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.
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 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.