What’s So Great About the Islamic Caliphate!?
What’s So Great About the Islamic Caliphate!?
By Jacob Thomas
28 August 2017
Every now and then, I visit a list of articles I had downloaded and kept in my files. Ten years ago, I came upon “The Islamic Caliphate: An Impossible Dream.” It was posted on an Arabic-language website, by a reformist/liberal Muslim intellectual. Here are some translated excerpts, followed by my comments:
“Islamists reveal the weakness of their thesis that the revitalization of Islam would occur with the rise of a leader who would unite the Islamic world under his rule. In other words, that thesis requires the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate.
“The Caliphate system was autocratic and riddled with disputes. Caliphs exercised absolute power over the executive, legislative, and juridical branches of government. Civil wars and unrest, began following the death of the Prophet. Between 632 and 661, three of the first four caliphs, were assassinated. The forth Caliph, Ali, was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. Ever since his murder in 661, Islam has been divided between those who claimed that the legitimate caliphate belonged to his descendants, and others who disputed the claim. Ali’s followers were called Shi’ites; and their opponents, the Umayyads, who took over the caliphate in 661, were known as Sunnis. Ali’s son Hussein, failed to regain the caliphate in 680, and was assassinated with many his followers; which sealed the schism and intensified the animosity between the two camps.
“Less than a century later, the Umayyad Caliphate ended in a blood-bath (750.) It was replaced by the Abbasid Dynasty, that moved the center of Islam from Damascus to Baghdad. The Four Schools for the interpretation of Shariah, were founded during their reign. Theological disputes also marked their days, mostly regarding the nature of the Qur’an (eternal or created,) and, Predestination and Free will.
“As the Abbasids lost power, rival Caliphates sprung up in Andalusia (Spain,) and in Cairo, Egypt. Distant territories like Morocco, declared their independence. Eventually, the converted Turks of east Asia, founded the Ottoman Empire, adding new territories to Islam in eastern and central Europe. Their sultans claimed the position of Caliphs. After their failure at the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683, their caliphate began to decline. Having joined the losing side in WWI, the Ottomans lost all their former colonies. An army general, Mustapha Kemal, known as Ataturk, abolished the caliphate in 1924; he diminished the power of Islam, by secularizing the institutions of Turkey. The system is a thing of the past; was marked by intrigues, plots, and assassinations; it will never see the light of day.”
It’s noteworthy that a survey of Arab literature during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, indicates that Arab intellectuals were very critical of the Ottoman Caliphate and desired independence from its rule. The post WWI era brought British and French colonialism to the Middle East, prompting the rise of political parties whose was centered on liberation from foreign rule. None had an Islamist agenda.
For example, Egyptian politics centered on ending the British presence, particularly their control of the Suez Canal. In Palestine, under British rule, the preoccupation of the Arabs was to stop, or limit the influx of Jewish migration that had accelerated after the rise of Hitler in Germany. In Syria and Lebanon, all political parties wanted the end the French Mandate. The Iraqi Government signed a treaty with the British that gave them independence; but allowed Britain to maintain a Royal Air Force base in the country.
However, Ataturk’s abolishing the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, had caused an ideological tremor among some Muslims in Egypt and India. Two Egyptians became prominent in calling for an Islamic response: Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. In India, the task was undertaken by Abul Ala Maududi.
Hassan al-Banna was born in 1906, in a town in northern Egypt. He studied at an institution that qualified him to be a school teacher, in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal. In 1928, he organized the “Society of the Muslim Brotherhood;” four years later, he moved the organization’s headquarters to Cairo. Al-Banna did not restrict his activities to spreading Islamist ideology. His activism put him in direct conflict with the Egyptian Government. In January 1949, a member of the Brotherhood assassinated the Prime Minister of Egypt; later in the year, the Egyptian secret police assassinated al-Banna.
Sayyid Qutb was born in 1906, and is considered the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Islamism. He studied at Cairo University. After WWII, he received a scholarship through the US Department of State, to study at the University of Northern Colorado. The social life at the university shocked him; he was scandalized by the freedom of mixing between male and female students.
Upon returning home, he published his major work, “Ma’alim fi al-Tariq,” (Milestones on the Way.) He formulated a plan for the foundation of Islamist regimes based on the Qur’anic Shariah. He authored several other books, including a 12-volume commentary on the Qur’an.
Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979) was an Indian Muslim scholar and journalist. He founded the Islamist group “Jamaat-e-Islami.” His works impacted Sayyid Qutb’s thoughts, as well as numerous violent extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The “Free Officers Revolution” of July 1952, brought Colonel Nasser to power in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed his secularist policies. In 1954, while President Nasser was addressing a rally at Alexandria, a member of the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him. The Brotherhood was banned, and many of its members were arrested. Twelve years later, Sayyid Qutb was convicted of plotting the assassination of President Nasser, and was executed by hanging.
In June 1967, Nasser’s threats to Israel, prompted the Israeli leadership to launch a preemptive strike against Egyptian airfields and the forces assembled in the Sinai. The shocking “Hazima” (Routing) of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies, gave occasion to the Muslim Brotherhood to claim the Arabs had lost the war for having forsaken Islam and flirting with secular worldviews.”” Their motto became, “Al-Hall Hua al-Islam” (The Solution is Islam.) The dream for a reestablishment of an Islamic Caliphate, became the sine qua non for the well being of the Muslim World!
President Nasser died in September 1970, and was followed by Anwar Sadat who reversed the policies of his predecessor vis-à-vis the Brotherhood, gaining the title, “Al-Rais al-Mu’min” (the Believing President). Unfortunately for him, he was assassinated by an Islamist soldier for signing a peace treaty with Israel. His successor, Hosni Mubarak’s relations with the Brotherhood were ambivalent. After his ouster from the presidency, Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood was elected to the presidency; only to be forced out of office by the military one year later.
It’s extremely difficult to forecast the future of the Arab world. Other than hard-core Islamist intellectuals, no reputable Arab author is advocating the rebirth of the Caliphate. At the same time, sermons preached in several mosques in the Islamic world, as well as in the Diaspora, proclaim the glories of the past, ending their “Khutba” with violent imprecations and maledictions hurled at the “Kuffar” (Unbelievers.)
On the other hand, a new phenomenon has sprung up lately: the critique of Islam by ex-Muslims. This is seldom noticed, or reported in the Western media. The rapid growth of this movement is impacting Islamic societies. Voices of dissent and criticism use the Internet to “telecast” their opposition, not simply to radical Islam, but to Islam itself. One can hardly believe what some Arab youth and Arab intellectuals, are saying in Arabic. They call for a radical modernization of Islam, and the end its hostility toward the “Others.”
The question remains, how fast can these ideas infiltrate and impact the rising Arab generations? The Internet and its derivatives spreading news and views, at unbelievable speeds, all over the world, has met with very few obstacles. As the German-Egyptian author, Hamed Abdel-Samad, has put it, “Muslims are now out of the Box.” It is hoped that due to all these new factors, Islamic nations would lay to rest any dream for the revival of their supposedly past grandeur, and learn to live at peace with the rest of the world.
Note: On 25 February 2016, Hamed Abdel-Samad discussed his most recent book, “Islamic Fascism,” to listen to the interview that was in English, click on the following URL: “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cxoGKtU0Ik