I have been waiting for two weeks now for someone to explain the deeper meaning of the “Caliph” from Mosul’s Arabic message for Muslims around the world. His appearance on Friday 4th July might have coincided with America’s Independence Day, but his sermon was not written for Westerners. He aimed at Muslims with both his words and his deeds.
Here are seven points of religious symbolism from his sermon that resonated deeply among observant Muslims, but were missed by most outsiders who looked on aghast at Ibrahim al-Baghdadi’s triumphalism:
1. He ascended the minbar (pulpit) slowly, deliberately climbing one step at a time. This was how the Prophet and his companions were reported to have acted —not rushed, but serene while the call to prayer was given. An important role of the Caliph historically was to deliver the Friday sermon, and Baghdadi’s actions illustrated to those in the mosque and elsewhere that he was not a novice.
2. While sat on the minbar, and as the call to prayer continued, Baghdadi reached for his pocket and took out a small wooden stick – known as a miswak and used widely across the Muslim world – with which to clean his teeth. It is understood that the Prophet Mohammed carried such a cleaner, his objective being hygiene and fresh breath. Today, that translates as Colgate and an electric toothbrush. But to a mind that wishes to return to the seventh century, the Prophet’s purpose is lost and clinging onto external practices alone becomes precious. Baghdadi’s actions with his miswak – captured and highlighted by his cameraman – were designed to further bolster Baghdadi’s credentials as a successor to the early Caliphs.
3. He wore a black turban because the Prophet, it is believed, wore one on his conquest of Mecca and when he delivered his last sermon. Moreover, Shia Muslim leaders of the Prophet’s bloodline wear black headgear to indicate their lineage. Baghdadi was tapping into Sunni and Shia Muslim symbolism and, indirectly, confirming his own claim to be a descendant of the Prophet in the eyes of the Shia majority in Iraq.
4. He spoke in flawless classical Arabic of the Quran. Arabic speakers would be impressed, and non-Arabic speaking clerics around the world would have recognised the above choreography and admired his Arabic skill. Not even every Arab can speak classical Arabic without grammatical errors. His command of the language was combined with constant citations from the Quran.
5. Salafi Muslims, adherents of a hardline Saudi version of Islam, would have recognized Baghdadi as one of their own. He started his sermon angrily warning Muslims against bid’ah, or “newly invented matters” in religion. Imams in most other Muslim traditions emphasise love for God and the Prophet, but the Salafi trend is to warn against bid’ah.
6. Throughout his 22-minute sermon he showed a fluent knowledge of the Quran by frequent citations of verses popular with Salafis. He emphasised tawhid (the oneness of God) in the evangelical mode of Salafism. Most Muslims agree, as do Christians and Jews, that God is one, but for Salafis that oneness must be manifest in government through hakimiyyah (God’s law). Baghdadi has taken the Saudi Salafi creed to its logical conclusion.
7. He claimed for himself the religious duty (wajib) of implementing God’s law (sharia) as he understood it. The second caliph of Islam, Umar, had stood on a pulpit in Medina and said “if you see me obey God, then obey me. If I disobey God, then rebel against me.” This early edict on Muslim governance is known to most educated Muslims – Baghdadi was laying claim to this mantle. In a Middle East full of dictatorships, his words had special religious and political resonance.
All the above was ignored by the global media, who focused on his wristwatch. Was it an Omega? A Rolex? It turned out to be yet another visual display of piety: a timepiece with alarms for prayer times, a compass facing Mecca, and an Islamic calendar.
If he is as pious as portrayed, surely he is a superior Muslim and deserves obedience from those of us who are less pious? Not quite: the same source he claims to emulate, the Prophet Mohamed, warned us against the likes of Baghdadi, and such figures cropped up in early Islamic history too. Those who killed the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Husain in Iraq in the eighth century, also dressed like the Prophet and talked of piety but failed to demonstrate the love of God or the Prophet’s teachings. The Prophet’s warning was of those who show all the outward signs of piety – even saying the voluntary night prayers – but for whom the Quran ‘does not permeate deeper than their throats’. The implication is that if the Quran does not touch their hearts, they do not love God and therefore have no faith. Their religion is anger and ritualistic actions. And a ‘Caliph’ who does not love God is not deserving of obedience from Muslims anywhere.
Ed Husain is a Senior Advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article also appears on religionandgeopolitics.org