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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution