They call themselves the Army of God (Jund Allah) and claim to be fighting to unite mankind under the banner of Islam as “the only true faith.” To achieve that goal, they believe they should revive the Islamic Caliphate, the theocratic empire developed after the death of Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD.
Adepts of the caliphate movement are present throughout the world, including the United States, under different labels. In many places, from the Philippines to Nigeria, passing by Thailand, India, Afghanistan and Syria, they have taken up arms to capture a chunk of territory as the embryo of their dream empire.
In recent months, a branch of the movement, known as Da’esh or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been capturing territory in Syria. Last week, it used its Syrian base as a springboard for conquest in Iraq, ending up in control of the western parts of Mosul, the country’s third-largest city, as well as parts of Saddam Hussein’s native town of Tikrit.
The group’s Syrian possessions include the city of al-Raqqah. That is of some symbolic importance, because for more than 100 years al-Raqqah was capital of one of the greatest caliphates. If Da’esh manages to hang on to its Syrian and Iraqi possessions, it could expand its conquests by annexing parts of Jordan and Lebanon.
Theoretically, all practicing Muslims must work to unite mankind under the banner of Islam, as the Koran regards the two previous Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, as “corrupted and cancelled.” Others, such as Hindus and Buddhists, not to mention atheists, who do not subscribe to any of the Abrahamic faiths, are regarded as “deviants” to be goaded into the Right Path.
In Islamic history the caliphate has come in different versions, starting with the four immediate successors to the prophet, covering almost three decades. These four Rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphs, expanded the gospel of Islam in all directions, ruling vast lands under Sharia law.
That was followed by the Umayyad caliphate that, in terms of territory, remains the largest Islam has created (661-750) — stretching from Spain to Pakistan. The Umayyad were replaced by the Abbasid, who set up the longest-lasting caliphate (750-1258). The last major caliphate was that of the Ottomans and lasted from 1301 to 1922.
In between a number of mini-caliphates have mushroomed in various parts of the world, including the Sokoto caliphate in West Africa (1812).
To many Muslims, the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924 is a deep historic wound that shall heal only when a new caliphate is set up to resume the ghazavat (wars of conquest) against the Infidel.
The aim of the ghazis (Muslim conquerors) has never been to convert anyone to Islam by force. In fact, through the Umayyad period less than 1% of the population under the caliphate were Muslims.
Jews and Christians could keep their faith by paying a poll tax (jiziyah). The Ottomans even allowed non-Muslim minorities, classified as “mellats,” freedom in matters of personal life.
What matters is that non-Muslims should live under Islamic rule, while for Muslims to live under non-Islamic rule is, in the word of the Indo-Pakistani Islamist Abu al-Ala Maududi,“an unbearable pain.”
In fact, the dream of reviving the caliphate is one of the key unifying themes between radical Islamists and ordinary Muslims.
The reason is that, over the past century or so, Islam has been gradually reinterpreted as a political ideology rather than a religion. Just as Communism was a religion expressed through a secular vocabulary, Islam has become a political ideology using a religious vocabulary.
It might come as a surprise to many, but the truth is that Islam today no longer has a living and evolving theology. In fact, with few exceptions, Islam’s last genuine theologians belong to the early part of the 19th century. Go to any mosque anywhere, whether it is in New York or Mecca, and you are more likely to hear a political sermon rather than a theological reflection.
In the highly politicized version of Islam promoted by Da’esh, al Qaeda, the Khomeinists in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria, God plays a cameo role at best.
Deprived of its theological moorings, today’s Islam is a wayward vessel under the captaincy of ambitious adventurers leading it into sectarian feuds, wars and terrorism. Many, especially Muslims in Europe and North America, use it as a shibboleth defining identity and even ethnicity.
A glance at Islam’s history in the past 200 years highlights the rapid fading of theologians. Today, Western scholars speak of Wahhabism as if that meant a theological school. In truth, Muhammad Abdul-Wahhabi was a political figure. His supposedly theological writings consist of nine pages denouncing worship at shrines of saints. Nineteenth century “reformers” such as Jamaleddin Assadabadi and Rashid Rada were also more interested in politics than theology.
The late Ayatollah Khomeini, sometimes regarded as a theologian, was in fact a politician wearing clerical costume. His grandson has collected more than 100,000 pages of his writings and speeches and poetry. Of these only 11 pages, commenting on the first and shortest verse of the Koran could be regarded as dabbling at theology, albeit not with great success.
In the 1970s I held a number of conversations with Maududi, finding him closer to Lenin than to Muhammad. The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Moslemeen), now a global organization, has not produced a single theologian because it was more interested in political power than scholarship. Today, its chief theologian is the TV preacher Yussef Qaradawi, who heads a Fatwa Council financed by the European Union. The Chief Mufti of Syria Ahmad Hassoun is a state employee. In Egypt, government controls Al-Azhar, the principal “theological academy” of Sunni Islam.
In the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent as well as in Indonesia the most prominent figures of Islam have been politicians rather than theologians. Even the best of them, like Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, and Abdul-Rahman Wahid and Nurcholis Madjid in Indonesia, pursued a political rather than theological career.
In Shi’ite Iran, genuine theological work ended with people like Kazem Assar and Allameh Tabataba’i. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who declared himself Commander of the Faithful (Emir al-Momeneen), has not produced a single page of theology.
That an overpoliticized Islam should nurture a political program of global dimensions is no surprise. A survey of the literature produced by the caliphate revivalists, including the Tanzim Islami (Islamic Organization), the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian-led Hezbollah and the Islamic Liberation Party ( Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami) highlights their vision of the world.
According to that vision, mankind has been pushed on “the path of doom” by deviant Judaism and Christianity, followed by the Enlightenment and democracy.
Iran’s former President Mohammed Khatami claims that the Enlightenment is responsible for wars, colonialism, and a collapse of moral standards. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad believes that Jews invented democracy so that “it does not matter what religion the ruler has.”
Muslims are advised to start by protecting themselves against Western political and cultural influences. In Iran, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei orders periodical raids against shops selling Western pop music and movies. In Nigeria, Boko Haram (the name means Education is Forbidden) focuses on attacking Western-style schools especially for girls. As in Iran during the Khomeinist revolution, Da’esh gangs have torched schools, bookshops and cinemas in Syrian cities they have captured.
The revivalists divide the world into three sections. The first consists of the 57 Muslim-majority countries that form the Islamic Conference Organizations. They would form the core of the dream caliphate.
The next section covers countries and regions that were once, even if briefly, ruled by Muslims. These include Russia from Siberia to the Black Sea, including Crimea, Bulgaria, Romania, parts of Poland and Hungary, the Balkans, Greece and all the Mediterranean islands, parts of Italy, almost the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, and parts of southwestern France. To those must be added northern India and China east of Lanzhou. This second segment would have to be recaptured for the caliphate as soon as possible.
The third section consists of regions and countries that were never under Muslim rule. These include Japan, much of Indochina, and, more importantly, the whole of the American continent. The latter group of nations would be invited to pay a tribute to the revived Islamic caliphate in exchange for maintaining their independence pending the next round of ghazavat.
In fact, some Islamists claim that the United States admitted to become a tributary of Islam by paying an annual sum to Muslim pirates on the Barbary Coast, a scheme later cancelled by President Thomas Jefferson.
One question remains: Who is to be the caliph?
In the 1930s, the kings of Saudi Arabia and Egypt briefly tried to capture the caliphate for themselves.
Da’esh leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi has already claimed the title as has Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. In Iran, Khamenei has similar pretensions. Nigerian Abu-Bakr Shekau is regarded as caliph by Boko Haram and its sister group Ansar ul-Islam (Victors of Islam) in the name of pan-African Islam.
One man who might have had a credible claim to the title was Ertugul Osman, the last descendant of the last Ottoman caliph. But he died in Manhattan in 2009, leaving no male heirs.
To many outsiders the caliphate project might sound like a pipe dream. In the long run it certainly is. However, in the short and medium run it is a recipe for conflict, war and terrorism that is designed to spare no one, starting with Muslims who are dying by the thousands.
What could the outside world, notably the United States, do to tame and defeat this monster?
As always, the answer is to help Muslim nations build democracies in which Islam could re-become a religion rather than a political ideology. That is a long-term project that requires genuine commitment and patience.
More immediately, the US should do all it could to stop Da’esh and its Saddamite allies from destabilizing Iraq. That could mean drone attacks against Da’esh positions, logistical facilities for bringing elite Iraqi units to the battleground and energetic political action to persuade Iraqi parties to form a government of national unity.
The article was first published in The New York Post.