Thursday, April 19, 2012

Who Gets to be the Caliph?

Barry Rubin

Who gets to be the caliph? After all, if you want to have a caliphate , as revolutionary Islamists do with much popular support among Muslims, somebody has to get the job and he has to have his capital somewhere. And that’s why the caliphate issue, beyond the most abstract demagoguery, is a potential suicide machine.

Once the issue is raised the battle begins. Should the caliph be Sunni or Shia? In all of Muslim history there has never really been a Shia caliph and today's Shia would not accept any Sunni caliph. The starting point, then, would be a Sunni-Shia war or, rather, a set of such wars. As for the Sunnis, who among them might be a legitimate candidate? Ironically, the two who have the best credentials are anti-Islamist monarchs: the kings of Morocco and of Jordan who both claim—a claim that is generally recognized—descent from Muhammad, Islam’s founder.

Ever since the Turkish Republic abolished the caliphate, Islamists have sought to restore it. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s for that very purpose. One should note, by the way, that the Istanbul-based caliphate had long been meaningless. When the caliph declared a jihad against Britain and France during World War One, a move promoted by Germany, he was almost totally ignored. In fact, Arab nationalists revolted against his rule and that event is the historical basis for most of the Arabic-speaking states that exist today.

Just two days after the Turks deposed the old one, Sharif of Mecca Husain Bin Ali, ruler of the Hijaz in western Arabia, declared himself caliph. But nothing came of it since he had so many enemies. In 1925 his own kingdom was conquered and annexed by Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, who went on to create Saudi Arabia. Jordan's king is one of his descendants.

Yet the Arabs—notably the Muslim Brotherhood--and Indian Muslims who demanded a renewed caliphate had to be cautious since designating anyone as caliph would set off personal and national rivalries that would dissolve the movement in civil war.

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