The Sunni-based ISIL insurgents talk about resurrecting the longstanding institution of the Islamic caliphate.
What does it mean and why is this sacred to Sunni Muslims? The tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims started on the issue of succession after the prophet Mohammad died in 632 C.E. The Shiite Muslims broke off because they held that the successor of Mohammad had to be appointed and chosen by God, whereas, the Sunnis maintained the belief that the community of Muslims would elect the newly designated successor.
The Shiites claimed that God had chosen one man, Ali, who was both the cousin of Mohammad and his son-in-law, to be the successor; whereas the Sunnis elected Abu-Bakr as the first caliph of the new Islamic empire.
The caliphate is the ultimate and ideal Islamic state led by an all-powerful religio-political leader who is designated as caliph and declared the true and legitimate successor to Mohammed. The history of the Islamic caliphate began in the 7th century and lasted up to the 20th century. Such dynasties as the Umayyads (from Egypt) and Abasids (from Bagdahd) are among the most famous and ushered in the golden age of Islam up until the Spanish retook the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. At that point, the Ottoman Empire arose and its Sunni caliphate ruled from Istanbul over the Middle East for more than 400 years â€" until World War I when the British arrived, defeated the Ottomans and occupied the Middle East.
The Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president and founder of the modern state of Turkey, disbanded in 1924 the institution of the caliphate. While there have been minor Islamic groups who have tried to revive the institution, the truth is it has lived in hibernation until now. Today, ISIL leaders claim it is their intention to resurrect the Sunni version of the Islamic caliphate from Syria through Iraq. This is one of the fundamental reasons Iran, which is almost all Shiite Muslims, does not support the Sunni radicals. Remember that from the Shiite theological perspective the Sunni caliphate emerging from an ISIL organization would be tainted and flawed because only God can reveal the true successor.
The tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims are complex and multilayered. Religious, economic, political and cultural flashpoints have driven these two branches of Islam to war over the years. Americans should increase their knowledge about these religious ideas that are now part and parcel of the conflicts in this volatile part of the world.
The main point is that once the caliphate is re-established, the caliph can institute Shariah laws, which are the Islamic divinely sanctioned laws incumbent upon all Muslims. The ISIL have already begun to implement that kind of authoritarian rule in the cities of Iraq they have conquered in the past few weeks. As it is written in the Quran, "O you who believe? Obey God and obey the messenger and then those among you who are in authority, and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to God and the messenger's rulings. If you are (in truth) believers in God and the Last Day, that is better and more seemly in the end" (Quran 004:059).
Middle East experts discuss in the media multiple factors for the ongoing chaos. One can, on the other hand, never underestimate the impact of religious history, faith and tradition that explain and define the Sunni and Shiite world views and perennially instigate the unresolved conflicts that plague Iraq and Syria today.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.