The Caliphate: From Grand to Sordid

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; drawing by James Ferguson

On July 4, 2014, as Americans were preparing to celebrate Independence Day, an event of comparable symbolism took place in the Grand Mosque of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, which had been taken over by the so-called Islamic State on June 10. Slowly mounting the pulpit on the first day of Ramadan, the holy month of penance and fasting, Ibrahim al-Badri, also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, solemnly proclaimed himself caliph of all the Muslims. “Your brothers, the mujahideen,” he told the congregation, have been “blessed with victory by Allah. After long years of jihad [struggle], patience, and fighting the enemies of Allah, he guided them and strengthened them to achieve this goal.”

The proclamation was not a surprise. Several days earlier the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, credit for whose death in northern Syria in August is contested by the Americans and Russians, had announced in an audio message:

Today the nations of kufr [disbelief] in the West are terrified. Today the flags of Satan and his party have fallen. Today the flag of tawhid [divine “unicity”] rises with its people. Now the khilafa [Caliphate] has returned, humbling the necks of the enemy!

It would be easy to dismiss this as empty propaganda, now that the Islamic State has lost much of its former territory, with Iraqis and Kurdish forces closing in on Mosul, Iraq’s second city. In 2015, IS controlled an area in Syria and Iraq as large as Great Britain, with some six million inhabitants and an annual budget of about $2 billion from looting, oil sales, racketeering taxes, tributes from religious tithing (zakat), and the special tax known as the jizya levied on non-Muslim “Peoples of the Book,” mainly Christians.

Yet for all the probable disappearance of IS as a territorial entity, the notion of the caliphate is strangely resilient. As Hugh Kennedy demonstrates in Caliphate: The History of an Idea, his readable yet scholarly account, the institution was present throughout centuries of Muslim history, in a variety of guises. One conception considered the caliph a semidivine figure, the sinless “shadow of God on earth,” and the religious successor to the Prophet Muhammad. A more mundane idea was that the caliph was “the chief executive of the umma, the Muslim community, an ordinary human with worldly powers.”

There is a wide spectrum of positions in between. Among the caliphs have been such magnificent figures as the great rulers of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad beginning around 750 and continuing for hundreds of years, and their Fatimid counterparts in Cairo who from 969 to 1171 oversaw some of the world’s most impressive achievements in the sciences, arts, and intellectual life, when “the court,” Kennedy writes, “of the caliphs was, in its time, the most important and richest cultural center on the planet.” He gives a vivid picture of this tolerant world,…

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