The Secret to Defeating the ISIS 'Caliphate' Might Just Be in Islam Itself
Nearly 100 years after the last Ottoman caliph was exiled, the Sunni world has yet to wholly define itself. And if good people don't step in, worse ones—like ISIS—will.
At eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, guns across Europe fell silent. An assassination in Sarajevo that had turned into a grinding, grueling conflict was coming to a diplomatic close—but it was not over.
For Americans, Nov. 11 is celebrated as Veteran’s Day, a time to honor the brave servicemen and women who have fought for our nation. For much of the Muslim world, Nov. 11 marks the end of a kind of order: the Sunni caliphate, an office that had been more or less occupied from the death of Mohammed in 632, to the exile of the last Ottoman Caliph in 1924.
It took several more generations, and another, even worse war, for the new Europe to be born, a continent at peace with itself and with the world.
And yet there is still no lasting peace in the Muslim world, no resolution, no transition to a new order. Maybe, I would argue, this is because there is no longer a functioning caliphate.
In the West, most people now think of ISIL when they hear “caliphate.” In this current, radicalized iteration, the phrase has come to suggest theocratic imperialism; an aggressive, ideological and murderous project.
Yet the primary role of a caliphate in the Qur’an is put forth in a very, very different context. And early Muslims created their own caliphate to meet their circumstances. If modern Muslims want to be faithful to that tradition, they can best do so by showing some ingenuity.
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There has never been a more urgent need for religious renewal. The demise of the caliphate in 1924 left a gaping hole at the heart of Sunni Islam (the denomination to which I belong). In the decades since there have been attempts to create alternative pan-Islamic institutions—probably most ambitiously of all, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—but none has fully met the needs of our time. Nature, however, abhors a vacuum. If good people don’t fill it, someone worse will.
In this case, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeks to.
First man, first prophet, first caliph
Islam has its own Genesis story—located, like the Bible’s version, near the very beginning of the Qur’an. God tells an assembly of angels that he’ll be creating a “caliph” on Earth, meaning Adam (and Eve). But, of course, God creates Adam—and Eve—in heaven, and they don’t end up on Earth until they eat the forbidden fruit and are exiled.
Adam is Islam’s first prophet; he’s also the first Caliph of God. The word “caliph” is hard to translate from its Arabic origins, but it means roughly something like a “delegate” or a “representative.” “Power of attorney” wouldn’t be far off either: God’s appointing someone to act on his behalf.
What makes Adam a caliph is not that he sins—because Satan, too, sins by tempting them. Rather, Adam is a caliph because he repents. And then he is forgiven. Many if not most Muslim scholars believe the title applies to all human beings.
God cannot die
Today, obviously, the caliphate has taken on a political meaning. But even centuries ago, it was more like an office created after the prophet Mohammed died, in 632, to meet the needs of his followers at that particular moment.
Mohammed’s death left his community in shock. But his closest friend, Abu Bakr, rallied the community. He reminded them that they would have to carry on without the prophet, or any prophets for that matter—Mohammed, Muslims believe, is the last prophet, the final link in a chain that began with Adam.
Abu Bakr was chosen to lead the community, and given the title “Caliph of Mohammed.” (Shia Muslims believe Ali was supposed to be in charge, and his authority was meant to be of a different order.) Nevertheless the majority supported Abu Bakr, and a caliphate took shape. Initially, it was a much more consultative office, with the caliph being very much like a first among equals, a tribal chieftain. It was an idealistic office, and entirely unsuited for the empire that emerged soon after Mohammed’s death.
Beginning in 661, the caliphate started to become more of a monarchic office, which bounced across the Muslim world—Damascus to Baghdad, Baghdad to Cairo, and Cairo to Constantinople, claimed by different dynasties. The Ottomans, who began consolidating power at the turn of the 13th century, were the last to hold the office, claiming it as early as 1517. All this came to an end, however, when a group of xenophobic Ottoman military officers took control of the Empire, subordinated the caliphate to their rule—and decided to join Germany in the First World War.
The caliph wears no clothes
It was the Empire’s dumbest war of choice. Not only did they pick the losing side, but they also carried out a genocide of Armenians, and ended up losing most of their territory to the vastly more powerful British and French empires. For a long time, traditional Sunni Islam was anchored to the caliphate. In the absence of the Turkish Ottomans, it was not clear how Sunni Islam should be organized. Most post-Ottoman regimes have violently subordinated the religious establishment to the state, resulting in a vacuum of religious authority, which has been filled by radicals such as ISIL.
The question is: What do we do about this?
Some commentators argue Islam needs a Reformation. Controversial author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, has dedicated a book to the concept.
But Islam had a Reformation—Wahhabism. In other words, Hirsi Ali’s solution to the problem of extremism is rooted in the cause of the extremism she hopes to solve. What Sunni Islam needs, rather, is a counter-reformation, a renewal and reconstruction of what made Sunni Islam great in the first place—pluralism, debate, disagreement, and dialogue, with mechanisms for cooperation. The Muslim world could also really benefit from some kind of overarching and truly multinational institutions, independent and well-funded organizations dedicated to discussing our differences and productively and deliberatively addressing ongoing challenges.
Like, say, a caliphate.
But not the old one (or the ISIL iteration, obviously). Abu Bakr’s office was a realistic appraisal of the needs and possibilities of the time. As we think about how to answer the needs of this time, it may help to look to the past.
Modeling past models
In the early 1930s, a great South Asian philosopher, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, argued—against most Muslim opinion—that any attempt to resurrect a caliphate in its prior, monarchic, imperialistic form would immediately lead to war and conflict. The point of the caliphate was to unite Muslims, Iqbal argued, so trying to invest a single person with authority over hundreds of millions of diverse believers would inevitably produce disagreement.
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He has a point. ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate has unintentionally united the Muslim world on at least this one thing: There’s no way we are going to accept Baghdadi as caliph. Even al-Qaeda thinks those guys are an anathema.
Back then, Iqbal argued rather creatively in favor of republicanism—democratically governed Muslim societies that gave room to ethnic groups to express their unique identities. He believed that these new governments could voluntarily affiliate with one another, and that a future caliphate would look like today’s European Union, a consensual form of affiliation whose purpose would be “neither nationalism nor imperialism,” but a multicultural democracy.
That was his answer: elections, accountability, representation. What is ours? The monarchic caliphate failed. The model of an Islamic state has never worked. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is governmental, and doesn’t reach the rising numbers of Muslims who live as minorities. We need institutions that accept our global diversity. We are Sunni and Shia, Ibadi and Ismaili, religious and secular. We are confronted by common concerns—extremism and sectarianism, patriarchy and authoritarianism, climate change and poverty—even as we live all over the planet. We need a new kind of caliphate.
It must have a voice to challenge ISIS, and those who claim to act in our name, and use violence to achieve their ends. It must address the grim reality of authoritarianism and autocracy. It must allocate resources to find productive solutions to endemic problems. Models for this 21st century caliphate include religious federations, global universities, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, the outstanding work of the Ismaili Aga Khan Development Network, as well as even a peace corps. Perhaps the end result will be a dynamic combination of all of these, funded independently of any government.
Capable of improving the world, not ruining it. Whatever its ultimate shape, its need cannot be denied. Nearly one hundred years after the Ottomans ended, the Sunni world has yet to find out how it will be defined.
An old world died. We’re still waiting for our new world to begin.
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