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Forget fabled Caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad. He of Thousand and One Nights fame. A real Khalifa is back – under the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a.k.a. Caliph Ibrahim. But is this resurrected Caliphate in the Arab heartland only a ‘desert mirage’, as The Times claimed? Or the harbinger of awesome things to come? Time will tell. Three critical concepts interest the priest: violence, heresy and utopia. Do they cast a shadow over the nascent Caliphate?

First, heresy. Tricky to determine, as Islam has no Pope-like figure or an ecumenical council to judge. Yet, words like bida’, unwarranted innovation; ghuluvv, exaggeration or excess; zandaqa, dualist or Manichean; ilhad, atheism, materialism; and finally kufr, unbelief – all historically denote forms of Islamic heresy, in some cases with dire penal outcomes.

Is the Caliphate bida’, wrong innovation? No way, as it goes back the four men who successively ruled the Islamic state directly after the Prophet’s death. There was an Ottoman Khalifa indeed right up to 1924.

Is the Caliphate ghuluvv, excessive? Bernard Lewis says this criterion applied to marginal sects who denied ‘prophecy, revelation, or Holy Law’. Extremists who propagated ‘doctrines like reincarnation, metempsychosis or antinomianism’. Again, the Caliphate is not like any of those, although a certain al-Qahtani, another fierce Islamist, has accused the ISIS bunch of ‘excessive zeal’. Possibly true but…does it amount up to heresy? Perhaps the Caliphate is zandaqa? According to Lewis the term eventually meant a ‘criminal dissident’. A sort of subversive and apostate. But who is to decide who is a zindiq? The Grand Shaykh of Cairo’s al-Azhar University? Alas, too many of those scholars have been the rulers’ placemen. What credit do they have with the mass of believers?

Is it ilhad, atheism or rationalism? Nope. This Khalifa hardly sins in that respect. Finally, is the Caliphate a form of kufr, unbelief? How could that be? The uncharismatic Abu Bakr al-Baghadi (how much more did Bin Laden look the part!) does not deny any of the five pillars of Islam, does he? And I doubt he expresses any sympathy for polytheism or incarnationism. So, however unpleasant the chap might appear, he is no kafir.

Second, utopia. A French savant called Mathieu Guidere implies the Caliphate is too idealistic an idea to become real. But weren’t numerous other political phenomena? Take the Italian national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi. In 1860 Garibaldi and his one thousand young and idealistic volunteers conquered the Kingdom of Naples, against all odds. Garibaldi’s aim was both high and abstract: to accomplish the unification of Italy under the kingdom of Piedmont. Italy had not been unified since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476. Totally utopian a goal.

A mad adventure. The Neapolitan forces were overwhelmingly superior. The Italian patriots were a colourful ragtag army, some boys as young as sixteen. In strict legality they were like pirates or bandits, making war on a legitimately constituted government. Most people they went to liberate had no idea of what Italy meant, spoke a different, barely comprehensible language from the revolutionaries and were often either indifferent or hostile. Yet Garibaldi won. His little army of patriots fought and triumphed over all adversities. Thanks to them Italy rose again as a united nation. A utopia became a reality. Couldn’t the Caliphate? (Not that I wish to compare Garibaldi to al-Baghdadi. The handsome Italian hated religion – he was a nationalist and an out-and-out secularist.)

Third, violence. Muslim voices accuse Khalifa Ibrahim and his bunch of extreme violence. Indeed of barbarous brutalities. Such as publicly beheading and crucifying enemies. Pity those forms of executions are mandated in the Qur’an. Check out Surat 5, al-Maida, v.33. Also Surat 47, Muhammad, v.4. Not all Islamic exegetes agree such passages have modern applications yet…they are there, in the Heavenly Book. The Caliphate dudes take them seriously. Most disagreeable but, as a jurist might say, Dura Lex, sed Lex.

Still, primitive methods of killing do not exhaust the question. Is violence always impermissible to achieve a key political aim? Even against the wishes of a majority? Certainly not. Revolutionary movements everywhere have engaged in massive, systematic violence. The English Revolution headed by Cromwell, the French revolution and the Bolshevik revolution were bathed in blood. The last is perhaps out of favour but July 14 1789, Bastille Day, is a national holiday in France and a truculent statue of Oliver Cromwell stands outside the British Parliament. The US celebrates its war of independence from the British on Fourth July… Why should the Caliphate be different?

Of course, even if the Khilafa is not a Muslim heresy it does not mean it is a jolly good idea for all and sundry. Christians, Sufis and Shias dread the possibility. Many of them are fleeing. Churches, mosques and shrines are been blown up. And being crucified or decapitated and having your severed head displayed on YouTube is less than an appealing prospect.

Nonetheless, the Caliphate attracts. It draws lots of young Muslims from Europe and other lands to forsake the fleshpots of life in the West to go to fight and die for this radical version of Islam. The Western media seem incapable of comprehending how a young man with reasonable education and a good career ahead could drop everything to go to risk life and limb in a dry and dusty Arab land. How is that possible? Surely money in the bank, a fast car, a girl-friend, football, the Cup, cricket or some such juicy popular diversions trump everything else? Well, clearly they don’t. Not in this case. Idealism trumps materialism OK. This Caliphate may not endure. Its very territorial existence exposes it to being pulverised - or at least severely degraded, whenever the Yanks decide to act - by US drones or superior firepower. But can you kill an idea?

Last modified on Sunday, 13 July 2014 20:31

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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