Why ISIS cannot found a genuine Caliphate

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As an inter faith organisation made up of representative Christians and Muslims (together with partner organisations listed below) which is working for better understanding between our two faiths we are very concerned and disappointed with Professor Ian Morris' article 'A dark ancient warning about a new caliphate'.

The article takes great liberties in conflating the so-called 'caliphate' of ISIS, linking it with the historic caliphate (throughout its history) and using this as an opportunity to paint a world religion as 'fanatical', to be feared, 'chaotic', and as having a mission to kill those who are different.

We are concerned that such an article can be printed which promotes fear, hatred and sectarianism. There is a long history of engagement between the West and Islam (a religion which is far more pluralist and inclusive than is presented in this article) and recent, and longer ago, scholarship challenges the suggestion that the likes of ISIS are following a violent '1400 year old playbook' (i.e. that this is of the essence of Islam).

We offer the following corrective article.

Trustees of the Christian Muslim Forum: Rt Revd Paul Hendricks, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham, Anjum Anwar MBE

Julian Bond, Director, Christian Muslim Forum

Also supported by:

Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board


One of the remarkable achievements of the Prophet Muhammad was to unite the disparate clans of Arabia under the single banner of Islam so that the endemic inter-clan feuding of Arabia was halted.  After his death in 632CE, it was apparent that the community needed immediate leadership in order to prevent chaos.  A group of clan elders in Madina gathered together in a traditional body of consultation (shura) and decided that the long-term and respected companion of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, should assume leadership of the Muslim community.  There was a group amongst the Muslims who disagreed with this solution, holding that Muhammad had designated his son-in-law and cousin, Ali, as the rightful successor of the Prophet; these were later called the Shi’a or the Party of Ali.
 
Abu Bakr, having been chosen to be the Head of the Community was given the title Amir al-Muminin; the title of Caliph was first taken by his successor, Umar (r. 634-644).  Just as Muhammad had been the single leader of the community, holding political, legal and military power, in addition to his spiritual authority as Prophet, so the Muslim polity evolved into a single leadership under the Caliph.  The first duty of the Caliph was to maintain the unity of the Muslim community under God and the Book of Guidance, the Qur’an.  Ali became the fourth Caliph of the united Muslim community (r.656-661), although the Shi’a have always maintained that he should have been the rightful immediate successor to Muhammad.

It was after the death of Ali that the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads, arose.  It was the son of the first of these Umayyad Caliphs, Yazid, who was nominated by his father, even though his way of life was far from the moral path of Islam, who was ultimately responsible for the persecution and eventual massacre of Imam Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad and the third of the Shi’a Imams.  Both Sunni and Shi’a communities amongst the Muslims regard Yazid as unfit for the post of Caliph and the Umayyad Caliphs, with only one exception, are regarded by both communities as corrupt leaders.  It is no part of either Sunni or Shi’a understanding to see them as ideal or pious Muslim leaders and thus certainly not as role models for subsequent generations.  Indeed, the Umayyad dynasty was ended by a Sunni-led rebellion in 750, with the creation of the more observant Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258).

It is true to say that the initial expansion of Muslim rule after the death of Muhammad was remarkable in the speed of its conquests.  The early Muslims were convinced that they were the bearers of the final message from God to humankind and this provided the vision for their mission.  The existing great powers in that region, the Byzantine and Persian Empires, had been weakened by decades of fighting with each other.  By 750, Muslim rule extended from the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco in the west, to the River Indus and Azerbaijan in the east, and from the Mediterranean to the Yemen.  To regard this territory as accounting for one-fifth of the world population at the time is fanciful.  The majority of those coming under Muslim rule in this first expansion were Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.  Far from it being the task of the Caliph to order the killing of such people, they were afforded the status given to them by the Qur’an, namely “People of the Book” or the followers of the earlier revelations given to Prophets Moses and Jesus (and on precaution, Zoroaster).  All minority communities were given the status of dhimmi, a name which means ‘the protected peoples’ thus indicating the duty of the Muslims to afford them due protection in the Islamic Empire, in which they had the right to continue in the practice of their respective faiths and be exempt from conscription into the Muslim army.

The Abbasid Empire did not continue for long as a single entity and was broken into various regional caliphates, e.g., the Umayyad Caliphate of Spain (711 - 1492) and the Fatimids of Egypt (909-1171), an Ismaili Shi’a dynasty.  The ideal of caliphal rule remained in Sunni thought and practice throughout history, with many regional dynasties coming and going.  The last of these was the Ottoman Empire, which was disbanded by the secular government of Turkey in 1924.  The Ottomans ruled in Iraq for centuries, during which time both Sunni and Shi’a communities lived side-by-side with several Christian communities, Sephardic Jews and the Mandeans in harmony and mutual citizenship, each being under the personal law of their respective religious leaders.  It was common until recent decades for Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a Muslims to inter-marry and share common territory.  The image of Sunnis killing Shi’a, Christians and Jews is a canard.

There were different methods to bring forward a Caliph in the early period of Islam, but one of the hallmarks was that the person proposed was put to the general Muslim community for their affirmation.  The aberration of ISIS must therefore be evident: they are a group even further on the extreme fringes of Islam than the al-Qaida Tendency, without the support of the wider Sunni community and with a self-styled “caliph” as their putative head.  By all reports from Iraq, both Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are suffering under their tyranny.  The break-up of the multi-faith nature of Iraq and Syria, with the expulsion of Jews and Christians in recent decades, is a tragedy with lasting and far-reaching consequences.  The withdrawal of European colonial rule in Muslim-majority lands in the twentieth century has seen the creation of dozens of nation states, none of which recognise the self-proclaimed ISIS “caliphate.”  The thought of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a ‘world-wide caliph’ for Muslims is fanciful in the extreme.  Ill-informed observers must be clear in their understanding that ISIS represent an extreme tendency on the fringes of Islam that see themselves as the only genuine Muslims and everyone else, whether they proclaim themselves to be Muslims or not, as being more or less ‘unbelievers’ in need of correction and stern discipline.  Any suggestion that ISIS are working from a 1400-year-old Islamic ‘playbook’ must be seen as utterly without substantiation.

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