The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built by the Umayyad dynasty. Photo: Getty
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What is a caliph – and why has the leader of Isis declared himself to be one?

The leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, thereby appropriating an Islamic title with a long, chequered history.

The shadowy leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been declared Caliph Ibrahim. Will he reign as Ibrahim II, acknowledging the previous Ottoman Sultan and Caliph Ibrahim (1640-1648)? Or perhaps Ibrahim III, recognising also the disputed reign of his Umayyad namesake in 744? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has pretensions to an ancient office. The Caliphate existed near continuously from 632 to 1924. Though the concept now appears historic, the vacancy for the last 90 years is the aberration.

From an Arabic word meaning “he who follows behind”, Khalifa is generally translated as successor. Caliphs have also used the title Amir al-Mu’minin, Commander of the Faithful, which describes the essence of the post. The Caliph, at least in theory, holds universal temporal and spiritual authority. Though the truth of the matter has always being different, even among the Muslim faithful. Throughout its long history the post has been riven by division.

Of the four Rightly-Guided or Rashidun Caliphs, who followed Prophet Mohammed as leaders of the Muslim community, three (Omar, Othman and Ali) were murdered. The disputes at this time indeed give rise to the Sunni-Shia split. Christopher Hitchens wrote of this “one at least of the schools of interpretation must be quite mistaken”. Either the supporters of Ali were responsible for murdering his predecessor Othman or Othman’s family the Umayyads were wrong to seek revenge against Ali.

The Umayyad dynasty replaced the murdered Ali and ruled from Damascus from 661-750. They were responsible for such wonders as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and standardising the coinage with the introduction of the silver dirham. But the Umayyads were never fully accepted. They acted as mere kings, with hereditary succession and a royal court copying Byzantine and Persian administrative practices. Moreover, they were descendants of Abu Sufyan, an early critic and therefore late convert to Islam. The Abbasids, descended from Mohammed’s youngest uncle Al-Abbas, overthrew the Umayyads in 750. They promised a return to a more orthodox Islam.

In power the Abbasids founded Baghdad in 762 which was conveniently sited near ancient Babylon, on established trade routes. It is seen as a golden age – Greek philosophy was preserved, science and mathematics investigated and literature flourished. The Tales of One Thousand and One Nights allegedly tell of the exploits the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809). However, provinces broke away from central control. Far off in southern Spain, a survivor of the Umayyad dynasty founded an emirate in Cordoba in 756. Local governors established independent dynasties in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Transoxiana. The Zanj Rebellion in Basra 869-883 witnessed an uprising by black slaves. Universal authority was gone.

The Caliphs in Baghdad even became vassals of local rulers in Mesopotamia. Real power was exercised by the Shi’ite Buwayids 934-1055 and then the Seljuk Turks 1055-1157. The title Sultan designating a strong temporal ruler was granted by the Caliph to the Seljuks. Autonomy was restored by Caliph Al-Muqtafi (1136-1160) but his power did not extend much beyond the capital. Again in 1175 the Abbasids named another strongman as Sultan – Saladin. He carved out an independent kingdom in Egypt and Syria.

An ignominious end to Abbasid Baghdad came with the Mongol invasion, when Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu sacked the city in 1258. The last Caliph Al-Mustasim (1242-1258) was killed, supposedly by being rolled-up in a carpet and trampled by horses to avoid the spilling of royal blood. The Abbasids were re-established, however, in Cairo in 1261. But they were now merely religious figureheads for Egypt’s ruling Mameluke Sultans. They continued in this role until the Ottoman annexation on Egypt and purloining of the Caliphate in 1517.

The main line of Abbasid Caliphs did not have exclusive claim on the title. The Shi’ite Fatimids established themselves as caliphs in Kairouan, Tunisia in 909 and ruled from Cairo after 969. They claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima. One Fatimid Al-Hakim (996-1020) was noted for authoritarian and eccentric rule. He disappeared mysteriously into the desert, though was probably murdered by anxious courtiers. Nevertheless he did inspire the Druze sect. The rivalry between the Fatimids and the Abbasid-backed Seljuks in the late eleventh century is often mentioned as one factor contributing to the successful capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099. It took another Abbasid champion Saladin to depose the Fatimids in 1171, a task he went about before bothering to tackle the Crusaders in Jerusalem. The former Fatimid capital Cairo, ironically later becoming the seat of the Abbasid puppet-Caliphate.

Europe also had its own Caliphate. The Umayyad Emir Abd al-Rahman III of Cordoba (912-961) had himself proclaimed Caliph from the pulpit of the Mezquita in January 929. Hardly a declaration of universal authority, there were already two other Caliphs, this nevertheless emphasised the flourishing independence of Andalucia. Symbolically it also reclaimed his family’s inheritance. But the Caliphate of Cordoba barely lasted a century. It disintegrated from 1009 onwards and the last Umayyad was deposed in 1031. Moorish Spain became petty principalities. A Caliphate was re-established by the Berber Almohads who seized Marrakesh in 1147 and ruled Morocco and southern Spain. Rather like some modern jihadists the Almohads were a revivalist movement seeking a return to more fundamental values. Their monomaniacal rule was their undoing, the cosmopolitan culture of medieval Spain relocating to Christian Castille and Aragon. By 1269 the Almohads had fallen, loosing Andalucia to the Spanish Reconquista on the way. The Christian knights that defeated the Almohads at the pivotal Battle of Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, bastardised the title Amir al-Mu’minin by referring to the fair-haired blue-eyed Caliph Mohammed al-Nasir (1199-1214) as the Miramamolin.

The Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim (1512-1520) grabbed the title Caliph in 1517 by right of conquest. Also stolen were a set of early Islamic relics, that reportedly belonged to the Prophet Mohammed, the Sacred Trusts, which can still be seen today in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. The Ottomans circulated the story that the last Cairo Abbasid Al-Mutawakkil III (1508-1516 & 1517) had transferred these along with his title to Selim. Nevertheless, as the preeminent Islamic power the Ottomans became widely accepted as Caliphs. This despite such incumbents as Selim the Sot (1566-1574). Indeed, the Ottomans often waved off the annual sacred caravan to Mecca with a toast of raki.

The long decline of the Ottoman Empire ended with the First World War. In the Fatih Mosque, Constantinople on 14 November 1914 the Ottoman ruler Mehmet V Resat (1909-1918) issued a fatwa to Muslims worldwide. Prompted by the Germans this proclamation stated “the killing of infidel who rule over Islamic lands has become a sacred duty”. It was aimed at the large Muslim populations in the British, French and Russian Empires. However, the declaration did not influence many in India, north Africa or central Asia. Indeed the Ottoman’s own Arab subjects famously rose in revolt in 1916 and the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Turkish nationalist leader and secularist Kemal Ataturk dismissed the last Ottoman Caliph Abdul Mecid II (1922-1924) in 1924, having two years previously abolished the Ottoman Sultanate. The end of the Caliphate was shattering, as if Italy had abolished the Papacy after the Risorgimento. The Hashemite King of the Hejaz Hussein ibn Ali, with a strong claim as a descendant of Mohammed and ruler of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina tried to proclaim himself Caliph later in 1924. But he was not recognised and within a year the Hashemites were expelled from the Hejaz by the Saudis. Without a widely accepted way of choosing a Caliph there has been no serious contender ever since. And so far there seems no reason to add the name of the Isis leader to this rich historical chronicle.

The history of a single Islamic ruler, therefore, has created dissent throughout the history of the concept. The post pretends to worldwide authority; but by claiming it Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is acting as the leader of a faction. Such presumption invites dissent from across the range of the world’s Muslims. And outright hostility from rival jihadist groups. By naming a ruler Isis may be sowing more discord than their current reign of terror has caused. There is now a fallible man rather than a concept behind their campaign. What if a faction disagrees over policy or tactics? Will their financial backers amongst the subjects of the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Qatari monarchs welcome this alternative sovereign? The history of Caliphs suggests not.

Suggested further reading:

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: Sean McMeekin covers the Ottoman fatwa and the First World War

The Court of the Caliphs: Hugh Kennedy covers the Abbasids in Baghdad

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Islamic Imperialism: Efraim Karsh covers the whole period

Ornament of the World: Maria Rosa Menocal covers Al-Andalus

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem