x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Baghdadi is detached from both history and responsibility

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has hijacked the most coveted and respected ideal in the Islamic governance, writes Zaid Belbagi

A two weeks ago armed men declared the formation of an Islamic State, or a Khilafah (caliphate), in north-western Iraq. As a bloody culmination of what has been a succession of horrific acts in Iraq, the Islamic State (the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, or ISIL) has hijacked the most coveted and respected ideal in Islamic governance.

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, claims to have inherited what was lost with the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid II, the last caliph of the Ottoman Empire. However, since its very inception the Islamic State has been synonymous with mass killings and gross abuses of power. Its behaviour is far divorced from the lofty ideals and societal principles of Khilafah.

At the centre of the Islamic faith is the concept of custodianship or Khilafah. Muslims, as servants of God, are obliged to act with responsibility to their surroundings and have a societal obligation to not only each other, but to minority groups they live with. At a macro level, Khilafah as a concept of leadership is the highest form of this type of social responsibility.

The term Khilafah is tied to the line of Muslim rulers who succeeded the Prophet Muhammed after his death in the year 632.

By and large their rule was associated with some of the most progressive and prosperous episodes in Islamic history. Baghdad was the seat of various caliphs, as a centre of learning, cultural exchange and a great empire. It is interesting that the Islamic State similarly came to be in Iraq. The historical comparison to the Islamic State’s violent practices illustrates how far removed it is from Iraq’s previous caliphates.

Khilafah is incredibly hard to define and even harder to put into practice. The ideals are so lofty and so unachievable, that it is folly to use the word as a catch-all term for rulership over a Muslim territory.

The reality is that many who have used the term were not caliphs, rather they were local rulers motivated by power, using the veneer of religiosity and the institutional memory of the caliphate to force their rule.

It is widely accepted that the first four “rightly-guided” successors of the prophet embodied noble leadership. A little known fact is that early Islamic states exhibited elements of direct democracy through the Shura system of consultation. It was led, at first, by the Prophet’s immediate disciples and family as a continuation of the religious systems he had introduced. The Pact of the Caliph Omar, which guaranteed the safety of Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule, stands as a timeless representation of the tolerance that a caliphate should seek to defend.

Looking at the wider picture of a millennium of Islamic rulers across various parts of the Muslim world, the majority of those who used the title caliph, were not. Its last supposed occupant, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid II, a lacklustre patron of the arts who presided over a crumbling and morally decadent empire, was not a caliph. If Mr Al Baghdadi’s YouTube proclamation of leadership serves to do anything, it is only to highlight how unfounded and illegitimate his rule is.

Embedded in the Islamic concept of leadership is responsibility.

Mr Al Baghdadi’s commands to slaughter those of different beliefs, to disregard the sanctity of life and most of all to continue to pursue a calculated policy of killing and sectarian violence during the holy month of Ramadan are blatant abuses of power that illustrate his detachment from Islam, a religion that means peace.

Zaid M Belbagi is an expert on Gulf affairs. He is a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Saudi Arabia

On Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid