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The Said El Djezairi Memoirs: A Must Read for ISIS and Its Caliph

06/08/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2016

In 1968, an obscure 334-page memoir was published in Algeria, penned by Emir Said El Djezairi, a Damascus-based Algerian notable. The author and his memoirs are both forgotten names in modern Middle East history. The west better knows him by genealogy as grandson of Emir Abdelkader El Djezairi, the fascinating 19th century Algerian resistance leader who led a seventeen year insurgency against French occupation of his country. The Emir was a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, a Sufi thinker, and a soldier, all in one. He aggressively challenged all radical interpretations of Islam and fought the French from 1830 until 1847. His revolt was crushed, his family members butchered, and he was sent to the dungeons of France, where he lagged for years until pardoned by Napoleon III in 1848. In 1855 he set up base in Damascus, and this is where his grandson Emir Said was born in 1883.

Emir Said's grandfather is also revered for protecting no less than 16,000 Christians from collective manslaughter during the summer of 1860. At the time, communal violence between Maronite Christians and Druze in Mount Lebanon spilled into nearby Damascus and had it not been for sanctuary of the grand El Djezairi mansion, located behind the high walls of the Grand Umayyad Mosque, then thousands of Arab Christians would have perished that July. Syrians, however, remember Emir Said more so as the first self-appointed post-Ottoman ruler of Damascus. It was Emir Said, who at the age of 35, took the law into his own hands afters four nights of plunder, setting up a five-man government to police the streets and protect what remained of the treasury after Ottoman troops evacuated the city during the final stages of World War I. He ruled Damascus from 26 September to 1 October 1918.

Published shortly after the Six Day War of 1967, when entire Arab Armies were crushed by the Israelis, Emir Said's memoirs went by largely unnoticed, and have since very rarely been cited by historians. People were too busy lamenting the occupation of Jerusalem, Sinai and the Syrian Golan, to pay any attention to an Ottoman-bred politician from a bygone era. Few in fact know of his memoirs, which seemingly were published in small numbers and distributed only to friends. Today, the Damascus-based Emir Abdelkader El Djezairi International Foundation is re-publishing the book, to be released in late 2015 for a new audience of Middle East scholars. The task is being done by Emir Jaafar El Djezairi, a Damascus-based great grandson of Emir Abdelkader.

The book is a must read, as it goes into interesting trivia about the final days of Ottoman rule in Damascus, and how Emir Said worked with locals at restoring calm to the lawless city. When French troops bombed Damascus in October 1925, Emir Said re-emerged to negotiate a cease-fire with colonial authorities. Wanting to revive his grandfather's legacy, he had rushed to the Christian Bab Touma neighborhood of Old Damascus, seeing panic in the eyes of its inhabitants. Fearing another 1860 scenario of Christian mass murder, he ushered three thousand Christians to British Hospital of Damascus, assured them they were now safe under his protection.

The Syrian Caliphate Association
In the to-be-released memoirs, Emir Said speaks of a vital topic that was dear to his heart and is very essential to the world of today: the Muslim Caliphate. It is the crux of his memoir that makes it automatically relevant to contemporary readers. The title of "caliph" was famously abolished by secular Turkish President Mustapha Kemal Ataturk back in March 1924. The controversial decision was announced by the Turkish National Assembly five years after the Ottoman Empire's collapse. Part of the caliph's duties, some of his functions, and what remained of his funds, were transferred to the Turkish Parliament. This was a crime, Emir Said says, that needs to be addressed immediately before an usurper or charlatan emerges to proclaim himself caliph of all Muslims. Never did he imagine that exactly 90-years later, the caliphate would be resurrected in al-Raqqa, a dusty forgotten city along the Euphrates, 1400 km south of Istanbul. The charlatan that Emir Said prophetically refers to of course is none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of 2014. Last summer he appeared at a main mosque of Mosul, where in a twenty-minute speech, he declared himself as the natural successor to the Prophet Mohammad.

Emir Said explains that the term "caliph" literately means "successor" to Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. On paper, the caliph rules over a sovereign state that encompasses the global Muslim community, known in Arabic as "Ummah." The caliph had to be chosen by consensus, through the global Muslim community. Sunni Muslims say that the caliph must be able to trace his lineage directly back to the powerful Quraysh clan of Mecca or any of its sub-branches; given that Mecca is birthplace of Islam. Here of course, Emir Said was hinting to his own legitimacy, himself being a grandson of the Prophet. The Hanafi "school" of Islam however, says that non-Qurayshis can also assume the caliphate, which explains how Ottoman sultans ruled a Muslim Empire, despite the fact that none of them hailed from Meccan notability. Shiite Muslims claim that being a Mecca notable by ancestry is not enough to become caliph. Potential contenders need to hail strictly from Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet). This explains why the current leader of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi insists on using two important additional last names whenever making a public statement or appearance. One is al-Qurashi (hailing from Quraysh) and another is al-Hassani (descendant of the Prophet's grandson, al-Hasan Ibn Ali). Western journalists and non-Muslims tend to drop both titles for practicality, but ISIL media never refers to him without both affiliations.

The caliphate that ended in 1924 was a symbol of Islamic unity and power, writes Emir Said. During World War I, it dwarfed into a semi-symbolic and very lightweight religious authority. By the early 1920s, gone was the pomp and power vested in the person of the Ottoman Sultan, the last of whom was Mehmed VI, also known as Wahiuddine. His army was crushed and his empire lay in ruins. His capital was occupied by Western powers after the Great War. Once commanding wide respect reaching as far as Muslim Spain and India, the defeated caliph was now forced to obey the dictates of Great Britain and France. He had to give up parts of Anatolia, relinquish all of Syria and Iraq, and unconditionally release Allied prisoners. The caliph also had to surrender control of the famed Ottoman railway and telegraph routes of communication. On 17 October 1922, Mehmed VI left his throne in Istanbul, aboard a British liner headed to Malta, with orders never to return. He never did, and neither did the caliphate of Islam as the world knew it.

Furious by Ataturk's decision, Emir Said tried to revive the caliphate by setting up an NGO in Damascus, headed by himself, in mid-1924. He drew inspiration from the Khalifat Movement of India, created to lobby global Muslim support for the same purpose. It attracted big names to its events, including Mahatma Gandhi. Emir Said's Syrian Association proclaimed that it would fill a post that the Ottoman Turks had "deliberately abandoned." It head hunted for a modern caliph, supported by the Grand Mufti of Bilad al-Sham Atallah al-Kassem and Ahmad al-Yusuf, the brother of the emir of hajj, who led pilgrims annually from Damascus to Mecca, at the orders of the Ottoman Sultan. The "Syrian Caliphate Association" which died out gradually in the late 1920s, worked at public advocacy at reviving the caliphate. It was never officially abolished, so legally all it needs is for somebody to re-apply for its license--an idea that ISIS might find appealing in today's world. Apart from lineage, conditions for becoming a caliph were fairly straightforward, said the Association's bylaws. "The caliph must be a Muslim male." Women are not allowed to assume the rank. The caliph is required to lead the masses during prayer and, in Islamic tradition a woman cannot lead, or even appear, in an all-male mosque. The caliph must be knowledgeable in Islam; he must be "just, trustworthy with high morals." He must also be physically fit, spiritual, brave and capable of protecting the Ummah against its enemies. Both Sunnis and Shiites agree that a caliph is a temporal ruler, expected to rule "by justice" within the boundaries of Islamic Sharia. He passes laws penned on his behalf by an Islamic jurist and citizens have to obey them. The caliph, however, is never above the law of the Quran. If he breaks Quranic teachings, he can be impeached by a Shura Council; a small camarilla of learned men mandated to debate affairs of state and take decisions on behalf of the Muslim nation. One reason justifying impeachment of the caliph, for example, is if he doesn't call Muslims to prayer.

Emir Said says describes the caliphate as "special to all Muslims...that doesn't look like an absolute monarchy, or constitutional one. It isn't republican and isn't a dictatorial." He poses serious questions, asking "Is the job exclusive only to the Prophet's family? Or is it a right for any Muslim whose traits qualify him for the Caliphate?" He asks if it should be attained by popular vote in the Muslim world, and whether or not it ought to be a hereditary job. "Can Muslims survive without the caliphate" asks Emir Said. He wrote to Muslim communities worldwide, asking them nominate potential caliphs who fulfill the checklist. "Nobody will be allowed to preach in the caliph's name from mosque pulpits" he says, "until a general assembly is convened in the Muslim World."

Emir Said goes into great detail on how a caliph-led Islamic State should look like. He actively engaged with Syrian intellectuals about terms like the "Islamic State and its Caliph." Articles debating the subject appeared on the front page of Syrian newspapers. By the mid-1930s, however, the topic slowly started to disappear from public discourse and was restricted only to Islamic journals and saloons. It was simply written off by the mainstream public as démodé--something of the past that was more folkloric than real. Flipping through Syrian newspapers from the 1940s to the 1960s, one finds almost no mention of the caliphate, except in al-Manar, the mouthpiece of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. By the time of Emir Said's memoirs initial release in 1968, the topic had died out completely, explaining why nobody knows anything about the forgotten book or the Syrian Caliphate Association. Thanks to ISIL and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the memoirs of Emir Said will probably sell well, as both topics are now in high demand, not only in Syria and the Muslim World, but on the radar of world intelligence agencies, and mainstream newspapers.

For starters, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should pre-order a copy!