100 Years Ago… – The issue of Caliphate


The Review of Religions [English], August & September 1923

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The following contribution from an American correspondent [of The Review of Religions (1923)] is intended as a reply to an article on the subject of Caliphate written by one Mr Toynbee and published in the magazine, Asia. The reply has been written from the point of view of a non-Ahmadi Muslim, and hence, when the correspondent remarks that there is no khalifa properly so-called, he is only expressing the non-Ahmadi view. We the Ahmadis look upon every successor of the Promised Messiah[as] as a Khalifa, and these successors are elected by the Ahmadiyya Community in accordance with the injunctions of Islam, but we wholly agree with the correspondent when he says that the allegiance of British subjects to a khalifa does not preclude their loyalty to the British Government and the British Throne.

The article to which the following contribution is a reply is not before us, and therefore we are not in a position to say how far our correspondent is justified in drawing the inference that Mr Toynbee “seems to labour under the impression as if Othman[ra] were the leader of the Meccans who had stubbornly resisted Muhammad’s[sa] teachings, had forced the Prophet[sa] to fly from Medina and had only submitted to the Prophet’s[sa] overlordship when he could no longer help it, that is, at the end of the Prophet’s[sa] triumphant career.” The passages that our correspondent quotes from Mr Toynbee’s letter, however, do not justify such an inference. Still, Mr Toynbee is not right when he says, that “the election of Othman[ra] was a sign that the old forces were asserting themselves” and that his election to the Caliphate “was due more to tribal rivalry and factious jealousy than the posthumous effect of Muhammad’s[sa] personality.” The circumstances under which the election was made are, we believe, alone sufficient to belie such an assumption.

—Editor, The Review of the Religions (1923)


The Editor,

Asia, Concord, NH 


I read with a very keen interest Mr Toynbee’s article on the Caliphate in the June issue of Asia. I must admit that the writer seems to have taken great pains to master and elaborate on this thorny question, and he has tried to set it in a way to be easily comprehended by a superficial student of Muslim history. I think, however, Mr Toynbee’s sources, being mainly English books written by men who had either some political axe to grind or whose minds were unduly prejudiced, he has not been able to do justice to the subject. Here and there, I find him tumbling and making statements wholly inconsistent with facts. From the very start, he falls into the besetting sin of stylists who try to rush into generalisations not at all in consonance with facts. 

I think Mr Toynbee could have incorporated more of facts and discarded some of his cheap generalisations without in any way materially affecting his general survey of the Muslim body politic. For instance, he seems to be under the misapprehension that the election of Othman[ra] to the Caliphate after the death of Omar[ra] was due more to tribal rivalry and factious jealousy than a genuine election and that his being raised to the supreme headship of the Muslim Commonwealth was evidence of the fact that the traditional bonds of kinship proved stronger than the posthumous effect of Muhammad’s[sa] personality. The writer seems to labour under the impression as if Othman were the leader of the Meccans who had stubbornly resisted Muhammad’s[sa] teachings, had forced the Prophet[sa] to fly to Medina, and had only submitted to the Prophet’s[sa] overlordship when he could no longer help it, that is, at the end of the Prophet’s[sa] triumphant career. So according to Mr Toynbee “the election of Othman[ra] was a sign that the old forces were asserting themselves.” Nothing can be further from the truth. 

Othman[ra] was one of the earliest and the most devoted of the followers of the Prophet[sa] and he had shared with his master all the vicissitudes of his life, the hardships, the persecutions, the deprivation, the loss of worldly effects, dangers, hairbreadth escapes, bitter opposition, attempts on life, and the exile and wars. 

Abu Bakr[ra] and Omar[ra], the first two Caliphs, were not so closely connected by ties of kinship as Othman[ra] was, for he was married to two of the Prophet’s[sa] daughters one after the death of the other, and the Prophet[sa] had said that if he had any more daughter to marry, he would have very gladly given her in marriage to the widower of his two daughters. The first two Caliphs were only distantly related to the Prophet[sa] through the marriages of their daughters to him, and in this respect, they were far outdistanced by Othman[ra]. If tribal rivalry was at work, Othman[ra] was the last man to be picked up by the factionists to further their own ends. Did he not desert their faith in the early days of Islam? Did he not suffer persecution at their hands? Did he not lose all when he had to flee from Mecca to Medina? How could they rally to the standard of Othman[ra]? He was the last man to be reconciled with.

Then again, the election of Othman[ra] itself is a clear refutation of this whole story. On his deathbed, Omar[ra] had appointed a committee of six to select his successor. Omar’s[ra] own son was on this committee, but true to his Islamic sincerity, Omar[ra] had laid it down as a necessary proviso that his son was not to be appointed as Khalifa. 

Omar’s[ra] point was to let it be known to all that Islam did not at all recognise hereditary claims about Khilafat. Now among these six, there was none who could in any way be associated with the so-called clannish factiousness. They were all old and tried companions of the Holy Prophet[sa] and they had all suffered much at the hands of the enemies of Islam, and there was none among them who could in any way be regarded as the champion of the old order of things. These six, by common consent, agreed to select Othman[ra] as the best-fitted person. 

That charges of nepotism were afterwards preferred against the holy person of Othman[ra] by the malefactors is no doubt true, but a discussion of them here seems to be out of place. Suffice it to say that they were wholly unfounded and that the agitation and disturbance that was set up by the interested persons was wholly engineered from abroad from motives of vengeance by the aliens and secret enemies of Islam and that the anarchists directed not so much against the person of Othman[ra] as against Islam, and the first symptoms of it showed themselves when an alien made an attempt on the life of Omar[ra] with fatal effect. 

Another oversight on the part of the learned writer is about the question of Khalifat itself. He does not seem to realise that the office of a Caliph is elective and not hereditary. According to the Holy Quran, Caliphate is to be entrusted to the best-fitted person for the office. The consensus of the faithful opinion is the ruling factor in ordinary circumstances. Unless a ruler has this sanction behind him, he cannot at all be considered as a Caliph. If the writer had cared to go deeper, he would have found that the Prophet[sa] himself had said that Caliphate representing the theocracy which he wanted to establish would last only thirty years after him and that it was to be followed by absolute and irresponsible monarchies, which as governments had nothing to do with him or Islam and hence wholly divested of the holy and sacred character of a Caliphate. This is why the establishment of Caliphate is directly attributed to divine agency in the Holy Quran. It is this Caliphate which cannot be passed on as a hereditary possession.

In circumstances like the above, when the Caliphate was to pass away and its place to be taken by irresponsible monarchs, the Prophet[sa], foreseeing and foreknowing the nature of these despotisms had exhorted his followers to abstain from mixing up with politics and moreover, he enjoined them to be loyal and obedient so that unhampered they could perform their religious duties.  In the Holy Quran the Moslems are expressly told not to have any recourse to rebellion, revolt, or agitation, or to set up any disturbance, and if the Moslems have entered into any pact of submission, they must abide by it. That is the law of Islam. Mr Toynbee’s statement that the Indian Moslems if they have to choose, are bound by Islamic Law to regard the Caliph as their sovereign rather than the King-Emperor, passes my understanding. The Islamic Law is clear on this point. “No rebellion, agitation, revolt, or disturbance”; can there be anything clearer?

“Literally and faithfully follow your pacts,” does it need any comment? And where is the Caliph? He is to be elected by the consensus of the faithful. Caliphate is a theocracy under religious sanction. Without that, there is no theocracy. I like to say something about the religious contrast set up by the writer, but that I reserve for the next contribution if you be kind enough to permit it, for that is a religious issue, and I do not know whether Asia’s policy would allow the intrusion of religious controversy into its columns. I for my part, do not see any reason why the writer should have deemed it necessary to bring it in. Now that he has done it, there is no reason why it should not be cleared up and the contrast shown in its nakedness.

(Transcribed and edited by Al Hakam from the original in The Review of Religions [English], August and September 1923)

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