What ethnicity were the Fatimids?
There was, as credible historians testify, caliphs once, and the last one of world-historical importance, albeit modest, was only ousted ninety years ago. Nevertheless, caliphs have always been figures of fairy tales and fantasy, not much different from fairies, magicians, dragons and flying carpets. If the word caliph has an aura, then it does not owe it to historical reality, which was a sad one from the start, but is a product of wishful thinking - the political wishful thinking of Muslims, orientalist and western wishful thinking.
In the literal sense, caliph - in Arabic "chalîfa", with a ch-loud as in "to laugh" - means nothing more than "successor" or "deputy". The first caliphs were so called because they were the spiritual and at the same time political successors of the Prophet in the leadership of the young Islamic community.
When Mohammed died in 632, he had taken poor precautions. The Koran, if noted at all, was a disordered, seemingly fragmentary loose-leaf collection; a son who would have survived childhood and could have taken his place was not granted to him; and who should shoulder his inheritance instead, he had left open.
His closest friends therefore chose one of their own to be the first "successor" of the Prophet. His name was Abu Bakr and he only ruled for two years, then he died. Abu Bakr and the next three caliphs were called "rightly guided" by the following generations because they allegedly acted in the interests of Muhammad, whom they, unlike the later ones, still knew personally.
The Golden age
In fact, one could say that without them, Islam would not exist. Not even the Koran would have survived if the third caliph, Uthman (in Turkish Osman) had not started at least partially to put down in writing what was then known as the Koran (literally translated oral “recitation”).
All fundamentalists, Salafists and other religious nostalgics refer to this, in their eyes, golden age and believe that they can revive it if they only behave as the Muslims did at the time of the rightly guided caliphs.
The great charm of this historical fiction contributes to the fact that this epoch predates the dispute between Sunnis and Shiites. To be more precise: it ended with this argument!
Many non-Muslim observers nowadays forget that for most Muslims, Islam also implies believing in the guidance of these first caliphs, much as for Christians the work of the apostles after the death of Christ is part of salvation history.
From the point of view of the factual historian, however, this is a sore point of Islam. Of the four first caliphs, three were murdered, and they often seem to have been a model for the later only in relation to the violent nature of their death. Although they succeeded in spreading Islam far beyond the Arabian Peninsula, they were unable to stop the internal division.
Even before the Prophet's cousin Ali, the fourth and last of the rightly guided, was murdered in 661, his rival Mu‘awiya had claimed the caliphate for himself from Damascus. This led to a civil war (Arabic “Fitna”), which could be considered the longest in world history: It has been going on to this day. Ali's followers have been called Shiites since then. They were defeated in the fight against Mu’awiya's forces, but were able to hold out in many areas of Iraq and Iran.
If the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi today as caliph wants to take action against the Shiites, whom he considers to be infidels, he is not awakening the golden age of Islam, but the time of “Fitna”, the internal Islamic civil war. He is less likely to succeed the first caliph Abu Bakr, whose name he bears, than Mu’awiyas, who incidentally is the progenitor of the Omayyad caliph dynasty.
While the caliph was previously determined by consulting leading personalities, albeit on the condition that he belonged to the Kuraish tribe like the prophet, the caliphate with Mu‘awiya was dynastic and usually inherited from father to son.
Caliphs and Counter-Caliphs
When we hear the word "caliph" one thinks less of the early days of Islam than of the time of the greatest Islamic heyday and development of power, of the caliphates of the Omayyads in Damascus (661-749) and Cordoba (929-1031) the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad (749-1258) and the Fatimid in Cairo (969-1171).
Such a kind of fairytale-like physical successor to the Fatimid caliphs is still known today: It is the Agha Khan. But anyone who has just trimmed was trimmed: Yes, there were three parallel caliphates at the turn of the millennium.
On the one hand, this was due to the fact that the caliph in Baghdad had long been unable to realize his claim to be the spiritual and political leader of the Islamic world and had degenerated into a puppet of local rulers and his soldiers. At the same time, however, the caliphate still had a special aura and heralded the claim to religious and political leadership over the Muslims.
The times of the most famous of all caliphs in the West, Harun Ar-Raschid (ruled 786-809), were long gone by then and already sank into a darkness mythically transfigured by storytellers of all kinds.
If the ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi envisions not only the rightly guided caliphs, but also Harun Ar-Raschid as models, we can laugh. His vizier - the actual head of state - was a not very Sunni Persian named Djaafar al-Barmaki, and his most famous court poet was a homosexual drunkard, Abu Nuwas, who was prone to blasphemy. One of the most famous streets in Baghdad is named after him to this day.
1001 nights and historical reality
Let us believe the fairy tales of the Arabian Nights, in which the trio of Harun Ar-Raschid, the vizier Djaafar al-Barmaki and Abu Nuwas made numerous appearances and which may have shaped the Western idea of the caliphate more than the real world, was also the most famous caliph one of the first rulers who loved to spy on his subjects.
To do this, he disguised himself as a common man, left his palace and mingled with the people, ostensibly to see whether everything was in order in his realm, but actually on the hunt for entertaining stories. It was the time of the first Islamic modernity, as one of the heirs of Abu Nuwas, the Arab poet Adonis, born in 1930, called it, the time of a taboo-free spiritual and religious awakening that is in fact much more formative than that for the shape of Islam today Time of the rightly guided caliphs, whose actual work can hardly be objectively grasped historically.
The fact that Harun Ar-Raschid behaved differently is due not least to a media revolution that took place under his rule: the first Arab paper mill was founded in Baghdad in 800. The Arabs had got to know the paper fifty years earlier from Chinese prisoners of war. But it was only now that affordable writing materials became available in large quantities.
As in no culture before, Muslims make use of it, and only now is the proliferation of oral tradition collected, systematized and ordered: This applies to Arabic grammar as well as to Islamic law and the tradition of the deeds and sayings of the prophet, the so-called Hadith.
The multicultural turn
Another important ingredient of California's heyday has been forgotten over time. The upswing in poetry, thinking and in matters of religion was only possible because these caliphs - including the Andalusian and Fatimid - ruled over multi-ethnic, multi-legal, multi-lingual or, in a word, multi-cultural populations. The city of Baghdad, which was only founded in 762, would never have become a big city without immigrants. "They came from all countries, far and near, and people from all areas preferred their homeland," writes the geographer al-Ja’kubi about Baghdad in the ninth century.
The dispute over who are the better Muslims, those with Arab ancestry or converts from other countries who believe out of genuine conviction and not because of their origins caused a lot of stir at the time.
At that time, a genuinely Arabic word for multiculturalism, namely "Shu’ubiyya", arose. Indirectly, the "Shu’ubiyya" undermined not only the claim to leadership of the Arabs, but also of the caliph, who is descended from the Kuraish and should therefore be a real Arab.
This heralded a problem that is always virulent today when someone claims to speak for all Muslims: Do the Arabs have a more genuine access to Islam than Turks, Iranians and Afghans just because the Koran is written in their language , Indonesians and especially converts from the west? But if it is hard to imagine that Arab Muslims will ever accept an Indonesian or Iranian as their caliph, why should Indonesian or Iranian Muslims follow an Arab caliph?
Historic low point
Another aspect must not be ignored: if the caliphs had secular power at all, they always also ruled over members of other religions. This always included Christians and Jews, often also Zoroastrians, and the heyday of the caliphates is unthinkable without their toleration, often including them in power. It was Christians with knowledge of Greek and Syrian who translated the ancient philosophers and physicians into Arabic, and followers of Iranian religions, whose mother tongue was Persian, carried on the administrative tradition of the Sassanid Empire and made Arabic a flexible official language lingua franca of a great empire.
With its mercenary converts from all over the world, ISIS is also somehow multicultural. But their hatred of everything that is different and of different faith reveals their caliphate dreams as having little future.
One could of course also think that at some point the caliphate had become a little too 'multi' to be a serious power factor for more than a few centuries. It is more likely, however, that at some point no one really believed that the caliph was really a representative of Muhammad, even if the blood of the Kuraish still flowed in him. Too many caliphs had proven themselves powerless and incompetent and destroyed the aura of office. When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258 and murdered the last Abbasid, the institution of the caliphate had reached its historic low.
Caliphate as a lifeline
However, the idea experienced a renaissance! Paradoxically, Europe played a major role in this. In the course of the 19th century, European states increasingly emerged as the protective powers of Christians in Muslim countries, especially in the Ottoman Empire - a convenient means of interfering in the internal affairs of these countries, much as Russia does in Ukraine today with regard to Ukrainian Russians does.
The Ottomans tried to do the same for Muslims outside their sphere of influence, especially in the conflict with Russia, which incorporated numerous Muslim regions into its empire. The way to do this was to revive the idea of the caliphate.
It is true that the Ottoman sultans were often given the title "Caliph", but they did not officially invoke this title until the 19th century. The emerging pan-Islamism, which wanted to show Muslims their religious identity and unity beyond concrete political power relations, contributed to this renaissance.
The idea of the caliphate then increasingly served as a lifeline for the falling Ottoman Empire: if not in terms of power politics, the claim to leadership should at least be manifested in religious terms. In practice, this had little effect, apart from the fact that the caliphate was suddenly being discussed again by Islamic intellectuals (Tilman Nagel retells these discussions in detail in his book “State and Faith Community in Islam”).
Abolition of the caliphate by law
But one person definitely couldn't do anything with it: Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk. In 1922 the Turkish National Assembly decided to abolish the sultanate, but not the caliphate maintained by the Turkish state, now understood as a purely spiritual office.
Perhaps a kind of Islamic Vatican state could have developed from this, and the caliph would have become what the Europeans always wanted to understand by it, a kind of Islamic Pope. But Ataturk thought about it and two years later passed a law that abolished the caliphate. It has become superfluous because the government and the republic are the only legitimate caliphate anyway - a very brisk reinterpretation of this traditional office.
Since since then there has been no one and nothing left who could appoint a caliph, those who want to hold this office have to appoint themselves for better or for worse, as did Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Metin Kaplan in Germany a few years ago , the so-called Caliph of Cologne.
Who should and wants to obey these self-proclaimed caliphs is a different question, but it may be unnecessary if the word of God is interpreted correctly. The Koran says in verse one hundred and sixty-five of the sixth sura as well as in some other, similar ones: "It is (God) who made you (people) into successors (caliphs) on earth."
Perhaps this is the nucleus for an Islamic justification of democracy. Whether we like it or not: According to the Koran, we are all caliphs!
© Qantara.de 2014
Editor: Nimet Seker / Qantara.de
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