The world as a whole would benefit from the revival of a strong Muslim civilisation, writes Osama Saeed.
IT CAME as news to many Muslims, and probably non-Muslims too, that one of the things “fundamental to our civilisation” is opposition to any recreation of the Islamic caliphate.
The idea of united political leadership of the Muslim world was destroyed in 1924 after about 1350 years. After the death of the prophet Muhammad, caliphs were appointed to the leadership of the Muslims. In the ensuing centuries, the centre and nature of this power moved around. In its dynamic period, the Islamic caliphate was at the heart of a great civilisation, leading the world in science, philosophy, law, mathematics and astronomy.
More recently, the Muslim world has had artificial lines drawn all over it. The borders were defined for colonial masters to extract what they needed and keep the natives divided. Western leaders are still determined today to defend these borders.
However, if George Bush and Tony Blair are serious about reform in Muslim countries, it must include not just democratic reform, but also economic development. Creating economic blocks to allow this to happen is an imperative. No one argues that each American state would be better off on its own. The European Union managed to bring together a war-ravaged continent on the basis of economic co-operation. India and China are emerging economically because of their size, an advantage the Islamic world would also enjoy if united.
There can be no doubt there will eventually be a similar model for Muslim countries. The US and EU are structurally unique, and so will any Islamic model be. Instead of a president or a commission, there might be a caliph. It’s not the names but what the institutions do – and how they are accountable – that matters.
There is no point in comparing the political form a caliphate might take to caliphates in the past. Institutions such as the British monarchy and the papacy have existed for centuries but bear little resemblance today to what has gone before. A restored caliphate is compatible with democratically accountable institutions.
But what about the issue of sharia? Opposing it is apparently one of the West’s raisons d’etre. Terms such as sharia and caliphate have important meanings to Muslims different from the distorted connotations they often carry in the West. The aim of Islamic law, contrary to popular belief, is not punishment by death or amputation. It is to create a peaceful and just society, with scholars over centuries citing its core aims: the freedom to practise religion, protection of life, safeguarding intellect and maintaining lineage and individual rights. This could be the basis for an Islamic bill of rights.
These principles do not seem dramatic and far-flung, or even dissimilar to those in the West. Bush and Blair’s stance belies their claim that they differentiate between al-Qaeda and Islam as a religion, giving credence to those who believe they are conducting a war against Islam, not just terrorism. In their meddling in other people’s affairs they have forgotten it is for people themselves to decide how they are to be governed.
The vision of any kind of new caliphate, shared by Muslims worldwide, is a distant one. Right now, even talk of bringing down trade barriers and the free flow of people across Muslim states seems radical. But it is a vision that is needed, and one that should be supported by the US and Britain if they are sincere about the development of the Muslim world. The revival of a strong Muslim civilisation would be for the betterment of the whole world.