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The Unviability of an Islamic Caliphate: Ethnic Barriers

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This series of commentaries, Unviability of Islamic Caliphate, will explain that Islamic caliphate in any form, much less in image of the fetishized first caliphate (632-661 C.E.), is an utter impossibility, even though the romance of a unified Muslim ummah, free of foreign occupations, comprised of all ethnic communities and denominations, devoted to peace, social justice, piety, and glorification of One God, is a dream ideology that fascinates millions of Muslims –much like the utopias of global solidarity, environmental wholeness, scientific socialism, or racial purity that enchant other peoples and communities. The unviability of instituting a new caliphate questions the Western war on terror as well the wild conquest claims Muslim militants make to terrorize a nervous world.

For decades, Arab militants in the Middle East have been praying for the creation of Islamic caliphate modeled after the first caliphate established in Medina after the death of Prophet Muhammad. To the surprise of many Muslims across the world, the Islamic Caliphate State (also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has actually inaugurated a miniature caliphate in territories purloined from Syria and Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (b. 1970), holding a doctorate in Islamic studies, is the appointed caliph.

Several maps of Islamic caliphate, attributed to the ISIS, circulate on the internet to display a future empire that stretches from Southern Spain to Western China, a contiguous mass of land stretching beyond the Arab Middle East to include Andalusia, Turkey, the Balkans, Iran, South Asia, Central Asia, and Xinjiang. Some maps include Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, and Malaysia, though not contiguous to the rest of the empire. Some maps are taken from video games. Others are constructed to show the scale of menace the ISIS poses to the world. Simply put, the maps capture a new global caliphate that will conquer lands to bring vast portions of the planet under one central Islamic authority, as did the first caliphate of the seventh century. These maps fuse the real with the fantastic, picturing fears of absurdity.

Arab Sovereignty over Caliphate

The idea of a new Islamic caliphate is built on two constructs. First, the new caliphate institutes the sovereignty of Sunnis, a matter I will discuss later in the series. Second, the new caliphate aspires to reestablish the prerogative of Arabs as natural rulers of the Muslim world. Because of these two constructs, it is understandable why the ideology of Islamic caliphate is nurtured primarily in Sunni Arab communities. The initiation of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq is not a freak coincidence but has been deliberately orchestrated (by whom? – a matter also examined in the series) to revive historical memories because Damascus and Baghdad were the seats of two Arab caliphates, the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 C.E.) and the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258 C.E.).

Much like the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, the new caliphate draws inspiration from the first Islamic state established in Medina. In 622, after forced migration from Makkah to Medina, the Prophet instituted a small state that would later turn into an enormous empire under the first caliphate. The four rulers of the first caliphate were dutiful companions, dedicated disciples, and close relatives of the Prophet. Even though the Prophet’s circle of companions included a few non-Arabs, most companions were his family members and the Arabs of Makkah and Medina. Within thirty years after the Prophet’s death, and despite inter-clan rivalries, the Arabs embarked upon an unprecedented imperial expansion. Armed with Islamic faith, the indomitable will to fight, and divine permission to acquire booty from defeated enemies, the Arabs under the aegis of the first caliphate, in less than thirty years, conquered Mesopotamians, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Iranians and others.

This expansion under the first caliphate revolutionized the ethnic map of the Muslim world as more and more non-Arabs embraced the faith of Islam. Foreseeing multiple ethnic populations entering Islam, the Prophet in his last sermon had already instructed Muslims to shun distinctions between Arabs and non-Arabs. The Prophet’s instruction was followed only half-heartedly as the Arab conquerors found little in common with the vanquished populaces even if they embraced Islam. The Arabization of conquered lands set in motion a long, slow, but successful process of assimilation of local populations into the Arab traditions. Most conquered populations were provided the incentives to adopt the religion, culture, and language of the conquering Arab Muslims (just as most immigrants to America realize the benefits of speaking English and adopting the Anglo culture).

Right from the beginning, Iran has resisted the Arab assimilation strategies. Unlike the Mesopotamians, Palestinians, and Egyptians, the Iranians refused to culturally submit to Arab conquerors. Following suit, communities under the Iranian sphere of influence, including Central Asians, though they accepted Islam, clung to their languages and cultures. Even in Iran, however, the Arabic language exercised noteworthy influence over the development of Persian script and vocabulary. Similarly, Turks and Indians welcomed Islam but declined to embrace wholesale Arabism. As Islam reached sub-Saharan Africa, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the connections between Islam and the Arab ethos became more and more tenuous. In later centuries, the new populations across the globe converted to Islam but without accepting the Arabic language or culture.

Ethnic Diversity of Islam

In the twenty-first century, Muslim populations are highly diverse and ethnically self-assertive. The traditional correlations between Islam and Arabs have weakened to the point of near severance. Extensive availability of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the fundamental sources of Islamic faith, in vernacular languages has released Islam from the Arabic language. Muslims are obligated to say the daily five prayers in Arabic. Millions, however, memorize the Arabic verses recited in prayers without knowing the meaning. Likewise, millions of Muslims recite the Qur’an in Arabic but without comprehending its contents. Now, in almost all parts of the world, including Europe and North America, local imams and religious scholars transmit the details of Islamic faith in native languages. This vernacularization of the Qur’an and Sunnah has deepened the understanding of Islam among the believers but it has also diluted the traditional Arab monopoly over matters of Shariah.

In sum, Islam has strengthened through vernacularization but the influence of Arabs has faded. More than 1.6 billion Muslims, constituting about 20% of the world population, live in all continents of the world, speaking hundreds of languages and acclaiming bountiful cultural diversity. The Middle East itself is nothing but complex. The Muslims living in North Africa, including Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Egyptians, and Sudanese, though they all speak different dialects of Arabic, have diverse ethnic histories. The Gulf Arabs, living in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and other mini-emirates, may find cultural ties with the Arabic speaking populations in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Yet the ethnic differences among them are real and significant. The failure of the Arab League as a source of Arab unity is an additional piece of evidence that the Arabs are not a singular people.

Ethnicity of the Islamic world expands dramatically outside the Arabic-speaking Middle East. The African Muslims of Senegal, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, though all Africans, have little in common by way of language and ethnicity. Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan do not speak Arabic; each is ethnically and linguistically distinct, even multifaceted; and, they collectively share the Arab culture only in minimal ways. The ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity broadens even more profoundly when Indonesians and Malaysians are inducted into the amalgam. Nearly eighty-five percent (85 %) of the world Muslim population is non-Arab. This colossal ethnic diversity among Muslims of the twenty first century is a formidable barrier to instituting an Islamic caliphate under Arab suzerainty.

The romance of new caliphate is a predominantly Arab yearning rooted in memories of the earlier Arab caliphates. This yearning however is not widespread even among the Arabs. Note, however, that the architects of new caliphate draw little inspiration from the Sunni Ottoman caliphate (1362-1922 C.E.) that lasted for over five centuries. The Arab leaders, intellectuals, nationalists, and religious scholars of the early twentieth century actively opposed the Ottoman rule over the Muslim world, particularly over the Arabs. They conspired with Christian Europeans to dismantle the Islamic Ottoman Empire, knowing that the Ottoman caliphate was a symbol of Islamic unity in the world. Upon dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, even the Turks deserted Islam (for a while) as a barrier to development, and abandoned the Arabic script in favor of Latin script. This historical annulment between Turks and Arabs provides powerful insights into the unviability of a new caliphate acceptable to diverse national communities.

Ignoring demographic complexities, the Arab militants naively believe that they can unite the ethnically diverse Muslim populations through teachings of the Qur’an and Prophet’s Sunnah. They also naively believe that local populations in Muslim countries from Morocco to Indonesia will rise against national governments and join the caliphate. Some ignorant militants may even cherish the fantasies of conquests. Comparisons with the Prophet’s Islamic state in Medina are misplaced. The Arabs of the first caliphate were unique pioneers drawing inspiration from the Prophet and the newly revealed Qur’an. The Arabs of the twenty first century lack the credibility and credentials (a point to be discussed in this series) to impose their will over 1.6 billion Muslims of the world. Just as Arabs are unwilling to accept the imperial domination of Turks, Pakistanis, or Indonesians, in the same way non-Arabs are unwilling to subject themselves to any form of Arab sovereignty. Even the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan –fighting to establish Shariah in their countries –find no merit in the Islamic caliphate launched by Dr. Al-Baghdadi and his Western co-conspirators.

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L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and a professor of law at Washburn University, Kansas.

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