Brief Notes On The Historical and Modern Caliphate

A new scarecrow term that has emerged recently, specially in right wing media and the Bush administration's rhetoric. The term is the caliphate.

In this article, I mention some facts on the caliphate, and what the above rhetoric is.

History of the Caliphate

The term caliphate is the anglicization of (خلافة Khilafah). Historically, it is used by Sunni Muslims to denote the institution of political leadership all Muslims are under.

In reality, the picture is more complex.

Early Muslims were under a single leadership only for brief moments in history. Under the (الخلافاء الراشدون al-Khulafa al-Rashidun), only the period of a few decades after the Prophet's death (632 C.E.) were the Muslims united.

In this period, the Persian and Byzantine empires were confronted. The Persians were defeated, and the lands in the Levant under Byzantine rule were now under Muslim rule.

Right after Uthman was killed, civil war broke out and rival claimants warred with each other. After this period of unrest, the Muslims were again united under the Umayyad dynasty in 661 C.E, ruling from their seat in Damascus. Various revolts in the provinces, and Khilafa claimants, most notably in Makkah by Ibn al-Zubair, continued.

By 750 C.E., the rival Abbasid dynasty took power, and ruled from Baghdad. After a period of unrest, culture, arts and science flourished, creating a golden age.

Meanwhile renmants of the Umayyads established themselves in Iberia (Al-Andalus), with a capital in Cordoba, and ruled for centuries there, independant of the Abassids.

The Demise of The Early Caliphate

The Abassid dynasty initially provided able Caliphs, including Harun al-Rashid (d. 809 C.E.). Civil war ensued after that between his sons.

Later, Caliphs became weaker, and were under the influence of military commanders who were often non-Arab slaves, most notably Turks from Central Asia.

This made the Caliphate as an institution more symbolic, both in the east (Baghdad) and the west (Cordoba).

This lead poets to lament the situation where caliphs were puppets by saying:

خليفة في قفص بين وصيف وبغا

يقول ما قالا له كما تقول الببغا


Caliph in a cage between a butler and servant

He repeats what they say to them, just like a parrot

In The last notable dynasty of a unified Andalus was not under a Caliph, but under Al Mansur ibn Abi Aamer المنصور إبن أبي عامر known as Almanzor. He was a court official who usurped power, and kept the Hisham, the Umayyad Caliph a virtual prisoner in the palace. He took the title of hajib الحاجب which means "the veil".

His weak and spoilt son, Sanchuelo شنجول tried to take matters further and make the nominal caliph formally give up the Caliphate to him, sparking a civil war that brought the end of Muslim Spain's golden age in medieval times.

In the east, it was very similar, with various Sultans holding real power in the name of the Caliph. The Caliph only made public appearances on Friday prayers and religious festivals. The illustrious Saladin صلاح الدين and other Sultans held real authority, and fought the Crusader threat themselves, with the Caliph only rubber stamping decrees.

This was specially true after the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 C.E., wrapping the last Caliph in a carpet and trampling him to death.

Various dynasties came and went, including the Ayyubids as well as the Burji and Bahri Mamelukes, who was a non-hereditary dynasty of slave-commanders.

The Mamelukes moved the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate to Cairo in 1261 C.E., and ruled in their name.

In 1517 C.E., after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded Egypt, he carried the last nominal Abbasid caliph as a prisoner, and made him cede power to them, and relinquish the mantle and other memorabilia attributed to the prophet.

The Ottomans were initially powerful and used the title of Caliph to try to rally Muslims around them. This was specially true against the Shia Safavid dynasty, which responded by imposing Shiism by force in Iran, fearing Sunnis would be loyal to the Ottomans.

Modern Demise Of The Caliphate

Like in any dynasty with initial charismatic and able rulers, weakness sets in and the Ottoman Caliphs were no exception.

For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, Western powers have viewed the Ottoman Empire as "Europe's sick man", who is about to die and others divide the areas under its control.

Many regional dynasties have been established and either came into conflict with the Ottoman or only paid nominal allegiance to it. Examples are Muhammad Ali of Egypt, and the Saudis in Arabia.

During the 19th century, Muslim lands started to come under direct Western occupation and colonialism, including North Africa, West Africa, Egypt, the Levant, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Resistance to Ottoman rule in Arab lands was also on the rise, due to the despotic nature of provincial governors, as well as late Ottoman Sultans.

Finally, the last Caliphate was formally abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924 C.E, causing ripples as far as British ruled India.

In fact, it was just a matter of time before the Ottoman empire was to be dismantled. The shock to Muslims was more emotional and psychological than real. Virtually all Muslim lands were under Western control anyway, and no real control was in the hands of the Ottomans.

Attempts at Caliphate Revival

Since 1924, there has been attempts to revive the Caliphate. This included the Kalifate movement in British ruled India, as well as extermist claims such as Al-Qaeda, and everything in between.

Various groups with varying degrees of moderation/extermism have a stated goal of re-establishing the Caliphate. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (later spreading elsewhere) and the single track minded Hizb ut Tahrir which originated in Palestine.

These groups are very diverse and their tactics differ, but all share the emotional goal that re-establishing the caliphate will magically make life for Muslims much better.

Achievements of the Caliphate

As I detailed above, there was no single continuous caliphate that united Muslims until the 20th century. More accurately, there were temporary unity only in the early centuries, and later Caliphs were merely symbolic and ceremonial.

However, there were periods of majesty in culture, arts and science, mainly under the early Iraqi Abbasids and the Andalusian Umayyads. The early Ottomans also had a period of good contributions, prior to shrinking intellectually as well as politically.

Failures of the Caliphate

What most people fail to realize is that indeed there were golden ages for the various caliphates, but also several failures that the caliphate failed to prevent.

Most notably, there were periods of civil wars even within powerful dynasties. This included early wars between Ali and Mu'awyah, Ibn Al-Zubayr revolt in Makkah during the first (Damascus) Umayyad caliphate, al-Amin and Al-Ma'mun war after Harun's death, and the civil war in Andalus dismantling the Umayyad Caliphs there. There is also the war between Bayazid and Cem in Anatolia in the 15th century.

As well, the Caliphate failed to prevent disasters such as the Mongol sacking Baghdad, and the fall of Andalus and the plight of Muslims as a result of the Reconquista.

Moreover, the Caliphate did not prevent Western colonialism and occupation from the 18th to the 19th century of virtually all Muslim lands.

In summary, the Caliphate was more symbolic than real.

Yearning by contemporary Muslims

The fact that many Muslims today yearn for a caliphate revival is mainly caused by disenchantment with the present leaderships in Muslim countries, and the lack of a way to peacefully change that leadership. It is more of a emotional nostalgia for la belle epouche, rather than something real and tangible that has existed.

The yearning is not unlike the yearning by various millenialist Christians for Jesus second coming.

Was the Caliphate belligerent?

Like all states, various caliphate states had friends as well as enemies. At the height of Abassid power, Harun al-Rashid established diplomatic ties with the Holy Roman Empire, most notably charlemagne. There were practical reasons for this too. Byzantium was a rival of the Holy Roman Empire, and had frequent skirmishes with the Abbasids.

On one occasion, Nicephorus the Byzantine Emperor stopped paying the annual tribute imposed by Harun al-Rashid, and sent an insolent letter to Harun. Harun's response was to reply with an insult ('to Nicephorus Dog of the Romans') and that the real reply is what he sees, not what he hears.

Similarly, the Umayyads of Iberia were friendly to Byzantium, and hostile to the Holy Roman Empire.

History records lots of diplomatic missions and exchange of exotic gifts between Baghdad and the Holy Roman Empire on one side, and the Iberian Umayyads and Byzantium on the other.

One such notable gift is Abul Abbas, an Asian white elephant given by Harun to charlemagne in 789 C.E. Other gifts were an elaborate water jug, "silks, brass candelabra, perfume, slaves, balsam, ivory chessmen, a colossal tent with many-colored curtains, an elephant named Abul-Abbas, and a water clock that marked the hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl, as mechanical knights -- one for each hour -- emerged from little doors which shut behind them". This exchange of gifts was recorded in Western art, such as Jacob Jordaens and Julius Kokert.

What if a Caliphate is established?

In the right wing and Bush administration rhetoric I mentioned at the start of this article, the term is used to tie the extermist ideology that fuels terrorism with the establishment of a pan-Islamic state under a single political leadership. The implication is that if the terrorists win in their alleged goal, the confrontation will be wider against a unified Islamic state.

History does not support such a view, simply because and there is no such precedence.

Practically, the sheer number of Muslims (1.2 billion at least), and them being ethnically, linguistically, and geographically diverse prevents that as well.

So, this scare tactic by Bush and his likes is establishing a scarecrow potential threat to garner continuing support for the "War on Terror". Populist rulers always need an enemy as a cause to rally against, often imagined and/or exaggerated.




Bush does it again

In his September 5, 2006 speech, Bush has again said that Al-Qaeda's objective is to setup a violent radical caliphate empire in Iraq.

Reuters quotes Bush:

Bin Laden has declared Iraq "the capital of the caliphate," said Bush, who has often faced criticism for trying to tie Iraq into the broader "war on terrorism."

The White House simultaneously released quotes from Bin Laden:

Bin Laden: "The Most Important And Serious Issue Today For The Whole World Is This Third World War … Raging In [Iraq]." BIN LADEN: "I now address my speech to the whole of the Islamic nation: Listen and understand. The issue is big and the misfortune is momentous. The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world's millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate." (Text Of Bin Laden's Audio Message To Muslims In Iraq, Posted On Jihadist Websites, 12/28/04)

The missing context here that is intentionally misquoted, and that the majority of Americans will miss, is that as always, Bin Laden's and al-Zawahiri's quotes are laced in history. Baghdad has been the seat of the Abbasid caliphate for centuries, and hence still called the "capital of the caliphate", just like -- for example -- Alexandria is called the pearl of the Mediterranean, or other poetic language.

Another important point is that Iraq was not a terrorism concern at all until the invasion in 2003. By toppling Saddam, destabilizing the country, creating a power vacuum and sectarian strife, it is only logical that terrorists like the previously unheard of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi have flocked in to fight the infidel army and feed off the carcass of Iraq.
Khalid Baheyeldin