Mohammed was a genius and one of a handful of people who can be said to have changed the course of history. The Arabs had been a fractious people whose tendency towards drunkenness and constant inter-tribal warfare had prevented them from becoming a cohesive nation able to protect themselves from economic and political exploitation by more powerful neighbors whether the Byzantines to the West or the Persians to the East. Beginning around the year 610 AD when he was about 40 years old, Mohammed allegedly had a series of revelations from the Archangel Gabriel that he compiled into religious text that would eventually become the Qur’an. Through a combination of persuasion and conquest, Mohammed forged the various Arab tribes into single nation united in a single and aggressive religious faith which he called Islam, or submission (to the Will of God.) By the time of his death the Arab nations were ready to expand their political power beyond the Arabian peninsula into the Byzantine and Persian Empires.
When Mohammed died in 632, however, he had made no provisions for who would succeed him as the leader of the Islamic faithful. There was considerable disagreement among the closest circle of his advisors. In the end, his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was named “caliph” or Leader of the Faithful. This was both a religious and political title as Islam, unlike the modern West which believes that Religion and the State should be in separate and distinct spheres, sees society as in integrated whole with the political power at the service of sharia or religious law.
Mohammed had several sons but none survived him into adulthood. There were those among his followers who believed that the succession should have gone to his son-in-law, Ali and they refused to recognize the legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s reign. Those who accepted the election of Abu Bakr as caliph evolved into the Sunnis. Those who believe that Mohammed had designated his son-in-law, Ali, as his successor evolved into the Shiites. This split was not immediate but grew slowly wider during Islam’s first century.
Abu Bakr died only two years after Mohammed. He was the last caliph for almost three decades to die peacefully. Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab who reigned for ten years. It was Umar who captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines in 636. Umar was assassinated by agents of the Persians in 644 after a ten year reign. He was succeeded in turn by Uthman ibn al-Affan. Umar had appointed a body of six men to elect a successor upon his death and left the instructions that any of the six who dissented from the choice should be killed so that there would be opposition. The final choice came down to Uthman or Ali and while Uthman was chosen, the Ali faction would not accept the election. But neither was Ali or any of his followers killed. A very deep wound within the community of Islam began to fester.
During Uthman’s caliphate, variant versions of the Qur’an were collected, a single text established by the caliph, and all other versions destroyed so that there would be a single Arabic text which even today is the definitive text of the Qur’an. Uthman’s reign was a violent one, marked by rebellions in both Syria and Egypt that threatened the unity of the caliphate. In fact, the rebels offered the caliphate to Ali but he supposedly refused. In 656 a group of rebels broke into Uthman’s home and murdered him. Ali was urged both by the rebels and by the citizens of Medina to accept the caliphate and finally did, but many who had been followers of Uthman refused to recognize the legitimacy of his reign. In 661 at prayers during the annual fast of Ramadan, Ali was murdered. He was succeeded by Muawiyah I who established the Umayyad dynasty. These first five caliphs are considered to be the “rightly guided” caliphs. Ali had a son, Hussein (or Husayn) who refused to pledge to the Umayyads as he considered their claim to the caliphate illegitimate. Yazīd ibn Mu’āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān, the son of Muawiyah and second Umayyad caliph, had Hussein ambushed and killed at Karbala in modern Iraq. He is considered a martyr by the Shiites and his memory is still a source of Shiite anger towards the Sunnis.
The Umayyads ruled the caliphate from their capital at Damascus until overthrown by the Abbasids in 750. The Abbasids moved the seat of the caliphate to Baghdad. Survivors of the Umayyads fled to Muslim Spain where they eventually established a rival caliphate at Cordoba. The Abbasids fell to the Mongols in 1258 and the caliphate eventually ended up being claimed by the Ottoman Sultans until their deposition following World War I.
Over the centuries there have been a number of counter-caliphates claiming leadership in the Islamic world. The Umayyads of Cordoba retained their caliphate until 1031 when it fractured into a number of warring Islamic kingdoms. The Fatimid caliphate (909-1171) controlled most of North Africa from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic in the West. They also reached up into Sicily for a period. They were Shiite and their caliphs claimed descent from Mohammed through his daughter, Fatima, the wife of Ali. The Sokoto Caliphate was a nineteenth century Islamic movement among Nigerian Muslims that eventually lost out politically to the power of European colonialism. The Ahmadiyya Caliphate which claims over 20 million followers is a Messianic movement in Islam that claims its caliph, currently Mirza Masroor Ahmad, is the successor to the five righteous caliphs and a prophet. It is considered heretical by mainstream Muslims who believe there is no prophet after Mohammed. When the Ottoman caliphate was deposed by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, there was a movement, especially among Muslims in the British Empire, to come together to chose a successor in a restored caliphate In the end, however, the movement came to nothing.
It would seem that this new caliphate proclaimed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is no more than another attempt to revive a long lost and impractical claim to empire, but this could be very different. Islam is undergoing a real worldwide revival and many young Muslims are anxious to see their religion take its ancient place as a world-spanning empire. The sort of religious fundamentalism represented by this movement is just the sort of thing that can energize people who feel that they have been discriminated against and marginalized for too long and are ready to break the political and religious hegemony that has kept them back. Abu Bakr’s choice of a name (after the first caliph) and his talk of a caliphate, as well as his claim that while a Sunni he is in fact a descendent from Mohammed, could bring together both Sunni and Shiite factions in an attempt to restore Islam to the sort of power it had in the days of the “rightly-guided caliphs.” Hitler’s dream of a restored Reich and the way it captured the imagination of the German people two generations ago show that a mystical psychopath can be as dangerous as any other cruel dictator. Do not be surprised if this movement builds momentum in the Muslim world and becomes a major political and security threat to the West.