When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced Sunday that it was changing its name and reviving the caliphate, the news lit up the Internet and headlined news reports around the world.
But what is a caliphate? And what is the group now calling itself simply Islamic State hoping to achieve with its declaration?
The answers, experts say, have more to do with the Sunni militant group’s rivalry with al-Qaida than with any plan to replicate the last caliphate, which was abolished in 1924 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Understanding the history and powerful symbolism of the caliphate is key to comprehending what Islamic State’s declaration means. It’s the latest salvo in an inter-Muslim battle for territory and influence in the Middle East and beyond — a conflict that not only pits Sunnis against Shiites but also radical Sunni jihadi militants against each other.
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What is a caliphate?
A caliphate is a political-religious institution led by a successor of Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632.
In its original form, said Carool Kersten, a senior lecturer at King’s College in London, the caliphate was based on a pre-Islamic Arab tribal custom of picking a tribe’s leader by consensus. Early Muslims adopted this model to pick Muhammad’s successor, who was known as “khalifa” in Arabic, or caliph. A caliph not only governs politically. He also ensures governance in accordance with Islamic law. He rules over the Ummah, the Muslim community.
Who can be caliph?
The issue of who should succeed the prophet is one of the most divisive issues in Islam and is at the root of the division between Sunnis and Shiites. The first three caliphs were Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman, close companions of Muhammad who governed after his death. The fourth caliph, Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, was assassinated in 661.
Disagreement about who would lead Muslims after Ali’s death led to the schism among Muslims. Sunnis recognized the first four “rightly guided” caliphs. Shiites claimed that Muhammad had anointed Ali as his successor and that authority should pass to Ali’s sons.
A caliph doesn’t have to be a descendant of the prophet, but it doesn’t hurt.
“It’s extra bonus points,” said John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University.
Why has Islamic State declared a caliphate?
The move is an effort by the group to make strategic use of powerful historic and religious symbols. Islamic State named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph and ordered all Muslims to swear allegiance to him. Baghdadi’s claim to the title of caliph — and his demand for fealty — is a warning to other Islamist militias: You’re either with us or against us.
It’s also a declaration of war against al-Qaida. By declaring a caliphate, Islamic State is targeting al-Qaida’s funding sources and hoping to win over fighters from al-Qaida’s far-flung franchises in places such as Somalia and Yemen, said Patrick Johnston, who studies Iraqi insurgent groups for the Rand Corp., a California-based research institute.
Have people claimed to be caliph before?
Over the centuries, different people have claimed the title. They include members of the Umayya clan, who made the caliphate that stretched from Spain to Afghanistan into a hereditary dynasty in the seventh and eighth centuries and to the Mamluk kings who ruled Egypt in the Middle Ages.
“Sometimes there were two or more separate caliphates at the same time with spheres of influence,” said Deina Abdelkader, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Iran was once a base for a caliphate, and then you would have another caliphate in southern Spain. So they coexisted.”
With the coming of the Ottoman Empire, the definition of the word caliphate shifted.
“Basically the sultan was the political power who ruled the Ottoman Empire, but then they added the title caliph so he was also the religious leader of the Ottoman Empire,” Abdelkader said.
That lasted until a group of military officers seized power in what became Turkey and canceled the title in 1924. Baghdadi isn’t the first radical Muslim to take on the title of caliph in contemporary times. Afghanistan Taliban leader Mullah Omar declared himself caliph in the 1990s.
Does Islamic State want to re-create the Ottoman Empire?
In his Ramadan remarks on Tuesday, Baghdadi referred to the defeat of Muslims after the “fall of their caliphate,” apparently a reference to the end of the Ottoman Empire some 90 years ago.
After the breakup of the empire, Western colonial powers Britain and France created new nation-states in former Ottoman territories and split them up as part of the Sykes-Picot treaty at the end of World War I. Baghdadi repudiates those borders as illegitimate.
“Syria is not for Syrians, Iraq is not for Iraqis,” he said. “The State is a state for all Muslims.”
Given the Ottoman sultans’ reputation for corruption and what Kersten called “general decadence,” they are not likely to be Baghdadi’s role models. Instead, Islamic State prefers a comparison to the “Golden Age” of the four original caliphs, which would cast the radical group’s caliphate as a return to Islam’s “perceived ‘pristine’ origins,” Kersten said.
It’s all part of a strategy to use religious symbols and historic grievances to spread fear and attract funding and fighters.
“Like any political group,” Abdelkader said, “they’re out to make a big splash.”