A successful caliphate in six simple steps

By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn't get what restoring the means. Here's how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî 006.jpg
Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I'm not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I'm better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you've released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart
Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,
Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,
If I mentioned any other Paradise, I'd be worse than a dog.
Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously () in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don't cry for Leila and don't rejoice over Hind
Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.
A glass which, when tipped down the drinker's throat,
Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.
Abu Nuwas

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I'm a mine of luxury – dig me.
Well-aged brilliant wines made by
monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!
Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!
and afterwards you can take turns
shampooing my tool.
Abu Nuwas

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid's court, , the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

2. Strength in diversity

Diversity and were the hallmark of Islam's most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic .

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam's “golden age” was characterised, rather like today's America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated , Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

3. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow , such as the mass executions of Shi'a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam's various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

4. Ijtihad and the greater

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate's capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

5. A woman's place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women's place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma'a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam's attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

6. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region's leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam's greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don't mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you'll be drawing immigrants from all over the .


This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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20 thoughts on “A successful caliphate in six simple steps

  • Ibrahimi Qurani

    I wonder if you are not giving us the veiled dirty meaning of Abu Nuwas’ poem instead of the plain, clean meaning. Also the first poem seemed to be an ode to wine in paradise, to be fair. As far as Abu Nuwas being gay, this may be possible to tell by looking for hidden meanings in his poetry, but I find it hard to believe that anyone was openly gay in Islamic culture. The existence of effeminate men was recognized according to the 7 musings of Shuraik Bin Abdullah Al-Nakhiee, jurist, judge and hadeeth scholar from Kufa, Iraq. However, open recognition of sinful or lewd behavior I am sure was not tolerated. With that said many rulers were considered corrupt, especially the Ummayids and Muslims like the Murjites who were considered Muslims, despite not practicing the religion in any capacity, only because they recognized the authority of the Caliph and his Caliphate. This has a precedent in the Quran with the desert Arabs who were not ‘mu’min’ but still ‘muslim’, that is if you see muslim and Islam when used in the Quran as a title for the religion that implies swearing allegiance to the Quran and the prophet Muhammad (saas). It is fair to say that Islamic society back then was much more diverse. Many citizens of Muslim countries today only became Muslims in the past 200-300 years, especially in Northern Iraq, the Levant and even Chad. Dhimmi is a protected non-Muslim citizen but the idea of a second class citizen goes against this concept. It is natural that faithful Muslims would tend to patronize their fellow Muslms better and prefer them over non-Muslims. That is a good thing as long as dhimmis are always treated with justice as well as given the right to practice their religions, establish their own communities, walk about and do business in general undisturbed.

    As far as wine goes, different shari’ah’s from different madhabs to include the early ones like the mu’tazilah, the khawarij, the jahmiyyah and the different schools of Muslim philosophers had different opinions on wine. Differing opinions on it are legitimate from the Classical Arabic implications of the words khamr, sakar and sukraan/sukaaraa and the way they are used in the Quran. It make sense for instance that wine would be allowed but, say, public intoxication forbidden. It also makes sense that some groups would not consume any form of wine but smoke or chew other substances that would give them a high. The differences in opinion come from how the Quran’s words are understood and their interaction with hadeeth and which hadeeth different Muslims see as authentic, if any. If one thing was for sure Muslim authorities in general, especially the Ottomans, let each school of thought regulate their own community’s crime and punishment. The exceptions were when some Caliphs, Sultans, Imam’s or Emirs patronized a particular school of thought and allowed that school to impose their ideas on the Muslim community in general, which usually led to the imprisonment of rivals scholars and sometimes their deaths through legal entrapment and the massacres of their communities should they have chosen to rise up or have been involved in similar legal entrapment. These occasions along with forced conversions of non-Muslims were rare. The Muslim communities in general (except for the Shia) have forgotten the many fitnah’s visited upon the Islamic community as a whole but other Muslims. The non-Muslims make it a point to use those occasions where they were openly oppressed as well as a proof against Islam as a whole.

    Despite all of that, I agree with the author’s premise that the best of times during Islamic rule in the past were the most lenient of times. These forms of shari’ah have to be dug out of Islamic history and the many Islamic schools of thought that are minorities in this age. This is because unfortunately the more extremist Ahlul-hadeeth movements have dominated the Islamic informational sphere. Talking to Sufis, Ibadis and varying Shia movements like the Zaidis and others immediately shows a different, and much more lenient side to Islamic shariah.

    As far as patronizing art I find it interesting that it was the Moghuls and early Turks who mostly did this (as far as we can tell) since 99% of Islamic art features Eastern Asiatics. I am always confounded by the fact that no one talks about this. This was propaganda equivalent to the Europeanization of the Children of Israel featured in the Bible. A people whom the bible has as being as black as ovens when in famine, black and lovely according to the songs of Solomon, and being confused with Egyptians. Not to mention the miracle of Moses (saas) where when he brought his hand out and it was white that was considered a great miracle. That would be no miracle at all if he was anything close to the shades that indigenous Europeans are today.

  • wine is prohibited in Islam. If you don’t know anything please don’t talk about it.

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  • Nice story but utterly irrelevant to todays Islam. Islam today is in the grip of universal fanaticism where there is no room for moderates or secularists. Muslims world over have regressed and plunged this planet into a crisis . The most enduring image of Islam is the sight of a turbaned terrorists holding a Kalashnikov in one hand and the Quran in the other. Islam can only change when you edit the quran and discard the sharia.

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  • Great article but I imagine every Shia will differ on the the succession. Sorry about the straw man.

  • MaShaAllah excellent Article…worthy of taking into consideration by ISIS, hope they stop being Dictators and just put down their weapons and make Peace with the locals, InShaAllah.

  • It all started with a Tweet and a FB status update that said: “I suspect that ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means, In Baghdad, it would involve a lot of booze, odes to wine, science and, oh… a gay court poet.” The tweet got retweeted over a thousand times in less than 24 hours, and Khaled gave us the “full text” behind the tweet. As always clever, well researched and written.

  • It would be interesting if there was some sort of neosufi movement.

    In some ways it might be a welcome progression away from the intellectual repression brought about by wahabis.

    The question of the necessity of the caliphate in the modern context, and that of what we mean when we talk about modernity and how it can relate to the islamic world are quite substantial.

    The changes at the grass roots right now, and even new debates in scholarly realms raise many questions regarding what can and should be done today, as well as the importance of tapping into the rich cultural and intellectual heritage of the various spheres of the multiethnic and multilingual islamic world.

    I think the simple fact that we are thinking about these sorts of questions again and that discussion is actually coming into the open, does leaps and bounds for rectifying the paradigmatic confusion haunting the islamic world since the fall of the last caliphate.

  • Great piece, Khaled. Suffism thrived under the Ottomans, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire was a death knell to much of Sefaradi culture. Of course we shouldn’t think that we’re dealing with the best educated, most historically objective individuals in the Ummah.

  • God help us all if someone decides to make a caliphate the way people these days think of caliphate.

  • Thank you, Khaled (although with regard to all that suggestive poetry, allowances have to be made for sufi symbolism and, er, shampoo metaphors…)


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