The Controversy on Khilafat
by Maulana Muhammad Ali, M.A., LL.B.
The Light (Pakistan), 16th January 1923 Issue (Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 2–3)
That serious misconceptions prevail in the minds of non-Muslims on almost all important questions relating to Islam is a well-known fact, and the misunderstanding on the question of Khilafat in the minds of the Christians who regard it as an institution like the institution of papacy in Christianity, though much to be regretted, is not very surprising.
But what is much more regretful is that a somewhat similar misconception prevails in the minds of the Muslims themselves. As I explained in a pamphlet on the “Khilafat in Islam” published in February 1920 when the question of Khilafat was first brought into prominence, the Khilafat in Islam stands in fact for succession to the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)], such also being the literal significance of the word which is derived from Khalafa, meaning he came after or succeeded another.
Now, the Holy Prophet was both a King and a Prophet, and the promise of Khilafat meant that temporal rule and spiritual teachership should be continued among the Muslims. But there is an essential difference between the two offices, for while spiritual teachership vests in individuals, kingship vests in the whole nation, and though one individual with supreme authority may in particular be called the Khalifa, it is really the whole nation that possesses temporal authority. The Holy Quran speaks of this distinction in plain words when reminding the Israelites of the benefits conferred on them:
یٰقَوۡمِ اذۡکُرُوۡا نِعۡمَۃَ اللّٰہِ عَلَیۡکُمۡ اِذۡ جَعَلَ فِیۡکُمۡ اَنۡۢبِیَآءَ وَ جَعَلَکُمۡ مُّلُوۡکًا ٭ۖ
“Remember the favour of Allah upon you when He raised prophets among you and made you kings” (The Holy Quran, 5:20).
Thus, the spiritual teacher is raised among a people, while kingship is conferred not on a particular person but on the whole nation.
The present controversy with regard to the temporal authority of the Khilafat is really due to this misconception which is prevailing in the minds of the vast majority of the Muslims, including even many of the theologians. The Turkish nation in which the Khilafat vests at present has yielded to this prevailing misconception by making the Khalifa occupy the position which the Pope occupies in the Roman Catholic world. That the leaders of the Turkish nation realise the true significance of Khilafat seems to be quite clear from the explanation given by Ismet Pasha:
“Now how does it follow that we have left Khilafat without any material support? Turkey has the Khilafat, and the Khilafat is vested in the Turkish nation.”
“You have proved by your active encouragement, and by your approval of our humble custody of the Khilafat of Islam, that we are worthy of being the trustees of this sacred institution. The Turkish nation is proud of this humble yet noble service. This is our conviction: that the Khilafat attributes remain unalienated in the Turkish nation.”
That is the true position of the Khilafat. The Khilafat is held by the Turkish nation, not by a particular Sultan. If the Sultan has any connection with the Khilafat, it is as the head of the Turkish State. A particular person is called the Khalifa not because he holds any spiritual authority, but because he is the emblem of the sovereignty of a nation.
Essentially it is the nation that holds the Khilafat, as against spiritual teachership, which office is held by an individual. Occasionally there may be a temporal head of the nation who may also be a spiritual teacher as in the case of the first four Khalifas and Umar II [Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz]. But such examples are very rare in history.
The Muslims are making a grave mistake by mixing up the two offices, the result of which is that the Turks have been compelled to elect a nominal Khalifa who, without possessing any spiritual eminence, is supposed to be the spiritual head of the Muslim world. If the Muslims do not recognise the position which has been so ably explained by Ismet Pasha, viz., that the Khilafat is vested in the Turkish nation and that that authority can only be exercised constitutionally, they would make the Islamic Khilafat stand on the same basis as the institution of papacy in Christianity, and instead of helping the cause of the Khilafat, they would deal a blow at the very roots of that institution. They should recognise the Turkish nation as the holder of the Khilafat, and look to their spiritual teachers for spiritual guidance. It is against all divine laws that spiritual greatness should be limited to a particular family, and to suppose that the Sultan, by his election as the head of the Turkish State, even though he may possess a certain decree of temporal power, becomes the spiritual head of the Muslim world, is the gravest of errors, which will ultimately make people lose all faith in the very institution of the Khilafat.
The situation in clear words is this: that temporal Khilafat vests in the Turkish nation and the Muslims need not lay much stress upon the relations between the Sultan and the Turkish nation, and as regards spiritual Khilafat, it is to the great divine teachers that they must look and not to a particular ruling family.
[Related: The Spiritual Khalifa of the Day]