The Quran teaches that Muslims are a nation (ummah in Arabic), and the Muslim ummah has traditionally been led by caliphs, regarded as the successors of Muhammad. The caliphate existed continuously from Muhammad’s death until 1924: After the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkey become a secular, European-style republic and abolished the caliphate, which was then based in Istanbul.
The Islamic world has been without an official religious leader ever since. The term caliphate recently returned to prominence when the Islamic State (IS) proclaimed it had “restored the caliphate,” but most Muslims did not recognize IS as such. Today, there are three powers seeking to assume religious leadership of the Islamic world: One seeks to officially reconstitute the caliphate, while the other two seek hegemony.
Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holy cities, Mecca and Medina. The king’s official title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” which grants the Saudi government a certain air of holiness in the Islamic world. The Saudi government is Sunni, as are 85-90 percent of the world’s Muslims.
Historically, the Saudi regime has insisted on Wahhabism, the strictest interpretation of shariah (Islamic law), and it has spent billions of dollars to spread its doctrine worldwide. From large Muslim countries like Pakistan and Indonesia to Muslim communities in North America and Europe, the Saudis have financed mosques and Islamic schools that teach and preach according to the Wahhabi school of Islam. The goal is to change the religious culture of other Muslim communities to resemble that of Saudi Arabia, positioning Saudi Arabia as the “cultural motherland” of Muslims worldwide.
Recently, Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, declared that he seeks to return Saudi Arabia to a “moderate” Islam. Whether Wahhabi or moderate, many Sunni Muslims already see Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, with a population of about 80 million. As we read in the Megillah, the Persians had an empire thousands of years ago that stretched from India to Ethiopia, and Iranians tend to see their country as an imperial power.
The Islamic Revolution in 1979 catapulted Iran’s status in the Muslim world. The Iranian constitution calls for the exportation of the Islamic revolution, and that is exactly what Iran’s government seeks to do.
Iran is one of the few countries that can challenge Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi clerical establishment views Shi’ites as renegade Muslims or even non-Muslims, the Iranian establishment does its best to delegitimize the Saudi regime and gloss over the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. Meanwhile, Iran presents itself as the champion of oppressed Shi’ite minorities in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and other countries. This gives Iran a marginalized and vulnerable constituency.
Iran’s approach has been to try to unite the Muslim world against common enemies, namely, the U.S. and Israel. This grants Iran status in the Sunni world, and the close relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia gives Iran a talking point to discredit the House of Saud.
The final contender is Turkey. Turks are mostly Sunni, and they ruled over vast parts of the Middle East and Europe for centuries. Turkey’s government is cooperating with Qatar, a small, wealthy monarchy adjacent to Saudi Arabia that seeks to undermine Saudi leadership and promote Islamism by funding various militant organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkey-Qatar-Brotherhood alliance does not seek a “moderate” form of Islam. The Turkish president stated that “there is no such thing as moderate Islam,” and the Emir of Qatar has funded jihadist groups in Syria and Libya linked to al-Qaeda.
Turkey’s leadership weaves a narrative of Muslim victimization in Europe as well as conspiracies that the West is plotting to “weaken Islam.” Naturally, it also portrays Israel as a merciless oppressor of Muslims by accusing Israel of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler.” This victim-based populism and conspiracy mongering is a sure way to gain supporters from Morocco to Malaysia.
Parenthetically, Egypt, the country that led the Arab world in the past via a platform of secular Arab nationalism, is now politically divided. Its previous regime was led by the Brotherhood and aligned with Turkey and Qatar, while its current regime (which overthrew the Brotherhood in 2013) is firmly in the Saudi camp.
Currently, both the U.S. and Israel support Saudi aspirations to lead the Islamic world. The Saudis have a long-standing relationship with the U.S.; between the three contenders for leadership, they are the only ones not openly hostile toward Israel.
This leaves us with several important questions. Is any party likely to emerge victorious? Will any aspirant promote peace and stability? How would each potential leader shape the direction of Islam?
What are the implications for the U.S., Israel, the Islamic world, and the world overall?
By Jonathan Praff
Jonathan Praff is a news analyst, Middle East scholar, and translator. Visit www.jonathanpraff.com.