Is the Islamic State an Oxymoron?

Is the Islamic State an Oxymoron?

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

The Roman philosopher, Cicero, once advised his students, “Before you discuss anything whatsoever, first define your terms”.

Three weeks ago, the American Secretary of State John Kerry, announced that from now on officials will use the Arabic term da’esh, which is an acronym for Al Dawla al Islamiya fil Iraq wa al Shams, rather than Islamic State, because Muslims oppose using the term Islamic when referring to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s hiraba, which is the Qur’anic term for terrorism. 

Last June, 2014, however, Baghdadi shortened the name to Al Dawla al Islamiya or Islamic State and defined it as a global Caliphate ruled by himself as the global caliph.

This raises the issue of how we should define the secular Western concept of a state, which originated in Germany almost four hundred years ago, and the classical Islamic concept of the Caliphate.  The thesis in my comments this evening is that these two terms are mutually exclusive and that the term Islamic State should be maintained in order to prove that the ideology and movement ruled by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is un-Islamic.

In international law as I learned it at Harvard Law School back in the 1950s the concept of the state refers to whoever can exercise control over more than 50% of a given territory.  International law has evolved significantly in the last half century to include respect for what natural law theorists call ethics and morality, even though few states consider themselves legally bound by this new dimension of international law.

The concept of the state as an ultimate source of truth and justice was created at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to end the Thirty Years War between the Catholics and Lutherans in Germany in order to eliminate the transcendent and religion in general as a source of conflict.  This elevation of states to replace the ultimate sovereignty of God relegated religion to the periphery of public life or excluded it and with it morality altogether.

It is significant that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi likes the term dawla or state as the name of his ideological paradigm for political governance, because he is thereby rejecting natural law, the Sunnat Allah, as found in both classical Christian and classical Islamic thought as a source of authority.  He is asserting the modern concept of the state, based on the paradigm of “might makes right”, as the basis of his new ideology.

His use of this modernist term, the state, as the equivalent of the term, caliphate, reveals how he understands the meaning of the caliphate, namely, as the legitimating source of his own military and political power.

The major issue and challenge both in theory and practice throughout much of Muslim history has been and still is how to understand the institution of the caliphate and how to maintain it.  For many decades, I have argued that the most reliable indicator of potential terrorists is whether they invoke the caliphate as their raison d’etre.  Osama bin Laden was very clear that he represented the global caliphate, even though, as far as I know, never publicly claimed the title of caliph. 

My major thesis today is that the greatest Islamic scholars rejected what has become known as the modern, Western paradigm of might makes right as the substance of the caliphate.  The greatest Islamic thinker of all time, Abu Hamid al Ghazali, who died nine hundred years ago in the Year 1,111, restricted the role of the caliphate to an ummatic umbrella functioning only to protect the functional integrity of Islamic thought, rather than to govern politically.  This is based on the statement by the Prophet Muhammad, “Whoever accepts a tyrant is guilty of tyranny”.

The most articulate and assiduous of the scholars on the meaning of the Islamic caliphate was Ibn Taymiyah, who lived at the time of the Mongol invasion.  He was an ardent supporter of the khilafah but not as an institution of military or even political governance.  Ibn Taymiyah developed a sophisticated understanding about the Islamic doctrine of the khilafah that demolishes the extremists of his day and ours.  He was a political theorist who was imprisoned by the reigning Caliph and died in prison ten years later for opposing the extremism of both tyrants and of their opponents.  He was in fact a model of those who both understand the sources of extremism and the means to counter it.  His mission was to deconstruct extremist teachings doctrinally in order to marginalize their adherents.

One of his modern students, Naveed Sheikh, in his book, The New Politics of Islam: Pan-Islamic Foreign Policy in a World of States, writes poetically in an English that cannot be translated, “Extremism comes when pan-Islamists operationalize a unity of belief in a human community of monist monolithism rather than in a boundless love for all of God’s creation in a transcendent Islamic cosmopolis”.  Extremism, he says, comes when people substitute a political institution for themselves as the highest instrument and agent of God in the world, when they call for a return of the Caliphate in its imperial form.  It comes when they call for what Shah Wali Allah of India in the 18th century called the khilafat zahira or external and exoteric caliphate in place of the khilafat batina or external and esoteric caliphate formed by the spiritual heirs of the prophets, who are the sages, saints, and righteous scholars.

Naveed Sheikh writes that the political scientists during the Abbasid period of classical Islam “delegitimized both institutional exclusivism and, critically, centralization of political power by disallowing the theophanic descent of celestial sovereignty into any human institution”.

Ibn Taymiya completed the process of deconstructing the ontological fatalism of caliphatic thought by asserting that the unity of the Muslim community depends not on any symbolism represented by the Caliph, much less on any caliphal political authority, but on what he called “confessional solidarity of each autonomous entity within an Islamic whole”.  In other words, the Muslim umma or global community is a body of purpose based on worship of God.  By contending that the monopoly of coercion that resides in political governance is not philosophically constituted, Ibn Taymiya rendered political unification and the caliphate redundant.

This classical Islamic approach to governance importantly impacts all the other issues in the maqsad or highest purpose in Islamic jurisprudence known as haqq al hurriyah or respect for self-determination of persons and communities, also known as “political freedom”.  This, in turn, affects the relationship between states and nations as determined by the maqsad, haqq al nasl or respect for the sacredness of family and community, which, in turn, derives from the maqsad, haqq al nafs or respect for the human person.  These are elaborated in my new textbook, Islam and Muslims, which, as a result of three years of peer review, now has expanded to three volumes, each of about 350 pages.