The Sunni Caliphate’s Little-Known Counterpart — the Shiite Imamate


A caliphate is more democratic than an imamate — in theory. (Photo: Flickr)

A caliphate is more democratic than an imamate — in theory. (Photo: Flickr)

So Iraq is in turmoil, and a full-fledged sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites looks imminent. Probably, USA will need to interfere yet again (there’s oil at stake, after all), and the inefficiency of Nouri al-Maliki’s rule has been exposed.

However, beyond all that, something else is worth discussing here. The message and motives of ISIS have clearly shown that they intend to restore the Caliphate, like it or not. This has sent the alarm bells ringing: Caliphate poses a threat to both Western hegemony in the region as well as the misrule of regional despots. Quite obviously, everyone is alarmed at the success of ISIS.

The fact that ISIS have shown a visible dislike for Shiite rule in Iraq further adds a new dimension to the age-old question: Sunni Caliphate or Shiite Imamate? Which one is better as a self-rule option for Muslims, and more importantly, for preserving the peace of the entire region?

For centuries, Christendom tried to eliminate the Caliphate, and failed (miserably). However, towards the start of the Modern World, secular West did manage to remove the Caliphate. Years have passed since then, and most of the present-day Muslims too feel detached from the days of the Caliphate. Even though calls for restoration of Caliphate, be it by violent or peaceful means, are made every now and then (ISIS is a case in point), many Muslims don’t consider it as a viable option anymore.

Coming back to Iraq.

The recent conflict can be compared to the Iran-Iraq War. Back then, Iran viewed the conflict as the struggle of a religious Shiite state against a godless Arab Socialist regime of Saddam Hussein, whereas the latter projected the war as a by-product of the ever-expanding encroachment of Persians on Arab culture.

Yet, the times have changed. Back then, Sunnis were viewed by the West as a peaceful community, whereas Shiites were the fanatics who were chanting “Death to America! Death to Israel!” Today, the Western climate seems pro-Shiite, and Sunnis are being viewed as the problem.

This sectarian conflict has historical roots. A tiny group of people believed that the Caliphate rightfully belonged to Ali, and it should not have gone to Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman. Having emerged as a matter of political disagreement, Shiism soon took the shape of a religious group within Islam, organizing itself under the doctrine of Imamah.

For Shiites, the Divine Imams are infallible and incorruptible. They can make no mistake and are immune to human flaws. In this regard, Shiite Imamate is comparable to the Catholic model of Pope — a supreme leader, who is above the flaws and faults of the world, and passes on the leadership sans the hysteria of mass elections.

As such, there is good room for democratic aspirations in the Sunni model of Caliphate: the Caliph is supposed to be guided by the interests of the common masses. Accountability to the people is a concept that is central to the idea of Sunni Caliphate. But this democratic spirit is absent in Shiite Imamate, which is based on absolute theocracy.

It must be noted, though, that the Ayatollahs are not Divine Imams themselves. According to Shiism, the last Divine Imam of Shiism, Mehndi, left this world back in the eighth century, and will be back when the time is right.


As is evident, Sunni Caliphate differs from Shiite Imamate in both ideological and practical terms. The former has potential for democratic reforms (of course, this does not mean ISIS will be keen on becoming a democratic body anytime soon), whereas the latter has a theocratic structure that offers unlimited socio-political powers to its Divine Imam.

All said and done, the concept of political leadership is just the tip of the iceberg, and both the sects have a lot of differences. Bloodshed and anarchy will help neither side, and this is where the role of both the Shiite and Sunni scholars becomes important. Caliphate and/or Imamate cannot be imposed by means of guns and bombs; consensus and civilized debates seem to be a much better option.

Islam is unique in the sense that it offers a good deal of personal and political freedom to its adherents, and both Sunnis and Shiites need to realize that political leadership can be discussed only when political unity has been achieved.

Sufyan bin Uzayr is the author of Sufism: A Brief HistoryHe writes for several print and online publications, and regularly blogs about issues of contemporary relevance at Political Periscope. You can also connect with him using Facebook or Google+ or email him at

  • thetruth

    fuck u and ur article and fuck shiia and sunnis and fuck america france and britain!

    • Sufyan bin Uzayr

      You could’ve made it easier for yourself and simply said “F the world”.

  • thetruth

    oh by the way fuck the kurds also those genocidal maniacs

  • Gevil

    the war between Sunnis and Shiites have been going on since the yr 656. They have been killing each other non stop. Just from 1948 almost 11m muslims were killed by fellow muslims. To think political talks about democracy will now stop it, is foolish