The Caliph and ISIS: Looking to History to Understand the Present

By Catherine Shakdam

The Caliph and ISIS: Looking to History to Understand the Present

Could ISIS be the carriers of black flags and people with “hearts of iron” Muslims were warned about centuries ago? History may provide more insight than the talking heads who seem bewildered by ISIS’ bloody campaign of terror.

Could ISIS be the carriers of black flags and people with “hearts of iron” Muslims were warned about centuries ago? History may provide more insight than the talking heads who seem bewildered by ISIS’ bloody campaign of terror. 

The world continues to look on as the Middle East descends further into the abyss of war, ravaged by a terror seemingly animated only by blood and violence. Few seem able to comprehend what’s unfolding, but one political science professor says he’s found the the key to understanding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and unlocking its inner workings.

Speaking to Marwa Osman on the Iraqi TV network Aletejah, Dr. Akl Kairouz noted that the wave of terror confronting the Arab world since 2011, this almost religious philosophy of war to which countries like Syria and Iraq have fallen victim to, is rooted in Middle Eastern history during a fight between what has been described as “good vs. evil.”

The professor compared ISIS’ advances in the greater Levant to that of Muawiyah’s campaigns – the founder of the Umayyad dynasty – in the 7th century. It is important to note that from an Islamic standpoint, Muawiyah’s actions contradict the spirit of Islam, not only legally but religiously.

“Looking at ISIS and how its leadership envisions war as a base upon which its ideology will be disseminated to the region and ultimately the world, it is clear that the group has drawn its inspiration from Muawiyah … the same patterns of violence, the same blind desire to impose one’s faith over unwitting communities, the same exclusive ideology and ascetic interpretation of the Islamic Scriptures, the same hegemonic ambitions,” he said.

Kairouz added that ISIS is even geographically mapping its military advances based upon Muawiyah’s past campaigns. “Only by understanding the roots and inner motivations of ISIS will we be able to defeat this evil. What we need is historical peripheral vision,” he urged.

Good versus evil

Commenting on Kairouz’s historical analogy, political analyst and Islamic history buff Dr. Mohsen Ammanpour told Shafaqna, “Indeed, too little importance is given to history and what lessons should be drawn from our past when dealing with our present.”

“There is an undeniable parallel in between Muawiyah’s past crusades and how ISIS has conducted as well as organized its conquest of the Middle East,” Ammanpour added.

Pushing the analogy onto more religious grounds, he stressed:

“There is an important aspect of ISIS which we too often bypass as inherent to the group’s radical nature — its hatred of Shia Islam. This hatred is actually core to ISIS’ paradigm, its entire philosophy revolves around the idea that it is the true keeper of Islamic tradition and that the sword is the only mean to promote its faith.

Islam’s break occurred under Muawiyah, when he chose to defy Imam Ali and proclaim himself heir to the throne of Islam. It is his rebellion which has fuelled sectarian violence across the ages. Today we are witnessing the unravelling of centuries of bad blood and religious distortion.”

Muawiyah: the power hungry dissident

The second son of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb and Hind bint Utbah – the most virulent detractors and enemies of the Prophet Muhammad – Muawiyah converted to Islam two years before the prophet’s death. He quickly rose to prominence after demonstrating excellent military and administrative skills under the leadership ofOmar and Uthman – the second and third caliphs of Islam.

A controversial figure, both Sunni and Shiite Muslims have a wildly different perspectives when it comes to Muawiyah and the subsequent rise of the Umayyad dynasty over Ahl al-Bayt — the House of the Prophet.

Muawiyah was denounced by Shiite Islam, for he dared not only to defy the order of Imam Ali, the appointed caliph during this time, but to cross swords against his brothers in religion, even though such an act had been condemned and branded an act of apostasy by Prophet Muhammad himself. He is very much understood as an impostor, a tyrant and an evildoer of the highest degree because he willfully chose to misinterpret Islamic scripture to serve his hegemonic ambitions, using religion and faith to support his conquests and justify bloodshed.

Speaking to Shafaqna, Sarah Anderson, an Islamic history researcher, explained that scholars have often argued that it was under Muawiyah’s influence that Muslims abandoned the spirit of the Constitution of Medina, a text written by Prophet Mohammed that served as a basis of the Islamic state (not to be confused here with ISIS).

Under the Constitution of Medina, religious freedom was guaranteed, women were not to be harmed, enslaved or otherwise abused, civilians’ rights were guaranteed, and non-Muslims were given equal rights to Muslims as long as they agreed to pay taxes and did not disrupt the new social order.

Islam’s crusaders are not Islamic

“Over a thousand years have passed and Muslims are still arguing over the same religious and judicial principles – the sanctity of a Muslim life, what constitutes apostasy, one’s right to attack civilian population and religious freedom,” Anderson said.

“If one was to make a historical analogy, Muawiyah’s military campaigns and his hegemonic vision could be compared to that of the [Catholic] Church during the Crusades. What we are seeing today in the Middle East is the resurgence of such philosophy, that one needs to assert one’s beliefs by the sword and annihilate all other religions.”

In “The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad” (2006), Barnaby Rogerson likens Muawiyah to Julius Caesar, stressing that his prowess as a military strategist and his thirst for conquest were quite similar to that of the Roman emperor.

“Looking back at Muawiyah’s reign and the manner in which he rationalized what Shia scholars understand as his heresy against Islam, it is difficult not to see striking parallels with ISIS today,” explained Dr. Ammanpour.

“The battle of Siffin, which saw Imam Ali’s troops pitted against Muawiyah’s men, is where Raqqa stands today. Is it a coincidence ISIS chose to establish its capital on this very ground? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but such signs should stand as a reminder of ISIS’ motivations and what model it seeks to replicate.”

Islam’s first civil war was fought on the banks of the Euphrates in 657. Though centuries have passed, the old religious argument, this claim of sanctity and righteousness over the spirit of Islam, rages on.

Born out of fanaticism and extremism, ISIS has been dubbed by many in the Islamic world as Islam’s Second Fitna (civil strife), in direct reference to the First Fitna, the Battle of Siffin, which saw Islam splinter into two factions: the people of Ali — the Shiites — and those who chose to bow to the Umayyad — the Sunnis.

ISIS’ actions today are very much understood as an attempt to settle an old feud with Shiite Islam — a feud which started under Muawiyah’s influence.

The closing of a circle

As politicians and analysts debate on how best to eradicate ISIS and the terror it has brought in its wake, Muslim scholars see in the radical phenomenon that is ISIS the closing of a cycle.

Yussef Safwan told Shafaqna that, as a Muslim scholar, the most interesting part is that “[t]his war we are seeing unfold has been foretold … whether one believes in Islam is in some ways irrelevant, since ISIS believes that its army is fulfilling an Islamic prophecy. Belief and faith have precedent over politics and even realities.”

“Just as Christians and Jews have their own understanding of the apocalypse, Muslims have been taught in great detail what chain of events will lead to the end times. ISIS’ ideology is tied to this prophecy. Its militants have been taught they are the instruments of God’s will and that under their impetus Mahdi [Islamic savior] will come forth,” explained Safwan.

“But if ISIS believes its goals will be sanctified, others believe the black army is the very evil our Prophet warned us against in his hadiths [Islamic prophetic traditions].”

In Kitab Al Fitan – a compilation of hadiths relating to the end of times assembled by prominent scholar Nuyam bin Hammad in Islamic calendar year 229 – Imam Ali bin Abu Talib reportedly said:

“If you see the black flags, then hold your ground and do not move your hands or your feet. A people will come forth who are weak and have no capability, their hearts are like blocks of iron. They are the people of the State (literally the people of Al Dawla), they do not keep a promise or a treaty. They call to the truth but they are not its people. Their names are (nicknames like Abu Mohammed) and their last names (are the names of town and cities, like Al Halabi) and their hair is loose like women’s hair. (Leave them) until they fight among themselves, then Allah [God] will bring the truth from whoever He wills.”

The question remains: Could ISIS be the violent, deviant black army that the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali warned Muslims about hundreds of years ago?


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