The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been blazing a path of horrific violence across Iraq in recent months, evoking shocked reactions and potential military action from an unlikely coalition that includes the United States, Iraq, and Iran. This week, however, the group — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — took things one step further, releasing a statement which claimed that their leader is now the head of a new Muslim “caliphate” and demanding that all other militant Muslim groups pledge allegiance.
“The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, reportedly said. “Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”
The motivating political theology behind ISIS — which used to be named al-Qaeda in Iraq before it renamed itself and was booted from the al Qaeda brand because it was apparently too extreme — is complex, but essentially boils down to a desire to create a new Islamic state that encompasses Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. According to their various statements — backed up by repeated acts of shocking violence — this hypothetical state would almost certainly include the oppression, subjugation, and “humiliation” of both non-Muslims and Shia Muslims.
Still, while religious extremism in war-torn Iraq isn’t anything new, ISIS’s bold claim to a new caliphate, going so far as to rename themselves as just “the Islamic State,” is raising eyebrows — and sparking outrage — among Muslims. But what exactly is the caliphate, and what does ISIS’s claim to it actually mean?
Broadly speaking, the caliphate — khilāfa in Arabic, meaning “succession” — is “the” Islamic state led by a caliph who functions as both the political and religious leader of the Muslim people. Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree sharply over who the first legitimate caliph actually was (this is the primary reason for the Sunni-Shia split), but both agree it was established in the aftermath of the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. The primary intent of the caliphate is to carry on the work of Muhammad and the caliph, who was often called Amir al-Mu’minin, or “Commander of the Believers,” is tasked with commanding all Muslims within the state.
The caliphate has a complicated history lasting several centuries, with religious leaders, families, and empires claiming the title at various times and places. But while the caliphate was primarily Muslim-focused, Jocelyne Cesari, director of Harvard University’s “Islam in the West” program and Georgetown University’s “Islam in World Politics” program at the Berkley Center, notes that most historical caliphates were actually fairly tolerant political entities.
“The caliphate in historical times for Muslims was a political organization, symbolically organized for Muslims, but not only for Muslims,” Cesari said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Non-muslims were not religiously or civically equal, but they were also not exterminated simply for being non-muslims.”
So even as ISIS attempts to appeal to the traditional caliphate, their desire to violently oppress those who do not share their beliefs is inconsistent with Islamic history. In fact, Cesari argues that ISIS’s deeply intolerant definition of a caliphate — where the eradication of Shia Muslims is a central goal — is an entirely modern invention.
“[ISIS’s claim] has nothing to do with the historical or traditional caliphate,” Cesari said. “It’s really saying that we want a land that is free of Shia. This is a totalitarian project.”
In addition, while many Muslim scholars acknowledge that the caliphate can potentially be established “by force,” most also agree that caliphs are supposed to be true representatives of all Muslims — that is, leaders who are elected and/or nominated by the Muslim people. In fact, one Islamist political party in Lebanon — whose literature openly states that it hopes to resurrect the caliphate — has already publicly rejected ISIS’s proclamation because, according to them, resurrecting the caliphate “should not be accomplished through blood, charges of apostasy and explosions.” This is also why the first four caliphs are referred to by Sunnis as the “rightly-guided” caliphs, but many subsequent leaders are often critiqued because there was widespread dissension in their ranks; without the consent of their fellow Muslims, the legitimacy of their caliphate was questioned. In other words, ISIS might claim that they are the true leader of all Muslims (or at least Sunni Muslims), but unless the rest of the religious fold signs on, their claim is, at best, dubious.
Most researchers date of the end of the formal caliphate at 1924, when Attaturk, a reformer who helped create modern-day Turkey, constitutionally abolished the institution within what was left of the Ottoman Empire and transferred its powers to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Since then, various Muslims (including the former leader of the Taliban) have occasionally taken the title of Amir al-Mu’minin, but few have taken ISIS’s extreme position of claiming the full power of the caliphate, where a leader assumes total legal and religious authority over Muslims near and far.
ISIS’s relatively tiny sphere of influence within the Muslim world is also part of what makes its claim to the caliphate so shocking and theologically problematic for many Muslims. The organization argues in its recent statement that it is reestablishing the caliphate primarily because the “essentials,” or conditions, of a Muslim state have been established under their brutal rule. As such, they insist that all other Muslim groups — especially other extremist militias and terrorist organizations — are bound by God to honor their leader’s authority.
“As for you, O soldiers of the platoons and organizations, know that after this consolidation and the establishment of the [caliphate], the legality of your groups and organizations has become invalid,” their statement reads. “It is not permissible for a single person of you who believes in Allah to sleep without having (loyalty) to the [caliph].”
But even if such religious claims are contested, there is still special significance in ISIS invoking the power of the caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. It is also probably no coincidence that they have staked this claim as they move to occupy Baghdad, a city where many previous caliphs ruled. In fact, it’s safe to say that outside of ISIS’s purported religious reasonings for claiming the caliphate, the move effectively functions as a massive recruitment tool; it catches headlines and raises eyebrows, and the majority of the group’s own statements revolve around repeatedly asking other Muslims to “rush” and “gather around your [caliph].”
Realistically, unless the divided and tribalistic constellation of militant Sunni groups in the Middle East suddenly decides to embrace this new caliphate, ISIS’s claim is likely to go largely unacknowledged outside of Iraq. To many, ISIS’s unusual religious proclamation is really just more evidence of the noticeable uptick in religious extremism in the Middle East than anything else. Indeed, this partially explains why nine Syrian rebel groups have already rejected ISIS’s claim.
But Cesari and others argue that if there isn’t a concerted effort to curb the growth of sectarian violence in the region similar to how the global community addressed conflict in Northern Ireland, ISIS’s call for support from local Sunni militants — some of which have already joined forces with them — could prove tempting to many.
“[ISIS’s claims] can have political benefits for Sunni Muslims who feel marginalized by the centralized power in Baghdad,” Cesari said. “But that doesn’t mean that they will endorse such a political project.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that ISIS broke off from AQI in 2004. This has since been corrected.