Everything You Wanted To Know About The Caliphate But Were Afraid To Ask

beck egypt

Two weeks ago Glenn Beck introduced much of the world to the word caliphate. 

Shortly after the Egypt uprisings began, Beck used two chalkboards to ‘explain’ what was happening there and went on to suggest this was merely the beginning of an new caliphate that would see riots all over the mid-east and then Europe at which point it was not at all unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over America.

I am paraphrasing a series of shows.  But that is the gist. 

Sounds very scary, right?

As sometimes happens with Beck clips, the first one on Egypt went wide.  I suspect that had as much to do with the visuals (which were, as always, terrific) as the caliphate theory.  But nonetheless, the word caliphate is getting bandied around with some frequency now and considering the current unrest in Iran, and Algeria, and Bahrain (not to mention Italy!  a veritable caliphate of feminists!) one suspects we may be hearing a lot more about caliphates in the weeks ahead.

So. Without further ado…

Caliphate: The Dictionary Definition

ca·liph·ate noun -lə-ˌfāt, -fət

Caliphate comes from the term 'caliph.' A caliph is the 'chief Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the successor of Muhammad.'

The Caliphate began following the death of Muhammad in 632. The first four caliphs that made up the Caliphate were his followers, and the job of the caliphate was to carry the legacy of Mohammed's authority and establish the political system he had set up.


Rashidun: The first Caliphate (632–661)

The Umayyads Caliphate (661–750)

After the head (the fourth caliph of our original quartet) of the Rashidun caliphate was murdered the caliphate was taken over by the Umayyads. (I am seriously paraphrasing here, by the way...'taken over' is a euphemism for political assassination and bloodshed, etc.)

The Umayyads grew the Caliphate so that it extended 'westward across North Africa and into Hispania and eastward through Persia and ultimately to the ancient lands of Indus Valley, in modern day Pakistan. This made it one of the largest unitary states in history and one of the few states to ever extend direct rule over three continents (Africa, Europe, and Asia).' This caliphate lasted from 661-750.

Side note: By Europe they mean parts of Spain (think the Moors) not England, France, or Italy, which you might have concluded if Glenn Beck were your only source for caliphate.

Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258)

Cue political strife and uprising and subsequently the Umayyads caliphate was taken over by the Abbasid dynasty, who made their capital Baghdad. This caliphate lasted nearly 500 years, sort of.

'It flourished for two centuries, but slowly went into decline with the rise to power of the Turkish army it had created, the Mamluks. Within 150 years of gaining control of Persia, the caliphs were forced to cede power to local dynastic emirs who only nominally acknowledged their authority.'

As you can see, even at its greatest power the Abbasid caliphate was smaller than the one that preceded it. Spain is out of the Caliphate picture now.

Ottoman Caliphate (aka Empire) (1517-1918)

Bye-bye Ottomans

I am not going to take you through the decline of the Ottoman Empire because it is looonng. Suffice to say 'by the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire's problems had evolved into crises. Territorial losses in conflicts such as the Russo-Turkish Wars substantially reduced Ottoman strength and influence, and years of financial mismanagement came to a head when the Empire defaulted on its loans in 1875.'

These crises were exacerbated by the First World War, which the Ottomans entered on the side of the Germans. Needless to say, a bad decision.

'By the end of the war, the Ottomans had lost virtually their entire Empire. Hoping to keep his throne and preserve the Ottoman dynasty in some form or another, the Sultan agreed to cooperate with the Allies. He dissolved parliament and allowed an Allied military administration to replace the government vacated by the Young Turks.'

The End of the Caliphate

Technically speaking the caliphate ended in 1924.

'On March 3, 1924, the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as part of his reforms, constitutionally abolished the institution of the Caliphate. Its powers within Turkey were transferred to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the parliament of the newly formed Turkish Republic. The title was then claimed by King Hussein bin Ali of Hejaz, leader of the Arab Revolt, but his kingdom was defeated and annexed by Ibn Saud in 1925. The title has since been inactive.'

Caliphate in Modern Times

Before Glenn Beck discovered it and made it a Google trend. Caliphate actually saw a return to mainstream political discussion in 2006 when, in the weeks leading up to a disastrous midterm, George W. Bush warned that Osama bin Laden was looking to reinstate one.

In Conclusion

So what have we learned. Well, for one, the term caliphate sounds a lot scarier than it actually is.

Now that you know the caliphate refers to a historical empire that existed in its prime four centuries ago and fell apart for all the reasons most empires in history (or actually, just large organisations) have fallen apart -- namely, economics, internal strife, unhappy constituents, backstabbing, greed -- are you really worried that the Egyptian uprising marks the return of it?

Probably not. It's sort of like worrying that the Roman Empire is about to return because the woman of Italy are angry at Bersocluni for his (possibly illegal) sexual antics. Or that the British Empire is about to return because a bunch of people attacked Charles and Camilla's car.

That's not to say there aren't groups of people out there who wish this, but you would need a very large majority who all agree on exactly the same thing to make it come about. Including the U.S. government, which as anyone who has paid attention to politics in the last two years know, is nearly impossible.

To the best of my knowledge the only operation that can boast those kinds of user numbers is Facebook.

Maybe Aaron Sorkin will have a special Caliphate episode on his new cable TV show.

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