Revisionist Islam: The origins of a modern nightmare in Iraq and Syria

‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” Karl Marx notes in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852). “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Entirely too many protagonists of both tragedy and farce have made their appearance lately in the Muslim world. In eastern Syria and western Iraq over the last few months a violent military force has materialized calling itself the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Currently in its tragic phase, the farce is yet to come, now that ISIS claims to be the Sunni Caliphate, the rule of the Islamic world by the caliphs or successors of Muhammad.

When was the idea of a caliphate first conceived? Events that occurred on the date Muhammad died—June 8, 632—lie at the root of the great divide between Sunnis and Shiites in the Muslim world to the present day. Muhammad’s son-in-law and first cousin, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, as well other members of Muhammad’s patrilineage, took charge of the hasty burial of the prophet, having wrested the corpse away from Muhammad’s distraught youngest wife, ‘A’isha. While the prophet’s blood relatives busied themselves with the funeral arrangements, two of Muhammad’s senior lieutenants, Abu Bakr (‘A’isha’s father) and ‘Umar, devoted their attention instead to preventing possible secession from the Medina-based Muslim community. Indigenous Medinans had grown restive under Meccan domination after the year 622. By the end of the day on which Muhammad died, Abu Bakr, with the able assistance of ‘Umar, had pacified the Medinans and secured for himself the undefined role of caliph (khalifa), successor of God’s messenger or even possibly deputy for God. Thus began the Sunni caliphate, which despite several centuries of eclipse in the second millennium, continued to exist in theory, if not in fact, until the early 20th century.

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Abu Bakr died a natural death two years after his acclamation as caliph; he was the only one of “the four righteous caliphs,” as later Sunni Muslim piety calls them, to die peacefully. ‘Umar ruled in succession to Abu Bakr with vigor for 10 years but eventually died at the hand of an assassin in 644. No pattern had been set for the election of a caliph by the first two caliphs; if anything, it would seem that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar had agreed between them that the elder should succeed the Prophet first and the younger wait his turn. While he was dying, ‘Umar appointed a consultative committee (shura’) of six older Meccans to pick his successor. It is paradoxical that in the 20th century this gerontocratic committee has been suggested as an Islamic model for democracy, so-called shurocracy.

One of the consultants appointed to the committee was ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib; another was a weaker figure named ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, a man whose Meccan family was well connected in the Arab trading communities already plying the Syrian trade routes for several generations. At the meeting of the consultative committee, ‘Ali would not commit himself to the continuance of policies initiated by Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, so the more pliable ‘Uthman succeeded ‘Umar and ruled the burgeoning Muslim empire from Medina for 12 years until his own assassination in 656. Finally, much later than he had hoped, ‘Ali was elected caliph to succeed ‘Uthman.

Influential relatives of ‘Uthman, and especially his cousin, the governor based in Damascus, Mu‘awiya, were never satisfied that ‘Ali had done enough to prosecute ‘Uthman’s assassins, at least some of whom had cheered the accession of ‘Ali to the caliphate. One year after his election, ‘Ali and his partisans fought a major battle with the army commanded by Mu‘awiya in Syria. ‘Ali’s army splintered into more and less rigorist Muslims, the latter calling for a negotiated peace with Mu‘awiya and the former insisting on fighting Mu‘awiya until death. Unable any more to maintain his authority in Medina and basically outmaneuvered in negotiations with Mu‘awiya, ‘Ali withdrew from Syria to Kufa in Iraq where he in turn was assassinated in 661.

Deputies for God?

Later generations of Sunni Muslims, for religious and political reasons, have agreed to describe all the first four caliphs as righteous, but several of the caliphs involved held much more critical views of one another. The Sunni caliphate, then, began as a dream, hard to define, and gradually developed into a nightmare. Even the meaning of caliphate was disputed early on. Were the caliphs, whether virtuous or villainous, deputies for God like Adam, called God’s khalifa in the Quran (2:30)? Or were they merely successors of Muhammad in his role as head of state, but not in his role as prophet? This argument raged in the dynasty descended from Mu‘awiya that ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750.

Mu‘awiya restored a certain calm to Syria in the largest sense of the word: today’s Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. He ruled this territory fairly well over the next two decades, at first relying (until about the year 700) on Christian Syrian civil servants like St. John of Damascus, people who knew how to handle the necessary paper work. John of Damascus famously criticized the iconoclasm of the Byzantine emperors of the early eighth century; his ability to do so safely owed not a little to the fact that he lived within the borders of the Damascus-based caliphate.

When Mu‘awiya’s self-indulgent son Yazid succeeded him in 680 as caliph (an arrangement Mu‘awiya had insisted on at the beginning of his reign), Husayn, ‘Ali’s younger son by Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, led an abortive revolt against Yazid that ended with the slaughter of Husayn and his immediate family on the field of Karbala in Iraq. Shiite Muslims find in the assassination of ‘Ali in 656 and the martyrdom of Husayn in 680 the emotive symbolic center of their version of Islam. Rejecting the Sunni caliphate, Shiite Muslims hold that men directly descended from ‘Ali and Fatima were meant to rule the Islamic community as imams from the time of Muhammad’s death.

Shiites even maintain that Muhammad himself had designated ‘Ali as his heir-apparent some months before the Prophet’s death. The full theory of the Shiite imamate only evolved after the death of the 11th in that line around the year 870; a putative infant 12th imam was supposedly hidden away until his partisans could ready the world to receive him and his rule worthily. Shiite military commanders often seized power in the territories of the Sunni caliphate on the premise that they represented the 12th imam until he should reappear. The Ayatollah Khomeini from 1979, and his less riveting successor, ‘Ali Khamanei, after 1989, are only the most recent of such self-proclaimed representatives of the hidden 12th imam.

The Umayyad Sunni caliphate begun by Mu‘awiya in Damascus drifted from dream into nightmare in the eighth century and was toppled in 750 by insurgents of a lineage descended from ‘Abbas, an uncle of Muhammad, and thus called the ‘Abbasids. Even though they did not adhere to what was developing as the Shiite interpretation of Islamic rule, centered on the lineage descended from ‘Ali and Fatima, the ‘Abbasids began by claiming to represent Muhammad’s family, even if they were not really descendants of ‘Ali and Fatima or willing to hand over actual power to any of ‘Ali’s heirs. The black flags of the marauders calling themselves the Islamic State today—like the black flags flown in Fallujah more than a decade ago by the Sunni allies of Saddam Hussein—recall the pretense of the ‘Abbasid rulers to be mourning for Muhammad’s family while they were grabbing power for themselves. Power soon corrupted the ‘Abbasid caliphs, who developed a taste for luxury in the new capital of the caliphate they had constructed in Iraq, Baghdad.

Rise of the Sultans

More and more reliant as time passed on mercenary non-Arab soldiery, by the middle of the ninth century the ‘Abbasid caliphs had begun to delegate much power to these army commanders. By the middle of the 11th century military commanders, supposedly servants of the caliphate, deposed Sunni caliphs as they deemed necessary, and little semblance remained of the ideal of the caliph either as God’s deputy or as a successor to the messenger of God. Increasingly, many of the military commanders, now called sultans, were not even Arabs or Sunnis, but Persian and Turkic Shiites. The nightmare of the dominated caliphate had replaced the dream of caliphal rule on behalf of God or on behalf of God’s messenger. Al-Ravandi, a Persian historian writing about the political situation of the Seljuk sultanate in the late 12th century, when one caliph tried to assert his independence against his military overlord, notes that the sultan’s plenipotentiary minister took the caliph to task: “The caliphs should busy themselves with sermons and prayers, which serve to protect worldly monarchs and are the best of deeds and the greatest of activities. They should entrust kingship to the sultans and leave the government of the world to this sultan.”

The Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Chingiz (Genghis) Khan and the brother of Kublai Khan, swept down from Central Asia and conquered Baghdad in 1258, beheading the last ‘Abbasid caliph. The nightmare of the caliphate ended, and the farce commenced in the shape of a puppet dynasty sponsored by the self-ruling military slaves (Mamluks) who dominated Egypt from the 13th century on. It was not until 1517 that the Ottoman sultan, Selim the Grim, having conquered Egypt, arrogated to himself the title of caliph. In the 19th century, this shadow caliphate took on some flesh for a while as the Ottoman sultans parried with the Russian czars as respective protectors of the Muslim minorities in the Russian empire and the Orthodox Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire. The secularist founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, abolished the Ottoman sultanate in 1922 and the shadow caliphate in 1924.

The caliphate as mirage has loomed once again on the horizon during the last few months along the borders of Syria and Iraq. This mirage is not likely to last very long, but much blood has been shed already and still more will be shed before the mirage evaporates. Unlike the caliphates that reigned between the seventh and the 13th centuries, this new caliphate persecutes and kills non-Muslim minorities (Christians, Yazidis) and non-Arab minorities (Kurds, Turkmen). Sunni Muslims from Syria and Iraq, many of them former partisans of Saddam Hussein and the secularist Baath party, serve as the principal agents of the new Islamic State, rebelling against the domination of Iraq and its historical Sunni capital, Baghdad, by Shiites, and the dominance of Syria and Damascus by the minority ‘Alawites. Saddam Hussein’s government was not notably religious in its orientation, but it proved particularly unfriendly to the Shiite majority in that country. Iraq as we know it has little history before modern times. It was created by Winston Churchill in one of his moments of supreme hubris as colonial secretary, when he drew lines with a ruler on a map of the defunct Ottoman Empire, as he described it, “one afternoon in Cairo in 1921.”

An Unrealistic Vision

When I was teaching Islamic studies in Ghana more than 30 years ago, I had to contend with a Muslim colleague to include in the curriculum the history of Islam after the era of the idealized first four caliphs. I fear that many of those now traveling from overseas to join up in the struggle for the Islamic State know very little about the history of Islam and adhere to the unrealistic ideal vision of the four righteous caliphs. It is reliably reported that not a few of the European and American Muslims who have volunteered to join this army of the restored caliphate bought copies of Islam for Dummies from Amazon.com before they left for the battlefront. Such ignorance may be bliss for unhappy Muslims nurtured in the West, but it spells disaster for most of the people, Muslim and non-Muslim, who live in Syria and Iraq today. It has become increasingly obvious that the major Western powers, some of them active participants in the destruction of the past tyrannies in a more secular Iraq and a more secular Syria, will now have to return to put down the havoc caused by the dogs of war they have let slip.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Fitzgerald
3 years 5 months ago
Thanks for this informative article.
David Ryan
3 years 5 months ago
I appreciate the article. It is difficult to get so much history into such a short article, but the last paragraph touched me, especially the title. I think the vision most people have about what is happening, the challenges in the region, and the effects of the international response is muddled, at best. After serving in Iraq, this muddled vision compelled me to spend four years writing a book about these experiences, which was recently published. Titled, "Vision of Glory: One Soldier's War," I think it helps tell a deep story to understand this. http://www.amazon.com/Vision-Glory-One-Soldiers-War/dp/1502362740/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1416362694&sr=8-2&keywords=vision+of+glory

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