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

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Why the world depends on our attitude towards ten-year-old girls

A new report by the United Nation Population Fund finds that our collective future rests on how we support the world’s 60 million ten-year-old girls as they start their journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Take a moment to imagine a ten-year-old girl right now. What do you see? Is she in school? Is she laughing with friends? Do you imagine her riding a bike or playing ball? On roller skates or en pointe in ballet class?  With her nose in a book or her eyes on a chess board?

Or perhaps you imagined a different scene, one that still plays out daily in many parts of the world: a girl who wakes up in the morning and finds out that she’ll be married that afternoon and taken out of school forever, a girl who will be forced to start bearing children as soon as her body allows it, and will stop being a child and start being a labourer in the home.

This is the tragic reality for millions of ten-year-old girls as they approach puberty.

While in some places, age ten can be a time of exploration, expanding horizons and new possibilities, in others it can be a time where barriers emerge, limiting options, choices and opportunities.

Many girls are transformed from children with rights and aspirations, into brides, free labour or objects of exploitation – forever excluded from decisions about their lives and blocked from realising their full potential.

This is a grave and unforgivable injustice and a violation of girls’ fundamental rights. And whenever a girl’s future is derailed in this way, her household, community and nation also suffer.

With no freedom to make choices, get an education and find a good job, she will never have the power to participate in the affairs of her community and contribute to her country’s development.

But when a girl is protected from child marriage, is able to stay in school and make her own decisions about whether or when to become pregnant, the potential gains to her – and her society – are huge.

Each extra year a girl stays in high school, for example, delivers an 11.6 per cent increase in her average annual wage for the rest of her life. In India alone, there are over 12 million ten-year-old girls of whom nearly 900,000 will not move from primary to secondary school this year. If half of those 900,000 girls finished secondary school and later got a job, they could together earn almost $2m over the next 15 years.

In fact, if all the ten-year-old girls living in developing countries today were able to finish high school and make their own decisions about marriage and parenthood, they would together earn an estimated $21bn by the time they reach 25.

In most developing and middle-income countries, a girl who stays in school, gets a job and delays pregnancy will earn up to three times as much in her lifetime as her counterpart who does not finish high school and becomes pregnant as an adolescent.

And research has shown that a girl who makes a safe and healthy transition through adolescence to adulthood has higher status in her household and community and invests earnings back into her household, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of social and economic empowerment that can last for generations.

The benefits of keeping a ten-year-old girl’s life on track are indisputably large.

According to The State of World Population 2016, published today by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, keeping every ten-year-old girl’s life on track is possible, but it requires support from, and investments by, everyone around her – her family, community and government. Men and boys also have a critical role in tearing down the barriers that prevent girls from realising their full potential.

So what can be done?

First, end all practices that harm girls. This means, for example, enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage.

Second, enable girls to stay in school, at least through high school. Study after study has shown the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to become pregnant as an adolescent and the more likely to grow up healthy and join the paid labour force.

Third, provide extra support to marginalised and impoverished girls who have traditionally been left behind.

Make sure girls, before they reach puberty, have access to information about their bodies. Later in adolescence, they need information and services to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

And above all, take steps to protect girls’ – and everyone’s – rights.

We have every reason to prioritise the development of every girl’s capabilities. Our collective future depends on it.

Today’s 60 million ten-year-old girls will be 24 when progress towards the United Nations’ new development agenda is tallied in 2030.

That agenda aims for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no one behind. The real test of its success will be whether every ten-year-old girl today will be healthy, educated and productive in 2030.

The world cannot afford to squander the potential of even one more girl. Instead, we must do everything in our power to ignite that potential – for her sake and for the sake of us all.

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is the United Nation Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Executive Director.