Dream or nightmare: The caliphate in the eyes of Islam

Behind the closed doors of learned Islamic institutions there is talk of necessary reforms; it is not unanimous and it is yet to be debated openly.

A MAN walks past a graffiti of verses from the Koran at downtown in Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN walks past a graffiti of verses from the Koran at downtown in Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In late October a distinguished professor of Islamic jurisprudence resigned her post at the University of Dammam in Saudi Arabia to join the armies of Islamic State in northern Syria. On her social media accounts Dr. Iman Mustafa al-Bugha wrote: “The Islamic Ummah is in need of martyr agents who will leave their comfortable lives to witness to Muslims.... I left my huge salary and joined the service of the Islamic Ummah to fight the unjust.” On her Facebook page – subsequently deleted but quoted at length in the Arab press – she stated, “For the moment I realized the tragedies of the Muslim peoples I became a member of [Islamic State] even before [IS] was created.... ‘Jihad’ is the way, the true way of the Islamic State. Its leaders cannot change a thing on its way to a just victory and if al-Bagdadi were to stray from this path, we would replace him; the true way – the Jihad - lights the path of the true believers who abandoned the world and its dissolute ways to fulfill their duty unto death.”
Dr. Al-Burgha rejects the theory according to which IS does not represent Islam and is incensed at Obama’s declarations on the subject. For her IS strictly follows sharia law. She condemns the Muslims who remain silent while sharia is not implemented, while the Muslim nation is humiliated and dominated by Jews “who kill our people in front of us.”
A heated debate ensued among learned Muslim scholars wrestling with her arguments. The Salafi movement, while sharing the same dream – going back to Islam as it was at the time of the Prophet and renewing the Caliphate – is uneasy at the level of violence and the barbarity of IS. But what bothers them most of all is the fact that Iman is a recognized expert on Islamic law and was teaching that subject in one of the most prestigious universities in Saudi Arabia, and in the entire Arab world. Students from all Arab countries come there to learn the tenets of their faith, and many may agree with her. Some high-ranking clerics tried to claim that she was known for her extremist view, but that is not an answer. No one complained or tried to stop her teaching and she resigned of her own free will. The fact is that the laws of Islam as they developed since the time of Mohammed are not conducive to the search for peace and tolerance. Their purpose is to impose Islam – through predication or through violence. It was through violence that Mohammed imposed Islam on Arab tribes and through violence that his successors led their armies to the conquest of the world – from the Middle East to North Africa, to China in the East, and to the West until they were stopped in France.
Here lies the root of the problem. IS is implementing sharia to the letter, as is attested by Professor Bugha. The selfsame sharia which is taught in schools and academic institutions throughout the Muslim world. The harsh – barbaric even – penalties inflicted on sinners, from stoning women, to crucifying and beheading infidels, are part of that teaching.
Killing the Yazidis because they are seen as pagans, enslaving their women – this is part of Islam and the sharia. So was imposing on the Christians the state of dhimmitude and discriminatory measures which were in force throughout the Ottoman Empire until 1856, when the great powers forced the Sultan to abandon it.
High-ranking scholars at Al Azhar, the leading institute of Islamic studies in the Sunni world, as well as other scholars in Arab countries, have claimed that what IS is doing is sinful and runs contrary to the human values of Islam; they could not however muster a single legal argument based on the sharia which could be used to show that IS is a terrorist organization distorting the sharia. All they can do is argue among themselves.
To this day textbooks at Al Azhar University are based on sharia and they are full of stories about the deeds of the Prophet, his Companions, the first four Caliphs and their generals. The revered military commander Khaled Ben Walid, for example, killed the leader of a tribe which had renounced Islam, cut off his head, threw it in a boiling cauldron and ate it.
Surveys carried out on public networks in Saudi Arabia showed that 92 percent of the Saudis approved the way of IS, and it is easy to see why: this is what they were taught at school and this is what they hear in the Friday sermons from the mosques. There has never been a demonstration against IS in Arab countries, and Arab youth are flocking to IS to express their own identity or in search of dubious thrills. Not all will come back.
There is only one way to change that state of affairs: a reform of the laws of Islam. Mission impossible? In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah Sissi has declared more than once that the more extreme expressions of the sharia should be amended. Acting upon his instructions, the Egyptian Education Ministry canceled last June the course of Islamic education being taught in schools; moral values were added to a new textbook. This important step did not receive the recognition it deserved in the West.
Nevertheless, behind the closed doors of learned Islamic institutions there is talk of necessary reforms. It is not unanimous and it is yet to be debated openly. Conservative forces are fighting it vigorously. They are by far the most numerous. Will they carry the day? Perhaps not but the process will be long and arduous.
The author is a former Israeli Ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden, Fellow of the Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs.