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Understanding the Caliphate

Understanding the Caliphate

The list of 'short items' mentioned the possibility of a Caliphate. I want to discuss this, as it is both quite complicated and a matter with great implications. Everything in the region is rooted in history, and to understand the present, one has to reveal the past. Those impatient to reach the punch line should scroll to the bottom.

Ed: Comment references Salafism. A brief summary of this important movement is appended.)

The origins of the Caliphate

It is written that Muhammad said that "The children of Israel have always been governed by Prophets and, whenever a Prophet died, another Prophet succeeded him; but now there will be no prophet after me." His successors were to be Caliphs - religiously inspired rulers - of the umma, the places that lived exclusively under under shari'a law. When the Arab nation was synonymous with the umma, Caliphs were known as the Khalifat Rasul Allah: literally, 'the ruler succeeding the messenger of God'.

The possibility of there being multiple Caliphs was raised with Muhammad by his disciples. He was uncompromising: the first of two Caliphs should be shown respect, the second killed. Both Abu-Bakr and Umar bin Al-Khattab, disciples of Muhammad and subsequently Caliphs themselves, agreed that multiple Caliphs would lead to schism, innovation and secession, upheaval, and chaos. It was, they said, forbidden to Muslims. Many subsequent clerics agreed with this. Thus, in theory, the umma should be unified under a single Caliphate. Deviations from this state of affairs are innately wrong.

Schism and dynasticism

The fourth and last "true" Caliph was Ali ibn Abu Talib. His reign was marked by upheaval. He was murdered at prayer, and succeeded by his son Hasan. The governor of the North African provinces, Muawiyah, defeated Hasan, seized the Caliphate and founded the Umayyid dynasty. A substantial part of the umma - chiefly today's Shia - regarded him as illegitimate, and today hail Ali as the first imam. The Umayyads installed dynastic succession, further reducing their legitimacy. As the reputation of the dynasty sank through violence and corruption, so that of Ali rose. Today's Shia regard Ali as the most important figure after Muhammad. The Sunni regard him with great respect, the Alawites as a deity.

Hasan's son Husayn, the third Shia imam, was killed by the Umayyads at the battle of Karbala. Resistance, however, continued. The Umayyads were themselves overthrown by action begun by Ibrahim the Imam and finished by his brother, Abdallah. He became Caliph and the head of the Abbasid dynasty. This framed the golden age of Islam, when Baghdad became the centre of the world of learning and trade. However, the Abbasids settled for Sunni practise and renounced the Shia. Indeed, Shia imams who were the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad were executed.

Golden ages always fade. The dynasty began to fragment as provincial governors asserted more and more control. Turkic generals assumed power by virtue of fighting Byzantium. The title "Sultan" began to come to prominence - once meaning the focus of secular power that left the Caliph's hands free for higher things, it began to mean independent secular ruler. Provinces, each with their particular Sultan, gradually assumed the rank of independent states. Others consolidated around ethnicity, as with Persia.

The first formal cracks in Abbasid power appeared when the Fatimid Sultan in Cairo challenged the the Abbasid right to the Caliphate. The Fatamids allied themselves with the Shia, leading to a running civil war. This spread to Iraq, the Abbasid power base. Seljuk Turks were invited to restore order by the Abbasids but, ultimately, seized Iraq as their price for this. Attempts at resolution were smashed by the Mongol invasion in 1258.

The Ottoman hegemony

The Caliphate moved to Cairo, nominally still Abbasid, but now under the Mamluk Sultanate. The period teems with instability, revolts and battles between rival Sultanates up until their universal subjection to the Ottomans in 1517. The Ottoman ruler took the title of Padishah, or King of Kings, and also assumed the Caliphate. By the late 1500s, Ottoman rulers had a list of titles that took fifteen minutes to recite - including "Caesar of the Roman Empire" - and the sense of a theocratic state was almost completely lost. Certainly, shari'a was lost.

Fragmentation, nationalism and secularism

The Ottoman empire reached its zenith in the seventeenth century, reaching from the outskirts of Vienna to Azerbaijan, Algeria to Eritrea. It was dissolved by the victors of World War I into 39 states. Many of its former states became mandates of the League of Nations and thus managed directly by the French or British, or less directly by the United States. The Palestine-Israel conflict was set in motion with the Balfour declaration. Turkey eventually restructured itself as a secular state, owing nothing of its social identity to the Arab world. Persia established an independent society with a firmly non-Arab identity.

The wave of decolonisation created shiny new countries, which chiefly defined themselves through nationalism. Few did so primarily by means of religion. Where religion did enter the picture, it did so as a differentiating and not a unifying factor: between classes, between tribes, between the country and the city, between nations. Many countries fell under dictatorial rule, and it suited these rulers to use religion, tribalism and nationalism as a set of tools through which to manage expectations and fears. legends of the wars of liberation and events such as the Suez crisis were harnessed to this end.

The the Six Day War and the formation of the oil exporter's cartel were defining events. This had two consequences:

First, an enormous increase in the wealth and influence of the region, although spread unevenly amongst the Islamic world. This wealth bought leaders the ability to consolidate their position and to resist change. It encouraged Western powers to help these rulers to consolidate their position.

Second, the humiliation of the war, the alienation of many in society from the civil rulers and the sudden inflow of Western goods and influence all generated a broader awareness. Why was the region, once so much the centre of world civilisation, now so backward? Was this because the true spirit of the umma had been lost? Religious movements began to gather pace, often rejecting Westoxication and demanding a return to the simply purities of the Koran. As these were often working classes and Shia movements, civil elites moved to repress them. That in turn had the effect of driving such ideas underground, and focusing them through religious-political networks.

The notion of the Caliphate was revived to express the desire once again to unify Islam under a pure, all-embracing tent of harmonious religion and a unitary civil society. It is a recent construct, held most fervently by those with the least political power. Popular uprising are, however, on the rise. Whatever the West may think, their spirit is not one that seeks liberty in the individualistic sense that the West uses that term. Students and other elite individuals may express such views to Western journalists, but this is misleading.

A certain momentum now exists, therefore, chiefly amongst the lower classes and the religious, often predominantly Shia but by no means restricted to them. It is opposed by current rulers, many predominantly Sunni. The heart of Shia, Iran, has already accepted practical theocracy, however much that acceptance may be modified by the experience of the past decades and the need to cope with the modern world.

In conclusion

The points intended by this document are the following. "To restore the Caliphate" is a concept that maps directly onto two prior requirements and a formidable set of outcomes.

First, it demands the unification of all Muslims into a single, agreed religious structure, a true umma. That would require the various branches of Islam, but specifically Sunni and Shia, to forget their differences and fall together into common practise. The machinery and motivation to bring this about does not seem to exist, and does not chime with history.

Any such unification could arise from a sweeping movement, but is more likely to arise piecemeal, from the outcome of many local revolutions, unified by activism. Either of these forces will be fiercely opposed by current political elites and the classes and religious affiliations that they nurture. We see this today, in Syria.

The factor most likely to strengthen these movements and to weaken elites is the hydrocarbon market. A collapse in the oil price, or the unveiling of a new technology that is likely to bring this about is an obvious, if perhaps improbable, example of this. A more believable scenario might involve the use of nuclear weapons, perhaps in the region against civil populations, perhaps overseas as an act of terror. The resulting repression could well prove a stimulus to change of the sort discussed. Environmental factors, to which the region is particularly exposed, may not be of significant scale in the time that we are considering - and may be more of a contributory nature, a tightening screw rather than a precipitating crisis. Equally, however, consider the social and religious consequences if the climate changed enough to make rain common in the region, as it was when global settle civilisation first spread from this area?

Second, a universal Caliphate requires the dissolution of nationhood, and the cession of ultimate secular power, to a universal, international structure that include most if not all Muslims. That structure is, of course, ruled by a Caliph and subject to shari'a law. Nations might be retained as Sultanates, or the equivalent, with safeguards against the schism so common in history.

In today's world, populations are intensely mixed together. Countries that were within the Caliphate, but in which the entire population were not Muslim, would need either to partition itself or else find ways for infidels to live within a purely shari'a domain. There are many historical precedents for this, requiring major compromise from the non-Muslim citizens. That said, it might well be that a significant minority of citizens would not want this: in Asia, for example, affected countries would include Malaysia and Indonesia.

In nations in which Muslims were a marked minority, the process would impose major stresses, both on the individuals and on their host nation. Individuals would have to be 'in' or 'out' of the notion of a universal Caliphate; and if inside it, they would be duty-bound to work to impose shari'a where they lived. (As they are now, but as an academic rather than a practical demand.)

Outcomes: A Caliphate would imply very different external relations. The North African and Gulf states are prominent as oil suppliers, and this would necessarily be their major lever in dealing with the outside world. In 2025, that world will be on a very finely balanced knife edge in respect of hydrocarbon supplies. Perhaps all of this could be managed smoothly, but perhaps - dealing with a religiously-focused, triumphalist entity - it might not.

The Salafi branch of Islam.

The term Salafi has been in use for several hundred years, and refers to a school of thought that seeks to derive Islamic practice from the behaviour and sunnah of Prophet Muhammad and his immediate followers, the Salaf. (The term "sunnah is derived from the root meaning smooth and easy flow of water or a clear and well trodden path. In a religious context, it denotes the specific words, habits, practices, and silent approval of Prophet Muhammad. The word defines the Sunni school of Islam, of which the movement called the Salafiyyah is an offshoot.)

Salafism emphasises the core beliefs of Islam universality, the literal truth of Muslim scripture and supporting a very confined brand of shari'a. Islamism tends to resent the West and seek to emulate or surpass it. Salafis, however, reject Western political concepts, such as Socialism and or liberal democracy. They also reject the intellectual underpinning of these, such as economics and the sovereign state. Western notions, such as open debate about policy, is viewed as wrong, in that such issues should be settled by reference to Islamic precedent, not opinion. That said, they revere social order and conform to civil law, although insist on the precedence of shari'a. An example that clarifies this is that a Salafi will buy minimal compulsory car insurance, but reject any voluntary extension of this as "gambling".

Salafism has major difficulties in adapting to a globalising, modernising world. They reject adaptive models of Islam as bid'ah ('innovation', a derogatory term). Authors such as Sayyid Qutb have suggested that Islamic weakness stems entirely from a surrender to these forces, generating "pagan ignorance" that needs to be fought. As the preceding paragraph suggests, however, most Salafis have had to compromise continually with its encroachment.

One response to this, notably in the face of repressive secular civil power, is Salafi jihadism, the notion that a believer should rise in military opposition to the forces which oppress or invade the umma and which drive it from the sunnah. Examples include Russian behaviour the Caucasus, for example, but also responses to post-invasion Iraq. Estimates of dubious validity suggest about 10 million people more or less subscribe to a jihadist view. Characteristic behaviours include self-sacrifice on behalf of the community (which is not predicated on heavenly promotion, as often suggested in Western commentary) and the practice of tafir, whereby an individual is declared apostate, and thereby liable to execution if they do not repent.

Extreme positions can be reached by jihadis. The Algerian-based GIA may have killed quarter of a million people during their protracted revolt against the civil power. Entire villages were killed if they were found to show enthusiasm for modernity. In some cases, this consisted of the possession of consumer goods, radios and the like.

Salafi interpretations are closely associated with Saudi-based Wahhabism, but whilst the two have similar views, they are not the same. That said, Saudi money lies behind the marked spread of Salafiyyah in general, if not Salafi jihadism. Indeed, the jihadis refer to the remainder of the Salafiyyah as "sheikists", people willing to take hand outs from the oil rich sheiks.

Comment 1

With regards to the Caliphate issue, there is no doubt that is a serious "image of the future" that draws support in this part of the world. It is, I would posit, a sub-set of the larger tension between secularism and theism here in the region, which expresses itself in many dimensions.

The Caliphate question is an interesting one given the political fragmentation we've seen after last year. Islamist parties in elections (such as in Egypt) or in tribal politics (such as in Libya) are emerging as such strong players. While they explicitly espouse an Islamist vision of statehood, there is a huge portion of the population which actively resists them.

So if I were to cast the Caliphate issue as a critical uncertainty, I would do it along the lines of a secular - theist state dimension (as opposed to focusing on the Caliphate exclusively). I find this to be a richer explanatory lens in my own work which also doesn't detract from the obvious importance that fundamental Islamist ideology plays in politics around here.

One supporting quote, about Salafism in the Caucause, but relevant to most Islamist movements, taken from an article in the most recent issue of the Middle East Policy journal:

Given these circumstances, the politicization of Islam goes hand in hand with ethno-nationalistically inspired appeals to armed resistance in the name of independence. In this respect, Islam, especially in its Salafi reading, appears to many as an alternative ideology, offering a relatively simple plan for solving society's problems and a recipe for creating a functional social order that would replace the Moscow-dominated state institutions that are believed to have failed. As in other areas of the Muslim world, the importance of Salafism is growing, not in a theological, but rather in a socioeconomic and political, sense. Given this situation, more and more people of the North Caucasus are viewing the jihadists as the only - although far from ideal - political counterweight to the local regimes, and as a real power that is able and willing to change the situation.

Replace "Moscow-dominated state institutions" with Mubarak-dominated, Qadaffi-dominated, Israel-dominated, etc. and you'll get a richer picture of the socio-economic dimension of the Salafist movement in the region. Of course many believe it for its own value, but more seem to associate with it for the reasons outlined above.

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