Isis and Myths of History: did the Caliphate solve poverty? My new post on the Quillium foundation blog.

One of the myths which underpins ISIS is that it is a replica of the historical Caliphate. That is, it harkens back to the rightly guided Caliphs (successors to the Prophet) in the middle of the 7th century CE and onwards through the Umayyads, Abbassids and the Ottoman Empire till 1921 depending how one defines it.

The new ‘Caliphate’ is vastly different in structure, technology, economics and many other things from its supposed inspiration. But these historical distortions help underpin the myth of a political system which can solve all of mankind’s problems. This helps justify the destruction and death inflicted on all others in Iraq and elsewhere or radicalisation of Muslims here in Britain. This is similar to many European nationalist movements, like the only vaguely historical Nazi vision of an ‘Aryan’ past. So each historical myth about the Caliphate needs to be examined, and if necessary, buried, much like many nationalist’s foundational myths have been.

This includes the ‘No poverty’ argument which is touted by Islamists like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and by many speakers here in the UK in endless debates, lectures, and in the odd Journal.

The story goes like this: During the Rule of the rightly guided Caliph Umar Ibn al Khattab (Umar I, Ruled 634-644 CE) and again under Umar ‘Abd Al Aziz (Umar II, ruled 717-720 CE) poverty was eliminated, and the people lived at a time of total freedom from hunger and want. Because the people degenerated away from the true message of Islam (which is conveniently left vague) the state of the Caliphate declined, leading to domination in the 19th-21st centuries by European capitalists.

Virtually all Premodern societies had a very large percentage of poor people, whatever their exact structure. So if the Caliphate had ‘no’ poverty it would be a massive anomaly. The evidence itself is largely circumstantial. Islamists have relied on narrations by historical Islamic scholars of letters or historical works. These sources talk about local governors or/and tax collectors in Africa, Iraq, or Yemen stating that they did not need to collect Zakat (Islamic alms/charity) as there were no eligible Zakat recipients left, or they could not find poor people.

The narrations are usually written hundreds of years after the events described, and dependent on doubtful oral sources. There was no ‘UN of the medieval period’, taking down in-depth, objective, representative statistics or archaeology which contextualises or unquestionably proves that want was eliminated. And most of the surviving history was written (hence biased) by the wealthiest people.

Looking at Umar Ibn Al Khattab’s reign, it was hit by the plague and ensuing famine of Amwas in 939. It is said by the Muslim historians Tabari and Waqidi to have killed as many as 25,000 people. As a general rule, societies which have famines have at least some poverty, like Ireland (1846-51), Ethiopia (1983-1985), and Somalia (2011). He also made laws which took account of the poor’s existence, so poverty did exist in his time.

Umar II’s reign was a time of budgetary retrenchment. It seems likely they were looking for excuses to cut spending like Zakat and this could be little more than standard court propaganda to cover that fact. Moreso, Tabari states that during Umar II’s reign the ‘Poor of Basra’ definitely did exist. Even if Umar II managed to briefly solve this issue, his reign lasted only 2 years and the problem almost certainly came back not long afterwards. So whatever progress was made towards dealing with poverty in either ruler’s short reigns was ephemeral. This is not to state we should ignore their attempt to do so – it was an honourable and decent try at solving a basic human need.

The Caliphate saw many other famines, for instance in 641, 674-78, 686/7, 740s, 790, 960, 969-76, 1642, and 1676. According to the modern historian Muhammad Ahsan, locusts were eaten by the poor of Baghdad in times of hardship, and Bedouins ate ‘anything that runs except the reptiles.’ Even Umar II’s reign may have suffered at least some famine, according to later sources. Whatever their rulers intentions and efforts, whatever the laws or sources stated, in reality the ‘model’ of the Caliphate was not able to eradicate poverty in its entirety or hunger any more so than any other medieval system.

Looking at the available evidence, it must be concluded that the ‘Poverty solved’ idea is either unprovable or implausible.

None of this is to rob Muslims of the Legacy of the Caliphate. They are heirs to an amazing tradition of science, learning and culture. But it is not a model for now. The majority of the Caliphate’s denizens were Peasants, Pastoral steppe nomads (Bedouin) or Slaves living in utterly different circumstances to most people today.

When we look to ISIS/Daesh right now, we see a dramatic drop in the standard of living for most of its denizens, including most Sunnis. ISIS is (at least theoretically) working on a model which is so far removed from the modern world economically, politically, technologically and so on that it can only end – as we are seeing now – in disaster.

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