Islam as Empty Signifier and the Caliphate as Zero Institution: On Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate

Daniel Avatar

Sayyid Qutb famously argued that Islam is in a state of jahaliya, or pre-Islamic ignorance in the modern world. This condition was total, extending both within and outside of Islamic majority societies. Qutb is considered a godfather of Islamist intellectuals because his position opened Islam to the political, and the consequence of Qutub’s idea calls for a remedy that is political in nature.

Is it fair to say that other colonial era and postcolonial era Muslim thinkers have largely failed in presenting models for thinking a break with the political encirclement of the Islamicate identity and world? This is, in many ways part of Salman Sayyid’s claim in Recalling the Caliphate. For Sayyid, contemporary Islamic thinkers, from traditionally trained ulama to Islamists, to ‘Islamic liberation’ theologians have certainly developed all sorts of proposals for transforming this condition. Maududi, for example, developed an idea of Islamic universalism in the sphere of economics and finance. More recently, Islamic liberation theologians such as Hamid Dabashi and Tariq Ramadan have argued that the only way to escape the political is to reformulate our understanding of Islam as a moral-ethical-legal system, and to avoid engagement with Islam and the political (Sayyid, 174).

In Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order, Sayyid presents Islam and Muslim subjectivity to be uniquely situated in the political. He understands the political in the way that Schmitt used the term, wherein something is political when it has entered into and recognized the world as split between friend and enemy. Sayyid argues that the political condition of Muslim subjectivity must not be abandoned, nor can it be replaced by the moral and the legal alone, for without facing and traversing the political – Islam remains at the level of a finite extension of being, or what he calls the ontic.

Sayyid is urging us to confront the political, but he ultimately wants to think of a situation wherein the political is traversed. The name he gives to this traversal of the political is the caliphate. The caliphate is “a domestication of the political on an ummatic scale through the institution of the politics of Islam” (183). The caliphate itself does not have to be ethical and nor is it political, but is a space that might allow the development of an ethical life for Muslims. The caliphate “has to be capable of building a world in which Muslims are not a scandalous presence” (182). Where Islamic liberation theology failed was that it situated Islam in an ahistorical manner by privileging the legal and the transcendent and ignored the political, the result being that they ended up condemning Muslims to the fate of “a people without history” (179).

Sayyid thus seeks a deeper ontological ground for Islam; one that is realized in the caliphate. Importantly, we should understand the caliphate as a site (not necessarily geographical and not necessarily a state power) where an Islamicate identity can imbue Muslim subjectivity with an ethical horizon. Ethics is understood as post-political, and politics is understood as the stuff that is transformed after an antagonistic or hegemonic struggle with(in) the political. Politics is not what we face now, what we face now is the political frontier. The political frontier is the only immutable frontier, whereas the frontiers of discursive struggle such as the west and Islam are fictional constructs – signifiers in a hegemonic struggle.

The political frontier is based on an “ontological distinction” between the ontic and the ontological, neither of which are adequately defined, but which find their origin in a Heideggerian project. An example of an ontic expression of Islam is an attempt to define an Islamic financial or economic system as uniquely Islamic in the context of the current neoliberal order of capitalism. Such an attempt will always remain partial and never universal because the current order does not provide an ontological ground for a fuller realization of such a project. Another example of an ontic expression of Islam today is one that defines Islam in the way that many neo-classical scholars and ulama seek to make Islam as a “way of life” definable by rules and laws. What Sayyid is after is a thinking of a form of Islam that will enable a deeper connection to the establishment of a much larger ground where an Islamicate identity can produce a “fresh world of ideas” similar to the way in which the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established the first Muslim community. This establishment can only be done as a political act (169).

Although it is not defined, a clear definition of the ontological is the autonomy of a post-foundational ground wherein Muslim subjectivity has the capacity to define itself beyond ontic (finite) being. Such an ontological realization of the Islamicate transforms the friend/enemy distinction into politics, or what Sayyid calls “the domestication of the political”. Since “politics is the way in which any social order establishes processes by which the gap between signifiers and signifieds can be policed, marshaled and given the appearance of suture” (171) – politics is utopian, while the political is the site of hegemonic struggle.

Although he does not note it in the text, Sayyid’s philosophical framework is indebted to left-Heideggerianism and post-Marxism. In Oliver Marchart’s reading of Laclau, Žižek, Badiou and Nancy he identifies a common reading of their idea of the political as that which “can step in as a radical supplement to an absent ground” (Marchart, 164). But unlike Sayyid’s conception of the political as an ever-present reality for Muslim subjectivity, the political is understood by neo-left ontology in a much rarer sense. The political is what jolts subjects into a new mode of subjectivization based on a decisional or evental eruption in the social. As Marchart states regarding the “moment of the political”:

“What is given in the moment of the political is not only a crisis within a particular discourse (which leads to conceptual change only), but the encounter with the crisis of breakdown of discursive signification as such – in political terms, the encounter with society’s abyss or absent ground” (Marchart, Post-Foundational Political Ontology 32 – 33).

One of the main reasons why Sayyid’s version of the political differs from more contemporary left ontology is in the way that he reads the failure of western universalism. While neo-left ontologists read the failure of the western project as universally affecting all, Sayyid argues that it uniquely affects Muslims. This is no doubt true and an omission that is the source of much neo-Orientalism in critical theory. Islam served (and still serves) as the point of realization of the empty signifiers of the western project, i.e. what it means to be human, democracy and freedom are all realized in relation to Islam. In the wake of the collapse of western universalism – we should note that Sayyid does not analyze transformations of capitalist modes of production and the way in which they situate subjectivity – it is unclear which hegemonic struggle in the political is actually taking place. I have identified three possible struggles: firstly, an interior struggle within the ummah, secondly a hegemonic struggle between the west and Islam, or thirdly, a struggle in which other underdogs and underrepresented (outside of the Islamicate, but including Muslims and non-Muslims) play a role in the establishment of the caliphate? The third form of struggle is reminiscent of early twentieth century radical socialist Zionist proposals for the state of Israel as a socialist utopia capable of gathering together a number of discarded identities to eventually eradicate the state and witness its withering away.

Sayyid is wise to show that previous attempts to unite an ummatic identity under the Westphalian order failed in that they were not permitted to rally around the signifier of Islam as an identity marker for the creation of a state because such a project is barred by the Westphalian secular project as such. Sayyid cites the historic examples of the way in which Pakistan limited its points of unified nation-state identity to ethno-linguistic signifiers and failed to rally the state around Islam. Such a project of the Islamists or the Kemalists are both deeply flawed and what Sayyid calls for is a thinking of the ummah as a people disarticulated from the homeland or the state. The ummah is thus a global presence that “subverts, hyphenates and hybridizes national identity” (Sayyid, 109). Sayyid wishes to think a future caliphate or ummatic identity construction project around the rallying point of a unified Muslim identity in part because that project remains unthinkable today, and thus a perfect candidate for hegemonic struggle.

“The assertion that Muslim identity is less sturdy, less authentic and far more fictional than ethnicity or class and is therefore incapable of constituting and sustaining a collective identity is little more than a reflection of the idea that the political is impossible for the non-West” (Sayyid, 125).


Islam as Empty Signifier, Calip as Zero Institution

Due to the distinctively political nature of Sayyid’s thinking of ummatic identity and the caliphate, his text should be read with Ernesto Laclau’s work on populism, hegemony and the creation of the people. Sayyid’s understanding of the caliphate can be supplemented by a Laclauian reading. For starters, there is a good deal of compatibility between Laclau and Sayyid’s core concepts of the political, the social and the people. Laclau defines the difference between politics and the political as the political being the ‘instituting moment of society’, and politics as ‘the acts of political institution’ (1996b: 47). Therefore, the ontological moment of the political and the latter’s ontic enactment which is termed politics is quite similar to Sayyid’s notion of the Islamicate realization of the absent ground of the ontological.

However, it is in the definition of the ontological that we find an important contrast between Sayyid and Laclau. For Lacalu, the social is the ‘sleeping mode of the political’ – and this is why he claims that the political is at the root of social relations. The social is ontological because it is based on power relations – all social identity is tied up with power relations. In this sense, being is power. For Laclau, the difference between the political and politics is that political is ontological and politics is the ontic (149) – a reversal of Sayyid’s position.

“Since there is no original fiat of power, no moment of radical foundation in which something beyond, any objectivity is constituted as the absolute ground on which the being of objects is based, the relationship between power and objectivity cannot be that of the creator and the ens creatum. The creator has already been partially created through his or her forms of identification with a structure into which h/she has been thrown. But as this structure is dislocated, the identification never reaches the point of a full identity: any act is an act of reconstruction, which is to say that the creator will search in vain for the seventh day of rest” (Laclau, 1990a: 60).

What separates Sayyid’s understanding of the ontological from Laclau’s is that he posits a day of rest wherein an ontological foundation of the Islamicate can serve as a final ground, wherein signifying reconciliation is possible. For Laclau, what is impossible is not the grounding, but the arrival of a final ground. Is it possible to think the caliphate other than a final ground? Taking his cue from Lacanian psychoanalysis, the ontologically realized thing, what Freud called das ding or the maternal thing is not achievable in a discursive chain and it remains embodied by partial objects. Thus, the ontological distinction between the ontic and the ontological, mapped onto hegemony theory reveals that the ontological is only ever reached as a series of partial objects, i.e. through the ontic. Every ontic element might play the role of the ontological, but only as a stand-in for the ontological because its signifier is internally split between a differential and an equivalential side (Laclau, 145 Rhetorical Foundations of Society). When Heidegger spoke of the being of beings, what he calls beying, there is a sense in which the ontological, despite its inaccessibility at the level of ground (grund) is a specter that haunts every social or political formation. But for Laclau, there is no beyond the play of differences – between the ontic and ontological and within the ontic, and this is why any theory of discourse contains “no ground that would privilege a priori some part of the whole over another” (Laclau, On Populist Reason, 68 – 69).

Laclau says there are three conditions for the creation of a people: the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of ‘the people’ possible; and the unification of these demands into the formation of a vague solidarity (Laclau, On Populist Reason, 74).

In Laclau’s framework, the caliphate is a “zero institution” and Islam an “empty signifier” The empty signifier has no determinate meaning because it signifies only the presence of meaning as such, in opposition to its absence. In this sense, the ummah has no positive, determinate function – its only function is the purely negative one of signaling the presence and actuality of social institution as such, in opposition to it absence, to pre-social chaos. Towards the end of Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid argues that we can think the ummah as a cultural revolution, as a counter public outside the sphere of representation, but conscious of its place outside of representation. But Lacalu cautions against such an understanding of the caliphate as counter public when he argues being outside of a space of representation does not endow a group with any particular universality (Rhetorical Foundations of Society, 159). So the notion of the caliphate as a counter public, outside the sphere of representation of the dominant paradigm of culture, etc. does not necessarily imply the creation of a new form of universality. What the idea of the caliphate as counter public shows is that there is a strong role for dialectics in any thinking of the caliphate. Dialectics enters only when there is a failure of totality, or when there is some break in the totality itself. This is what Laclau refers to as heterogeneity, or the process of how equivalential demands form metonymic chains and lead to antagonisms.

There is something within a saturated terrain that always escapes dialectical mastery and this is what can be called a “people without history” or what Lacan calls the left over in a lab tube experiment. If we understand the ummah as inclusive of people without history, which according to Sayyid is the lot of Muslims in today’s post-Westphalian order – the ummah must be thought, not of the fullness of the community, but as the receptacle for any number of people’s without history.

The caliphate as zero-institution is a (non)place, a neutral place, where all social antagonism(s) are obliterated, a place in which all members of society can recognize themselves. For Laclau, it is an ideology to think that one can achieve the fullness of the community, that the community can be realized in a totality. I take this to apply to the project of the caliphate, even if the caliphate involves the transcendent truth of the texts of Islam, for which they do provide a ground. The ummah must be thought as a ‘symptomal torsion’ or the void of the situation. Thinking the ummah in this way can provide a new conception of ethics prior to the ontological establishment of the Islamicate.

We can also develop a number of proper ways of establishing the caliphate beyond the traditional uses of shura or democratic agreement on behalf of the ummah and or ulama. The inauthentic act of establishing the ummah would be that act which negates or disavows the ummah as a symptomal torsion or void. The inauthentic act of establishing the caliphate is clearly what ISIS has done in their perfunctory declaration of the caliphate, a classic example of a passage a la act – one that is unable to penetrate to the real trauma of the ummah as symptomatic void and receptacle of all underdogs and plebs. The question that remains open in the case of ISIS is what sort of disavowed libidinal investment are they latching onto? As we know in the case of fascism, it is often the figure of the Jew that plays the role of the disavowed libidinal investment – but it is less clear what the alterity of ISIS is really all about.

One response

  1. Bandung2 Blog

    Peace be to you. In Footnote #3 pon Page 5 of a related piece entitled ‘Islamic Political Utopianism’, you state: “Sayyid apparently studied with Laclau and seemed to have a falling out over theoretical positions, although I do not know the full details of their falling out.” From where did you learn that Sayyid fell out with Laclau? I am intrigued. BTW: I think your reading of Sayyid’s position as post-‘Left Heideggerian’ drawing on the work of Marchart is on point.

    Currently writing my essay contribution to the following conference (, a draft of which I hope to make available on my page ( in due course. Peace

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