The Caliphate before the ISIS blitzkrieg

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Over the last three weeks we’ve witnessed a shocking blitzkrieg in Iraq as the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept through the north of the country. A little over a week ago ISIS announced the establishment of a Caliphate straddling both countries. With it came the implementation of a hard-line version of Islamic law and the declaration of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as Caliph.

On Saturday a bearded man dressed in black robes, purportedly the new Caliph, stepped out of the shadows. Video was released of him addressing men attending a mosque in Mosul in the north of Iraq. In his sermon he called on all Muslims to obey him.

For most of its history since the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632CE the Muslim world was ruled by a Caliph. This is the Anglicised version of the Arabic word ‘khalifa’ which means successor or representative.

The last Caliphal dynasty, the Ottomans, ruled over their empire from Istanbul till the Caliphate was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924 when he established the modern secular state of Turkey. Since then Muslims have been without a supreme leader.

What is the significance of the declaration of a Caliphate now, and the emergence of a new Caliph? Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who is featured in this interview is well qualified to discuss these questions. He spoke to Eureka Street TV via Skype from his home in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City where he is based.

Imam Feisal is one of the most eminent Muslim leaders and scholars in America today. Amongst other concerns, he’s spent much of the last decade grappling with the issues surrounding what might constitute a positive Islamic state in the contemporary world.

He was born in Kuwait of Egyptian parents, raised in England and Malaysia, and for a short time in Egypt before settling with his family at the age of seventeen in the USA.

His father and grandfather were imams at mosques and Islamic centres around the world, and some ancestors were Sufi Masters, belonging to the mystical stream of Islam. After studying science at university to Master’s level, Imam Feisal succumbed to what he calls ‘genetic momentum’, began Islamic studies and became an imam himself.

He was imam at al-Farah Mosque very close to Ground Zero in New York at the time of 9/11. This thrust him into the limelight as he sought to allay fears about the Muslim community and build bridges into broader American society. 

Before the tragedy of the attacks on the Twin Towers he was already one of the founders of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and subsequently began the Cordoba Initiative to further these aims.

One of the projects of the Cordoba Initiative is developing the Islamic Rule of Law Index. This involves an international group of scholars from all the major Muslim traditions trying to come up with guidelines and a way of evaluating Muslim countries and societies in terms of how they measure up to good Islamic governance. A book summarising the results of this project is due to be published in 2015. 

Imam Feisal is much in demand as a speaker and is a prolific writer for a range of publications. His books include What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America; Islam: A Sacred Law; What is Islamic Law?; Justification and Theory of Sharia Law: How the American Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution are Consistent with Islamic Jurisprudence; and Moving the Mountain: Beyond Gound Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America.

In this continuation of the interview with Imam Feisal he talks about the Islamic Rule of Law Index and in general what constitutes a good Islamic state.

This interview is in two parts - Part 1 (12 mins) above, and Part 2 (9 mins) below:

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Eureka Street TV, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf



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The whole Caliphate matter is a complicated one, Peter. It harks back to the early days of Islam, when the Prophet left no succession plan and that almost immediately split Muslims into Sunni and Shi'ites because of their difference in opinion as to who should lead the community. The Shiítes felt only a relative of the Prophet's could do so. The Sunnis, always numerically the majority, disagreed. Sadly, blood was spilt very soon after, which caused the current, centuries long antipathy with wars etc. In recent times there was the great historic rivalry between Ottoman Sunni Turkey (with Caliph) and Shi'ite Iran (no Caliph). Amongst Sunni Muslims today there is great debate as to whether the Umma (World Muslim Community) should be ruled by a Caliph or not. There are many respected scholars who think it unnecessary in this day and age. Feisal Abdul Rauf would be one of these and a relatively minor one. There are others, equally fluent in English and with as respectable, if not better, qualifications, who are more respected by the community, but who are not as media savvy.
Edward Fido | 10 July 2014


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