By Zaid M. Belbagi
A fortnight ago armed men in north-western Iraq declared the formation of an Islamic State, a Khilafa (Caliphate). As a bloody crown on the top of what has been a succession of horrific acts and events in Iraq, ISIS have hijacked the most coveted and respected ideal in Islamic governance. An intended successor to the Ottoman Caliphate which came to an end in 1924, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, claims to have inherited that which had been lost with the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid II. However, since its very inception the young proto-state is synonymous with mass killing and gross abuse of power. Its behaviour is so divorced from the lofty idea
ls and societal principles of Khilafa that a strong denouncement of it is required.
At the centre of the Islamic faith is the concept of custodianship or Khilafa. Muslims, as servants of God, are obliged to act with responsibility to their surroundings and have a societal obligation to not only each other, but to minority groups they live with. At a macro level, Khilafa as a concept of leadership is the highest form and representation of this social responsibility.
The term Khilafa is tied to the line of Muslim rulers who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad after his death in the year 632. Under them Islam spread and by and large their rule was associated with some of the most progressive and prosperous episodes in Islamic history. Baghdad was the seat of various Caliphs, as a centre of learning, cultural exchange and a great empire. It is therefore interesting that ISIS similarly came to be in Iraq. The historical comparison between their violent practices to date illustrates how far removed they are from previous Caliphates centred in Iraq.
Khilafa is incredibly hard to define and even harder to put into practice. The ideals are so lofty, so unachievable, that is folly to use the word as a catch-all term for rulership over a Muslim territory. The reality is that many who have used the term were not Caliphs, rather local rulers motivated by power, using the veneer of religiosity and the institutional memory of Caliphate to force their rule. It is widely acceptedthat the first four “Rightly-guided” successors of the Prophet embodied noble leadership. An unbeknown fact is that early Islamic states exhibited elements of direct democracy through the Shura system. It was led, at first, by the Prophet’s immediate disciples and family as a continuation of the religious systems he had introduced. The Pact of the Caliph Omar, which guaranteed the safety of Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule stands as a timeless representation of the tolerance that a Caliphate should seek do defend.
Looking at the wider picture of a millennium of Islamic rulers across various parts of the Muslim world, the majority of those who used the title Caliph, were not. Its last supposed occupant, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid II, a lacklustre patron of the arts who presided over a crumbling and morally decadent empire was not a Caliph. If Baghdadi’s YouTube proclamation of leadership in Mosul last week serves to do anything, it is only to highlight how unfounded and illegitimate his rule is.
In the Islamic concept of leadership embedded in responsibility, Baghdadi’s commands to slaughter those of different beliefs, to disregard the sanctity of life and most of all to continue to pursue a calculated policy of killing and sectarian violence during the holy month of Ramadan are blatant abuses of power that illustrate his detachment from a religion, Islam, that means peace.
This is not a Caliphate.
Zaid M. Belbagi is an expert in Gulf affairs and acts an adviser to governments in the region. He is a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Saudi Arabia and a Fellow at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. He holds a Masters in Diplomacy from Oxford University and a BSc in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. He tweets at @Moulay_Zaid
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