Successors to the prophet: Islam’s caliphates


CAIRO (AP) — By declaring the establishment of an Islamic
caliphate, the extremist group that controls large swaths of Syria and
Iraq is claiming to be the successor of the political and religious
community established by the Prophet Muhammad.
The caliphate is a
powerful ideal — the concept of a nation of Muslims worldwide ruled by
Shariah law under a caliph who holds both spiritual and secular
authority. There have been multiple caliphates over Islam’s 1,400-year
history, with the greatest Muslim empires ruling from Morocco to Central
The caliphate as an institution lost its authority
centuries ago, becoming just a tool of secular rulers to give themselves
religious backing. It was formally abolished in 1920 by Turkey’s
secular founder Mustafa Kamal Ataturk.
And while many Muslims long for
the unified community of the prophet’s era, only a radical fringe are
likely to see the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as its heir.
Here is a look at the history of the caliphate.
RIGHTLY GUIDED CALIPHS: The term caliphate comes from the Arabic word
meaning succession, and the caliph is the title of those who assume the
mantle of Muhammad as Muslims’ spiritual and political leader. The first
four leaders of the community who followed Muhammad in the 7th century
are considered the purest expression of the caliphate — Abu Bakr, Omar,
Othman and Ali.
Chosen by "shura" — or consultation among Muslims —
they led the community in its dramatic expansion from the Arabian
Peninsula to rule over North Africa and the Middle East.
But the
succession also carried the seeds of dispute. Shiites believe Ali should
have directly succeeded Muhammad and leadership should have stayed in
his line of the family. The wars that resulted — eventually leading to
Ali’s death in 661— solidified the Sunni-Shiite split that is now being
violently played out in parts of the Mideast.
ABBASIDS: After Ali’s death, the caliphate moved to the Umayyad dynasty
ruling from Damascus, which turnedd the caliph into a hereditary
position. The dynasty ruled for nearly 100 years until it was defeated
by the Abbasids, who claimed descent from an uncle of Muhammad.
Abbasid caliphs, ruling from Baghdad, presided over Islam’s golden age,
patronizing scientists, Islamic scholars, philosophers and poets — some
of whom celebrated drinking, romance and other courtly pursuits in
verses that would be brutally punished by today’s ultraconservative
Islamic State. But as the dynasty declined, often the caliph was reduced
to a religious figurehead as other warring clans grabbed secular power.
the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, ending the Abbasid dynasty. They
are said to have killed the caliph at the time, al-Mustasim, by rolling
him up in a carpet and trampling him with their horses.
It was a
shattering blow to the already dwindling claim of a universal caliphate
leading all Muslims. His heirs fled to Cairo, and while they kept the
title of caliph, they were reduced to pawns of Egypt’s Mamluk rulers.
As the Ottoman Empire became the pre-eminent Islamic power in the 15th
and 16th centuries, its sultans claimed leadership of the entire Muslim
world, eventually taking on the title of caliph, which was enshrined in
the constitution in 1876. However, many Sunni scholars disputed their
claim, arguing that the caliph must come from Muhammad’s Arab tribe.
Ottoman Empire was dismembered after World War I. Ataturk abolished the
caliphate in 1924, removing the last caliph Abdulmecid II.
DREAMS: Nearly all Sunni political Islamist movements dream of the
eventual resurrection of the caliphate, most by political means, though
jihadi groups call for establishing it by violence. It has been the
ultimate ambition of al-Qaida, but while its late leader Osama bin Laden
could once claim leadership of the international jihadi movement, he
never went so far as to declare himself caliph.
The Islamic State
is hoping to rally extremists to its side. But even the militant camp is
divided. Al-Qaida ejected the Islamic State from its network. Islamic
militants in Syria have been battling the Islamic State since January,
accusing it of hijacking the uprising against President Bashar Assad for
its own transnational purposes.

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