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CRUCIBLE: ISIS and Caliphate

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/03 Aug) — The journey of the Muslim ummah is, if it may be likened to a transport, becoming faster. We could hardly cope with issues she continues to grapple with particularly our attempt to understand the dynamics in the Middle East today. Despite maintaining an eagle’s eye on major and critical events therein, issues are just too fast to follow.


We simply took a respite these past weeks in reverence to the Holy Month of Ramadan where we tried to focus our khutbah (discourse) on themes related to spirituality and fasting, while we were aware of major events that need proper reading and understanding. Two current events pose serious concern: the new round of wars in Gaza; and the rise of the Daesh or Dawlatu l-islamiyyah fi l-iraq wa sh-shams (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant).


Tradition and nation-states


As we take the context of the second one, you may recall our khutbah these past several months or years where we articulated several times the tension in the Muslim world resulting from her inability to find location in the international system that reflects her tradition vis-à-vis the reality into which the Muslim world has been defined by what we referred to as the nation-state system.


Quite fortuitous or circumstantial enough, what we had raised is now magnified with major events happening in the Middle East starting with the Arab Spring and recently the rise of the ISIS. In fact, we were quite puzzled with the absence of rhetoric on Islamic State during the beginning of Arab Spring. Now, we are equally baffled how a supposedly promising phenomenon could be shelved so fast with the new context in the Middle East especially with Ibrahim Al-Baghdadi’s declaration establishing a caliphate last month. We raise the question why the Muslim world has difficulty to move forward in terms of looking for an arrangement that would truly reflect her tradition while aware of modern or future requirement that relates with the international system but which is able to evolve beyond today’s nation-state system. We do not know why the Muslim world has long been embroiled in a conundrum where she could hardly shake off her past and create an arrangement reflective of her tradition while responsive to her needs and the context of modern times.


Major commentaries in some media networks and think tanks are generally anecdotal – that is, they are not based on deeper understanding of Islamic thought, history of Islam, and the current context of the Muslim world. These could lead us to a perspective divorced from viewpoints reflective of the tradition of Islam and current reality of the ummah.




There has never been such an extreme irony of history where a supposed modern political movement in the 21st century would raise as a project and as an ideology a khalifah (caliphate) and declare its establishment after Kemal Ataturk abolished it 90 years ago. The word irony is perhaps an understatement given that said declaration’s historical antecedent is patterned after the longest political institution in the Muslim world dating back to the Khalifatu l-rashidun or the Four-Rightly Guided Caliphs more than a thousand and half years ago.


We don’t know if we take the ISIS’s caliphate seriously or treat it as another prank joke in social media. As observed, mainstream media hardly present news about the ISIS due to its gruesomeness in engaging in beheadings and crucifixion and so on. Yet, the mass violence, mayhem and destruction that the ISIS had launched so far are real as the group felt legitimized with what a caliphate represents. Understandably, too, ISIS exploits the historical resonance of the caliphate knowing pretty well that it is close to the hearts of the ummah. When it was abolished in 1923, there was massive reaction in practically all parts of the Muslim world. With no alternative institution then, the abolition of the caliphate made the nation-state system even more entrenched in many Muslim countries.


There is no doubt that the issue or the subject of khalifah lies at the heart of political thought in Islam. In fact, it is anchored on a deeply entrenched tradition of Islamic institution. It is also the subject of extensive debate and discourse among classical ulama and modern scholars. One of the anchors of the concept of khalifah as a political institution is traceable to the history of the prophets. As we had underlined two weeks ago, there are two lines of history: history of the prophets and history without prophet. In suratu s-sad, the Qur’an says:


“O David! We did indeed make thee a vicegerent on earth: so judge thou between men in truth (and justice): Nor follow thou the lusts (of thy heart), for they will mislead thee from the Path of God: for those who wander astray from the Path of God is Penalty Grievous, for that they forget the Day of Account (26).”          


The tradition of prophets is such that prophets are not only prophets; they are also rulers or umarah as a major feature of khalifah. This tradition was carried on until the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Thereafter, four of the sahabah (Prophet’s companions) institutionalized the notion of Khalifatu l-llah (Vicegerent of Allah) and later becameKhalifatu l-rasulullah (Successor of the Prophet) until it was followed by subsequent dynasties like Umayyad Dynasty, Abbasid Dynasty, Ottoman Empire, and so on. It thus shows that there was a line of political institutions that is made to reflect to the tradition of prophets until post-prophetic history with the rise of different caliphates and dynasties and petty dynasties well until its abolition in 1923. Hence, the emotional attachment and ideological resonance of the caliphate must be strong in the hearts of the ummah for quite sometime.


According to Ibn Kathir, there is a conversation between a certain Caliph Al-walid ibn Abdal Malik with Ibrahim Abu Zur’ah when the former asked: “Does anyone have the right to question the khalifah? You have read the first scripture of the Qur’an and you have understood them.” Abu Zur’ah replied: “May I speak O Commander of the Faithful?” The Caliph ordered: “speak for you are under the protection of Allah.” Abu Zur’ah said: “O Commander of the Faithful are you dear more to Allah or Daud (peace be upon him) for Allah gave him prophethood and rulership then he warned him of the verse (O David!…)” about the role or requirements of khalifah: that is, to judge between men with truth and justice and not to follow the lust of the hearts.


When we highlight the above-mentioned conversation, it is to underline Abu Zur’ah’s point about the dual functions of prophets as prophet and as ruler at the same time; whereas the caliphs that came after Prophet Muhammad (SAW) were simply rulers; they were obviously not prophets.


High and low


Incidentally, if we read literatures on this subject, there is a range of how scholars romanticized the khalifah as an ideal political institution; the fact that they accorded the four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) asrashidun or rightly guided ones, while they viewed subsequent caliphates cum dynasties with rather lower standing as those began the formation of monarchy and dynasty in the history of the Muslim world. For instance, Marshall Hodgson, in his “Venture of Islam,” classified what he referred to as “high caliphate” and “lower caliphate.” It is to impress that there is a difference between the early Khalifatu l-rashidun that was formed right after the death of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in contradistinction to subsequent caliphal institutions that ruled the Muslim world afterwards.


The historical experience and discourse among ulama in this subject is immense. One thing is common in their works: it is a search for sources of legitimacy to make the caliphate as an institution work and to reflect its long tradition on sources of Islamic law (shari’ah) amid changing context, for lack of better term, Realpolitik of the ummah well until the early 20th century. If longevity is a measure of some caliphates as political institution, then their track records speak for themselves: the Umayyad Caliphate reigned for more than 70 years; the Abbasaid Caliphate in Baghdad reigned for more than 200 years; and also the one in Egypt that reigned too substantially but lesser in years; and the reign of Umayyad Caliphate in Andalus or Spain that also lasted for many centuries. Their reigns were followed with the rise of the Ottoman Empire that lasted for more than 600 years, and the birth of different sultanates, dynasties, monarchies, and emirates, and others.


For a very long time, the rich historical experience of the ummah with caliphate and its various political gradations like the sultanates and others makes them the sine qua non of political life and tradition across the Muslim world for centuries. But, as we said, the birth of nation-state system in 18th century changed the whole course of caliphate as an institution. Apart from its internal contradiction, the deterioration of caliphate was exacerbated with the beginning of Western adventurism, colonialism, French revolution, Westernization, and so on and so forth. This is the context in the formation of new Muslim nation-states in the early 20th century.


Consequently, the tension between tradition and the demand of nation-state system vis-à-vis the internal contradiction in the Muslim world resulted into the birth of different ideologies like liberalism, modernism, and fundamentalism, and others. More recently, the rise of political movements that tries to break the tension poses an even more serious and critical debate.


Geo-political and strategic implications


We have lots to say about the rich historical and theoretical aspects of the caliphate. At this juncture, what is equally important to highlight is the reshaping of new geopolitical and geo-strategic context of the Middle East with the shelving somehow of the Arab Spring that we were once quite hopeful few years ago. The new context is the rise of such groups like the ISIS as it tries to attract sympathy and exploit emotion of Arab populace across the Middle East given the failure of authoritarian regimes that controlled the region for many years.


Alarmingly, the recourse of ISIS, for lack of better term, to neo-fundamentalist ideology and praxis makes its caliphal project tread in dangerous ground. As ISIS harped on irrational source of ideas while professing strong antipathy against nature, structure, beauty, and aesthetics and so on, no less than the sacred symbols of Islam are now objects of destruction. If reports were true that ISIS plans to destroy and tear down the Ka’aba, the primal and meta-historical symbol of Islam, it indeed shows that the group and its cohorts rally around a totally new and extremely radical ideology nowhere been experienced in the Muslim world.


For quite a while, we noticed the metamorphosis of groups like the Al-qaida into various molds and the rise of the Ansar al-dini in Timbuktu in Mali, and the Bako Haram in Nigeria. We thought this development is rather isolated and would not gain resonance in Iraq and Syria and others. And we thought, too, that kind of neo-fundamentalist ideology would not spread that fast. But with the rise of ISIS, the tension it poses is not only serious; it is extremely catastrophic especially if its struggle connects to equally volatile issue with ongoing war in Syria and the war in Gaza. At least, this time the group is quite content in spreading toward Central Iraq and other parts of Syria. We don’t know if it is able to consolidate and would gain relative strength in the months ahead. The problem is that, satellite states from Israel to Jordan to Saudi Arabia to Iraq, Turkey and Kurdistan and Syria could not even see eye to eye with each other and talk among themselves to contain the ISIS, allowing it therefore more opportunity to control more territories and to spread its ideology.


We also do not know ISIS’s next target. What is frightening is, if after feeling the futility in killing their Muslim brethren including other people Iraq and Syria, and given the raging war in Gaza, if ISIS gains substantial control of areas in either Iraq or Syria; more so, if these countries still have sophisticated armaments that ISIS could possibly use against Israel, then we will have an unimaginable devastation befalling the Middle East. As many intelligence and nuclear analysts know, Israel has stockpiles of nuclear weapons known as the Dimona Nuclear Reactor. A missile or strong weapon that could strike it more so If Israel responds irrationally, God forbid, the whole Middle East could become an inferno.


The rise of ISIS is indeed unprecedented. In the past, the closest group that resembled the ISIS is the Khawarij or Kharijites, the first secessionist group in mainstream Islam. It carried harsh, extreme, and fundamentalist ideology and influenced the birth of Assassin (hashish) many centuries later since the reign of petty dynasties during the Safavid and the Seljuk. But the Khawarij did not destroy or plan to destroy what the Qur’an refers to as sha’airullah or the symbol of Allah like the Ka’abah and other religious sites. But this one is very exceptional. As reported, ISIS has practically torn down, bombed and flattened many historical and religious sites in Mosul, in Kirkuk and many parts of Iraq and Syria. We do not know where and when they would end their mayhem. The harsh effect of their ideology on historical, political and aesthetic tradition in the Arab world is now felt with the destruction of then beautiful place of Mosul and other surrounding areas.


Indeed, there are many angles why the rise of ISIS and the envisioning for the establishment of caliphate strikes at the heart of Islamic thought as it brings new dynamics in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world – a reason why we will have to return to this subject again in our future khutbah.


[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 01 August 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].



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