American Foreign PolicyMiddle East

The Call of the Caliphate

On June 29, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham) would henceforth be known as the ‘Islamic State’ and that he (now known as ‘Ibrahim’) was the Caliph of this new state. Since then, Islamic State fighters have gained control of swathes of land from the Syria-Turkey border to the outskirts of Baghdad.  In light of this move, the US and other states have become involved in the fight against the group in the form of coordinated airstrikes. But what is the significance of the caliphate, and of al-Baghdadi’s claim to it?

The caliphate was an Islamic governmental and quasi-religious institution, which was meant to serve as a guide for the Muslim ummah (community) after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE (khalifah means “successor” in Arabic). There were caliphs in each of the major post-Islam empires of the Middle East through the modern era (the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, and the Ottomans, especially), and even in Spain through the 11th century; in these empires the caliphs held varying amounts of actual control. The last major claimant to the caliphate was Abdülmecid II of the Ottoman dynasty; Mustafa Kemal dissolved the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 as a part of Turkey’s secularization process.

Since that time there have been some claimants to the title, but like al-Baghdadi they have been largely ignored by the broader Muslim public. The concept of the caliphate is also, in a way, part of the reason for the main division in Islam between Sunni and Shia. Sunnis, about 85% of the total Muslim world, see the caliphate as a position elected by consensus of the ummah and a temporal ruler bound by sharia and the will of the ummah, Shias, on the other hand, hold to the rule of the Imams rather than the caliphate, who were successors to Muhammad from his direct descendants and considered infallible.

The restoration of the caliphate is an important element for several Islamic fundamentalist groups, including al-Qa’ida, from which the Islamic State arose. However, it plays a somewhat lesser role in the aspirations of the wider Muslim community (varying greatly at the individual level). The significance of al-Baghdadi supporting not merely a theoretical restored caliphate, but rather an actual one with himself at its chief, is that al-Baghdadi can make a claim to the loyalty of all Muslims as Caliph. Of course, such a claim does little if individual Muslims do not accept the validity of his claim. Although many Muslims may be receptive to the idea of a restored caliphate, and certainly revere the memory of many of the earliest caliphs (in particular the first four so-called Rashidun or “rightly guided” caliphs), the scope and spread of Islam as it exists today makes it unlikely that anyone could be accepted so widely as to truly effect a restored caliphate.

The question remains, how does al-Baghdadi benefit from this claim? The title of ‘caliph’ is essentially an added draw for the fundamentalists that al-Baghdadi would already be attracting to his cause. It elevates their goals and methods to a level beyond even the spiritual warfare of jihad, supported by groups like al-Qaida. IS  is not fighting solely against the enemies of Islam, but actively for the temporal manifestation of Islamic ideals (at least as they are interpreted by al-Baghdadi) in the form of a true Islamic state under a true Islamic leader. The title also gives al-Baghdadi a claim to some authority, though again this is hardly useful unless it is accepted by others around him. Though there have been some fighters whohave been drawn to the Islamic State’s cause- including Boko Haram-many more have rejected its claims, including its former parent organization, al-Qa’ida. Al-Baghdadi’s adoption of the trappings of the caliphate seems to have been primarily for the benefit of his followers and those already inclined to his beliefs; the rest view it for the self-aggrandizing move that it is.

The establishment of a new ‘caliphate’ in the Islamic State-controlled regions of Syria and Iraq raised some eyebrows initially, but with context it is clear that al-Baghdadi’s motives were less about bringing all Muslims under a single authority and more about elevating himself in the eyes of his followers and potential followers. It is likely that he truly harbors desires for a unified ummah under his own rule, but al-Baghdadi made a strategic move to elevate himself and his followers by extension. In doing so, he also elevated the nature of the threat he posed. The adoption of the caliphate represents a certain shift in goals, of establishing a ‘true’ Islamic state rather than just fighting Western powers. It is a dynamic shift, and though it is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, the few it attracts may be enough to make the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a challenge to Syrian and Iraqi stability for some time to come.

By: Steven Massa

Steven Massa is a gradate student in Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. He is studying Global Conflict and Negotiation, and the Middle East

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