What Is a Caliphate and Should You Be Terrified of It?

Apparently ISIS isn’t ISIS anymore. Or ISIL, either. I mean, feel free to keep calling it those things, but the group itself is now just going by “The Islamic State” (IS), or al-Dawlat al-Islamiyah in Arabic. This move clarifies all the questions people have been asking about the group’s name, from whether it’s better to call them “Daesh” (their Arabic acronym, which also sounds vaguely insulting in Arabic) to whether your should translate “al-Sham” as “Syria” or “the Levant,” rendering their English acronym as “ISIS” or “ISIL.” None of that seems to matter anymore. I guess that’s a silver lining.

What the name change means in practice is that the Islamic State isn’t limiting itself to Syria and Iraq anymore. In fact, in the fancy propaganda video they put out to help announce the change, the group stressed the invalidity of all borders, and in statements put out by the group on the web (plus an audio announcement), it seems that they’ve declared the formation, or reformation, of the Islamic caliphate. That makes their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph. Caliph Ibrahim, apparently. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

Now, the specter of an emerging (reemerging) caliphate has been fueling right wing nightmares and/or efforts to fleece the rubes for years now. Robert Spencer, the Islamophobe behind JihadWatch.org, has probably written more about “the caliphate” over the past two years than just about any Muslim writer you’re likely to find. It is true that fundamentalist and extremist Sunni movements from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al-Qaeda have held the re-establishment of the caliphate up as one of their overarching goals, and while whatever Baghdadi has cobbled together in Syria and Iraq ain’t exactly what those groups have envisioned, it’s still got the name. So I can understand if even some folks who haven’t been sucked in by the US Islamophobia industry are a little concerned.

There have been a lot of “OMG WTH IS A CALIPHATE”-type pieces that have come out over the past couple of days, and I have to say that most of the ones I’ve seen have kind of sucked. So here’s my effort to give you something to say at your family Fourth of July cookout or when some irritating in-law goes on some kind of rant about the scary Muslims putting the band back together. The tl;dr version is: the caliphate hasn’t been A Thing in the Islamic world for centuries, and even when it was A Thing it was just a typical empire, not Mordor.

I won’t lie to you, though: this probably is a picture of one of the caliphs.

So what is a caliphate, anyway?

OK, to really answer this, I’m afraid we have to go all the way back to the death of Muhammad in 632. I know, sorry. Muhammad’s death really kind of caught his nascent community by surprise, even though he’d been ill for a little while and he was 62 or so at a time in history, and in a part of the world, where that constituted old age. It’s very likely that some of Muhammad’s followers thought that he was divine, or at least under divine protection, and thus couldn’t die, and still others probably believed that the Day of Judgment (AKA the end of the world) was due to come in Muhammad’s lifetime.

At any rate, there doesn’t seem to have been a plan in place for succession at the time of Muhammad’s death; various groups had their own ideas about who should take over, and many actually felt that the community should break up into its constituent parts (tribes, cities, etc.) and each of those parts could then have its own leader. Even though we don’t have great sources for this period, we can be pretty sure that the confusion and chaos that they describe in the immediate aftermath of Muhammad’s death is accurate, because there’s no logical reason for Muslim historians to have made it up. If they were going to invent a succession story, you’d figure that they’d invent one that highlights a smooth, legitimate transfer of power instead.

Skipping over a lot of intra-communal drama, the upshot is that Muhammad’s top lieutenant, Abu Bakr, was put forward as a compromise choice to succeed Muhammad and keep the community together. But nobody knew what to call him. Muhammad had been The Messenger of God, or The Prophet, and Abu Bakr wasn’t claiming to be either of those things. Muhammed wasn’t an “emperor” or a “king.” So after giving it some thought, Abu Bakr decided to call himself khalifat rasul Allah, the “caliph of God’s Messenger” or just “caliph.” The “caliphate” or khilafah is the political entity led by a caliph.

OK, then, what’s a “caliph”?

The word khalifah comes from an Arabic root (KH-L-F) that has a couple of related, but not entirely identical, meanings. “Successor” is one possibility, but “lieutenant” is another and “vicegerent” (representative of a monarch) is another. What Abu Bakr presumably meant to signify was his status as the successor of the Messenger of God (Muhammad), which is to say that he was assuming the mantle of leadership without claiming to assume the mantle of Messenger or any other loftier title. What Abu Bakr was declaring was that he was prepared to preserve and continue what Muhammad had established, but had no intention of adding to or changing any of it–he wasn’t on Muhammad’s level in that respect. This title also signified that Abu Bakr wasn’t a king or emperor in the sense that he would pass the office along to one of his sons, and so on down the line. Abu Bakr was selected by consensus of the leading figures of the community, and when he died he was succeeded by his top deputy, Umar, who also had the support of the same leading figures. The caliphate wasn’t supposed to be inherited or ordained, but conferred with the consent of the community (or at least of the prominent figures of the community).

The title khalifah stuck after Abu Bakr’s death, although Umar–perhaps figuring that he’d technically have to call himself the “caliph of the caliph of God’s Messenger,” which is kind of silly–preferred the title amir al-muʾminin or “Commander of the Faithful.” But somewhere along the way, probably after the Umayyads went ahead and made the office hereditary after all, the “Messenger” bit got lost. So by the time the fifth caliph, Abd al-Malik (d. 705), started minting his own coins, he was officially calling himself khalifat Allah, the “deputy” or “representative” of God. This is a loftier title than what Abu Bakr had adopted, since it makes sacral claims about the divine mandate of the ruler, but it’s not any more grandiose than “Holy Roman Emperor,” and its sacral claims were no grander than those that the Byzantine Emperors claimed unto themselves.

Puffed up rhetoric aside, the biggest change the Umayyads actually made in the office of caliph was that they did make it hereditary (not without a fight, mind you, but they did it). What this means in practice is that for most of the history of the office, a “caliph” was just a fancy Arab word for “emperor.” The office had some claim to religious authority as well as political authority (you sometimes hear the office likened to a combination of emperor and pope), but anybody who has studied the first few centuries of Islamic history will tell you that the role of the caliph in making religious pronouncements was stifled pretty quickly by the rise of the ulama, or scholarly community. In a process that began in the 9th century, the caliphs gradually lost their political authority as well (see below), so that all they had left was the “power” to confer legitimacy on the local potentates who ruled parts of what was becoming less a unified empire and more a collection of kingdoms. This was no power at all, since all a caliph could do was ratify a local ruler who had already achieved control of an area without the caliph’s imprimatur.

So the caliph is an emperor. That’s still a little freaky, right? Are Muslims going to suddenly start flocking to this new emperor for whatever reason?

I mean, maybe, but this seems unlikely. Why do I say this? Well, because for one thing the new “caliphate” is already being rejected by natural allies in Lebanon and Syria, and for another thing there’s not a great historical tradition of Muslims living peacefully united under a single caliph. Abu Bakr spent his two years in power fighting other Arabian tribes to bring them back into the fold after Muhammad’s death, and the third and fourth caliphs, Uthman and Ali, both had to deal with outright rebellions against their rule. The Umayyads had to deal with rebellions from followers of Ali and from fringe groups like the Kharijites, who believed that the caliphate should belong to the most pious person in the community, not to the son of the last guy to hold the office.

Actually the Kharijites are probably a close historic parallel to IS in terms of their fanaticism and extremism (a fact not lost on IS’s rivals in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah), and hardly anybody ever took the Kharijites seriously as anything other than a nuisance. The Umayyads held the throne for less than a century before they gave way to a new dynasty, the Abbasids, who had to deal with the same kinds of splinter groups.

The Abbasids fairly quickly (and by “quickly” I mean “within a century or so”) came under the effective control of their own retainers and bodyguards, particularly Turkish mercenaries who were imported as slave soldiers. More damaging to the idea of the single caliphate ruling over all Muslims was the formation, in 909, of a second caliphate, this one Shiʿa, in North Africa. These guys, the Fatimids, took Egypt from the Abbasids in 969 and ruled their competing caliphate from Cairo until 1171. A third caliphate, in Córdoba in modern Spain, was established by the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty in 929 and dissolved in 1031.

The point is, if you’re hearkening back to a time when all Islam was united under a single caliph, you’re probably looking at a small window during the ten years when Umar was in office, between 634 and 644. IS propaganda will portray the Umayyad-Abbasid period as a golden age for Islam, and at times things were very good, especially during the first century or so of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they’re exaggerating the extent of the caliphate’s dominance.

Historians mark the year 945 as the end of the independent Abbasid caliphate, as an Iranian dynasty called the Buyids marched their troops into Baghdad and placed the caliph under their “protection” (which has all the mafia-esque connotations you might want to give it). The Turkish Seljuks later got rid of the Buyids, but just replaced them as “protectors.” From this point forward the caliph assumed a role kind of akin to the Pope, a semi-political religious figure who could confer legitimacy on the kings who paid allegiance to his theoretical “authority,” but with less authority since caliphs usually weren’t in a position to dictate matters of religion.

The Abbasid caliphate was formally toppled in 1258 when the Mongols sacked Baghdad. A branch of the family fled to Cairo where it was set up by the Mamluk dynasty in power there, but this was a joke on par with the Avignon Papacy. The “shadow caliphate,” as it’s called, had no legitimacy with anybody apart from maybe the Mamluks themselves, and the shadow caliphs served entirely at the pleasure of the Mamluk sultans who put them in office.

When the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks in 1517, the story goes that the caliphate was bequeathed by the last Abbasid pretender to the Ottoman sultan Selim himself, and that the Ottomans held the office from that point on. Except the thing is, hardly anybody seems to have really bought that story either, certainly not the many Islamic kingdoms that remained outside Ottoman control. It doesn’t even seem to have mattered much to the Ottoman sultans themselves, who sort of nominally called themselves caliphs but hardly ever made a big deal about it until modern times.

The office was finally exalted again, sort of, under Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909, d. 1918), who, worried about European encroachment over all the lands of Islam, tried to make himself out to be the Caliph–i.e., the ruler of all Muslims. He got some traction in India, whose Muslims were increasingly unhappy living under British control, but that’s about it. The parliament of the new Turkish Republic abolished the caliphate altogether in 1924, about a year after the country had come into being. The Sharif of Mecca, Hussein b. Ali, then promptly declared himself caliph, and you could practically hear the belly laughs all the way from Morocco to India. His “caliphate” didn’t even last the year, since he was soundly defeated and driven into exile by the Saudis in October 1924.

While all these machinations were going on with and around the office of caliph, most Muslims don’t seem to have cared very much. Sunnis quickly acclimated, in the first couple of centuries after Muhammad, to the idea that it was the scholars, not some central figure like a caliph, who were the experts in religion and could make proper judgments about right and wrong, and once that function was stripped from the caliph then there was nothing distinguishing the caliph from any old sultan or amir to come along. The Shiʿa, apart from the branch that founded the Fatimid Caliphate, never accepted any of the caliphs in the first place. This just isn’t something that’s worth getting particularly worked up about.

Sure, there’s a psychological appeal to the caliphate for Muslims who are angry at the ways that the West has divided and conquered the Islamic world over the past couple of centuries. It’s very easy to imagine that a unified Islam could have resisted, and could still resist, foreign domination. That’s why the Muslim Brotherhood has viewed restoration of the caliphate as a long-term goal, why Osama bin Laden saw it as one step toward driving Western influence out of the Islamic world altogether, and why the Taliban proclaimed Mullah Omar “caliph” a few years back (boy, that really worked out well for him). But historically Islam has been at some of its strongest points when it wasn’t united under a single ruler, and on the flip side late Ottoman professions of caliphal authority did nothing to prevent European domination of most of the Islamic world. There’s just no supporting evidence behind the idea that the caliphate has been a great motivating force in Islamic history, and even less evidence to suggest that vast throngs of Muslims today are eager to see the caliphate restored in time to lead some great civilizational war against the West.

There’s also no historical basis for the kind of caliphate that ISIS envisions, one that includes only Muslims and really only Sunni Muslims of sufficient piety. The caliphate was a political entity, an empire, that included all sorts of folks from Muslims to Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, and even animists (although real pagans usually got the “convert or die” treatment from Islamic authorities). Caliphs ruled over all of them, treating some better than others to be sure, but never demanding one particular kind of religious expression from all their subjects. This is a historical fantasy that only exists in the imaginations of IS’s followers, and it’s highly unlikely to appeal to the vast majority of Muslims who are unfortunate enough to come under its sway. What the declaration of the caliphate does accomplish is it gives IS a nice PR win in the battle with al-Qaeda to be the top brand in jihad, but that’s about all. Maybe a boost in recruitment could make IS slightly more of a threat to the West than it was before, but even that seems unlikely. At the moment, at least, IS is too busy fighting the enemies in its near abroad to worry about the ones that are much farther away.

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