Can Islam be true Islam without a Caliphate? That is the question that has been simmering within the Islamic mind for one hundred years. The final Ottoman caliph was deposed during secular reforms after World War I. Ever since then there has been no caliphate, Islam’s equivalent of theocratic empire.
For a parallel Christians might be more familiar with, consider the similar question that Judaism faced after the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem temples. How can the faith live on when so much of it assumed the existence of a particular structure? With that structure gone, can the faith reinvent itself and reinterpret commands that seem impossible without that sacred structure?
After the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, Judaism was able to eventually return from exile and rebuild. Yet it changed nonetheless, developing the synagogue system and coming to a deeper understanding of the kingdom of God as a universal one. God’s throne is revealed in the exile prophets as being a wheeled chariot. It is not limited to one locale. These changes laid the groundwork for much of Jesus’ and the apostles teaching about the true nature of the kingdom of God in this age.
But the Jews were unable to rebuild the second temple after its destruction in AD 70. This destruction at the hands of the Romans forced massive changes in Judaism leading to the disappearance of the Sadducees and the survival of Judaism through the Pharisees at the Jamnia school. Blood sacrifices were reinterpreted so that good works were now counted as equivalent. Rabbinic Judaism developed in new directions. Judaism survived, but even to this day Jews and Christians who study the Torah can feel the tensions introduced by the fact that the temple system is no more.
For traditional Islam, the caliphate is a divinely-ordained structure, a cornerstone of the world as it should be. The Islamic community is supposed to be led by a political and spiritual leader like Muhammad, Abu Bakr, or Uthman. Even though the history of the caliphate is a very mixed bag, its abolition is viewed by some as one of the greatest tragedies to ever happen to the Islamic community, a fall/curse motif of sorts. While the vast majority of Muslims have embarked on a process of making Islam compatible with the modern world system – nation-states, dictatorships, democracy, human rights, etc. – a minority of Muslims seeks to reestablish the caliphate system. This minority interprets Islam’s primary sources such that spiritual Islam goes hand-in-hand with a political system. They believe you can’t have true Islam without a caliph and a caliphate. They point out, rightly, that this is assumed by the original sources. The Qur’an and Hadith do not advocate for a City of Man vs. City of God intertwined worldview, but rather for the here and now to become the City of God, by the sword if necessary. The borders are supposed to be physical and clear. There is the house and Islam where the caliph rules, then there is the house of war. That’s it.
This minority seeks to implement what ISIS called the “prophetic methodology.” This means moving away from the majority view that advocates for a personal faith in Islam, expressed in the community of the mosque and in nation-states which have blended Western law codes with Shari’a. The minority views this kind of blending as an adulteration of true Islam. How do groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS get their philosophical attraction? They appeal to this tension within the Islamic mind. Can Islam be true Islam without a caliphate? Can jihad really be redefined to only mean spiritual war with oneself and good deeds toward others? Can Shari’a really be faithfully blended with law codes developed by those (like the English and the French) whose traditional religion ascribes partners to Allah?
You can see how the divisions come about. It’s as if a group of disgruntled Jamnia rabbinic students begin to meet secretly, disagreeing with their teachers’ positions that blood sacrifices can all of the sudden be reinterpreted as good works, now that the gentiles have destroyed the temple. That’s not what the text says! they might say, shaking their heads. From there it’s not very long until an armed group is formed and ready to attempt an attack against the Romans. They will spill their blood in hopes that the temple can be rebuilt. They believe faithfulness depends on it.
It’s important to note very clearly that the vast majority of Muslims are compatibilists, that is, they live and believe in the blending of Islam with the modern world. These Muslims are not working for a restoration of the caliphate. And yet we should not be surprised when secret or militant groups form around the ideology of restoring the caliphate. It is a tension not yet resolved within the mind of Islam, despite what a liberal mullah in a Western city might tell you. The tension is real and it’s presence makes sense given the sources and history.
Our contemporary age is witnessing this identity crisis within Islam play out, especially from the 1970’s to the present. Most of our Muslim friends will be far too practical to go down this road, but those ISIS propaganda videos still may strike a chord in their hearts. Practically, we need to support the moderates. A rigid return to the “prophetic ideology” is bad news for all, as the world saw in Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. If Islamic interpretation can cement the compatabilist view as the dominant one, that is overall good for the world. Though I don’t myself know if its foundation is solid enough to be victorious. It’s main problem is a serious one – a straightforward reading of the primary sources.
But as Christians we should also learn to speak the gospel into this tension, calling our Muslim friends to a better kingdom, one which exists parallel to the kingdoms of this world and does not call for a theocratic empire run by a fallen mortal. Here instead is a spiritual kingdom that adopts its rebels, gives them new hearts and new names, and outlasts all of the temporary and flawed kingdoms of this world. All the while it seeds these transient systems with communities of eternal life and eternal truth – cities within cities as others have described it. Some Muslims longing for a caliphate will find themselves drawn by the Spirit to a surprising answer.
The Empire of God is coming in all its fullness, therefore, now is not the time for jihad. Now is the time for giving ourselves sacrificially to our enemies. It is the age of mercy and free pardon for all who will repent and align with the embassies of this coming kingdom. Our Muslim friends are right to long for a better ruler and they are right that Jesus is returning, yet they need to know that he is returning not as a mere prophet and warner, but as the true and divine king. The answer to the deep longings for a perfect leader ruling a perfect government will not be found in a new caliph. It can only be found in Jesus Christ.