A Conditional Caliphate

Mahatma Gandhi’s Short-Lived Support for an Islamic State

In an effort to unite Muslims and Hindus, Mahatma Gandhi gave his support to the growing Caliphate movement in India. Wikimedia

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,

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