Timothy Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic History and is an author, analyst, and consultant to the US military who specializes in transnational Islamic movements, eschatology and Mahdism. His website is www.mahdiwatch.org.
An Ottoman caliphal standard from
back in the day, when few argued
about the caliph's legitimacy.
C.S. Lewis said that two equally unfortunate errors can be made regarding the devil. One is to deny his existence; the other is to be overly fascinated with him and overestimate his power. Such is also good advice regarding the new caliphate proclaimed by the “Islamic State [of Iraq and al-Sham]”: this challenge to the geopolitical order cannot simply be laughed off as a bad Muslim joke; but neither should the pretensions of “Caliph Ibrahim” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, né Ibrahim Ali al-Badri) be treated as if the Ottoman caliphate was once again lording it over the Middle East and threatening to march on Vienna or Rome.
As I observed in several immediately previous posts, the major strength of the “Islamic State”—and the one characteristic which largely differentiates it from al-Qa`idah—is that it holds substantial contiguous territory, and in the Islamic heartland (not on failing state peripheries). This very strength, however, also represents a grave weakness, for it makes the IS vulnerable to air strikes and other modes of conventional warfare. However, kinetic operations, while almost certainly necessary, will prove insufficient to destroy this new Islamic polity. Some measure of political and, yes, religious de-legitimization must be meted out—and this can only be done by Muslim authorities, not by Western and Christian leaders.
And that might be happening. As of this writing, three Islamic entities and one prominent individual have already rejected “Caliph Ibrahim:”
1) Prominent and influential Sunni Salafi (Islamic literalist/fundamentalis) shaykhs in Lebanon have outright rejected “Caliph Ibrahim.” These Salafis do not question the caliphate per se, of course; rather their scorn derives from the fact that “these [ISIS] people are not the ones who deserve to declare something as great as the Islamic caliphate” and that ISISites have “rushed” doing so, sans the “foundations” of a caliphate, which do not yet exist.
2) Three branches of the global Hizb al-Tahrir (“Party of Liberation”) movement—which for 50 years has been working to resurrect the caliphate—have scorned the “Islamic State.” The Lebanese spokesman said that the caliphate would not be resurrected via “blood, charges of apostasy and explosions.” HT's Jordanian mouthpiece averred that since ISIS lacked a legitimate predecessor sultan, or “political leader,” it could not leapfrog to the higher office of caliphate. And the HT representative in the UK critiqued the new “caliphate” on two fronts: not having firm control of, and being recognized as politically legitimate in, the Syria-Iraq region; and for not having drawn loyalty (ba`yah) from important Islamic sectors and leaders.
3) Professors and experts in Islamic history and law at al-Azhar Mosque/University in Cairo have belittled the new “caliphate” for various and sundry reasons. As might be expected, many of the faculty at this august Sunni institution derided ISIS as a mere terrorist organization, unworthy of the caliphate—although at least one expressed conspiracy theory-level drivel that ISIS was a creation of “Western intelligence.” Yet another, a professor of shari`ah, laughably stated that “there is no political caliphate associated with Islam”—which would have been news to the Abbasids, Fatimids and Ottomans, among others.
However, let it be noted that “so far, al-Azhar has not issued any official stance regarding ISIS.” Until such time as the Grand Imam, Shaykh Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib—currently ranked the #1 most influential Muslim on the planet—decides to do so, the caliphal “Islamic State” under its “Caliph Ibrahim” will remain at least quasi-legitimate in the eyes of too many Muslims. Had the Obama Administration not poisoned the well in Egypt, by its myopic and misguided support for the Muslim Brotherhood, it might have sufficient pull there to help persuade the government in Cairo of the need for al-Azhar to get into the IO/IW/Strategic PSYOP fight against ISIS. But since POTUS and his State Department took sides against al-Azhar (which was, and is, anti-MB), such support from al-Sisi is probably out of reach.
4) Influential free-lance Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has condemned the IS caliphate as contravening shari`ah—although he has not spelled out exactly how this is the case.
The other major Islamic entity—albeit more political than religious—that might weigh in against the “Islamic State” is the multi-state, transnational Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Yet, to date, the OIC has been silent on the issue. One wonders where President Obama’s much-ballyhooed representative to the OIC, Rashad Husain, is, and why POTUS hasn’t dispatched him to rally international Muslim opinion against “Caliph Ibrahim.”Perhaps an administration that refuses to admit the historical reality of jihad also has its head buried deep in the sand regarding the Islamic validity, and thus menace, of a jihadist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Note: none of these four Islamic critiques of “Caliph Ibrahim” really addresses the seven prerequisites for the caliphate spelled out by Ibn Khaldun six centuries ago. Most aformentioned attacks are mere ad hominem ones, which will frankly fail to undermine the “Islamic State.” Predictions of the new caliphate’s inevitable and imminent demise might well be overstated in the absence of such Muslim ideological undermining of the polity's plausible bases.