The jihadist insurgent group ISIS, or as it now prefers to be called, the Islamic State, appears well on the road to achieving its stated goal: the restoration of the caliphate. The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of the Prophet Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, his “successor.”
The problem with this new caliphate, which, an ISIS spokesman claimed on Sunday, had been established under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq, is that it is ahistorical, to say the least.
The Abbasid caliphate, for example, which ruled from 750 to 1258, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. Centered in Baghdad, just down the road from where ISIS is occupying large areas of Iraq, the Abbasid caliphate was centuries ahead of Mr. Baghdadi’s backward-looking cohorts. Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture — in sharp contrast to ISIS’ violent puritanism. The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.
Centered on the Bayt al-Hikma, Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom,” the Abbasid caliphate produced notable advances in the sciences and mathematics. The modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by Ibn al-Haytham, who has been called “the first true scientist.”
With such a proliferation of intellectuals, Islam itself did not escape skeptical scrutiny. The rationalist Syrian scholar Abu’l Ala Al-Ma’arri was an 11th-century precursor of Richard Dawkins in his scathing assessments of religion. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”
It is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the supposed decadence of the caliph’s court, that causes Islamist radicals to hark back to an earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors.” But even these early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) caliphs bear little resemblance to jihadist mythology. Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” of all, composed a strikingly secular document in the Constitution of Medina. It stipulated that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans had equal political and cultural rights — a far cry from ISIS’ punitive attitude toward even fellow Sunnis who do not practice its brand of Islam, let alone Shiites, Christians or other minorities.
How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?
In the late 19th century, Arab nationalists were great admirers of Western societies and urged fellow Muslims, in the words of the Egyptian reformer Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, to “understand what the modern world is.” Many not only admired Europe and America but also believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The first reality check came when Britain and France carved up the Middle East following World War I. Disappointed by the old powers, Arab intellectuals still held out hope that the United States, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its image as a liberator.
But after World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors. It avoided direct rule but propped up a string of unpopular autocrats. This resulted in an abiding distrust of Western democratic rhetoric.
Then there was the domestic factor. The failure of revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity and freedom led to a disillusionment with secular politics. At the same time, the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many Arabs against the traditional deferential model of Islam.
Out of this multilayered failure, which often included the brutal suppression of both secular oppositionists and moderate Islamists, emerged a nihilistic fundamentalism, which claimed that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (an “age of ignorance”). The only way to correct this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers,” but also against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state — one that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.
The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the American-led invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups — first Al Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS — to fill. Despite the latter’s recent battlefield success, however, there is little support for the jihadists or appetite for their harsh strictures among the local populations, a fact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul.
Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.
Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.