Like all extremists, the men of ISIS know just enough history to be dangerous

The last Caliph

Every picture tells a story, and this picture of the last Caliph of Islam, tells us a great deal.

The strikingly handsome old man in the ornate chair, wearing a fez, is the last member of the House of Osman to have any public role in Turkey. In 1922, Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk, decided to replace the Ottoman Empire with a secular Turkish republic. The Empire had, by this time, ceased to exist as a multinational reality, having lost all its provinces, and Kemal’s action marked a deliberate break with the past: the replacement of an Ottoman identity with a avowedly national and Turkish one.

The last Sultan, Mehmet VI, known as Vahdettin, was packed off into exile. But Kemal allowed the cousin of the last Sultan to live in the Dolmabahce Palace and carry on using one of the Sultan’s titles, namely, Commander of the Faithful, or Caliph. Thus it was that Abdulmecit II  became Caliph, though he lasted as such less than a year and a half. In 1924, Kemal abolished the Caliphate, and Abdulmecit and his family were exiled. Kemal later went on to abolish the fez and all other things that were considered not to be modern.

The position of Caliph was once considered very important, not least by the British. The Caliph was the titular leader of all Sunni Muslims, and the British were always nervous that the Muslims in India might revolt against British rule if the Caliph encouraged them to do so. In fact, during the First World War, the Germans did ask their Turkish allies to do just that: the Caliph announced a Holy War against the infidel, but no one took any notice. By the twentieth century the Caliphate was a dead letter. In fact the Ottomans, with the loss of their European (and predominately Christian provinces) in the decades before the War, had tried to create a Muslim identity for the Empire, but this had not had much success. This had been the policy of Sultan Abdulhamid II One feels that in abolishing the Caliphate, Kemal thought he was pruning away something that had long had its day and belonged in the dustbin of history. The abolition of the Caliphate had no international repercussions.

The Ottomans had claimed the Caliphate from the 15th century, as de facto leaders of the largest and most powerful Islamic state; they had inherited it, if that is the word, from the Mamelukes of Egypt. But for a non-Muslim, it is hard to see what legitimacy these claims can have, and one is left wondering whether any opportunist can claim to be Caliph. Who, or what, can legitimise someone’s claim to the Caliphate?

ISIS, the group now terrorising parts of Syria and Iraq, claims to be setting up an Islamic state. Sometimes this is called a Caliphate, but it seems to be a Caliphate without a Caliph. Moreover, this seems to contradict the traditional understanding of the Caliphate (at least under the last holder of the title) which sees it as a spiritual and non-territorial authority. What we have not seen in Iraq and Syria is the emergence of some charismatic leader claiming to be the Caliph.

Why then has the Caliphate come back into political and religious discourse? The Caliphs that the fervent devotees of ISIS admire the most, one suspects, are the original Caliphs of Islam, the successors of Mohammed. ISIS is trying to hark back to the days when Islam was united, monolithic, and when the nation state as understood today did not exist. Talk of the Caliphate today is a sort of anarchism, a setting of one’s face against modernity. We have come a long way from the dignified figure of Abdulmecit II in his armchair. It is a great pity, that like all extremists, the men of ISIS know no history, or rather, just enough history to make them dangerous.