On the Caliphate

Tony had mentioned something about the Caliphate in the comments of an earlier post. And it got me thinking about the whole issue of what a call to a “Caliphate” could mean to OBL. Chapati Mystery has a really good post about the contemporary meanings of that term, and it really is a must read. My take was, and is, going to be slightly more historical. However, since they have filled in some of the contemporary background, my post will be abbreviated. [Just one criticism on the line “ some linear descendan[t] of the Fatimids found in a derelict bookstore in Cairo;” the Aga Khan claims lineal descent from the Fatimid caliphs.]

What is the historical caliphate? After the first four caliphs – generally referred to as the rashidun (rightly-guided) caliphs in the Sunni community – the caliphate was dynastic, so let’s look at the early period, and some of the well-known dynasties.

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The Rashidun (632-661) – Starting from the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) each of the first four caliphs was involved in a civil war over the definition of what Islam was. While AQ might see themselves as crushing “heresies,” their superficial forebears were the Kharijites, who were in fact one of the early minority groups that were eventually considered marginal.

The Ummayads (661-750) – Generally considered a dynasty of nepotistic, lecherous drunks. Perhaps this is the ideal AQ strives for? The Ummayads were also big fans of Islam for Arabs only, which matches AQ’s vision of the world well I think.

The Abbasids (750-1258) – One can divide their dynasty into the three periods: early, Buyid, and Seljuq. The early period is marked by an anti-Ummayad stance, the universality of Islam (i.e. it’s for more than Arabs), and a belief that legitimacy for the caliphate could only rest in the Prophet’s family. Their claim to power echoes the claim of the early Shi’ah (AQ doesn’t believe the Shi’ah are Muslims, and the Shi’ah interpretation has no validity.) The Buyids were the Ithna’ashari Shi’ah power behind the Abbasid throne for over a hundred years (their rule overlapped with the Fatimid caliphs in Egypt, creating what is known as the Shi’ah century.) The Seljuqs were primarily responsible for formalizing what we now know of as the Sunni community (in a process called the Sunni Revival.) Their rule was marked by severe infighting, several losses in the Crusades, and loss of the empire (a very generous term by this time) to the Mongols. I suppose the Seljuqs could represent the AQ ideal of the caliphate, but symbolically, no one but the geeks know or reference the Seljuqs. So, overall, the Abbasids were predominately Shi’ah influenced. This includes the well-known Caliph Harun ar-Rashid.

The Ummayads II (929-1031) – A multi-religious, multi-ethnic state. (I’ve mentioned these issues before.) I’m concerned that AQ might not believe in such things.

The Fatimids (909-1171) – A Shi’ah dynasty that briefly had control of Mecca and parts of Sicily. Also, the founders of Al-Azhar, currently a pre-eminent center of Sunni learning (how’s that for irony.) Not high on the list of good things for AQ.

The Ottomans (1281-1923) – Another multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, that never really had universal control (actually only the original Ummayads can make a semblance of a claim to having a continuous empire.) They shared sovereignty with the Safavids and the Mughals, although the latter two never claimed the title of caliph within their borders.

So, it seems that the majority of the caliphates were actually the diametric opposites of AQ, being either Shi’ah, or pluralistic, or Shi’ah leaning, or some combination of the above. So, arguably, the Abbasids are the ideal for OBL, especially the way he references the Crusades and Hülegü Khan. It appears what AQ is really asking for is either the formation of a Shi’ah sympathetic state, or intra-Muslim infighting. They are, at least, achieving that latter.

The idea of the caliphate is a myth. Just like the rest of the AQ agenda, it has no basis in reality as we know it.

10 thoughts on “On the Caliphate

  1. “Generally considered a dynasty of nepotistic, lecherous drunks”
    By whom?
    Though you’re right: those who prattle on about The Caliphate know the least about it — the most important fact that there has never been on sole “caliphate” for 1400 years, as some like to claim.

  2. I read the Chapati Mystery post on altmuslim where I rarely post. I think the writer is correct that *one* of the motivating myths for the Salafi jihadis is the idea of the ummah. However, I don’t understand why he’s so dismissive of the assertion that the Caliphate is another foundational myth. He appears to argue that because the idea of a re-created Caliphate is such a patently stupid and uninformed goal (no disagreement there), no one can take it seriously. But the Salafi jihadis do take it seriously.
    Chapati Mystery has that peculiar academic blind spot which, in search of “deep meaning”, denies that many people actually mean what they say. He claims that Caliphate talk is just part of an anti-colonialist “narrative.” However, I’ve been in a number of masjids for jum’a where du’a is offered for the quick re-establishment of the Caliphate, among other dumb things. Yes, the imams — like so many of them — have been half-educated, religious obscurantists. But that doesn’t mean their beliefs weren’t genuinely held.
    I like your summary of the history of the caliphate. Sadly, myth has overflowed its boundaries for Muslims and historicity has no meaning.

  3. thabet, you are right, I should have been more accurate in describing the Ummayads as a bunch of neptistic, lecherous drunks. The polemic surrounding them began with the early Abbasid movement, and really doesn’t seem to end until the arrival of the Seljuqs. While the Seljuqs did not seek to rehabilitate the image of the Ummayads, in order to crystalize a Sunni identity, they had to preserve the narrative of the defeat of Shi’ism. To the best of my knowledge, the Ottomans never bothered much with Ummayd rhetoric, and it’s only in the colonial period and later that the Ummayads are re-envisioned as being an exemplary rule. All of their contemporaries hold them in low regard.

  4. I only ask “by whom” because the founder of the Ummayads is held in high regards by Sunnis as is Umar II, often called the ‘fifth rightly-guided caliph’. I am not interested in pursuing the rights/wrongs of that period — God knows we’ve had a millenium to sort it out (although you might be surprised on my opinions). But it is easy to say of the dead what we like as they are not here to defend themselves. That many of the ummayad histories were compiled during Abbassid times ought to make us just a tad more sceptical of their “nepotism” and “lechery” and “drunkness”. (All three have aspects, in fact, have been exhibited by all Muslim kingdoms.)
    In modern times I would be surprised to find the Ummayads being a source of inspiration — many contemporary Khilafists envisage the “truer” Caliphate of the Rightly-Guided era.

  5. I’m glad you brought up this issue. I was reading some kind of Al-Qaeda training manual that I found downloadable on line and it appears to complain about th 1924 blow to Islam — the abolitiion of the Caliphate. I’m trying to figure out the degree to which Islamic fundamentalists (or perhaps even Muslims in general) care or do not care about re-establishing the caliphate.

  6. On the other hand, “ummah” does seem to animate more Muslims than Arab empire in a caliphate. See Sabaa Saleem’s jihadi apologia in the Washington Post which comes quite close to endorsing the radical argument if still a denunciation of their methods.
    In my view, her position does not meet satisfy the usual claim of apologia that understanding does not necessarily equal endorsement.

  7. Caliphate update:
    Interesting review of Fouad Hussein’s new book on Zarqawi. I can’t find an English version; I assume it’s only in Arabic for now. Hightlight of the article — Al-Qaeda’s 7-step program for world caliphate (“What al-Qaeda Really Wants”).
    Favorite line in the article:
    “But what this small, slim man has to report is nothing less than the world’s most dangerous terrorist network’s plan of action: al-Qaida’s strategy for the next two decades. It is both frightening and absurd, a lunatic plan conceived by fanatics who live in their own world, but who continually manage to break into the real world with their brutal acts of violence.”

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