Detail of a Hadith referring to the succession of the Twelve Imams, at the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, Damascus; from People of the Prophet’s House edited by Fahmida Suleman (275pp. Azimuth. £35. 978 1 898592 32 7)
This piece forms part of a TLS Special Feature, our primer on the complex politics and religions of the Middle East
A hadith (or saying of the Prophet Muhammad) considered sound by all major authorities and widely circulated among Sunni Islamists states that the history of the umma will go through five phases: first, the Prophet himself will rule over it and teach it the right way to live; then will come the time of caliphate, when caliphs will rule according to the Prophet’s teachings; then the time of benign kingship obtained by force, followed by the time of oppressive kingship; finally, the time of caliphate will rise again, where a caliph will rule once more in accordance with the Prophet’s teachings, and usher in the end of the world.From this eschatological perspective, Ataturk’s abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923 marked the end of the third of those five phases, the phase of benign kingship. Since then, the Islamic world has been suffering the injustice of oppressive kingship, whether at the hands of brutal dictators or morally bankrupt monarchs. And though jihadist groups differ over the best way to achieve it, they are united by an ultimate aim, which they share, broadly speaking, with all forms of Islamism: the restoration of the Caliphate as a necessary step along the way to the Last Judgement.
In June 2014 a particularly savage Al Qaeda splinter group achieved this aim – though not before falling out with its parent organization. Having conquered territory on either side of the Iraqi–Syrian border, the Islamic State announced that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would henceforth be known as Caliph Ibrahim. From his base along the Euphrates in the Syrian city of Raqqa – where the most famous Abbasid caliph of them all, Harun al-Rashid, also based his court, moving it there from fractious Baghdad in AD 796 – the caliph and his followers now prepare for the End Times, which they believe are imminent, by purifying the world of idolaters and apostates.
The rise of the Islamic State is simply the latest twist in the unfolding tale of the various jihads that have plagued the Muslim world for two decades now, claiming well over a million lives, mostly Muslim. People are understandably struggling to know what to think about all this. The two books under review purport to help shed some light on what’s going on – one by looking through a wide-angle lens at the history of the Caliphate since its first incarnation in the seventh century; the other by zooming in close on the horror story of the past two decades and narrating it beat by beat.
The Caliphate by Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, covers familiar ground. He is a master of the source material and has already published a number of now seminal accounts of the early military and political history of Islam. As a Pelican Introduction, this most recent survey cannot be as detailed as those earlier ones, but even so, this time Kennedy’s broader brush paints an engaging portrait of a fascinating, multifaceted history.
Beginning with the disputatious reigns of the first four so-called rightly guided caliphs, Kennedy charts the development of the caliphal state from the Umayyads and (especially) the Abbasids, through to the Ismaili Fatimids and the Umayyads and Almohads of Al-Andalus. Each of these caliphates gets a chapter, apart from the Abbasids, on whom Kennedy lavishes four whole chapters, perhaps understandably so given their longevity and – crucially – the extent to which they dominate the Islamic historiography. He then finishes with a chapter covering the Mamluks and the Ottomans and a chapter covering the way Islamist groups in the post-caliphal period have co-opted the idea of the Caliphate, with special focus on the Islamic State.
In fact, like the Muslim historians he draws so much on, Kennedy is moulding the history to reflect his polemical aims. Unlike them, he admits it. “This book is quietly polemical”, he writes at the outset, and later states that his ultimate purpose is to demonstrate “that caliphate is a concept with a wide variety of meanings and interpretations”. This pluralist approach is clearly opposed to more monolithic definitions, especially that of Islamic State, whose invocation of ancient caliphal prerogatives is inspiring so many unconscionable atrocities. As an educator, and in London no less, Kennedy must feel it is his responsibility to discourage people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, from setting too much store by the Islamic State’s claims. This is understandable.
But in a world where (according to a poll of public opinion in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia conducted by the University of Maryland in 2007) 65 per cent of Muslims have supported the goal of unifying all Islamic countries into a single caliphate, it is worth asking a crucial question. By placing so much emphasis on the Abbasids in the high noon of their caliphate – with their poetry and the splendours of their court, their dancing girls and their philosophical sophistication, all of which are inoffensive to the modern, liberal imagination — and by treating exhaustively of everything everyone thought a caliphate could be down through the centuries, does Kennedy help provide a proper grasp of why a movement like the Islamic State and the caliphal vision it projects are so attractive to such a large number of Muslims?
I don’t think he does. Reading Kennedy’s account of the Caliphate, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there’s anything particularly religious about it. The author’s problem is part historical, part theological. Kennedy is a cautious historian. He works in a field that has too often dismissed the reliability of the Arabic source material completely; to that extent his brand of good old-fashioned narrative history has been a welcome corrective. But as the late Patricia Crone (an especially incendiary firebrand in a field known for them) once noted, such “rearrangements of the same old canon” can often seem “marked by extraordinary unreality” — words that rang in my ears as Kennedy’s narrative unfolded.
This struck me especially in the all too brief opening chapters covering the dawn of Muhammad’s prophetic career at the beginning of the seventh century up to the rise of the Abbasids in the middle of the eighth. That has always been the most troublesome period for historians, because the contemporary sources are indeed exceedingly thin on the ground. What there is comes mainly from non-Muslim sources, and though Kennedy largely ignores these, he weighs up the Muslim material judiciously, and packs in much data and analysis. We are regaled, then, with the familiar tale of the early debates over which of the Prophet’s close companions should succeed him as leader of the nascent umma (arguments that ultimately account for the split between Sunnis and Shias); the assassinations and the civil wars, as different parties and sects rally round competing claimants to the caliphal title; the so-called Pact of Umar and the tolerance towards their non-Muslim subjects for which the first caliphs are routinely celebrated; the pro- and anti-Umayyad polemics that mark the rise and fall of that vilified dynasty; and all the while, in the background, we’re vaguely aware that the Muslim empire is expanding.
Yet as Crone would have spotted, an unmistakable patina of unreality covers this all-important first act in the drama. Kennedy neglects to set the scene properly, to ground us in the world of late antiquity – the period, roughly, between Constantine the Great and the Arab conquests – out of which (and onto which) Muhammad’s mission exploded so fatefully. This is a side effect of relying so much on the Arabo-Persian historians writing in Baghdad several generations later. For them, late antiquity was not exactly a tabula rasa, but they were not interested in capturing the period as it really was, in all its churning depth and theological richness. Crone again: “Whoever comes from the Mediterranean world of late antiquity to that of the Arab conquerors must be struck by the apparently total lack of continuity: the Syria to which Heraclius bade his moving farewell seems to have vanished, not just from Byzantine rule, but from the face of the earth”.
This matters because Islam belongs to late antiquity. In many respects it is late antiquity’s crowning achievement. This is when the idea of universal monarchy, first espoused by Alexander the Great a thousand years before, finally transformed from a political proposition into a theological dogma – and nowhere more fully than in Islam. A Christian imperator in Constantinople might claim to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, but the Church could take it or leave it: salvation was to be had in the Church, and its bishops held the keys to the kingdom. Likewise, the emperor could promise his soldiers life in paradise in exchange for death in battle – as Heraclius did during his desperate campaign to win back vital provinces lost to the Sassanians – but his promise would always, in the end, clash with the way martyrdom is presented in the Gospels.
The caliph, on the other hand, exhorted his warrior-ascetics to martyrdom in battle, assuring them that they would enter paradise on the other side, because he really was khalifat Allah fi ardihi, “God’s representative on his earth” – at least in the beginning, as Kennedy explains. But by ignoring the theological worldview that Islam inherited, Kennedy obscures the charismatic foundation of the caliphal office, which is the basis of its continuing power into the present. Comparing the office of caliph with the imperial model, Kennedy writes: “A crown of the Byzantine or Persian sort would have represented an acceptance of all the traditions of ancient monarchy, with its pomp and hierarchy, which the early Muslims rejected and sought to replace. There was absolutely no religious figure to take the role of the popes and archbishops of the western tradition and place a crown on a ruler’s head”. But an early caliph didn’t need a pope to hand him a crown, not because there wasn’t a religious figure to do so, but because the caliph himself was the religious figure, the fons et origo of spiritual identity and legitimacy for the umma. And though pomp and hierarchy may have clashed with early Islam’s austere moral rigour and egalitarian elitism, such pomp wasn’t what had made an emperor (or a shah) what he was. Rather, it was the other way around: because of what an emperor was, pomp and hierarchy arose naturally about his person, just as it was bound to do for the caliphs within twenty or thirty years after the Prophet’s death — however much it annoyed the Muslim jurists and legalists of rabbinical temperament who’d go on to codify the Islamic faith. And just like the Roman emperors, the Arab caliphs were amirs, “commanders”; in the latter case, commanders of the faithful, but still, imperator is simply the Latin word for “commander”, and the words have military overtones in both languages.
And yes, the caliphs refused to call themselves muluk (kings), yet then again so did the Roman emperors (at least, perhaps prophetically, until Heraclius). But the caliphs were not mere kings: they were truly sacred, truly universal monarchs — and like Alexander (whose career the Qur’an sanctions), they were monarchs on a mission. From earliest times, mounting a jihad was the prerogative of the caliph, in line with his divinely ordained task of submitting the world to Islam. The Umayyads, especially, made expansionist jihad the ideological hallmark of their rule. Kennedy doesn’t ignore the conquests and gets it just right when he writes, “They were not a mass migration of barbarian tribesmen into a rich and civilised Middle East but armies recruited from volunteers who came to Medina and were assigned to various commanders and sent off in different directions”. But he deflects attention from the conquests’ sacred character, employing the term and translating it as “holy war” only, for the most part, after jihad became primarily defensive, once the caliphate had grown weak and its enemies strong. But that took centuries. It is certainly odd that he describes “the traditional caliphal role” at the end of the Umayyad period as “defending Islam against non-Muslim enemies”. The people of Visigoth-era Spain, Byzantine Anatolia, or Sassanian Transoxiana would have described it differently.
Ignoring or playing down the way Islam in particular sacralizes warfare is to obscure much. Islam was originally a political theology that went something like this: Out of all the peoples and tribes of the world, God chose a tribe of Arabia called Quraysh to carry out his final plan for humanity. From among their number he selected a prophet, revealed his will to him “in clear Arabic”, and instructed him to establish the quintessential divinely ordained polity at Medina. But the death of this prophet was still just the beginning of the story. The Quraysh remained God’s chosen instrument, despite the non-Qurashis swelling their ranks. And though the umma disagreed about how they could determine God’s will in the matter of who exactly was to be caliph — whether by tribal deliberation, patrilineal heredity, trial by combat, or a combination of the three — it was a matter of faith (except for some outlying schismatics) that God intended him to be a Qurashi, and that under his charismatic leadership the Qurashis would extend God’s sovereignty across the earth until every worldly power was placed under his dominion.
This story can be discerned in the Qur’an, though since there was no St Paul in Islam to elucidate its earliest theology, you have to go digging. And yet, Kennedy grants the Qur’an barely a moment’s notice. That it contains the idea of a caliph, he does not deny. But as to how caliphs were chosen or what their function was supposed to be, he avers, “the Holy Book is completely silent about this”. This is simply not true — as Kennedy himself admits 350 pages later when he quotes at length from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s speech on the occasion of his accession to the caliphate in June 2014. The speech invokes Surah 2’s discussion of imamah, or “imamate”, which the Islamic tradition has always used as a synonym for khilafa, “caliphate”. In the Surah, after putting him through a period of trial, God “makes an imam” out of the Patriarch Abraham, tasking him with maintaining the purity of the pilgrimage and the prayer. As Kennedy points out, this passage becomes Baghdadi’s “blueprint for the caliphate as a political organisation”: through trial and struggle, the community of believers, with an imam-caliph at its head, fuses the religious and political spheres of life together in perfect theocratic synthesis. In Surah 38, as Kennedy again contradicts himself by pointing out, God not only “makes a caliph out of King David” (it is always God doing the making, not men), he also charges him, as a caliph, with judging rightly between people lest he and they be damned on the Day of Reckoning — here the caliphate is unmistakably imbued with the aura of eschatology.
Most importantly, however, in an even longer passage from Surah 2 which Kennedy only barely mentions, the Qur’an indicates in some detail what a caliph truly is. God tells the angels that he intends to “make a caliph”, a representative on earth. The angels’ first response is to remind God that this caliph will sow discord and shed blood, but God assures them that this is all part of his plan. To this caliph – who is revealed to be Adam, the first man – God teaches the “names of things”, and in a contest that follows between Adam and the angels, Adam’s knowledge not only surpasses theirs by far, but also God makes clear that it even approximates his own. Shockingly, God then commands the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam just as they usually do before him (mirroring imperial court ceremony everywhere, including the caliphate); only the evil jinn Iblis, or Satan, refuses. Finally, after Adam’s temptation and his expulsion from the Garden, God promises to send the guidance to Adam that will save people from the Fire.
It is remarkable that this version of the pivotal second chapter of Genesis, where the Qur’an comes closest to articulating the biblical doctrine of the Imago Dei, is in essence a long excursus on the idea of a caliph. It is full of metaphysical and eschatological implications, yet Kennedy overlooks the theological point. This is a missed opportunity, for careful exegesis of the passage transports us into the thought world of late antiquity, where the idea of a ruler with all the attributes of the divine at least makes some sense. It also makes better sense of the history on the page, of the factionalism that befell the early Muslims in their desperate struggle to determine which of the various claimants truly was God’s caliph. In the words of an early Muslim formula rightly quoted by Kennedy, the caliph was “the tent pegs of our faith” — though again, he doesn’t scrutinise what such a formula might mean theologically. Where early Christians were extremely anxious about making sure they submitted themselves to a true bishop and not a heretical one, early Muslims were extremely anxious about submitting themselves to the true caliph (and their sacred law stated plainly that there could be only one at any time), not a pretender or a mere king. Being in right submission meant they were citizens of the true polity, inside which prayer was fully legitimate and the salvific power of the law fully operative. Where the true caliph reigned, there paradise was assured.
This theological teaching remains deeply lodged in the Islamic religion, hence the prevalence of the hadith mentioned at the start of this review. By no means does that theology necessitate the sort of brutality currently being practised along the Euphrates. But it isn’t likely to sit easily alongside a thoroughgoing secularism either, and it is important to bear that in mind when contemplating recent events.
I wish Patrick Cockburn had borne it in mind while writing the pieces that have been strung together in diary form to create Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the struggle for the Middle East. It tells the story of what Cockburn usefully calls the Middle East’s “era of civil wars”, from just before the war on terror to the rise of the Islamic State. But despite the subtitle, the book contains precious little of substance about jihadists or the theology that motivates them.
Cockburn has been a war reporter for forty-five years – in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, among other places. His breadth of experience reporting from the Middle East is second to none. He’s a wonderful writer – clear and wittily lugubrious – and Chaos & Caliphate reads like an epistolary thriller. The first chapters in particular are gripping, as the United States gears up for its wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. You follow Cockburn as he struggles to maintain an initially cautious optimism that America might succeed in its aims, before one blunder after another impels the region further and further towards the chaos of the title.
The Iraq War and its horrific aftermath are given pride of place, and you can taste the fear, the anger, and the desperation of the Iraqis who watched their communities slip into a sectarian war of almost unimaginable brutality. But the account of Iraq just before the American invasion is particularly revelatory. Years of merciless economic sanctions and Baathist tyranny reduced the Iraqis to poverty and despair, and they had, in large numbers, already turned to one form of Islamism or another for the answer to their problems by the time the Americans showed up. This means the country was poised to explode when the government America installed after the war failed even to make a start in restoring the prosperity that Iraq had known before the Saddam era.
But unfortunately, Chaos & Caliphate never takes a serious look at what was actually motivating the militants on the ground. In Cockburn’s world, as the player with the biggest stick America alone has true agency. The Islamists who overturned Uncle Sam’s apple cart are only robotic Whack-a-Moles, not human beings with a coherent if merciless ideology of their own. Most egregiously, the role Iran has played in the tragedy, not only in Iraq but also in Syria, is completely airbrushed away; and even more worryingly, Cockburn doesn’t once mention the protests that rocked Iran in 2009, or the government’s brutal crackdown (both harbingers of the Arab Spring two years later). Yet the Islamic Republic of Iran is the original Islamist polity, and its leaders are still motivated by their eschatological expectations of the Mahdi’s imminent return. In this era of civil wars, the Islamists are the true actors; the role of the United States has really been that of an uncomprehending bystander, inadvertently unleashing the destructive potential of the Islamists’ toxic and deadly ideology.