Caliphate: a fantasy worth dying for?

February 2, 2007

Calls to revive a 'golden age' under a Muslim head of state are part of a dangerous distortion of Islamic history, Robert Irwin argues.

Although Edward Said was famous for his angry polemic Orientalism , he was not the first to attack the way Western scholars presented Islam and Islamic history. He drew (without proper acknowledgement) on the works of earlier Muslim critics. Said, a secular humanist, criticised the Orientalists for their alleged collusion with imperialism, racism and Zionism. Muslim critics, on the other hand, mostly attacked the Orientalists for failing to accept the Islamic revelation at the Muslims' own valuation and for presenting an excessively critical view of Islamic history. These lines of criticism are still popular today, in particular among fundamentalists.

Orientalism criticised Western scholarship on Islam and the Arabs without providing an alternative methodology or version. But some Muslim critics, although they are happy to take over Said's polemical misrepresentations of Western scholarship, have gone on to elaborate their own fantasy distortion of Islamic history. The present-day cult of the caliphate is a case in point.

A quick trawl through Google will lead one to hundreds of Muslim websites proclaiming the past glories of the caliphate and the desirability, or even necessity, of its revival. For example,  argues that not only would British Muslims be much better off under one, but Christians and Jews would, too. Since the caliph as head of state would be a believing Muslim governing according to religious law, the old, potentially corrupt democratic politics would be a thing of the past. The legislature would be replaced by an advisory council. The institutional racism of the Civil Service would be eradicated. Usury would be abolished and Britain would return to the gold standard. And so on.

Muslims tend to set their utopias in the past. The best of times is held to have been during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions.

But the Prophet does not seem to have made any provision for the leadership of the Islamic community after his death. When he did die in 632, Abu Bakr was proclaimed caliph - successor or deputy - by consensus of those who mattered. Many Sunni Muslims regard the caliphates of the first four caliphs, the Rashidun or "rightly guided", as a second golden age - this despite three of the four being assassinated. Modern Muslims tend to be less enthusiastic about the Umayyad dynasty that subsequently came to power and ruled the Arab empire from 661 until 750. They were accused of ruling as secular princes, in disregard of the religious law. One was alleged to bathe in wine and another to use the Koran as a target in archery practice.

On the other hand, Muslim textbooks commonly idealise the Abbasid Caliphate from 750 onwards. In that "golden age", the Abbasids presided over a united empire that was militarily successful, prosperous and tolerant. It was a time of intellectual ferment, translation programmes and scientific research. To a large extent, this idealisation of the Abbasid period originated with the Orientalists and here, as in most fields of Orientalism, Germans took the lead. Alfred von Kremer's Kulturgeschichte des Orients unter den Chalifen (1875-77) was pioneering in this respect.

Adam Mez's Die Renaissance des Islams (19) was also influential. Books such as Bernard Lewis's The Arabs in History presented the Abbasid age as the apogee and Muslim history thereafter as a story of decline.

But in recent decades more specialised studies have modified the idealised version of Abbasid history. Several of the caliphs were hard-drinking hedonists who presided over numerous political murders. Street-fighting was endemic in Baghdad, sometimes between Sunni and Shia, sometimes between Hanbali fundamentalists and other Sunnis and sometimes between locals and the imported Turkish slave soldiers. In the 9th century, there was a prolonged and damaging revolt by plantation slaves in southern Iraq.

Moreover, from the 850s onwards the caliphs became the prisoners of their slave soldiers who constituted a sort of praetorian guard. In subsequent centuries, the Abbasid caliphs became the puppets of the Seljuk sultans and later of the Mamluk Turkish sultans in Cairo. During the First World War, the Ottoman Turkish sultan tried to revive the title and to present himself as the caliph to rally Muslims against the British. But the move was ineffectual and, although several pan-Muslim conferences after the war sought to revive the caliphate, no one could agree on who should become caliph, and the project was abandoned.

The recent idealisation of the history of the caliphate and agitation for its revival has received strong support from dangerous people. Anwar Sadat was assassinated by believers in a future caliphate. Osama bin Laden proclaimed that the pious caliphate would be revived in Afghanistan. His lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, preaches in favour of a caliphate. Al-Qaeda and its sympathisers are proponents of a fantasy history, one scholars helped create. It is apparently a fantasy worth dying (and killing) for.

Robert Irwin is the author of For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies , published January 25.

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