ISIS and “The Caliphate”

August 24, 2015 in General

In Prospect (September 2015), Jason Burke relates the origins of ISIS’ desire to restore the “Caliphate” of Muslim Middle Eastern hegemony. He begins by referring to a March 2015 broadcast by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a former stonemason who is the chief spokesman for Islamic State (IS). Ostensibly to welcome Nigeria’s Boko Haram into the fold, it was half an hour of vitriol aimed at “Zionists”, “Crusaders” and  ”Apostates” (Shia Muslims).   al-Adnani also made reference to Sunni figures from the collective past, whether specific figures, past events or details of theological observance:

“We will surely bring back Badr and Uhud… Mutah and Hunayn… Qadisiyyah and Yarmuk. We will surely bring back Yamamah, Hattin and Ayn Jalut. We will bring back Jalawla, Zallaqah and Balat ash-Shahada… I swear, I swear, Nahawand will return.”    

Burke clarifies that all of the references in al-Adnani’s call to action refer to historical battles. As one might guess from a profoundly conservative  armed paramilitary organisation like ISIS, it purveys a vision of Sunni Islam as advanced primarily through military prowess, as opposed to philosophical openness (ijtihad) , trade and peaceful co-existence with the dar al-Harb (non-Muslim world). In itself, this is a distortion of the historical Caliphate and betrayal of its high level of civilisation and science relative to the western world after the fall of Rome:

[...] The earliest—Badr, Uhud, Muta and Hunayn—took place during the last decade of the life of the Prophet Mohammed. The Battle of Yamama was fought in the Arabian Peninsula during the “Apostate Wars” which followed the death of the Prophet in 632. Yarmuk, a major battle between the Byzantine Empire and Muslim Arab forces, took place in 636. The battles of Jalula, Nahawand and Qadisiya were all roughly contemporaneous victories over the forces of the Sassanid Persian empire; Balat al-Shuhada refers to the Battle of Poitiers in 732 where the Frankish forces repulsed a strong Muslim raiding force. The battle of Sagrajas, known too as Zallaqa, was fought between a local Muslim dynasty’s army against Christian forces in present-day Andalusia in 1086. Hattin took place just over a century later and saw forces under Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known in the west as Saladin, destroy a Crusader army. [...]

He clarifies this, but doesn’t touch on a key aspect of ISIS’ schism with mainstream Islam- that medieval Islamic high culture spread through peaceful means such as diplomacy, trade and cultural exchange, as much as armed conflict. One suspects that Islamic scholars, theologians and philosophers from that era would be disgusted and repelled by the travesty of Islam professed by ISIS and its fellow travellers:

Around half of the historical references cited by al-Adnani in his statement in March occurred during the rules of the caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali from 632 until 661. In his book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, the Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary argues that the core religious allegory of Islam—analogous to exodus, bondage and the return to the promised land for the Jews, or the last supper, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ for Christians—is not limited to Mohammed’s life, but includes the reigns of these men too.

Quite why Islam spread as fast as it did is still debated. Some historians suggest it was the military superiority of the early Arab armies that was primarily responsible. The black flags under which contemporary extremists fight, and which they use as idents on their videos and fly above their offices in places like Raqqa, deliberately recall what are imagined to be the battle banners of the earliest Muslim forces. Those troops’ historic success may have been due to extremely capable battlefield leaders, the faith of the fighters, their ability to do without cumbersome supply trains, or flexible and innovative tactics. It may also have been because the faith emerged at a time when the two superpowers of the era—Byzantine Rome and the Persians—had exhausted themselves in centuries of conflict.

The conquests meant that Muslims’ collective memory has a different starting point from that of Jews or Christians. Mohammed did not merely outline a vision of a utopian community to be realised at an unspecified future date but actually built one during his lifetime. That community then transformed much of the known world, through diplomacy, trade, cultural exchange and war. While for Jews the collective memory of the earliest believers is exile, and for Christians persecution, for Sunni Muslims at least, it is one of the most successful military and political campaigns in history.

It didn’t last, but while it did last, it was an almost unparalleled feat. It also preserved much of classical Greek and Roman knowledge, passing it onto Western Europe when its social institutions and urban infrastructure had started to recover by the eleventh century CE- at which point Christian-Muslim interfaith relationships were complicated by the Crusades, although even then, the resultant Crusader Kingdom of Outremer co-existed alongside its Muslim neighbours for sustained periods, startling conservative Catholics from distant Europe:

The Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750, ruled from a series of cities including Baghdad, Raqqa and Samarra, and are credited with ushering in a golden age of Islamic civilisation. By the turn of the first millennium, the new empire had splintered into states run by competing dynasties, but brilliant cultural activity continued, and the various incursions of the Crusaders from the west were eventually repulsed and invasions from the east successfully resisted. Even the catastrophic sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 did not mean the era of the great Islamic rulers was over. Those who had destroyed the great city converted to Islam themselves. Within 200 years, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who went on to conquer much of the Balkans and threaten central Europe. Even as late as the 17th century, no European state, with the arguable exception of Catholic Spain, came close to rivalling the Ottoman empire’s territorial extent, military capability, scientific knowledge and artistic achievement. From Delhi, the Mughals, an Islamic dynasty descended from Mongol converts, dominated south Asia. Their wealth and power were fabulous. Between these two superpowers, the Safavids built their spectacular Shia state in Persia. The contrast with the poor, backward, bickering, strife-torn nations of Europe is striking.

What does the term “caliphate” actually mean? It’s complicated:

[After Mohammed's death], the elderly Abu Bakr was chosen to lead the Muslims after a debate among the close associates of the Prophet, he was designated the caliph, which simply means deputy. No formal decision on his powers was taken. The caliphate was thus, from the beginning, an ad hoc arrangement, not a specifically designed institution, and no consensus has ever been reached on exactly what role the caliph plays.

Due to this absence of fixed meaning, problems arose. Another problem was an habitual one within centralised authoritarian dynastic monarchies- all is well when one has a capable and efficient woman or man at the helm, but what happens when the successor lacks the prowess and aptitude of their distinguished predecessors? Such a fate befell the whole Muslim world and resulted in the inaugural Shia/Sunni schism, and then nationalist pressures drove the initial unified caliphate apart, into successor empires within Andalusia, Egypt and Turkey. At its height, it seemed as if the Ottoman Empire would conquer Austria and Hungary, but then that caliphate was beset by a succession of weak and incompetent rulers, leading to the steady loss of former imperial territories in Greece and the Balkans during the nineteenth century and culminating in the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War and the rise of secular nationalism throughout the Muslim postcolonial Middle East and Northern Africa:

[The absence of a consensual framework meant that] the office would become the subject of fierce competition and conflict. The split over the first succession became the division between the Shia and the Sunnis. Three of the first four caliphs also died violently at the hands of fellow believers. The Umayyad caliphate was, and remains, deeply controversial. Its replacement by the Abbasids led to the creation of a rival caliphate in Andalusia. Another arose in Egypt. This chaos and competition continued over the centuries. The title eventually ended up with the Ottoman sultans, from the 16th century to the 20th. But by then these various conflicts had undermined the credibility of the institution. As the modern era dawned, there was little left of the awesome grandeur that the title had once evoked. The link to the men who had built the Islamic empire had long been broken. When Kemal Atatürk, the modernising ruler of Turkey, effectively abolished the caliphate in 1924, there was uproar in many parts of the Islamic world but no effective resistance. Atatürk dispatched the last caliph into ignominious exile in France. The institution lapsed into redundancy, existing theoretically, but not physically. Undefined, incorporeal, the caliphate was ripe for reinventing.

[Even in the 1930s],  activists within the Islamic world had begun to see its restoration as the panacea to all its ills. One of the first to do so was Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. By the 1990s, a new wave of violent militants would also be calling for a restoration of the caliphate, among them Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s present leader. For them, as for their predecessors, the institution represented a return to the days when Islamic sovereigns were feared and respected by western rulers.

But bin Laden and al-Zawahiri saw such a restoration as a distant goal, unlikely to be realised in their own lifetimes. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, did not share this long-term vision and last year took the unilateral decision to re-establish the caliphate shortly after seizing the city of Mosul. He appointed himself at its head. Not long afterwards, al-Baghdadi, a former religious studies student and veteran militant, issued a message that summed up the world view not just of IS but of all Islamic extremists active today.

How would this be accomplished?

First and foremost, the caliphate would allow Muslims to heal the damage done by centuries of western dominance, through dismantling all the structures it had imposed. [...] Surveying the Islamic world, al-Baghdadi described sectarian clashes everywhere from Burma to the Central African Republic. He listed alleged atrocities, including repression of Muslims in western China, the ban on the hijab in France, “the destruction of Muslims’ homes in Palestine, prisons everywhere full of Muslims, the seizing of Muslims’ lands, the violation and desecration of Muslims’ sanctuaries and families” and the “propagation of adultery,” though quite where this final crime was occurring was left unclear. All this violence was attributed to the west and aggregated into a single global conflict between belief and unbelief, between the west and their proxies in the Islamic world and true Muslims. The solution was the caliphate.

This has proven attractive to rootless young men in the wartorn lands of much of the Middle East today.  The message is both apocalyptic and historical revisionist. Some ISIS followers are required to read the works of prior Sunni Muslim military geniuses such as Saladin as well as the Quran and prescribed interpretations of that sacred text. Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya and Egypt are mentioned in this context, but nowhere outside the traditional dar al Islam (classical Sunni Muslim world).  However, London, Paris and Washington DC are mentioned, but whether as the objects of conquest or a scorched earth policy of obliteration is uncertain. It may be mere hyperbole.  Burke argues that if ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi  is killed, his organisation may fragment. Unfortunately, at present, this may be little more than a wish fulfilment fantasy on the part of US and European strategists.

But what of the plight of LGBT refugees from ISIS? On UK Attitude‘s website,   refugees from territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) have recounted the horror of living under the extremist group’s regime to the United Nation Security Council. Subhi Nahas, who fled from Syria to Lebanon before moving to Turkey, appeared before the Council at a closed-door, informal meeting to describe how men suspected of being gay were tortured and executed in his home town of Idlib after the al Qaeda-linked group Nusra Front captured it. That came shortly before the rise of Islamic State itself, which brought with it the horrifying videos and images of men accused of homosexuality being thrown from buildings and stoned to death. Chile and the United States arranged the Security Council meeting.

Another man – an Iraqi identified only as ‘Adnan’ – recounted his story to the Security Council by telephone from an undisclosed location due to concerns for his safety. He told members that militants hunt down gay people through the mobile phone and Facebook contacts of other gay people they capture.  Adnan said Islamic State militants hunt down gay people through cell phone and Facebook contacts of people they capture.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said this was the first time the UN Security Council had ever discussed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.


Jason Burke: “The Truth About the Caliphate” Prospect (September 2015): 20.08.2015:

Will Stroude: “Gay men recount the horrors of life under ISIS” Attitude: 25.08.2015:


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