Monday, February 7, 2011

1258 Or The Caliph Does Not Live Here Anymore

For some reason, obscure to anyone with more than ten functioning braincells, there has been much talk about the Muslim wish to restore the Caliph. A certain dry-drunk Mormon, who appears on Fox News, had one of his frequent melt-downs on the subject. Where to begin? Since others know the ins and out about how the Muslim Brotherhood really works, I will let them explain how off base the charge of setting up a Caliphate is to the Brotherhood’s thinking. Quick summary; not even in a bad B movie would this happen. No, with the help of Wikipedia we delve into how little our gold bug  knows about history in general and the history of medieval Islam in particular. 

When the word Caliph is used it describes both a very particular man and a very particular institution. The Caliph was the commander of the faithful; the secular arm of the Umma. His hereditary office was a loose analogue to the monarchs of Europe and Asia. At their height, the writ of the Calif covered millions of souls and millions of acres. 

Still, even at the height of their powers, the Caliphs were not absolute rulers. The clergy was able to carve out a separate sphere of power and influence for themselves. The vast distances of the empire they ruled also put a natural limit on the Caliph’s power. The rule of the Caliphs was not some one-dimensional authoritarian monolith, but a very complex social-religious-political edifice with multiple players. But that bit of historical fact does not play well for people who trade in fear and bigotry.

Even more critical to the discussion of this institution was the fate of one Al-Musta'sim Billah. It will not surprise you to hear that the man is no longer with us, no one born in the year 1213 is, what is important is how he met his end in 1258. The Caliph had a run in with the Mongol conquer Hulagu Khan and it did not go well for the commander of the faithful. Ill prepared and foolishly dismissive of the Mongol host, the Caliph attempted to wait out a siege in Baghdad. The Caliph was so arrogant that he did not even call out for the aid of his fellow Muslims. The Mongols made short work of the poorly defended and structurally weak walls of Baghdad. Not willing to shed holy blood it is claimed that Hulagu wrapped the soon-to-be last Caliph in a rug and had his horses pulverize him.

In many ways Islam never recovered from the events of February 20, 1258. The end of the Abbasids, and the end of Baghdad, signaled the decline of  Islam as a progressive and inventive force in the world. Although the Ottomans would once bring glory to the Islamic world, a deep and abiding conservatism in all religious and social matters would grip the Umma.

When the people sigh for the Caliph, they sigh for something that is irretrievably lost. The Abbasids are gone, and the sons of Osman have gone to seed.  To bring up the notion of Caliph or of a Caliphate is to be marked out as an un-serious person. To posit that the recreation of the Caliph is a goal of other people, or one of your own goals, is to wave the flag of base foolishness and epic stupidity. The Caliph is dead, you can not recreate the man or the institution in the same way you cannot un-scramble an omelet.

It says much about our present political state of mind that a broadcast personality could even attempt to posit the notion of that people have reinstatement of the Caliphate in mind. It is even worse that a small fraction of the viewing public would swallow such blithering nonsense whole. It takes a special type of willful ignorance to buy into this world view; and it is terrifying to witness.

It is hard to say where the situation in Egypt is headed. Hosni Mubarak is definitely not going gently into that good night. Tin Pot dictators and pugilists are remarkable similar in behavior: they both stay on far past their prime. Maybe the “Moderate Muslim” government he presided over will be replaced by something  more “radical.” Having no understanding of these terms “moderate” and “radical” and how they apply to an Umma that is diverse as the globe it covers, I don’t have the foggiest notion what the inbred chattering classes that occupy the seats of power in the USA may be talking about. It seems to have something to do with how amenable to crony corporate capitalism these “Moderate Muslim” are. As long as the governments of Muslim states are willing to shovel their citizens into the ravenous maw of laissez-faire capitalism it’s all good. What cannot be tolerated is any opposition to rigid free market absolutism and triumphalism. Nothing seems to get a political movement branded with the pejorative “radical” faster than a concern for the public good. The minute you start talking about building up the commons, about the need to be one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, your movement becomes a bunch of wild-eyed, bomb exploding, terrorist fanatics.

One thing is for sure, the Egyptian people have no interest in bringing back a Caliph. They had the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties plus the rule of the Mamluks, they have had enough of empire. The people of Nile yearn for freedom, not for absolutism. They are demanding democracy not a demigod. They want pluralism not a potentate. The Caliph no longer lives here, he is no longer with us, may Allah the most merciful and compassionate have accepted his soul into Paradise.
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