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, where wine was drunk in abundance and the caliphs presided over humanist courts where “a quick wit and good poetic style were passports to success” and where women, whether princesses or slave-concubines, could be “major actors in court life.”

A tenuous, barely credible thread connects the Abbasid line with the Ottomans. After the Mamluk slave-soldiers of Egypt beat off the Mongol threat in 1260, a fugitive caliph became part of the Egyptian sultan’s entourage, with “no court of his own, no vizier, no military guard, just a tower in the citadel to live in and tutors to improve his religious education.” He was followed by a line of seventeen successors called caliphs, the last of whom was taken from Egypt to Istanbul by the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim in 1517. The story that the last Abbasid had transferred the caliphate to the Ottoman sultan, Kennedy writes, may have been “no more than a piece of fiction concocted to justify the Ottomans’ renewed interest to the caliphal title at that time.”

But the fiction became useful diplomatically following the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774 when the Ottoman sultan Abd al-Hamid I effectively ceded sovereignty of Muslim Crimea to Catherine the Great of Russia. A face-saving formula allowed the sultan to style himself “imam of the believers and the caliph of all who profess the unity of God”—i.e., Muslims. This mitigated the shame of allowing Muslims to be ruled by infidels, while introducing a de facto distinction between the political-military leadership of the sultan and the spiritual leadership of the caliph, combined in one person.

In time the Ottoman ruler’s claim to spiritual leadership of Muslims under Christian rule counterbalanced the tsar’s claim to be the protector of the Ottoman ruler’s Christian subjects in the Balkans. As Balkan provinces such as Macedonia and Serbia revolted in the nineteenth century, aided by European powers, the sultan compensated by enhancing his position as caliph. Article 4 of the constitution forced on Abd al-Hamid II by Turkish elites in 1876—“the first such constitution in the Islamic world,” according to Kennedy—stated that “the Sultan, in his capacity as Caliph, is the protector of the Muslim religion.” Although the constitution was suspended until the Young Turk revolution of 1908, Abd al-Hamid II “clung to and developed the idea that the Ottoman caliph was the leader of all Muslims, not just those under Ottoman rule.”


As Kennedy points out, the caliph’s pan-Islamic authority tended to increase with the loss of actual territory as colonial powers took over more and more of the Muslim world. While Turkey, the “sick man of Europe,” was unable to help struggling Muslims militarily, the caliph’s image as the world’s preeminent Muslim leader continued to have influence. It is hardly surprising that a very large group of British subjects—the Muslims of India—looked to the caliph for support when they started taking nationalist positions against the Raj. As the journalist Abu’l Kalam Azad (1888–1958) explained to the readers of the Indian newspaper Al-Hilal (The Crescent), “Muslims world over were a single people by virtue of common religion,” with the Ottoman caliph their leader.

The Muslim agitation in India in favor of the caliphate, known as the Khilafat movement, has been surprisingly overlooked by Kennedy, as has the important caliphate of Sokoto (1804–1903) in what is now northern Nigeria. His account, based on his reading of Arab sources, seems unduly “Arabocentric.” The Khilafat movement was driven by the demand by India’s Muslims that Britain respect the integrity of the defeated Ottoman Empire. It foundered after Mustafa Kemal, the secular-minded Turkish leader, abolished the caliphate in 1924; but its significance should not be underestimated. As the Oxford historian Faisal Devji argues, the Khilafat movement was the first manifestation of mass politics in the history of India and propelled Gandhi to power in the Indian National Congress and indeed the country as a whole.

No one, then, should doubt the power of the idea of the caliphate. The debates within Islam, as Kennedy lucidly demonstrates, have been about who the caliph should be, how he should be chosen, and the extent of his power and authority. The question of his identity is at the heart of the division between Shias and Sunnis, with the issue of his legitimacy tied to the ways by which he was chosen. The mainstream Sunnis—referring back to the so-called Rightly-Guided or Orthodox caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali—regarded an element of consent as essential. The Shias saw the first three caliphs as usurpers, believing that leadership must be limited to the Prophet’s immediate family, through Ali and his line of descendants, the last of whom is supposed to be in “occultation” waiting to return, like Jesus, at the end of time. His spiritual authority has meanwhile devolved on priestly ayatollahs.

The politics of the early Islamic era were extremely fractious, with three of the first four caliphs murdered; by 750, when the Abbasids replaced the Umayyad dynasty (except in Spain), the Kharijites (or seceders) had already left the community mainstream. These conflicts determined competing criteria of the legitimacy of the various caliphs. Most Sunni authorities came to regard Muhammad’s membership in the holy tribe of Quraysh—which included both Umayyads and Abbasids—as an essential precedent and requirement for any caliph. However, the ultra-puritanical Kharijites, who were feared and despised for treating sinners as infidels, believed that any adult male, no matter how humble his social origins, could be considered for the office. As Kennedy suggests, the practice of takfir—considering those you disagree with to be non-Muslims even if they claim to be observant—originated with the early Kharijites, whose less puritanical spiritual descendants known as Ibadis are today found in Oman and Zanzibar, with small communities in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

Théodore Chassériau: Caliph of Constantine Ali-Hamed Followed by His Escort, 1845

Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Théodore Chassériau: Caliph of Constantine Ali-Hamed Followed by His Escort, 1845

What might be called the Kharijite ideology, however, has persisted, as Kennedy puts it, among “other groups right down to the present and is the basis of the attitude of Islamic State towards Muslims who disagree with them.” They may be hunted down and killed as kuffar—infidels. As Kennedy points out, the history of the caliphate during the Orthodox period from 632 to 680 CE “raised almost all the main issues about powers and personalities which have dominated the discussions of the nature and potential of the office ever since.”

A clear example (though one unmentioned by Kennedy) that supports his argument is the open letter written in 2014 by more than a hundred senior clerics to al-Baghdadi following his proclamation of himself as the new caliph:

There is agreement…among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah [the community of believers]. The Ummah has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE. However, a new caliphate requires consensus from Muslims and not just from those in some small corner of the world…. Announcing a caliphate without consensus is sedition (fitnah) because it renders the majority of Muslims who do not approve it outside of the caliphate. It will also lead to many rival caliphates emerging, thereby sowing sedition and discord (fitnah) among Muslims. The beginnings of this discord reared its head when the Sunni imams of Mosul did not pledge allegiance to you and you killed them.

The latter atrocity—added to numerous others—clearly shows how the self-styled caliph of ISIS was following the Kharijite model by killing the Sunni imams who refused him allegiance. This should hardly surprise students of Islam since pronouncing takfir on one’s opponents—declaring them infidels as a prelude to attacking them—has become standard procedure among extreme jihadists since the 1960s.


At the same time such jihadists reject being designated as takfiris, a term of abuse widely used by their opponents, just as they object to being associated with the Kharijites, since this would imply heresy and marginality. As with all such questions of nomenclature, Islamic extremists object to being called extremists, preferring to say they are emulating the earliest Muslim community as an island of true believers in a hostile sea of infidelity. It is for this reason, no doubt, that the self-styled caliph of ISIS has tried to equip himself—as did Saddam Hussein and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani—with a pedigree as a member of the Qurayshite tribe. While Kennedy finds no reason to doubt this claim, other experts, such as Fawaz Gerges, regard it with much skepticism. Kennedy’s larger point, however, is well taken:

There have been many different discourses for claiming the caliphal title and there is no generally agreed legal position on what constitutes a legitimate caliphate. Baghdadi’s claim does not seem to be, in the light of these different traditions, ipso facto illegitimate.

Shiraz Maher’s excellent study of Salafi-Jihadism shares the same subtitle as Kennedy’s book—“The History of an Idea”—but his focus is less on the caliphate as an institution than on the modern ideology underpinning it. He defines Salafism (which I have suggested might be called a type of “Islamic pristinism”) as “a philosophy that believes in progression through regression” in which the

perfect life is realized only by reviving the Islam of its first three generations…a redemptive philosophy based around an idealised version of Islam that enshrines both authenticity and purity.

Salafism is above all religious: it is a “theological, not a political category” that says very little about political forms or preferences. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Council of Senior Scholars that advises the ruling dynasty in private but avoids public dissent can “be thought of as being quietist-advisors who prioritise…(purification and education) over politics.”

In his nuanced semantic analysis Maher supplies a list of features of Salafism that he regards as definitive. In addition to tawhid, jihad, and takfir (which I have already mentioned), he sees hakimiyya, “the rule of Allah; securing God’s sovereignty in the political system,” along with al-wala wa-l-bara—“loyalty and disavowal” or “to love and hate for the sake of Allah”—as fundamental to the Salafist outlook. While some readers might be daunted by Maher’s use of Arabic terminology, his book is clarifying, not least because he demonstrates how the semantic field in which these terms lie has been cultivated—but not necessarily distorted—by the activist militants he calls the Salafi-Jihadists. The Islamist thinkers behind these movements are not mere fringe extremists: their ideas are rooted in the Sunni theological mainstream. As he puts it:

Whilst all of these ideas exist within normative Islamic traditions, and there is nothing particularly unique of special about them, what makes them relevant in this context is that the contemporary Salafi-Jihdai movement has interpreted and shaped them in unique and original ways.

Iraqi civilians fleeing the town of Qayyara, about thirty-five miles south of Mosul, November 2016

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Iraqi civilians fleeing the town of Qayyara, about thirty-five miles south of Mosul, November 2016

They are defined, according to that movement, above all by their attitude toward existing regimes and states: the militants who sign up with movements such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Somali Shabbab, and similar groups are, Maher writes, “violent rejectionists” who are “irreconcilably estranged” from the modern nation-state, which they regard as “a heretical and artificial unit” and a “heterodox affront to Islam whereby temporal legislation usurps God’s sovereignty.”

The idea that hakimiyya, or governance, of God has been usurped by modern regimes that fail to rule in accordance with sharia law has been a standard trope of Islamist thinking since the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading ideologist, adapted the ideas of the South Asian writer and public intellectual Abu’l Ala Maududi (1903–1979). A crucial link in the transmission of “Maududism” to the Arab world was an Indian cleric named Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi, “one of the subcontinent’s most underrated Muslim intellectuals of the late colonial period,” according to Maher, who translated most of Maududi’s books into Arabic.

As Maher suggests, translation also meant recalibration: whereas Maududi, Nadwi, and their contemporaries were fulminating against British colonial rule in India, Qutb refashioned these ideas “to frame them in opposition to America’s cultural ascendency.” Qutb’s best-known doctrine—opposition to modern jahiliyya—a term traditionally applied to the era of “ignorance” and “idolatry” before the coming of Islam—was reframed to mean “the opposite condition to Islam” understood as excluding from legitimacy all those to whom the term is applied.

A less-known semantic recalibration that Maher uncovers goes to the root of what might be called the nexus of denial between ISIS and Saudi Arabia. Prominent Saudis such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director of intelligence and ambassador to London and Washington, have described the Islamic State as an “insult” to the faith of Muslim citizens and “to the very institution of the state” while insisting that true Salafism “abhors violence against the innocent” and “advocates political quietism as a way of preserving the unity of the Islamic community and preventing internecine violence.”

Maher, however, as might be expected, takes a much more nuanced view, showing how the Salafist doctrine of “loyalty and disavowal” was originally understood as referring to standards of personal conduct, whereby Muslims are enjoined to distinguish themselves from non-Muslims in matters such as greetings, festivals, and clothing. This distinction has been “recalibrated” by dissenting Saudi scholars into a “powerful and preservationist idea, drawing a line against anything that might be termed ‘non-Islam,’ whether it be thought, action, individual, or institution.” In combination with takfirism it becomes a “tool of ‘in-group’ control which draws a line against those deemed to be outsiders.”

The most pernicious effect of such “in-grouping,” in which the Wahhabi–Saudi nexus that dominates the Saudi kingdom cannot escape complicity, is anti-Shiism. The quietists among the Salafis had long tended to view the Shias with suspicion as having adopted idolatrous beliefs and practices such as veneration of the Prophet’s family. But anti-Shia rhetoric increased dramatically after the Iranian revolution of 1979, when leaders of the Saudi “Awakening” such as Sheikh Salman al-Awda took the view that Khomeini’s movement was really a “front” that masked a restoration of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, that threatened both Islamic and Arabic culture.

However absurd this charge—in view of the harsh treatment of Zoroastrians and other minorities in the Islamic Republic—the Shias are viewed “with both continuous suspicion and distrust within Salafi circles,” while doctrinal disputes, added to the regional political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, have combined to produce “a particularly toxic attitude towards the Shi‘a, which has intensified sectarian difference in modern times beyond anything that preceded it over the last two centuries.”

The most extreme version of anti-Shia rhetoric now comes from ISIS, which originated as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) before it became the Islamic State. AQI’s founder, the Jordanian Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, had joined the US-supported jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1979 too late to take part in the fighting, since he arrived after the Soviet withdrawal. According to the strategic analyst Brian Fishman, in Afghanistan he came under the strong influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian scholar from Nablus whose family had fled to Kuwait after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

Maqdisi’s reading of takfirism and “loyalty and disavowal” was a fully politicized version that denounced the Saudi ruling family, a position significantly more radical than Osama bin Laden’s at that time. When joining bin Laden, to whom he formally made his baya (allegiance) in 2004,

Zarqawi got the better end of the negotiation with al-Qaeda. He received institutional and financial support from the world’s most prominent jihadi group while keeping his independence intact.

Fishman’s book is structured around a document—the so-called master plan—thought to have been drafted mainly by Sayf al-Adl, a former Egyptian army commando officer and al-Qaeda security chief who after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 is believed to have fled to Iran, where he lived in the city of Shiraz under a combination of regime protection and house arrest. He is now thought to be at large, possibly helping ISIS in Syria. The document—apparently smuggled out of Iran on forty-two pages of yellowing paper—originally formed the basis of a book about Zarqawi by Fuad Husayn, a Jordanian journalist, which was published in London in the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi.

Since that seven-stage plan first saw the light in 2005, it has seemed remarkably prescient. Stages One and Two—“The Awakening” (2000–2003) and “The Eye-Opening” (2003–2006)—mention attacks against US targets in Iraq in order to provoke direct conflict with America, and doubtless reflect an element of hindsight following the US occupation. The subsequent stages, however, invite no such suspicion. Stage Three—“Standing Upright” (2007–2010)—envisions jihadis expanding their operations across Syria and into Lebanon, and able to strike both Israel and Turkey. Stage Four—“Recuperation and Power” (2010–2013)—predicted that the jihadis would overthrow regimes across the Middle East (a striking if inaccurate prediction of the Arab Spring). Stage Five—“Declaring the State” (2013–2016)—predicts, impressively, a British-led reversal of the “rising unity of Europe,” offering a prime opportunity “to declare an Islamic state—the caliphate.”

While the actual order of events has been different, with the unexpected decision of the British to leave the European Union in June 2016, the declaration of the caliphate in July 2014 follows the master plan’s timeline—although not in the way envisaged, since by now the jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have fallen out. However, Stage Six—“Absolute Confrontation” (2016–2018)—should not be dismissed out of hand, predicting as it does a final contest between “the forces of faith and the forces of atheism.”

One can easily see how the present de facto collaboration between American, Russian, Kurdish, and Turkish forces against ISIS, however fragile and fraught with contradiction, might seem to fit this scenario in the minds of the jihadists, especially when linked to the millennial fantasies promoted in their literature. Stage Seven—“The Final Victory”—is not described in detail, but predicts that “more than 1.5 billion Muslims” will “rally under a single banner to overthrow remaining ‘apostate’ Muslim regimes and destroy Israel.” As Fishman concludes in summary:

Even if the accuracy of the master plan’s timeline has been more coincidental than causal, the document remains strategically prescient and a powerful representation of the strategic compromise that cemented the alliance between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda. As such, it is also a trenchant framework for understanding the processes that led to the Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate in 2014.

Fishman suggests that along with its harshness, there is method in ISIS brutality. As a “distinct strain of jihadi thought,” Zarqawism survived the death of its “godfather,” who was killed in a US air strike in 2006. Far from being nihilistic, the extreme anti-Shiism that alienated al-Qaeda and led to the split with that movement was strategically crafted. In Iraq Zarqawi believed that the Shias, who comprise 60 percent of the population, were implacably hostile to the Sunnis, and his strategy was to provoke the Sunnis into openly attacking them. After that the Sunnis would have no choice but to turn to jihadis for support. As Zarqawi put it in a letter to bin Laden, the Shias

are the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom…. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death.

The snake image, with its Satanic resonances, might appear extreme until one remembers that this was the same image used by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia when he urged his American allies to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran, according to a 2010 WikiLeaks report on General David Petraeus’s meeting with the king in April 2008. While the Islamic State may founder, the sectarian poison will endure so long as the structural anti-Shiism still driving the policies of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states remains in force.