World Muslim Congress As an alternative to the Caliphate?
Ever since the abolition of the institution of Caliphate in March 1924 followed by the conquest of Hijaj by Najdi king Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman alias Ibn Saud (1876-1953) whose successive descendents are continuously ruling over this territory, the legitimacy of Saudi rule over this heartland of Islam has become a debatable issue within a significant section of Sunni Muslim Islamic scholars.
These scholars argue that the concept of separate nation-state building was contrary to the Islamic principle of a single Muslim nation of Ummah (entire Muslim community) which functioned for about 1300 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad in 632 AD under the single rule of a Caliph. They allege that Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia as an independent sovereign nation-state followed the western system of nation-state building and established a new concept of islamic public order as an alternative to the Caliphate and therefore committed a crime against Islam, which does not permit separate Islamic governments in the framework of different nation-states.
Ignoring this argument, successive Saudi monarchs have been proceeding on the assumption that their dynastic monarchy was legitimised by the World Muslim Congress (WMC) as back as 1926 when Ibn Saud had declared himself as the King of Hijaj. Although, the discovery of huge oil wealth in the kingdom in late 1930s empowered them in silencing the Muslim world to a great extent and becoming complacent on this issue, the Sunni Muslims by and large have still not overcome from their persistent attachment to the political concepts of a united Islam headed by a Caliph even after the abolition of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder president of the Republic of Turkey. They still believe that revival of the Caliphate is the only solution to their problem.
As the Muslim history goes, ever since the emergence of the first Saudi-Wahhabi state from an alliance (1744 AD) between Mohammad Bin Saud, the ruler of Diraiyah in Najd province of Arabian peninsula and a Najdi preacher Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahhab, the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance continued with their efforts to bring the different regions of entire Arabian peninsula under the Najdi rule to be headed by the leader of Saudi clan.
This alliance conquered much of the Arabian peninsula in the first two decades of nineteenth century but were driven away by the army of Ottoman Caliphate. Later, when Abdul Aziz took over the command of the alliance in 1882, he re-conquered his family’s ancestral home city of Riyadh in 1902, consolidated his control over the Najd province in 1922 and also conquered the province of Hijaj in 1925 thus ending the 700 years Hashemite tutelage of Islam’s holiest territories.
Since the control over the caliphate was linked with simultaneous possession of the Hijaj province of Arabian Peninsula which is blessed with its two holiest shrines of Islam in the cities of Mecca and Medina and was a symbol of primacy over the Muslim world, different Arab war lords conquered this province and assumed the title of Caliph.
However, even though the Saudi king conquered this province after the abolition of the Caliphate, he did not want to take a chance of a repetition of the catastrophic history of Saudi-Wahhabi alliance in the early decades of nineteenth century when they were not only driven out of this province by the army led by Ottoman appointed Governor of Egypt Mohammad Ali in 1813 AD but the then Saudi capital Diraiyah also surrendered to the Ottoman in 1818 AD.
Abdullah the then head of the Al Saud was captured and later executed. Abdul Aziz was fully aware then that the Muslim world would not accept him as a new Caliph not only due to the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance but also because of the history of becoming a party to the British conspiracy for abolition of the institution of Caliphate. His support to the anti-Islamic Christian power against the united Islamic institution of Caliphate which led to its abolition was viewed as anti-Islam by the Muslim world.
He was even scared of the possibility of the Muslim world coming together and appoint a Caliph that would be a grave threat to the Saudi-Wahhabi rule over Hijaj. Accordingly, he proceeded with extra caution and did not declare himself as Caliph. Instead, he assumed the title of the king of Hijaj in January 1926 even though it was disliked by the Wahhabis.
The Wahhabis believed that there was no provision for king or monarch in traditional Islam. However, despite some initial reservation, the people of Hijaj who were proud of their descent from the clan of Prophet and thereby considered the non-Hijaji Arabs inferior to them were left with no option but to accept a Najdi as their king due to his sword power.
Against the backdrop of his political design, when the Saudi king came to know about the initiative of Al Azhar in Egypt to hold the Caliphate Congress in Cairo in May 1926, he took it as an impending danger to his control over Hijaj and therefore, decided to float some organisation as an alternative to the Caliphate. His strategy was to divert the attention of the Muslim world from the issue of Caliphate and to establish a new system of Islamic public order as an alternative to it although it was a total negation of the concept of single Islamic polity. He therefore, quickly arranged to host an assemblage of prominent Islamic scholars of the world in Mecca during the month of ensuing Hajj pilgrimage just two months after the Cairo Congress, that is in the month of July. It was his well-calculated move that the leaders of Muslim world may not like to attend the two meets within two months and would prefer to perform Hajj as well as attend the meeting in Mecca.
Naming this Mecca gathering as Motamar al-Alam al-Islami (World Muslim Congress) he attempted to bury the classical Islamic public order of Caliphate, followed the new system of Islamic nation-state within the framework of a new intra-national Islamic Order and would seek recognition of his rule over Hijaj, the cradle of Islam. (The Caliphate, the Hijaj and the Saudi-Wahhabi State by Imran N Hosein).
As expected, while the Cairo Congress failed to take any decision over the revival of Caliphate due to poor attendance, the Mecca Congress, the largely attended assembly of prominent Islamic personalities of the world did not discuss the issue of Caliphate as it was not included in its agenda. Even Khilafat committee members from India like Maulana Mohammad Ali, his brother Maulana Saukat Ali and others who were delegates in this Congress did not raise this issue.
Inspired with the western concept of the institution of national state, the Saudi ruler of Hijaj projected himself to the participants in Mecca Congress as a true servant of the holiest Islamic territories, promised to restore authentic Islam in Arabian peninsula and also tried to convince them that the new system under the guidance of the WMC would maintain the unity and solidarity of the Ummah within the larger space of the newly acquired nation-states.
Traditionally, Islam did not permit any innovation (bida) like the concept of separate nation-state building and as such Ibn Saud’s assumption as the king of Hijaj and formation of an international political forum like WMC were un-Islamic. It was in fact not only an imitation of the western concept of nation-state building but also a British-planned political strategy to divide the single Islamic nation under the single rule of Caliph into various independent Islamic states for strategic reason. It was even against the basic governing principle of Saudi-Wahhabi rule which was based on Hanbali school of Islam propagating to root out any bida (innovation) from Islam.
The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was so particular against the concept of bida in Islam that they even perceived the cult of saints (Sufism) as un-Islamic innovation and was determined to root it out from Islam (Encyclopaedia of Islam Lieden Brill, 1997, vol. IX, page 903).
The Mecca-meet which finally turned into the formation of World Muslim Congress as an intra-national Islamic organisation within a system of sovereign Islamic nation-states and as an alternative route to the unity of Muslims other than Caliphate was the shrewd design to divert the attention of the Islamic world from the issue of reviving the Caliphate which started functioning after the death of Prophet Mohammad and continued till its abolition as a representative head of Ummah (entire Muslim community as one nation).
Since, there is no concept of different Islamic nation-states for different geo-political regions, the move of the Saudi king was considered by some as un-Islamic as it was a deviation from the classical Islam. Whether, this organisation was a replica of the Caliphate or its re-incarnation was not defined in the Congress except that it was a permanent international Islamic organisation to promote solidarity and cooperation among the global Islamic community. Since there is no mention of such type of organisation in Islamic scriptures, it failed to be recognised as an institution for creating a new Islamic public order (Dar-ul-Islam).
After the failure of the Caliphate Congress in Cairo, the Sunni Muslim world might have expected some concrete outcome on the revival of Caliphate during Mecca Congress but the shrewd Saudi king played his game with his Saudi-Wahhabi rule over Hijaj in such a clever manner that there was no call for a single leadership of Ummah in the Congress.
Discussing uncalled for issues like “foreign intervention” in the land of Islam, maintenance of the holiest shrines and security of the Hajj pilgrims, he kept the real issue of the single leadership of Ummah in the back burner and paved his way for building a Saudi-Wahhabi nation state by following the western concept of nation-state building and thereby burying the Islamic tradition of a single Islamic state propounded by Prophet Mohammad. Since the Congress did not take any important decision, many participants particularly from India who had launched an aggressive movement against the abolition of Caliphate returned disappointed.
Though, the participants agreed that the WMC will meet yearly in Mecca, the Saudi king never convened it again as the disappointed participants were very angry over the intriguing politics of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance during the Congress.
A third attempt for revival of Caliphate was also made at the initiative of Indian Islamic theologians like Maulana Saukat Ali and Allama Iqbal by holding General Islamic Conference in Jerusalem in the month of December 1931. However, it too failed to come to any desirable decision on Caliphate like the earlier two congresses in 1926. Taking advantage of the failure of even the third Islamic meet, Ibn Saud who had already become master of nearly the whole of Arabian Peninsula declared it as an independent Saudi-Wahhabi nation state named as kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 which was immediately recognised by the British. After long years of over two decades, Pakistan also organised World Muslim Congress in 1949 but it had nothing to do with the three Islamic meets held earlier in Cairo, Mecca and Jerusalem.
Sunni Muslim world still believes that the abolition of the Caliphate was a result of the conspiracy hatched by the British but they hardly pay any attention to the role of Saudi Monarchy that acted as willing accomplices to that conspiracy.
Today, the Ummah is divided into 57 Islamic Nation-states.
The WMC in 1926 did not adopt any resolution to legitimise the Saudi rule in Hijaj and the Muslim world too is silent on this issue after the third General Islamic Conference in Jerusalem in 1931. However, in view of the continuous ascendancy of the House of Saud and its control over the two holiest cities of Islam since 1925, it seems to be highly unlikely that there would be the revival of the institution of Caliphate. This shows the strategic success of Ibn Saud in diverting the attention of Muslim world from the issue of Caliphate by transforming the traditional system of Islamic governance into a new system of Islamic public order.
(South Asia Analysis Group)
By R Upadhyay