The Khilafat movement, launched by Gandhiji, occupies a vital place in India’s history. Ninety four years later, we have a new Khalifa claiming the allegiance of Sunni Muslims. Gandhiji’s struggle was a movement to prevent the British from abolishing the Khilafat or transferring its headquarters from Istanbul (where it had been during the Ottoman Empire) to Jerusalem, which was to be under British control. Gandhiji marshalled Muslims and Hindus in what he termed an anti-British struggle. Fighting for the Khilafat was to argue for Indian independence.
The movement ended in disaster. Gandhiji unilaterally suspended the movement after the Chauri Chaura incident and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the new leader of Turkey, abolished the Khilafat as he thought it to be outdated and superstitious. Indian Muslims were doubly disappointed and the history of Hindu-Muslim partnership in fighting for India’s independence was never the same again.
Ninety plus years on, we are back with a Khalifa. This development, initiated by ISIS, does not inspire any feeling of liberation or joy even among most Muslims. The new Khalifa, who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was born Abu Du’a in Samarra, in 1971. He has had many other names previously, including Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Sammarai. He can only be described as an adventurer and a violent soldier who has now come to head the army of ISIS.
Reviving the Khilafat has been a dream of the Islamist movement, if not of many Muslims themselves. Osama bin Laden wanted to do it. After all, the disappearance of Sunni Islam’s highest spiritual office (somewhat akin to abolishing the papacy) can hardly not matter. But the fact was that the Ottoman Sultan had given up the exercise of spiritual office for many centuries. This was resumed in the 1870s by a somewhat corrupt Sultan. When Atatürk abolished the Khilafat, it had been an empty shell for a while.
For over a century now, the revival of some sort of nation state on the old territory of the Ottoman Empire has been a dream of Muslims. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups made it a gesture of definace of the West. Now that we have a ‘pretender’, how do we evaluate him?
Khalifas were originally successors to the Prophet and were related to him. The first Khalifa, Abu Bakr, whose name Abu Du’a has adopted, was the Prophet’s father-in-law — his wife Ayesha’s father. He was elected to be the first Khalifa by a small community of Muslims who gathered when they heard of the Prophet’s demise. Successors, who were chosen, were either members of the Quraysh tribe, or related to the Prophet, or both. The first four Khalifas are called the Rashidun —meaning “rightly guided”. They were, like the Prophet himself, spiritual leaders and generals who went out to conquer territory for Islam.
Abu Du’a, who has now abrogated the title, has not been selected or elected by the community. Nor, as far as we know, has he any blood connection with the Prophet. He claims he has, but no one has seen any proof of it. Why should anyone take his claim seriously? Popes are elected by the College of Cardinals. Khalifas were elected at first and then belonged to one of the several dynasties — the Umayyads, the Fatimids and the Ottomans. The succession to temporal power as Sultan conferred the spiritual position as well. How will Abu Du’a establish his legitimacy ?
Of course, he has issued an ambitious map of the world in which he and his army rule over large chunks of the globe. India is part of that, along with Pakistan and Bangladesh, as are large parts of Africa and Spain where the Islamic armies reached in the eighth century and stayed for six hundred years more.
It is obviously the faithful who will decide whether Abu Du’a is a Khalifa or not. Since this has never had to be done before, I am not aware of any procedure which can be followed to legitimise the claim. Is there any tradition in India whereby a national gathering of Sunni ulema can debate this claim? One can only hope that Abu Du’a will not try to establish his claim by spreading death and destruction. If so, the majority of his victims will be his fellow Muslims.