On 29 June 2014, Sunni terrorist Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) proclaimed himself Caliph.
With the caliphate resurrected as a physical entity and dominating news headlines across the world, it is worth asking several questions. What is a caliphate in historical terms, and can this new state truly lay claim to that title?
Does its inception herald a new age of Islamic unity or will it serve to deepen and sharpen existing divisions? Which movements and ideologies have informed this creation? All can be addressed with an analysis of the history of the caliphate both as a concept and as a real state.
The Caliphate is not only a political institution, but also an enduring symbol of religious and legal authority. Its symbolic value has made re-establishing the Caliphate the principal goal of fundamentalist groups such as Al Qaeda and the ISIS, an inheritance from the past that can still be felt today.
Mohammed’s inheritors and the origin of the Caliphate: 632 – 1452
When Mohammed died in 632, the Muslim community chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law, as their leader. He thereby became the first Caliph.
Abu Bakr inherited the religious and political leadership that Mohammed had enjoyed during his lifetime, creating a precedent that was developed into the full title of Caliph.
Such a title also became a hereditary title with the rise to power of Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan in 661, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty.
The Caliphate was a political and religious institution that was present in the Islamic world since the very ascension of Mohammed to Heaven.
The Caliph’s authority was commonly justified by quoting the 55th verse of the Al-Nur Sura [24:55], which refers to the “Caliphs” as Allah’s instruments.
Since 632, Islam as a territorial organism,was ruled by the Caliphs’ authority. Although the Caliphate was subject to many changes through time as the Muslim world developed and became more fragmented, the Caliphate institution was always considered, from a theoretical perspective, as the highest religious and legal power.
The Caliphate enjoyed its golden age under the Abbasid rule during the Ninth century, when its territories extended from Morocco to India.
When the Abbasid dynasty crumbled in 1258 as a result of the Mongol invasion of Hulagu Khan, the Islamic world fragmented into different smaller kingdoms that aspired to conquer the authority of the Caliph’s title.
The Last Caliphate: The Ottoman Empire: 1453 – 1924
In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II established the Ottoman Turks as the main Sunni power when he conquered Constantinople. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire did not become a Caliphate until they acquired the Holy Places of Islam (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem) from the Egyptian Mamluks in 1517.
With the absorption of Egypt and Arabia’s heartland into the Ottoman power structure, the Turks were able to claim religious and military supremacy within Sunni world, appropriating the Caliphate.
The Ottomans maintained their leadership until they saw themselves removed and outplayed by the European empires. As a consequence of the Caliphate’s decline and the rise of European imperialism, vast areas of the Muslim world were absorbed into the complex colonial machinery.
The position of the Caliphs swung between attempts towards modernisation such as Selim III’s military reforms, or policies that tried to revitalise the cultural and religious significance of the Caliphate, such as Abdulhamid II’s propaganda.
In the end, the Ottomans’ defeat in World War One provoked the disappearance of the empire and the rise to power of the nationalist premier Mustafa Kemal Attatürk’s pro-Western nationalists.
Secularism and post-colonialism: the end of the Caliphate: 1923/24
After the Ottoman Empire signed the Peace of Lausanne in 1923, it turned into the Republic of Turkey. However, despite the Sultanate becoming extinct, the figure of the Caliph remained with a purely nominal and symbolic value with Caliph Abdulmecid II.
During the following year, two opposed movements that had been born as the result of constant interaction with the European nations, would struggle for the defence or dissolution of the Caliphate:
British rule in India provoked a renaissance of Sunni political and religious thought in the subcontinent. The Deobandi School, established in 1866, supported a new reading of Islamic principles purified of Western influences, mixed with a strong, modern nationalist view.
The Khilafat movement, also created in India, originated from this stream of thought. The Khilafat had as its main goal the protection of the Caliphate against Attattürk’s secular party.
On the other hand, the Turkish Nationalists, controlled by the army, received their intellectual inspiration from Europe, especially from the French constitution, and supported the complete abolition of the Caliphate and the establishment of a secular state.
Following some suspicious activities carried out by the Khilafat movement in Turkey, the last Caliph, Abdülmecid II, was dethroned by the secularist reforms that the nationalist premier Mustafa Kemal Attatürk sponsored.
Attatürk’s secular program ended the Caliphate, the system that had ruled the Sunni world since Mohammed’s death in 632.
The Caliph’s descendants: Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism after 1924
It is not necessary to have studied geography in order to spot the obvious differences between the borders of countries like China, Russia, or Germany, and those of Middle Eastern countries.
The precise, almost lineal frontiers of Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Iraq are nothing but lines drawn upon a map, and they do not reflect accurately the cultural, ethnic, or religious reality.
The decolonisation of the Arab world created nations that lacked identity or homogeneity in the way that European nationalism had defined it in the 19th century. This lack of “modern” identity, however, could be compensated by a golden past as a unified Arab – or Muslim – civilisation.
The overthrowing of the last of Mohammed’s inheritors in 1924 was the result of ideological division that had emerged as a consequence of the colonial experience.
Decolonisation brought to the fore two opposing views that had been born as a consequence of imperial dominance: a purified and anti-Western version of Islam, and a secularist and pro-Socialist movement.
Both these movements had their origin in the early years of decolonisation. The leadership of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser served as the cornerstone for the Pan-Arabist movement, an idiosyncratic mixture of socialism and secular nationalism that tried to achieve the unification of the Arab world.
Nasser started his reforms nationalising many foreign companies established in Egypt, and creating a system of state-directed economy, even taking over the Suez Canal from its British and French owners.
In 1957, U.S. President Eisenhower, alarmed by Nasser’s successes and its pro-Sovietic tendency, decided to support Saudi Arabia’s king, Saud bin Abdulaziz, in order to create a counter-balance to Nasser’s influence in the region.
Pan-Islamism emerged as an alternative that could unify the Muslim world as Nasser fell in disgrace and the Baath governments of Syria and Iraq showed symptoms of exhaustion. Pan-Islamism originated in 19th century Afghanistan as a reaction against British and Russian colonial ambitions in the area.
Pan-Islamism did not put as much emphasis on ethnic and cultural differences as on the unifying role of Islamic religion.
The crash between the secularist ideas of Pan-Arabism and the religious principles of Pan-Islamism became especially evident during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Taliban and the recently created Al Qaeda were able to defeat the Afghan Communist government and its Russian allies with the help of the United States.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 further weakened the nationalist and secularist position of Pan-Arabism, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries increased their global influence after the 1973 Oil Crisis.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq witnessed the crumbling of the Baath in that country, leaving the Pan-Islamist movement as the only viable alternative that could achieve – and struggle for – the unity of the Arab world.
The Caliphate represents Islam’s organic unity. While the Caliphate existed, the unity of the Islamic world was a reality, although a tenuous and purely nominal one. The abolition of the Caliphate left a vacuum in the Islamic world.
The institution of the Caliph had been part of political culture since Mohammed’s death (632) until the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire (1924).
This vacuum became a constitutive part of the radical dream, and it seems to have come back to life with the Islamic State’s Caliphate, proclaimed the 29 June 2014 by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who took his name, precisely, from the first Caliph Abu Bakr.