Caliphate and Tawhid: Understanding the main two pillars of ISIS’ ideology

By Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardane

The brutal attacks carried out by an Islamist group in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has galvanized the lost attention on ISIS, especially the waves of attacks in Sri Lanka seemed to have conveyed the idea that the Islamic vendetta on Christians and the West would likely to continue beyond the frontiers of their so called “Caliphate “and targets in Europe. Nevertheless, the notion of caliphate and the ideological surrounding of it have derived from Islamic history as an idealist Islamic state which would unify the Muslims around the world on basis of authentic creed of Prophet Muhammad. On 4th of July 2014, the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit of the pulpit of Mosul Grand Mosque by culminating the idea of revival of aged long idea of reviving Islamic caliphate the utopian state of both temporal and spiritual accomplishment that Many Muslims yearned to see. While preaching his sermon, Baghdadi romanticized the idea of idea of resurrecting caliphate by saying “After long years of Jihad, patience and fighting the enemies of Allah, he guided them and strengthened them to achieve this goal. Therefore, they rushed to establish the caliphate. The tantalizing idea of the formation of Caliphate brought ISIS a tremendous popularity overnight. In fact the nostalgia of caliphate has seriously lingered in Muslim psyche since the collapse of Ottoman Empire at the end of Great War which ended the last remnant of the caliphate. Under the pressure of British and French allies, Turks undermined the ulema into a state functionaries and the last realm of Muslims for caliphate was wiped out. Since then, bringing a caliphate back to a reality has been a predilection of many Islamic radical theorists. Egyptian radical Islam theorist Sayyid Outb once emphasized the utmost necessity of reviving caliphate by killing all corrupt secular Muslim leaders for the cause of purifying Jihad, yet this idea did not become a serious thought to implement till ISIS announced their so called caliphate in 2014. Even for militant Islamists who accepted Qutb’s view, like Osama Bin Laden, it was risky to move quickly. 

The ISIS idea of caliphate could reach their popularity in such an escalating manner by attracting many youths from Europe and Northern America to quit their normal life style in order to join the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. However, today the territory occupied by ISIS as caliphate has been ebbed after ISIS was militarily defeated by the US backed Syrian force in Syria and Iraqi army in Iraq. Yet, the ideology propounded by Baghdadi on caliphate seems to have not flown from many radical Muslims. Indeed , the looming danger after ISIS envisaged some heavy losses at the hands of Syrian Iraqi forces is that fantasy of caliphate has transformed into a global jihadi ideology expanding beyond the frontiers of ISIS territorial claims. In examining the ideology of ISIS, one has to comprehend the significance of caliphate and ISIS one of cardinal virtues in their salafi –jihadim, which is called Tawhid. In fact, Tawhid is generally regarded as the central pillar of Islam which stands for the doctrine of monotheism and the omnipotence of God. However, the impact of Tawhid on the development of Salafi Jihadism was based on the work of Islamic theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. This 18thcentury Islamic theologian was anxious about the growth of mystic cults like Sufism in Islam as corrupting forces that debilitate the purity of faith of the people, he focused extensively on the promotion of Tawhid in order to steer people away from such practices. Wahab’s understanding of Tawhid was divided into three categories as Tawhid al-rububiyya (Oneness of divinity), Tawhid al-uluhiyya (Oneness of worship), Tawhid al-asma’wa-l-sifat (Oneness of names). Salafi Jihadists including ISIS and its allied Muslim radicals have heavily relied on ascertaining and practicing Tawhid as central aim. In other words , ISIS killings of Sufi priests and burning their mosques , vandalizing the tomb stones of Sufi saints in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka have simply gained their legitimacy from the doctrinal interpretation of Wahabb over the concept of Tawhid. From Islamic theological perspective Tawhid is an emotive issue as it profoundly embraces the unity of God and ISIS has indoctrinated the notion of Tawhid into their ideology, in the given context the narrow interpretation of Tawhid in ISIS, inculcates the rigid will in ISIS fighters that aims to transform Islam into a living ideal, something which must be physically manifest and given continuous expression through acts. Unlike its other Abrahamic counter partners, faith itself is not enough for salvation under Islam. It is rather a situation forming the unity between Oneness of divinity and oneness of worship in a coherent manner that would invoke the Muslims to work for God. As a matter of fact, this theological interpretation seems to have sharply focused within the Salafi construction of Islam in ISIS. 

The ISIS’ empathy on Caliphate has emerged from the apotheosis of Islamic glory in its early stage as the entire idea is rooted in the Islamic community founded in 7thcentury Arabia by Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the role of prophet in early Islamic history embodied the fusion of religion and politics. The prophet was bestowed the responsibility of leading his followers to salvation and organizing the political state, moreover this tradition was continued by the caliphs who came after him in various Islamic dynasties. All in all, the idea of caliphate symbolized a spiritual and temporal sanctuary for Muslims. It is true that ISIS self-proclaimed caliphate had been moulded under the inspiration they gained from early Islamic caliphs to revive the 7thcentury Islamic values in the context of 21stcentury. The denial of secular state systems and other political organizations in present day Muslim world has become another key element of ISIS ideology. The jubilant reception came from the followers of ISIS in 2014 when al-Baghdadi proclaimed the inception of new caliphate was sort of euphoria for them as they waited such a moment for decades. Today even after the fall of ISIS territories and self-proclaimed caliphate, there are dozens of followers around the world who are still passionately dwelling in the fancy of realizing a caliphate.

The video footage issued by the Islamic militants who carried out Easter day attacks in Sri Lanka show how those attackers pledged the oath to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and it is just an instance demonstrates the power of the idea planted by ISIS over reviving the caliphate. It seems to indicate that territorial loss of Islamic state has not completely drifted the idealism around forming a caliphate, instead of diminishing such an idea, it has moved beyond Middle East. Those Jihadi groups that swore their alliance to ISIS in South Asia have already smitten by the idea of caliphate and moreover, their well-established notion of Tawhid has now crated a global Jihadi family of fighters. It is important to understand, the combating ISIS would become a futile venture without deconstructing the ideology possessed by ISIS fighters. The above mentioned two pillars such as the concepts of Tawhid and Caliphate have provided the main ideological bulwark for the expansion of global ISIS network. 

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at Institute of Law and Politics in Sant Anna School for Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. He holds his a bachelor degree in Law from University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and completed masters in international law at South Asian University in New Delhi, India. He did complete one year research fellowship in Faculty of Law at Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Punsara can be reached at [email protected]. Eshan Jayawardane is a researcher of international affairs currently lives in New Zealand. He completed his bachelor degree in Sociology at Delhi University and holds masters in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He taught at Sri Lankan Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences a guest lecturer. Eshan can be reached at [email protected]

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