By Irfan Al-Alawi
July 20, 2014
At the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year, coinciding with the end of the Western month of June, a new caliphate, or Islamic religious and political order, was proclaimed on the borderland of Iraq and Syria. As described by international media, the news was included in a "declaration of war" released as an online audio statement by Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, a representative of the purported "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" or ISIS (also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, based on differing English translations of "Sham," the Arabic name for Greater Syria, which long included all the lands on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean). ISIS is now to be deemed simply "the Islamic State."
Within days, the man who calls himself Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurayshi Al-Baghdadi issued a declaration as head of the purported "Islamic State," titled pompously, "A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah."
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has offered a reward of $10 million for his capture, "Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi" is Abu Du'a, a follower of the late Osama Bin Laden and the main figure in the former Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). He has assumed other pseudonyms as well, now including "Caliph Ibrahim." By adding the name "Al-Qurayshi" in his current alias, he seeks to affirm descent from Muhammad. In its Ramadan declaration, the "Islamic State" claimed to revive governance based on religion, with authority over all Sunnis in the world.
This assertion appears fantastical. The immediate intent of the "Islamic State" and its demagogic overseer appears to be to terrorize the Shia and spiritual Sufi majority in Iraq with the spectre of a re-established caliphate in Baghdad, which would massacre both communities -- including Sunni Sufis -- on the ultra-Wahhabi argument that they are idolaters and apostates. The caliphate of Baghdad was destroyed 756 years ago, in 1258 CE, by the invading Mongols.
On July 5, the pan-Arab television channel Al-Arabiya, Saudi-owned but based in Dubai, reproduced images of vandalism by the "Islamic State," using bulldozers against Sunni and Sufi shrines, and dynamite to blow up Shia meeting houses, or Husseiniyat, in the Iraqi province of Nineveh, which the marauders seized in June. The pictures were released by the "Islamic State." Four Sufi shrines and six Shia Husseiniyat had been levelled.
In addition, Chaldean Christian and Syrian Orthodox cathedrals in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, were found emptied by the fanatics, who removed their crosses then hung black "Islamic State" flags on them.
As disclosed in the Ramadan statement by the "Islamic State," the allegation of theological sovereignty over all Sunnis extends to Indonesia and Morocco. The statement insists that Muslims in both countries, which are powerful within global Islam, are subjected to torture, violation, and bloodshed, though neither has seen conflict in recent times. The text promises that the "Islamic State" will rescue the Muslim minority in Burma (Myanmar), which has suffered genuinely from Buddhist radicalism. The text argues that the atrocities against Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s were not considered terrorism by the West, yet the leaders of the Serbian and Croatian forces that attacked Muslims were arrested, tried, and sentenced at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
The "Islamic State," through its supposed caliph, declared, "rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah's... Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing Hijrah [emigration] to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because Hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory... We make a special call to the scholars, Fuqahā' [experts in Islamic jurisprudence], and callers [to religion], especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specializations and fields... their emigration is Wajib 'Aynī [an individual obligation], so that they can answer the dire need of the Muslims for them."
This demand reveals the cynical nature of the "Islamic State" and its bid for jurisdiction over all Sunnis. Although it has seized parts of Syria and Iraq, it cannot defeat the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, and it certainly cannot protect Muslims in Burma. Regardless of its bluster, it cannot "conquer Rome," as it threatens. Therefore, the "caliph" pleads for a supposed religious duty by Sunnis throughout the world to travel to the "Islamic State" and reinforce it.
There are many more religious, historical, and political reasons Sunnis should reject the call of the "Islamic State."
The idea that borders between Syria and Iraq will be dissolved by the new "caliphate" defies all of Islamic theology and history. As the Quran states in Sûrah 49:13, Allah "made the nations and tribes different." Muslims from the Balkans to the Philippines vary in customs and culture. These distinctions have always existed and were never overcome by any previous caliphate. They are reflected in the existence of the many modern state borders.
Western commentators who believe the "Islamic State" is motivated to abolish the division of Syria and Iraq by the British-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 ignore that the separation, under foreign control, of the two Ottoman dominions was not based on whim. France was awarded Syria and Britain took over Iraq. But Syria and Iraq have been distinct for millennia. This is not a geographical accident: Syria before its Islamic conquest was Byzantine and Christian, and Iraq was under the control of Zoroastrian Persians, the long-standing enemies of the Byzantines. There could be few more significant cultural contrasts. Conquest by the Muslims did not unite them.
Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad caliphate, which lasted from 661 to 750 CE; but once it was overthrown, its successor, the Abbasid caliphate, founded Baghdad as its capital and ruled there until the Mongol destruction in 1258. Damascus became the centre of Sunnism. Shia history is embedded in Iraq, with its centres at Kufa, where Imam Ali, the last of the four "righteous caliphs" who succeeded Prophet Muhammad, and was the progenitor of the Shias, moved his caliphate from Medina in 657 CE; Najaf, where Imam Ali is buried, and Karbala, where Imam Hussein was killed in 680 CE.
The "Islamic State" seeks to obliterate these diverse identities by expelling or killing all Shias and Sufi Sunnis. Some minor caliphates of the past, such as that of the Almohads in Morocco and Muslim Spain from 1147 to 1269, pursued similar goals of violent, fundamentalist "purification" but the effect of their eruption into the Iberian Peninsula was to weaken the Spanish Muslims.
The major caliphates were located on trade routes and benefited from commercial relations with the wider world. They did not call on all the Muslims across the globe to flee their native homes for the aggrandizement of the caliphs. Unfortunately, as noted in the Financial Times of July 7, the Iraqi provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, and Salahuddin, where the "Islamic State" has been declared, lack productive agriculture and energy assets, with no seaports. Mosul, if it remains in the hands of the "caliphate," will likely be cut off from its trade along the Tigris River. These realities, it seems, impel additionally the call by the "Islamic State" for Sunnis from around the world to "rush" to the territory the terrorists have usurped.
The pretensions of the ultra-Wahhabi "Islamic State" have been rejected by other radical Islamists, including the hate-mongering Egyptian-born and Qatar-based preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who, cited by Al-Jazeera on July 7, called the new caliphate "void" in Islamic law. Al-Qaradawi said, "A group simply announcing a caliphate is not enough to establish a caliphate." Rachid Ghannouchi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader of Tunisia, was quoted similarly by Al-Jazeera, commenting derisively, "Nations do not arise in this ridiculous way."
While the "Islamic State" declares its enmity for Shias, its attempt to establish a theocracy is, paradoxically, closer to the conception of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to that of any Sunni precedent. Nowhere do the Quran or the Islamic traditions specify the form of a political state. Indeed, the early Meccan Muslims took temporary shelter in the Ethiopian Christian kingdom, the ruler of which Muhammad commanded them to obey. Furthermore, just as the "Islamic State" condemns Shias and Sunni Sufis as apostates, its extreme Wahhabism was deemed to be outside Islam by the Ottoman caliphate and other Islamic theologians.
The Ottomans, from 1517 to 1924, were the most powerful caliphate in history; their religious ascendancy was recognized as far away as Southeast Asia. In addition, the Ottoman caliphate, although it fought against the Iranian Shias in wars the "Islamic State" seeks to evoke, was pluralistic in its social order. Political power was not held by clerics, but distributed through various institutions. A Jewish sociologist, Shmuel Eisenstadt (1923-2010), of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued that the classic Islamic societies, far from being "despotic" in their governance, embodied "Islamic pluralism" in which sultans, caliphs, clerics, pious foundations and Sufi orders maintained balance within society. In that panorama, powerful trade and craft guilds, and chivalric bodies of Islamic knights, played similar roles.
The Ottoman caliphate rescued the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century and resettled them in the empire, encouraged the diversity of the four schools of Sunni legal interpretation at Mecca, and found a means for accommodation with the Shias who lived in Anatolia and developed into the heterodox Alevi sect.
The "Islamic State" does not invoke the Ottoman caliphate in its propaganda. This omission may represent nothing more than Arabo-centrism. But it demonstrates decisively the fake nature of the "Islamic State." The world has changed irreversibly, and Muslims need to adapt to change. A caliphate is obsolete and the "Islamic State" is totalitarian. All conscientious Sunnis, worldwide, need to repudiate them soundly, even by force of arms.
 Eisenstadt, Shmuel, "The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies," in Islam in Public: Turkey, Iran, and Europe, ed. by Nilüfer Göle and Ludwig Ammann, İstanbul Bilgi University Press,. 2006, pp. 446-7.