Mullah Omar’s death strengthens al-Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate

by - 19th August 2015

ON THE FIRST anniversary of the death of US journalist James Wright Foley, the first US citizen to be killed by ISIS, it is timely to examine the credientials of the man who ordered it - the 'caliph' of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Baghdadi’s claim not just to the title of caliph but to that of Amīr al-Mu'minīn or Commander of the Faithful, underpins obedience of all Muslims to his will.

To understand this, we need also to understand the impact of the recently announced death of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban.

The cloak of responsibility

For jihadists and those who aspire to be jihadists, Mullah Omar’s death put to an end one of the two claims to the title of Amīr al-Mu'minīn.

This title is one normally accorded to a caliph, but while Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahid did not proclaim himself caliph or attempt to establish a global caliphate, he did indeed lay the foundations of one by creating the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996.

Mullah Omar made a historic visit to the Shrine of the Prophet’s Cloak in Kandahar – the Taliban stronghold – in Spring, 1996, before Kabul fell to the Taliban and the Emirate was established.

The shrine is situated next to the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the Afghan nation, who is believed to have brought the Prophet’s cloak to Kandahar.

It has been the custom since Ahmad Shah’s time in the eighteenth century, when some great plague, war or other disaster threatens Afghanistan, for the ruler to go to Kandahar to visit the Shrine of the Cloak and pray.

The cloak itself is a relic of legendary holiness. It is encased in a silver box within two wooden boxes, and the tablet next to it announces, ‘Here stands before you the garment of Rasullah (the Prophet), peace be upon him, the cloak that cures all!’

It was this cloak that Mullah Omar carried, with the permission of its guardian, to the roof of a small mosque where he displayed it, his hands in its sleeves and the garment billowing out like a sacred banner in the wind.

In its own way, the scene resembles that moment in a British coronation when the Westminster Abbey choir rings out Handel’s great triple acclamation: ‘God save the king! Long live the king! May the king live for ever!”

This was the decisive moment. As the New York Times reported, ‘Most importantly, as other mullahs shouted, "Amir-ul momineen!," Mullah Omar gained the legitimacy he needed to pursue his conquest of the rest of Afghanistan.’

Pledging allegiance

Mullah Omar was now, by the consent of the Afghan ulema or scholars, the legitimate leader of the Muslims, to whom all others owed allegiance.

Not all Muslims, of course, recognized the Afghan leader – but one who did, a little reluctantly, was Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban in Afghanistan at the time, benefitting from the warm hospitality that is a feature of the southern Afghan code called Pashtunwali.

As analyst Vahid Brown explains in The Facade of Allegiance: Bin Ladin’s Dubious Pledge to Mullah Omar, ‘From the outset, the Taliban’s provision of hospitality for the al-Qaeda leadership was limited by two conditions.’

In Brown’s words, ‘Bin Ladin was not to communicate with the media without the consent of the Taliban regime, nor was he to directly antagonise the United States.’

Bin Laden had no intention of following either restriction.

When Abu Walid al-Masri, a friend of both Mullah Omar and bin Laden, suggested the latter should give his allegiance (bay`a) to Mullah Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin, bin Laden resisted.

Eventually, he sent Abu Walid in his place to give his bay`a by proxy.

Abu Walid later reflected:

‘I think he did it this way in order to leave himself plenty of room for manoeuvre, in the event that he be pressed on whether or not he indeed pledged allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful.

‘If circumstances require him to deny it, he can honestly say that he did not, as he did not swear allegiance personally. And if circumstances require him to confirm the bay`a, he can say he did, and this will likewise be the truth, as the bay`a was made – if only on his behalf.’

Bay’a, like the oath taken by bishops and peers at the coronation of a British monarch, commits the swearer of the oath to loyal and obedient service.

A legitimate caliph?

How does all this relate back to Abu al-Baghdadi and his claim to the caliphate?

As JM Berger, co-author of ISIS: the State of Terror, puts it, ‘Mullah Omar was the centerpiece of Al Qaeda's rebuttal to ISIS's demand for allegiance from jihadist groups around the world.’

He explains that this rebuttal rests on two key propositions: ‘First, that al Qaeda had already pledged allegiance to Omar, therefore it could not pledge to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Second, that Baghdadi had illegitimately usurped Omar's title of Amir al Mumineen – Commander of the Faithful.‘

An oath of bay’a is only binding until the death of either party, so Mullah Omar’s death opens the door for those who had sworn him allegiance to swear allegiance now to al-Baghdadi, should they so choose, rather than to Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.

But there is worse. If Mullah Omar died, as the Taliban Political Office claimed, on 23 April, 2013, then he was already dead on July 5, 2014, when al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself Amīr al-Mu'minīn and Caliph.

Baghdadi’s claim to be the legitimate Amir of all the faithful would therefore not be a claim against the existing claim of Mullah Omar, but an uncontested claim.

How important this is can be judged from a hadith or tradition recorded in Sahih Muslim on the authority of Aba Sa'id al-Khudri that the Prophet said:

‘When an oath of allegiance has been taken for two caliphs, kill the one for whom the oath was taken later.’

The same would be true by analogy in the case of the title, Amīr al-Mu'minīn.

Thus not only does Mullah Omar’s death remove the leader of the Taliban, and throw the prospect of peace talks with Afghanistan into disarray, it releases any Al-Qaeda members from their oaths to Mullah Omar.

And if Omar died in 2013, it also means that Baghdadi’s claim to the title of Amir was not in conflict with the Mullah’s claim, even when Baghdadi first made it.

‘No matter how you slice it,’ Berger comments, ‘this development is very, very good news for ISIS.’