Friday 29 January 2010

Exploratory Workshop on The Islamic Caliphate in the Contemporary Muslim World

Three scholars from King's College London have been awarded a grant by the European Science Foundation for an exploratory workshop entitled Demystifying the Islamic Caliphate: Advocates, Opponents and Implications for Europe. This conference will be hosted by the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, bringing together scholars from various European countries to discuss the contemporary relevance of the historical caliphate as well as new interpretations across the Muslim world.

In their proposal, workshop conveners Madawi al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten and Marat Shterin noted that from London to Moscow, Sarajevo to Jakarta, Istanbul, and Baghdad, the concept of the Islamic Caliphate is theorised by religious scholars, invigorated by political activists, and condemned by some Muslim and non-Muslim politicians. While few Muslims insist on its centrality to Islam, many Muslims have not only rejected it but also contributed to its historical downfall. With globalization and the re-imagining of the Muslim umma as a multi-ethnic diverse community, the ‘Caliphate’ is today a contested concept among many actors in the Muslim world, Europe and beyond. As the Muslim world has known the rise and fall of several caliphates until the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the reinvention of the Caliphate in the twenty first century may appear puzzling. However by exploring the idea of the Caliphate, its contemporary genealogy as a ‘modern’ Islamic political-religious concept, the debates between advocates and opponents, the modern contexts in which Muslims imagine it, and the virtual forums in which it is invoked justifies an engagement with the phenomenon that moves beyond historical perspectives.

Muslims, both in the ex-European territories of the Ottoman Empire and in the Muslim world at large, have had to rethink Islamic governance in the contemporary world. The majority sought the model of the nation-state and aspired towards independent and sovereign entities that more or less corresponded to newly drawn territorial boundaries. Some Muslim scholars, for example Egyptian Azharite Ali Abd al-Raziq wrote a religious treatise that de-emphasized the centrality of the Islamic Caliphate and justified the shift towards national states, by definition smaller entities configured on the basis of a homogenous national culture rather than faith. Other Islamic scholars and activists, however, lamented the fall of the Islamic Caliphate and wrote counter treatise calling for its revival. One such obvious advocate was Taqi al-Din al-Nabahani, a Palestinian activist who founded Hizb al-Tahrir. In India, the Khilafat movement developed in the shadow of the British Empire and became active in the 1920s. Similar movements emerged in South East Asia, among Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Even though none of these movements gathered momentum or achieved their objectives throughout the twentieth century, in the new historical conditions prevaling today calls for the return of the Caliphate are revived among some sections of the Muslim population. It is this revival that constitutes the main focus of this workshop which will try to address issues that can contribute to a clarification and explanation of the contemporary revival of Muslim thought about the Caliphate.

By opting for an interdisciplinary project that brings social scientists and humanities experts together to discuss the revival of the concept of the Caliphate among diverse Muslim groups, the conference organisers anticipate to show the interconnections between text and context among increasingly literate and connected Muslims from Indonesia to London. Special attention will be drawn to how old theorisations of Islamic governance are redefined and reformulated by contemporary Muslims and for what purposes.

Through case studies drawn from different parts of the Muslim world and the European context, this exploratory workshop will first of all highlight the interconnection and continuity of Islamic discourses. At the same time it will take care to situate the object of study in the transnational realm rather than the confined locality of individual countries. Secondly, it will emphasise that increased mobility in the age of globalisation and migration enables Muslims and the ideas they hold to travel beyond traditional boundaries of nation and state. Third, it will underscore the role of highly mobile non-state actors in the Muslim world and the diaspora in defining the public sphere and setting agendas that may or may not correspond to the agenda of all Muslims. A focus on both material and intellectual conditions in diaspora situations and the access to both old and new media that are perhaps still more available to Muslims in Europe and North America than those in the Muslim world will yield a better understanding of the revival of the concept of the Caliphate among young Muslims in the West. It is no longer possible to examine political mobilisation among Muslims without taking into account these important developments that contribute to increased connections, mutations in thought and activism, and the movement of ideas and people.

Scheduled to take place at King's College London in November 2010, the conveners intend to release an edited volume of the various contributions by keynote speakers and panelists.

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