all creatures in the heavens and on earth have, willing or unwilling, bowed to His Will (accepted Islam) [aslama], and to Him shall they all be brought back.

Surat Al ‘Imran (3:83) (Yusuf Ali)

Islam is, for S. Sayyid, a divinely given and ‘ummatically’ inflected name that assembles “narratives and practices, heritages and futures” (9) from which a “total way of life” can bloom (47). Sayyid stresses that Islam is a “relational and contrastive” collective identity enabled by difference and rejection (28; also see 72, 162). He writes that the Prophet’s arrival mended reigning social schisms and oriented a freshly minted world around a new fissure between Muslims and non-Muslims (see 172). We live in the historical sequence emerging from this chasm.[1]

But as the foregoing ayah suggests, even Khomeini’s Great Satan is Muslim to the extent that he acts in accordance with God’s will: the kafir’s submission may be unknowing and unwilling, but it is nevertheless named “Islam.” Continue reading ““I am a Thing, Not a Person”: Rethinking Difference in Recalling the Caliphate

Recalling the Caliphate book event — Rethinking the concept of the political

This contribution to our book event comes from Nadia Sariahmed.

In Recalling the Caliphate S. Sayyid makes a refreshing and powerful argument for the necessity of a new articulation of Islam and the political and for the mobilization of Muslims as political agents. As Adam Kotskoremarked in an earlier post, while critical of historical Islamist movements he does not “throw them under the bus,” but rather takes seriously their attempts to articulate a new political project through Islam. Rather than taking the failures of Islamist parties as reason to abandon the project of political Islam, he critically engages with Islamists as a starting point from which we might imagine different possibilities for Islamicate governance.

Yet it seems that two distinct conceptions of the political are at work in Sayyid’s book. Continue reading “Recalling the Caliphate book event — Rethinking the concept of the political”

Can We Bring the Caliphate Down to Earth before the Recall? – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

“‘The analogies are deadly’ had by now become one of his recurrent, decisive phrases.”

Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles

As a child my first political memories date back to the Bosnian war. There was a mosque and a square, I was sitting on my father’s shoulders, chants calling for the end of Muslim suffering were grim. Growing up Islamist, I knew it was not the ‘first time’, indeed, the temporality of Muslims was one of emergencies and urgencies without someone to dial. From Syria to Burma, suffering is there and it has a name: Muslim. I was fifteen and irate when I read Qutb’s Milestones (1964). You cannot understand what that book means if you did not grow up in the desperation of a post-colonial Muslim society that is divided between what Sayyid calls Kemalists, on the one hand, and what Islamists call traditional ‘potato’ Muslims, on the other. Life itself was exhausted, and Qutb was the particle accelerator for us, for ‘carrions that live on’.(1) Above all, it was a DIY guidebook for the ‘truly new life’. In the Cold War lingo, Islamic Man was to emerge by getting free of both homo economicus and homo sovieticus. Both were corrupt, two faces of the same coin, there was nothing new. Like a state, Islam was to declare its New Man by coining anew.

Salman Sayyid’s book is indeed too familiar. I can think of a shelf of books and writings for each chapter in Turkish. I read A Fundamental Fear (1997) a decade ago with great awe. He represented back then a new way of speaking politics, a new style of enunciation: steeped in postmodernism, Sayyid was a sign that the language of social sciences can no longer censure ‘us’. I remember around the same time talking to a new philosophy professor, a brother. How lucky we were, for him, for we had now our own Feyerabends, paradigm shifts… Back in 80s, he said, it was impossible for us to be Muslim and speak the language of humanities for Science was too strong and everything was a monolith. Perhaps, Sayyid’s Critical Muslim Studies is a spadework for an Islamic Humanities to come that Islamists have been yearning for over a century. Recalling the Caliphate is, I argue, a resemanticization of Milestones in a post-Soviet world at the high time of American imperialism. Whether it will gain the same status as its predecessor is left to its readership. Continue reading “Can We Bring the Caliphate Down to Earth before the Recall? – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event”

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.

Caliphate and Katechon; Or, Is Sayyid the better Schmitt?

Early in Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid recounts an attempt by then-Iranian president Khatami to bridge the gap between his country and the United States by appealing to Alexis de Tocqueville. As an instructor at a school in the Great Books tradition, I found this story to be illustrative of the limitations of the Great Books approach insofar as it showed how empty the claim to universal values is in practice. In principle, custodians of a canon of universally applicable texts should be thrilled when someone from another cultural tradition finds a canonical text appealing. In reality, though, Khatami’s attempt to enter into the Great Conversation was met with outrage and derision.

This reaction is of course conceptually incoherent, and that’s because claims to universality for the “Western canon” — indeed, even the very existence of something like the “Western canon,” which Sayyid characterizes as a “hegemonic project” and a “contingent stitch-up” (pg. 55) — are not conceptual claims, but political ones. This means that they are conditioned by the friend-enemy relationship that, for Sayyid, runs above all between the West and the non-West in the contemporary world. Insofar as he was an enemy claiming possession over Western property, therefore, “Khatami had to commit an act of violence that was prerequisite to his attempt at dialogue” (pg. 28), and the reaction he received was every bit as violent.

Continue reading “Caliphate and Katechon; Or, Is Sayyid the better Schmitt?”

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! Continue reading “A Space for Thought – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event”