De-legitimising Al-Baghdadi’s ‘Caliphate’

By Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan, RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses Volume 9, Issue 11 | November 2017

On 29 June 2014, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group declared the establishment of a caliphate after having captured large swathes of land in the greater Levant. Five days later, the group‟s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi1 appeared for the first time delivering a sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq. He called on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to him, after proclaiming himself as the new caliph for them. Baghdadi‟s self-proclamation was received with consternation and derision throughout the Muslim world. Prominent Muslim leaders and scholars rejected Baghdadi and his so called caliphate and condemned IS for its atrocities and distortion of religious texts. On 19 September 2014, over 120 prominent Muslim scholars issued an Open Letter to Baghdadi, questioning his authority and pointing out serious errors in IS religious interpretations and practices. In the letter, the scholars pointed out that their views reflected “the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”.
Nevertheless, the establishment of a „caliphate‟ carried a certain appeal that managed to lure Muslims from many parts of the world to join IS despite actions and practices that are manifestly wrong and contrary to mainstream Islamic norms and teachings. This article attempts to debunk IS‟ claim that its caliphate is legitimate and that al-Baghdadi is the rightful caliph for all Muslims, more so now that the territories it once held in Iraq and Syria have been recaptured. Although the territorial „caliphate‟ has ceased to exist, the virtual „caliphate‟ which IS has been building up on social media and other online platforms will prevail, and may continue to beguile vulnerable segments of societies. IS has already appealed to its followers to hijrah (migrate) to its wilayats („provinces‟) that stretch from West Africa to the Philippines.
Caliphate System of Government is not Mentioned in Al Qur’an
IS has used the narrative of reviving the caliphate to attract fighters and migrants from the Muslim world. It is presented as the ideal abode for Muslims where Sharia laws and values are „upheld‟, and where their rights and dignity are „restored‟. IS argues that its „caliphate‟ is the only legitimate Islamic state and system of governance. It declared that “all parties based on communism, secularism, nationalism and liberalism; proponents of democracy and those who participate in its process are kafir (apostates).”2 Consequently, all Muslims are enjoined to migrate to IS-controlled territories, “because hijrah [emigration] to the land of Islam is obligatory.”3 This claim was made in the very first issue of IS online magazine, Dabiq titled „The Return of Khilafah‟ published in July 2014, a month after the proclamation of the „caliphate‟. IS‟ claims are questionable as Islam does not prescribe a definite form of government. The Quran does not provide a definitive ruling for the establishment of a „caliphate‟ system.
This is evident from the only two Quranic verses making reference to the Khalifah (caliph): “And (remember) when your Lord said to the angels; “I will create a vicegerent on earth.”[khalifah].”(Al-Baqarah, 2:30) “O David, We have appointed you vicegerent [khalifah] on earth.Therefore, judge between people with truth, and do not follow (your) desire lest it should lead you astray from Allah‟s path.”(Sad, 38:26) The verses mention two patriarchs as the rightful examples for Muslims to follow in terms of representing God in implementing His commandments based on justice and truth and not intolerance and falsehood. The literal meaning of the word „caliph‟ or in Arabic, khalifah means viceroy, vicegerent, vicar or successor. According to „Tafsir al-Jalalayn‟, a classical Sunni tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran, the first verse explains that Prophet Adam was sent to earth as a vicegerent (khalifah) of God, which signifies that mankind should represent his creator by celebrating His praise and glorifying His Holiness through his worthy presence as human beings The second verse, according to Ibn Kathir, a prominent Muslim scholar who specialised in the field of Quranic exegesis, is the advice from Allah to Prophet David to rule according to truth and justice and not to be swayed by his desire when making a judgement.7
The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Shawki Allam argues that the concept of the caliphate was derived from political necessities rather than from religious texts. The caliphate theory according to him was considered “a practical codification of the political system dictated by the then political, social and religious landscape.” This was what happened when Abu Bakr was chosen to succeed Prophet Muhammad after his death as the first caliph. He was elected during an assembly that discussed who should manifest the political nature of the contention over the succession to Muslim rule.8 Sheikh Shawki further reiterated that: “Islam is not a static, authoritarian system devoid of flexibility… Islam has never required its adherents to give up their own cultures nor dictated on them a specific norm of governance.” Singapore‟s Mufti, Dr Fatris Bakaram, in urging leaders to promote an understanding of Islam within the context of Singapore‟s diverse society, said: “They should challenge the idea of the caliphate as the only ideal and legitimate political system that Muslims can live and take part in. Concepts like the caliphate must be understood in the context and socio-political environment of the time.” 
Other Systems of Government Are Acceptable 
IS claims that Muslims are not permitted to live in any country, including Muslim-majority countries because they are not governed by Sharia law. However, this remains arguable.
Prominent Muslim scholars around the world such as former Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Yasir Qadhi, Hamza Yusuf, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, have opined that Muslims can live in countries not governed by Sharia, as long as they have the freedom to practice their religious beliefs and are not persecuted.10 There is no reason for Muslims in such countries to migrate. In fact, Muslims are encouraged to spread the message of peace and mercy and be proactive in nationbuilding processes. This can be observed when the early Muslim traders from the Arab world travelled and settled in parts of the world such as China and the Malay Archipelago, co-existed with non-Muslims and fostered good relations.
Muslim scholars from Al-Azhar University point out that the Prophet himself had asked his followers to migrate to Abyssinia which was then under a Christian king, Najasyi (Negus), to escape persecution in Mecca in the 7th century. He did not condemn Najasyi (Negus) for not ruling by the Sharia and neither did he ask his followers to return after Islam was established in Mecca. Neither was Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) condemned for serving in the government of a non-Muslim king.
Even if there should be a caliphate, as some Muslim scholars believe, it “must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organisations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe”. One of the essential components of Islamic governance is consultation; there is no evidence IS engaged in any consultation with the wider Muslim community except among themselves. Muslim scholars have long reached a consensus that seeking counsel with others on matters of the Ummah was an obligation and praiseworthy as it emulates the Prophet‟s example.14 In the Open Letter to al-Baghdadi, the scholars ask al-Baghdadi:
“who gave you authority over the ummah?”, and warned that “announcing a caliphate without consensus is sedition (fitnah)”. Islam places great emphasis on the principle  of Shura (consultation) on matters concerning the Islamic community. The Quran attested to this matter: “And those who respond to their Lord, keep up prayer, who consult among themselves, and who give out (to the poor) part of what we have given them.” (Asy-Syura, 42:38). This spirit of consultation was also exemplified by Prophet Muhammad. As observed by his companion, Abu Hurairah, “Never have I seen anyone more prone to seeking his Companions‟ counsel than the Messenger of God.”
 IS Violation of Islamic Teachings 
Muslims have been exhorted to migrate to the caliphate because it was purportedly governed according to the Sharia. However, the caliphate is not Islamic because many of IS actions are contrary to Islamic doctrines and practices. The Open Letter to al-Baghdadi cited clear violations of Islamic Law committed by al-Baghdadi and IS. These transgressions include the following:
(i) The killing of non-combatants, journalists, aid workers and those who opposed IS and refused to pledge their obedience to al-Baghdadi;
(ii) The forced conversion of non-Muslims which goes against the Qur‟an which states: “There shall be no compulsion in the religion” (Al-Baqarah, 2:256);
(iii) The torture of IS opponents and mutilation of their corpses;
(iv) The desecration of tombs and places of worship; IS destroyed Christian churches, razed ancient sites and blew up the tombs of Prophets and Sahabahs (Prophet Muhammad‟s Companions). In Islamic jurisprudence, it is not permissible to destroy any places of worship or tombs.
(v) Exploitation of Islamic Concepts — IS has corrupted Islamic teachings, values and principles particularly on matters pertaining to Jihad, Takfir and Hijra 
Non-Recognition by Muslim World
 To be a caliph of the world, al-Baghdadi must be accepted and recognised as such by prominent and respected political leaders, scholars and religious councils of Muslim communities worldwide. However, no such recognition has been accorded to him; on the contrary, many have denounced al-Baghdadi and declared that he and IS do not represent the Muslims.
 In a research conducted by Pew Research Center,  countries with significant Muslim populations including Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Jordan, held an unfavourable opinion of IS. Muslim leaders and scholars have condemned IS exploitation of religious teachings to justify its violence and brutality.
In India, a country with more than 189 million Muslims, at least 70,000 clerics issued a fatwa (religious edict) to condemn IS atrocities, and other like-minded groups. In Bangladesh, which has 148 million Muslims, over 100,000 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa condemning IS militants as “enemies of Islam”20 and declaring that violent attacks on non-Muslims and secular writers and activists as “haram” (forbidden) and un-Islamic. In Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population (225 million) in the world, its Ulema Council declared IS terrorist acts as haram.22 In November 2015, the Indonesian Nahdlat-ul-Ulama, the world‟s largest Muslim group with 40 million members, released a 90-minute film criticising IS perverse interpretation of religious texts. Al-Azhar, the top religious authority in the Muslim world also condemned IS. Commenting on IS, Grand Mufti Sheikh Shawki said: “An extremist and bloody group such as this poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption.”
 The influential Qatar-based Egyptian theologian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, President of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, announced that Baghdadi‟s declaration of a caliphate “is void under the Sharia”.24 The venerable Muslim scholar Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in Abu Dhabi, issued a fatwa stating that “establishing a caliphate by force is a misreading of religious doctrine”. 
Invalidity of obligatory Bay’a to al-Baghdadi 
When the declaration of the caliphate was made, its spokesperson al-Adnani called upon all Muslims in the world to pledge allegiance (bay‟a) to al-Baghdadi as caliph: “We inform the Muslims that, with the announcement of the caliphate, it has become obligatory for all Muslims to give bay‟a and support to Caliph Ibrahim.” In the same speech, he added that: “The Islamic state – represented by ahlul-halli-wal-„aqd (its people of authority), consisting of its senior figures, leaders, and the shura council – resolved to announce the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate, the appointment of a caliph for the Muslims, and the bay‟a (pledge of allegiance) to the sheikh, the mujahid, the scholar who practices what he preached, the worshipper, the leader, the warrior, the reviver, descent from the family of the Prophet, the slave of Allah, Ibrahim bin „Awwad bin Ibrahim bin „ali bin Muhammad al-Badri al-Hashimi al-Husayni al-Qurashi by lineage, as-Samurra‟i by birth and upbringing, al-Baghdadi by residence and scholarship. And he has accepted the bay‟a. Thus, he is the Imam and Caliph for the Muslims everywhere.”
IS often quotes a hadeeth or prophetic narration that states: “One who dies without having sworn allegiance will die the death of one belonging to the Days of Ignorance [Pre-Islamic times].”28 Based on this hadeeth, IS pledge allegiance to an Imam or leader. Those who rejected the Imam will be persuaded to „repent‟, and those who refused will be fought till they submit to the leader. According to Islamic tradition, the permissibility of bay‟a must be ascertained by the majority of Muslim scholars in the society. Since IS does not represent the majority Muslim community, the bay‟a to al-Baghdadi is considered wrong and unacceptable.
Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, a prominent Syrian scholar argues in his book, Refuting ISIS, that: “Dignitaries who exert authority within the Muslim Nation are the ones who have sole right to it. And these dignitaries already chose a king, emir, sultan, or president for their countries, responsible for their economic and political affairs. Therefore, allegiance to the leader of ISIS known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is fundamentally impermissible and ultimately void, bearing no legal consequences…” Like many other terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, IS uses bay‟a as a psychological tool to ensure members‟ compliance to its orders and devotion to its agenda. Many IS members are „trapped‟, believing erroneously that they would attract divine retribution if they disobey orders or break their bay‟. 
Al-Baghdadi’s Ambiguous Family Lineage
IS claims that al-Baghdadi‟s lineage traces back to Prophet Muhammad. In a pamphlet published by IS titled, “Extend your hands and pledge loyalty to al Baghdadi,” IS asserts that al-Baghdadi is: “…one of the grandsons of Urmush bin Ali bin „Eid bin Badri, bin Badruddin bin Khalil bin Husein bin Abdullah bin Ibrahim al-Awwah bin Asy-SyarifYahya „Izzuddin bin Asy-SyarifBasyir bin Majid bin Athiyyah bin Ya‟la bin Duweid bin Majid bin Abdurrahman bin Qasim bin Asy-Syarif Idris bin Ja‟far Ash-Shodiq bin Muhammad al-baqir bin Zainal Abidin bin Husein bin Alibin Abi Talib and Fatima binte Muhammad. This pamphlet was based mainly on a monologue written by ISIS ideologue, Turki al-Binali. He claimed that al-Baghdadi is qualified to command the loyalty of Muslims as he is a descendant of Prophet Muhammad.31 The pamphlet also outlined his academic studies of Islamic jurisprudence as well as Quranic studies.
The claim that al Baghdadi is a descendant of the Prophet is dubious and unverifiable. Firstly, there is a discrepancy in his lineage. The widely-distributed pamphlet did not mention al-Baghdadi‟s full name or real name or that of his father. Turki referred to him by his nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as „one of the grandsons of Urmush‟. Secondly, current descendants of those who lived during Prophet Muhammad‟s time would be at least the 40th generation, whereas al-Baghdadi‟s ancestors fall short of generations in his lineage. Thirdly, there is an absence of clear and complete biography of al-Baghdadi. It is obvious that the claims about al-Baghdadi‟s lineage are fabricated to enhance his credibility and legitimacy as caliph.
IS has managed to mislead vulnerable segments of Muslim societies through its distortion of religious texts and misrepresentation of concepts like the caliphate, hijrah (migration), takfir (excommunication), bay‟a and jihad. Now that the lands of the „caliphate‟ have been recaptured,IS will seek to compensate its loss by consolidating its „virtual caliphate‟ and stepping up its propaganda activities through social media and other platforms to maintain its influence over its followers and win new converts. In addition to diligently exposing IS‟ manipulation of religious doctrines, it is imperative that technology companies and service providers step up counter-measures to detect and curtail the online dissemination of poisonous propaganda by violent groups like IS, Al-Qaeda and others. They have effectively seized control of powerful tools of communication to exercise control and influence and carve out „virtual enclaves‟ where they can operate with impunity. Failure to redress this situation will result in the continued spread of religious misinformation and violent rhetoric leading to terrorist attacks and the revival of a territorial „Islamic State‟. 
About the author
Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.

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