When you hear the word “caliphate,” a set of cinematic images flood the mind. A hazy sunset on a desolate hellscape; a curved scimitar slicing the heavy desert air; a huddle of turbans emerging from beyond a blurry horizon. Somewhere in the distance, a falcon shrieks.
This is how “caliphate” is popularly understood, a set of images, imagined and imaginary. It isn’t real. It isn’t a thing. It’s an idea. The makers of the New York Times’ hit podcast “Caliphate” understand that there is no caliphate now, after all; while ISIS might hope to create a future state that will bring Iraq and Syria back to the medieval past, these are just dreams (or nightmares). In the present, ISIS has been effectively destroyed for some time now.
There is, in other words, no caliphate.
But what if there were?
The word “caliphate” is derived from the Arabic khilāfah. Like Hebrew, Arabic is a semitic language that usually forms words from a common trilateral root; kha-lām-fā are the three letters forming the root of caliphate, which, when combined, connote the idea of being behind in terms of order or in space. A khalīfa, then, is a successor, someone literally “left behind” by a predecessor to fulfill a certain responsibility. The best English equivalent might be “steward,” since it means one who looks after and cares for whatever it was the predecessor left the successor in charge of (some prefer “vicegerent,” despite—or because?—of how archaic it is).
“Caliph” entered English by means of the Spanish califa, one of the many Arabic loanwords in Spanish from the nearly 800 years when the Iberian peninsula was under the dominion of various Muslim princely states. Fun fact: historians generally agree that the state of California actually gets its name from a 16th-century Spanish novel, in which the intended meaning of the word was “the land of the Caliph.”
In Arabic, however, caliphate has several different meanings. The first describes humanity’s role as “stewards” of the earthly realm for the sake of God: “It is He who made you stewards on the Earth,” declares the Qur’an. Elsewhere, the Qur’an describes His designation of Adam—and thereby humanity at large—as a “steward upon Earth.” (Muslims as a matter of doctrine believe the Qur’an to be God’s infallible and final address to humanity, so this is pretty significant).
The word has also been used by Muslims to connote mystical authority. As the early generations nurtured by the Prophet and his close disciples passed away, and as lands under Muslim control expanded from Spain to Sumatra, a formalized structure of spiritual guidance came about almost by necessity in the form of spiritual orders (tarīqa). At the helm of these (often) hierarchical orders was a shaykh who claimed spiritual authority over his disciples (murīds) by virtue of having learned from a spiritual master, who had in turn learned from another spiritual master, and so on and so forth all the way back to the Prophet himself. Spiritual authority was, thus, stewarded across the generations: each reigning shaykh would designate a caliph (sometimes even more than one) to succeed him, and these caliphs would each carry the torch of the tarīqa onwards and into the next generation.
However, there’s no doubt that the caliphate is most popularly known as a political office. When the Prophet Muhammad lay on his deathbed, the question arose as to who should succeed him—not in his Prophetic authority, of course (since he claimed to be God’s final messenger), but in his temporal authority over the Muslim community. When he was too ill to lead the daily ritual prayers himself, the Prophet appointed his close and longtime companion, Abu Bakr, to do so. After his death, most of his followers accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership, bestowing upon him the title of “Caliph of the Messenger of God,” or “steward” of the Prophet’s mission into the future, the first of many caliphal states, or caliphates. The office of the caliph would undergo many ups and downs throughout history as it passed like a football between competing Muslim empires: some caliphs were viewed by posterity as just, others as tyrannical and dynastic, with many in between. There was even a brief flirtation with parliaments and constitutional monarchy in the late 1800s.
Following World War I, however, the political caliphate would come to an abrupt end. Out of the ashes of the defeated and decrepit Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared the independence of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923. The militantly secular Ataturk blamed Islam for the military defeats and perceived backwardness of the Ottomans, seeing it as a superstition with no place in any self-respecting modern state. And so, after a short-lived decision to retain the caliphate in a purely symbolic capacity, the Turkish Grand National Assembly opted instead for a ruthless policy of strict laïcité. On March 3rd, 1924, a law was passed abolishing the caliphate of the over 600-year-old House of Osman, and the last Ottoman caliph, Abdülmecit II, was exiled from the country. A number of international Muslim congresses and conferences were held in the immediate aftermath, to try to save the caliphate, but internal squabbling and division torpedoed any plan to claim legitimate authority.
And so, the office has lay dormant ever since.
Or has it?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the political caliphate is that it doesn’t conform to the modern Westphalian nation-state. Nation states conceive of individuals through their membership in distinct nations, bound together within a closed state by a common language, history, and culture. But the caliphate is less about the Muslim identity of individuals than about Islam as a whole, less a nation-state than an idea-state, a governmental and societal commitment to privilege a shared set of values and sensibilities from a given tradition. This does not mean the caliphate was always a paragon of piety or orthodoxy; a great many caliphs and sultans were alcoholic profligates. But values informed by Islam constitute a deep structure, forming a sort of proto civic identity that anyone could embrace, even those non-Muslim subjects within Muslim lands who didn’t subscribe to Islam as a faith.
But, I submit, caliphates are not just for Muslims. If we abstract the idea away from its origins, a caliphate could be understood as any polity bound to supervising, safeguarding, and otherwise “stewarding” a particular set of beliefs in perpetuity. World-shaping civilizational ideals are not the sole purview of Muslims, obviously; human societies have been caliphating since forever, for reasons both good and bad. At various points in its history, Europe has seen itself as Christendom’s citadel; the Soviet Union committed itself to spreading communism to the world; Nazism fought to realize a sick eugenic future; and various imperial projects have believed in a grand “civilizing mission” for their subjects. In short, cosmic beliefs have been pushing humanity forward since time immemorial.
When the nation-state spread throughout the world, there was an unspoken principle behind its adoption: people would no longer fight in the name of transcendent objectives, and everything else would play second fiddle to the national interest. In reaction to the religious wars that ravaged Europe, the nation-state was to replace religious empires, which ran the risk of never-ending existential conflict. Ideology was thus downgraded as a political objective: in the new age, post-Westphalian states would now struggle to realize their tangible, material interests within whatever bit of territory they managed to eke out for themselves. But ideology can’t be fully displaced, just embedded with a bit more cunning. After the devastation levied by two world wars, world leaders sought an additional set of guiding principles to supplement the Westphalian system and minimize global conflict once and for all. In this way, the “liberal world order” come to undergird geopolitics, with America at its helm.
So there you have it: political liberals, thy caliphate is America.
Since it emerged after World War II, much has been written about the American caliphate and its enthusiastic stewardship of the liberal world order, and even Western civilization writ large. America, as Strobe Talbott once described it, was conceived of as heir to the best of Western political philosophy, “not just a nation-state, but an idea-state, animated by Classical and Enlightenment values.” Though conceived of in America and Western Europe, the liberal world order boldly claims to be the “final,” universally-applicable political system, the last man standing at the End of History. (Islam similarly claims to be God’s final, universal religion). Americans are famously not supposed to be bound by any one ethnicity or language, in contradistinction to most modern European states; instead, they have historically coalesced around the idea of abiding by the principles enshrined by the Founders and the Constitution—what Robert Bellah famously termed the “the American civil religion.”
All is not well in the realm, however. With America looking inward and shying away from its role as liberalism’s steward, Illiberal politics of all stripes is growing in popularity. As far-right nativists continue to rack up election wins in Europe, India, and elsewhere, academics are piling on intellectual critiques of liberalism’s ills while political elites bemoan the cynicism with which the liberal idea is being treated. “We are a creedal nation, not a nation defined by blood and soil or even shared history, but defined by what we believe, defined by the document and the ideas we celebrate on the July Fourth,” declared former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, before sullenly trailing off, “Or, at least, we have been.” If America historically had a working consensus—shared by elites and society at large—on classical liberal values , the only consensus now is that there are real cracks in the foundation.
People want to believe. Political liberals, however—in their insistence that all people wanted was to be left alone as libertine individuals freed from “ideology”—failed to understand the degree of ennui, meaninglessness, and “spiritual confusion” that their own ideology had been leaving in its wake. Now realizing just how grave of a liability this was, they’ve been rudely awakened to a brave new world, one in active revolt. People the globe over are in rapture by the idea that politics could, once again, re-enchant the world with collective mission and purpose.
In trying to make America great again, Trump may ironically end up becoming Ataturk to the American caliphate. Will the liberal idea survive the current onslaught, and if so, how might it transform? It’s too early to tell, but if things take a turn for the worse for liberalism, its supporters may be heartened by what Muslims have, in the post-caliphate period, learned all too well: states, empires, and caliphates rise and fall, but ultimately, it’s the degree of faith and fervor of its adherents amid adversity that sustains the ideas, values, and beliefs of any creed.