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The Middle East New Caliphate: The utopia of pan-Islamic state

A paper presented at the IV Colloquium of ME studies/ Helsinki University- April 24-25,2015


Among its many characters, the Middle East is characterized as a region of “uncertainty” meaning no one knows where it is heading. Now the vast and wide geo-political changes taking place in the ME as the aftermath of so called Arab Spring are entering the region into a new era where uncertainty remains. As a new parameter of such uncertainty is the appearance of ISEL. This is a phenomenon, we dare to say, no one could predict once Arab Spring sprang out. This paper is an attempt to find out the roots of ISEL’s proclaimed legitimacy; attracting many people around the globe to its proclaimed Islamic state.

Key words: Caliphate, Islamic State, Umma, Shari’a, Political Islam, Arab Spring

The Emergence of the Islamic State[1] reshaping the history of an entire region, if not an entire faith, has attracted much attention in the past few months with its remarkable military gains, brutal behavior and abolishing the borders between Muslim countries[2] .

A U.N general assembly report[3] states that waging a campaign of fear including amputations, public executions and whippings are common spectacle in areas run by ISIL. “Bodies of those killed are placed on display for several days, terrorizing the local population. Women have been lashed for not abiding by IS’s dress code. Children as young as 10 are being recruited and trained at IS’s camps.” The document says.

Despite ISIL’S barbaric behavior, surprisingly we witness radical Muslims around the world, impressed and inspired by ISIL, become convinced that the ISIL is deserving of their allegiance. It has attracted jihadists not only from across the region but also from across the globe including Western countries. They continue leaving their countries and migrating to the Islamic State to wage jihad. In other words, a sizable chunk of the world’s Jihadists all become localized in the ME displaying openly and proudly their anti-infidel supremacism (Excommunication / Anathema)[4].

A U.S led coalition of 40 countries fighting against the group which is said, has only 50 thousands fighters, is the best indicator to realize the crucial role of ISIL in deterioration of ME geo-politics.

This indicates that ISIL is a phenomenon more than just a militant cult. At present, ISIL controls cities with millions of residents, in addition to oil resources and military bases. It now controls a contiguous area of territory stretching from deep into Syria to western Iraq.

Here is the fact why ISIL is the best-organized of the jihadi Islamist movements[5] that have emerged in the Middle East.

The question, hence, is: How is ISIL’s success in attracting Sunni[6] Muslim’s attention and gathering forces from all over the world? What is the secret of its success?

To address the question and understand ISIL we need to examine its doctrine which brings legitimacy for ISIL’s believers. So the initial question is: Where does ISIL’s legitimacy come from?

ISIL’s Genealogy: Identity Crisis and Dignity the lost

Unlike in the Western world, religion still plays a dominant role in people in the Middle East region. Hence, the political Islam uses religion as an excuse to mobilize forces.

Since the Arabs were suffering a continuation of the underlying conditions and sometimes feeling degraded (as in case of Palestinians), it gave rise to Islamists in the first place in recent decades to practice their doctrine achieving their lost dignity.

The last 40 years have been very telling in this respect. The Muslim Brotherhood movement enjoyed a major boost in the mid-late-1970s. In the late 1970s some frustrated members of the Muslim Brothers turned to armed violence against the state in Egypt and Syria.

In the early 1980s Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon came into being and attracted significant followings. In the latter part of the 1980s Al-Qaeda was born to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. After 2001 smaller groups of militant Salafists started to operate in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and other countries and engaged in battles with state armies.

Eventually ISIL, Jabhat el-Nusra, Ansar Beit el-Maqdas and dozens of other small Salafist-Takfiri  groups have emerged in the last few years. Nobody should be surprised if even worse responses show up in the years ahead.

Accordingly, the appearance of the Islamic State (IS) was not only a result of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the Syrian civil war, but also a result of a lost dignity.

The emergence of the Islamic State, on the one hand, can be viewed as a symptom of the region’s political chaos and uncertainty. On the contrary, it may be considered a symptom and a reflection of the identity crisis in the region.

To overcome such rooted crisis and chaos, the solution for Islamists is ‘political Islam’. While Caliphate means little to the non-Muslims, it means everything to the Islamists. For certain number of Muslims, the Caliphate is not a mere name but a code to the utopia of pan- Islamic state[7] for the lost dignity.

The Caliphate Paradigm: Nostalgic Dream and ISIL’s legitimacy

ISIL is the latest manifestation of at least half a dozen other Islamist movements that have entered the stage of Middle East.

ISIL’s entire legitimacy is founded on its namesake i.e. the Islamic state.  The self-proclaimed Islamic state claims[8] religious authority over all Muslims worldwide.

The notion of Islamic state rooted in Salafi Islam (Salafism[9]). The Salafism as a backward-looking view of Islam calls for re-establishing and returning to the reign of the actual followers of Prophet Muhammad (the “salaf” or successor).

Once Islam appeared in the deserts of Arabia some 1,400 years ago, it changed the plight of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and formed a community of faithful followers. Muslims population is now over one billion in all parts of the world, and forms the majority faith in 57 countries.

Muhammad not only was successful to unite the Arabs in the name of Islam in the entire Arabian Peninsula but also managed to form a state which is considered to be the first Islamic State ruling over first Muslim community (Islamic Ummah[10]). The creation of the Islamic Ummah during his lifetime in Medina and later on in the whole of Peninsula is a unique occurrence in the history of religions. Muslims do not see such a tremendous success as Mohammad’s genius but God’s will as they see the prophet as God’s “divine providence”, messenger, prophet and especial envoy.

Mohammad’s successors known as Caliphs )literally substitute i.e. prophet’s substitute[11]) are regarded with the same respect to Mohammad as God’s providence. Their period of reign is called Caliphate (literally substitution)[12].

The Caliphate as a paradigm in political Islam is, in fact, a pan-Islamic-Sunni-state whose entire goal is not but to follow the Mohammad’s guidelines and implement the Shari’a[13] law which is presumed to be the only protection for Islam and Muslims according to Salafism.

The Caliphate, in that sense, is a “spiritual” and holy institution and the Caliph is spiritual authority whose every order must be considered as God’s order. The Caliph legitimacy, accordingly, is not driven from people but from God. He is also a sign of divine providence and God’s authority on Earth.

The head of Caliphate Islamic state is also named Amir Al-Mo’minin (i.e. the commander of believers) as a sign of his politico-religious leadership of the Islamic Ummah. That is why the believers to political Islam of Sunni branch follow every order of Caliph even his order of suicide attack.

According to the Salafism teachings, Caliphate represents both potent symbol of Islamic unity as well as a sovereign state for the entire Muslim faithful (the Ummah) under Islamic law (sharia).[14]

Recalling the vast scientific and military superiority of Muslim Ummah, the notion of Caliphate as a notably “nostalgic” dream still plays a significant role in propelling Sunnis hopes for better economic, political and social justice in restoration of Caliphate. Some Salafis[15] even go further and call for the formation of a Worldwide Caliphate.[16] In short, they believe in:

One God

One Prophet

One State (Caliphate)

One Caliph (so he is the symbol of Muslim’s unity)

One nation (Ummah i.e. Muslim commonwealth = pan- Islamic state)

One rule (Shari’a Law)

To realize the claimed superiority of Islamic Ummah, we just require recalling the caliphates formed over course of centuries (from the seventh century until 1924) not only in the length of Central Asia, Middle East or North of Africa but also in Córdoba (in Andalusia, southern Spain, Europe) namely[17]:

۱- Rashidun[18] Caliphate (632–۶۶۱)

۲- Umayyads Caliphate (661–۷۵۰) continued as Emirate (756–۹۲۹) & Caliphate of Córdoba (929–۱۰۳۱) 

۳- Abbasids Caliphate (750–۱۲۵۸) continued as Abbasid Caliphate of Cairo (1258–۱۵۱۷)

 ۴- Fatimids Caliphate (909–۱۱۷۱)

۵- Ottomans Caliphate (1453–۱۹۲۴)

The Caliphate as a Paradigm Shift: Nation State or Islamic State

The Pan-Islamism Movement is an Islamist political movement advocating the unity of Muslims under one Islamic state as a form of religious nationalism. This was first theorized by Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 just four years after demise of Ottoman Caliphate.

Consequently, the political Islam looks back at the life and teachings of Prophet Mohammad, and especially his rule in Peninsula, and takes it as the highest pattern of an ideal religious government.

We are not wrong, then, to conclude that the notion of re-establishing the Caliphate over the course of last century is dreamed to be the “renaissance” of the Muslim golden era.

Here the contradiction appears: The contradiction between Nation State and Ummah State (Islamic State / Caliphate). In a Nation state the political legitimacy is driven from people for serving within geographical area in certain borders whereas in the Ummah State, it is God who is the source of legitimacy (and not people) and therefore, the Ummah is not bounded to any border. 

Given the fact that there are other Jihadi fighters in Syria, what makes ISIL unique is its aspiration to form immediately an Islamic state (Caliphate)[19].

The new Caliphate: The Islamic Ummah Renaissance 

If you are a Sunni faithful what damage you feel if such a divine institute is demolished?

The official termination of the Ottoman caliphate on 1924 was not like demise of many other political systems in the world. It was a blow to the Sunni Muslims’ identity throughout the world.

In pan-Islamists’ perspective , the Sykes–Picot Agreement is considered the termination of Islamic Ummah unity and Arab Nationalism as an alternative failed to be the solution for the gone supremacy of Ummah.

The crushing defeat of the Arab Nationalism led by Naser as a result of 1967 war with Israel led to searching of a new alternative.

The significant role of Caliphate as an alternative paradigm was so centric for political Sunni Muslims that soon after dismantling of Ottoman Caliphate, king Hossein ibn Ali of the Hejaz[20], a former Ottoman province, proclaimed a new caliphate.

That is why just four years after demise of Ottoman Caliphate and a vacuum of Caliph Power, the Muslim Brotherhood as the first pan-Islamic movement suggested that Muslim countries must eventually unified in a Caliphate system. As an established fact in the Salafism teachings, no Ummah can exist without Caliph.

The elements of ISIL’s identity as the newest version of Salafism following the Muslim Brotherhood’s guideline are apparently manifested in their flags in which Jihad in the name of Allah became the symbol of the potential paradigm.

Here is the secret why Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi adopted the title of Amir Al-Mu’minin for himmself in a reference to his source of divine legitimacy as the Caliph of all Muslims. A released statement of IS (titled “This is the promise of Allah”[۲۱]) urges Muslims to “gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth“.

This is the meticulous secret of ISIL why announced restoring its Caliphate soon after military success in Levant as a territory reminds the golden era of Muslims during Umayyad then Abbasid’s Caliphate for six centuries.

Some Sources:

  • – Oliver-Dee, Sean (2009). The Caliphate Question: The British Government and Islamic Governance. Lexington.
  • – Ardic, Nurullah (2012) Islam and the Politics of Secularism: The Caliphate and Middle Eastern Modernization in the Early 20th Century
  • – Madelung, Wilferd  (۱۹۹۸). The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate.
  • – Kamali, Mohammad Hashim (2008). Shari’ah Law: An Introduction
  • – Demant. Peter (2006). Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
  • – Arjmand Reza, (2008). Islam and State in Iran and Turkey, Institute of International Education, Department of Education, Stockholm University.
  • – Chaney Eric (2012). Democratic Change in the Arab World: Past and Present, Department of Economics, Harvard University.
  • – The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next, Council on Foreign Relations, 2011.
  • – Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, and Marat Shterin, “The Caliphate: Nostalgic Memory and Contemporary Visions,”  in Demystifying the Caliphate, ed. Al-Rasheed, et al (London: Hurst & Co., 2013), 1–۳۰٫

[۱] The Islamic State refers here to the group once known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, October 2006–April 2013), the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS, April 2013–June 2014), and the Islamic State (IS, June 2014–present). This usage conforms to the group’s own shorthand for itself—as “the Islamic State” (al-Dawla al-Islamiyya), or merely “the State” (al-Dawla)— going back to 2006.

[۲] Countries with Muslim majority

[۳] http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A.HRC.27.60_Eng.pdf

[۴] Takfir in Arabic

[۵] Such as Al-Gaeda, Jabhat el-Nusra, Ansar Beit el-Maqdas, etc.

[۶] We will see that Shia branch of Islam did not welcome the establishment of Islamic State.

[۷] Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World by Peter R. Demant

[۸] Interestingly none of Jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front  or.. have ever  verified or endorsed the self-proclamation of ISIL.

[۹] Salafism as the most orthodox and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam entered the world consciousness after September 11, as Al-Qaeda leaders claim to follow this school.

[۱۰] Ummah can be translated into Commonwealth of the Muslim Believers.

[۱۱] خلیفه رسول الله in Arabic

[۱۲] Wilferd Madelung. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate.

[۱۳] Mohammad Hashim Kamali. Shari’ah Law: An Introduction

[۱۴] Al Imam, Ghassan, “ISIS and Arab Unity”, Asharq al-Aqsat, (10/09/2014) http://www.aawsat.net/2014/09/article55336421   

[۱۵] For example the militant organization of Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan

[۱۶] Oliver-Dee, Sean (2009). The Caliphate Question: The British Government and Islamic Governance. Lexington. p.9.

[۱۷] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caliphate

[۱۸] Rashidun means “four rightly guided caliphs” who led Muslims from Prophet Muhammad’s demise. Within the lifetimes of these four caliphs, the realm of Islam rapidly spread to the farthest corners of Iran and coastal Libya. Salafism considers the Rashidun period a golden age which deserves to be revived.  

[۱۹] Proclamation of new ISIL’s Caliphate announced on the first day of Ramadan, 1435 (June 29, 2014) which is considered a holy month for Muslims. Choosing this date was not a coincidence but a smart action to draw attention of Muslims in a holy month to a holy event.  

[۲۰] now Saudi Arabia

[۲۱] https://ia902505.us.archive.org/28/items/poa_25984/EN.pdf

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