Strict Statutes and Most-Biting Laws: Taking the Measure of the Islamic State
by Timothy Furnish, Mahdi Watch — July 2, 2014
Timothy R. 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.
With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham annexing large sections of Iraq and Syria, and the subsequent proclamation of a new caliphate under Ibrahim al-Badri, or “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”—ruling as “Caliph Ibrahim”—the current clash of civilizations (between Islam and every other one, particularly the Christian West) enters a new and potentially more ominous phase. But while a terrorist-created caliphate is a net negative for the world (Muslims included), the caliphate per se may yet result in some positives for the modern world—as per the title of my not-yet-completed book, The Caliphate: Threat or Opportunity?
Some history of this primary Islamic political institution is in order, considering how many misapprehensions exist on the topic. Khalifah means “successor” to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community/state, in both a political and religious sense—as pointed out by Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, in God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (Cambridge, 1984). In fact, according to Crone and Hinds, the office of the caliph even had eschatological overtones insofar as the occupant thereof was “rightly-guided” by Allah in the same way (though perhaps not as intensely) as the End Times Mahdi would be.
Shi`is of various stripes eventually eschewed the caliphate as a usurping Sunni office, opting instead for the Imamate dependent upon Muhammad’s male descendants via Ali, Hasan or Husayn, and their offspring—whether the legitimate line ran through the 5th Imam (Zaydis), the 7th (Isma’ilis) or the 12th (Twelvers). Only one Shi`i group—the Ismai’li Sevener Fatimids, who ruled Egypt in the medieval period—really used the term “caliph” for its leaders, perhaps to curry legitimacy with the bulk of Egypt’s population, which always remained staunchly Sunni.
The Fatimid Caliphate-Imamate, in dark green, 970-1171 AD.
The other major caliphates in history were all unambiguously Sunni; those of: the Rashidun (“rightly-guided”), the first four men to succeed Muhammad; the Umayyads of Damascus (661-750 AD); the Abbasids of Baghdad—Islam’s “Golden Age”—from 750-1258 AD; and the Ottomans, who ruled for some six centuries until right after World War I. One other caliphate was something of an outlier: that of the North African al-Muwahhidun, or “Almohads,” which was founded as an overtly Mahdist state by Ibn Tumart in the 12th century AD but which, after his death, transformed into a (mere) caliphate.
Muhammad (with lens flare) & the four "Rashidun" caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman & Ali. No idea which is which.
Other lesser, regional caliphal states have been proclaimed in the past, such as Usman don Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate of what is now northern Nigeria, and several short-lived ones in the Iberian Peninsula. But over the last several centuries, the most powerful and important caliphate, by far, was that of the Ottomans, adduced by Abülhamid II (Abd al-Hamid II) in the late 19th/early 20th century as a rallying point for Pan-Islamic unity. With the Ottoman defeat in World War I and the onset of the Turkish Republic, the new secular rulers of Turkey first dissolved the political power of the House of Osman—the sultanate—but allowed it to retain the caliphate as a spiritual authority for Muslims. But in 1924 even this was eradicated, and the last caliph—Abdülmecid (Abd al-Majid)—was exiled to Paris.
The Royal Seal of the House of Osman, c. 1882. It's festooned with more weapons, bladed and gunpowder, than a pick-up truck in Texas.
Others tried to claim the caliphate, or considered doing do: notably King Husayn of the Hijaz in Arabia, who was ultimately defeated by the Sa`udis; and King Fu’ad of Egypt. Islamic conferences on the caliphate met in Mecca in 1926 and Jerusalem in 1931, but could not agree on the structure and function of the office, much less on someone to occupy it. About the same time Rashid Rida, a leading Syrian-Egyptian Islamic “modernist,” advocated a caliph as a preeminent mujtahid, or exerciser of ijtihad (“updater” of Islamic law), while both of the Muslim Brotherhood’s major thinkers--Hasan al-Banna, its founder, and later Sayyid Qutb, its foremost theorist—endorsed the caliphate. Outside the Arab world, the Indo-Pakistani thinker Abu A`la Mawdudi directly pushed for the caliphate’s re-establishment, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.
However, the efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mawdudi notwithstanding, from the 1950s until recently, the Pan-Islamic idea of the caliphate largely took a back seat to either enthnolinguistic-based unity schemes (Pan-Arabism, Pan-Turkism) or to nation-state sovereignty. But in recent decades (certainly since 1979), the failure of such agendas has caused many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to take another look at Islamic history as a unifying force for the ummah—which, in Sunni contexts, means chiefly the caliphate. Pro-caliphal propaganda has been sowed around the world, first and foremost, since 1952 by Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly promoted the resurrection of the caliphate. (I have attended two of this organization’s yearly meetings in the US, in 2009 and 2012, and written on the former in the “Washington Times” and on the latter at my website.) Zeal for the caliphate particularly consumes many in Pakistan, where over a dozen parties espouse it (as per Vernie Liebl, “The Caliphate,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3, May 2009, pp. 373-391). So ISIS’s new caliphate did not spring ex nihilo from al-Baghdadi’s fevered brow; rather, the groundwork for bringing back such has been being laid almost since the last Ottoman ruler was deposed. Many Muslims—probably a minority, but still tens if not hundreds of millions—are willing to consider a renewed caliphate as a unifier and a point of pride for their faith, the world’s second-largest. But most of those probably would not have made the leader of ISIS their first choice.
Home page of the "Party of Liberation's" website. HT has been the John the Baptist to Caliph Ibrahim's messianic success.
How does “Caliph Ibrahim” stack up against historical Islamic standards? According to Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval Muslim sociologist and historian, the caliph’s prerequisites are: 1) knowledge of Islamic law; 2) honesty and virtue; 3) ability to lead and wage jihad (yes, holy war); 4) physical health and lack of bodily defects; 5) Qurayshi origin (descent from Muhammad); and of course 7) maleness (see The Muqaddimah, Princeton University, 1981, pp. 158-60). But as Bernard Lewis points out (The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago, 1988, p. 99 and passim), as Islamic history wore on “legitimacy…of qualifications…was progressively reduced to the point where, in effect, only two conditions remained—power and Islam. As long as the ruler possessed the necessary armed strength to seize and hold power, and as long as he was a Muslim, however minimal and however nominal, that sufficed.” According to Liebl (pp. 387ff), that medieval/early modern concept of the caliphate was echoed in, and given the stamp of approval by, the 1926 Cairo conference, which mandated only that the caliph be a Muslim and a ”free sovereign capable of defending Islam”—of waging jihad, in other words. (It was even stated that the caliph could accede to power via conquest.)
“Caliph Ibrahim” fits a number of Ibn Khaldun’s requirements: PhD in Islamic law, demonstrated aptitude for jihad, health, and XY chromosomes. His followers probably credit him with probity, as well. He lacks only Muhammadan descent (although don’t be surprised if a fatwa to that effect from a caliphal-friendly `alim shows up in short order). And he certainly meets the two bare bones requirements as laid out by the Cairo Conference. Just as Usama bin Ladin, a renegade non-cleric, could issue a fatwa of “jihad against Jews and Crusaders” and have it heeded by many, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a renegade leader, can proclaim a caliphate with himself in command. In fact, the latter probably has more legitimacy than UBL, since he actually rules substantial territory, is far more formally knowledgable about Islam, and has been in the front ranks fighting against the avowed enemies of Islam (rather than having spent the most recent years plotting from a cave or safe house). Nothing succeeds like success, especially when it comes to the caliphate.
A decade ago the US National Intelligence Council tried to peer into the palantir and envision geopolitics in 2020. Part of that included the fictional scenario of a new caliphate. The two most important “lessons learned” from this exercise include the following: 1) “a Caliphate would not have to be entirely successful…to present a serious challenge to the international order”; and 2) “the proclamation of a caliphate would not lessen the likelihood of terrorism and, in fomenting more conflict, could fuel a new generation of terrorists.” As the first of these contentions is already being borne out—with the erasure of the Iraqi-Syrian border, Jordan’s possibly next—and the second almost sure to follow, concern over the new caliphate is more justified than dismissive sang-froid.
Caliph Ibrahim & former Ottoman Caliph Mehmet V.
Both proclaimed jihad; one is just a snazzier dresser with more bling.
But while the self-styled caliphal “Islamic State” is quite problematic, it’s perhaps not the geopolitical disaster that some would have it. First, al-Badri’s caliphate may yet be rejected by the non-Arab-jihadist Muslim population, on the grounds of his lacking Qurayshi bona fides and/or his deficiency of ties to the last Ottoman caliph. Second, more reputable organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation or al-Azhar University/Mosque—Sunni Islam’s highest authority (founded, ironically, by the aforementioned Shi`i Fatimids)—will almost inevitably condemn and illegitimize the “Islamic State” [IS]. Third, claimants with far more plausible claims to the caliphate--such as descendants of the Ottoman royal line, King Abd Allah II of Jordan or, perhaps most credibly, the family of Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah Asaf Jah VIII, with ties to the Ottoman and Mughal rulers (see Liebl, pp. 384ff.)—might dispute the pretensions of “Caliph Ibrahim.” So too might the Saudis, who have never asserted such but whose rulership of Mecca and Medina makes their claim more religiously, if less militantly, convincing.
Some argue that the new caliphate’s brutal practices of beheading and crucifixion will inevitably make it unpopular and lead to its demise. Perhaps. But there’s a problem with that thesis: both beheading and crucifixion are enjoined in the Qur’an for, respectively, battlefield opponents and those who “war against Allah (and Muhammad)” and/or cause “immorality.” (Here is my analysis of Islamic decapitation; an excellent break-down of the Qur’anic passage backstopping crucifixion can be found here.) IS[IS] may be violent, but it’s not thereby unIslamic; in fact, the caliphate can claim, quite plausibly, to be hewing closer to the Qur’an than the Sunni leaders in Amman or Riyadh—never mind the murtaddun, “apostates,” ruling in Damascus and Baghdad—as it hews through infidel necks.
As for the alleged threat IS[IS] poses to the West in general and the US in particular: in the near term, such is doubtful—hyperbolic claims about conquering Rome notwithstanding—but on a long(er) time frame, “Caliph Ibrahim,” if he and his devotees stay in power, is indeed a clear and present danger to our allies and interests in the Middle East proper. Not just Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia are in the caliph’s crosshairs; much more ominously, IS[IS] almost certainly plans on attacking Israel in order to “liberate” al-Quds, Jerusalem. This is all the more true to the extent that the new caliphate is motivated by eschatological fervor (as per my previous post). Al-Badri’s hubris is so great that he may even begin to think of himself in Mahdist terms—if his followers are not already doing so.
How on earth is any of this positive? A number of ways come to mind. First, a caliph that enjoins beheadings and crucifixions and simultaneously adduces his strict adherence to the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad might, just might, cause some Muslims to start questioning slavish adherence to same. Second, this caliphate is inexorably exposing the fact that Iraq and Syria (and likely Jordan) possess only the thinnest gauze of legitimacy, and that the ethnic and sectarian realities on the ground would likely be better served by a reversion to the Ottoman realities; certainly the Kurds would benefit thereby. Third, a caliph and state dedicated to jihad against not just non-Muslims, but Shi`is, would (further) draw Jordan, Sa`udi Arabia and Egypt—and likely even Turkey—into closer cooperation with the US and Israel. Relatedly, perhaps even the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror—the Islamic Republic of Iran—might realize that the Dajjal in their midst is worse than the Great Satan over the horizon. Fourth, with a Qur’anic literalist caliphate subjugating tens of thousands of Christians to dhimmi status, and raping and killing those who object, perhaps at long last the majority-Christian countries of the world—led by the largest one, the US—will stand up for their co-religionists in the Middle East.
The Sack of Rome by Muslim Arabs (846 AD) as depicted on a $6 US of Islam bill. Sheer genius from moneyartstore.com
And who knows? If the US, or at least this administration, is too craven to protect Christians from such a horrific caliphate, then an El Cid may emerge from a more worthy venue--one that is not ashamed to stand up for his, and its, civilizational, and yes, religious, heritage.
[Addendum, as of 7.5.14: turns out that not just al-Baghdadi but his "vice-caliph," Abu Abd Allah al-Husayni "al-Qurayshi," claims lineal decent from Muhammad, the founder of Islam. I had somehow missed that when I originally posted this.]