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In a Nutshell: It is categorically forbidden to have more than one ruler or caliph. Some classical jurists allowed for this in exceptional situations of necessity but most scholars disallowed this.

Introduction

The contemporary argument Islam permits Muslims to choose multiple ruler is not textually derived from the Islamic sources or juristic opinions but arising from European colonialism and nationalistic ideologies.

The acceptance of the political organisational principle of the nation-state as the only practical way to do politics is really the inability to imagine other forms of state, let alone a unified Muslim state.

The argument claiming multiple rulers are permitted has three elements:

This contention is pushed under the arguments:

  1. A single caliph is not obliged as scholars have differed over it
  2. It is impossible to have a single Caliph
  3. Historically multiple caliphs existed

I will address these in my answer.

Evidences

وَأَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلاَ تَنَازَعُوا فَتَفْشَلُوا وَتَذْهَبَ رِيحُكُمْ

And obey God and His messenger, and do not dispute so you become weakened and your breeze (energy & strength) goes (Qur'an 8:46)

كَانَتْ بَنُو إِسْرَائِيلَ تَسُوسُهُمُ الْأَنْبِيَاءُ، كُلَّمَا هَلَكَ نَبِيٌّ خَلَفَهُ نَبِيٌّ، وَإِنَّهُ لَا نَبِيَّ بَعْدِي، وَسَتَكُونُ خُلَفَاءُ فَتَكْثُرُ"، قَالُوا: فَمَا تَأْمُرُنَا؟ قَالَ: "فُوا بِبَيْعَةِ الْأَوَّلِ، فَالْأَوَّلِ، وَأَعْطُوهُمْ حَقَّهُمْ، فَإِنَّ اللهَ سَائِلُهُمْ عَمَّا اسْتَرْعَاهُمْ

The tribes of Isra'il were ruled by the Prophets, every time a Prophet deceased he was followed by another Prophet, and there will be no Prophets after me, and there will be Khulafaa (successors) and they will be many." The companions then asked "What do you order us?" To which the Prophet replied "Fulfil your pledge of allegiance to them one after another, and give them their rights, and truly Allah will ask them about their responsibilities (Muslim)

إذَا بُويِعَ لِخَلِيفَتَيْنِ، فَاقْتُلُوا الآخَرَ مِنْهُمَا

If the bay'a (pledge of allegiance) is given to two Caliphs, then kill the second of them. (Muslim)

The Messenger of Allah (saw) said: Different evils will make their appearance in the near future. Anyone who tries to disrupt the affairs of this Umma while they are united you should strike him with the sword whoever he be. (Muslim)

The Messenger of Allah (saw) said: When you are holding to one single man as your leader, you should kill who seeks to undermine your solidarity or disrupt your unity. (Muslim)

And from the consensus of the companions – the words of Abu Bakr's (ra) speech upon accepting the pledge of allegiance:

وإنه لا يحل أن يكون للمسلمين أميران ؛ فإنه مهما يكن ذلك يختلف أمرهم ، وأحكامهم ، وتتفرق جماعتهم ، ويتنازعوا فيما بينهم ، هنالك تترك السنة ، وتظهر البدعة ، وتعظم الفتنة ، وليس لأحد على ذلك صلاح

And it is not permitted for the Muslims to have two Amirs (leaders), since if that would occur it would lead to a difference in their affairs, and laws, and their unity would be split, and there would be competition between them. That would be leaving the sunnah, and innovation would appear, and fitna would spread, and none of that would be in anyone's benefit


Jurists' Views

It is categorically agreed upon by the jurists who wrote on this topic that it is forbidden to have more than one caliph or imam unless there are some extenuating circumstances whereby one cannot rule over some region or territory.

The minor differences in positions historically comprised:

  1. A minority of scholars (e.g., Qurtubi) argued necessity allows the forbidden to be permitted.
  2. The vast majority of Sunni scholars rejected the above position (e.g., Nawawi, Ibn Hazm etc) stating under no circumstances are multiple caliphs permitted.
  3. Some Shia schools allowed more than one caliph
  4. The Zaydi school (e.g., Sana'ai and Showkani) allowed more than one caliph exceptionally

The Zahiri scholar Ibn Hazm described the consensus of Islamic jurists upon the prohibition of two leaders being appointed whatever the circumstance:

واتفقوا ـ (أي الفقهاء) ـ أنه لا يجوز على المسلمين في وقت واحد في جميع الدنيا إمامان، لا متفقان ولا مفترقان، ولا في مكانين، ولا في مكان واحد
And (the jurists) agreed that it is not permitted for the Muslims to have two imams, in the whole world, at the same time – whether it was agreed (to divide the authority) between them or they differed over it. And it is not permitted irrespective of whether they were in the same place, or two difference places. (Al-Muhalla)

Al-Mawardi also states the position of mainstream Sunni scholarship.

إذا عقدت الإمامة لإمامين في بلدين لم تنعقد إمامتهما، لأنه لا يجوز أن يكون للأمة إمامان في وقت واحد، وإن شذ قوم فجوزوه
If two Imams are appointed in separate lands, their leadership is invalid – because it is not permitted for the Muslim ummah to have two Imams at one time (despite the aberrant/ shadh position of those who permitted it) (Ahkam al-Sultaniyya)

In reference to the hadith of Muslim above, Nawawi wrote

وَمَعْنَى هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ إِذَا بُويِعَ لِخَلِيفَةٍ بَعْدَ خَلِيفَةٍ فَبَيْعَةُ الْأَوَّلِ صَحِيحَةٌ يَجِبُ الْوَفَاءُ بِهَا وَبَيْعَةُ الثَّانِي بَاطِلَةٌ يَحْرُمُ الْوَفَاءُ بِهَا وَيَحْرُمُ عَلَيْهِ طَلَبُهَا وَسَوَاءٌ عَقَدُوا لِلثَّانِي عَالِمِينَ بِعَقْدِ الأول جَاهِلِينَ وَسَوَاءٌ كَانَا فِي بَلَدَيْنِ أَوْ بَلَدٍ أَوْ أَحَدُهُمَا فِي بَلَدِ الْإِمَامِ الْمُنْفَصِلِ
The meaning of this narration, is that if a caliph is given a pledge of allegiance after another caliph has already been appointed, then the first appointment is valid and must be fulfilled, whereas the second is void and it is prohibited to fulfil it. It is prohibited for him to request that fulfilment, irrespective of whether they knew of the first caliph or not, and irrespective of whether they were in the same or different locations, or whether one of them was in a land totally separated from the other.

The famous Sunni jurist Juwayni wrote an entire chapter in his book 'Ghiyath' called 'The prohibition of setting up two Imams', in which he wrote:

'When it is possible to appoint one Imam who will oversee the entire lands of Islam and his sovereignty will encompass all the world, despite the variation of its positions in the eastern and western regions, it is necessary to appoint and it is impermissible, when the situation is such, to appoint two Imams. This is agreed upon and no disagreement on this is found.'

The famous Maliki scholar, Imam Qurtubi highlights the general understanding of the hadith that Muslims should have only have one ruler:

"Whoever comes to you whilst your affairs are unified under a single person, seeking to undermine your unity or divide your ranks, execute him"... This is the strongest evidence prohibiting the establishment of two leaders. For this will lead to hypocrisy, dissension, schisms, civil strife and the removal of blessings.

Qurtubi even related the opinion of Imam Malik, that the starting of Ramadan due to moon sightings in all the Muslim regions inhabited by the Ummah can be overridden by the moon sighting date declared by the Amir al-Mumineen.

Juwayni was careful to mention only in extreme cases of distant lands that are cut off from the central Caliph, could there be a possible exception to the clear rule established by the Prophet Muhammed (saw) and a second 'Imam' be appointed in a distant region. But he carefully and explicitly caveats that this second 'Imam' is not the supreme Imam of the Muslims. This exception-to-the-rule proves the general rule is mandatory outside of exceptional circumstances.

Other scholars do not dispute the general rule. For example, Ibn Arafa says:

"If the position of the Imam is such that he can't enforce his rule in distant areas, then it is permissible to install others."

The Yemeni Zaydi scholar of the 19th century Shawkani claims the Muslim Ummah and its lands cannot be divided:

"It is known from Islam by necessity that Islam has forbidden division amongst Muslims and the segregation of their land"

Also commenting

ولا تجب على أهل القطر الآخر طاعته ولا الدخول تحت ولايته لتباعد الأقطار فإنه قد لا يبلغ إلى ما تباعد منها خبر إمامها أو سلطانها ولا يُدرى من قام منه أو مات, فالتكليف بالطاعة والحال هذا تكليف بما لا يطاق.
It is not obligatory for the people of the other region to obey (the ruler of another domain), and to be part of his governorship due to the distance between the regions, since the news of his leadership or sultanate may not reach them, and they would not know whether he was ruling there or had died [as way of an example]. Obedience is commanded, and the situation in this case it would be an impossible command [and therefore is not a command at all since Allah does not command the impossible]

Despite those who believe an exception is possible, Juwayni states the mainstream opinion of the scholars is that even if lands are impractically cut-off from the Caliph, even then that's still no excuse to go against the explicit command of the Prophet's hadith. Famous examples of this mainstream that rejected the exceptions include Mawardi, Nawawi, Ibn Hazm, Sha'rani and Ibn Khaldoon. Nawawi stating:

وَاتَّفَقَ الْعُلَمَاءُ عَلَى أَنَّهُ لَا يَجُوزُ أَنْ يُعْقَدَ لِخَلِيفَتَيْنِ فِي عَصْرٍ وَاحِدٍ سَوَاءٌ اتَّسَعَتْ دَارُ الْإِسْلَامِ أَمْ لَا وَقَالَ إِمَامُ الْحَرَمَيْنِ فِي كِتَابِهِ الْإِرْشَادِ قَالَ أصحابنا لا يجوز عقدها شخصين قَالَ وَعِنْدِي أَنَّهُ لَا يَجُوزُ عَقْدُهَا لِاثْنَيْنِ فِي صُقْعٍ وَاحِدٍ وَهَذَا مُجْمَعٌ عَلَيْهِ قَالَ فَإِنْ بَعُدَ مَا بَيْنَ الْإِمَامَيْنِ وَتَخَلَّلَتْ بَيْنَهُمَا شُسُوعٌ فَلِلِاحْتِمَالِ فِيهِ مَجَالٌ قَالَ وَهُوَ خَارِجٌ مِنَ الْقَوَاطِعِ وَحَكَى الْمَازِرِيُّ هَذَا الْقَوْلَ عَنْ بَعْضِ الْمُتَأَخِّرِينَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْأَصْلِ وَأَرَادَ بِهِ إِمَامَ الْحَرَمَيْنِ وَهُوَ قَوْلٌ فَاسِدٌ مُخَالِفٌ لِمَا عَلَيْهِ السَّلَفُ وَالْخَلَفُ وَلِظَوَاهِرِ إِطْلَاقِ الْأَحَادِيثِ وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ

The scholars have agreed that it is not permissible for two caliphs to be appointed in the same time, irrespective of whether dar al-Islam was widely spread or not. Imam al-Haramain (al-Juwayni) wrote in his book al-irshad: 'Our companions (i.e., scholars in the Shafi'i school of thought) that it is not permitted for two people to be contracted (as caliph). My opinion is that it is not permitted to appoint two in a single land, and this opinion is agreed upon. If there is a large distance between the two leaders, then there is some scope for it (to be permitted).'

Ibn Khaldoon explains his opinion in his 'Muqadimah' and summarises the opinions of the Muslim scholars:

'It is not possible to appoint two men to the position (of imam) at the same time. The scholars generally are of this opinion, on the basis of certain hadith. Those hadith are found in the book, 'On Leadership' in the Sahih by Muslim. They clearly indicate this is so. Others hold that (the prohibition against two imams) applies only to two imams in one area, or where they would be close to each other. When there are great distances and the imam is unable to control the farther region, it is permissible to set up another imam there to take care of public interests'.

Importantly, concerning Ghazali's opinion, what we should note from above, is that even with the medieval transportation and communication methods of 1094, Ghazali did not consider Egypt or the Iberian al-Andalus to be beyond the reach of the Abbasid Caliphate, which explains why he calls some of them rebels for not pledging allegiance to the Abbasid Caliph.

With modern technology and transport there would be no longer any room today to argue an exception to the general rule established by the hadith.

Conclusion

It is categorically forbidden to have more than one ruler or caliph. Some classical jurists allowed for this in exceptional situations of necessity but most scholars disallowed this.

References

Ibn Hazm, al-Muhalla
Ibn Khaldoon, Muqadimah
Juwayni, Ghiyath al-Ummam
Mawardi, Ahkam al-Sultaniyya
Shawkani, Irshaad al-Fuhool


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