The Caliphate Attempted
Zarqawi's Ideological Heirs, their Choice for a Caliph, and the Collapse of their Self-Styled "Islamic State of Iraq"
by Nibras Kazimi
Published on Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Current Trends in Islamist Ideology vol. 7
In his first speech after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden provided a list of grievances that in his mind compelled and justified Islamist terrorism against the West. Among other things, he alluded to the West’s role in dethroning the last Ottoman caliph and abolishing the Ottoman Caliphate. Ever since March 4, 1924, when Caliph Abdul Mejid II was sent packing—by Turkish nationalists, not by Europeans—many Islamists have maintained that resurrecting the caliphate would allow them to roll back centuries of Western encroachment upon Islamic lands, and to recapture Islam’s early purpose, might, and glory. However, early efforts at reestablishing the caliphate after the fall of the Ottomans routinely failed, the victim of doctrinal disagreements and other political obstacles created by Muslim disunity and weakness. Subsequently, many Islamic scholars came to the view that the task of actually selecting the next caliph needed to be deferred pending a spiritual revival that would unite Muslims. But a new crop of jihadists doing battle in post-2003 Iraq decided that such a revival was indeed taking place in the territories under their control. In their view, the time for the selection of a new caliph and the caliphate’s rebirth had arrived. Their vehicle for this new-born venture would be called the “Islamic State of Iraq.”
The Islamic State of Iraq was to be the first incarnation of the resurrected caliphate. The newly established state’s leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, would be the caliph. The Islamic State of Iraq was conceived as the third stage of a three-phase process begun by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi’s first move, in October 2004, was to link his Iraq-based Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad Group) to bin Laden’s worldwide al-Qaeda franchise by adopting the name “al-Qaeda fi Bilad ar Rafidayn”, commonly referred to in Western circles as “al-Qaeda in Iraq”. Next, in January 2006, Zarqawi made a bid to bring all the other jihadist organizations operating in Iraq under his control by expanding the al-Qaeda in Iraq into the umbrella-like Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (Shura Council of the Mujahidin). The third stage in this process was reached five months after Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike, in October 2006, when his successors made a bid to supersede the worldwide al-Qaeda network by actually forming the Islamic State of Iraq.
The creators of the Islamic State of Iraq understood it as the most ambitious jihadist venture to date. They could, they believed, lay claim to the leadership of the global jihadist movement, since they had surpassed in scope, purpose, and martial triumph the generation of jihadists that came before them, including bin Laden. Among other things, they believed that their state would elevate the Islamic struggle against the West to a new level of confrontation: rather than have disparate groups of jihadists retaliating against Western targets by terrorist means, the Islamic State of Iraq would confront its foes as would an emerging empire—and in the same fashion as the early Islamic conquests. Moreover, defeating the United States, the world’s mightiest military and economic power, on the battlefield of Iraq was to be the harbinger of even greater victories for Islam.
The doctrinal premises upon which the Iraq jihadists justified the formation of their state and selected their caliph were the same premises developed by medieval Muslim jurists such as al-Mawardi (d. 1058) and al-Juwaini (d. 1085). These foundational principles were put forth in a book released in January, 2007, by the Islamic State of Iraq’s so-called Ministry of Sharia Commissions under the title Elam al-Anam bi Milad Dawlet al-Islam (Informing the People About the Birth of the State of Islam). Published almost three months after the Islamic state’s creation was declared, this book became a manifesto of sorts for the Zarqawist wing of the global jihad movement. The ambition and bravado of the Zarqawists are reflected in the words of Elam al-Anam. The book’s unidentified author quotes President George W. Bush:
Those radicals want to terrorize the moderates and intellectuals, and they want to overthrow their governments [to] establish the state of the caliphate. [So] leaving Iraq is very dangerous, because it means abandoning a part of the region to the radicals who will glorify [their] victory over the United States, and this region will give them the opportunity to conspire and plan to attack America, and manipulate the resources to enable them to expand the state of the caliphate.
The author asserts that “the liar [Bush] was right about that!” In this boisterous vein, the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq went so far as to appropriate for themselves Mohammed’s personal standard, the “Banner of al-Uqab,” under which the Muslims had fought the enemies of Islam while the prophet was still living.
Taking the prophet’s flag as their own was not the only way in which the jihadists sought to emulate Mohammed. They also adopted his nascent state in Medina as the blueprint for the Islamic State of Iraq. This was a revolutionary step that contrasted sharply with positions taken by other modern Islamists and jihadists, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the first generation of al-Qaeda. These modern movements had cautiously deferred selecting a caliph not only because of their general military and political weakness in the twentieth century, but also to avoid the disputes that had erupted over the ill-defined caliph selection process and other matters in the past. Such disputes had crippled earlier generations of Islamists. But the insurgents’ victories in post-2003 Iraq invigorated the jihadist movement with a new sense of strength and unity, and enabled the jihadists to move forward with efforts to resurrect the caliphate.
To the extent that we can speak about a Sunni doctrine on the caliphate, it is based exclusively on precedent. However, the practices and principles of caliphal rule—including everything from the method and criteria by which a caliph is chosen, to how a caliph chooses to exercise his prerogatives—have fluctuated widely over the course of Islamic history. Precedent, as such, can be an unreliable guide for political action, and the search to find a stable precedent has rarely been without controversy or dispute.
It appears, however, that the jihadists in Iraq may have had an intellectual guidebook to help them avoid these disagreements: a groundbreaking tome on the caliphate authored in the early 1980s by the Saudi cleric Abdullah ibn Umar ad-Dumaiji under the title al-Imamah al-Udhmah inda ahl ul Sunna Weljamaah (The Grand Imamate According to Sunnis). This work offers a user-friendly manual for choosing a caliph. While reflecting on the various arguments for and against any given stipulation for caliph selection, the book authoritatively recommends the most suitable guiding principles, from a doctrinal perspective, for choosing a caliph. It thus charts the way beyond the problematic historical issues that had impeded efforts to select a new caliph in the past. The book was republished by the Global Islamic Media Front—an important jihadist propaganda outlet—a month after Elam al-Anam’s release, seemingly to complement its publication.
In the pages that follow, I analyze the various arguments made by the author of Elam al-Anam, along with the ideological framework laid out in ad-Dumaiji’s study in light of historical precedents. My aim is to provide insight into the motivations of jihadists in Iraq, and to understand what prerequisites they considered necessary in their leader, the candidate caliph, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. I conclude by examining what the collapse of the jihad in Iraq implies, how it will affect the attempted caliphate, and how it may weaken overall jihadist morale in the short term.
Who Selects the Caliph?
Since the death of Mohammed, the succession of power and authority in Islam has remained a source of great dispute and division among Muslims. In keeping with medieval Sunni treatises on the subject of succession, ad-Dumaiji argues that the procedures for selecting an imam or caliph for the umma (Muslim Nation) must replicate the precedents set by the Four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded Mohammed. But it is sufficient, he adds, to adhere only to the example set by the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar. In narrowing his focus to the precedents of the first two caliphs, ad-Dumaiji may have been motivated by a desire to minimize controversy in the selection process. But if that was his intention, he miscalculated. Even the examples of the first two caliphs are fraught with controversy: Abu Bakr’s appointment as caliph is disputed to this day, and Umar’s reign—like that of the two caliphs that followed him—was cut short by assassination. Thus the first two caliphs can hardly be cited as optimal precedents for the selection process.
Nonetheless, in treating Abu Bakr as the preferred precedent, ad-Dumaiji understands the process of caliph selection as one in which a group of the umma’s most influential leaders—a group called the “ahl ul hel wel aqd” (literally, “those who loose and bind”)—are empowered as representatives to either appoint or to sack the caliph. Based on his understanding of Abu Bakr’s model, and after considering numerous arguments about how many influential delegates are required to actually appoint a single candidate, ad-Dumaiji concludes that a simple majority of the ahl ul hel wel aqd is adequate for a caliph’s selection to stand. Ad-Dumaiji additionally recommends, citing al-Mawardi’s eleventh-century treatise on the caliphate, that the ahl ul hel wel aqd should be careful to select the caliph best qualified to address the challenges of the times. The bravest candidate, for instance, should be chosen during a time of war, and the most erudite candidate during a time of doctrinal dissonance.
Moreover, the situation discussed by the medieval scholars, whereby a ruler seizes the caliphate by force, is rejected by ad-Dumaiji as involving a usurpation of the title that does not reflect the authentic traditions of selection. Hence such a ruler is not a “true imam” or a “true caliph.” Ad-Dumaiji’s dismissive tone—he even likens this process to modern day military coups—shows his departure from earlier jurists, who made allowances for Muslim rulers who came after the Righteous Caliphs (i.e., for those who had seized power over Muslims and awarded themselves the hallowed titles of Islam despite not having followed acceptable precedent).
Like ad-Dumaiji, the author of Elam al-Anam stresses the importance of following the proper historic examples, and he rehearses the three ways by which an imam can be chosen. These processes were established by al-Mawardi in his al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya (Ordinances of Government), and al-Juwaini in his Ghiath al-Umam fi Tiyah al-Dhulem (Rescuing the Nations Lost in the Darkness). These methods include a majority of the ahl ul hel wel aqd pledging allegiance, or an imam choosing his successor, or a commander establishing his rule through the use of force during a time marked by fitna (sedition) and conflict among various Muslim factions. But in addition to these precedents, Elam al-Anam also allows for practical considerations:
The starting point that the mujahidin employed in their declaration of [the Islamic State of Iraq] was a compounded mixture of religious facts derived from the [Quran] and the sunna [together] with realistic and political outlooks borne out by experience and practice.
This emphasis on “realistic” represents a revolutionary point of departure in jihadist thinking. The author concludes that none of the established methods for choosing a caliph is appropriate in the contemporary era, since a unique situation has arisen whereby the lands of Islam have been temporarily taken over by the “infidel” enemy (whether directly, as in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq; or through surrogate “apostates”, as in the rest of the Muslim territories). Thus it is impossible to attempt a resurrection of the caliphate based on these traditional methods, and another avenue must be found.
The way out of this quandary, the author argues, is to suppose that the jihadists fighting for the restoration of Islam and its precepts—those who view themselves as the “victorious faction” that was prophesied by Mohammed —deserve the designation of ahl ul hel wel aqd. The author quotes a point made by al-Juwaini: if “the [electors] held back and delayed putting forward an imam and the period extended and the hardship expanded to the periphery of the realm and the elements of imbalance arose,” the imamate can then be legitimately passed on to those who take the initiative to correct the situation by appointing an imam. This task has not been seriously attempted since the caliphate was abolished in 1924.
Like ad-Dumaiji, the author of Elam al-Anam discusses the numbers of the ahl ul hel wel aqd that are necessary to secure a legitimate quorum and a binding decision. He concludes, with ad-Dumaiji, that a simple majority of those who can be gathered at any given time or place is enough, ascribing such a convenient remedy to Ibn Khaldun, al-Nawawi, and Ibn Taymiyya, among others.
The contemporary instance of such a quorum is described as follows:
Allah has helped the brothers in the Hilf al-Muttayyebin (Alliance of the Muttayyebin) succeed, for it represents the majority of ahl ul hel wel aqd, since it [consists] of the Shura Council of the Mujahidin, which is an organization that comprises seven jihadist groups, with renowned names and emirs and soldiers….
The advice of over sixty percent of the Sunni tribal shaykhs in the areas where the mujahidin are present [was] taken, and we saw enthusiasm and elation over this matter…
We also sought … the counsel of some of the other large jihadist groups and we tried to meet their leaders … but some wouldn’t enable us to do that under the excuse of the security situation, so it was necessary for us to decide with [those] of the ahl ul hel wel aqd we could bring together in these difficult times….
The author expands upon al-Juwaini’s point about seizing the initiative by arguing that no other body claims to represent the ahl ul hel wel aqd at the present time.
The Islamic State of Iraq was declared on October 15, 2006, three days after the Alliance of the Muttayebbin was formed. The official spokesman of the newly formed Ministry of Information announced, in a video bearing the logo of the Shura Council of the Mujahidin, that the Alliance of the Muttayebbin had decided to establish the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq”. The new head of state would be someone called Abu Umar al-Baghdadi—a name previously unknown. The spokesman called upon Iraqi Sunnis to pledge their allegiance to al-Baghdadi. He also called upon Sunni Muslims everywhere to support the nascent state—an entity that would act as the precursor to the caliphate, which would be resurrected in Baghdad.
The official spokesman further declared that the territory the jihadists currently controlled in Iraq was roughly equal to the territory of the state of Medina founded by the Prophet Mohammed, and that, as Medina had been, it was threatened internally and externally. By seeking to associate the Islamic State of Iraq with Mohammed’s nascent state at Medina, the Shura Council of the Mujahidin was attempting to claim that—after three years of fighting in Iraq and after “important leaps in jihadist performance in its political, administrative, media and political fronts” —it was able to govern a population in the land of Iraq (since the raison d’être for founding an Islamic State is its ability to implement sharia).
There is no relevant text in the Quran or the sunna that specifies the amount of territory needed for an Islamic state to exercise sharia. But by drawing a parallel with Medina under Mohammed, the author intended to show that the Islamic State of Iraq was starting off with better odds: only seventy men from Yathrib (later Medina) pledged allegiance to Mohammed before his flight from Mecca, and they were unknown youths, certainly not the most influential of Medina’s townspeople. The author argues that Mohammed’s grip on the political affairs of Medina was not solid: there were large groups of Jews with military and economic capabilities who later sparked “disturbances” , there was no sense of security , and Medina was built without the aid of technocrats or lavish funds.
In his first speech, delivered on December 22, 2006, al-Baghdadi developed this parallel. He quoted three verses from the Isra surah of the Quran that pertain to Mohammed’s flight to Medina, and he cited a symbolic hadith whereby Mohammed predicted victory for Islam at the time of its darkest hours. Al-Baghdadi also presented a leaked U.S. Marine intelligence report published in November, 2006, as evidence that the jihadists controlled Anbar Province, which he said was far larger in territory than Medina and its environs during Mohammed’s time.
As for the timing of the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq, the author of Elam al-Anam offers an explanation. There was an immediate need to administer sharia, provide judicial arbitration, and maintain basic services. Furthermore, the political vacuum was leading some Sunnis to join the political process in Baghdad, so much so that certain prominent jihadist factions had openly stated they would negotiate with the Americans.
In designating the role of ahl ul hel wel aqd to the jihadists in Iraq, Elam al-Anam suggests the jihadists’ superiority to the more established Islamic scholars, even though the jihadists tended to be younger and of lesser scholarly stature. Eminent scholars are dismissed as staid and stodgy, usually in the service of tyrants, and afraid of roughing it on the battlefields of jihad. This brash and ambitious style was inherited by the jihadists who established the Islamic State of Iraq from their slain leader al-Zarqawi. He, in turn, was heavily influenced by Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, a scholar deeply affected by Saudi radical Juhayman al-Utaybi, leader of the Mecca insurrection of November 1979. The latter was dismissive of the reformist Saudi scholars of the 1960s and 1970s who shaped the early thinking of Osama bin Laden, seeing them as insufficiently confrontational and unwilling to violently break with the ruling religious establishment. In the eyes of the jihadists, engaging in actual battle on behalf of Islam was a higher calling than ruling on archaic formulas for Muslim ritual.
The Attempted Caliphate That Failed
Today’s jihadists are probably mindful of the role indecisive Islamic scholars played the last time they sought solutions to the problems entailed in reestablishing the caliphate, and their own boldness and willingness to act decisively is usefully understood in the context of the General Caliphate Congress, held in Cairo in 1926. At this congress, the problem of vague and conflicting precedents was compounded by scholars who were promoting claims to the title by competing Arab sovereigns. (Ayman al-Zawahiri’s grandfather, Shaykh Mohammed al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri [d. 1944], was King Fuad of Egypt’s man. )
Before the congress, the pioneering Salafist thinker Rashid Ridha (d. 1935) asserted his credentials for speaking out on the caliphate. Writing in his influential monthly magazine al-Manar, he explained that he had written a book about the caliphate, had published deliberations on the nature of the caliphate in his magazine, and had participated in the planning committees for the congress. Ridha questioned the benefit of electing yet another caliph with no authority, especially at a time when there were three men alive who had once carried the title: the deposed Ottoman sultan Mohammed Wahid ud-Din (r. 1918–1922, he died in exile three days after the conference commenced); the last Ottoman caliph Abdul Mejid II (r. 1922–1924, the 101st Sunni ruler to have carried the title); and King Hussein (d. 1931), formerly of the Hejaz, to who, Ridha wrote, “many of the people of Palestine and Syria had pledged allegiance ... willingly, and ... the people of Hejaz unwillingly.”
Ridha’s advice to the would-be congregants at Cairo on how to choose a caliph was to first identify the ahl ul hel wel aqd in every Islamic nation and incorporate them into a functioning body. Clearly he did not view the scholars who would be attending the congress as legitimate representatives of ahl ul hel wel aqd. Ridha further advised the congregants to establish a religious school that would prepare candidates for the caliphate and train others to serve as suitable members of ahl ul hel wel aqd. He emphasized that this approach was generational: the process of renewing the caliphate might require several decades, given that the institution’s collapse had been centuries in the making. However, Ridha optimistically maintained that the caliphate could likely be renewed in a few years’ time.
The original intent of the congress, as it was conceived in 1924 immediately following the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, was to declare a new caliph. However, in response to widespread resistance to King Fuad’s ambitions, both from inside and outside Egypt, the goal of the congress was downgraded by the preparatory committee to one of discussing the question of the caliphate without actually picking a candidate for the job.
The General Caliphate Congress convened on May 13, 1926, at an al-Azhar University facility. It lasted barely a week, and held only four sessions. It drew together notables and scholars from the Levant, the Maghreb, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula, together with representatives from far-flung Muslim communities in such places as South Africa and Poland. However, the important factions in the Indian subcontinent that had sought a reinvigorated caliphate decided to boycott the proceedings, partly over fears that Egypt’s Fuad would try to steer the delegates towards declaring him caliph. The Congress formed two committees to ponder classical and modern questions pertaining to the caliphate. The first, which studied the doctrinal underpinning of the caliphate, was composed of three scholars representing each of the three dominant Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafii, and Maliki) with a single Hanbali scholar accorded a lesser observer status among them. Al-Zawahiri was chosen as the head of Shafii group, as well as the speaker for the committee. The second committee was tasked to consider modern impediments to the caliphate.
The congress, however, was bogged down from the very beginning over arcane debates concerning its Articles of Association, which were followed by arguments over the transcript and word parsing, and by distracting calls to denounce French actions in Syria. The undercurrents of dissent seem to have been motivated by factionalism and by concern over whether the votes of individual Muslim nations would be weighted relative to their populations. The dissent was led by the representatives of Iraq, who were backed by the Palestinians, seemingly to thwart Egyptian ambitions of playing host to the institution of the caliphate in Cairo.
The second committee ended up agreeing with Ridha: a proper caliphate, that is, one in which a caliph exercised authority over Muslims, was an impossibility at a time of such Muslim weakness. It suggested that similar conferences should be held until a caliphate became practicable. In his memoirs, al-Zawahiri claimed credit for quickly winding up the congress on the pretext that not all Muslim nations were represented. He did so after realizing that there would be no way of proclaiming Fuad as caliph.
From Where Does the Caliph Rule?
Interestingly, neither the author of Elam al-Anam nor the congregants at Cairo ever argued that a sitting caliph must possess the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That notion, in fact, seems to have been first raised by retired British bureaucrats and adventurers.
The idea that possession of Mecca and Medina was central to the caliphate seems closely related to the idea of service to Islam as a legitimizing requirement for a caliph. This idea came into vogue when the office of the caliphate lost its luster with the waning of the Abbasids’ dynastic authority. At the same time, ambitious potentates sought to bolster their own populist credentials by ascribing to themselves the ultimate pious deed of maintaining the holy sanctuaries. Ottomans in the sixteenth century enthusiastically adopted the idea that the caliph guaranteed the safety of the annual hajj pilgrimage, even though not a single Ottoman sultan ever performed the pilgrimage throughout six centuries of rule.
The British writers who weighed in on this issue were primarily preoccupied with the fear that the Ottoman sultan would be able to influence India’s Muslims during the pilgrimage season, a fear that set in after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A pliable caliph, propped up in Mecca under British protection, would insure that the office of the caliphate would not be used to agitate against British imperial rule—a rule over Muslim populations that far exceeded in numbers the size of Muslim populations under the Ottoman sultan’s direct authority.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876–1909, d. 1918) sought to use the theoretical authority of his office as a bargaining chip to fend off further European encroachments on his empire. He played up his role as “Servant of the Two Holy Sanctuaries” and took an active role in appointing loyal sharifs in Mecca. He extended his authority’s physical reach, and his claim of providing more services to pilgrims, by building the Hejaz Railway, an expensive venture that was substantially funded by contributions from Indian Muslims.
Over many centuries, of course, the spiritual and political center of Islam has shifted with the ebb and flow of power, and the seat of authority has migrated from Medina to Damascus to Baghdad. These shifts have been most obvious during transitional periods of the caliphate, and have been justified by ad hoc rationalizations rather than formal precepts tethered to landmarks.
Thus during Abdul Hamid’s reign, when proto-Arab nationalists and political enemies were agitating for an Arab caliph, Mecca was designated the spiritual center of the Islamic world where the caliph would sit in residence. Another advantage of Mecca was its geographical remoteness and distance from colonial expansion: its predominately Muslim population and lack of natural resources made European meddling unlikely. In King Fuad’s day, Cairo was touted as a center of learning, with al-Azhar University its shining beacon. There remained the fear, however, that Cairo was subject to British influence and to the spread of vice and secularism. For his part, Ridha was flexible on the caliphate’s location, considering at one time Ankara or Mosul.
Obstacles to the Caliphate
In the decades that followed the Cairo Congress, especially after the 1950s, radical Muslim ideologues were vague about resurrecting the caliphate. Their circumspection was due, in part, to a reluctance to raise this controversial issue. The necessity for jihad was itself particularly controversial. Many argued that a sitting caliph was not necessary to a call for a jihad, or at least did not argue that a sitting caliph was necessary. Abdul Munim Mustafa Halima, for example, the Syrian-born jihadist ideologue based in London and better known by his pseudonym Abu Bassir al-Tartousi, offers little by way of methodology in his 2000 book, The Path Towards Resuming an Islamic Life and the Resurrection of the Righteous Caliphate that is Guided by the Quran and the Sunna (Al-Tareek ila Istinaf Hayat Islamiyyah Wa Qiyam Khilafah Rashidah ala Dhaw al Kitab wal Sunna). “The just sultan is Allah’s shadow on earth,” writes al-Tartousi, citing an alleged hadith. Instead of presenting his own formula for selecting a caliph, he lashes out in a diatribe against Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the transnational caliphate movement that claims today to have tens of thousands of members in over forty countries. Since its founding by radical Palestinian clerics in 1953, HT has managed to corner the ideological market in advocating for a resurrected caliphate. Yet al-Tartousi accuses HT—which largely began, and in many respects still operates, as an intellectual movement—of burdening the process of caliph selection with difficult stipulations that, in practice, make selection impossible.
Against HT’s intellectualized approach, al-Tartousi introduces the vague idea that jihadist action itself will somehow lead to the caliphate by selecting and preparing a “vanguard or elite of monotheist believers” who will eventually be qualified to lead the umma. Indeed, this line of thinking seems to have influenced the jihadists in Iraq, who regard themselves as the elite representatives of the Islamist movement. The jihadists in Iraq also seem to have been influenced by al-Tartousi’s fierce attack on the idea that jihad requires an imam at the stage before an elite is gathered. He claims that groups such as HT, having suspended jihad pending the election of a caliph, are no better than the “heretical” Qadianis (as the followers of the Ahmadiyya movement are derogatorily called).
Al-Tartousi ridicules HT’s reliance on the precedent of Mohammed’s “seeking aid” in Mecca before leaving for Medina: whereas it took Mohammed two years, al-Tartousi writes, HT is still “seeking aid” fifty years after its launch. Hizb ut-Tahrir is stuck in a perpetual Meccan mode, he claims, and has thus impeded progress toward Mohammed’s Medina model. Al-Tartousi is in a hurry to see the prophecies that foretell the Islamic conquest of Rome and India fulfilled —events that will be realized only through waging jihad. Even five years after authoring al-Tareek Ila Isti Naf Hayat Islamiyyah, al-Tartousi was comfortable writing about issues of Islamic government such as shura (consultation), justice, oversight, social liberties, and security, but he did not touch upon a method for electing a leader.
For its part, HT argues that electing the caliph through ahl ul hel wel aqd is necessary only when there is a short period of transition—not more than three days—between caliphs. Because many decades have elapsed since the last caliph was deposed, there are two alternative ways a new caliph can be chosen. One is for a group of Muslims to take the initiative upon themselves, subject to four conditions: 1) the territory in which the election takes place must be under Muslim authority; 2) Islam must have full sovereignty there; 3) sharia must be implemented; and 4) the newly appointed caliph must fulfill and meet all the conditions of eligibility and duty. The other and preferred method is that a provisional emir be appointed to manage the affairs of state while a council of the umma narrows down all candidates for the caliphate to two. By then requiring a general election involving the entirety of the Muslim world, this method seemingly implies Islamic unity as a precondition for electing a caliph.
Hizb ut-Tahrir also suggests that the pledge of allegiance by ahl ul hel wel aqd should take place in the abode of the last ruling caliph. Presumably, this is because the influential leaders of the community would be congregated in the capital of Islam, but it is unclear whether this prescription applies only to short periods of power transfer that do not exceed three days. Ad-Dumaiji addresses this issue directly: citing al-Mawardi, he argues that holding the pledge of allegiance in the capital of the last caliph is customary but not mandatory, and that modern transportation has rendered this custom unnecessary. Depending on where one sees the end of the “proper” imamate, the last capital could be Kufa (the fourth Righteous Caliph Ali moved here from Medina), Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, or Istanbul.
The author of Elam al-Anam, meanwhile, makes the case for Iraq, not by extolling Baghdad’s association with Abbasid grandeur, but by highlighting its strategic location at the center of the Arab world. Iraq also has ample resources that could sustain a new state.
However, in a precedent the jihadists would have wanted to avoid, ambitious Arab mujahidin in Peshawar declared a caliph in 1993. This embarrassing affair lasted for a year and resulted in infighting and recriminations. The idea originated with a jihadist known as Abu Uthman—a Palestinian with Pakistani and U.S. citizenship—at a time when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan created disorientation and ideological turmoil among the mujahidin. He nominated a Jordanian with British citizenship, Mohammed Eid ar-Rifai, also known as Abu Humam, to be caliph. Ar-Rifai was given allegiance by a number of mujahidin and began asserting his authority. He even resorted to taking punitive actions, including abducting children, against those who refused to pledge allegiance to him.
The caliph conveniently made hashish smoking legal in an initially successful bid to win the patronage and funding of drug cultivators and smugglers operating in Pakistan. However, this endeavor ended with clashes between his disciples and the smugglers, and led to the murder of the caliph’s deputy. Ar-Rifai eventually escaped to Konar in Afghanistan, and then returned to London. In May 2006 he suffered a stroke while in British custody. There is some indication that Osama bin Laden knew about this episode, since ar-Rifai had called upon him to pledge allegiance when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1993. Al-Zarqawi may also have been aware of these events, and hence probably understood that choosing the wrong man under the wrong circumstances could turn the selection of the caliph into a farce.
What’s in a Pedigree?
Interestingly, ar-Rifai’s chief qualification for caliph seems to have been his claim of descent from the Quraysh tribe, to which Mohammed also belonged. In discussions of who should rule the caliphate, this matter of tribal pedigree has never been taken lightly. Attiyet Allah, a prolific jihadist writer, posted a mildly critical essay on several jihadist forums in which he argued that the mujahidin of the Islamic State of Iraq had exercised ijtihad (initiative) by choosing to name their new creation a dawla (state) rather than an imara (emirate) ,and by awarding the exalted title of “Emir al-Mumineen” (Commander of the Faithful) to its leader Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. This implied that while the jihadist’s intent may have been well-meaning, they had nevertheless, in Attiyet Allah’s view, overreached. Allah seemed especially uncomfortable with the jihadist’s use of certain terms that seemed to bestow upon them greater power and authority than they actually had. As he wrote,
Regarding the term of “State” or “Emirate”: probably our brothers [in Iraq] chose this particular term for reasons that they saw fit and that are unseen by us who are far away, even though my initial opinion is that the choice of some other [title] would be better and more proper, and I said as much when giving my opinion on [awarding the title of] the “Prince of the Faithful” [to] Mullah Mohammed ‘Umar, may Allah preserve him.
It probably would have been better to call him “Emir” without adding “of the Faithful” so that the evident reference would be to “Emir” of this “State”, because the term “Commander of the Faithful” gives the illusion that he is the Grand Imam, and gives the impression that our brothers may consider him so! And it has been accepted as a tradition among Muslims from the time of our master Umar bin al-Khattab, may Allah regard him well, that the title is synonymous with the “Grand Imam” who is also the Caliph.
And if it were added to that that he—may Allah preserve and aid him—is a Qurayshite and a Husaynite, then the illusion is strengthened
Interestingly enough, even though al-Baghdadi was identified as the head of the state, there was no mention of his alleged Quraysh pedigree or of an exalted title for him in the communiqué that announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq on October 15, 2006. It was not until a few weeks later, on November 10, when Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (al-Zarqawi’s successor as head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was later appointed minister of war in the Islamic State of Iraq) pledged allegiance to “the Qurayshite and Hashemite, descendant of al Hussein, the Emir al-Mumineen, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi”, that al-Baghdadi’s alleged Quraysh heritage was made public.
Al-Muhajir’s pledge of allegiance to “the Qurayshite” al-Baghdadi, made in his own name and that of the entire army of al-Qaeda , was the first hint that the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq who had succeeded al-Zarqawi in June 2006 were attempting to establish some legitimacy for their resurrected caliphate, and that they had gone as far as choosing a would-be caliph.
The author of Elam al-Anam does not directly discuss the role of Quraysh ancestry for a would-be caliph, though in a passing reference to the subject he seems to downgrade its importance and to emphasize instead the urgent necessity of picking a caliph. This omission, if taken together with the omission of al-Baghdadi’s pedigree when his name was first mentioned, could be an indication of dissent among the jihadists over the extent to which they would emphasize the Quryash issue, so as not to reinforce the impression that they were establishing a caliphate. However, al-Baghdadi’s pedigree and title were played up at the time of his inaugural address, which was released two weeks prior to the publication of Elam al-Anam.
The following February, the Global Islamic Media Front released ad-Dumaiji’s thesis, first formulated twenty-four years earlier, which deals with the Quraysh issue extensively and concludes that Quraysh ancestry was a requirement for caliphal candidacy. Ad-Dumaiji asserts that the “vast majority of Muslim scholars”—including al-Mawardi, Ibn Khaldun, al-Ghazali, and Rashid Ridha—made Quraysh ancestry a prerequisite for an elected caliph, and that the dissenters either were not to be taken seriously or were heretical naysayers.
The important point about ad-Dumaiji’s treatment of the subject is that he makes Quraysh ancestry mandatory for any caliph chosen through a decision by the ahl ul hel wel aqd: “This condition ... [applies only] when the selection is made by the ahl ul hel wel aqd, but if the imam assumes the imamate in any other way then the Quraysh condition is not mandatory.” A caliph who takes power by force or inherits power must still be obeyed “and he has the rights of a Qurayshite according to the prior hadiths that stipulate obedience ... even if he does not meet all the conditions.”
A short treatise bearing the title “Hel al Qurashiyyeh shartt fi al imamah?” (“Is Quraysh [descent] a condition for the imamate?”), signed by a certain Abu Abdullah al-Dhahabi, was also circulating on jihadist forums in early 2006, around the time that the Global Islamic Media Front released ad-Dumaiji’s thesis. It seems that this treatise was initially posted serially before being compiled into a thirteen-page document. But upon closer examination, it turns out that al-Dhahabi’s treatise is a word-for-word copy of ad-Dumaiji’s chapter on the topic of Quraysh, albeit with minor formatting and sequence changes. This is another indication that ad-Dumaiji’s contribution to the topic of the caliphate has influenced jihadists.
Ad-Dumaiji began his book by explaining that Islamic authorities had always understood the terms “imamate” and “caliphate” to be interchangeable, and that the titles of “imam” and Emir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful) were both prerogatives of the caliph. In choosing to emphasize al-Baghdadi’s Qurayshite roots, the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq were drawing a distinction between their Emir al-Mumineen and another contemporaneous holder of the title. Mullah ‘Umar had been named Emir al-Mumineen at an April 1996 ceremony where he symbolically adorned himself with a cloak that had allegedly belonged to Mohammed. A year and a half later, the Taliban regime was renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. When asked whether Mullah ‘Umar was still the Emir al-Mumineen after the Taliban collapsed in 2001, Kuwaiti cleric Hamid bin Abdullah al-Ali responded by citing the two methods by which an imam is to be chosen. One is by election, but the candidate must be of Quraysh lineage, implying that this method would not apply to the ethnic Pastun Mullah ‘Umar. The other method is through force. Al-Ali suggests that Mullah ‘Umar rose to the imamate by force, and that his authority over the people he governed made him imam over them but not over a divided Muslim world. Given that his regime was no more, Mullah ‘Umar should be considered a leader of the jihad but not “an imam of authority and rule.”
In Al-Imamah al-Udhma, ad-Dumaiji considers the possibility of having two imams. He frowns upon this situation as improper and conducive to political strife, even though some jurists, such as al-Juwaini, allowed for multiple imams in two or more widely separated Islamic realms. Ad-Dumaiji suggests that if one of the imams was chosen in the same land where the last widely acknowledged imam was chosen, he should be imam. Otherwise the imamate should be given to whoever claimed it first. Ideally, both would concede the title and allow the ahl ul hel wel aqd to reconvene and choose from among them. In a case where the second claimant had not heard of the earlier claim to the title, then the imamate would rightfully belong to the claimant who had earned a larger number of votes from the ahl ul hel wel aqd.
By associating the title of Emir al-Mumineen with Quraysh ancestry, al-Zarqawi’s heirs were signaling to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri—who remain under obligation to follow Mullah ‘Umar while he is alive—that al-Baghdadi was not merely the foremost commander among commanders, but was angling for a position more potent than that of emir. They were signaling as well that the Islamic State of Iraq was a grander achievement than the Emirate of Afghanistan, and that its head of state would have wider powers over Islam. Therefore, the Iraq-based ahl ul hel wel aqd would have proper authority to elect an imam without necessarily including the leaders of the Afghan jihad—and their choice would have priority over Mullah ‘Umar.
Earlier Considerations of the Quraysh Rule
Modern scholars, jihadists, and writers have differed over the significance of Quraysh ancestry. Juhayman al-Utaybi, the Saudi jihadist who led the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, indirectly argued against the House of Saud by citing the stipulation that Muslim rulers must descend from Quraysh. Although al-Maqdisi was deeply influenced by al-Utaybi—evident in the repeated references to al-Utaybi in al-Maqdisi’s book denouncing the Saudi royals as “infidels”—he did not, at any point, elaborate on their lack of Quraysh credentials in arguing against them.
In the view of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a caliph is not required to have a particular pedigree. When the current emir of HT addressed a question about Quraysh ancestry, his ruling ignored medieval Islamic sources on the topic, and instead applied the emir’s own historical and rhetorical analyses to the original incident of Abu Bakr’s investiture (when the issue of tribal affiliation was first raised). The emir concluded by reasoning that Quraysh ancestry was “favorable” but not mandatory.
Why had Abu Bakr held that Quraysh ancestry was mandatory? He did so to solve a unique political problem. Mohammed had left no clear-cut successor, and upon his death Medina’s townspeople, who had hosted Mohammed after his flight from Mecca, wanted to reestablish control over their city, which had served as the political capital of the nascent religion. At the same time, the civil peace between the various Qurayshite clans of Mecca would be threatened if one clan attempted to monopolize power. Abu Bakr thwarted Medina’s pretensions to succession by limiting rule to Quraysh; he cited a saying of the Prophet that maintained that “the imams are from Quraysh.” But by securing the office for the whole of Quraysh, rather than for Mohammed’s immediate clan of Banu Hashim, Abu Bakr also won over the Meccans and cemented their interest in seeing the new religion succeed, since they had the most to gain as members of the ruling class.
However, Abu Bakr’s strategy—the arbitrary use of Mohammed’s alleged sayings in settling factional disputes—set a problematic precedent. Prophetic hadiths could henceforth be adapted and reinterpreted to suit the aspirations and circumstances of the claimants to the highest office in Islam. From that time on, there was no universally accepted doctrine for the caliphate, apart from its duty to impose sharia and defend the faith and the faithful.
Following the Quraysh dynasties of the Umayyads and Abbasids, such doctrinal elasticity was applied to the Quraysh rule by the Ottomans. The latter were determined to claim the title of caliph whenever it suited them to do so, particularly as their power waned and they had to search for new sources of legitimacy. The Ottoman case for the caliphate was made as early as the sixteenth century. Upon being challenged by the ashraf (descendants of Mohammed), Ali Lutfi Pasha (d. 1562) wrote a treatise arguing that the sultan who promotes Islam in the “important” heartlands of the religion, such as the Middle East, must be considered the imam in his territories, irrespective of his pedigree. In Lutfi Pasha’s view, stressing the uniqueness of Quraysh as the ruling class sounded suspiciously like a Shia argument. This had treacherous overtones, as it came at a time when the Ottomans had recently defeated a rising Shia power in Iran,.
As their power diminished, the Ottomans found other loopholes in the rule specifying a caliph of Quraysh ancestry. One story relates that upon seizing Cairo in 1517, Sultan Selim was invested with the title of caliph by the last of the Abbasids, Mohammed XI al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah, who was the seventeenth in line of the Abbasid figurehead caliphs residing in Cairo. Fanciful as this story may be, it was widely accepted. Yet another approach was taken by Pirizade Mehmed Sahib (d. 1749), who argued that the Quraysh stipulation was superseded by another alleged saying of Mohammed: “After me the caliphate will endure for thirty years, thereafter will come the rule of kings.” In other words, the Quraysh rule was applicable only for thirty years, spanning the era of the Four Righteous Caliphs and the six months of al-Hassan bin Ali’s rule. Later Ottoman writers resorted to questioning the authenticity of the hadiths that specified Quraysh pedigree for the ruler.
The Ottomans’ stake in the title was heightened significantly during the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774, when the dynasty had to contend with the loss of Muslim Crimea to Orthodox Christian Russia. The Ottomans were also worried that dissident factions in Istanbul might champion the Crimean khans as nobler substitutes for the house of Osman. Adopting the title of caliph, the Ottoman rulers reasoned, would add luster to an otherwise faded regime—and provide immunity from charges of sedition by virtue of the caliphs’ “divine appointment”.
Yet try as they might to strengthen and legitimize their rule by propping up their caliphal credentials, the Ottomans were doctrinally vulnerable on the Quraysh issue, which was ceaselessly exploited by their enemies and rivals. British detractors of the Ottomans highlighted the Quraysh ancestry of the sharifs of Mecca or Emir Abdulqadir of Algeria, then in exile in Damascus, and suggested them as suitable successors should the dynasty in Istanbul collapse. Ismail Pasha of Egypt, deposed as khedive by order of the Ottoman sultan, funded dissident publications in Europe that exposed his enemy as a non-Qurayshite usurper of the caliphate. Arab dissidents such as Abdel Rahman al-Kawakibi and Sharif Hussein used the requirement of Quraysh ancestry as an argument both to undermine the Ottomans and to win back the caliphate for an Arab.
Quraysh ancestry was not as significant an issue among India’s Muslims, who were looking for an independent Muslim world power amenable to their position on the subcontinent, though some of them went so far as to concoct a genealogical tree linking the Ottomans to Quraysh. Such loyalty to the Ottomans survived the latter’s collapse after World War I, when an influential group of early Indian enthusiasts for the caliphate denounced Sharif Hussein as a traitor. Indian Muslims continued, in Friday sermons, to invoke the name of a deposed Ottoman caliph, and issued a fatwa waiving the Quraysh rule.
The non-Arab royal family of Egypt, which had its roots in the Balkans, sought to deal with the Quraysh stipulation by sidestepping it. The earliest contemporary argument made against the Quraysh stipulation by an Egyptian came from Mohammed Mustafa al-Maraghi (d. 1945); it is unclear whether he was acting at anyone’s behest, but he later aligned himself with the Egyptian royals. Al-Maraghi’s interpretation was that at the time of early Islam, the Arab tribes would unite only under the banner of Quraysh, but since Islam’s expansion and incorporation of non-Arabs, the requirement of Quraysh leadership had lapsed. Acting as King Fuad’s troubleshooter at the 1926 congress in Cairo, al-Zawahiri also attempted to question the Qurayshi requirement by referring to Ibn Khaldun’s citation of eleventh-century Islamic scholar Ibn Baqillany in Ibn Khaldun’s own argument against the necessity of Qurayshite pedigree. However, al-Zawahiri grudgingly acknowledged that the majority of scholars mandated Quraysh ancestry.
The royal quest for the caliphate continued under Fuad’s son Faruq, who had been mentored by and was closely associated with al-Maraghi. During the last year of his reign (1952), and only a few years after al-Maraghi’s death, Faruq saw fit to appoint a committee tasked with identifying a family connection that would link him back to Quraysh.
Surely the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq were aware of all the historical deliberations on the Quraysh rule. Thus their emphasis on al-Baghdadi’s ancestry was intended to make clear that he was indeed their caliph. Such was their enthusiasm that they put pedigree ahead of identity, opting to tell the umma that their leader was a descendant of Quraysh, from the Hashemite line through al Hussein—but they did not reveal his name or his other qualifications for the job. The author of the Elam al-Anam defends the decision to keep the leader’s identity anonymous, claiming that it is sufficient for the ahl ul hel wel aqd to know the candidate’s identity and qualifications without having to reveal such details to the wider public. This ruling was especially pertinent given the precarious security situation of the jihadists in Iraq.
The Caliph’s Authority under the Last Ottoman Sultans
Apart from the recent attempt to reintroduce the caliphate in Baghdad, the office of caliph itself underwent its last major historical reinterpretation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the reign of Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II. The sultan used the caliphate’s religious aspect to fortify his grip over his Muslim subjects, and to manipulate a common European misconception that the caliphate was an approximation of the Roman Catholic papacy. By claiming to have spiritual authority over the Muslims living under European rule, Abdul Hamid was able to blackmail European powers, such as Britain and Russia, and win over others, such as Germany, with the notion that a call to jihad from him would send millions of Muslims worldwide rallying to his cause. This misconception was historically rooted, and it was mirrored on the Ottoman side with an earlier misunderstanding of the role of the papacy. Abdul Hamid well knew the limits of his spiritual authority, but it was convenient for him to play to European misconceptions. That they were misconceptions was demonstrated during World War I, when Abdul Hamid’s successor, prodded by the Germans, announced a jihad against the Allies with much fanfare but little effect.
Abdul Hamid employed the religious facets of the caliphate in facing very different internal realities within his empire. The loss of the Balkan and Caucasian territories, coupled with the inflow of refugees, had put Muslims in the absolute majority in the Ottoman Empire. Within these numbers, the Arabic-speaking inhabitants of the Levant gained preponderant importance. Their loyalty to the Ottoman sultan was critical in facing off the strategic threat posed by further British-influenced encroachment from the direction of Egypt.
Meanwhile, the Levant’s economic resurgence was a primary concern for keeping the empire’s finances in order. Abdul Hamid surrounded himself with Arab advisors, many of them Sufi scholars, who told him that religiously-mandated obedience to the caliph would be to his benefit. They convinced him that his role as spiritual leader would sufficiently inoculate Syrian Muslims against the ethnic and linguistic nationalism that was eating away at the sultan’s European domains. For some Syrian Sufis, obeying the caliph was not enough of a religious duty: an apologist for Abdel Hamid made the case, using Sufi sources, that Muslims were obligated to glorify the imam, since he is a manifestation of God’s rule.
Abdul Hamid was ultimately successful is using religion to solidify his domestic clout. But his notion of a duality in the nature of the caliphate—temporal and religious—later enabled his political enemies to strip him and his successors of effective authority. This left the caliph with an undefined spiritual role within the state’s hierarchy. Abdul Hamid was deposed, and his successor served merely as a rubber stamp for the new regime led by the Committee of Union and Progress. A similar role was played by the last Ottoman sultan, Wahid ud Din, but in the service of the victorious Allies subsequent to Istanbul’s occupation after WWI. In April 1920, he arranged for a fatwa to be issued declaring the actions of the Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) in Ankara contrary to Islam. Thus began the process by which the Turkish National Assembly decided to annul the sultanate as a redundant vestige of the Ottoman past.
In November 1922, the Kemalists abolished the sultanate, retroactively dating their law to March 1920, thus rendering Wahid ud Din’s earlier fatwa invalid. A counter-fatwa was issued to the effect that Wahid ud Din had forfeited the office of caliph by fleeing the country. Then the Turkish National Assembly did something very curious: it nominated and elected the sultan’s cousin, Abdul Mejid II, as caliph. Not only did the Turkish National Assembly appropriate for itself the role of ahl ul hel wel aqd, but its election of a caliph seems to have been the first since the fourth Righteous Caliph’s death in 661 AD.
A study on the nature of the caliphate was commissioned to justify the Turkish National Assembly’s actions and was published under the title Hilafet ve Hakimiyet i Milliye (The Caliphate and National Sovereignty) subsequent to the abolition of the sultanate. It was supervised by Seyyid Bey (d. 1925), a parliamentarian with a background in Islamic learning. The study argued that the caliphate was a legal rather than a theological seat of power. It was not critically important to the integrity of the Islamic faith, since by the time of his death Mohammed had concluded his mission of delivering the new faith while leaving the matter of succession unresolved. Hence, the temporal issues relating to the management of the new Islamic state were left to the discretion of his successors. These successors, especially during the period of the “real caliphate”, when the early caliphs were elected to office, had ensured that it was the caliph’s duty to secure the happiness of the Muslims—a goal that could be met through other forms of government. The ahl ul hel wel aqd retained the power of attorney, on behalf of the people, to invest a candidate with the title of caliph.
Later, when arguing for the abolition of the caliphate itself in early March 1924, Seyyid Bey gave a seven-hour speech in which he noted that there was no ruling in the Quran or the hadith, nor any consensus among Muslim scholars, that explicitly prohibited a body of individuals, such as a modern parliament, from acting as a corollary to ahl ul hel wel aqd and omitting the election of a caliph in order to govern Muslims. A return to the “real caliphate” would be impossible, Seyyid Bey argued, since the noble qualities that were exhibited by the early Muslims were lacking in the contemporary umma. Other parliamentarians used a parallel argument for annulling the caliphate, citing the hadith that limited the “real caliphate” to thirty years; they added that the rationale behind the hadith was that a single ruling caliph could not possibly rule over an enormous and expanding Muslim territory.
After he sent the last caliph packing, Ataturk tried to offset Muslim indignation by offering the “spiritual caliphate” to Ahmad al Sharif al-Sanussi (d. 1933), a Libyan Sufi leader of Qurayshi descent, whose call for jihad had stimulated the Tripolitarians to fight against the Italians in 1911. The offer to become a “Muslim pope” residing in a place other than Turkey was made twice, in 1924 and in 1925, but was turned down.
The prospect of an exiled Ottoman caliph was problematic for King Fuad’s aspirations for the title. This predicament, however, was neatly resolved by pliable Azhar shaykhs, who ruled that Abdul Mejid II’s title was not legitimate, and allegiance to his person was not binding since he had accepted the un-Islamic terms that were laid out for him by the Turkish government when he took the office. But the liberal opposition to Fuad quickly took up the points made by Seyyid Bey’s study, and repackaged them as a book by Egyptian shaykh Ali Abdel Razik in 1925. Abdel Razik further elaborated on these points by arguing that Islam had a role in theology, ethics, and ritual but not in government.
Also in Cairo, Rashid Ridha vacillated on the nature of the caliphate. He seems to have concluded at one point that, since a temporal office could not be realized at a time of Muslim weakness, a “spiritual caliphate”—albeit with its political independence guaranteed—was better than no caliph at all. Another approach was taken by Abdel Razzak al-Sanhouri (d. 1971), then an Egyptian student in France. He wrote a doctoral thesis in 1926 that was posthumously published in 1988—with major parts excised—under the title Fiqh al-Khilafeh (The Jurisprudence of the Caliphate). Al-Sanhouri went on to become a renowned jurist in the Middle East, and his book has been enthusiastically championed by moderate Islamists seeking to resurrect the caliphate. In his thesis, al-Sanhouri set out to refute Abdel Razik by arguing that instead of adopting a fully secular form of government, Muslims can update early Islamic modess of governance, including the office of the caliph. Among other notions, al-Sanhouri fancifully envisioned joint Muslim and non-Muslim committees that would make dhimma rules conform to modern interpretations of citizenship, and imagined that Islamic unity could be achieved through the formation of a commonwealth of sovereign Muslim states.
The Duties of the Caliph According to the Jihadists
Arguments over the caliphate’s religious and political dimensions continue to this day. For their part, the jihadists certainly do not acknowledge a spiritual aspect of the caliphate that can be separated from its temporal authority. Their concept involves a muscular defense of Islam in all fields, to be supervised by an active caliph. Neither ad-Dumaiji nor the author of Elam al-Anam considers the possibility that the caliphate should have jurisdiction over significant Muslim populations in formerly Islamic realms that are currently governed by non-Muslims. Such was the situation of Abdul Hamid II with regards to Russia and India. However, it seems that the jihadists view such concessions as temporary setbacks along the road to restored sovereignty over all of Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam).
Ad-Dumaiji summarizes the caliph’s duties: He is to preserve the faith by proselytizing for Islam through “pen, [spoken] word or sword,” and by safeguarding the faith from erroneous misinterpretations. He is to protect the territorial integrity of the land of Islam by fortifying the borderlands so as to safeguard the lives, wealth, faith, and honor of Muslims. Furthermore, he is to enact sharia, collect taxes and other forms of payment owed to the treasury by Muslims and non-Muslims, divide and distribute these funds, equip armies, and appoint able deputies and judges. The caliph must maintain unity and justice, and develop the realms and increase their productivity. The caliph is not mandated to take shura (consultation) but would benefit from it; and excepting the case of a ruling by the religious scholars, he is not obligated to follow anyone’s advice. If the caliph performs these duties well, then he is owed obedience by Muslims—for life. According to ad-Dumaiji, the caliphate is not an end in itself, but a means to promote the religion of Islam.
For the author of Elam al-Anam, the jihadists had succeeded in fulfilling these duties even before declaring the Islamic State of Iraq. He writes: “Iraq has been transformed ... into one of the most monotheistic countries on the face of the earth ... no shrines are visited ... no magicians are [consulted]”, and sharia has been returned to its divinely mandated place, to be “hegemonic over actions and persons and institutions and customs.” Moreover, the jihadists were settling tribal disputes, appointing judges, helping fellow mujahidin break out of prisons, meting out punishments, pushing back invaders, collecting alms and taxes, appointing suitable administrators, and taking care of the families of martyrs and soldiers. Yet if Islam was being promoted by the jihadists even before their declaration of the Islamic State, one wonders about their motivation for forging ahead with the caliphate venture anyway. In a sense, the jihadists in Iraq had turned things around: the empowerment of Islam was the means to the state. The decades-long quest for the caliphate had turned the idea of the state, rather than its function, into something of a jihadist fetish, a longing that the jihadists were overeager to gratify.
Elam al-Anam’s author concludes that it is precisely because the jihadists were successful in fulfilling these duties that the West marshaled its military might in a bid to stop them:
Without question, the new Islamic State will be fought [since] the Crusader [planner] declared his goals as not allowing any upcoming caliphate to arise.... But God is overpowering, for he had enabled his [followers], the mujahidin, [to win] and they smothered the Crusade’s plans in the dust, and they declared their new project; this newborn state has knocked on the door, and has arisen from lethargy, and it is faced with a long journey that is not easy to bear, and it is the new gate of hope for the umma, and its forthcoming glory, and its brandished sword upon the necks of [the umma’s] enemies.
Oh cavalry of Allah mount [your steeds], and oh Muslims come all of you to defend and protect your religion, and know this that Islam cannot be made to be apparent or victorious unless [Islam’s] state is erected, and its might is made apparent and it confronts and clashes with [wrongness] on the field of battle, for all who think that Islam can be made apparent with a tape or a book or [by] proselytizing or [through] parliaments or election ballots, are ignorant of how this religion arose [at the beginning]; this religion arose on the skulls and corpses of the [first Muslims] and their sons.
Following this logic, Islam can be defended only by an Islamic state, and such a state can come about only through jihad. The author of Elam al-Anam has put the Muslim world on notice that the Islamic state has arisen anew in Iraq, and that is incumbent on Muslims to support it.
Al-Baghdadi’s View of His Role as the Head of the Islamic State of Iraq
Al-Baghdadi cast himself in the role of the defender of the faith in facing down internal and external threats to Islam. He began his first speech, which was released on December 22, 2006, by explaining that he was no more than “a soldier among the laypeople; fighting those who turned against Allah,” and by asserting that he was “never the emir of any of those [jihadist] groupings, but the people reached a consensus upon [me] and refused to let [me] go.” Al-Baghdadi relishes presenting himself as the reluctant ruler who had “repeatedly refused to take [upon myself] this matter, that is, the Emirate of the Muslims,” but was nonetheless called upon by destiny to lead. He explains that he was resolved to take decisions only after consulting the other mujahidin leaders; that he had formed a Majlis Shura Muwwesaa (Expanded Consultative Council) that included three members from each jihadist group supporting the Islamic State “regardless of the number of its soldiers and the volume of its operations”; and that a representative from each of the major tribes had also been included, together with religious scholars and notables. The Expanded Consultative Council was complemented by a Majlis Shura Mudhayeq (Narrower Consultative Council) that comprised five individuals who would take speedy executive decisions when required.
In a later speech, al-Baghdadi extols the virtues of the Islamic State of Iraq where sharia was being actively administered:
Iraq [is] today one of the greatest nations on the face of the earth in maintaining monotheism, for there is no polytheistic Sufism being propagated, or shrines being visited, or innovated festivals being celebrated, or candles being lit or a pilgrimage being made to a pagan totem, for the people of Iraq have destroyed these shrines with their own hands so that Allah will be worshiped alone....
Go and delve into the country, so that you will see that [there are no longer] places that encourage sordidness or corruption, and no [unveiled women] present to infatuate the young, and to tempt the old, or to be devoured by wolves.... Search and you will not find a dance party that angers Allah in His heavens.
The enforcement of such morality, it seems, has been brought about by some of al-Baghdadi’s measures, such as banning satellite dishes and ordering women to cover their faces when in public.
Alms are being collected, al-Baghdadi claims, even from “the herdsmen of the desert who willingly give what is owed to the mujahidin.” He also adds, “the Iraqi jihad has restored vitality to [other] jihadist locations that had fizzled out”, and that the time of the Islamic State has come; the jihadists did not “seek to pick the fruit before it ripened, but that they had simply caught the fruit, midair, as it fell off the tree.” They thus prevented the jihad in Iraq from suffering the same fate which befell the jihadists in Bosnia and Afghanistan, who did not have a clear plan for what came after the phase of waging jihad.
Referring to Iraqi Sunnis who have refused to offer their allegiance to him, al-Baghdadi accuses mujahidin holdouts among them of “recalcitrance”. Other Sunni Islamists, such as the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood–oriented Islamic Party, who have participated in the political process, are castigated as “apostates”, together with lay Sunnis who join the government’s security or administrative services. Yet the charges of “apostasy” and “heresy” for laypersons are to be applied in a case-by-case basis pending a trial. Al-Baghdadi’s bickering with fellow Sunnis and his wrath over their lack of enthusiasm for his Islamic State is a running theme throughout all his pronouncements. At times he offers dissenters amnesty and a negotiated settlement , but more often he threatens them with annihilation.
In a telling departure from ritual, al-Baghdadi agrees with his soldiers that the price of sheep is too high to offer as alms during the ritual slaughter of Eid. Instead, he suggests the alternative of a human sacrifice: the jihadists can slaughter Sunni “renegades” who had joined the American-backed tribal Awakening Councils. Although it is favorable to offer the sacrifice before the advent of the lunar month of Muharram, he declares, one Islamic school of jurisprudence allows delaying the sacrifice until such a time as a Muslim is able to. Thus, taking the head of a renegade can be deferred.
Al-Baghdadi also approaches the subject of non-Muslim Iraqis in a most unusual way—he assigns to himself the right to renegotiate the Covenant of Umar with Christians. Inasmuch as the jihadists believe that such a pact between the second caliph and the Christians of the Holy Land was a historical occurrence, al-Baghdadi’s nullification is a significant transgression against what ad-Dumaiji calls the sunna of the Righteous Caliphs, to which Mohammed had instructed the faithful to adhere. Al-Baghdadi claims that the non-Muslim minorities’ support of the “invaders” warrants a drastic break with accepted orthodoxy, and that non-Muslims must renegotiate their status with the Islamic State if they seek to enjoy those past protections:
We find that the sects of the people of the book and others from the Sabians ... in the State of Islam today are people of war who qualify for no protection, for they have transgressed against whatever they agreed to in ... countless ways, and if they want peace and security then they must start a new era with the State of Islam according to [the Second Righteous Caliph] Umar's stipulations that they have annulled.
Al-Baghdadi blames the Arab Christians of the Levant for introducing the ideas of ethnic and linguistic nationalism in order to break Muslim bonds and to replace Islam with Arab nationalism. According to al-Baghdadi, “this was their opportunity to destroy the Ottoman caliphate.” He also takes credit for the gruesome attacks on the Yezidi minority of Iraq which resulted in hundreds of deaths; al-Baghdadi brands them as “devil-worshippers” and accuses them of preventing their own people from converting to Islam.
Whereas Abdul Hamid II hinted at declaring jihad against foreign powers but never did so, al-Baghdadi fervently and repeatedly declares jihad, even in retaliation for minor offenses. Given the immediacy of the American threat to the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Baghdadi devotes a portion of his inaugural speech to the terms of surrender he was offering to President George W. Bush:
We order you to withdraw your forces immediately. But the withdrawal must be via troop transport trucks and passenger planes whereby each soldier is allowed to carry his own weapon only. They may not withdraw any of the heavy military equipment and the military bases must be handed over to the mujahidin of the Islamic State and the duration of the withdrawal may not exceed a month.
Al-Baghdadi goes on to warn Bush not to waste this opportunity of safe passage for his troops, as he did when he declined a ceasefire offered by the “shaykh of the mujahidin” Osama bin Laden. Al-Baghdadi assumes that the Americans are so demoralized by the war that they will jump at his offer. In another instance, he asserts that the jihadists have killed “more than 75,000 [American] soldiers” with “many multitudes more” wounded and disabled.
As for the regional threats facing Islam, al-Baghdadi singles out Iran’s alleged Shia expansionism across the Middle East—one of al-Zarqawi’s chief concerns —as well as the supposed menace posed by Israel. In July 2007, al-Baghdadi threatens war against Iran if it does not stop interfering in Iraqi affairs, and sets a deadline of two months for the Iranian leadership to untangle itself from Iraq. He calls upon the Sunnis of Iran to prepare for war, and warns Sunni businessmen in the Arab world and the Persian Gulf to sever all business partnerships with Shia merchants; he uses the derogatory word “rafidha” to refer to the Shia, and uses “majus” when discussing the Iranians. He also declares that all mercantile dealings between Iraq and Iran are to be suspended.
Al-Baghdadi promises the Palestinians that for now they will be resettled in the towns and villages of Iraq that have been cleansed of Shias, but that eventually the Islamic State of Iraq will destroy Israel and liberate Palestine. He chooses the twelfth-century Zengid sultanate as the historical precedent upon which the Islamic State of Iraq will be modeled in this cause, and mentions the more timely possibility of providing training and aid for Palestinian jihadists:
As the state of Noureddin the Martyr was the cornerstone for the return of al-Aqsa [Mosque] back into the [fold] of the umma ... we ask of Allah and hope that the [Islamic State of Iraq] will be the cornerstone for the return of Jerusalem. The Jews and the Americans have realized that, and they have tried to thwart us by any means from [advancing towards] this goal, and the vicious campaign in Anbar [Province] and the excessive pride in [how it calmed down], is [due] to their knowledge that it is easy to fire medium-range missiles against Israel from some parts of [Anbar] as was done by Saddam....
But we are prepared to support you with all that we have of funds, even though it is little, and we are prepared to train your cadres, starting from [the manufacture of Improvised Explosive Devises] and ending with manufacturing missiles.
Al-Baghdadi’s understanding of geostrategic balances is muddled and delusional, for at one point he sees common ground between the Islamic State of Iraq and the ambitions of the French, Russians, and Chinese in supplanting the United States. He even addresses the Communist leadership of North Korea, demanding some credit for allowing its nuclear program to go through because America was being distracted by Iraq and the actions of the jihadists there. Al-Baghdadi also seems to view Belgium as a world power to be reckoned with.
Yet al-Baghdadi’s oddest foreign policy pronouncement to date would have to be his declaration of war on Sweden’s economy during September 2007, in retaliation for a cartoon depicting Mohammed as a dog. He seems to be seizing on a new opportunity for Muslim indignation not unlike that which was triggered by the Danish cartoons lampooning Mohammed two years earlier:
Every sniveling scoundrel is daring to insult us, from the worshippers of the cross [Christians] to the worshippers of the devil [Yezidis], even the worshippers of the cow [Hindus], and our honor and our blood have become the cheapest thing in this world, and when we strive to arise from our slumber to retrieve our glory and the dignity of our ancestors, these [renegades] stabs us in the back....
No, oh worshippers of money, no oh worshippers of the cross, we are a nation that Allah [had chosen] to glorify with Islam, and you will know oh worshippers of the cross how it will feel to kneel down in humiliation, and officially apologize for your crime against our Prophet.... And we know how we can force you to retract and apologize, for if you don’t, then await the attacks on the economies of your giant corporations such as Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, Ikea, and Electrolux....
Furthermore, al-Baghdadi announces a $100,000 bounty for killing Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist, and an extra $50,000 if Vilks’ neck is slit like a lamb’s. Al-Baghdadi also sets aside another $50,000 for the head of the editor of Nerikes Allehanda, the paper that ran the cartoon.
Al-Baghdadi foretells the imminent collapse of the West’s decadent civilization. He wonders why it is that precisely now—a time when Islam, as represented by the Islamic State of Iraq which he heads, is poised to reap the fruits of this massive victory—that the Sunni “renegades” remain obstinate in refusing to pledge allegiance to him and continue to actively resist his authority:
Today, we are embarking on a new era, and a point of transformation for the region and the entire world; we are witnessing the end of that lie called Western civilization, and the rise of the Islamic giant, and this is exactly what Bush warned of in his latest speech in front of the veterans [August 22, 2007] saying: “the region is developing in a way that threatens the downfall of civilization” and by that he means the civilization of unbelief, the civilization of usury and prostitution, the civilization of oppression and humiliation. And he had this to say about the soldiers of the Islamic State of [Iraq]: “they seek to restore the caliphate from Spain to Indonesia” after [the Americans] made clear that [the soldiers of the Islamic State] are only Sunni danger threatening America and its civilization, and this is the truth as testified to by the enemies; doesn’t this conflict with what the renegades have branded us?
What he does not explain is this: if President Bush himself is aware of the grand ramifications of the Islamic State of Iraq and its implications for a resurrected and belligerent Islamic empire, then why have Iraq’s Sunnis failed to recognize the import of this lofty jihadist venture? Why, instead, have they turned against it?
Implications for Counterterrorism
In a “Message to the Umma” released on May 19, 2008, addressing the sixtieth anniversary of the state of Israel, Osama bin Laden lamented that “the Ottoman state, despite its immense flaws, had protected the umma from the wolves of the crusading West”, and that as a result “Britain conspired with Arab leaders at the forefront of whom were Sharif Hussein and his sons, and King Abdel Aziz [Ibn] Saud, who colluded with [Britain] to fight and topple the Ottoman state.” Thus for bin Laden, even a flawed caliphate is necessary to forestall the external and internal threats posed to Islam.
The al-Ekhlaas internet forum, one of the most important jihadist propaganda outlets, displays on all its main pages a continuously running ticker marking the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq. On June 6, 2008, this ticker read: “600 days have passed since the declaration of the State of Islam, the imminent hope of the umma ... and it shall remain by the grace of Allah.” Clearly, while bin Laden grieves over the end of the caliphate decades ago, the jihadists and their sympathizers on al-Ekhlaas have high hopes for the new caliphal state embarked upon in Iraq. Another fixture on al-Ekhlaas’s main discussion forum highlights a thread that invites its patrons to pledge allegiance to “the Caliph of the Muslims, the Commander of the Faithful, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi.” At last count, some twelve hundred individuals had done so. There could be hundreds more jihadists in Iraq who still observe their pledge to al-Baghdadi, and possibly thousands of others dispersed around the Middle East.
Yet the Islamic State of Iraq is faltering, according to statements made recently by some of America’s top military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials. The Sunni Awakening Councils and “Sons of Iraq” militias, which had cast their lot with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq, have been given much credit by media and regional analysts for bringing about this auspicious result. The recognition of these groups has not taken into consideration, however, the role of doctrinal dissonance which, as a direct result of the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, set one jihadist group against another. It was the spectacle of jihadists turning on jihadists, and the ensuing distraction and discord, that initially opened space for tribal leaders, as well as a few insurgent groups—exhausted and depleted by years of fighting—to begin rallying fellow Sunnis against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Four months into the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, an unknown but seemingly authentic Iraqi jihadist leader, calling himself Jihad al-Ansari, published an extraordinary open letter (dated February 26, 2007) that was addressed to al-Baghdadi. In it al-Ansari references an unanswered earlier letter, dated December 4, 2006, that had sought some clarifications from al-Baghdadi regarding the timing and purpose of the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Ansari now claims that “matters have deteriorated in this period” and have “damaged the jihadist corps and greatly tarnished the reputation of the jihad and the mujahidin.”
Al-Ansari decries the zeal of al-Baghdadi’s soldiers in seeking support for the new regime:
The worst that has come about because of your solitary step was the commencement of many of your groups and members of your organization, so as to show your authority over Muslims in Iraq, to attack and insult all people, and to agitate against those who refuse to pledge allegiance to you.... And in this most recent period, this pattern has been increasing, and many of your groups are capitalizing on the delicate situation, to peddle the idea of the State according to its beliefs, and to do so by attacking the people, and to harass every citizen, whether he was innocent or not.... Do you want to drive your organization towards collapse and dissolution, because of the sins of these sinners...?
Is it reasonable for you to squander the fighting effort towards assassinating and killing the mujahidin who refuse to pledge allegiance to you, or those from the general body of the Muslims, at these trying times, when the efforts of the infidels are coalescing against the Muslims in Iraq? A few days ago, one of the shaykhs of the mosques of Baghdad said to me: “We have started to fear the fighters of al-Qaeda more than we fear the Mahdi Army gang.” ... Since when has the threat of murder been the correct manner by which to extract a pledge of allegiance?!
Do you think that through this manner we will hurry to pledge allegiance? Don’t you know [as an Iraqi], that the Iraqi will give you [the shirt off his back] if you speak to his pride, but if you begin to threaten him, he will strive to avenge his dignity, not fearing death.
Al-Ansari goes on to declare that he will be “the first to publicly refuse to pledge allegiance”, but adds that the “al-Qaeda organization would be honored and respected if it [adopted] justice and wisdom and fighting the infidel occupier and their Safavid agents as its guidance” and stopped trying to force people to succumb to its authority—in other words, if it dropped the venture of the Islamic State of Iraq.
Violent operations by the Islamic State of Iraq have fallen ninety-four percent over the last year, according to a study prepared by a jihadist sympathizer on al-Ekhlaas that cites the Islamic State of Iraq’s own numbers. Just a year and half ago, al-Baghdadi’s organization credited itself with sixty percent of all violent attacks in Iraq, including the majority of the spectacular ones. But nowadays most of the Islamic State of Iraq’s vengeance is directed against recalcitrant “renegades” who broke rank on doctrine.
While the resurrection of a robust and sovereign caliphate has been an oft-stated jihadist goal, jihadists and their detractors have long understood that such a goal, in its initial stages, would reveal the soft and doctrinally-vulnerable underbelly of their militant ideology. In their overconfidence, in their zeal to force the hand of history by embarking on the venture of the Islamic State of Iraq as the embryonic caliphate, al-Zarqawi’s successors afforded their critics a golden opportunity to question the viability of their vision for the future—a vision in whose service they were willing to wreak havoc and destruction.
The American public was uncurious as to the identity, nature, and goals of its enemy in Iraq. And, unfortunately, U.S. leaders and commanders were mostly complicit in such willful unawareness. The lack of interest on the part of the public was partly due to bitter partisan recriminations over the Bush administration’s policy in waging the Iraq war, and over who in Washington was to blame for the insurgency that ensued. Consequently, the doctrines of the Bush administration regarding preemptive strikes and democracy in the Middle East came under incessant scrutiny from the administration’s domestic political foes. Meanwhile, the doctrines of the jihadists were overlooked or, in the few cases where they were considered, dismissed as esoteric. Fantastical as they may be, these doctrines do indeed motivate and inform the enemy’s actions and strategy, and their significance was not recognized.
As a result, the Islamic State of Iraq was played down by American officials, analysts, and journalists as an “al-Qaeda in Iraq affiliate” rather than its successor. Meanwhile, al-Baghdadi was trivialized as a “fictional character”—even though this assertion could have originated with jihadist disinformation. Would al-Qaeda in Iraq invite upon itself such an ideological backlash from fellow jihadist groups by announcing al-Baghdadi’s pedigree simply in a conventional bid to confuse coalition intelligence services about the make-up of its top leadership? It seems like a steep and wholly unnecessary price to pay for a security ruse, given that it incurred the wrath of so many fellow travelers in the cause of jihad, and exposed the State of Iraq’s organizers to questioning and criticism of their ventures’ implications.
Regardless of whether the Iraq War was justified or not, one post-invasion reality cannot be disputed: al-Zarqawi and his fellow jihadists chose to turn Iraq into a new battleground against the United States and its allies. Al-Zarqawi was not a member of al-Qaeda when he began his terrorist operations. In the course of garnering support and succor for the jihad in Iraq, under the name of the Monotheism and Jihad Group, he was able to turn that achievement around to negotiate with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. His intention was to acquire the al-Qaeda franchise, principally for fund-raising and recruiting purposes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Yet he did so on his own terms, without conceding the doctrinal idiosyncrasies that had prevented him from officially joining the al-Qaeda movement in Afghanistan years earlier. Even so, the al-Qaeda affiliation was useful for al-Zarqawi only for a year or so, for he moved on to expand his organization and append it to the Iraq-based Shura Council of the Mujahidin on January 15, 2006.
It has been the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that al-Zarqawi (who was killed in June 2006) and his successors not only determined to turn Iraq into a battleground on their own initiative, but that they subsequently chose Iraq as the incubator for their grand vision of a unified Islamic empire under the aegis of a ruling caliph. They did so without instructions from or consultations with the traditional leaders of al-Qaeda hiding out in the Hindu Kush Mountains. Rather, they presented the jihadist world with a fait accompli: the Islamic State of Iraq. They thereby captured the imagination of a new generation of jihadists who were already enthralled by the alleged victories of the Zarqawists in Iraq.
At the time when they declared their state, the Zarqawists believed that they were winning, taking the gloomy forecasts of an American “quagmire” and “defeat” in Iraq, as peddled by the U.S. media, as a sign that they were about to turn a corner in the war. As far as they were concerned, there was no greater service to Islam than theirs; not even “Servitude of the Two Holy Shrines” of Mecca and Medina could compare with what the jihadists were achieving in Iraq, a distinction that ranked them as the elite and vanguard of a victorious Islamic regeneration. In their eyes, the merit of a successful jihad, waged against the world’s greatest power, earned them the authority and responsibility for resurrecting the caliphate, since they alone were the rightful ahl ul hel wel aqd of their time.
The jihadists were mindful of the disarray and confusion that had enfolded the Muslim world before and after the last Ottoman caliph was deposed—the temporal and spiritual duality under Abdul Hamid II, the ceremonial caliphate that the Turkish nationalists experimented with right before annulling the office outright, the dithering at the Cairo Caliphate Congress, and the embarrassment at Peshawar. They leaped across centuries of precedent to go back to Mohammed’s nascent state at Medina. Their “Commander of the Faithful” would be of Quraysh stock, not some ethnic Pashtun warlord. Their “state” would be the “real caliphate” once again, set to expand under Mohammed’s own banner from the very heart of the Dar al-Islam—ancient Baghdad and its environs. This venture was far more ambitious and daring than a marginal emirate within the remote folds of the Hindu Kush.
The Islamic State of Iraq was to be the shield and spear of Islam, facing down infidel foes from within and without. It would be the harbinger of glory and redemption, the “umma’s hope” for an avenger to its many humiliations. Should the jihadists meet some slight setbacks, “that too shall pass.” As al-Baghdadi said, explaining why the Islamic State of Iraq would persist: “We are certain that Allah will not break the hearts of the embattled monotheists and turn us into the object of ridicule by the oppressors.”
Yet the Islamic State in Iraq does not seem on the verge of a comeback. This is especially true since the Iraqi Sunnis that it claimed to be fighting for, and for whom its laurels would accrue in victory, apparently have irreversibly turned against it. Could it be, after all the bloodshed, treasure, and prayers that went into the Islamic State of Iraq, that Allah also turned His back on the jihadists?
The corollary to the military defeat now being experienced by the jihadists is the even more agonizing prospect of doctrinal collapse: the heralded caliphate is stillborn, and the glorious vision of a reinvigorated Islamic state has been smashed. The anguish and demoralization brought about by this byproduct of battlefield victory cannot be overstated. To smash the dreams of a man who lives for a cause, who endures cruel deserts and damp caves while awaiting martyrdom, is a fate far worse than death. In a battle of wills, young men are able to summon the necessary willpower to press a button and to detonate themselves among innocent bystanders. They do so for the cause of jihad, and for the deferred utopia of a resurrected and avenging Islamic world power. Nothing breaks the will of the individual jihadist more than to see his ideology begin to bear fruit, only to watch that fruit rot away right before his eyes. Such has been the impact of the Zarqawist Islamic State of Iraq—the caliphate-to-be, under the Commander of the Faithful Abu Umar al-Baghdadi the Qurayshite—and such the bitter aftertaste of its ruinous downfall.
This article appeared in Volume 7 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, published by Hudson Institute.
Keywords: Islam, Caliphate, Iraq, al-Baghdadi, Jihad
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