|The extent of the Umayyuad Caliphate at its peak circa 700 A.D.|
The word Caliphate is much in the news today thanks to the outfit variously called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, and ISIS, which has occupied swaths of Syrian and Iraqi desert and a handful of cities including Mosul and declared itself the new Caliphate of all Islam under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Caliph Ibrham. It is as brutal a bunch of thugs to be assembled anywhere in the world since the heyday of Pol Pot in Cambodia.
Driven by a peculiar reading of the Quran by a tiny sliver of Sunni Muslims, they take delight in beheading Western captives as well as local apostates and heretics, closing schools and burning books, and lately smashing statuary and irreplaceable cultural artifacts dating to the Babylonian and Persian Empires.
Despite their claim on the allegiance of all Muslims, no Islamic government has recognized them or their authority and none is about to. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims likewise reject them including all Shi’a and even the most reactionary Sunni sects. Yet a sophisticate social media and internet propaganda operation succeeds in capturing the imagination of some disaffected young Muslims from around the world who head to the occupied territory to join the Caliphate or who may, many fear, stay where they are in Europe, Africa, and North America to become terrorists.
Despite a limited actual threat in no time at all ISIL has become the latest panic obsession in the west leading President Barack Obama to call for authorization from Congress to make war against it and conservative, reactionaries, and wing nuts to denounce the President for not going far enough and calling for a broader war of annihilation using unlimited weaponry including nuclear arms, chemical, and biological agents. Some have openly called for a Western crusade, a red flag word in the Islamic world that can only tend to lend legitimacy to ISIL that it has not earned.
We can debate the questionable wisdom in either of those two paths. But the rise of ISIL raises many questions about just what the hell a Caliphate is, what happened to previous Caliphates, and who gets to legitimately proclaim one.
A Caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a Caliph—from the Arabic khalifa meaning a successor or steward of the Prophet Mohamed who exercises religious and political authority of the entire Islamic world. The authority for a Caliphate is traced to the Quran to a passage that called all of humanity as God’s khalifa on Earth and a second which identified King David as God’s personal khalifa who was reminded of his obligation to rule justly.
In practical terms it solved the problem of how to rule the de-facto empire left behind by the Prophet after his death in 632 AD. According to the custom of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula after his death a council of leaders or shura was convened to select a successor. By tradition the new leader generally, but not always came from the dead leader’s lineage. By this process Abu Bakar, Mohamed’s closest companion and father in law was selected Amir al-Mu’minin or Commander of All Believers. Sunni Muslims consider him the First Caliph and founder of the Caliphate. He was the first of the Four Rightly Guided Prophets according to the Sunni and was followed by Umar bin al-Khat’tab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. The first two of these were also Mohamed’s companions and sons in law. The third was his grandson and thus the only one to be a direct descendent. From the beginning there was turmoil and controversy over succession, however. This came to a head when Ali assumed authority. He was challenged in a civil war in which he was ultimately victorious, but was assassinated in 661. His followers, who believed that as a direct heir, he was the only one of the first four Caliphs with real authority, were disappointed by a candidate outside the linage, Mu’awiyah, the Governor of Damascus. At his accession the Rashidun Caliphate had expanded to become geographically the largest in the history of the world stretching from what is now Tunisia, across Libya and Egypt,
But the followers of Ali refused to accept the new Caliph. They became the Shi’a and proclaimed Ali the First Imam. There would be a succession of other, oft time competing Caliphates, some grand and expansive, others limited in geographical area. Unlike the First Four, the Caliphs of these successors would be drawn from lines of hereditary rulers, with or without claim to a connection to the Prophet.
The Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus ruled from 661 to 750 a still united but fractious Islamic world stretching from the Iberian Peninsula across North Africa and Egypt, from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula through the Levant to the southern Caucuses, and east to the edge of India. It was at the time the geographically largest empire in the history of the world and is the fifth largest now. But the restless Shi’a staged many rebellions.
|A Persian rendering of an Abbasids Calphate Court.|
In 750 the Umayyad were overthrown by another Arab dynasty with roots in Mecca, the Abbasid Caliphate who transferred the capital to Baghdad and ruled until 1517. Many consider this Caliphate the Golden Age of Islam during which art, music, and science, mathematics, and culture flourished and fellow People of the Book—minority Jews and Christians within the realm experienced relative protection and access to participation in civic affairs.
But the Abbasids came under pressure from Christian Crusaders from the West and in 1258 with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan. To defend the Caliphate leaders created a professional army personally loyal to the Caliph recruited not from the nomadic Arab tribes but from the fierce warriors of the Caucuses—Turkic Cumans, Circassians, and Georgians collectively known as the Marmaluks. The Marmaluks did successfully secure the Caliphate but rose to a power to rival the Caliph himself. They made their headquarters in Cairo and forced the Caliphs to surrender most of their temporal authority to them in what became known as the Abbasid Caliphate under the Mamaluk Sultanate of Cairo. Thus the Caliphate endured ruling a restive empire until 1517.
Meanwhile in the west, two other Caliphates emerged. The Fatimid Caliphate was an Isma’ili Shi’a caliphate that rose in Tunisia in 909 and spread across North Africa and into a strip of land including the Levant and western rim of the Arabian Peninsula. They built and made Cairo their capital. At war with the Abbasids, their Caliphate collapsed in 1171 when the Abbasids regained the upper hand.
The rise of the Fatimids isolated Muslims in Iberia who in 909 declared their continued devotion to the old Umayyad dynasty of Damascus. After creating a secular emirate the Caliphate of Cordoba was declared to repulse the invading Fatimids. After securing Iberia they ruled over a flourishing civilization. Never re-united with the rest of the Islamic world, the Cordobans broke up into local emirates and city states in 1051.
In 1147 the Berbers of the Atlas Mountain region of Morocco threw off an earlier local ruling dynasty and Abd al-Mu’min al-Gumi declared himself Caliph and made Marrakesh the capital of the Almohad Caliphate. Also known as the Moors, they spread into the void left by the Fatamids in Iberia, reasserting Sunni control. Christian princes of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal, united to make war on the Moors and Cordova and Seville fell to the Christians in 1236 and 1248 respectively. That left the Almohdad in charge of an ever shrinking empire consisting of scattered and separated strong points. The last of their Caliphs was assassinated in 1269 erasing them from the map.
1453 marked the beginning of the rise of the fourth major and last Caliphate when the Turkish Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople from the Christian Byzantines. Refusing to acknowledge the authority of the Mamaluk Caliph still sitting in Cairo, Mehmed asserted de facto control of the Caliphate. After defeating the Mamaluk Sultanate in 1517 Al-Mutawakkil III brought the Mamaluk Caliph to Constantinople where he surrendered the title of Caliph and its sacred emblems—the sword and mantle of Muhammad—to the Ottoman sultan. There after this the Ottoman Sultan and the Caliph were one in the same.
The Ottomans extended their territory and as protectors of Mecca and Medina grew in prestige in the Islamic world. Their empire extended over both Sunni and Shi’a areas, although many Shi’a only acknowledged the Sultan’s temporal, not religious, authority. In 1774 the Ottomans lost a broad swath of Muslim territory, including the Crimea to the expanding Russian Empire. In the concluding peace treaty Sultan Abdul Hahmid I successfully asserted his authority as Caliph as the spiritual leader and protector of Muslims under Russian control. In return the Tsar was given a similar role as protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman’s large Balkan holding.
It was this act that elevated the Ottoman claim to some sort of allegiance from Muslims far beyond their empire’s temporal borders.
By the late 19th and early 20th Centuries the Ottoman’s were losing their grip on their European possessions and were derisively dismissed as the Sick Man of Europe, but Abdul Hamid II in 1880 reasserted of protection as Caliph for Muslims coming under increasing pressure from Russia and for those under the thumb of the British Raj in India. That claim was eventually enthusiastically embraced by Indian Muslims and became the basis of an Islamic nationalist movement rising in tandem with the largely Hindu Congress. In the post-World War I era Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi even endorsed the claims hopping to unite Muslims and Hindus for independence. Before that could play out, fate intervened.
The Austrian Hapsburgs were a traditional enemy of the Ottomans who had lost much of their European territory to the expanding Austo-Hungarian Empire. But Russia was meddling in the Balkans as well, stirring up Orthodox Christians to rebellions in both Hapsburg and Ottoman possessions. The English had wrested Egypt away and were stirring up trouble among restless Bedouins in the Arabian dessert. In addition Indian Muslims were calling on them for protection. So the Ottomans aligned themselves naturally with Germany and Austria-Hungary when war broke out in 1914.
The British invaded Palestine from Egypt and, as we all know from watching Lawrence of Arabia stirred up that long brewing revolt of Arabs against the Ottomans who they considered politically repressive and morally degenerate. Arab armies with British and French support swept to Damascus. But the Sick Man proved a tougher nut to crush on its home turf. It stopped an Anglo/Australian invasion championed by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill after a long and bloody stalemate on the beaches of Gallipoli. Ottoman forces were commanded by a nationalistic young Turkish officer, .
At war’s end the Ottomans lost much of their territory to lines in the sand drawn by the British which created new nations and protectorates including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Trans Jordon, and Saudi Arabia. Constantinople itself was occupied. In response Atatürk organized a rebellion which became known as the Turkish War of Independence. He sought to over throw the vastly weakened Ottomans and also had to battle English and French forces which intervened in the conflict.
A secularist and modernizer who advocated a republican Turkish nation state, Ataturk was ultimately sucesfull in overthrowing the last Sultan, Mehmed VI on September 1, 1922.
|The Last Caliph, Abdulmecid II.|
But Mehmed was not the last Caliph, following the successful revolution Ataturk’s new Turkish National Assembly at Ankara, elected Mehmed’s cousin and former Crown Prince as the new Caliph. He quickly assumed his duties in Constantinople, still official seat of the Caliphate.
Abdulmecid II was born at Dolmabahçe Palace in Constantinople to Sultan Abdulaziz and his wife Hayranidil Kadın Efendi on May 30, 1868. As was the custom he was confined to the palace until the age of 40 and educated very well indeed by tutors. Although made a pro-forma general of the Ottoman Army, he had little interest in military or for that matter political affairs. His consuming interest was culture and the arts. He took three wives and produced four children. After his liberation from the Harem, he studied art in France and became an accomplished and acclaimed painter.
Turn of the century photos show him as a dapper boulevardier in a stylish handlebar mustache. He exhibited in Paris in Vienna in 1918. The same year he was named Crown Prince and heir apparent. His proudest public service was as Chairman of the Ottoman Artists’ Society. Despite growing an impressive beard, he seemed little interested in the religion he was to lead. Which is why he may have been temporarily acceptable to Ataturk.
But only temporarily. Ataturk was determined to fully separate his new state from Islam. On October 23, 1923 the de facto Republic of Turkey was officially declared and, not unexpectedly Ataturk was elected by the National Assembly as the country’s first President. Just six months later on February 3, 1224 the Assembly officially dissolved the Caliphate after 1292 stormy and not quite contiguous years, the last 471 under the Ottoman Turks.
Abdulmecid II and his family were allowed to go into quite comfortable exile in Paris where the former Caliph resumed his artistic interests. For the last twenty years of his life he became a passionate collector of butterflies. He died in Paris on August 23. 1944. News of his passing at age 76 was lost in the shuffle—it was the same day the City of Light was liberated from the Nazis.
|One of Abdulmecid's acclaimed painting of Harem life.|
After the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished the leader of the Arab Revolt, Hussein bin Ali, the former Sharif and Emir of Mecca who had proclaimed himself King of the Hejaz based in Damascus, claimed the title of Caliph. But before he could establish his authority he was overthrown by Abdul Aziz al Saud in 1924, his kingdom dissolved and much of it absorbed into the new Saudi Arabia. Saud made much of his new role as protector of Mecca and Medina, but did not try to assert claim to be Caliph.
In 1926 a summit of Islamic and Arab rulers was called in Cairo for the purpose of convening a shura to elect a new Caliph. But plagued with jealousies and rivalries, most leaders boycotted the congress and nothing came of the scheme.
Although the Mullah Omar, spiritual leader of the Taiban, while in hiding in Afghanistan is said to have claimed to be Caliph, but he neither exercised spiritual authority or held the necessary command of an Islamic state and was never recognized as such.
Essentially the Caliphate is in limbo, awaiting some future golden age of rebirth and rejuvenation of Islam. No legitimate Islamic power is either asserting claim or even trying to build support for re-establishing it. The Shi’a, as they have done for centuries, wait for the emergence of an Ayatollah in the lineage of Mohamed and Ali of such obvious virtue and justice that he will be proclaimed Caliph unanimously by all of the holy Imams. They seem to be content to wait indefinitely.
As for ISIL and their wanna-be Caliph, he was neither selected by shura, unless a bunch of gunman sitting around a table in the Syrian desert constitutes a shura, or can claim the title by right of inheritance from either Ali or some noble line of previous Caliphs. Islamic scholars of the world agree that his claim has no more validity than that of a lunatic on a street corner proclaiming himself to be the Second Coming of Christ. He may, however, be a little more dangerous.