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When modern Muslims invoke the Khilāfa, the Caliphate as their ideal of governance for the Ummah, the planetary community of all Muslims, and indeed for all humans once converted or killed if stubbornly pagan, they do not refer to the famous caliphates of history from the splendiferous Umayyad, to the longer-lasting Abbasid extinguished by the Mongols in 1258, the Egypt-based and tolerant Fatimid in between, or the Ottoman that lingered till 1924, let alone the extant Ahmadiyya Caliphate that most condemn as heretical.
Instead they wax lyrical about the rule of Muhammad’s first four “rightly guided” successors, the al-Khulafa’ ur-Rashidun—who followed one another after his death in 632. Unable to assume Muhammad’s prophetic role, his best-placed followers Abū Bakr as-Siddīq, `Umar [or Omar] ibn al-Khattāb and ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān, took control of his movement in that sequence as his “successors,” Khulafaa’, whence their governance became known as the “succession” or Khilāfa, our “caliphate.”
Muhammad had left no son to claim the leadership by inheritance, female succession was undreamed of, and son-in-law Alī ibn Abī Tālib, married to daughter Fatimah, was subordinated by the first three to become only the fourth caliph—not good enough for the dynastic-minded loyalists of the Ahl al-Bayṫ, the prophet’s household. That started a deadly quarrel that the “party of Ali,” Shīʻatu ʻAlī, abbreviated as the familiar Shi’a, still pursues very vigorously—evoking accusations of heresy by the more severe of their Sunni opponents, the followers of the Sunnah or traditional path of the Muslim majority in all countries but Iran and Iraq.
In greatly celebrating the Rashidun, as modern Muslims afflicted by the contemporary travails of the Muslim world are wont to do, the violent instability of the institution is disregarded, no doubt because what is celebrated are mostly its colossal victories over the infidels who torment them still. Within a year of Muhammad’s death in 632, his erstwhile companions and self-appointed successors lead their Muslim followers on plunder raids into Byzantine Syria and Sassanian Mesopotamia that were so successful that they were directly followed by conquering and missionary expeditions. Muhammad’s religion had promised victory and loot above all, and the advancing Muslim riding out of Arabia saw those promises triumphantly validated by the seemingly miraculous defeat of the vast, ancient, and till then all-powerful Roman and Sassanian empires, which between them had long dominated all the lands of the Middle East fertile enough to be worth ruling.
The two empires had just finished the longest and most destructive of all their wars—almost thirty years of wide-ranging reciprocal raids and outright invasions that had started in 602 ruined many of their cities, destroyed commerce, emptied their treasuries, exhausted their manpower, and wrecked frontier defenses and field armies alike, while bitterly antagonizing their provincial populations, left undefended to be despoiled by enemy looters yet harshly taxed before and after. A few years of tranquility might have restored the strength of both empires beyond any challenge by Arab raiders no matter how enthusiastic, but instead both were invaded and each suffered a catastrophic battle defeat.
In August 636, just four years after Muhammad’s death, the army of the emperor and erstwhile great conqueror Herakleios was utterly defeated at the river Yarmuk. The Roman empire that had possessed Syria, Egypt, and all the lands between them for six centuries would lose every part of them within a decade.
In that same year (636), the annus mirabilis of Islamic conquest, the Sassanian empire of Persia, whose power had till very recently stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley was also decisively defeated, at al-Qādisiyyah in Mesopotamia, immediately losing its treasury and capital city, Ctesiphon. After a last attempt to defend the Persian hinterland at the battle of Nihawand in 642, commanded by the king of kings Yazdegerd III himself, resistance and the Sassanian empire with it waned, ending by 651.
One can readily see how the most hardened cynics among the Arabians would have been won over to intense faith by these utterly unexpected, indeed wildly improbable victories, which were soon followed by further waves of conquest that brought the raiders and missionaries of Islam right across northern Africa all the way to the Atlantic, and as far east as the eastern edges of Central Asia adjacent to Tang China, and into the Indus valley. Indeed the immense victories of those earliest years are still the mainspring of Islam’s triumphalism, that contrasts so sharply with the turn-the-other-cheek spirit of most other faiths, and which generates the most acute inner tensions given the military inferiority of Muslims in almost all wars of recent centuries, at the hands of Christians, Jews, and unprotected infidels that Islam condemns to perpetual martial inferiority. That glaring contradiction inevitably raises terrible inner doubts that in turn foment the most violent emotions, amplified in the case of the Jews because of their (post-Qur’anic) denigration as weaklings.
The Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, and Ottoman Caliphates were all very different in many ways, from their geographic centers, in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul respectively, to their prevailing ethos—though in that regard the Fatimid was more sharply different, because it was the only Shi’a Caliphate, and moreover its faith was “Sevener” Shi’ism, which like the much more familiar “Twelvers” of Iran and Iraq start with the party of Ali, whose line is perpetuated by infallible imams, the last of whom is still alive in occultation waiting his moment to emerge to redeem the world. But unlike the Twelvers, whose imam is Muhammad ibn Hasan “al-Mahdi” (“the guide”), born in 868 and still alive—vast crowds periodically implore him to emerge from the well at Jamkaran—the Seveners only recognize the same succession up to the sixth imam, then inserting their own final and immortal Imam Muhammad ibn Ismā'īl born in 721—hence they are often known as “Ismā'īlīs”; they are also known for their contemporary moderation, in sharp contrast to the Ismā'īlī Nizari state founded in 1090 in Alamut in north-west Iran, whose conventional warfare over two centuries was augmented by dedicated assassins. The Fatimids, like the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman caliphates had their times of prosperity and achievement, both warlike and peaceful, not least in the cultural sphere in their time of success and liberality that ended for the Abbasid and Ottoman caliphates when decline induced the spread of an obscurantist orthodoxy that in some ways is unshaken till now.
Nevertheless for all the martial and civil glories of the Umayyad, Fatimid, Abbasid, and Ottoman in their best days, the ad-Dawlah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, the Islamic State of the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who thus re-named his al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, again disregards the later caliphates to seek its inspiration from the first four caliphates of the “rightly guided,” the Rashidun. Like them, al-Baghdadi aspires to rule the entire Ummah of all Muslim-majority countries and also beyond them, for in accordance to mainstream interpretations of Islamic law, any land once ruled by Muslims must forever be Islamic regardless of the prevailing religion of its current inhabitants. Hence the black flags of the Islamic State lately seen in Berlin, Paris, and London demonstrations alternatively featured the Shahada, the declaration of faith, and maps that also enclosed Spain (the erstwhile al-Andalus) and most of once Mughal India as well as the Balkans—Sicilians have yet to protest their omission in spite of two centuries of Arab rule.
It is a matter of the highest contemporary relevance that the instability of the first Rashidun caliphates that counterpointed their huge conquests was radical, and not merely contingent. What afflicted them is bound to afflict Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State as well. It all started with Muhammad’s charismatic leadership. He had tamed the tribes of Arabia to wondrous effect, but their allegiance was given only to his person, and not to his movement and its eventual successive leaders. Hence upon Muhammad’s death an organic tribalism emerged again, in natural opposition to any unitary leadership.
Moreover, as with any ideology, differences in interpretation within Islam generated differences in doctrine, which tended to be sharpened as controversies unfolded, and given that only one doctrine could be right and all others had to be wrong, there was ideological secessionism in addition to the tribal variety. In our own days, the Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahl ash-Shām, the “support front of the people of Greater Syria” of Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani might seem the acme of extremism—the instant execution of any captured Shi’a for aggravated heresy is one of its milder doctrines—but to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Jabhat an-Nusrah’s failure to adhere to his Islamic State is itself un-Islamic, making a traitor out of al-Jawlani. In due course, no doubt, the new caliph al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State will be outdone in turn by another group that will somehow contrive to be more extreme.
And it all started with the Rashidun, in sharp contrast to their mythic status as benign and serene rulers.
The first caliph, Abū Bakr as-Siddīq (632-634), had to fight tribal secessionism throughout his short reign to impose his rule, in a struggle that was further intensified by the opposition of Fatimah’s partisans. They wanted the leadership for her husband Alī ibn Abī Tālib, but there was also a bitter property dispute over the date-palm orchards of Fardak in the oasis of Khaibar, some ninety miles north of Medina, supposedly gifted to Fatimah after they were seized from its Jewish cultivators by Muhammad’s warriors in 629 (just yesterday for some: on July 20, 2014 Parisian demonstrators against Israel shouted “remember Khaibar” outside the Val d’Oise synagogue in Sarcelles). According to Sunni tradition, the wise and restrained Abū Bakr as-Siddīq resisted the temptation of unleashing his more numerous followers against Alī or Fatimah, who died of grief at her father’s death in that version. But according to Shi’a tradition, Fatimah died of wounds sustained in a raid on her house lead by the second of the righteous ones, a prelude to the killing of her sons Hasan and Hussein by agents of Muʿāwiyah ibn ʾAbī Sufyān, founder of the Umayyad Caliphate, and the greatest criminal in history according to the Shi’a, who annually commemorate Hussein’s killing in 680 with tearful lamentations and bloody cuttings and self-flagellations with bladed chains that leave streets running with blood on Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, when non-Shi’a in those parts are enjoined to stay indoors.
Abū Bakr died of illness, a privilege denied to his successors among the Rashidun, each one of whom was assassinated, except for the third caliph who was lynched in his own home. His successor, `Umar ibn al-Khattāb (634-644), better known as Omar the conqueror of Jerusalem (and much else), also had to fight against the Shi’a partisans of the Ahl al-Bayṫ, along with chronic tribal secessions that were only partly moderated by the spiritual and material rewards of `Umar’s great victories and vast conquests, for the prospect of loot both unites in battle and divides in victory, when it must be shared out. However great the spoils, there are always unsatisfied victors who would rebel till suppressed. In the end it was not a tribal or a partisan of Ali who killed `Umar, but rather a resentful Persian, the former Sassanian soldier Pīrūz Nahāvandi, captured in the epic defeat of al-Qādisiyyah.
The third caliph, ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān (644-656), under whose authority the written text of the Qur’an was redacted, faced unending riots and rebellions, until he was finally lynched by victorious rebels in his own house in Medina.
The fourth caliph—and Muhammad’s son-in-law—Alī ibn Abī Tālib (656-661), was outmaneuvered by Mu‘āwīyah ibn Abī Sufyān, war leader in Syria and founder of the Umayyad dynasty, though it was an extremist of the Kharijite sect who assassinated Ali. That was an early example of the ideological violence that compounded tribal secessionism. Like their modern counterparts of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, the Kharijites demanded unending war against all non-Muslims, denounced all who disagreed as apostates, and fiercely opposed all dynastic rulers.
In that at least they were faithfully echoing the Qur’an, which promotes the equality of all believers, and is thus implicitly inimical to hereditary succession; indeed the Qur’an is explicitly hostile to pharaohs and kings. Yet within thirty years of Muhammad’s death, the fifth caliph, Mu‘āwīyah ibn Abī Sufyān (661-680), arranged the succession of his son Yazid I, thereby starting what would become the Umayyad dynasty, condemned by many Sunni jurists and all Shi’a, but far more constructively stable than the rule of the Rashidun, for all their sensational victories.
In that too, there is an exact contemporary parallel: as of this writing, the benighted dynasts who rule the Emirates of the Gulf, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are still firmly in power, while the modernizing rulers of Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia were all swept away by the mass action of the “Arab Spring.” It therefore seems that if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wants to make his new caliphate stick, he will need to appoint a crown prince who can succeed him—thereby no doubt evoking the emergence of that more extreme competitor.