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GNOSIS 2/2006
The ambition of the caliphate nourishes the dream of renewed victory

articolo redazionale

The major part of the Islamic fundamentalist organizations makes reference, in their proselytizing activities, claims and propaganda documents, to the “caliphate”, the form of Arab government that they wish to restore. This ambition has been interpreted by the West as a Utopian product of Islamic radicalism. In reality, the sieve of western secularism has some rather strong semantic limitations concerning concepts which, almost always, for their inveterate or acquired religious significance, are much wider and are in no way exclusive property of violent fringes. A deeper examination of this subject reveals a form of government which has always been part of the Arab and Moslem history, also in contemporary times. Indeed, it is the very social disparity, the economic difficulties, the unequal treatment on the international scene, the fear of a growing neo-colonialism due to a progressive and inexorable depletion of raw materials, above all, in the energy field which contribute, more than ever, to keep alive this alternative to the present form of government. Certainly, there are many doctrinal positions and, in the most recent, the classical theories have had to come to terms with nationalism, but in all of these positions, the caliphate constitutes the ideal world which aspires to the equanimity which guarantees the administration of the earthly life. The editorial office wishes to offer a guide to the caliphate, which although we cannot neglect a certain amount of historical detail, will permit the reader a correct ideological and theological approach to this institutional call of great topical interest in the Arab and Moslem world.

photo ansa

Origins and significance

On the death of the Prophet in the 11th year of the Hegira (632 AD), a strong, self- governed Islamic community (Umma) was in power, created by the Prophet, according to what had been revealed to him. The word umma derives from the Arab root umm, mother. Nevertheless, although rarely, the same word in Hebrew indicated a group of tribes and, consequently, such a derivation is also possible. In the pre-Islamic Arab poetry, this term indicates a “religious community”. Until his death, the temporal and spiritual authority of Mohammed was unquestioned: he governed the Umma, was arbitrator of internal disputes, was head of the army and was the principle strategist.
However, although a law maker, a conductor of wars, a peace-maker and a creator of social institutions, he never claimed the title of governor, legislator, judge or general, but continued to define himself as a messenger of God. As a result, not only the doctrine and the Islamic rituals, in the strictest sense, but also the State, the laws and the social institutions were “religious”.
Islam thus became the name of a “total” life system, not simply a rule of the private relation between an individual and God. In the more distant tribes and regions, he delegated others as his representatives, called halfa (from the term caliph) namely “person in charge” according to a meaning that scholars consider was already in use in pre- Islamic times.
The death of Mohammed was a very dramatic event: the Moslems suddenly found themselves not only without their leader, but also without a divine guide, source of the charismatic authority of the Prophet.
However, they were sufficiently imbued with the Islamic vision to carry on the effort of building an ideal society based on that ethical authority. The institutional response to the necessity of a temporal guide for all the Moslems was the caliphate. This solution implied the government of the community by a person who stood out for his moral qualities.
As can be easily understood, bitter controversies arose among the various power holding caliphs, facilitated by the sudden crisis generated by the death of the Prophet. Therefore, all the rivalry which the message of Mohammed had been able to repress, re-emerged with tribal intransigence.

The classical theories of the caliphate

The Sunnite vision
According to the vision of the Sunnite majority, Mohammed did not leave instructions for the future guidance of the Umma. The original nucleus of Moslems acclaimed as their leader one of their most senior members and very likely, endowed with great prestige: Abu Bakr, reigning between 632 and 634 AD. There is no historical certainty that he was effectively named "khalfat rasl Allah", which means, “Caliph of the Messenger of God”, that is, “the deputy of the Prophet”, in any event, all of the Sunnites consider him as the first caliph.
He was a follower from the first hour, his sister A’isha was one of the wives Mohammed, and shortly before the death of the Prophet, he was charged to lead the prayers in his stead.
The term sunnitesderives from the name with which the Moslem community - which for three times did not elect as Mohammed’s successor, his first cousin Al - distinguished itself from the latter’s supporters, who defined themselves shiites: ahl al-sunna wa-al-gam’a, is translated with the phrase “people of the sunna and of the community”. The word ‘community’ refers to the people converted by Mohammed, while it is more complex to explain what the sunna is.
The term derives from the root “s n n” utilized to describe the smoothing action exercised by a particularly incisive tool (e.g. because it is equipped with tooth-like protrusions) from which, by extension, in pre-Islamic Arabia, sunna came to mean “usage sanctioned by tradition”, i.e. “the rightful thing to do”, that which can be anthropologically defined as “tribal custom”, universally accepted, in matters of faith, morals and social activities.
It was the sunna of the Arab comrades of Prophet Mohammed which initially led them to reject him, because the social and spiritual customs of their ancestors where not compatible with his vision and requests. And It was his re-interpretation of the sunna which permitted him to eventually win them back because he showed them that what they took for true tradition (for example, polytheism) was not so and that the true sunna of their ancestors was the same as the monotheism of Abraham which he announced, inasmuch as he invited his listeners to comply with the moral contract of Abraham with the one and only God. The Sunna of the Prophet (sunnat al-nab) began to prevail on the tribal sunna and, the new “tribe”, the Moslems, acquired a new model of established practice.
The Koran states that the name ‘Moslem’ was coined from Abraham, this because, according to Moslems, Islam is the eternal religion of God, but in reality, historically, Islam had its origin in Arabia at the beginning of the 7th Century AD. Both the words derive from the pre-Islamic Arab root “s l m”, which means “to be in peace”, from which ‘Islam’ i.e. “to submit to the law of God so as to be in peace” and the word ‘Moslem’ i.e. the one who practices this submission.
It should be specified that, around 610 AD, Mohammed had some singular experiences, which convinced him that he had been called to become “the Messenger of God” (rasl Allah), entrusted to carry messages or revelations, from God to the people of Mecca. Singular because it seems reasonably sure that Mohammed did not have visions or hear voices, but simply found the words in his heart. He remembered the messages and, therefore, recited them to his followers, who in their turn, memorized them or, sometimes, transcribed them.
The revelations were mostly short phrases. It is possible that Mohammed himself started to assemble them in sra(s), but the definitive collection of the Koran was realized only twenty years after his death. The word qur’n (Koran) is of Syrian origin and indicates something to be recited within the sphere of worship. Each of the main divisions or chapters is called sra, the significance, however, would seem to be the equivalent of ‘scriptures’.
Every sura of the Koran is further divided into a certain number of yt (sing. ya), definable in the western countries as “short verses”, whose significance is “sign”, in the sense of divine prodigy. In the Koran both the term nab (prophet) and rasl (messenger or apostle) are present. Some scholars consider these terms equivalent, but some maintain that all prophets receive messages from God, but that only the Messenger has also a mission towards the community.
The successors of Ab Bakr were ‘Umar, ‘Utman and ‘Al, who together with Ab Bakr constitute the so-called Rshidn (the Well Guided). These first four caliphs were so named because of ahadith, attributed to Mohammed, according to which, the caliphate would have lasted only thirty years after his death, which occurred in 632 AD and from 661 AD onward, only mulk (autocratic reigns) would have succeeded it. It follows that according to the Sunnites, the authentic and exemplary caliphate, i.e. the vicariate of the prophetic spirit (khilfat al-nubwa) was restricted to the first four caliphs.
The Moslems of the Sunnite majority use the Arab term hadith (pl. ahdth) to refer to any speech or report regarding what the Prophet Mohammed or a member of the first Moslem community said or did. Al-ahdth means “the single report”. For the Moslems, the hadth has connotations which refer to its immediate origins, or rather, the eye witnesses, and reflect the general preference for oral transmission. The Sunnites considered the first four caliphs as the highest representatives of humanity after Mohammed and, therefore, worthy of inheriting the role of guide of the community, the following caliphs would have been only despots. In fact, many were considered unjust and ungodly.
If the later caliphate, however, was held to be imperfect, the Sunnite doctrine continued to consider it an indispensable institution and sanctioned by God and confirmed the obligation of each Moslem to obey and actively support the caliph in office, whether he be a just man or an oppressor, as long as he did not violate the religious laws.

The Shiite vision
At Ghadir al Kuhmm, on the Arabic peninsula, shortly before his death, Mohammed seemed to have designated his cousin, Ali as his successor. He was the husband of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and was eventually to become the fourth “Well Guided” caliph. The Prophet’s choice of Ali was ignored by the Moslem community which, instead, recognized Ab Bakr as their first caliph. Thus, the Shiite movement originated, from the Arab sh’at ‘Al (the party of Ali). Historically, the Sh’a appeared as a support to Al (656 – 661 AD), during the first civil war, following the murder of the third caliph, ‘Uthmn.
Also from some verses of the Koran and from some particular hadth, the Sh’a deduces that Mohammed had chosen his cousin Al as his successor, one among the first converts. It was a plot hatched among the comrades of the Prophet, according to the Sh’a, to deprive ‘Al of his legitimate position; a much more important and charismatic guide with respect to the Sunnite version, a leader who, for the majority of the Sh’a, was in himself, the perfection and the infallible interpretation of the scriptures.
‘Al ibn Ab Tlib became the fourth caliph, the last of the Rshidn, but his nomination by the killers of his predecessor, ‘Uthmn ibn ‘Affn (644-750 AD.) of the Umayyad clan, provoked a civil war and a laceration of the community which would never be reassembled. When ‘Al was killed in 661 AD, the caliphate passed to the Umayyads (661-750 AD).
It was one of the many tribes which united around Mohammed. It derived its name from one of its ancestors, a certain Umayya, and with which the office of caliph became, in fact, hereditary.
With them the capital city of the caliphate was transferred from Kufa, in Iraq, where ‘Al had established it, to Damascus.
Naturally, the Sh’a did not recognize the authority of any of them, since they held to their concept that only the Alidi, the descendents of ‘Al, could aspire to the caliphate and that only their claims had the divine sanction, because of their belonging to the ahl al-bayt, the Prophet’s family (literally “the people of the House”, meaning with this last term, the residence of the Prophet).


The khrigita vision
The conflict between 'Al and the Umayyads gave place to a third theory on the caliphate, which was also considered classical, the one of the khrigites, equal to the Sunnite and the Shiite.
Although not numerous, they represent the third force of Islam and have assumed roles of great importance in the history of Moslem theology and in political theory. Their origin goes back to the agreement between the fourth caliph, ‘Al, and his rival, Moawiyah, relative and avenger of the third caliph, ‘Uthmn. It was an agreement pertaining to an arbitration procedure following the battle of Siffin (657 AD.), on the Euphrates where their armies had clashed. A group of ‘Al’s followers, mainly representatives of the Arab tribe of Tamins, held the belief that ‘Al had committed a grave sin by accepting to negotiate with the rebels and, for this reason, no longer considered him a Moslem.
They abandoned the encampment (khurg) and gathered at Harr, near Kufa (the then capital of the caliphate of Al), in Iraq. Since then they are called khrigites (those who went out). ‘Al was assassinated by a khrigite at the door of the mosque of Kufa. For these dissidents, numerically very few even then, yet very active and hostile to both parties engaged in the civil war, the caliph was liable to be removed from office if ever he deviated from the practice of Mohammed. His functions would then be degraded to, more or less, the level of a tribal chief. And, in fact, it was from the ambient of the Arab nomad tribes that the Khrigites drew support.

Duties of the caliph

According to the Sunnites
The responsibility of guiding the Umma in peace or war was of the caliph, as it had been for the Prophet, and to direct the prayer rituals and the pilgrimage, functions which, in the past, had been carried out on behalf of the prophet himself, (khalfa = deputy). The prophetic role, expressed in Mohammed’s acts with almost infallible authority, was not foreseen. In theory, the Moslem community chose, guided by divine inspiration, the first Sunnite caliphs, while the act of acclamation (bay’a) constituted, above all, an elective ideal to forestall possible dynastic tendencies.
According to the more evolved Sunnite theory, the caliph had to be an adult male of the Quraysh tribe, clan of the most important traders of the Mecca, to which also Mohammed belonged. Among the selection criteria, it was usual to consider the state of mental and bodily health, the knowledge of religion, devotion, honesty and integrity. His prerogatives were those of guiding the prayers, to be recognized, in the Friday sermon, as the head of all Moslems, mint money, lead the Army, receive for the Umma, one fifth of the total booty.
His duties, instead, were to defend and possibly extend Islam’s dominion, to maintain the Shariah, i.e. the conduct prescribed for Moslems, to ensure law and order, so that the faithful could follow such conduct in peace and security; to collect established taxes and, in general, to administer the Umma with the aid of expert consultants. Originally, sharah referred to the path run by camels directed towards a source of water. In the case of the Islamic law, the path is that which conducts the good Moslem, in the future life, to Paradise.
The Shariah is not considered a religious law by virtue of the subjects it deals with, since these go far beyond the cultural sphere, but in relation to the belief that it derives from divinely inspired sources and represents the plan of God to give harmony to all human activity. The historical origin of the Shariah lies in the revelation which Moslems believe was given by God to the Prophet Mohammed, through Archangel Gabriel, in the last decade before his death. This divine revelation was subsequently collected in a text known under the name of Koran where, although only a small part is dedicated to juridical questions, general principles of behaviour are established according to which Moslems must abide. From this nucleus of commandments, the wider corpus of shariah laws was developed.

According to the Shiites
Instead, for the Shiites, the figure of the caliph is necessary for the continuity of the world and the story of mankind; in fact, according to a Shiite hadth, the caliph is the proof of God of which the World will never be without. The caliph is the vice- regent of Allah, he has a perfect knowledge of the Koran and during the “Night of Power”, commemoration of the moment when the sacred text was revealed for the first time, God gives him the knowledge of all the events of the approaching year.
The caliph is chosen by God and by the Prophet, or by previous caliphs, by means of a clear designation and he possesses the “initiation” power, which is the power to start mystic activities, while the Prophet has both the power of prophecy and that of “initiation”. This belief implied that the greater part of Mohammed’s disciples, and more in general the Moslem community, had sinned in apostasy by recognizing Ab Bakr as caliph instead of ‘Al, who had been publicly designated by Mohammed as his successor. The five and a half years of ‘Al’s government naturally remain as the ideal to which Shiites have looked for centuries, because those years constitute the only period in which the power was in the hands of a Shiite caliph.
In the final analysis, if the Sunnites have always supported the true power holder as a guarantor of the cohesion of the Moslem community, the Shiites have usually given higher importance to the principle of the legitimacy of the caliph, which should be within the family circle of the prophet Mohammed. The majority of the Shiite caliphs, with the exception of the Zaydites, never had any political power, notwithstanding their community considered them as the only adequate guides for the Moslem community and held the belief, on the contrary, that the historical caliphs, with the exception of Al, were all usurpers. Partly due to their lack of political power, the Shiites have usually invested their caliphs with a wide authority in religious matters and have always conferred a central role to this last.
The Zaydites, from Zayd ibn ‘Al, great-grandson of Husayn, second son of ‘Al, therefore an “Alid” (descendent of Al), author of a failed rebellion (740 AD.) against the Umayyad, established a Shiite sect, moderate in defining the religious authority of their caliphs and in condemning the other Moslem communities which differed in their behaviour, but at the same time, strong supporters of the armed rebellions against illegitimate governors.

According to the khrigites
While the Shiites founded their repudiation of the Sunnite caliphate on the basis of a different principle of legitimacy, the khragites justified their opposition by making use of an intransigent vision of justice and moral integrity of the caliph. According to khragite doctrine, the caliph becomes non-legitimate following even the smallest violation of the religious law and, therefore, must be removed, if necessary, by force.
The unjust and immoral caliph and his supporters must be treated as faithless people (infidels), unless they repent their behaviour. ‘Uthmn and ‘Al are considered, initially, to be legitimate caliphs, but due to their illegal acts became faithless and, consequently, were justly assassinated.
Any Moslem who does not openly dissociate from the aforementioned caliphs is considered, in his turn, faithless, and in the same way, the Moslem who does not declare his support for the just caliphs like Ab Bakr and ‘Umar are also considered faithless. The Kharagites also rejected the Sunnite elite theory which reserved the caliphate to the descendants of the Quarysh and, what is more, felt that any worthy Moslem, also if not originally Arab, and even a slave, could become caliph; such equalitarian principles were extended to women as well. The other qualifications and functions of the caliph were, more or less, the same as those foreseen by the Sunnites, with special importance given to the duty, fixed by the Koran, “to order what is right and prohibit what is blameworthy”, as well as to wage jihd against non-Khrigite Moslems.


Caliphate and the imam

In the Arab language ‘imam’, in general, means “guide” or “master”. In a non-specific sense, the word is usually applicable to a recognized authority in the area of study, also not exclusively religious or to the guide of a community. In technical terms, in the Islamic law and theology, the term refers to the supreme and legitimate guide of the Moslem community and also to he who directs the ritual prayer (salt).
Therefore, since the great majority of the Moslems, the Sunnites, has generally interpreted the caliphate as the legitimate authority of Islam after the Prophet Mohammed, and the Shiites, as the result of the necessity of an infallible guide and of a master in religious matters, the imam coincides, in this specific meaning, with the reigning caliph. The words are, therefore, synonyms, like the respective domains of derived etymology.

Historic influences on the classic caliphate

The vicissitudes of the caliphate and its variations with the time, reproduce, as in a laboratory, the evolution of the Islamic civilization. If it is true that the Moslem doctrine, expressed in the Koran, should have furnished and unalterable guide for all time, it is equally true that the revealed precepts underwent heavy influences, also non-Islamic, by those who, each time, held power.
In the 1st Islamic century, the Arab tribalism was a continual challenge to the caliphate. The Arab conception of leadership was founded on prestige, inherited and/or acquired, directly tied to the line of descent. Power, by tradition, was strictly associated with numerical force and to the past prestige of ancestors and the esteem for the caliphs came, very soon, to an end. The Moslem community was, at the beginning, afflicted by hostility among the tribes; the Umayyad were compelled to make alliances through inter-tribal marriages in order to reinforce their authority, but the censure provoked for having introduced the Arab social customs into their great empire was a determining factor in the fall of the dynasty.
The last Umayyad family ceased to govern in 749 AD, and the first Abbasids replaced them (from ‘Abbes, uncle of the Prophet). This tribe proliferated on the borders of the Syrian Desert, became deeply influenced by the tradition of imperial authority of the conquered territories. Their promoters, generally scribes of recent conversion, conceived a rigidly hierarchical society of privileged governors and taxed subjects, with the caliph as supreme arbitrator in every matter. The Abbasidi caliphs, therefore, retired into the capital, appeared in public only on ceremonial occasions, ruled despotically and followed a lifestyle which strongly contrasted with the Islamic values expressed in the Koran and the sunna. They proclaimed themselves invested with an authority conferred directly by God, not by Mohammed and less still by the Umma.
Between 945 and 1055 AD., the Buyidi, a tribe of the Shiite denomination and originally from Iran, governed the caliphate capital of Baghdad without abolishing the Sunnite caliphate, perhaps finding a pliant puppet politically more useful as a symbol of Islamic unity, rather than a Shiite caliph, who would have demanded, as a minimum, their homage. Besides, the Buyidis refused to recognize the Shiite caliphate, Fatimide, which had risen in North Africa (909 AD.,) and which was preparing to advance eastward to establish itself in Cairo (969 AD.,) with the clear intention of establishing their hegemony in the Moslem world.
As an extremist Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids represented a threat for the Sunnite Moslems as well as for the moderate Shiites. They owe their name to Fatima, one of the four daughters of Mohammed, but the only one to have descendants. The first caliph of this dynasty, ‘Ubaydullah, proclaimed himself descendent of Fatima and ‘Al. His family started a stable dynasty which was, therefore, described as Fatimids.
Such a threatening Shiite presence in North Africa generated a reaction from the survivors of the Umayyad dynasty of Spain (755-1031 AD.) who claimed in (929 AD.) the caliphate as reference point for the neighbouring Sunnites. In fact, they, to whom the Fatimids had not imposed their creed with rigor, mainly in Egypt, had been able to continue to freely express their beliefs. Nevertheless, the non-recognition of their Abbasidi successors, led to the contemporary existence of two caliphs. At the same time, the Seljiuchids, a Turkish tribe coming from central Asia, proclaimed themselves as authentic representatives of Sunnism, still continuing to impose themselves on the caliph.
In the 11th Century, the Seljuchids overturned the current Shiite policy, leaving behind, however, a damaging influence for the caliphate concept: visions of world dominion nourished among the shepherds of the great Asiatic steppe. Originating with the Seljuchids, a similar conception came to a climax among the pagan Mongols who did not tolerate rivals. Their attack on Baghdad in 1258 a.C., put an end to the classic caliphate.

The decline of the caliphate

Notwithstanding the rapid conversion to Islam, the Mongols who governed the Islamic territories, like the Turk-Mongol dynasties which followed, did not show great interest in the caliphate (for this reason, the Islamic militants sometimes call the present rulers of the Moslem countries, considered apostates, by the term “new Mongols”, alluding, precisely, to the religious imposture of their conversion). They presumed to reign by divine right and accepted in their tradition the Persian conception of a hierarchically organized society.
The Islamic scholars (‘ulam’, from the Arab root “‘l m”, from which the term ‘ilm “knowledge” derives), although with reluctance, adapted themselves to the new reality: from that moment, claiming the right to be the custodians of Shariah, would have conferred the title of khalfat Allh (“Vicar of God”) to any ruler who would ensure that the sacred laws were respected and would govern with rectitude.
The title khalifat Allh, once exalted, became one of the many titles with which the Moslem governors of the following centuries adorned the documents of their courts of justice.


The Mameluke sultans of Egypt, however, adopted an alleged direct descendant of the Abbasid house which would legitimate their oligarchic government, almost a residual authority in the time interval, full of tension, between the death of a monarch and the consolidation of his successor. Mameluke is an Arab word meaning “slave”. The caliphs used to recruit slaves, beginning with the Abbasids, to use in the Army. They were mainly of Turkish origin and they were used to form a praetorian militia. Only non-Moslems could be part of this militia. The Mamelukes were, in the Moslem civilizations, a true social class, protected by the Islamic law, which established that they be treated with respect and fairness. Their support to many caliphs won them their freedom (the liberation of a slave was a merit for the Moslems). Converted and being a military force, the Mamelukes succeeded in founding dynasties in Egypt and Syria.
Until 1500 AD., the Indian Kings, to strengthen a very weak legitimacy, would ask the recognition of the validity of the investiture to their “shadow caliph”.
The Ottoman conqueror of Egypt, Yavuz Sultan Selim, took the aforementioned supposed Caliph Abbaside to Istanbul in 1517; an event which was exploited in the future by the Ottoman sultans of the 19th Century, as a foundation for their official claims. The Ottomans constitute a tribe of Turkish origin, in dynastic ascent in the 14th Century, which took the name from the family founder, Osman (in Arabic, ‘Uthman).

The first re-birth of the caliphate

In the second half of the 1800’s, the power of the European imperialism provoked a re-birth of the caliphate under a new form which gave way to as many controversies among the Moslems as there had been with the classical version of this Institution.
The Ottoman Sultan, who governed a disorderly extended empire, threatened by the European powers, tried to increase his prestige and maintain ties with the lost Moslem subjects, transforming the caliphate into a spiritual office. This expedient was liked by Moslems under colonial regimes, such as India, to Czarist Russia, the Malacca peninsula and the archipelagos of Indonesia. Also in Egypt, under British occupation, the idea had favourable acceptance.
However, within the Ottoman Empire, non-Moslem nationalists, struggling for independence, saw in the revival of the caliphate an instrument which favoured repression by the Moslem governors (nationalism will be the subject of ample treatment at a further point in this article).
At the time of the 1st World War, this concept was shared by some Moslem Arabs who denounced the Ottoman caliphate as a sham, without any trace of being derivative of the Koran.
Both the Islamic reformers and the Moslem nationalists used an outrageous language against the Ottoman caliph (the Sultan) and, citing the classic scholars as support, defined the Rshidn as the only authentic caliphs.

The end of the Ottoman caliphate

The year 1924 produced a grave trauma in the Moslem world: the more laical nationalistic movements of the Moslem countries, and the Turkish ones, abolished the Ottoman caliphate. Only two years before, in 1922, the Turkish National Assembly had formally abolished the Sultanate.
The Indian Khilafat Conference (1919-1933), which supported the self-government of the Indian Moslems for their spiritual loyalty to the caliph, saw their request irremediably rejected. Consequently, Moslems who aspired to liberation from colonialism were compelled, once they had overcome the disappointment, to review their strategy.

The first attempt at a second re-birth

In fact, the two Turkish measures, of 1922 and 1924, regenerated new interest over the question of the existence of a supreme and universal guide of Islam. As a consequence, in the recently independent Arab countries, a favourable tendency to the caliphate was manifested. Many jurists, in fact, held openly or felt that with the end of the classical caliphate, the imamate was vacant.
The attempts to revive the true caliphate did not last long. Three conferences, within the arc of a very few years, (1926-1931), finished in confusion. It was soon clear that the new Nation-states opposed the restoration of an institution, as vaguely outlined as it was potentially influential, if it was not submitted to the control of the respective governments.

The abjuration of the caliphate: Arab nationalism

The knowledge of this thought is necessary, even though it is antithetical to the institution under examination, in order to better understand the social and ideological changes which took place in the course of the following periods.
The contradictions between the traditional Moslem notion of Umma and its modern reading as a Nation became exacerbated during the 20th Century. The laical nationalisms acquired the strength of ideologies capable of legitimating and galvanizing the patriotic struggles for independence.
The factors which awakened the national conscience in the Arab countries which were part of the Ottoman Empire are different: the decline and disunion of the Osmanic domination; the triumph of nationalism in the Balkans; the success of Mohammed Al (1805-1848) in Egypt, who obtained the autonomy of the administrative apparatus; the European interference in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire; the failure of reform programs conducted by some Ottoman Sultans. The beginning of the 1950’s, saw the birth of the Movement of Arab Nationalists, which represented the renewal and revival of ideas and ambitions of the previous Arab Nationalistic generations.
On the example of the Arab Nationalists Group, which between the two world wars was very active in all region of the fertile crescent, the M.N.A., in its theory and its programmes, gave top priority to the cause of Arab unity, over and above any other aspiration. The movement founders were convinced that the creation of a unified Arab state was an essential goal which would have permitted the liberation of all the occupied Arab territories and assure a better destiny for all the future generations of the Arab homeland.
The means to realize all these aspirations were through theoretic formation and armed struggle. They believed that the fight for Arab unity would be a relatively easy task and that they could have achieved their dream in a very near future. The Syrian-Egyptian fusion (1958) and then the fall of the United Arab Republic (1961) had a great influence on the movement. Nationalists had bound their destiny to a newly constituted Arab state and had hoped to assume the role of vanguard and striking force of the R.A.U. in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
After the break-up of this United Arab Republic, the movement tried, in vain, to pick up the pieces, but failed a second time and was unable to impede the dismemberment of this new republic. As in the past, it had not been successful in the vanguard role. The defeat of June 1967 was the coup de grce for the M.N.A., since the last ties which still kept the opposite wings united, were broken by the dbcle. It is important to mention that all the organizations (e.g. the F.P.L.P. and the F.P.D.L.P.) which developed from the ashes of M.N.A., adopted the Marxist – Leninist theory as a method of analysis and action.
Among the many factors at the origin of this opening, the role of President Abd-An-Nasser must certainly be mentioned; being the person who had tied the Arabic nationalism to socialism.
The social-political thought of the time, in which the birth and evolution of the laical nationalism is collocated, is characterized by another main faction with respect to various currents: that of the Moslem reformism or modernism. This last, different from the first, which affirmed that the separation of religion from the State would be a benefit both for the Arab people and for Islam, supported the caliphate system of government.


Modernism and the caliphate

The intellectual movement named Islamic modernism is an answer to the meeting of the Moslems with the West in the 19th and in the 20th century. Other types of reactions to this meeting became concrete in a vast gamma of possibilities, from the orthodox traditionalism of the Salaphite School with regard to the westernizing secularization to the revivalism or neo-fundamentalism, (both of which will be analyzed further on).
Modernism must not, therefore, be considered the only attempt to revive, strengthen or reform Islam.
The principle preoccupation of modernism was that of purifying the religious heritage, to reinterpret some aspects and to fuse it with modern elements, with the objective of re-affirming its dignity and to establish its irreplaceable validity with respect to the foreign cultural invasion. The modernist thinkers were not enemies of the western culture, to which, on the contrary, they looked with great admiration at its science and technology, but they opposed the total and indiscriminate importation of western ideas which had disintegrated the moral character of Moslem societies. In this way, they placed the accent on the necessity of change, through reform and adaptation, and were sure that a nahda (renaissance) could be reached only with a return to Islam.
Modernism is usually connected with the names of the Persian, Gaml al-Dn al-Afgni (1839-1897) and of the Egyptian, Shaykh Mohammed ‘Abduh (1849-1905). The main preoccupation of al-Afgni was the Moslem re-awakening and solidarity against the Western penetration. He saw in the internal dissents and the lack of unity, the causes of the Moslem defeat and exhorted his people to put aside the sectarian differences and to practice reciprocal tolerance for the sake of the Moslem Umma.
His disciple and close co-operator, ‘Abduh had considerable influence on the Moslem modern thought. ‘Abduh underlined the existing congruency between Islam and modernity and gave particular importance to the role of the ‘ijtihd (the exercise of individual judgement) to free Islam from excessively rigid interpretations and render it adequate to the demands of the modern society, yet, without questioning the fundamental principles. Ijtihd, in everyday language, means “strenuous effort”, but in the cultural field has become a technical term to indicate the effort of the individual scholar to glean a rule of divine law (shariah) directly from the recognized sources (mainly the Koran and the ahdth), but without any relation to what has been sustained by other scholars.
There were different positions among the modernists with regard to the caliph, but the majority emphasized the civil function as a maximum political representative, and not as a sort of Pope.
The Islamic modernism can be better understood if it is collocated in the historical context of the 19th Century. It was a period of political, social, economic and cultural agony for Moslem societies, challenged and shaken by the penetration and domination of the West.
The Ottoman Empire, theoretical custodian of the Moslem Umma, not only proved to be incapable of resisting violent assault, but it became one of the victims. The Western invasion became military victories, political and economical domination and the imposition of Western educational systems and legal codes. Modernism developed for the very reason of attempting to affirm the capacity of Islam to face the new challenge.
In particular, the modernists hoped to confute the theory according to which, Islam was the reason for the Moslem defeats and under-development, besides being too rigid and not susceptible to reform. At the root of the desire for change was a strong wish to purify Islam of superfluous beliefs and superstitions introduced by sfi orders and brotherhoods, and of rigid interpretations of the past. To reach this target, it was necessary to recuperate the original sources of Islam, which were the Koran and the sunna, and return to interpreting them.
Modernists adopted this idea from the fundamentalist movements of the 18th Century, like the Wahhabita in Arabia, but they made different use of the sources: while the fundamentalists were characterized for an extremely literal and rigid approach to the text, the aim of the modernists was to discover the spirit, and on the one hand, distinguish between the universal rules of Islam and, on the other, the specific rules, valid only in a particular period.
Some modernists thinkers managed to reconcile the principles of Islam with the new energies which animated the nationalistic anti-colonialists, and, in certain cases, as in Algeria, it really was the Islamic modernism which gave the ideological support to national resistance. During the first decades of the 20th Century, Islamic modernism reached a notable influence in several Arab countries. It was attractive not only to the well-learned classes, which were increasing, the new middle-classes, which wanted to maintain ties with tradition, but also to the younger ‘ulam’ who realized the futility of the traditional conservative position in front of the aggressive and dynamic western culture.
However, Islamic modernism suffered certain limitations which finished by conditioning its growth and its impact on the society. As far as being a current of thought, the essence of Islamic modernism resided in the equilibrium between two elements: the indomitable and unchangeable aspects of Islam and the necessity of change in other sectors in answer to the modern conditions. The relation between these two elements differed considerably among the various freethinkers.
The need of the modernists to balance the old and the new, in an ambient characterized by continual and rapid changes, often made them appear selective and without conceptual cohesion or an organic methodology for the interpretation of Islam.
They were not able to develop the traditional Moslem thought from its core; that which would have furnished an adequate base to support the new values and the new institutions. The modernists were surrounded from every point. The upper laical classes, power holders, did not want to cede to Islam any other role but that of legitimating their conduct and, in the meantime, other ideologies and suggestions like nationalism and socialism started to make an inroad among the younger generations.
New doubts and preoccupations started to arise (in particular, social justice), for which the modernists had no adequate answers. On the other side, the traditional ‘ulam’ and the neo-fundamentalist groups, accused the modernists of sacrificing the principles of Islam on the altar of western ideas, and even reached the point of doubting their religious loyalty.
History rendered everything more difficult for the modernists; political events and growing social tensions rendered their theories useless in front of the immediate needs of the time.
In the clash against the western civilization, jihad and not ijtihd was necessary.
The intellectualism of the modernists did not allow them to create an efficacious political movement in a context which required mass mobilization and solidarity against an external threat.
Later, in the 1970’s, the failed attempts at development by the secular or almost secular regimes, the intensifying of the social and economic contradictions and the growing gap between the classes, created an environment which was favourable to neo-fundamentalist groups and further weakened the modernists.
The birth of groups like the Moslem Brothers and the Islamic Jihd in Egypt or the the Jam’at-i-Islmi in Pakistan is the proof of the social tendency: in a context of strong political and social polarization, the positions of the liberal and moderate modernists could no longer find a place.
Therefore, in some cases, Islamic modernism ceased to be a progressive force and was overtaken by the course of events; in other cases, instead, it was obscured by more powerful forces, the laical power-holding groups or neo-fundamentalist movements.


Pre-Salafites, Salafites, neo-Salafites and the Caliphate

In the second half of the 18th Century, a renaissance was seen in all of Maghreb. The power of the central authority had strengthened, trade had a renewed vigour and the cities had returned to prosperity.
At the same time, as the Wahhbiya had already done in Arabia, the faqh (jurists) of Maghreb began to criticize the more absurd aspects of the popular religiousness. Their movement claimed to go back directly to the inspiration of the first Moslems (salaf) and from this the historians gave the movement the name of salafya. This was not the first reform movement to appear in the modern history of Islam. In fact, from the middle of the 18th Century on, above all in Morocco, the rule of Islam started to regain control, but found itself in the minority and so attacked only the most aberrant aspects of the Marabout movement, not its basic concepts.
This period, which can be defined pre-salafya, did not yet profess the return to an authentic caliphate system. The Anglo-French term ‘marabout’ derives from the Arabic term al-murbitn, which describes those who live in a ribt (a fortified monastery). In the course of the 14th and 15th Centuries, Maghreb suffered a generalized crisis. Nomadic life flourished to the expense of a ruined agriculture; trade languished and the cities were no longer centres of propulsion, while the Spaniards and Portuguese, lords of the seas, conquered many ports on the northern coast of Africa.
In the face of these unfavourable developments and being constantly weakened by interminable wars, the then dominating dynasties reached collapse. Morocco was saved, thanks to an explosion of nationalism, while the rest of North Africa, instead, by the Ottoman Turks.
There was a reawakening of interest for the religious disciplines, and in Morocco the political and social scene was dominated by the sfi brotherhoods, the Islamic mystics. Popular pietism had invaded the region with a thick distribution of zwiya (in the everyday language it means “corner”, but from the cult point of view, it means small monasteries where mystics live) where the ascetics stayed, cut off, at least in theory, from the world. In practice, instead, they taught children, and also adults, the rudiments of the religion; using the offerings they received from the people to help the poor and give asylum to travellers, as well as acting as mediators in cases of dispute.
These people finished by being indispensable figures to the community and some had a spiritual authority which even the representative of the central authority could not ignore.
The Zwiya, therefore, came to satisfy a social need and to complete the work of the mahzan (the state government). When the latter proved incapable of controlling the Portuguese, who had established themselves in posts on the coast, the zwiya became ribt(s), which acted as gathering centres for militants. The marabout movement was based on a cultural and traditional heritage of many centuries, but its originality was that of adding to the task of education and moral reform, a political programme: the fight against foreign domination. The majority of its chiefs flourished the title of sharf (descendent of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima) and the victory over the invaders gave them a social importance based on their presumed holiness (baraka). From then on, to be marabout and sharf, at least, in the eyes of the people, if not in reality, was practically the same thing.
The true salafiya appeared at the end of the 19th Century, when several Arab countries, among which, Algeria (1830) and Tunisia (1881), fell under the yoke of European imperialism. The movement became the spokesman of the consciousness of the defeat of the traditional Islamic society in the face of the foreign domination; at the same time, it expressed a desire for radical reform in the intellectual and social spheres.
With these suppositions, the Islam of the Zwiya brotherhoods appeared as a distortion of the true Islam, a distortion which stood at the base of the Moslem decline. The Salafiya, therefore, declared total war to the Islam of the marabouts. The Zwiyas were, above all, active in recruiting followers and diverting them from a productive life. In few words, for the salafiya, the zwiya divided the Moslems, disarmed them morally, impoverished them economically and rendered them spiritual slaves. They were a sign of the revival of that paganism (jhilyya, which will be treated further on) which the Prophet had defeated. A return to the religion of One God was a return to freedom, to the sentiments of action and solidarity; in other words, to the qualities which had made their ancestors great.
The members of the Salafya commenced work in a Maghreb dominated by European colonialism, but they were not part of the ‘ulam’ even though they had completed their studies in traditional institutions. They fought mainly against the teachers of zwiya, but also criticised the faqh, who, prudently favouring easy solutions, little liked their vehemence. The salafija drew its strength from the anti-colonialist sentiments, which permeated the majority of the North African people.
The explanation for the triumph of the Salafya can be found in the social and political conditions of the time.
When the cities became impoverished, the Islam of the brotherhoods had been in power. But then, with colonization, the cities regained their prosperity and a new merchant class was born, whose life style had very little similarity to the practices of zwiya. It was from this very class, that the Salafiya drew the forces which permitted them to face the colonial administration, the shaykh (it is a title attributed to certain individuals of Islam, who distinguished themselves for having reached notoriety in the field of the faith), of the brotherhoods and the prudent ‘ulam’.
Nevertheless, the Salafiya being concurrently, a religious movement and a social/ political movement, also desired a civil caliphate regime, but it had to adapt to the evolution of the society, which becoming always more urbanized and politicized, obliged the assimilation, first of liberalism, then nationalism and, finally, socialism. In this way, the movement lost its specific character.
After liberation from the colonialists’ yoke, the States of Maghreb adopted the Salafite position as the official ideology. However, since the State is not always loyal, in practice, according to the Koran, people who adopt the Salafite ideology, diffused among the masses by institutional mechanisms, find themselves facing the dilemma as to whether the salafiya is a mere spiritual exercise or from it they can expect a programme of political reform.
This dilemma interests not only Maghreb, but here it takes a particular form, insofar as the religious experience has different characteristics. North Africa has never produced intellectual mystics. It is a land of ascetics, teachers, missionaries and mujhidin (warriors of the faith), all figures which are near the common people and who are sensitive to the problems of the community. In Maghreb, more than anywhere else, Islam seems to have assumed forms which are less individualistic and intellectual and more pragmatic and of the community, so that the growing difficulties of the 80’s and 90’s of the 19th Century gave new vigour to the dormant activism of the Salafiya, in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, where the suspected apostasy of the governors favoured belligerent attitudes.
This movement, definable as neo-salafite, modified the Salafiya ideal of the caliphate, since the governors had demonstrated very little faith to the Islamic principles, by letting the original model re-emerge, therefore, both political and religious.
The recent Algerian events – with the extremist Diaspora in Europe of the radical intelligentsia of the Islamic Salvation Front, and the coeval presence, in the Old Continent, of Tunisian and Moroccan radicals who had left their respective countries to escape the repressive measures taken in an effort to curb Algerian degeneration – have permitted the birth of a neo-Salafism, militant super-national. Furthermore, the practice of zwiya, which is still existent, is always more purified by the ‘ulam’.
In the mind of people, Islam is, above all, a law (shariah), which expresses the solidarity of the faithful, as is demonstrated by the fact that the majority is bound to the fast of Ramadn and to the pilgrimage to the Mecca. This has favoured that particular phenomenon which, starting from the 90’s of the 19th Century has been defined as the “salafite drift”, a term which intends to describe the multi-national, multi-ethnic radical turmoil, which has accompanied the projection of the Maghreb salafites towards places of the jihad, different from their native territories (Bosnia, Afghanistan, Cecenia). The encounter between the Mghreb neo-salafites and the neo-fundamentalists, Wahhbites and Arab extremists, has therefore, originated the so-called global jihdism.

Neo-fundamentalists and the caliphate

The principal authors of the neo-fundamentalist ideology are Sayyd Qutb (1906-1996), the ideologist of the Moslam brothers in Egypt; Ab al-A’-l Mawdd (1903-1979), the founder of the Jam’at-I Islam in Pakistan and ‘Al Sar’t (1933-1977), the major ideologist of the Iran revolution. For these, the restoration of the caliphate not only assumes a very different significance from the original one, but must have its centre of gravity in the Umma, which, as a consequence, assumes an absolutely central role.
The aspects which particular stand out, in the thought which is almost completely shared by these three scholars, are relative to the “new jhilyya”, to the “social dynamism” and to the concept of the “Islamic State”.
Regarding the first aspect, the “new jhilyya, that is to say, the new pagan ignorance (to differentiate it from the ancient one, which characterized the Arab populations before the sermons of the Prophet) which threatens the Islamic world, through the idols of nationalism (as has been seen in the dedicated paragraph), of materialism (carrier, for reaction, of the laical socialist and communist drifts, besides negation of the spiritual) and of despotism (with reference to the Mohammed’s hadth concerning the autocratic reigns), it is necessary to recognize that the Moslem community is in the same situation as the Arabs were on the eve of the coming of the Prophet.


A new revelation is not necessary, but the reconstitution of the Umma, according to the model followed by the Prophet, is urgent. This process requires the formation of a small group of volunteers, then its spiritual retreat (because the Prophet retired to Medina before definitively conquering Mecca) and, in the end, the fight without frontiers, against the forces of the jhiliyya, until the final victory.
Regarding the second aspect, it is sustained that the organization of a dynamic and purified Umma is the motor of the Islamic revolution. The Umma guided by leaders who know what God expects from them can become the personification of the principles of justice and solidarity. The guide is not entrusted to the traditional ‘ulam’, often entangled in obscurantism and tied to the forces of despotism; instead, anyone who accurately studies the texts of Islam will be able to discern the programme for a just society.
The third aspect, the edification of an Islamic State, constitutes the sign of victory: a government which is completely under the sovereignty of God. All Moslem will fully participate in the government of this State through the consultation. The sovereignty of God and the will of the Umma will keep a brake on the power of the governments of such States.
The idea of an Islamic State eliminates the bifurcation of the guide of the Umma, political and religious, which is the ancient heritage of the Islamic history and goes back to the ideals of the original Umma. It also puts an end to the conflict between the universal orientation of the Umma and the thrust towards nationalism, since there will be a plurality of Moslem States, but just because they are Islamic, they will not be contaminated by nationalism. This is the concept that can be summed up in the Iranian revolutionary statement “Iran is not a Country (watan), it is Islam”. Since the expectancy of the edification of a unique and universal Islamic state, the caliphate, could wear out the revolutionary energies, the strategy of constructing an Islamic State in each Moslem country, seems to prevail.
The third aspect is quite a delicate concept, which on a superficial reading, could appear in serious contradiction with the term “fundamentalism”, which seems automatically connected with the aspiration of the caliphate. However, when the religious and political synthesis of the Umma of the first generation of Moslems exhausted its propulsive evolvement, the ideal of the Mohammedya Umma survived as powerful reference point of the collective identity. Among the Sunnites, the leadership of the community was divided between governors and ‘ulam’, who affirmed to be the conscience of the Umma, but, in general, they kept away from politics. The Shiites, although strongly convinced of the possibility of re- establishing the relation between politics and religion in an Umma united under their Imam, in reality, they did not move away from the Sunnite compromise, which implied a de facto bifurcation of the leadership.

Wahabbism and the caliphate

In order to fully understand the aims pursued by Al Qaeda, the modern wahabbite thought on the caliphate is of great importance because it is emblematic of the religious climate at the time of the first action of Bin Laden.
Wahbbya is an Islamic revival group, which takes its name from its founder, Mohammed ibn ‘Abd-Wahhb (died 1792 AD.). The revival movements (nahda) have deep roots in the Islamic experience. The Koran and the sunna, that is, the practice of the rules of the Prophet Mohammed, furnish the criteria with which to judge the faith and actions of the Moslems in any epoch. A rigorous interpretation of these fundamentals has often provided the basis for a strong reformist initiative.
The Wahhbite reform gives place to one of the most famous so-called fundamentalist movements, (the term neo-fundamentalist, instead, refers to similar movements after the Second World War). This movement can be understood, more precisely, as the continuation of the severe Sunnite tradition connected to the juridical hanbalite school, based on the teachings of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died 855 AD.). It is for this reason that, today, some scholars use the term “neohanbalite” as a synonym for “fundamentalists”, with exclusive reference, naturally, to the Sunnite radicals.
Ahmad ibn Taymya (died 1328 AD.) is a hanbalite scholar whose works had a great influence on the wahhabite thinking. He became famous for his aversion to all those devotional innovations and popular religious practices which did not find justification in the Koran or in the sunna. His preaching, also directed against scholars of great fame, made his work controversial, whereas his ability as a polemicist rendered him very popular. The nucleus of his teaching was the “science of the oneness of God” (‘ilm al-tawhd) which underlined the universal nature and unity of the Islamic message.
The rationality, mystical intuition and the juridical rules are considered as part of a single unity. Ibn Taymya rejected the statements of the Islamic mystics, according to which the “law” and the “path” (mystic) were, in some way, separate. Furthermore, he stated the possibility of an independent interpretation (ijtihd) on the part of the scholars, provided it is subjected to very clear regulations. He openly opposed what he considered innovations in the devotional practices, like pilgrimages to the tombs of famous people. With these and other themes, Ibn Taymya laid the basis for the future of the Sunnite neo-fundamentalism.
The hanbalite School did not have a mass following in the Islamic world, but in certain regions, some groups of hanbalite scholars reached a significant local influence. One of these regions was the Najd, the central desert of the Arabic peninsula, where the hanbalite tradition had developed in the cities where the families of the most celebrated hanbalite teachers resided. The local life style, however, did not reflect a fundamentalist spirit.
The population of Najd, in general, continued to believe that the trees and rocks possessed spiritual powers and that the sepulchres of the saints were special places of veneration. These beliefs, for the Islamic fundamentalists, were manifestations of polytheism (sirk) and came from the ignorance of the pre-Islamic
epoch (jhilyya). After the period of prosperity which, in the 15th and 16th Centuries, had characterized the great Islamic empires, starting from the 18th Century, the compromises with the local religious traditions and the inefficient political organizations, led many Moslems from West Africa to South-East Asia, to press for the creation of movements of Islamic renewal. The wahhbite movement emerged right in the heart of this situation and it is still diffused in the Arab Peninsula.
According to the teachings of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhb, it was not a new school of thought, but rather, a call, a mission (da’wa) for the authentic realization of Islam. His severity and his calls to purification generated protests and only in the city of al-Dar’ya, governed by Mohammed ibn Sa’d, was he welcomed, to the point of stipulating, in 1744, an alliance destined to be the base of both the Saudi States and the wahhbite movement.
In 1902, after alternating sequences of hegemony and submission, a young Saudi prince, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn ‘Abd al-Rahmn (1879-1953), re-conquered Riyadh. With a series of audacious diplomatic and military moves, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn regained control of many lands of the original Saudi State. The final phase concluded in the 1920’s, when also La Mecca and Medina returned under Saudi-wahhbite control.
Territorial expansion stopped, but the new wahhbite State continued to grow stronger. Prince ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, adhered fully to the wahhbite teachings and the Constitution of the State was based on the Koran.
After the consolidation of the Saudi Monarchy, the predominant tone of the wahhbite movement was notably modified. Along general lines, fundamentalism works to change the existing social order and does not express conservative tendencies, at all. The success of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and of his successors in the creation of a relatively prosperous State, nevertheless, favoured a much more pragmatic and conservative policy. Although remaining in the tradition of Ibn ‘Abd Wahhb, in the 20th Century, the wahhbite movement found itself having to work within the framework of a modernist state. One of the main causes of this evolution is in the conspicuous revenues from the Saudi Arabian oil industry.
Therefore, two different conceptions of the wahhbite caliphate exist, which from the theological point of view, it is contradictory to define them both as wahhbite, since al-Wahhb favoured only one of them, but they are considered together for convenient expositive reasons because, today, in the West, there is an unnatural semantic alignment.
The first conception is the wahhbite which goes back to the Mohammedya umma, the second is the Saudi post-petroleum one. Mohammed ibn Sa’d took an oath in 1744, to protect and support the mission of al-Wahhb and this alliance created a new State, based on Islamic foundations. After the death of Ibn Sa’d in 1765, al-Wahhb continued to carry out the role of principal counsellor to the successor, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and preached and wrote until his death in 1792. He created a movement of renewal in an epoch of turmoil in the Islamic world: in the 18th Century, there were many Moslems who worked at a social-moral reconstruction of the Islamic society on the bases of a strict interpretation of Islamic fundamentals.
Mohammed Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhb was not the only one, but he was the most rigorous in rejecting the Medieval “innovations” and the most intransigent in opposing compromises with the popular religion.
His death did not stop the diffusion of his religious mission nor of the State. The political guidance remained in the hands of the Sa’d family, while the family of al-Wahhb, later called “the family of the shaykh”, conserved its role of intellectual guide in the subsequent history of the State and of the movement. Also at the birth of the kingdom of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn ‘Abd al-Rahmn, “the family of the shaykh” and the most prominent teachers, had important roles as counsellors and trustees of the State legitimacy.
However, while initially the “shaykh family” extended their authority to the state administration, the oil discoveries induced ‘Abd al-Rahman, (who had to screen his political action with pragmatism, in order to secure the consolidation of his monarchy and handle the new energy resources as best he could,) to limit their activity to the field of traditional instruction and juridical interpretation.

The news on the caliphate

The revived religious impulse, perceivable in the last 2 or 3 decades in the Islamic world, gives rise to a notable inclination towards the concept of the caliphate. Nevertheless, although a growing desire for unity seems very present among many Moslems, it is difficult to recognize in the expression of this sentiment something which might refer to the caliphate institution.

More or less starting from the year 1967 (the year of the so-called ‘six-day war’), there has been a significant re-awakening of the Islamic conscience in the Islamic countries, largely due to the recognition that the various ideologies imported from Europe, such as liberalism, nationalism and socialism have, in fact, all failed.
Furthermore, the Moslem countries observe the tyranny (since Islam is not the government of a despot, but it simply carries out the principles of the Koran) as the most dangerous challenge that the Islamic people have to face and they have realized that only a society regenerated by the religious revolution is able to overthrow the old and found a new society based on justice. This renaissance is not monolithic, at all, but many elements of conformity are present, particularly, if the deep reciprocal influence, which brought together its principle supporters, is taken into consideration: the Qutb, the Nawdd and the Sar’at, by whom many are inspired, although without ceding to the neo-fundamentalist militancy.
It is, therefore, important to keep in mind that the caliphate is absolutely not a patrimony of ideals exclusive to the violent fringe groups. The lack of concreteness which has characterized and distinguished the inclination to these assumptions, takes dignity away from a further attempt at a second revival of the caliphate.

Qaedism and the caliphate

Two identities live together in the al Qaeda: one wahhbite, that is, primary fundamentalist or “from the origins”, and two, a neo-fundamentalist.

The conservative identity of wahbbite

The first is the fruit of its creator, Osama bin Laden, and of the extreme significance of the wahhbism, which goes far beyond the Saudi State. In the rigor of their attachment to the mission of renewal, the Wahhbites have constituted an example of what was and is possible. The realization of the call to renewal contributed to the general push to the fundamentalism of the 18th Century. Some Moslems have been directly inspired by the wahhbite teachings, others have been indirectly influenced by the general evolvement. The fame of the Wahhbites is so diffused, to the point that any rigorously fundamentalist reform movement is referred to as the “wahhbite movement”.
The Wahhbites represent the most celebrated example of a Moslem movement which demands the rigid recognition of the oneness of God, with all the deriving social and moral implications, and which upholds the construction of a society founded on the strict and independent interpretation of the Islamic principles. This message has inspired numerous movements, which go from the holy wars to the various modernist revisions of the medieval formulations.
The fact that a Wahhbite is at the head of al-Qaeda is one of the elements which allowed the communal accommodation in Afghanistan and in training camps of mujahidin from many very different origins.

photo ansa

The accusations of apostasy by Bin Laden against the reigning Sa’d family, accusations which originate from the pragmatic choices of ‘Abd al-‘Azziz ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman after the discovery of the oil fields, namely, against the custodians of the two most sacred places of Islam, where the Prophet lived and operated, had an explosive impact on the Moslem world. The royal immunity with which the Sa’d family believed to be covered and which they thought gave them ample scope to exercise their power, as well as to carry out their design to expand their influence in the world by renouncing territorial ambitions, but implementing those of the wahhbite faith, suffered a hard blow.
All the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 were Wahhbite and 15 of them were Saudi. These people have carried out the most spectacular and deadly terrorist attacks of history and they were perpetrated on the territory of the Nation to which, with the utmost conspicuousness, the Sa’d family sacrificed the wahhbite precepts.
At the present time, the most important jihad for the Moslem world is located in Iraq. The al Qaeda organization in this country has seen the recent nomination as leader, (27th December, 2004), of the known Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, former leader of the terrorist organization called by him, al-Tawhid. The selection has thus favoured another wahhbite in order to implement the cohesive strength among the existent groups in the radical Sunnite Islam. Therefore, the nomination has not been by pure chance, even though, certainly favoured by the successes of the insurgents led by the Jordan terrorist, and it is interesting to explore the reasons for this nomination.
The previous formation of Zarkawi was dedicated to the “Oneness of God” (tawhd), that is, the subject to which Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhb dedicated his most important writings. For him, the tawhd was more than a monotheistic statement: it was the rejection of the cult of sanctity and veneration for anything, but the one God.
In intellectual terms, what he wrote concerning this subject became part of the fundamentalist thought of modern Islam. The Wahhbites make frequent reference to the “mission of the oneness of God” (da’wat al-tawhd) and define themselves “those who affirm the oneness of God”, or muwahhiddn, just as Zarkawi had done: to make his project unequivocally clear, he named the terrorist organization that he was leading after the name of his mission (da’wa).
The oneness of God implies that also the sphere of the political and economic action is subject to God, exactly, as is the sphere of the faith. Any action or belief that recognizes the ultimate authority or spiritual power in anything else but in the one God, immediately becomes polytheism.
Idolatry (sirk) and the guilty ignorance (yhilyya) constitute violations of tawhd: they are the signs of the truly unfaithful. In the modern fundamentalism thought, the concept of jhilyya has been extended to include the explicit refusal of the guide given to mankind by the Koran and by the sunna. It concerns a challenge which renders men disbelievers: against this, Moslems of the wahhbite tradition are called to fight. The Sa’d family is stained with guilty ignorance: utilizing the principle of the oneness of God to furnish religious justification to every aspect of their political programme.
Another fundamental concept of the wahhbite programme is the ijtihd, that is , as we have already seen, the conscientious and independent reasoning, which must guide each person, through an adequate preparation, to found their own opinions on the direct analysis of the Koran and the sunna. He who performs this kind of analysis by using the ‘ijtihd, is not obliged to accept the conclusions of the great medieval teachers; on the contrary, the blind adhesion to the teachings of these masters could be considered polytheism. Nevertheless, the wahhbites, insisting on the ijtihd, never went as far as entirely rejecting the medieval Islamic culture.
On the contrary, they maintained the hanbalite tradition completely, although considering themselves free, sometimes, to push beyond its limits. In the Ibn ‘Abd al Wahhb thought, this flexibility opened the way to a much more energetic rejection of the sf mysticism than is customarily normal for the hanbalites. In fact, in the well-known letter seized from the Zarkawi courier and published by the Associated Press in February, 2004, also the sfi are included among the targets, which confirms the devotion to the original wahhbism .
A devotion which is demonstrated also in the many attacks upon the Shiites; attacks which do not find their only reason in a strategy of “chaos”, but also in the primitive da’wa of al-Wahhb, which took the form of a sermon against the popular religious practices and against the Islamic Sh’a. In particular, Ibn’ Abd al.Wahhb, after having studied at La Mecca and Medina, coming from the Najd desert, moved to the city of Bassora, where he firmly opposed the Shiites.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the armies of the first wahhbite-Saudi State had already sacked the Shiite sanctuaries in the south-west of Iraq.
Naturally the exercise of ijtihd can justify any change which results, in some way, compatible with the limits of Islam. These limits, according to Bin Laden and Zarkawi have been amply exceeded by the House of Sa’d. Indeed, it has distorted with guilty ignorance the vocation of great social renewal to which the al-Wahhb aspired, adapting it to its purposes.

The core of neo-fundamentalism

The second qaidist component is the result of the influential Egyptian fraction.
of all, there are important elements of contact between conservative wahhbites and neo-fundamentalists.
The work of al-Wahhb was considered with the greatest respect by Mohammed Rashd Rd (1865-1935), a prominent Lebanese follower of the Egyptian intellectual, Mohammed ‘Abduh (1849-1905). This latter, considered to be the architect of the Islamic modernism, endeavoured to regenerate the religion and purify it of everything that he considered to be an alien and anachronistic addition with respect to the doctrine of the first generation (salaf) of the followers of Prophet Mohammed.
In 1897, Rd established himself in Cairo and in the wake of the Salafism of ‘Abduh, showed himself contrary to everything he considered an innovation, in particular, the sf beliefs and practices and in his last years he became strongly persuaded towards wahhbite opinions. According to Rd, the figure of the caliph was necessary but no longer as a universal temporal governor, but as a unanimously accepted superior legislative authority. Furthermore, he underlined the central position of the Arabs in the Moslem world: Arabic was the language of the Koran and of the religious sciences and, without the Arabs, Islam could not have flourished.
From the year of his arrival in Egypt, Rd was the editor of the magazine “Al-manr”, “the lighthouse”, with the objective of explaining the problems of Islam in the modern world, and its influence went far beyond the Arab world. Some of his ideas were subsequently adopted by neo-fundamentalist movements, particularly those relative to restoring Islam as a moral rule in the modern society.
Furthermore, when, in 1928 Hasan al-Banna founded the Society of the Moslem Brothers, to lead the Egyptian Moslems back to the conscience of the religious objectives in a society which, according to him, had been corrupted by foreign ideologies and by the materialistic philosophy imported from the West, Rid saw that the kingdom of ‘Abd al.’Azz ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman was founded exactly upon the doctrines and the laws of Islam. The first Saudi Arabia was, therefore, an example to be looked at with admiration. With the passage of time, the ideology of the Moslem Brothers has changed and it would be grave error to think of organic relations between this organization and al-Qaeda.
The importance of the Society of the Moslem Brothers and of its modern results, the jam’t (groups), lies in the fact that they represent a protest movement expressed in traditional Islamic language, expression of the ethos of the people. The society became the mouthpiece of the protest against the foreign occupation which threatened the identity of a people and the dissolution of its culture and religion. It spoke to the people in a language which they could understand and appreciate, the language of Islam and of its historic past, without requiring foreign ideas derived from idioms of the most industrialized countries, yet using the western techniques of communication and of mass rallies and re-clothing political ideas with a Moslem speech.
The main ideologist and modern theorist of the Society of the Moslem Brothers was the Egyptian, ‘Abd al-Qdir ‘U’da, whose ideas exercised a great influence on the movement starting from the 40’s of the 20th Century. He became spokesman for the necessity of applying the Shariah in opposition to the positive human laws, proposing its programmatic re-introduction as a solution to the political and social difficulties of the Moslem countries.
After ‘U’da was sentenced to death in 1954, being accused of his participation in the attempt on the life of President Nasser, the role of the ideological leader of the movement passed to the Egyptian intellectual, Sayyid Qutb, who stressed the cosmic dimensions of shariah, which being a divine law, guarantees the conformity of the human social organization with the law of God, the only legislator, and poses itself, therefore, as the only valid response to modernity.
Starting from the 70’s, the great influence exercised by his thought, led to the birth of radical movements which see the only way to create an Islamic State is through political struggle. Such groups, however, began to detach themselves more and more from their initial ideological matrix: For example, it is a case, among others, of the two major radical Islamic fraternities, which today, constitutes the Egyptian backbone of Al Qaeda, la Jam’a al-islmiyya and the jihad al-islm, which condemn the present Moslem Brothers, accusing them of being in favour of laical governments in which they recognize the legality. The present movement of the Moslem Brothers, in fact, has disassociated itself from the thought of Qutb and proposes, instead, a missionary scope and a social role and, in this way, Islamitize the society, the politics and the Moslem law from the inside and to promote a complete evolution addressed to the creation of an Islamic State.
Such positions, therefore, foresee a substantial adhesion to democratic forms based on parliamentary assemblies, forms which are radically excluded, indeed, they are denied and considered sinful by the fundamentalist Moslem groups, who reject also any kind of negotiation or truce, considering them attacks against the principles of the religion.
The executives of Jihd al-islm, for example, underwent trial, in 1984, accused of direct involvement in the assassination of President Sadat, also accused of alliance with the Israeli Hebrews for having signed the Camp David agreements, while one of the leaders of the Jam’a al-islmiyya, sheik ‘Umar ‘Abd al rahmn, was condemned in the Unites States as the instigator of the attack, in 1993, at the New York Trade Centre.


In the political and juridical sphere, the factions of the two groups, which have not shown any propensity to compromise with the Egyptian government, agree to confirm their total opposition to laicism as a philosophy and form of government and to brand an unbeliever as guilty, and every laical political regime or any individual follower of such directives are outside of the Moslem community because they do not adhere to the divine law and place before it the human laws. The Jam’a al-islmiyya even goes as far as to affirm that between Islam and Laicism a civil war will be fought until either one or the other is vanquished.


Al-Qaeda represents “the small group of volunteers” which, in the process of the construction of the Umma conceived by the fundamentalists, gives the go-ahead to the abandonment of the new pagan ignorance.
Although being firmly convinced of the necessity of re-establishing the original caliphate, the qaedist formations do not want to fall victims to the wear and tear of the revolutionary energies; admitting, therefore, a phase of transition, as long as necessary, where a plurality of caliphates will exist, in practice, coinciding with the national reality of the Moslem countries now governed by apostates.
The further attempt of a second revival of the caliphate has been concretely carried forward by the Talibans, with the mullah Omar, in Afghanistan. And a work of extension, was, in its turn, the object of an attack by the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with the assassination of Commander Massud and the 9/11 attacks.
The Qaedist oligarchy, after realizing, also because of the western pressure on Pakistan – place of transit to reach the Afghani training camps – to have exposed Afghanistan to targeted military interventions of retaliation and to the cutting off of the access roads, decided to provoke a United States reaction able to trigger off popular revolts in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Thus, Al-Qaeda accomplishes the murder of the “Lion of Panshir”, the 9/11 attacks, with an end to weakening the anti- Taliban alliance in the North and, therefore, split it up in support actions to the United States, also because of the prevailing tribal interests which the death of the charismatic leader could have incited.
Al-Qaeda then carries out the most grandiose terrorist attack of all history with the result of driving the Americans to a massive and furious attack on Afghanistan. This, to re-awaken the Moslem Brothers in the two Nations where the policy of military intervention against the so-called “rogue states” would have suffered a severe setback in the case of the presence of a caliphate, both in the case of Pakistan, being a small military nuclear power and, probably, being in possession of a reasonable amount of biochemical weapons, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, being the custodian of the two most sacred places of Islam: The Mecca and Medina.
The qaedist project, so far, has not succeeded, but the global jihdist forces continue to pursue it, but independent of these facts, the aspiration towards the restoration of the authentic caliphate is still very strong within the Moslem masses.
It is interesting to note that the major part of those who became Moslems when Mohammed was still at the Mecca were young people. Among them were also the even younger children of some of the richest merchants of the city. These merchants thought they could control everything with their wealth and could scoff with impunity at the traditional morals of the nomads, especially with the use of their wealth. Mohammed preached to them that all events were, in the last analysis, controlled by God and that there was a future life where their expectations depended on their conduct in this life. There were also some more elderly people from the less influential clans and also Arabs from outside of the Mecca, and people from the Byzantine Empire.
Those belonging to these last two categories, some of whom were moderately well- off, in order to obtain protection (a formal guarantee of security for their life and their property) joined one of the Mecca clans, but the clans were not always disposed to keep their promise of protection. From these particulars, one can understand that the movement of Mohammed was not of a proletarian or plebeian character, therefore, not founded on the hope of improved conditions, but based on trust, charisma, spirituality and on the feeling of justice.
When Mohammed arrived in Medina, a city disliked by the people of Mecca, (Hegira), with his followers, constituting “the clan of the emigrants” from the Mecca, he joined the eight clans which were there. In fact, Mohammed was only the head of one of the nine clans. He was then very far from being the absolute authority in Medina, but, gradually, step by step as he overcame his adversaries in the Mecca, while many Arab tribes joined the confederation and became Moslem, Mohammed obtained the almost unchallenged control of the business in Medina. The defeated were treated with magnanimity and no pressure for conversion was exercised.
With the Mecca conquered, there were no other military chiefs able to gather a military force capable of facing Mohammed on the battle field.
Those who joined the Prophet had to give up fighting with other adherents. Mohammed knew how to use the energy of the nomads, no longer dedicated to tribal raids, spreading out in Syria and Iraq, as well as the energy of the Mecca merchants whose organizational abilities were necessary to support his projects.
The religion of Islam arose from uneasiness and Mohammed, besides spiritual solace, was able to alleviate discomfort also through his political and social achievements. The Prophet’s history is well known to the Moslem faithful and, according to the Islam point of view, governments exist only in order to ensure that the shariah is administered and respected correctly. Governments are subordinate to the shariah and must respect the commandments and the prohibitions. In other words, Islam envisages a sort of divine administration in which the law is the instrument for social control: in rief, a government of laws, not of men. If a government of a Moslem society is remiss in its obligations to confirm the shariah as positive law, or if human judges fail in their obligations to administer justice according to the same shariah, the individual believer, however, is bound to conform his conduct in accordance with the shariah.
On the day of judgement, each Moslem will be called to answer for any personal failure to adhere to the commandments or non-conformance with the prohibitions of the shariah. But if a government fails and creates a lack of well-being, and the citizen is constricted to the individual respect of the Koran law, it is quite natural that he might aspire to an improvement of conditions of the collective life, where also his own actions can be guided. The objective of this ambition, often, very often, is the caliphate, because the sunna and the Koran are a continuous memorial to the success of this form of government.