Sunday, December 6, 2015

Inspired by ISIS, Sunni New Yorker Considers a Caliphate

The terrorist group, ISIS, has declared a Caliphate in the region under their control, reaching across Syria and Iraq.

Now 31, I've spent my life in the city of New York, born into a long lineage of Sunni Muslim tradition. As a product of western institutions, I maintain strong beliefs in democracy, freedom, equality, and individualism.
For the last several years, I've been reading parts of the Quran and slowly integrating more of its ideas into my lifestyle. None of my western values have ever come into conflict with my -- so called -- "Islamization".

Despite my ongoing study of the religion, I am only now beginning to awaken to this concept of a Caliphate.

To have a Caliphate, there must be a chosen Caliph. This word means "successor" and this refers to the successor of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Through most of my religious education, I was never aware of a successor to the Prophet (PBUH). I knew that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was the very last information officer (as well as war general and political figure) who would be delivering a divine message, and there will be no other messengers following him.

The death of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in 632 CE left no political or spiritual vacuum, so why would anyone want a Caliph? What he did leave behind was a prevailing Muslim society, and that society apparently wanted some kind of spiritual and political leader.
Since Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), we've had four sequential Caliphs before this system died in the later half of the 7th century. Under this system, Islam was a growing empire as well as a political machine, and it is these conditions that ISIS is (allegedly) working to reinstate. At the head of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the modern Caliph and (according to ISIS-supports) the "commander of all Muslims" (3). Below is the famous image of him wearing a James Bond rolex.

Following the Prophet's death (PBUH), the fault lines in the Muslim community appeared around ideas of who should be Mohammed's successor. "Sunnis believed that the best successor should emerge from among the students of Mohammed." (0) "A smaller group thought that someone from his family should take up his mantle" (2), and as I understand it, this group grew into the Shiites of today.

In my earliest religious education, I learned that Sunni's and Shiites predominantly believe the same ideas regarding God and the afterlife, but Shiites hold an extra set of beliefs regarding the organization of their living society for which they want a pope. By "pope", of course, I mean Caliph.

In contrast, Sunnis hold no such belief about the Prophet's successors. According to the Islam that I grew up knowing, each individual has a direct line of communication to God. I was taught by several Sunni sources throughout my development, that the main components of the religion are within the five pillars of Islam, and that a desire for a Caliph is purely a Shiite concern. This was marginally an education of "us-and-them". 

(International Herald Tribune, France)

With Sunnis supplying the majority of the global Muslim population by about 85%, and the desire for a Caliph concentrating among the Shiite minority, the disinterest for a Caliph naturally dominates free-thinking Islamic psyche. This presumption is violently beheaded by the realization that ISIS is an organization largely driven by Sunnis (1). As if the bloodlust alone, was not confusing enough: what form of madness is this?

Considering that human history has seen four Caliphates after Prophet Mohammed's mortal departure (PBUH), it must mean that at some point in time, the Muslim world was unified together under a common civic order designed according to the guidelines of the Quran. The order created an entire social and political system, integrating the religious and non-religious behaviors of each individual living within it. The Caliphate brought about stability and secured Islam as the basis of government. This was a time when there was no "us-and-them".

The Word delivered by Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) led to the precipitation of [not just a religious movement but] an entire civilization. Islam is more than just a religion: it's an organizing principle of one's social behaviors as well as one's private headspace. When allowed, it combines one's religious affiliation with one's political identity. 

Yet, this 1400 year long disagreement regarding how to select a Caliph has divorced its political uses from its ritual practices in the minds of modern Sunni Muslims like myself, and those before me. Millions (4) of my modern counterparts are members of ISIS, "fighting infidels" to reunite Islam's religious practices with its political uses, in order to implement a "hermit kingdom" (3) that will bring about the end of the world. (Are you laughing? I too find these words hilarious.)

The positions I hold regarding my government take shape without regard to my religion, and I'm thankful to live in a state where my government does not interfere with, nor does it enforce my prayer schedule, baptisms, or fasting rituals. The idea behind a Caliphate comes into direct conflict with my strongly guarded belief in the separation of church and state. I hold this value, not as a westerner, but as a Muslim. (I also hold it as a westerner, but that's tangential to the topic at hand.)

Baptisms and praying are parts of my personal behavior patterns. In fact, they are so personal that at the age of 15, I had decided it was not even the business of my parents to know my religious affiliation: one day I announced to my mother that I was renouncing my religion so that I will no longer be praying or attending any Sunday classes. Secretly, I would disguise myself under a hijab and make the sundown prayers at the local mosque without her knowledge, allowing her to assume that I was out somewhere engaging in heinous activities. It was (and still is) my philosophy that if I'm supposed to have a direct line to God, I can't allow my parents' parental styles to contaminate this relationship.       

As a modern Sunni Muslim, the idea of turning these personal activities into societal conventions -- as I assume would happened under a Caliphate -- is not an easy idea to fathom. I live in (and will most likely continue to live in) a diverse human community, and if the members of this community freely began to face east five times a day to submit to God, I would find this trend to be absolutely fascinating. But if they began to do that because a Caliphate is making it mandatory, I would readily stand up for their freedom to not submit, and my politics will continue to harmonize with my religion.

The Islam I know repeatedly warns against forced (or coerced) conversions, or any method of imposing the ideas of the Quran onto other humans. Worship is only a product of decision making at the individual level. The Islam I know is marked by a profound adaptability, afforded by its undeniable focus on the individual. It may leave room to build a Caliphate, as well as to tear one down, while commanding neither.

The Holy Quran addresses the individual reader, providing the individual with a set of guidelines. As humans, we make decisions on a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly basis. We make decisions during our lives which can only be made once, and never again. Islam provides direction for decision making at all such intervals across various contexts in the spectrum of human experience.
In the Islam that I know, congregations are optional and a society need not even exist: it is as applicable to infrastructures of civilization as it is to one's solitude.

ISIS-supporting women's terrorist organizations in Britain are preaching to their members that by embracing Islam, they are effectively renouncing democracy (and vice versa). They explain that being Muslim "is a rejection of democracy and the rule of law" (33:36/47:44), because no legislation should be respected other than the ruling of God:  

They teach their members that the unquestionable and absolute power of God is challenged by the sovereignty that democracy gives to the individual. They believe that recognition of the sovereignty of man is a rejection of God's absolute power. Such a conclusion makes it glaringly evident their unfortunately failure to grasp the Quran's acknowledgement of (and reliance on) the power of the individual's decision.

Absolute power of God is one of the most basic concepts of Islam. At the same time, the Quran leaves it up to the human to decide how to manage our relationship with our terrestrial governments. It stands neither against, nor in favor of any type of organization or ruling. It cultivates a mentality in its followers to agree that no man is fit to exercise absolute rule over any other. (This is why a Caliph is more like a pope than a ruler.)

Islam in its nature, can be categorized with other political and economic schools of thought, but nothing in the contents of the Quran makes this a requirement in the rightful practice of Islam.

The Islam I know is a small set of mandatory laws (see: five pillars of Islam) accompanied by a versatile set of suggestions geared toward the individual, which can all be plugged into any human society, taking the shape of that society in which it grows. This has been occurring for centuries around the globe, in the absence of Islamic government. (Consider Indonesia, the country with largest Muslim population.)  

Terrorism, Sunni-Shia conflicts, undereducated women's groups, and propaganda through our media, all inflict distortion on the ideas about Islam that we have in our minds as modern citizens of the world. The original Caliphates were known for the quality of life they offered to their citizens, so the appeal to reestablish it is understandable, even to a Sunni westerner like myself.  

The women in the above documentary believe in the sincerity of ISIS's mission to recreate that Caliphate. To think that ISIS has the leadership and fortitude to recreate what Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) left behind is absolutely laughable.


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