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Understanding Egypt: What Is a Caliphate?


Editor's note: The Blaze is featuring some guest posts to help our readers gain a deeper understanding of the situation in Egypt.  This post, by veteran journalist Bill Tucker, looks at the meaning of the term "caliphate".


Sometimes a word, like a faded Hollywood starlet, makes a surprising return to the spotlight … and so it is for caliphate.  The word owes its renewed popularity to Glenn Beck, who first raised the possibility of a new caliphate on his Fox television show.  Suddenly, the word went from relative obscurity to become one of Google’s most searched words, as revolution erupted in Egypt and the world began to wonder what would emerge from the anger in Egypt’s streets.

One possibility is … a caliphate.

Simply, a caliphate is a form of government.  More precisely, it is an Islamic state that draws its authority from, and is based upon, Sharia law. Get used to hearing the word; it is the form of government advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

What exactly a caliphate looks like depends on whether you are a Sunni or a Shia Muslim.  Sunnis believe a caliphate should be a constitutional republic, whose leaders are elected by Muslims.  Shias believe the head of state is divinely chosen via a lineage of religious clerics called Imams.  Within Egypt, Sunnis outnumber Shias.

Those who dismiss the idea of a caliphate in Egypt are discounting the country’s history.  Egypt is hardly a stranger to such a form of government; it was part of the Ottoman Empire from the early 16th century until in the late 19th century.  The Ottoman Empire was the last great caliphate. It didn’t transition to a secular government model until 1924.

With almost four hundred years of history as a caliphate, it’s not surprising then that Egypt’s penal code is written and based upon Islamic law.  Perhaps this is to be expected in a country where an estimated 90% of the people are Muslim.  What is surprising is that Egypt’s government is, or at least has been, a secular model.   But will it remain so?

Given the country’s history and the religion of the overwhelming majority of its people, the stage may be set for the return of a caliphate, rising out of the present turmoil.  And what that means to you probably depends on who you are.  A caliphate may sound fine if you are Muslim.  It might chaff a little if you’re not.  Christians and Jews were treated as second-class citizens under the Ottoman Empire. Certainly to the American mind, raised to believe in the “wall of separation between church and state” as articulated by Thomas Jefferson, a caliphate is an anathema.

If the possibility of a caliphate in Egypt sounds improbable, consider these facts:  Egypt’s current government is in collapse, the largest and most organized opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, champions Islamic law and Egypt was once part of a caliphate.

It never works out well to ignore history or facts.  The dramatic changes in Egypt cannot be denied nor can the implications for the entire region.  An improbable word has made a comeback. The government it represents might not be so far behind.

To see Bill Tucker's bio click here.

For an examination of Caliphate in a detailed historical context...see Joel Richardson's post here.

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