A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 30, 2014

Declaring a Caliphate Doesn't Make One a Caliph

Hussein of Hijaz
So Ibrahim al-Badri, AKA Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, thinks he's Commander of the Faithful of a new Islamic Caliphate? Not so fast.There are abundant reasons to fear the murderous Baghdadi and his ISIS (or now apparently just "The Islamic State"),  but fear of the world's Muslims rallying behind a new Caliphate seems misplaced. Juan Cole made the point yesterday in his "The Debacle of the Caliphates: Why al-Baghdadi’s Grandiosity doesn’t Matter," gave the basic argument, but I'd like to elaborate on some of his points.

In 1924, two days after the Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate, the Hashemite King Hussein of the Hijaz, the same Sharif Hussein who had raised the Arab revolt, proclaimed himself Caliph. He met with little enthusiasm, though his sons,  now Amir of Transjordan and King of Iraq, were no doubt polite about it.

Later that year Hussein was driven out of his Kingdom by the Saudis,nd lived out his last years in Amman.

When the Turkish claim to the Caliphate ended (and it had never been taken very seriously outside Ottoman territory, except to a limited extent among some Indian Muslims; the Ottomans were not from Quraysh or even Arab), various other leaders considered following suit. The Saudis did not: they believed (as had been the rule in the Classical era) that Caliphs must come from the tribe of Quraysh, which Hussein did but the Saudis did not.The Ottomans weren't from Quraysh either. King Fuad I of Egypt, though of Turco-Albanian ancestry, reportedly hired genealogist to find him  a suitable Qurayshi ancestor.

In 1924, the newly, at least nominally, independent Arab monarchs were not ready to recognize anyone else as a real Caliph. Scholars still argued that the Caliphate was a necessity; when Egyptian scholar ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Razzaq argued it was no longer necessary, he was rebuked by his superiors at al-Azhar.

But as Cole notes, the Caliphate as a real center of authority ended with the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in AD 1258.

But even before that, it had been weak; the later ‘Abbasid Caliphs depended on a sequence of warlords of Persian or Turkish origin, and a distinction arose between the religious authority of the Caliph and the military/political power of the "Sultan," a word which means simply "power."

From 945-1055 AD Baghdad was under the authority of the Buyids, a Persian dynasty of 12er Shi‘ites who nonetheless accepted the authority of the Sunni ‘Abbasid Caliphs. Soon after their rise to power came the Fatimid Dynasty, who called themselves a Caliphate but were Isma‘ili Shi‘ites, and controlled Egypt and North Africa and contested Syria. Though the Sunni Caliphate survived, much of the real power was in the hands of Shi‘ites. The emergence of Sunni warlords such as the Zangids in Syria, the Ayyubids in Egypt, and eventually the Seljuq Turks, restored Sunni dominance, but only occasionally could the late ‘Abbasids exert any real authority, and then usually only around Baghdad. In 1258 the last Caliph of Baghdad died and the Mongols extinguished the Caliphate.

Tombs of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Cairo
Though not quite. In Cairo's great southern cemetery, in the rear of the great shrine-tomb of Sayyida Nafisa, one of Cairo's patron saints, is a much smaller structure, domed, and with a number of cenotaphs. This is the tomb of the "shadow caliphs," the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Cairo.

A few members of the ‘Abbasid family escaped the fall of Baghdad. The Mamluk Sultans in Egypt, who would eventually stop the Mongol advance in Palestine, gave refuge to a claimant who "ruled," without any real power or broad acknowledgement, outside of the Mamluk realms, and only a token recognition even there. Unlike the popular shrine of Sayyida Nafisa next door, the tomb attracts few other than students of Islamic architecture.

In all there were 18 ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Cairo (one counts twice as he was deposed and restored). At the time of the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517, the last of these, al-Mutawakkil III, was carried off to Constantinople; he later returned to Cairo where he died.

In theory, the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate was based on the idea that the title was transferred to them after their conquest of Egypt, though as early as Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror a century earlier, some Sultans flirted with claiming the title.

But the Ottomans, whatever latent claim they might assert, did not seriously emphasize the Caliphate until Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), who sought to claim a role beyond the Ottoman dominions. During World War I, though the Sultan of that era was a figurehead of the Young Turks, he proclaimed a Jihad in hopes of provoking risings by Muslims in British India. When Turkey was declared a republic in 1923, an Ottoman relative, Abdülmecid II, remained Caliph but not Sultan until the abolition in 1924.

But again, if the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Cairo were shadows, the Ottoman Caliphate was a phantom, only really asserted from the late 19th century.

Not everyone agrees whether a Caliph has to be from Quraysh, but he does need the consensus of the Muslim umma, needs to be a just ruler with religious knowledge (he is the khalifa or successor of the Prophet , though not to his prophethood, merely his political and religious authority), and of all the potential candidates, I rather doubt that Baghdadi will sway most believers. I suspect, like King Hussein of Hijaz, proclaiming himself Caliph will not make him one.

Have I mentioned I'm the Lost Dauphin of France?


Brian Ulrich said...

The Mughals also claimed the caliphate, and I think the Ottoman claim may have been accepted in Aceh for awhile.

On modern points, I forget which king the big blue mosque in downtown Amman is named for, but inside there is an exhibit presenting King Abdullah II's claim to the caliphate.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Interesting. Aceh is a real outlier. Abdullah II being half English raises questions, or maybe not, since' Queen Elizabeth is said to have several descents from the Prophet herself.

Brian Ulrich said...

Most Abbasids were born to slave women of diverse origin, so that ship sailed long ago.

On the Aceh point, in the eyes of many rulers, caliphs are fine as long as they are too far away to actually tell you what to do. They first recognized Ottoman nominal suzerainty in the 1500's when the Porte was trying to use soft power to coordinate an anti-Portugese alliance, and apparently kept it up without actual official contacts with Istanbul until the 1800's, when the Ottomans received their pleas for help against the Dutch.

Some rulers in Comoros accepted the Ottomans' caliphal claims for similar reasons.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Ah. Aceh andhe Comoros are outside my ken, butit's nice to know we'll acknowledge a Caliph if he has no power over us.

David Mack said...

Before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself to be Caliph Ibrahim and demanded the loyalty of all Muslims, I thought that ISIS represented a serious threat to the government in Baghdad. While it is still a threat to Iraqis and Syrians under its sway, I am now inclined to see that as tragic but temporary. If an IRA terrorist back in the day when they were planting bombs in London had declared himself the new Pope, does anyone imagine it would have increased the threat to HMG?

Conormel said...

I've written a little on this topic here - http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/156842 and here - http://arabbureau.blogspot.ie/2014/09/mocking-caliph-records-of-hijaz-vol-8.html