Searching for sources of the currently functioning in the Middle East Islamic State, it is worth referring to the work of an Islamic thinker, Muhammad Rashid Rida, the creator of the caliphate theory.
Rida lived between 1865 – 1935; he was born in the Ottoman Empire, today’s territory of Lebanon, and he lived there until 1897, when he moved permanently to Cairo. For Muslims, being stuck in the lethargy of the rigorous restrictions, given by their prophet, a contact with the nineteenth-century European civilization caused a lot of confusion within a number of Islamic elites.
If, for the majority of them, the admiration to the vast amount of material inventions coming from the West and changing previous lifestyle, became a primary source of desires, then among the religious thinkers flared a need to find themselves, as well as their fellow believers, in the new world. A fundamental model for the future beliefs of Rida was, the most prominent at that time, an Arabic reformist Muhammad Abduh, who was decisively standing in the opposition to British colonialism. Initially, Rida had an opportunity to learn his ideas from a magazine „al-Urwa al-wuṯqā”, and later he contacted him directly.
However, if Abduh intended to modernize Islam, then Rida, following the example of the 13th and 14th century Ibn Tajmijji, sought to ‘purify’ Islam of all influences and novelties, so called bida.
Thereby, with his ideas he caught up with the 18th century ideologist of Islam, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhabem. Nevertheless, lusting for the return of the glory of Islam, he intended to adapt the Sharia law to the new reality, hence he was acknowledging ijtihad, meaning that every Muslim has a right to interpret the holy books.
Rida didn’t find answers to his search for the true Islam amongst the ruling elite, therefore, he headed toward mystical dimension of Islam, called Sufism, although, even there he didn’t find a fertile soil for his ideas. Consequently, following his desire to find tips about life in the new world, he began working on the commentary to the Quran. After moving to Egypt, he presented his reflections in a weekly magazine, founded by himself, and later in a monthly “Al-Manar”, which has been successfully published for almost 40 years.
A magazine which represents Rida, and also the Salafi movement, has been defined by Hassan Al-Banna, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, as the most important weapon in the hands of Islamists. Please note, however, that the reformation initiated by Rashid Rida wasn’t about integrating the religion with the functioning Western world, rather about protecting it against its threatening influences, since the compromise between Islam and the modernity is not possible.
Rida is not just a theorist. He intensively engaged himself in political activities, participating in all major Islamic congresses of his times. He rejected French and Italian colonizers, supporting English in hope of being guaranteed the independence from the Arabs, earlier divested of Ottomans. However, he promptly got disappointed, after the Great Britain supported the Jewish cause in Palestine. In the same time Turkey, a Muslim country, remained ideologically closer to the followers of Islam, and when the caliphate fell down, with its capital in Istanbul, the so called reformers, such as Rashid Rida, were protesting fervently.
Before Mustafa Kemal (also called Ataturk) finally made the secularization of the structures of his country, our reformer published a book in Cairo, titled “Caliphate, a great imamate’. The writer postulated restitution of the Islamic state, considering it a greatest weapon against colonialism. He recognized that, at the time of Muhamad, the existing system in the Ottoman Empire altered the concept of the caliphate, and he described sultan himself as a tyrant.
He put forward a plan to rebuild the Islamic state, known in Arabic as Daula Islamijja (its Arabic language acronym is Daesh) or Kuhuma Islamia. This postulate however, has been altered after 1924. Rida decided that the position of caliph should be more of a moralistic and a religious character, similar to the Catholic pope, only that in collaboration with scholars, and government representatives, it would have developed into a social system based on sharia law.
Let’s try not to follow a ‘wishful’ thinking though. Sharia is Sharia, and Rida himself institutionalized in his texts the existence of acts such as stoning and cutting off hands, moreover, the Muslim faith is inseparable from obedience, and it doesn’t tolerate a non-acceptance of the principles of sharia, hence every apostate should be killed.
Let’s look into a term “state”. So far, a term ‘imarat’ (translated as emirate), or ‘wilayah’ (governorate), was commonly used in the classical Muslim theory of power. According to Rida, the Islamic state should be based on two foundations: sovereign government and the public’s right to legislation.
The sovereignty is supposed to be guaranteed by the institution intermediating between the caliph and the society, and the society is supposed to have a right to overthrow it should the government prove illegitimate. In terms of the public’s right to legislation, the term itself naturally stands out against our understanding of creating legislation. Islam forbids a man to legislate. Therefore, whatever should be implemented into a daily life would have to refer to the holy books of Muslims, and the law would be instilled into a changing world only on the basis of those books.
Referring to Rashid Rida as the reformer of Islam, these days, contradicts with our ideas and it is even difficult to understand why in his lifetime the West gave him this name. However, it should be understood that until the 60s of the 20th century, plans to introduce Sharia law were taken as vague, theoretical fantasies, referring more to the ‘One Thousand And One Nights’ rather than to the reality.
The ideas of Muhammad Rashid Rida were sown on a fertile soil. They quickly became an inspiration for Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyidd Qutb, and for many more subsequent activists and theorists of fundamentalistic organizations.
Finally, it is interesting to mention how Rida was trying to contribute the current Muslim idea to the study of the natural sciences. Following the developments of the research in the evolving microbiology, Rashid Rida was discerning certain types of jinns, discovered with microscopes in microorganisms, which in Islam function as a transitional, unspecified entities, existing somewhere on the border between the visible and divine worlds.