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al-Mahdi is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic Hadiths (traditions), will come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim.  Over the last 1400 years numerous claimants to the mantle of the Mahdi have arisen in both Shi`i and Sunni circles.  Modern belief in the coming of the Mahdi has manifested most famously in the 1979 al-`Utaybi uprising of Sa`udi Arabia, and more recently in the ongoing Mahdist movements (some violent) in Iraq, as well as in the frequently-expressed public prayers of former Iranian President Ahmadinezhad bidding the Mahdi to return and, in the larger Sunni Islamic world, by claims that Usamah bin Ladin might be the (occulted) Mahdi.  Now in 2014 Mahdism is active in Syria, as the jihadist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra claims to be fighting to prepare the way for his coming; and in the new "Islamic State/caliphate" spanning Syrian and Iraqi territory, as its leadership promotes the upcoming apocalyptic battle with the West at Dabiq, Syria.  This site will track such Mahdi-related movements, aspirations, propaganda and beliefs in both Sunni and Shi`i milieus, as well as other  Muslim eschatological yearnings.
For a primer on Mahdism, see my 2005 article, "What's Worse than Violent Jihadists?," at the History News Network:; for more in-depth info, see the links here to my other writings, including my book on Mahdism.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Is Insisting Every Adulterer Must Get Stoned REALLY "Extremist" in Islam?

A few days ago the Iraqi-Syrian caliphate meted out the punishment of stoning for a woman accused of adultery.  Predictably, many media outlets decried the "extremists" who carried out such a heinous sentence.

But is stoning in such cases really "extremist" according to Islamic doctrines and public opinion?  No. There are at least
five authoritative hadiths--sayings going back to Islam's founder, Muhammad--which mandate such a method of execution for adulterers.  And according to Pew data from 2012, in many Muslim countries of the Mideast, Africa and South Asia large majorities want shari`ah to be implemented, and most of them in turn favor stoning for adulterers/adulteresses:


The "prophet" of Islam sanctioned stoning for adultery; the practice was legal praxis in many Islamic societies across the 14 centuries from his time to today; and clear majorities of Muslims in many countries approve of it.  How, then, is it "extremist?"  Brutal, harsh, vindictive, bloody, barbaric, outmoded--but according to Islamic history and modern sentiments, stoning is not "extremist" at all. 

Public stoning in Qajar Iran (19th century). 

Apologists can sputter all they want, but the fact is that many of the world's Muslims would not feel that what ISIS just did is beyond the pale; on the contrary, like the Taliban or Boko Haram, ISIS at least has the courage of its Qur'anic and Muhammadan convictions--appalling as that may be.
For those (liberals and Muslims) who stupidly maintain that there is no difference between Islam and Christianity, between Muslims and Christians--I leave you with this clip from "Jesus of Nazareth."

Gospel of St. John, 8:1-11.  Quite a contrast from Muhammad's example.

5:03 pm edt          Comments

Monday, July 14, 2014

New Islamic State Magazine "Dabiq": Western Forces On the Eve of Destruction
Since the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [Greater Syria] declared the resurrection of the caliphate a few weeks ago, analysts and journalists have focused on the ramifications of that putative political office for the Islamic world.  However, at the start of Ramadan the new “Islamic State” and its caliph attempted to move the propaganda needle from the merely realpolitickally ridiculous to the apocalyptically awe-inspiring—by invoking Muslim eschatological traditions.

The venue for this is an online English magazine entitled Dabiq: The Return of Khilafah, the 50 pages of which skillfully blend Qur’anic citations (10  in total), hadiths (12 of these), Salafi-jihadist exegesis and imagery to legitimize the new caliphate, motivate the faithful, and reach out to (primarily) Western Muslims.   The main proof text of this entire document is a lengthy hadith (saying attributed to Islam’s founder, Muhammad) about a major Last Hour battle.  Since IS’s magazine quotes the entire hadith twice, and refers to it several other times, the tradition is worth quoting in full: 

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them. They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army). which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah's eye, would be killed and the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople. And as they would be busy in distributing the spoils of war (amongst themselves) after hanging their swords by the olive trees, the Satan would cry: The Dajjal has taken your place among your family. They would then come out, but it would be of no avail. And when they would come to Syria, he would come out while they would be still preparing themselves for battle drawing up the ranks. Certainly, the time of prayer shall come and then Jesus (peace be upon him) son of Mary would descend and would lead them in prayer. When the enemy of Allah would see him, it would (disappear) just as the salt dissolves itself in water and if he (Jesus) were not to confront them at all, even then it would dissolve completely, but Allah would kill them by his hand and he would show them their blood on his lance (the lance of Jesus Christ) [Sahih Muslim, “Kitab al-Fitan wa Ashrat al-Sa`ah,” #6924].   

Dabiq is just north of Aleppo
, near the Turkish border, and al-`Amaq/al-`Amq is in the same vicinity.  (Both are near Hatay, of Indiana Jones fame.)  A type of the eschatological battle described in this collection of Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (d. 875 AD) was fought at or near that location in 1516 between the Ottoman Turks and the Egyptian Mamluks.  The heirs of the Eastern Romans won that battle decisively, thanks to their effective use of artillery—thus leading to the four centuries of Ottoman dominance over the Arab Middle East.   To sum up this hadith: the Romans land an expeditionary force in northwest Syria; after heavy losses the Muslims defeat them and conquer “Constantinople;” the Dajjal—the “Deceiver,” or Muslim Antichrist—appears and then the returned Jesus dispatches him via melting or lance. 

The last thing the Dajjal will ever see....

The writers credit the late Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, decapitator extraordinaire of the IS[IS] predecessor organization the Islamic State in Iraq, with first linking the jihad there to the End Time battle at Dabiq.  Also, Dabiq has several pages extolling al-Zarqawi’s virtues and strategic vision for rec-creating the caliphate via these stages: 1) hijrah 2) jama`ah 3) destabilizing the taghut 4) tamkin 5) khilafah.   The original hijrah was  the “flight” of Muhammad and the small Muslim community from Mecca to Yathrib/Medina in 622 AD.  Ever since, this exploit has served as an example for groups of Muslims who deem their society and/or rulers insufficiently pious and who thus repeat the paradigm of flee, consolidate power and return to conquer.  Jama`ah is “community,” the expected group solidarity that hardens during hijrah.  Such a community then must act to undermine the tyrannical regime(s), the taghut (literally “despots” or “gorillas”).  As the oppressive rulers are rendered illegitimate  via jihad and tuwwahhush (literally “savagery” or “brutality”), controlling less and less territory, the true Muslims will be able to consolidate power (tamkin), ultimately leading to the caliphate—as IS[IS] has now proclaimed.  This rising new Muslim power “will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy” and trigger the “demolition of Sykes-Picot” (the World War I British-French agreement which laid out plans for those two nations to rule over the Arab sections of the post-war Ottoman Empire).   This five-step program for attaining power can be repeated elsewhere—notably Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Sinai Peninsula, Waziristan, Libya, Chechnya, and Nigeria, as well as in certain areas of of Tunisia, Algeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 

 Dabiq also takes a number of pages to lay out an Islamic theological basis for the political power being claimed by “Caliph” Ibrahim.  The central argument is that “the concept of Imamah [political power] is from the millah [religious confession] of Ibrahim.”  Ibrahim, the Qur’anic version of the Biblical Abraham, was a “leader for mankind” because he followed Allah.  If al-Baghdadi’s true name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, this is likely a case of IS[IS] attempting to theologically leverage the “Caliph’s” birth and regnal name.  Those who oppose him are “weak-hearted” who “makes fools of themselves” and thus “renegades” whose necks it it legitimate to strike—to behead, that is.   The Islamic State has “gained control over territory larger than many states…lands formerly under the control of the historical Umawi khulafa’ [caliphs] of Sham and the `Abbasi khulafa’ of Iraq.” (The Umayyad ruled the nascent Islamic empire from Damascus, 661-750 AD; they were supplaned by the Abbasids, who ruled from Baghdad, 750-1258 AD.) Furthermore, “this new condition opens the path for the complete unification of all Muslim peoples and lands under the single authority of the Khalifah. May Allah protect this Khilafah state and continue guiding it until its legions fight the crusader armies who will gather near Dabiq.”   

There are several other topical sections of Dabiq:  one about the “liberated” areas, with pictures of allegedly welcoming throngs; another deploying gruesome pictures of dead and maimed or severely injured children, alleged targets of the Iraqi and Syrian government forces; yet another boasting of the thousands of repentant Rafidis (“refusers”), murtaddin (“apostates) or Safawis (the Safavid Empire was the one that ruled Iran from 1501-1722 and fought, tooth-and-nail, against the Sunni Ottomans) being captured and brought to the true Islamic faith.  (There are also plenty of photos of dead Shi`is, as well as some about to be executed by IS[IS].)     

This magazine even hijacks Tolkien: the massed Rohirrirm cavalry about to ride down upon the legions of Orcs beseiging Minas Tirith (from The Return of the King) are shown on the bottom of a page exalting the coming unification of all Muslims under the caliphate.   One can only surmise that such an image is aimed at portraying the IS[IS] as outnumbered battalions fighting heroically against seemingly insurmoutable odds—and, of course, winning, much as do the Muslims at the battle of Dabiq, vanquishing the Romans/crusaders with only the remaining 1/3 of their forces.  But, again, on the last page, Dabiq comes back around to eschatology—reprinting in toto the aforementioned hadith from Muslim b. al-Hajjaj.

"A sword day! A red day! And the Sun rises--in the West!?" 


 1) The first English-language publication by the first caliphal state to be proclaimed since the demise of the Ottoman one 90 years ago is focused on apocalyptic themes—specifically an End Times’ Armageddonesque battle and the entry into history two of the three major Muslim eschatological figures: the Dajjal and Jesus.  “Caliph Ibrahim” and his staff would not have sanctioned such an endeavor without good reason.  The Muslims must have one man to lead them all against the evil Westerners in the great battle soon to come in Syria. Resistance to him is futile—and treasonous.  Join the inevitable winning side.  

2) The IS leadership no doubt knows anecdotally what Pew data told us empirically in 2012: that eschatological beliefs in the Islamic world are not “fringe” or “extreme” but, in point of fact, are quite mainstream, even in Sunni Islam: 42% of Muslims expect the Mahdi—Islam’s primary End Time actor—to come in their lifetimes, while 35% look for Jesus’ imminent return.   In Iraq, the figures are 72% and 64%, respectively.   Syria was not included in the polling, but considering the raging bloody civil war there, it’s quite likely that similar apocalyptic expectations exist—and the new caliphate aims to exploit such in Iraq, Syria and beyond.  And while Dabiq appears aimed at a Western (Muslim?) audience, and at Muslims living in diaspora here, it’s also quite accessible to anyone in the Middle East proper with a computer, Internet access and rudimentary English skills.  

3) Dabiq adduces, and advertises,  a hadith which speaks of the Antichrist and Jesus—but not the Mahdi.   Traditional exegesis of this (and similar) hadith(s) holds that the leader of Muslims at the Battle of Dabiq/al-`Amaq will be the Mahdi himself.  Does this mean that the IS leadership (and rank-and-file) considers Ibrahim to be not just caliph but Mahdi—but is simply loathe to say so in its first publication?  Or is the head of the “new caliphate” a ruler who prepares the way, and the realm, for the actual eschatological leader? 

4) Either way, the clearly-stated doctrine of tawwahhush gives this new, self-styled caliph a license not just to kill but to brutalize and sow panic as a means of undermining any target regime.  This is working in Syria and Iraq.  Is Jordan or Saudi Arabia next?  As my friend Dr. Ted Karasik wrote earlier today, tawwahhush might very well mean biological, chemical or nuclear/radiological warfare.  A caliph might decide to deploy such weapons, either on his own recognizance or as a means of hotwiring the apocalypse/arrival of the Mahdi.  And if Ibrahim/al-Baghdadi thinks himself the Mahdi, then any and all weapons are acceptable to wage war fi sabil Allah: “in the path of Allah.”   

5) As I noted in last week’s blogpost (Saturday, July 5, 2014), a number of Sunni factions are speaking out against the caliphal claims of the IS:  Lebanese shaykhs; professors at al-Azhar in Cairo; Yusuf al-Qaradawi; even pro-caliphate Hizb al-Tahrir.  To this list we can now add current Turkish politician and former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, as well as a coterie of British imams.  These condemnations are good, but more, and more official ones, are needed.  Where are the fatwas from the world’s most influential Muslim, Dr. Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib, rector of al-Azhar; or Dr. Ali Guma, former Grand Mufti of Egypt?  Kinetic—military—operations against the IS are  of course necessary, and are currently being carried out by the likes of Ansar al-Islam and, most doggedly, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah (“Army of the Men of the Naqshandi [Sufi] Order”).   Although composed primarily of former Saddam Hussein government and military members, many of his Ba`ath (Arab Socialist) party, it seems that many in JRTN are also practicing Sufis—Islamic mystics.  The Naqshbandi order is one of the oldest and perhaps the largest of the dozens (at least) of extant Sufi networks, and it has historically been the one most prone to waging violent jihad; for example, Naqshbandis fought many insurrections against the Ottoman Empire.  If the newly-minted caliph indeed has Mahdist aspirations, there is perhaps no group better suited to beat it out of him and his followers.   Still,  it’s possible for opponents of the IS to win the shooting war but lose the ideological one.  

The Caliphate has returned, whether we like it or not.  The IS, as evidenced by Dabiq, clearly thinks the eschatological clock is ticking.  Let’s hope it won’t be necessary to raise the Mahdist alarm.

Dabiq might go something like this.  (Credit to AlanGutierrezArt. I hope the print of this I ordered arrives soon!)
12:31 am edt          Comments

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Little Sympathy for the Devil: Sunni Muslims Critique ISIS' Caliphate
C.S. Lewis said that two equally unfortunate errors can be made regarding the devil.  One is to deny his existence; the other is to be overly fascinated with him and overestimate his power.  Such is also good advice regarding the new caliphate proclaimed by the “Islamic State [of Iraq and al-Sham]”:  this challenge to the geopolitical order cannot simply be laughed off as a bad Muslim joke; but neither should the pretensions of “Caliph Ibrahim” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, né Ibrahim Ali al-Badri) be treated as if the Ottoman caliphate was once again lording it over the Middle East and threatening to march on Vienna or Rome.  

An Ottoman caliphal standard--from back in the day, when few argued about the caliph's legitimacy.

As I observed in several  immediately previous posts, the major strength of the “Islamic State”—and the one characteristic which largely differentiates it from al-Qa`idah—is that it holds substantial contiguous territory, and in the Islamic heartland (not on failing state peripheries).   This very strength, however, also represents a grave weakness, for it makes the IS vulnerable to air strikes and other modes of conventional warfare.However, kinetic operations, while almost certainly necessary, will prove insufficient to destroy this new Islamic polity.   Some measure of political and, yes, religious de-legitimization must be meted out—and this can only be done by Muslim authorities, not by Western and Christian leaders.    

And that might be happening.  As of this writing, three Islamic entities and one prominent individual have already rejected “Caliph Ibrahim:”  
1) Prominent and influential Sunni Salafi (Islamic literalist/fundamentalis) shaykhs in Lebanon have outright rejected “Caliph Ibrahim.”  These Salafis do not question the caliphate per se, of course; rather their scorn derives from the fact that “these [ISIS] people are not the ones who deserve to declare something as great as the Islamic caliphate” and that ISISites have “rushed” doing so, sans the “foundations” of a caliphate, which do not yet exist. 
2) Three branches of the global Hizb al-Tahrir (“Party of Liberation”) movement—which for 50 years has been working to resurrect the caliphate—have scorned the “Islamic State.”  The Lebanese spokesman said that the caliphate would not be resurrected via “blood, charges of apostasy and explosions.”  HT's Jordanian mouthpiece averred that since ISIS lacked a legitimate predecessor sultan, or “political leader,” it could not leapfrog to the higher office of caliphate.  And the HT representative in the UK critiqued the new “caliphate” on two fronts: not having firm control of, and being recognized as politically legitimate in, the Syria-Iraq region; and for not having drawn loyalty (ba`yah) from important Islamic sectors and leaders.  
3) Professors and experts in Islamic history and law at al-Azhar Mosque/University in Cairo have belittled the new “caliphate” for various and sundry reasons.  As might be expected, many of the faculty at this august Sunni institution derided ISIS as a mere terrorist organization, unworthy of the caliphate—although at least one expressed conspiracy theory-level drivel that ISIS was a creation of “Western intelligence.”  Yet another, a professor of shari`ah, laughably stated that “there is no political caliphate associated with Islam”—which would have been news to the Abbasids, Fatimids and Ottomans, among others.    

However, let it be noted that “so far, al-Azhar has not issued any official stance regarding ISIS.”  Until such time as the Grand Imam, Shaykh Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib—currently ranked the #1 most influential Muslim on the planet—decides to do so, the caliphal “Islamic State” under its “Caliph Ibrahim” will remain at least quasi-legitimate in the eyes of too many Muslims.  Had the Obama Administration not poisoned the well in Egypt, by its myopic and misguided support for the Muslim Brotherhood, it might have sufficient pull there to help persuade the government in Cairo of the need for al-Azhar to get into the IO/IW/Strategic PSYOP fight against ISIS.  But since POTUS and his State Department took sides against al-Azhar (which was, and is, anti-MB), such support from al-Sisi is probably out of reach.   

4) Influential free-lance Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has condemned the IS caliphate as contravening shari`ah—although he has not spelled out exactly this is the case.  

The other major Islamic entity—albeit more political than religious—that might weigh in against the  “Islamic State” is the multi-state, transnational Organization of Islamic Cooperation.  Yet, to date, the OIC has been silent on the issue.  One wonders where President Obama’s much-ballyhooed representative to the OIC, Rashad Husain, is, and why POTUS hasn’t dispatched him to rally international Muslim opinion against “Caliph Ibrahim.”Perhaps an administration that refuses to admit the historical reality of jihad also has its head buried deep in the sand regarding the Islamic validity, and thus menace, of a jihadist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.   

Note: none of these four Islamic critiques of “Caliph Ibrahim” really addresses the seven prerequisites for the caliphate spelled out by Ibn Khaldun six centuries ago.  Most aformentioned attacks are mere ad hominem ones, which will frankly fail to undermine the “Islamic State.”  Predictions of the new caliphate’s inevitable and imminent demise might well be overstated in the absence of such Muslim ideological undermining of the polity's plausible bases. 


2:35 pm edt          Comments

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Strict Statutes and Most-Biting Laws: Taking the Measure of the Islamic State
With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham annexing large sections of Iraq and Syria, and the subsequent proclamation of a new caliphate under Ibrahim al-Badri, or “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”—ruling as “Caliph Ibrahim”—the current clash of civilizations (between Islam and every other one, particularly the Christian West) enters a new and potentially more ominous phase.  But while a terrorist-created caliphate is a net negative for the world (Muslims included), the caliphate per se may yet result in some positives for the modern world—as per the title of my not-yet-completed book, The Caliphate: Threat or Opportunity?

My once and future book....

Some history of this primary Islamic political institution is in order,  considering how many misapprehensions exist on the topic.  Khalifah means “successor” to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community/state, in both a political and religious sense—as pointed out by Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, in God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (Cambridge, 1984).  In fact, according to Crone and Hinds, the office of the caliph even had eschatological overtones insofar as the occupant thereof was “rightly-guided” by Allah in the same way (though perhaps not as intensely) as the End Times Mahdi would be.  Shi`is of various stripes eventually eschewed the caliphate as a usurping Sunni office, opting instead for the Imamate dependent upon Muhammad’s male descendants via Ali, Hasan or Husayn, and their offspring—whether the legitimate line ran through the 5th Imam (Zaydis), the 7th (Isma’ilis) or the 12th (Twelvers).  Only one Shi`i group—the Ismai’li Sevener  Fatimids, who ruled Egypt in the medieval period—really used the term “caliph” for its leaders, perhaps to curry legitimacy with the bulk of Egypt’s population, which always remained staunchly Sunni. Fatimidsjpeg.jpgThe Fatimid Caliphate-Imamate, in dark green, 970-1171 AD. 

The other major caliphates in history were all unambiguously Sunni; those of: the Rashidun (“rightly-guided”), the first four men to succeed Muhammad; the Umayyads of Damascus (661-750 AD);  the Abbasids of Baghdad—Islam’s “Golden Age”—from 750-1258 AD;  and the Ottomans, who ruled for some six centuries until right after World War I.  One other caliphate was something of an outlier: that of the North African al-Muwahhidun, or “Almohads,” which was founded as an overtly Mahdist state by Ibn Tumart in the 12th century AD but which, after his death, transformed into a (mere) caliphate.Rashidunjpeg.jpgMuhammad (with lens flare) & the four "Rashidun" caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman & Ali. No idea which is which.
Other lesser, regional caliphal states have been proclaimed in the past, such as Usman don Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate of what is now northern Nigeria, and several short-lived ones in the Iberian Peninsula.  But over the last several centuries, the most powerful and important caliphate, by far, was that of the Ottomans, adduced by Abülhamid II (Abd al-Hamid II)  in the late 19th/early 20th century as a rallying point for Pan-Islamic unity.  With the Ottoman defeat in World War I and the onset of the Turkish Republic, the new secular rulers of Turkey first dissolved the political power of the House of Osman—the sultanate—but allowed it to retain the caliphate as a spiritual authority for Muslims.  But in 1924 even this was eradicated, and the last caliph—Abdülmecid (Abd al-Majid)—was exiled to Paris.  Ottomansealjpeg.jpg
 The Royal Seal of the House of Osman, c. 1882.  It's festooned with more weapons, bladed and gunpowder, than a pick-up truck in Texas.

Others tried to claim the caliphate, or considered doing do:  notably King Husayn of the Hijaz in Arabia, who was ultimately defeated by the Sa`udis; and King Fu’ad of Egypt.  Islamic conferences on the caliphate met in Mecca in 1926 and Jerusalem in 1931, but could not agree on the structure and function of the office, much less on someone to occupy it. 
About the same time Rashid Rida, a leading Syrian-Egyptian Islamic “modernist,” advocated a caliph as a preeminent mujtahid, or exerciser of ijtihad (“updater” of Islamic law), while both of the Muslim Brotherhood’s major thinkers--Hasan al-Banna, its founder, and later Sayyid Qutb, its foremost theorist—endorsed the caliphate.  Outside the Arab world, the Indo-Pakistani thinker Abu A`la Mawdudi directly pushed for the caliphate’s re-establishment,  stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. 

However, the efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mawdudi notwithstanding, from the 1950s until recently, the Pan-Islamic idea of the caliphate largely took a back seat to either enthnolinguistic-based unity schemes (Pan-Arabism, Pan-Turkism) or to nation-state sovereignty.  But in recent decades (certainly since 1979), the failure of such agendas has caused many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to take another look at Islamic history as a unifying force for the ummah—which, in Sunni contexts, means chiefly the caliphate.    Pro-caliphal propaganda has been sowed around the world, first and foremost, since 1952 by Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly promoted the resurrection of the caliphate.  (I have attended two of this organization’s yearly meetings in the US, in 2009 and 2012, and written on the former in the “Washington Times” and on the latter at my website.)  Zeal for the caliphate particularly consumes many in Pakistan, where over a dozen parties espouse it (as per Vernie Liebl, “The Caliphate,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3, May 2009, pp. 373-391).  So ISIS’s new caliphate did not spring ex nihilo from al-Baghdadi’s fevered brow; rather, the groundwork for bringing back such has been being laid almost since the last Ottoman ruler was deposed.  Many Muslims—probably a minority, but still tens if not hundreds of millions—are willing to consider a renewed caliphate as a unifier and a point of pride for their faith, the world’s second-largest.  But most of those probably would not have made the leader of ISIS their first choice.HTjpeg.jpg
Home page of the "Party of Liberation's" website.  HT has been the John the Baptist to Caliph Ibrahim's messianic success. 

How does “Caliph Ibrahim” stack up against historical Islamic standards?  According to Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval Muslim sociologist and historian, the caliph’s prerequisites are: 1) knowledge of Islamic law; 2) honesty and virtue; 3) ability to lead and wage jihad (yes, holy war); 4) physical health and lack of bodily defects; 5) Qurayshi origin (descent from Muhammad); and of course 7) maleness (see The Muqaddimah, Princeton University, 1981, pp. 158-60).   But as Bernard Lewis points out (The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago, 1988, p. 99 and passim), as Islamic history wore on “legitimacy…of qualifications…was progressively reduced to the point where, in effect, only two conditions remained—power and Islam. As long as the ruler possessed the necessary armed strength to seize and hold power, and as long as he was a Muslim, however minimal and however nominal, that sufficed.”  According to Liebl (pp. 387ff), that medieval/early modern concept of the caliphate was echoed in, and given the stamp of approval by, the 1926 Cairo conference, which mandated only that the caliph be a Muslim and a ”free sovereign capable of defending Islam”—of waging jihad, in other words.  (It was even stated that the caliph could accede to power via conquest.)   

“Caliph Ibrahim” fits a number of Ibn Khaldun’s requirements: PhD in Islamic law, demonstrated aptitude for jihad, health, and XY chromosomes.  His followers probably credit him with probity, as well.  He lacks only Muhammadan descent (although don’t be surprised if a fatwa to that effect from a caliphal-friendly `alim shows up in short order).   And he certainly meets the two bare bones requirements as laid out by the Cairo Conference.  Just as Usama bin Ladin, a renegade non-cleric, could issue a fatwa of “jihad against Jews and Crusaders” and have it heeded by many, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a renegade leader, can proclaim a caliphate with himself in command.  In fact, the latter probably has more legitimacy than UBL, since he actually rules substantial territory, is far more formally knowledgable about Islam, and has been in the front ranks fighting against the avowed enemies of Islam (rather than having spent the most recent years plotting from a cave or safe house).  Nothing succeeds like success, especially when it comes to the caliphate.  

A decade ago the  US National Intelligence Council tried to peer into the palantir and envision geopolitics in 2020.  Part of that included the fictional scenario of a new caliphate.  The two most important “lessons learned” from this exercise include the following: 1) “a Caliphate would not have to  be entirely successful…to present a serious challenge to the international order”; and 2) “the proclamation of a caliphate would not lessen the likelihood of terrorism and, in fomenting more conflict, could fuel a new generation of terrorists.”  As the first of these contentions is already being borne out—with the erasure of the Iraqi-Syrian border, Jordan’s possibly next—and the second almost sure to follow,  concern over the new caliphate is more justified than dismissive sang-froid.   

alBadrialBaghdadijpeg.jpg MehmetVjpeg.jpg
Caliph Ibrahim & former Ottoman Caliph Mehmet V.  Both proclaimed jihad; one is just a snazzier dresser with more bling. 

 But while the self-styled caliphal “Islamic State” is quite problematic, it’s perhaps not the geopolitical disaster that some would have it.   First,  al-Badri’s caliphate may yet be rejected by the non-Arab-jihadist Muslim population, on the grounds of his lacking Qurayshi bona fides and/or his deficiency of ties to the last Ottoman caliph.  Second,  more reputable organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation or al-Azhar University/Mosque—Sunni Islam’s highest authority (founded, ironically, by the aforementioned Shi`i Fatimids)—will almost inevitably condemn and illegitimize the “Islamic State” [IS].  Third, claimants with far more plausible claims to the caliphate--such as descendants of the Ottoman royal line, King Abd Allah II of Jordan or, perhaps most credibly, the family of Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah Asaf Jah VIII, with ties to the Ottoman and Mughal rulers (see Liebl, pp. 384ff.)—might dispute the pretensions of “Caliph Ibrahim.”  So too might the Saudis, who have never  asserted such but whose rulership of Mecca and Medina makes their claim more religiously, if less militantly, convincing.  

Some argue that the new caliphate’s brutal practices of beheading and crucifixion will inevitably make it unpopular and lead to its demise.  Perhaps.  But there’s a problem with that thesis: both beheading and crucifixion are enjoined in the Qur’an for, respectively, battlefield opponents and those who “war against Allah (and Muhammad)” and/or cause “immorality.” (Here is my analysis of Islamic decapitation; an excellent break-down of the Qur’anic passage backstopping crucifixion can be found here.)  IS[IS] may be violent, but it’s not thereby unIslamic; in fact, the caliphate can claim, quite plausibly, to be hewing closer to the Qur’an than the Sunni leaders in Amman or Riyadh—never mind the murtaddun, “apostates,” ruling in Damascus and Baghdad—as it hews through infidel necks. 

As for the alleged threat IS[IS] poses to the West in general and the US in particular:  in the near term, such is doubtful—hyperbolic claims about conquering Rome  notwithstanding—but on a long(er) time frame, “Caliph Ibrahim,” if he and his devotees stay in power, is indeed a clear and present danger to our allies and interests in the Middle East proper.  Not just Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia are in the caliph’s crosshairs; much more ominously, IS[IS] almost certainly plans on attacking Israel in order to “liberate” al-Quds, Jerusalem.  This is all the more true to the extent that the new caliphate is motivated by eschatological fervor (as per my previous post).   Al-Badri’s hubris is so great that he may even begin to think of himself in Mahdist terms—if his followers are not already doing so.   

How on earth is any of this positive?  A number of ways come to mind.  First, a caliph that enjoins beheadings and  crucifixions and simultaneously adduces his strict adherence to the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad might, just might, cause some Muslims to start questioning slavish adherence to same.  Second, this caliphate is inexorably exposing the fact that Iraq and Syria (and likely Jordan) possess only the thinnest gauze of legitimacy, and that the ethnic and sectarian realities on the ground would likely be better served by a reversion to the Ottoman realities; certainly the Kurds would benefit thereby.  Third, a caliph and state dedicated to jihad against not just non-Muslims, but Shi`is, would (further) draw Jordan, Sa`udi Arabia and Egypt—and likely even Turkey—into closer cooperation with the US and Israel.  Relatedly, perhaps even the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror—the Islamic Republic of Iran—might realize that the Dajjal in their midst is worse than the Great Satan over the horizon.  Fourth, with a Qur’anic literalist caliphate subjugating tens of thousands of Christians to dhimmi status, and raping and killing those who object, perhaps at long last the majority-Christian countries of the world—led by the largest one, the US—will stand up for their co-religionists in the Middle East.       
The Sack of Rome by Muslim Arabs (846 AD) as depicted on a $6 US of Islam bill. Sheer genius from        

And who knows? If the US, or at least this administration,  is too craven to protect Christians from such a horrific caliphate, then an El Cid may emerge from a more worthy venue--one that is not ashamed to stand up for his, and its, civilizational, and yes, religious, heritage.

[Addendum, as of 7.5.14: turns out that not just al-Baghdadi but his "vice-caliph," Abu Abd Allah al-Husayni "al-Qurayshi," claims lineal decent from Muhammad, the founder of Islam. I had somehow missed that when I originally posted this.]
9:13 pm edt          Comments

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Hour of ISIS Power: How Did It Come To This?
The Hour of ISIS Power 
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [Greater Syria], also known (less accurately) as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is for all its brutality—beheadings, destroying churches, mass executions—no longer merely a terrorist organization; it has now formed a renegade military theocracy and is in the process of creating a new Sunni territorial state in the Middle East.   ISIS’s current area of control is roughly along these lines:


How did it come to this?  Geographically, the Middle East is not just reverting to its more natural pre-World War I Ottoman-era delimitations, but is falling back into something more resembling the geographical layout imposed by the Abbasids in the 8th-13th centuries AD:

Baghdad was the imperial center for the Abbasids, and not merely a provincial capital as it was under the Ottomans.  Indeed, it may well be that ISIS aims to take Baghdad in order to cement its self-styled ambition to
recreate the caliphate—since the Arab Abbasid Caliphate (not the Turkish Ottoman one) is considered by many Arabs to be the “Golden Age” of Islamic civilization.  By the 16th century, when the Ottomans had long since displaced the Abbasids, the area of “Mesopotamia” became a contested and bloody buffer zone between that Sunni Turkish empire and the new Twelver Shi`i Persian one in Iran, the Safavids.  (And note: ISIS refers to Iraqi, not just Iranian, Shi`is as “Safavids.”) Iranian rule, whether under the Safavids or their successors, periodically reinforced and grew the Twelver Shi`i population of “Iraq”—the region on the following map from Mosul to the Persian Gulf:


Eventually the Ottomans consolidated their control over the region, and by 1900 what is now Syria and Iraq would have consisted of the Ottoman provinces (whether vilayets, sancaks or other administrative divisions) of Damascus, Halab (Aleppo), Dayr al-Zur, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.


By the eve of World War I, the relevant vilayets included Dayr al-Zur, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra:


With the Ottoman defeat, and eventual imperial dissolution, after 1918, the French and British obtained from the League of Nations the following mandates:


These, of course, eventually were modified by events, most notably the nascent Turkish Republic’s refusal to cede any of Anatolia—resulting in the creation of the Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, [Trans]Jordan, Iraq and, of course, the Jewish nation of Israel. 
 ISIS is forcibly and brutally dragging the Arab Middle East back to the future, by erasing the borders between two of the four Arab states hacked from the Ottoman Empire’s dying carcass and making the entire old Ottoman vilayet of Dayr al-Zur, as well as large chunks of Mosul and Baghdad vilayets, the core of the new caliphate:


 (Thanks to 40 maps that explain the Middle East.)

So what are the major points about ISIS which conventional wisdom gets wrong?

1) ISIS is not al-Qa`ida [AQ].  Like the vast majority of Islamic terrorist  groups, or VEOs (“violent extremist organizations”), ISIS operates independently of AQ and is motivated by a literal reading of the Qur’an and a desire to recapitulate the historical example—in terms of both conquest and imposition of Islamic norms via shari`a—of Islam’s founder, Muhammad.  In fact, ISIS may now have eclipsed AQ in terms of monetary reserves and global Islamic (fundamentalist) cachet; it’s certainly more powerful than AQ in that it rules a state in the center of the Middle East and is not relegated to the geopolitical margins (Yemen, the western Sahara desert, Pashtunistan).   

2) In addition, ISIS is, if anything, even more religious than AQ.  Its leader, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, holds a PhD in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence (fatwa-issuing, in other words).  By contrast, Usama bin Ladin was an engineer and Ayman al-Zawahiri is a medical doctor; and although both were/are profoundly Islamic in worldview and goals, they were/are laymen.  al-Badri fits into the emerging paradigm of jihadist leaders who have advanced training in Islamic theology, such as Abubakr Shekau of Nigeria’s Boko Haram [BH], and Mamman Nur of the BH offshoot Ansaru.  Such men are even more willing than UBL or al-Zawahiri to adduce Islam as motivation and justification for their actions—and can defend their literalist articulation of the Qur’an and Hadiths (Islamic traditions) much more legitimately than the previous generation of non-scholar jihadist leaders.   Part-and-parcel of this Islamic rhetoric is that al-Badri adopted the nom de jihad “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”  Abu Bakr was the first caliph of Islam after Muhammad’s death, and such a name resonates with those who wish to bring back caliphal rule.  Also, this Salafi hearkening back to the first generation of Islam—the Salaf were the “pious ancestors,” akin to the Apostolic Age for Christians, albeit holding power and violent—is what both drives and legitimizes imposition of Islamic law and the relegation of Christians in ISIS-controlled territory to oppressed dhimmi status.  Such a brutally verbatim reading of Islamic texts and adherence to Muhammadan practices is also what drives ISIS’s decapitations and crucifixions of opponents (whether Shi`i or Christian).  According to ISIS, the Iraqi government is staffed with Safavids; that of Syria is a den of Nusayris (the old term for the pseudo-Shi`i Alawis); and the USA is a nation of Crusaders who defend the Cross.  Open religious war is upon us, whether we would admit it or not.  
Muhammad giving his assent to Ali's beheading of al-Nadr b. al-Harith, mocker of Islam's prophet.

3) ISIS’s success amounts to Pan-Islam tossing Pan-Arabism into an ummarked grave, but ISIS did not kill Pan-Arabism; neither, for that matter, did the “Arab Spring.”  The political ideology based on shared Arab language and culture and, usually, socialism—exemplified by the failed Egypt-Syria merger into the United Arab Republic and the Ba`ath party of Saddam Hussein and the al-Asad family—was always more elite-driven than popular, and by the mid-1960s was taking taking body blows from much older and legitimately indigenous Islamic views of politics.  One might well see 1979 as the year in which Pan-Arabism finally succumbed to Islam, courtesy of the Iranian Revolution (yes, even Sunni Arab Muslims were influenced by a Twelver Shi`i Persian event), the abortive Mahdist coup in Sa`udi Arabia and the rise of the mujahidin to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  ISIS’s territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, and the reports of Iraqi government troops throwing down their arms and running, demonstrate that Sunni Pan-Islam is firmly in control of events on the ground there. 

4) The Kurds are one of the few Middle Eastern groups, and the most obvious, that stand to gain from ISIS’s advances—albeit at the expense of extant nation-states, notably Syria and Iraq.   They were the main ethnolinguistic group which was short-changed at the end of World War I, and now these 30+ million stateless people might finally benefit from the erasure of the colonial borders.   Take a look at this map, showing areas of ISIS’s “caliphate” and those of Kurdish dominance:


 (Thanks to

Syria’s jazira, that “peninsula” in the country’s northeast, is a de facto Kurdish state, contiguous to the extant autonomous Kurdish one in northern Iraq.  The Turks almost certainly don’t like it, but Ankara should also realize that ISIS rocks the casbah far worse than the Kurds do, or would.  Also, hopefully, President Erdoğan—who seems to style himself something of a neo-Ottoman ruler—will remember that the Ottoman sultans often had to put down Islamic fundamentalist (sometimes Mahdist) jihads, in places like Arabia, Yemen and Sudan.  As for Iraq: at this point, the central government in Baghdad will be fortunate if it manages to hang onto a rump state in the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra, for the provinces of al-Anbar and Ninawah (Nineveh) appear irretrievably lost.   Likewise, Bashar al-Assad should count on, at best, preserving a rump Syrian state, heavily Alawi and Christian, along the western coastal strip and including Damascus—while most of the rest of Sunni Syria defects to the caliphate.  This would perhaps reduce Alawi-Sunni acrimony, if the latter are not ruled by an “apostate” group.  It would also help the plight of Christians, who get along far better with Alawis than with militant Sunnis.

5) As if ISIS is not bad enough with its jihadism, there are disturbing hints of eschatological thinking and Mahdism among that group and its allies.  In a 2011 communique,  al-Qa`ida in Iraq—the ISIS predecessor organization—referred to the Shi`i militia Jaysh al-Mahdi (“Army of the Mahdi”) as the “army of the Dajjal.” Al-Dajjal or more fully al-Masih al-Dajjal is “the Deceiving Messiah,” who comes before the end of time to combat the (Islamic) forces of the returned Muslim prophet Jesus and his ally, the Mahdi.  Perhaps AQI was merely invoking the Dajjal to mock Muqtada al-Sadr’s group;  if not, then AQI/ISIS would seem to have an eschatological bent.  This latter explanation is reinforced by the eschatological explanations offered just six months ago by the official spokesman for the Chechen contingent of ISIS in Syria: “Issa [Jesus]…will come down here, and al-Dajjal will come out here, it is the land of epics and the land of resurrection.”  ISIS’s rival Jabhat al-Nusra was even more overtly eschatological, openly invoking the primary End Times figure of Islam: the Mahdi.  For most, if not all, the Sunni groups fighting jihad in Syria and, now (again), Iraq, eschatology is a key motivator—in terms of enemies (“Safavids,” “army of the Dajjal”), motivation (preparing the way for the Mahdi’s coming) and goals (regional, then global caliphate as well as eventual conquest of al-Quds, Jersualem); ISIS is likely no exception to this world-view.   

Some thought
Usama bin Ladin was the Mahdi (and, after he assumed room temperature, that he had become the Hidden Imam).   No one has yet proclaimed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the Mahdi—but if Islamic history is any guide, it’s just a matter of time.   Once the caliphate is firmly established, then the likelihood of a Mahdiyah being proclaimed increases.  And as I noted in my book Holiest Wars, “Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.” 

What can we, the Iraqi government, or other states in the region do against such reckless hate?  Air or drone strikes might take out ISIS convoys rolling down the highway toward Baghdad.  But ISIS fighters tend to blend in and disappear into the local population—in fact, they seem to have much popular Sunni support against the Maliki government—so would not be good targets for aerial termination.  Assuming that the Iraqi army lacks the will to stop ISIS, foreign ground troops are needed.  The Saudis are not going to prop up a Shi`i state, and have no combat experience. The Turks are a much more impressive military, but still suffer from the Ottoman imperial legacy, and Ankara has little desire to foster Kurdish irredentism by helping take out their major rival.  Iran has made noises about sending in forces, but the ayatollahs are wary of provoking even more opposition from the surrounding Sunni countries (both Arab and Turkey).  And despite reports of proposed US-Iran cooperation against ISIS,  just how such an alliance of convenience would stave off the ISIS advance has yet to be spelled out.  That leaves either US conventional or special forces.  President Obama has categorically ruled out the former,  but is said to be considering the latter—although how doing so while barring them from combat and limiting them to “non-operational training” would be of any benefit remains a mystery.   

But in any event, it is hard to see how ISIS can be defeated purely militarily.  It might be stopped from the Baghdad vilayet, but ISIS will continue to rule large sections of Iraq and Syria.  Its Islamic ideology, brutal though it may  be, appeals to many Sunnis in both countries.  It will take two elements to defeat ISIS: 1) A united “moderate” Sunni front, religious and ideological, which can delegitimize ISIS—but Iraq and Syria both lack Sunni clerics of sufficient stature to do so.  Yusuf al-Qaradawi or the institution of al-Azhar in Cairo might do the trick, but neither seems willing to get involved. 2) Boots of seasoned warriors on the ground—which means Americans.  That’s not happening under this administration.    

Therefore: behold, the new nascent caliphate!


ISIS hopes to use this caliphal statelet as the launching pad for a much bigger, idealized transcontinental Islamic polity:


(Thanks to syriadeeply.)  

Such a caliphal dream is of course a fantasy, but it is a dangerous one nonetheless, which already inspires ISIS to acts of savagery in the region, and will eventually motivate the followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to go after not just fellow Muslim rawafid (“rejecters”) but Jews and “Crusaders” outside the Middle East—eventually in New York and other American targets.
2:18 pm edt          Comments

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Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, Iran (during my trip there Aug. 2008)

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