As-Saffah Being Proclaimed Caliph

As-Saffah Being Proclaimed Caliph

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New Caliphate, Old Caliphate

As the jihadists of ISIS continue their brutal campaign to restore the Islamic caliphate, Conor Meleady draws parallels with the ultimately futile efforts of another would-be caliph a century ago.

When the organisation known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced at the end of June 2014 that it was seeking to restore the Islamic caliphate, with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph, it set off a wave of debate both among jihadists and western analysts. The debate concerned the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s claim and the likelihood of ISIS securing the support of the Islamic world for its project. Some analysts declared it to be the first time since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s abolition of the Ottoman Empire in March 1924 that any group or individual had been bold enough to make such a claim. In fact, just days after Atatürk’s action, the Hashimite Sharif Husayn of Mecca, King of the Hijaz, proclaimed himself caliph, inititating a controversy similar to that which al-Baghdadi’s declaration provoked. It was a controversy in which the officials charged with formulating Britain’s postwar policy in the Near East were deeply implicated.

Husayn’s claim was a decade in the making. Since the late 19th century, Arab intellectuals in Syria and Egypt had sought to reform the Ottoman Empire through a top-down process of Arabisation, with the Sharif of Mecca touted as a possible caliph. In the context of deteriorating Ottoman-British relations, these ideas were encouraged by orientalists such as Wilfrid Blunt, author of the anti-Ottoman tract, The Future of Islam, in which he argued that the revival of the Arabs was a historical inevitability in which Britain must play its part.

Encouraging revolt

It was the Consul General in Cairo, Lord Kitchener, who first broached the subject with the Sharif in the aftermath of the Ottoman entrance into the First World War, encouraging Husayn to revolt by speculating that: ‘[It] may be that an Arab of true race will assume Caliphate at Mecca or Medina and so good may come by the help of God out of all evil that is now occurring.’ The scheme was formalised in 1915 in the early exchanges of correspondence between Husayn and Sir Henry McMahon, Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt, in which the Sharif’s territorial demands, amounting to the entirety of the Arab lands of West Asia with the exception of British-occupied Aden, were supplemented by a demand that Britain ‘approve the proclamation of an Arab Khalifate of Islam’. While McMahon’s initial response welcomed the prospect of ‘the resumption of the Khalifate by an Arab of true race’, his second letter omitted any mention of the matter, a tacit acknowledgement that Cairo’s enthusiasm for a Hashimite caliphate had waned.

British scepticism towards Husayn’s ambitions reflected the growing understanding that the Sharif’s vision of the Arab caliphate involved independent Arab rule over the entire Arab Middle East, something that ran contrary to British plans for the region. McMahon had indicated that Britain was prepared to grant the Sharif his demands only after taking into account French interests and Britain’s existing treaties with the other chiefs in the Arabian Peninsula, including Husayn’s rival Ibn Sa’ud. The British plan for Husayn, then, resembled something close to an Islamic papacy – the other Arab chiefs in the region would acknowledge Husayn’s spiritual authority as caliph, while retaining sovereignty in their own realms. As Husayn knew and as the British were learning, such an arrangement was alien to Islamic tradition. It was not long before British authorities in India, concerned that its pro-Ottoman Muslim population would view any encouragement of a Sharifian caliphate as a betrayal of wartime promises of non-interference in Islam’s holy lands, were scolding Cairo’s Arab Bureau for encouraging Husayn in the belief that he was owed an Arab kingdom. As a result, the caliphate issue was dropped from British-Hashimite negotiations.

Custodian of the holy cities

Having lost British support, Husayn sought that of the wider Islamic world, in particular Muslim India, believing that, with the umma on his side, Britain would be forced to recognise his claim. As the custodian of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Husayn’s administration of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, facilitated contact with Muslims from around the world. In addition, with his Qurayshi lineage and the prestige of his title, his credentials were impeccable. On declaring his revolt against the Ottomans in the summer of 1916, Husayn appealed to Islamic sensibilities concerning just and legitimate governance.

Yet support from abroad was minimal. Husayn was seen as a British lackey, who was undermining the unity of the umma at a time when the future of the caliphate itself was cast into doubt by the performance of the Ottomans in the war. Opposition was strongest among the class of educated, reformist Indian Muslims, which would go on to form the nucleus of the Khilafat movement, agitating in favour of Ottoman demands during postwar negotiations. Even before the Sharif’s revolt, Indian activists had used the Hijaz as a base from which to organise an anti-British plot involving the Emir of Afghanistan, a conspiracy uncovered when British authorities in India intercepted a batch of silk scarves into which were woven the details of the plan. Husayn attempted to win the Indians over by inviting Muslim soldiers returning home from the European front to the Hijaz as his guests, with a view to having them propagandise on his behalf on their arrival in India. The task proved beyond him.

With European troops occupying Istanbul, the British tried to find out if the Ottoman sultan-caliph still commanded the recognition of the Muslim world. They sought to ascertain if the khutba, the Friday prayer, was still being recited in the name of Sultan Mehmed VI. British consulates from Morocco to Indonesia reported back that, with few exceptions, the umma still attended prayers in the caliph’s name. The process was repeated in 1922 when Atatürk’s nationalist government abolished the sultanate and appointed a new caliph, Abdülmecid II, to a position shorn of any temporal significance. Still, Muslims remained steadfast in support of the Ottoman caliphate.

In March 1924 Atatürk abolished the caliphate, sending Abdülmecid II into exile and leaving the umma without any recognised head. Husayn, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah now governed the newly formed mandate states of Iraq and Transjordan respectively, seized the opportunity to claim the title of caliph, with farcical results. Through his sons, Husayn succeeded in having the khutba said in his name in a few mosques across Iraq and Transjordan, yet beyond there, opposition to the sharifian caliphate was strong. Husayn resorted to desperate measures. In mid-April he announced that a delegation of prominent Malaysians had arrived in the Hijaz in order officially to bestow the recognition of five million Malaysian Muslims upon him, a claim which was ridiculed as ‘absurd’ at the British Agency in Jeddah when it became apparent that the ‘delegation’ consisted of 30 students of Arabic, who had arrived in the Hijaz with the aim of receiving religious instruction and improving their language skills. A British report on an incident which occurred as Husayn made his way from Jeddah to Mecca serves to highlight the increasing disdain with which the Sharīf was regarded in the Islamic world:

Some distance from the town the King transferred from his car to a carriage, whereupon … the horse at once fell dead, and the King, looking pale and anxious, had to have a riding horse brought on which to make his entry. This incident has given satisfaction to the Javanese Ulama, who had prophesied that for his impiety in seizing the Caliphate the King would drop dead on his return to Mecca they, however, cannot help wishing that the thunderbolt had been better aimed.

By the summer of 1924, Husayn’s bid for the recognition of the Islamic world had failed. That August, Ibn Sa’ud launched a final offensive against the Hijaz and, following the fall of Mecca in October, Husayn was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Ali, who, after renouncing all Hashimite claims to the caliphate, held on in Jeddah until December 1925, after which he joined his father in exile.

Like Husayn, al-Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate has been met with contempt by the Islamic world, with one Palestinian TV channel parodying fighters manning an Islamic State checkpoint and a number of online memes mocking the new caliph’s announcement. In contrast to the Sharif, however, al-Baghdadi is untainted by foreign involvement, while he enjoys the support of a fanatical online fan base ready to propagandise on his behalf. Unlike Husayn he has succeeded in capturing vast, resource-rich territories in the heart of the Arab Middle East. More problematic for the Islamic State is al-Baghdadi’s obscurity, lack of proven religious credentials and, most importantly, his organisation’s reputation for brutality, intolerance and sectarianism. These qualities ensure that the new caliphate’s constituency is limited to that element of the jihadi community already inclined to accept Islamic State’s agenda. It is this aspect of al-Baghdadi’s reign as caliph which guarantees that he will be no more successful in winning the support of the Muslim world than his predecessor, Sharif Husayn of Mecca.


When Muhammad died he left no clearly designated successor to lead the new Muslim movement. This led to an immediate division in Islam.

Traditionalists believed Abu-Bakr, one of the Prophet's friends (some say he was a father-in-law) and among the first of his converts, was meant to step into Muhammad's place. People of this tradition became known as Sunnis. Others chose to follow Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law. These people came to be known as Shi'ites (from Shia Ali—"the party of Ali").

The leaders of each party were called caliphs, and their successors formed the caliphate.


Caliph was the person acting in Muhammad's place after his death, i.e. the leader of Islam for the sunni sect. When Muhammad died in 632, the Muslim community faced a problem on how their community should be governed, and how leaders should be appointed. There were conflicting stories on what Muhammad had said, and the tensions that came already with the first appointment of a leader, a person acting in the place of the Messenger, a khalifatu r-rasuul, few months after Muhammad's death. Khalifa can be translated as "successor, vicegerent", but is a term that is seldom used for anything else than the leader of the entire Muslim community, and when other forms of usage appears the use of "Caliph" (khalifa), is very conscient regarding the main meaning of the term.

Through history, we have seen parallel Caliphs, but none had as much symbolic power and influence as the one that followed the line of Caliphs from Abu Bakr, which was the first. This line of Caliphs had a steady residence in Damascus from 661 to 750, and Baghdad and Samarra up until 1258. After 1258, and until 1924 there have been several Caliphs, but all of these have had only limited influence, they have represented no continuation of the Caliphs of Baghdad, and in more than one case, these caliphhoods have been motivated by political motives, and few or none religious. The Muslim world have never agreed upon uniting behind anyone of these.

The Caliph carried other titles, that were less modest, as they were not relative to Muhammad, but to the Muslim community. As amiiru l-mu'miniin he was responsible for the Muslim armies. As imam he was the head of public worship, and gave khutbas (hutbe). The last Caliph was removed by the Mongols when they conquered Bagdad. After this there has been several rulers putting up their own Caliph, but the Caliphate never gained any of its former power or importance.

There are four periods of the Caliphate of Islam:

The Rashiduns (632-661): Rashidun is the name used for the first four Caliphs, from 632 to 661, and indicate that these were the just and admirable leaders of the Muslim community. This period was marked by a long line of conquests by the Arabs, as well as endeavors to turn the leaflets of the revelations that had been given to Muhammad into a book, the Holy Koran. Inside the Muslim realms peace prevailed until the death of Uthman in 656. As this was a murder, the Muslim could not agree upon quite who was responsible. This time, the caliphate of Ali, came with the two schismas that has impregnated Islam ever since, when first there was a break between the majority and a group now known as Kharijis, and later between the group now known as Shi'is and the Sunnis.

The Ummawiyys (661-750): The Ummawiyyas got their power through military actions, a fact that influenced their religious legitimacy strongly through the 90 years they had the power. Most Muslim regard the Ummawiyyas as less admirable than both the Rashiduns and the later Abbasids. Even if the Shi'is did not accept the rule of the Ummawiyy Caliphs, this group was at the time to weak to represent much of a threat to the ruling group.

The Abbasids (750-1258): The Abbasids was to a large extent Shi'is (the division lines of today was not as clear in those early days), and the defeating of the Ummawiyys was strongly motivated by Ali's claim on the leading position in the Muslim world. The Abbasid Caliph involved himself strongly in the religious life of the community. The distance between ruler and people became longer, the court of the Caliph was one of increasing splendor.

The 9th century was the start of the decline of the real influence of the Caliph on first politics, and soon also religious matters. The symbolic importance was, however, increased. All effective power was lost in 946. The Buyyids became the new ruling dynasty, but in secular terms. Some cases of outward importance of the Caliph was seen in some cases in the following centuries, but this was mainly instances where the secular ruler got the blessings of the Caliph, but without giving the Caliph any form of influence. The blessings, in the shape of a diploma of investiture and robes of honor was given to strong leaders as Saladin.

In 928 Abdu r-Rahman III of Spain, a desendant of the Ummawiyys, took the title caliph, a title his descendants also carried. The Fatimids of Egypt had also taken this title, as far as back to 909, but they put less emphasis on this than what the Ummawiyys of Spain did.

The period after 1258: When al-Musta'sim was killed in 1258 by the Mongols, he did not leave any heir. The uncle of al-Musta'sim was however installed in the position as Caliph in 1261 in Cairo, but this Caliph disappeared in the desert when bringing an army up north in order to try to sack the Mongols. A new Caliph was installed in 1262, once again in Cairo, this also a relative of al-Musta'sim. A mere symbol, without the permission to move freely around, this new line of Caliphs stayed in their position for about 250 years. Except from installing the Sultan in great ceremonies, this Caliph had no importance. The Abbasid Caliph of Cairo was also ignored by the rest of the Muslim world.

In several places Caliphs popped up, in Maghreb, with the Seljuks, the Timurids, the Turcomans, the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. When the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, the remaining Caliph was transported to Istanbul, the Ottoman Sultan Selim called himself Caliph. Later sources claims that the Abbasid caliph transferred his dignity to Selim I. In the 18th century the importance of being Caliph had grown stronger for the Ottoman Sultan, and started to call himself the protector of the Muslim religion. Some influence did the Ottoman Caliph and Sultan have. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan held on to his title of Caliph for two more years, until his office was abolished in March 1924 by Atatürk.

A congress in Cairo in 1926 that tried to reestablish the Caliphate, did not manage to succeed. Important Muslim countries did not participate, and the resolutions agreed upon did not result in real actions, even if they expressed to be in favor of a Caliphate. Since then nothing has been done, much due to nationalism in the different countries. There are no more Caliphs around the world today.

According to Shia Muslims the only current legitimate Caliph selected by Allah is Imam Mahdi (a.s.) but he is now at occultation. So because Muslims recognize him as Caliph so no Shia Muslims claim this title. Shia Muslims believe according to different verses of Quran only Allah has the right to select his own Caliph on earth. Because Caliph means deputy and representative of Allah in earth and only Allah can select his own representative.

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, "Indeed, I will make upon the earth a Caliph." They said, "Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?" Allah said, "Indeed, I know that which you do not know."

In this verse God says "I" select Caliph.

Also other verses say God selects Caliph.

Shia Muslims believe during occultation times Wali Faqih undertakes the duties of Caliph. The current Wali Faqih of Shia Muslims is Imam Khamenei.

Reference and more study:

One thing worth consideration is the very nature of the title Caliph. In practical terms, throughout history many have claimed the title, but few were widely believed to be a rightful Caliph.

This is not at all dissimilar to the Western Schism, when in the late 1300s there were three Catholic Popes. This has happened within Sunni Islam too. In the early 900s the remnants of the Ummayad dynasty seated in Cordobora then Muslim Spain, claimed to be Caliph - at the same time as the Abassid dynasty was claiming the title given their control of the Levant.

So firstly, we have to realise that Caliph was never a concrete thing, it was fluid and could be interpreted as ecumenical or political.

Secondly, even the most obvious Caliphs the Ottomans, claimed the title for centuries but never actually got around to putting this in writing until it became politically useful. In the 1700s territorial disputes with Russia allowed them to claim they were, as Caliph, the rightful protector of Muslims living in Russian lands.

It should be no surprise then that the Ottomans only became widely regarded as rightful Caliphs after they had became the Middle East and Muslim world's undisputed superpower. By this time other claimants had either died (in Spain) or been consumed (in the Levant) into the Ottoman empire.

Fast forward to the cold war and the character of the Middle East had changed. There was neither a Muslim superpower, nor the conditions for a theocratic system to emerge. The new zeitgeist was influenced by progressive and secular ideologies: American liberalism, Soviet socialism, Turkish Kemalism. Furthermore attempts to unify the Arab world failed.

You mention 1926. This was only a few years after the Ottoman empire fell, and Kemalism replaced Ottoman tradition. Widespread feeling was that the Ottomans had failed to adapt to the rapid technological and social changes in Europe, and had become the "Sick man of Europe". Alternatively the issue was that their failures were because of theological shortcomings. Either way, the old ways were no longer relevant and change was essential.

Egypt and Syria formed a United Arab Republic between 1958-71. In response Iraq and Jordan joined together and created the Arab Federation, as they were both Hashemite Kingdoms. But this lasted a mere six months. Libya's Ghadafi managed to create the Federation of Arab Republics, lasting 1972-7 between Libya, Egypt, Syria. And there have been many more unsuccessful initiatives during this era to unite Arab countries.

But this situation wouldn't last. The Middle East's Republics and Kingdoms became increasing corrupt and ineffective, and this provoked reactionary ideas. Islamist ideas, like those of Sayyid Qutb, started to take root after his execution in 1966. The Iranian revolution in 1979 would solidify the importance of religious politics in the Middle East. Since then the region has become more and more theocratic.

However, the region has also become more divided as nations attempt to prove themselves dominant, and sectarianism is out of control. Now there are many major powers, each having little hope of uniting the others Egypt, Turkey, Saudi, Iran. Even minor powers behave with fierce independence, like Qatar.

Politically and religiously the Middle East has drifted apart. The bottom line is this: a Caliph would be agreed upon after political consensus and nobody has been able to unite the Middle East politically since the Ottomans. Even with a Middle East more theocratic now than it has been for decades, without someone able to enforce unity no claimant Caliph will be taken seriously.

[4] Abu Muhammad Musa al-Hadi (169-170 A H)

Though he ruled for a short period of one year, he became as notorious as his father was for his cruelty and persecution toward the Sayyids and the Shia. He imposed restrictions on the progeny of Ali and Fatima (a.s.) who lived in Medina, and made them stand surety for each other. He made it obligatory on them to report every morning to the local authority. Often, they were made to wait for long hours just to insult them. The insults led to altercations. Being unable to bear the insults and harassment, al-Husayn bin Ali bin al-Hasan bin al-Hasan bin al-Hasan bin Ali ibn Abi Talib called for the progeny of Imam Ali (a.s.) and the following persons gathered around him Yahya, Sulaiman, and Idris the sons of Abdullah bin al-Hasan, Abdullah bin al-Hasan al-Aftas, Ibrahim bin Isma’eel, Umar bin al-Hasan, Abdullah bin Isma’eel, and Abdullah bin Ja’far. These ten persons were proceeding on their pilgrimage. They were joined by thirty-six persons who were the progeny of Ali (a.s.) and a few bondsmen. They went to the governor’s house early in the morning. On seeing them, the governor ran away. However, they were soon surrounded by the army of al-Hadi the Abbasid king and were massacred. The bodies remained lying on the ground for three days.11 Six persons were taken prisoners and were brought before al-Hadi who beheaded them.

As-Saffah Being Proclaimed Caliph - History

Introduction: Muhammed was born around 570 AD to a family of the Quraysh clan, the ruling tribe of Mecca, an important trading city in north-western Arabia. He was orphaned early in life but around 590 he entered the service of a widow called Khadijah, operating trading caravans to the north. He subsequently married Khadijah, with whom he had two sons -who did not survive- and four daughters.

Some time around 610, he began to retire to a cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca. During one of these visits he heard the voice of the Angel Gabriel. Over a period of time, God's message to mankind was revealed to Muhammed, first and foremost the supremacy of God as the creator of man and the source of all knowledge.

Muhammed began to preach about what he had learnt. Society in Mecca at the time was polytheist and it's rulers did not take kindly to his message. On 16th July 622 after negotiations with representatives of the small town of Yathrib, later to be called Medina, Muhammed gathered his followers together and moved there. This event was known as the "Hijra" and the Muslim calendar began on this date. In the West, Islamic dates are indicated by "A.H." (Anno Hijra) to distinguish them from the Christian "A.D."

Before his death in 632 AD, Muhammed and his followers had captured Mecca and occupied the west coast of the Arabian peninsular, setting the scene for the amazing conquests of the next few years.

On the death of Muhammed, by general agreement with his followers, 'Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him. He was the first Kalifa (Caliph in English), which means successor (to Muhammed) or deputy (to God). He was followed in 634 AD by 'Umar. He was succeeded in 644 AD by 'Uthman. 'Uthman was murdered in 656 AD by the followers of 'Ali, who was installed as Caliph. These followers of 'Ali became known as shi'atu 'Ali, or Shi'ites, the name of a major sect of Islam, still a major force today. The orthodox mainstream Muslims are known as Sunni. These first four leaders were known as the "Rightly Guided Caliphs".

The Umayyads, headed by Abu Sufyan, were a merchant family of the Quraysh tribe centred at Mecca. They had initially resisted Islam, not converting until 627 AD, but subsequently became prominent administrators under Muhammad and his immediate successors. Following the murder of 'Uthman civil war ensued, and although 'Ali was initially triumphant, eventually Abu Sufyan's son Mu'awiyah, then governor of Syria, emerged victorious establishing himself as the first Umayyad caliph.

The Umayyads were considered too secular and discontent erupted into major revolts in Syria, Iraq, and Khorasan (745-746 AD). In 749 AD, Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, was proclaimed as caliph who thereby became first of the Abbasid dynasty. Al-Mansur (754-775 AD) constructed a new Abbasid capital, Baghdad.

The Pretender-Caliph and Islamic History: The Truth about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

So Muslims of the twenty-first century have a caliph, do they? According to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 has now been reversed and the institution has been revived after an interregnum of ninety years.

The new caliph is even called Abu Bakr, just like the first leader of the Muslim community who assumed office after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

This twenty-first century caliph also comes adorned with a self-proclaimed affiliation with the Quraysh, the Prophet's natal tribe (although his last name, al-Baghdadi, betrays a non-Meccan origin). Moreover, he fights ruthlessly and butchers all those who stand in his way. He gives no quarter to his enemies and there is no satiating his blood-lust - all in the name of jihad.

After all, isn't that how a Muslim caliph should comport himself?

Yes, indeed, but only if the job description was written by a career Islamophobe, of which there are plenty these days. Now add to the list our current pretender-caliph. Although the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney have done plenty to besmirch the image of Muslims and all their cherished historical shibboleths (umma, jihad and yes, the caliphate), no one could have done a better hatchet job than al-Baghdadi.

What would happen if we wrote the job description for the caliphate based on history instead? Here goes.

The original Arabic sources which discuss the qualifications of the individual best suited for the office of the caliph emphasize the following traits: generosity, truthfulness, courage and, most importantly, superior knowledge, both religious and worldly. Abu Bakr, the first historical caliph, had these traits in abundance, as did the three remaining caliphs who are collectively called "the Rightly-Guided Caliphs." The first caliph's epithet was al-Siddiq, the "Truthful" which he earned on account of his unflinching honesty and devotion to the truth.

And how was Abu Bakr al-Siddiq proclaimed caliph? As the sources inform us, a crowd of Muslims gathered in Medina to discuss the selection of a successor to the Prophet immediately after his death. They debated the respective qualifications of the two primary candidates for the office of the caliph - Abu Bakr and 'Ali, the Prophet's cousin. The 60-plus year old Abu Bakr won out over the roughly thirty-three year old 'Ali mainly on account of his greater maturity and the greater wisdom that came with it, for they were otherwise equally generous, truthful and courageous.

This process of consultative decision-making, known as shura in Arabic, is prescribed in the Qur'an and was practiced abundantly by the Prophet himself. Following this consultative process, the crowd offered their allegiance to Abu Bakr - another important act known in Arabic as bay'a, which confers legitimacy on the leader. In subsequent political and communal decisions made by the Rightly-Guided caliphs, these twin concepts of consultation (shura) and the offering of public allegiance (bay'a) by the people became enshrined as foundational principles for the legitimate governance of the Muslim community.

Upon his election, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq made it clear that he remained accountable to the people in a speech that has surely become one of the most famous in the annals of Islamic history. According to the well-known author from the ninth century al-Jahiz, Abu Bakr addressed the crowd thus: "Indeed I am a follower, not an innovator if I perform well, then help me, and if I should deviate, correct me."

Abu Bakr then went on to assert that the caliphate was deserved only on the basis of moral excellence kinship to the Prophet or tribal affiliation (such as descent from the Quraysh tribe) was of no consequence whatsoever. His address has justly become a model of humility and moral accountability to the people that is meant to set a gold standard for political conduct in the Islamic milieu.

Fast forward to fourteen centuries later and let us compare the historical situation of the seventh century with the contemporary one. There is no doubt that al-Baghdadi did a bit of homework before anointing himself caliph. In a sermon he gave at the Grand Mosque in Mosul, Iraq on Friday, 4 July (the sixth of Ramadan), he cited part of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq's speech. He repeated the section about asking the people to correct him if he should go astray but, significantly, left out the part about the caliph being "a follower, not an innovator." He also failed to mention that the people had a very important role in electing their caliph and that they had the right to be consulted in such matters before his appointment. Instead al-Baghdadi proclaimed thunderously that "I have been appointed [caliph] over you, even though I am not the best and the most morally excellent among you."

With this last assertion, he brought the whole edifice of the Sunni caliphate crashing down over him, by mocking the very ideals that are supposed to shore it up. As history tells us, the caliph, also known as the Commander of the Faithful (a title dutifully adopted by al-Baghdadi), is expected to be consensually elected by the people or by their representatives (as in an electoral council) and he must be acknowledged to be the most morally excellent of his time. This is the documented Sunni position with regard to a legitimate caliphate, even as history took a different turn and dynastic rule set in.

So when al-Baghdadi confessed that "I have been appointed over you," he spectacularly thumbed his nose at the principles of consultation and public allegiance that undergird the earliest legitimate caliphate.

That means he is one of two other kinds of rulers who emerged in history who do not depend on shura and bay'a for their legitimacy. The first would be a mere worldly king, who simply wants the trappings of political power and rules absolutely and tyrannically over his subjects. Such a king is designated in Arabic as malik, a pejorative term which immediately brands the individual as an illegitimate usurper of political power, for he rules his people without their consent. The Umayyad rulers who came to power after the "Rightly-Guided" caliphate in the late seventh century without instituting any process of election were therefore contemptuously dismissed as mere "kings" by official historians, despite their conscious adoption of the title of caliph.

The second possibility is that al-Baghdadi considers himself appointed by God, a status that no Sunni caliph could ever openly entertain. From the viewpoint of Sunni political theory, such a claim would make him the equivalent of a Shi'i imam or religious leader. In contrast to the Sunnis, the Shi'a did come to believe in the divine appointment of their leaders which, by definition, was not subject to the processes of consultation and ratification by the people. It is very likely that this is the model al-Baghadi is emulating. Given ISIS's loathing for the Shi'a, such an assertion is richly ironical and confirms the old adage that a little learning is always a dangerous thing!

Most Muslims have received al-Baghdadi's proclamation - when they are aware of it - with supreme apathy. This should come as no surprise. Al-Baghdadi can keep touting himself as the new caliph, but most Muslims know enough about their own history to recognize him for what he is - a murderous tyrant using religion as a cheap armour to acquire rank political power.

Kingly pretensions were never part of the real caliph Abu Bakr al-Siddiq's image. The current indifference and revulsion of the majority of Muslims towards the pretender-caliph speaks to their resolve not to take part in the degradation of that image and to keep the hope alive that political governance in their societies will continue to be based on consultation and the consent of the people. These principles constitute the true legacy of the historical caliphate and can easily translate into modern democratic systems - a point that a number of Muslims are now energetically making.

Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies and Chairperson of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of several books, includingExcellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership,The First Muslims: History and Memory, and the recently publishedStriving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought.

You can also read theperspective of Samina Yasmeen, Director at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia. Professor Yasmeen featured on last week'sReligion and Ethics Report on RN.


The Abbasid caliphs officially based their claim to the caliphate on their descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (566 – 662), one of the youngest uncles of Muhammad, by virtue of which descent they regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of Muhammad as opposed to the Umayyads. The Umayyads were descended from Umayya, and were a clan separate from Muhammad's in the Quraish tribe.

The Abbasids also distinguished themselves from the Umayyads by attacking their moral character and administration in general. According to Ira Lapidus "The Abbasid revolt was supported largely by Arabs, mainly the aggrieved settlers of Marw with the addition of the Yemeni faction and their Mawali". The Abbasids also appealed to non-Arab Muslims, known as mawali, who remained outside the kinship-based society of Arab culture and were perceived of as a lower class within the Umayyad empire. Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of Abbas, began to campaign for the return of power to the family of Muhammad, the Hashimites, in Persia during the reign of Umar II, Muhammad ibn Ali.

During the reign of Marwan II, this opposition culminated in the rebellion of Ibrahim the Imam, the fourth in descent from Abbas. Supported by the province of Khorasan, Iran, he achieved considerable successes, but was captured in the year 747 and died in prison some hold that he was assassinated. The quarrel was taken up by his brother Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, who, with victory on the Greater Zab River (750), defeated the Umayyads and was proclaimed Caliph.

Establishment of Majalis to commemorate the events of Karbala’

As mentioned earlier, when Imam ‘Ali Al-Riza was on his journey to Khorasan he stayed in the city of Qom for a few months and there he established these commemorative Majalis. In Tus where he stayed for over a year as heir apparent to the Emperor, Imam re-established these Majalis there too. This tradition was initiated by Imam Muhammad al Baqir (as) and then continued by the 6th Imam. But during those times, only those who came to visit the Imams in their homes were narrated these stories.

But Imam ‘Ali Al-Ridha’ (as) was respected both as Imam and heir apparent. Merv, the capital and a central city of Persia of that time, was the meeting place of people from all walks of life and from all corners of the earth. As soon as the crescent of Muharram was sighted, Majalis of Karbala’ began. Everybody was expected to recite the sad events that befell the Prophet’s descendants and maintain a serious atmosphere of sorrow and grief.

Imam himself convened these Majalis in which he recited first, then allowed others to read the story of Karbala’. Abdallah ibn Thabit and D’bil al Khuzai were the poets who asked to recite poems narrating the tragic events.

At the end of such a majlis the Imam bestowed on the poet a costly shirt. The humble poet refused to accept such a precious gift, requesting that the Imam be gracious to grant him his used shirt instead. The good natured saint insisted on granting him both shirts, the new one and his own old shirt.

This incident proves two things: First, that the speaker in these majalis must not decide or demand any payment for his address, second that if the convener presents something as a gift or payment, the speaker may accept it.

To get an insight into the lives and activities of the Imam, let me give a few anecdotes from the pages of history to establish his manner and his behavior with other people.

One day a man approached the Imam and said, “ I am one of your followers and have love for the Ahlul Bayt of the Prophet. I am now returning from pilgrimage to Makka and I am now penniless and have no money to return home.

If you think it proper, please give me enough money so that I can reach home. After reaching home, I will give the same amount to the poor in your name. I am not poor at home, it is during my travels that I have spent more than I should have and become penniless.

Imam got up, and went inside the house. He then called the man to the door, extended his hand from behind the curtain and handed him the required amount, saying, “Take these two hundred Dinars. These are your travel expenses, and may this bring you the blessings of God. There is no need to give equivalent money to the poor but if you feel you must then you may give it to the orphans and the widows of your town.”

The man took the money and left. The Imam came out from behind the curtain and resumed his seat. People asked, “Why did you adopt such a way that the man could not see you while you were giving the money.” Imam replied, “ I did not want to see the shame of supplication on his face.” (Ayoun Akhbar al Riza)

Mohammed ibn Sinan reports that during the caliphate of Haroun, they once warned the Imam about declaring his Imamate as the caliph would try to harm him. The Imam replied, “ What gave me courage are the words of the Prophet when he said, “ If Abu Jehl can harm even a hair of my head, then be witness that I am not the messenger of God.”

And I say that “ if Haroun can harm even a hair of my head, then be witness that I am not a true Imam." (Kafi)

Abu Salt Harvi reports that Imam left Nishapur and reached a village called Din-Surkh, it was the time of Zohr prayers. Imam descended from the horse he was travelling and asked for water to perform the Zohr prayers. No water was found. Then the Imam with his holy hands dug some earth and a spring gushed out Imam and all his companions performed the wuzu.

This place near Nishapur is now called Qadamgah. It is a small hillock. The spring still gushes and people who visit this place drink from the spring for blessing and for obtaining cures from sickness and skin diseases. The place preserves the Holy foot prints of the Imam on a black stone. (Akhbar al Riza)

One of the famous saying of Imam ‘Ali Al-Riza is,

“ This world is a prison for a momin and a paradise for the unbeliever.”

This means that a true believer always aspires to leave this prison of his body and his Nafs and Ruh wants to get away to the nearness of God, but those who do not believe have nothing further than their mortal lives and they aspire to make it a paradise.

But in the process they create their own hell on earth for their aspirations are never ending desires for accumulating material wealth.

Watch the video: Das Kalifat und dessen Bedeutung. Furkan bin Abdullah (August 2022).