Museum of Marco Polo

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The Misuses of History

23rd November 2014

We sometimes berate our politicians for lacking a proper sense of history, but are leaders in other parts of the world any better?  In recent months one word in particular has been cropping up repeatedly in the media: the caliphate – specifically attempts to restore it by a group variously known as ISIS, ISIL, IS or – my preferred choice because this entity is neither Islamic nor a state – Daesh.

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but also has connotations of crushing and trampling underfoot.  Here one must pause for a moment to congratulate the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius for having the chutzpah to declare: ‘This is a terrorist group and not a state.  I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and so will I.’

So much for terminology.  But what about the caliphate and the man who declared it, Daesh’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?  In recent months billboards have been popping up across Iraq and Syria with slogans referring to the ‘Promised project of the Caliphate’, ‘Together we cultivate the tree of the Caliphate’, and ‘a Caliphate pleasing to the Lord is better than democracy pleasing to the West’.  It prompts the question, does the self-proclaimed caliph have the faintest understanding of history?

To answer that, let’s set out a few facts.

First, in its heyday under the Umayyads, who ruled the Islamic Empire from Damascus between 662-750, the caliphate stretched from the Atlantic shores of North Africa in the west, to the snowy mountains of Central Asia in the east.  Daesh’s military gains have certainly taken observers by surprise but pronouncing the territory under his control a caliphate is a little like Yorkshire declaring itself the British Empire.  Ambitious, certainly, but not very credible.

If that tackles the very limited geographic sway of the proto-caliphate, what about the values on which it is founded? Here the evidence is even more compelling.  For the 500 years from 762-1258, when the Abbasid caliphate that took over from the Umayyads was headquartered in Baghdad, it is no exaggeration to say that the city became the capital of world civilisation.  To give just one example of its intellectually pioneering achievements, more discoveries were made under the Abbasid dynasty in astronomy, maths and medicine during the ninth and tenth centuries than in any previous period in history.  Contrast this with Daesh’s vision on public education a millenium later:  banning the teaching of maths and science in schools and handing out copies of the Koran in traffic jams.

When the caliphate was at its greatest, Baghdad was the most cosmopolitan place on earth, attracting some of the most brilliant minds from around the world.  It was  a place defined by tolerance, in which wine drinking, music and poetry were hugely popular.  Read some verse from the celebrated tenth-century poet Abu Nuwas celebrating gay and straight sex and drunken debauchery and you get a sense of the cultural and intellectual climate of the time.  It was no place for prudes.

As for the relations between the three great Abrahamic faiths, note first that both Jews and Christians predated Muslims in the region and second, that they played critical roles within the caliphate as physicians, financiers, traders and scholars.  No wonder the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Baghdad around the 1160’s and marvelling at the 28 Synagogues and the distinguished position of the exilarch, the head of the Babylonian Jews in exile, could report that the caliph was ‘kind unto Israel’.  He found the 40,000 Jews of Baghdad living in ‘security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph’.

The great success of Baghdad and the wider caliphate stemmed from this cosmopolitan tolerance towards the Koran’s Ahl al Kitab, or People of the Book.  As late as 1917 Jews represented almost 40% of the city’s population.  Again, contrast this with Daesh’s ignorant chauvinism against any non-Sunni Muslim.  And also note that for their bombast, preening selfies and general media narcissism, even when it comes to brutality they hardly compete with their predecessors.  When the Turkic warlord Tamerlaine took Baghdad in 1401, he cut off 90,000 skulls and built 90 towers with them.  That is terror.

Outward-looking, dynamic and prosperous, the caliphate enjoyed  a popular and Islamic legitimacy that Daesh could never emulate, even if it wanted to.

There is nothing new about leaders misusing history of course.  It is simply important to point it out when it happens.  As the French philosopher Ernest Renan put it, ‘Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation.’  Or a would-be caliphate.

Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘Baghdad:  City of Peace, City of Blood’ (Allen Lane), the first history of the city in Engish in almost a century, and a ‘work of love and homage to a place that has somehow survived the depredations of its conquerors and the duplicity of its rulers.’