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How the political crises of the modern Muslim world created the climate for Islamic State

The century since the first world war is littered with the broken promises of Muslim rulers to bring about a transition to more representative forms of government. AAP/Asmaa Abdelatif

How the political crises of the modern Muslim world created the climate for Islamic State

The century since the first world war is littered with the broken promises of Muslim rulers to bring about a transition to more representative forms of government. AAP/Asmaa Abdelatif

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

In the penultimate article of the series, Harith Bin Ramli traces the Muslim world’s growing disaffection with its rulers through the 20th century and how it created the climate for both the genesis of Islamic State and its continuing success in recruiting followers.


Islamic State (IS) declared its re-establishment of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, almost exactly 100 years after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated. Ferdinand’s death set off a series of events that would lead to the first world war and the fall of three great multinational world empires: the Austro-Hungarian (1867-1918), the Russian (1721-1917) and the Ottoman (1299-1922).

That IS’s leadership chose to declare its caliphate so close to the anniversary of Ferdinand’s assassination may not entirely be a coincidence. In a sense, the two events are connected.

Ferdinand’s assassination and the events it brought about (culminating in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles) symbolised the final triumph of a new idea of sovereignty. This modern conception was based on the popular will of a nation, rather than on noble lineage.

The heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated on June 28, 1914. Carl Pietzner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In declaring the resurrection of a medieval political institution almost exactly 100 years later, IS was announcing its explicit rejection of the modern international system based on that very idea of sovereignty.

Early secularisation

Other than the Ottoman Sultanate’s very late and disputed claim to the title, no attempt has been made to re-establish a caliphate since the fall of the Abbasid dynasty at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. In other words, Sunni Islam has carried on for hundreds of years since the 13th century without the need for a central political figurehead.

If we go further back in history, it seems that Sunni political theory had already anticipated this problem.

The Abbasid caliphs began to lose power from the mid-ninth century, effectively becoming puppets of various warlords by the tenth. And the caliphate underwent a serious process of decentralisation at the same time.

Key contemporary texts on statecraft, such as Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi’s (952-1058) Ordinances of Government (al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya), described the caliph as the necessary symbolic figurehead providing constitutional legitimacy for the real rulers – emirs or sultans – whose power was based on military might.

As in the case of the Shi'i Buyid dynasty (934-1048), these rulers didn’t even have to be Sunni. And they were often expected to provide legislation based on practical and functional, rather than religious, considerations.

The Muslim world, then, had arguably already experienced secularisation of sorts before the modern age. Or, at the very least, it had for quite some time existed within a political system that balanced power between religious and worldly interests.

And when the caliphate came to an end in the 13th century, both the institutions of kingship and the religious courts (run by the scholar-jurists) were able to carry on functioning without difficulty.

Wikimedia Commons

It was the 19th-century Muslim revivalist and anti-colonial movement known as Pan-Islamism that was responsible for reviving the Ottoman claim to the caliphate. The idea was revived again briefly in early 20th-century British India as the anti-colonial Khilafat movement.

But anti-colonial efforts after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, even those primarily based on religious beliefs, have rarely called for a return of the caliphate.

If anything, successors of Pan-Islamism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have generally worked within the framework of nation states. Putting aside doubts about their actual ability to commit to democracy and secularism, such movements have generally envisioned an Islamic state along more modern lines, with room for political participation and elections.

Modern utopias and old dynasties

So why evoke the caliphate in the first place? The simple answer is that it has never been completely dismissed as an option.

In Sunni law and political theology, once consensus over an issue has been reached, it is hard for later generations to go against it. This was why Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq was removed from his post at Al-Azhar University and attacked for introducing a deviant interpretation after he wrote an argument for a secular interpretation of the caliphate in 1925.

Thinkers such as Abul Ala Mawdudi tried to place a revived caliphate within some type of democratic framework. DiLeeF via Wikimedia Commons

As many recent studies show, the idea of the caliphate and its revival has had a certain utopian appeal for a wide spectrum of modern Muslim thinkers. And not just those with authoritarian or militant inclinations.

Some leading Muslim revivalists such as Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) and Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), for example, have tried to place a revived caliphate within some type of democratic framework.

But, in practice, the dominant tendency here too has really been to seek the liberation or revival of Muslim societies within the nation-state framework.

If anything, national aspirations and the desire to modernise society existed before the formation of the new political order after the first world war. The majority of the populations of Muslim lands welcomed the fall of the three empires, or at least didn’t feel very strongly about the survival of traditional ruling dynasties.

And, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, most dynasties that stayed in power did so by reinventing their states along modern, mainly secular, models.

But this did not always succeed. The waves of revolutions and military coups that swept the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world throughout the 1950s and 1960s amply illustrate that popular sentiment identified traditional dynasties with the continuing influence of colonial powers.

In Egypt, under the Muhammad Ali dynasty (1805-1952), for example, the control of the then-French Canal epitomised the interdependent relationship between the dynasty and Western power. This was why Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) made great efforts to regain it in the name of Egyptian sovereignty when he became the country’s second president in 1956.

Inauguration of the Suez Canal at Port Said, Egypt, in 1869. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dissolving political legitimacy

Either way, the success of the new Muslim nation states could be said to be predicated on two major expectations. The first was improvement of citizens’ lives – not only in terms of material progress, but also the benefits of freedom and the ability to represent the popular will through participatory politics.

The second was the ability of Muslim nations to unite against outside interference and commit to the liberation of Palestine. On both counts, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed abysmal failures and an increasing sense of frustration with Muslim leaders.

In many places, populism eventually gave way to authoritarianism. And the loss of further lands to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War revealed the inherent weakness and lack of unity among the new Muslim nations.

Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was widely seen as an act of betrayal, for breaking ranks in what should have been a united front. His decision to do so despite lacking popular support in Egypt only revealed the extent to which the country had evolved into a dictatorship.

Sadat’s consequent assassination at the hands of a small radical splinter group of religious militants acted as a warning to other Muslim leaders. Now they couldn’t simply ignore or lock away religious critics, even if the majority of the population still subscribed to the secular nation-state model.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel was widely seen as an act of betrayal. US Department of Defence Visual information via Wikimedia Commons

This idea was reinforced by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as the failed religious revolution in the holy city of Mecca the same year.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Muslim leaders around the world increasingly made compromises with religious reactionary forces, allowing them to expand influence in the public sphere. In many cases, these leaders increasingly adopted religious rhetoric themselves.

Showing support for fellow Muslims in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1987) or the First Palestinian Intifada provided an opportunity to manage the threat of religious radicalism. National leaders probably also saw this as an effective way to deflect attention from the authoritarian nature of many Muslim states.

And, as demonstrated by Saddam Hussain’s turn to religious propaganda after the 1990-91 Gulf War, it could be used as a last resort when other ways of demonstrating legitimacy had failed.

The longer view

The Gulf War also brought non-Muslim troops to Arabian soil, inspiring Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad against the Western nations that participated in it. And it eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq. That set off a chain of events that created in the country the chaotic conditions that enabled the rise of Islamic State.

If the IS leadership is really an alliance between ex-Ba'athist generals and an offshoot of al-Qaeda, as has often been depicted, then we don’t have to go far beyond the events of this war to explain how the group formed. But the rise of Islamic State and its declaration of the caliphate can also be read as part of a wider story that has unfolded since the formation of modern nation states in the Muslim world.

As some commentators have pointed out, it’s not so much the Sykes-Picot agreement and the drawing of artificial national borders by colonial powers that brought about IS.

The modern nation-state model – as much as it’s based on a kind of fiction – is still strong in most parts of the Muslim world. And, I believe, it’s still the preferred option for most Muslims today.

People of Arak toppled the Shah’s statue in Bāgh Mwlli (central square of Arak) during 1979 revolution. Dooste Amin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But the long century that has passed since the first world war has been increasingly marked by frustration. It’s littered with the broken promises of Muslim rulers to bring about a transition to more representative forms of government. And it has been marked by a sense that Western powers continue to control and manipulate events in the region, in a way that doesn’t always represent the best interests of Muslim societies.

An extreme high point of frustration was reached in the events of the so-called Arab Spring. The wave of popular demonstrations against the autocratic regimes of the Arab world were seen as the first winds of change that would bring democracy to the region.

But, with the possible exception of Tunisia, all of these countries underwent either destabilisation (Libya, Syria), the return of military rule (Egypt), or the further clamping down on civil rights (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies).

I would hesitate to describe IS’s declaration of a caliphate as a serious challenge to the modern nation-state model. But the small, albeit substantial, stream of followers it manages to recruit daily shows it would be wrong to take for granted that the terms of the international order can simply be dictated from above forever.

When brute force increasingly has the final say over how people live their lives, it becomes harder for them to differentiate between the lesser of two evils.


This is the eighth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Download our special report collating the whole the series.