This is the first in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. Subsequent posts will come out on Wednesdays and will cover topics such as the motivations for joining IS and the responses by the Kurds, Turkey, and Iran to the rise of the Islamic States. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


Both history and later political theory stress that the Caliphate is a response to the succession question facing the Muslim community or umma after the demise of the Prophet in 632CE. While prophecy ended with the death of Muhammad, the community needed leadership in regards to preserving the faith and the running of affairs in the here and now. In this context, the eleventh-century scholar Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 1058) explicitly excludes the understanding of caliph, or khalifa in Arabic, as the ‘Caretakers of God on Earth’, found in the Qur’an. His reasoning was that the other meaning of the word – ‘successor’ — can only refer to someone who takes over from someone who is dead or incapacitated, which obviously can never refer to God. There is also the explicit rejection by the first Caliph Abu Bakr (d. 634) of the use of the term Khalifa Allah, ‘Deputy of God’ — correcting it to ‘Successor of the Prophet of God’.

Despite its existence for fourteen centuries, as an administratively effective political institution the caliphate was short-lived. In fact, its legitimacy was challenged from its inception and the underlying leadership dispute would result in a split of the Muslim community between what would become Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, with the former acknowledging the authority of the caliphate and the latter rejecting it, opting to follow a line of so-called ‘Imams’ instead. The caliphate also faced early fragmentation from within the Sunni bloc, with a counter caliphate in Medina opposing the Umayyads (661-750) in Damascus. By the 10th century, also the Abbasids of Baghdad (750-1258) faced a rivaling caliphate of Umayyad exiles in Muslim Spain or Al-Andalus, as well as the rather strange phenomenon of an Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa and Egypt — which was Shia in origin.

Such developments are in themselves not surprising, because from the beginning the Muslim empire had to cope with a mismatch between the expanse of its realm and limitations in terms of human resources and means of communications; leading to what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’. Consequently, the tension between political reality and projected ideal dates back to the formative period of Islam as a religious tradition, and the caliphate as a political force. This also becomes clear when looking at the writings of leading scholars such as the earlier mentioned al-Mawardi and the great religious synthesiser Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). Both use the term imama as a generic term for Islamic leadership — not in reference to the Shia Imams – rather than khilafa or caliphate Much of their writings on the subject of politics deals with coming to terms with the nuts and bolts of administrating a huge realm, the sections on the Caliphate and its legitimacy are rather brief.

While it is true that after the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 following the Mongol sacking of Baghdad, the Turkic military slave dynasties of Egypt and Syria, known as the Mamluks, propped up descendants of the Abbasid dynasty as caliphs in Cairo, these were mere stooges for the Turkic warlords controlling Egypt and the Levant for the next 250 years. And while the Ottomans were tacitly considered successors to the caliphate after they conquered Cairo in 1516, the first explicit evidence of the use of the title ‘caliph’ by the Sultans of Istanbul can only be traced to the late 18th century. Not until the late 19th century was the claim of the caliphate actively used for political purposes by Sultan Abdulhamid II as part of his Panislamist agenda to fend off western imperialist designs to Ottoman territories and to the more invasive European expansion into historical Muslim lands elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

After the end of the First World War, a short-lived Khilafat Movement (1919-1924) in British India tries using the notion to rally Muslim subjects against British rule. Even after its official abolition in 1924, the institution did not lose its symbolic appeal for Muslims across the world; as an idea it continued offering a rallying point for Muslim assertiveness and for retaining a sense of the umma or global community of Muslims. Even the publication of texts such as Islam and the Foundations of Political Power (1925), in which author Ali Abd al-Raziq (188-1966) argued that Islam’s foundational sources did not prescribe a particular state model, did not mean that the notion of Khilafa lost its appeal, or that the idea of an Islamic state was given up. In fact, it forms a starting point for a polarization between proponents and opponents of its restoration. At the same when Abd al-Raziq released his controversial book – and consequently lost his job at al-Azhar Islamic University – there were two failed attempts to reinstate the caliphate. Both the Egyptian King Fuad (1868-1926) and the new monarch of Arabia, Abd al-Aziz Al Saud (d. 1953), had the ambition of becoming the new caliph. However, because of their rivalry and the competing conferences held in Cairo (1925) and Mecca (1926), their plans came to naught.

In the post World War II years, when formerly colonized territories inhabited by Muslim majorities gained independence, the agendas for governance in accordance with the teachings of Islam shifted towards the implicit acceptance of territorial integrity modelled along the lines of the Westphalian nation state and a pragmatic focus on campaigning for the introduction of Islamic law into the political systems of the newly established states. For decades this was the observable trend among Islamist activists from Morocco to Indonesia. Those striving for alternative territorial structures harking back to the historical caliphates or nineteenth-century Pan-Islamism confined themselves to theorizing or faced repression from the newly established postcolonial governments. A prime example is Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani (1909-1977), the founder of Hizb al-Tahrir and chief theorist of its conceptualization of the re-establishment of the caliphate.

Plans and actual attempts for territorial realignment have begun to resurface only very recently. Most of these remain latent or implicit in the designs of organisations, such as Al-Qaeda (which continues to recognise regional offshoots in the Maghrib and Arabian Peninsula). Alternatively, they are confined to regional designs, such as Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah purported plan for establishing a maritime Southeast Asian caliphate encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern provinces of Thailand and the Philippines. It is not until the rise of the ISIS phenomenon that the international community is confronted with an attempt to actually execute a post-Sèvres and Lausanne Treaties’ redrawing of borders in the Middle East.

This development comes on the back of growing attention and interest of international relations specialists in the role of religion in diplomacy and its possible impact on a world order currently defined on the basis of the nation state as the organising unit. IR specialists have been divided about the desirability of making religion, or – more specifically — singling out the advocacy of freedom of religion among the universal standards of human rights standards. Proponents regard it as a useful tool for ‘soft’ diplomacy, while sceptics caution against the possible blowback of identifying segments of populations in existing states on grounds of their religious affiliation. The emergence of IS and its grandiose claim of re-establishing the caliphate – give acute relevance to this debate.

Image: Flag of the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ by TRAJAN 117. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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