Excerpts from a review article at the Times Literary Supplement:
Wars of Religion
THOMAS SMALL [more here]
This piece forms part of a TLS Special Feature, our primer on the complex politics and religions of the Middle East
A hadith (or saying of the Prophet Muhammad) considered sound by all major authorities and widely circulated among Sunni Islamists states that the history of the umma will go through five phases: first, the Prophet himself will rule over it and teach it the right way to live; then will come the time of caliphate, when caliphs will rule according to the Prophet’s teachings; then the time of benign kingship obtained by force, followed by the time of oppressive kingship; finally, the time of caliphate will rise again, where a caliph will rule once more in accordance with the Prophet’s teachings, and usher in the end of the world.
From this eschatological perspective, Ataturk’s abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923 marked the end of the third of those five phases, the phase of benign kingship. Since then, the Islamic world has been suffering the injustice of oppressive kingship, whether at the hands of brutal dictators or morally bankrupt monarchs. And though jihadist groups differ over the best way to achieve it, they are united by an ultimate aim, which they share, broadly speaking, with all forms of Islamism: the restoration of the Caliphate as a necessary step along the way to the Last Judgement.
In June 2014 a particularly savage Al Qaeda splinter group achieved this aim – though not before falling out with its parent organization. Having conquered territory on either side of the Iraqi–Syrian border, the Islamic State announced that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would henceforth be known as Caliph Ibrahim. From his base along the Euphrates in the Syrian city of Raqqa – where the most famous Abbasid caliph of them all, Harun al-Rashid, also based his court, moving it there from fractious Baghdad in AD 796 – the caliph and his followers now prepare for the End Times, which they believe are imminent, by purifying the world of idolaters and apostates.
The rise of the Islamic State is simply the latest twist in the unfolding tale of the various jihads that have plagued the Muslim world for two decades now, claiming well over a million lives, mostly Muslim. People are understandably struggling to know what to think about all this…
Ignoring or playing down the way Islam in particular sacralizes warfare is to obscure much. Islam was originally a political theology that went something like this: Out of all the peoples and tribes of the world, God chose a tribe of Arabia called Quraysh to carry out his final plan for humanity. From among their number he selected a prophet, revealed his will to him “in clear Arabic”, and instructed him to establish the quintessential divinely ordained polity at Medina. But the death of this prophet was still just the beginning of the story. The Quraysh remained God’s chosen instrument, despite the non-Qurashis swelling their ranks. And though the umma disagreed about how they could determine God’s will in the matter of who exactly was to be caliph — whether by tribal deliberation, patrilineal heredity, trial by combat, or a combination of the three — it was a matter of faith (except for some outlying schismatics) that God intended him to be a Qurashi, and that under his charismatic leadership the Qurashis would extend God’s sovereignty across the earth until every worldly power was placed under his dominion…
Very relevant, based on a major 2015 piece at The Atlantic: