How worried should we be about Al-Baghdadi’s new “Islamic State”?

The “Islamic State” caliphate declared by ISIS is a problem, but mainly for Iraq.

The word “caliphate” sends many into paroxysms of horrified excitement. Following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Arab calques liked to raise the bogeyman of this demonic political institution which Egyptian presidential candidate for the Brotherhood’s eminence grise Khairat al-Shater and Ennahda leader Mohammed al-Ghannouchi allegedly sought to establish. The main proof in the case seemed to be little more than that the Brotherhood was established a few years after the Turkish republic abolished the office of caliph in 1924, plus a lot of paranoia. No one really asked what “establishing a caliphate” would mean in practice. Mainstream media have avoided shedding much light, beyond telling us that it is a “medieval” entity. Given that the first caliphate was established around 623 CE and the last one ended less than a century back, we can safely say that this is useless information.

Now someone has gone ahead and actually set one up. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) issued a statement on Sunday announcing that it had smashed the “borders of humiliation” and broken the “idol” of the British-French lines drawn up during and after the First World War. The reference was specifically to Syria and Iraq where the group operates, and the territory it controls which for now stretches from east of Aleppo to Mosul, down to just north of Baghdad will be called simply “the Islamic State”, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said. This makes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the new state’s “caliph”; his credentials for the post being, according to the group’s Shura council, his unflagging perseverance as a fighter and a prayer leader despite the opposition of “the whole world”. 


The temporary scrubbing of the borders between Syria and Iraq is a reality that this declaration of a caliphate has only underscored.

For the movement what this amounts to is the final act in an ambitious process of state-building. Having established Sharia courts and provincial governors, all that was left was to declare a head of state. The temporary scrubbing of the borders between Syria and Iraq is a reality that this declaration of a caliphate has only underscored. Further, Baghdadi’s leadership means that this caliphate won’t resemble the last one in any recognizable format at all, since the last Ottoman caliphs were ceremonial figureheads who had lost their powers with the evolution of parliaments elected to legislate and form governments. Described as imam and mujahid, Baghdadi appears to be modelling himself according to the classic representation of the Prophet as spiritual and temporal leader after in Medina then Mecca, with better credentials than Saudi Arabia’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud since he claims descent from the Prophet’s family.


The Ottoman caliphate that ISIS is using as a reference point competed for territory and prestige with rival empires. The title of caliph was not the primary designation of the Ottoman ruler, who was first and foremost sultan. However, the sense of having inheriting the Abbasid caliphate’s mantle helped the sultan claim an authority over all Muslims vis-a-vis the Shi’ite Safavids in Iran. Numerous entities in history have used the title caliphate, beyond the obvious ones (Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids), while others have opted for other terminologies. Some of the Gulf states shepherded into existence by colonialism are headed by emirs, others by kings. In the late 19th century the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamit II reinvigorated public usage of the title in a bid to push back against reformers among the ruling elite who wanted to water down Ottoman absolutism and establish parliamentary rule. He also hoped caliphal authority would create an Ottoman hinterland of Muslim power that would impress threatening European nations and strengthen the Ottoman Empire’s position in conflicts over territory and trade. In effect it did not, but it did play to Western fears of an imagined latent Muslim unity that would ruin the position of colonialism in Africa and Asia. Thus Germany would push the Ottomans to declare jihad against the Entente powers at the onset of the First World War and Britain would fear Muslims in India rising en masse in response.


Something of that fear is being reproduced today in the breathless reports on the return of the caliph. Just as Muslims outside the Ottoman territories did not give allegiance in any form to the sultan/caliph, next to none are going to align themselves with Baghdadi today. The Islamic Courts movement in Somalia did not designate its leader as a caliph and neither Mullah Omar (who was styled amir al-mu’mineen, commander of the faithful) nor Osama bin Laden chose to describe themselves in that manner in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, there are nations today which may make claims to replicate early Islamic political models or to create new versions of Islamic rule, implying caliphal status among the populations they rule or projecting caliph-like authority to Muslims beyond their borders, Saudi Arabia and Iran being examples.


There are two key issues at play: religious versus temporal authority and claims to authority within the confines of clearly defined states and outside them.

There are two key issues at play: religious versus temporal authority and claims to authority within the confines of clearly defined states and outside them. King Abdullah is not a religious scholar, but the priestly class in Saudi Arabia claim that their Islamic prescriptions are appropriate for all Muslims, and between the king and priestly class, the Saudi state has invested heavily in proselytizing around the globe since the 1970s. The king also claims that not only the sacred precincts of Mecca and Medina but all of Saudi Arabia is “holy land”. Ayatollah Khamenei, on the other hand, is a marja’ or source of emulation for some Shia Muslims outside Iran, while he may not be the source of emulation for many or most Shia inside the Islamic Republic itself. The Iranian state in its first revolutionary fervour sought to lend a hand of support to Shia outside the country, and indeed has cultivated a sense of itself as post-colonial protector of all Muslims regardless of sect.


Given this complex pattern of religious authority today, ISIS’s innovation seems relevant first and foremost for those within its main theatre of operations: Iraq. This is one of the reasons that its progress is not overly worrying for Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia is protected on a number of fronts. It can claim to religious conservatives that it is the true Islamic state and rest assured that ISIS is unlikely to be much of a competitor for their affections. In terms of security, Riyadh and other Gulf states have clear pledges of support from the United States. Moreover, ISIS hasn’t indicated that Al Saud’s territory is a target, while Saudi security managed to crush al-Qa’ida insurrectionists by 2006 and has countenanced varying levels of support for militant practice and ideology in Syria and Iraq since 2003 (or before – Saddam Hussein’s “faith campaign” sought to undercut Wahhabi influence among Iraqi Sunnis). Notably ISIS’s media commentary on Sunday included a statement from field commander Abu Omar al-Shishani in which he said the claim of caliphal authority was directed towards, in his list, Khorasan, the Caucasus, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Indonesia, Burma, Kenya “and everywhere”. Gulf states were not singled out for mention, not even Jordan.

In the globalized environment of today’s jihad, terminology from Islamic political theory is being instrumentalized in a loose, disaggregated manner, drawing on different historical contexts with targets just as eclectic. As Islamic historian Faisal Devji pointed out in Landscapes of the Jihad, the jihad zones are not even especially Arab any more: ISIS is apparently looking neither to Jerusalem nor Mecca, for now anyway. The “dream” of caliphate restoration that ISIS talks of is as much to do with the Khilafat movement in India a century ago (and which was realized with the creation of Pakistan) as Arab political Islam. The obsession of today is Shi’ism, with perhaps some mention of Western neo-imperialism as its bedfellow. The Islamic State is neither redrawing the borders of the 1916 British-French Sykes-Picot agreement, nor reviving a highly diverse historical institution like the caliphate. It is a product of a particular sectarian moment in regional politics. So while its successes so far speak to the fragility of legitimacy and state structures in states such as Syria and Iraq, ISIS’s caliphate does not spell the demise of those countries for a new era of Islamic empire.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Policy Fellow

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