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The Enduring Historical Appeal of a Caliphate to Muslims

The Enduring Historical Appeal of a Caliphate to Muslims

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This story originally appeared in BBC Magazine:

In June the leader of Islamic State declared the creation of a caliphate stretching across parts of Syria and Iraq – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi named himself the caliph or leader. Edward Stourton examines the historical parallels and asks what is a caliphate, and what is its appeal?

When Islamic State (IS) declared itself a caliphate in June this year, and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed the title of caliph, it seemed confirmation of the group’s reputation for megalomania and atavistic fantasy. Al-Baghdadi insisted that pledging allegiance to this caliphate was a religious obligation on all Muslims – an appeal which was immediately greeted by a chorus of condemnation across the Middle East.

But is it dangerous to underestimate the appeal of IS? Al-Baghdadi’s brutal regime does not, of course, remotely conform to the classical Muslim understanding of what a caliphate should be, but it does evoke an aspiration with a powerful and increasingly urgent resonance in the wider Muslim world.

The last caliphate – that of the Ottomans – was officially abolished 90 years ago this spring. Yet in a 2006 Gallup survey of Muslims living in Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan, two-thirds of respondents said they supported the goal of “unifying all Islamic countries” into a new caliphate.

Why do so many Muslims subscribe to this apparently unrealisable dream? The answer lies in the caliphate’s history.

The Arabic khalifa means a representative or successor, and in the Koran it is linked to the idea of just government – Adam, and then David and Solomon, are each said to be God’s khalifa on earth. And when the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 the title was bestowed on his successor as the leader of the Muslim community, the first of the Rashidun, the four so-called “Rightly Guided Caliphs” who ruled for the first three decades of the new Islamic era.

These four were, according to Reza Pankhurst, author of The Inevitable Caliphate, all appointed with popular consent. He argues that their era established an ideal of a caliph as “the choice of the people… appointed in order to be responsible to them, apply Islamic law and ensure it’s executed”. He adds that the true caliph “is not above the law”.

Shia Muslims challenge this version of history – they believe that the first two caliphs effectively staged a coup to frustrate the leadership claims of the Prophet’s cousin Ali – and this dispute about the early caliphate is the source of Islam’s most enduring schism. But to today’s Sunni Muslims, many of them living under autocratic regimes, the ideal of a caliphate built on the principle of government by consent is likely to have a powerful appeal.

Read the full story at BBC.


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