Lost in the outcry over the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) recent declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria is the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was the first modern leader to demand a caliphate for Muslims. In 1919, determined to unite Hindus and Muslims to challenge British rule, Gandhi formed an alliance with a range of Muslim leaders—from clerics to Oxbridge graduates to poets and businessmen—in an aptly named Khilafat, or Caliphate, movement.

Gandhi did not actually believe in a caliphate. His support was tactical. He reached out to Indian Muslims at a moment when they were vulnerable. They were struggling with uncertainty over their fate after the collapse of the Mughal dynasty in 1857, as well as with the despair they felt after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The Ottoman caliphate had been the last symbol of Islamic power, and after its defeat, all Muslim lands were either a European colony or under occupation. Even the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had been lost. Therefore, for Indian Muslims, the caliphate became an ideal more powerful in memory than it had ever been in reality. A mournful lament—"Islam in danger!"—morphed into a powerful war cry.

Gandhi, a devout Hindu, had consistently maintained that politics without religion was immoral. He saw nothing wrong with the Muslims’ emotionally charged expressions of faith as a vehicle for protest. He did, however, force Muslim leaders to accept two conditions in exchange for his allegiance: nonviolence and his undisputed authority as the "dictator" of the whole independence movement. (At the time, the term "dictator" was still associated with its original meaning of dictation.) Gandhi famously took orders from only one source: his own conscience. India's Khilafat movement, which was folded into Gandhi’s campaign for non-cooperation, thus became the only jihad in history that was both nonviolent and led by an "infidel." 

But as the tempo of mass mobilization picked up, passions rose. Violence entered the Muslim rhetoric and, eventually, practice. In 1921, at the height of Gandhi's movement, which involved nonviolent forms of civil disobedience against the British Raj, a rogue group of Muslims attempted to establish a small caliphate in southern India. They killed or forcibly converted hundreds of Hindus. The British put down the uprising, but the cost was high: 2,337 Islamic rebels were killed and 45,404 were sent to prison.

In a separate and unrelated event on February 5, 1922, in the village of Chauri Chaura in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a mob of protestors clashed with police and torched a police station, burning to death 21 constables who were trapped inside. Gandhi, shocked by the violence, abruptly ended his campaign for nonviolence without consulting the Muslim leadership. Satan, he explained, had taken over.

The Muslim leaders felt betrayed. They condemned Gandhi as a coward and never forgave him, no matter how much evidence Gandhi offered over the years that his heart, mind, and, indeed, life were still committed to Hindu and Muslim unity. A strong view emerged among Muslim leaders that they should never again surrender power to an idol-worshipper, as they called Gandhi. Ironically, in 1920, when optimism for Hindu and Muslim unity was at its peak, Gandhi had predicted that such an opportunity for partnership would not come again for “one hundred years.” History proved him right.


Gandhi did not foresee the long-term implications of theocratic revivalism among India’s Muslims. Nor did he fully understand a dangerous deviation that emerged from within his own movement. Just before the Khilafat movement began, Muslim clerics nominated an Imam-e-Hind, or an Imam of India, who would command the spiritual and political allegiance of Indian Muslims within a larger Indian state once India achieved independence from the British. This nation within a nation concept withered when Gandhi disbanded his non-cooperation campaign, but the passions that propelled it remained. In the late 1930s, Muslim leaders revived the slogan that Islam was in danger—not, this time, from British imperialists but from Gandhi and the Hindus. They dismissed Gandhi's vision of a modern, secular state as incompatible with Islam. In 1947, the sword of Islam, with some cooperation from the British, carved out the first contemporary Islamic state: Pakistan.

Democracy got off to a false start in Pakistan; liberal ideas may have made it into the new country’s first constitution but not its legislature. In its first decade as a new state, Pakistan was characterized by violence and disorder. Within ten weeks after its birth, it launched a war with India over Kashmir. After three years, its prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated, destabilizing the government and opening the door for turmoil and subversion; within a decade, the eastern wing of the country was seething with secessionist sentiment. And after 11 years, there was a military coup—evidence that Pakistan was a fragile idea with dysfunctional borders. The instability also revealed that Islam was insufficient as a basis for nationalism. In 1971, after a bloody war of liberation, eastern Pakistan broke off into Bangladesh. Ethnic and sectarian battles continue to ravage the country, particularly in its largest city, Karachi, and across the wide swath of territory west of the Indus.

Paradoxically, Pakistan’s disintegration reinforced the view among many Muslims that Islam was the only basis for the integration of an ethnically diverse nation. But the centers of power and public institutions that supported the idea of Pakistan as a theocratic nation merely turned it into a haven for terrorist militias that used jihad as a means to extend "Islamic space." Pakistan has now turned into a jelly state, constantly quivering from political instability.

Indeed, out of that chaos emerged a second Islamic state: Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As the United States learned, after paying a heavy price in blood and treasure, Pakistan provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. And today it is guardian of Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, who runs his war against NATO and Kabul from safe houses in Quetta and other clandestine locations.


ISIS is the third manifestation of Sunni theocratic revivalism. The ideological impetus for today's expanding jihad comes from the eighteenth-century theologies of Shah Waliullah of Delhi and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Najd in Saudi Arabia. Both scholars offered a vision of a caliphate reborn with a leader who would be true to the original principles of Islam and cleanse it of "impure" practices and "heresies" such as Shiism. Their modern day followers took the next step backward, and under takfir, condemned any non-Sunni Muslim as an apostate or an infidel. As a result, Shia are constantly being gunned down in Pakistan by Sunni terrorists.

The thirst for purity is also a thirst for blood. These advocates of Dar al-Harb, or the House of War, are happy to burn their own house down since, for them, it would only clear the “rot.” Jihadists categorize their enemies in three groups: the far enemy (principally America); the near enemy (foes at home or in the region); and countries that have occupied "Islamic territory" (Israel, India, and now China, thanks to its Muslim-majority province, Xinjiang). Although al Qaeda is concerned primarily with the far enemy, ISIS’ priority is to defeat the near enemy, the Shia, and to eliminate all non-Muslims from the region, even though support for ISIS has grown international. Recent intelligence reveals that there could be as many as 20,000 foreign fighters working for the terrorist group.

These parallel and overlapping conflicts, connected by the thread of Islamic theocracy, have destabilized the vast region that stretches from Pakistan to north Africa. We are, whether we admit it or not, in the midst of a fourth world war. World War I ended where World War II began: in Versailles. They were, respectively, battles against imperialism and fascism. The third, the Cold War, emerged out of disagreement over the future of Europe at Yalta. It was fought between the victors of War World II over the spread of communism. It ended with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, which is exactly where the fourth began—the war against terrorism, which is a conflict between democracy and theocracy.

Today, the Muslim countries that emerged out of the Mughal and Ottoman empires have been unable to come to terms with many requirements of a modern state, principally democracy, but also with freedom of faith, gender equality, and economic equity. Such failures are an invitation to an imagined past in the form of a caliphate or, in the case of suicide bombers, an imagined future in paradise.

The tragic irony is that Islam historically flourished precisely because it left space for pluralism in faith and politics. Verse 2:256 of the Koran unambiguously states that "There shall be no coercion in matters of religion." The Prophet Muhammad banned female infanticide, a common practice at that time, and Koranic law gave women inheritance rights. As for the concept of jihad, only a state can declare a holy war; the maverick jihadism that we see today is evidence of chaos rather than the realization of Islamic doctrine. If Islam is in any danger today, it is from rogue Islamists who fail to recognize that the former glory of the Ottoman caliphate grew out of its policy of tolerance, such as providing refuge for Jews fleeing the inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Long before the closed-minded caliphate of ISIS and its allies can hurt their declared enemies, they will devastate the faith of the faithful.

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  • M. J. AKBAR is the national spokesman of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He has held a long career as an author, an editor, and a columnist. His books include The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict Between Islam and Christianity and Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan.
  • More By M.J. Akbar