The only way that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed religious leader of the Islamic State group, can be considered a caliph -- also known as "Commander of the Faithful" -- "is if the job description was written by a career Islamophobe," said Asma Afsaruddin, professor of Islamic studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University Bloomington.
"Most Muslims have received al-Baghdadi's proclamation -- when they are aware of it -- with supreme apathy," Afsaruddin said. "This should come as no surprise. Al-Baghdadi can keep touting himself as the new caliph, but most Muslims know enough history to recognize him for what he is -- a murderous tyrant using religion as a cheap armor to acquire rank political power."
Afsaruddin, author of the books "The First Muslims: History and Memory" and "Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought," points to Arabic sources and history in reaching her conclusions. Qualifications for the office of caliph include generosity, truthfulness, courage and superior knowledge, both religious and worldly. Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first caliph after the death of Mohammed, was chosen as a result of a collective consultative process known as "shura" in Arabic.
"There is no doubt that al-Baghdadi did a bit of homework before anointing himself caliph," Afsaruddin said. "In a sermon he gave at the Grand Mosque in Mosul, Iraq … he cited part of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq's speech. He repeated the section about asking the people to correct him if he should go astray but, significantly, left out the part about the caliph being 'a follower, not an innovator.'
"He also failed to mention that the people had a very important role in electing their caliph and that they had the right to be consulted in such matters before his appointment. Instead al-Baghdadi proclaimed thunderously that 'I have been appointed (caliph) over you, even though I am not the best and the most morally excellent among you.'
"When al-Baghdadi confessed that 'I have been appointed over you,' he spectacularly thumbed his nose at the principles of consultation and public allegiance that undergird the earliest legitimate caliphate."
In Islamic history, there have been two other kinds of leaders who have not depended on shura or "baya," two required processes that confer legitimacy on the leader. One would be as a king, who is regarded by Muslim scholars as an "illegitimate usurper of political power, for he rules his people without their consent."
"The second possibility is that al-Baghdadi considers himself appointed by God, a status that no Sunni caliph could ever openly entertain," Afsaruddin said. "In contrast to the Sunnis, the Shia did come to believe in the divine appointment of their leaders, which, by definition, was not subject to the processes of consultation and ratification by the people. … Given ISIS' loathing for the Shia, such an assertion is richly ironical and confirms the old adage that a little learning is always a dangerous thing."
Afsaruddin can be reached at 812- 856-7347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A more lengthy explanation of her view is available in an op-ed published at the Religion and Ethics website at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/07/16/4047157.htm.