The 10 Questions You Need Answers to About the Caliphate

tags: Iraq, Iran, ISIS, Caliphate



Ali A. Olomi is a historian currently pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual and cultural history of the Middle East at the University of California, Irvine.


What is a Caliphate?

A caliphate is simply an Islamic state that is ruled by Islamic law, or sharia and is governed by a caliph. The caliph, or khalifah is the successor to Muhammad. This is the simplest understanding of the caliphate, but throughout history how the caliphate has been defined has differed. Even from its earliest origins, the nature of the caliphate was a source of tension that eventually led to the formation of the two major sects of Islam: Sunni and Shia.

What is the origin of the Sunni and Shia schism?

The schism between Sunni and Shia happened early on in the history of Islam. The dispute originated with the question of who was fit to lead the budding Islamic state. After the death of Muhammad, Sunni Muslims believed that the successor, or caliph, should be elected through shura or council. The Shia, whose name originate from Shiatu 'Ali meaning party of 'Ali, favored succession through lineage and supported Muhammad’s son-in-law 'Ali.

The Sunni elected Abu Bakr and the Shia contested his authority. According to the Shia, 'Ali was passed by three times by usurpers until finally becoming caliph.

Some accounts of the difference between Sunni and Shia try to make an analogy to the schism between Protestantism and Catholicism, but this is highly misleading. The theological differences between Sunni and Shia are minimal—the differences are there, but the major source of tension stem from questions of legitimacy to rule.

Who were the first caliphs?

According to the Sunni it is the rashidun or the “rightly guided ones.” These are Abu Bakr, 'Umar, Uthman, and 'Ali. Shia on the other hand reject the first three as usurpers and only accept 'Ali and those directly related to his line as authentic leaders of the Islamic state.

How has the caliphate evolved and changed throughout history?

The caliphate has never been a static institution. It is dynamically constructed throughout the centuries to reflect socio-political and religious trends, or altered to suit the purposes of those invoking its authority.

From the beginning there was great variation. Besides the differences between Sunni and Shia, the question of succession within the Sunni tradition has varied also. The first caliph, Abu Bakr was elected by council, but upon his death bed he appointed Umar as his successor. Umar on the other hand selected six candidates who were to form a committee to elect a caliph from amongst them.

The caliphate was eventually transformed into a hereditary monarchy under the Umayyad dynasty and Muawiyah, but continued to adopt and transform with each subsequent dynasty.

Who was the last caliph?

The Ottoman Empire’s, Abdulhamid II was the last real caliph. Despite claiming caliphal authority, the Ottomans ruled as sultans—a far more secular title—leaving religious matters mostly in the hands of the 'ulema or scholars. This allowed them to successfully avoid sectarian differences and pursue less than religious lifestyles. It was not until Abdulhamid II that there was a conscious attempt at reasserting the role of the caliph in the Islamic world. Bolstered by the Khilafat Movement and the Pan-Islamic sentiment of thinkers like Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani, Abdulhamid II pushed for a unification of Muslims under the political authority of the caliph to oppose the growing encroachment of Western imperialism. Under Abdulhamid, the caliph was a rallying point for Muslims around the world against the threat of imperialism.

After World War I, which partitioned the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Turkish nationalist movements, the caliphate was abolished.

Have Sunni and Shia always been fighting? Is the modern war in Iraq centuries old?

The Sunni and Shia have clashed several times throughout Islamic history and fought in civil wars. But the history of the two sects is not always one of bloodshed and violence. In fact, they spend more years at peace than at war. Sunni and Shia have lived alongside one another, intermarried, and cooperated over the years.

Most notably, the “Golden Age” of Islam was a result of Sunni and Shia cooperation. The Persian Abbasids, who overthrew the Arab Umayyad, were a Sunni dynasty that relied on Shia support to establish their empire. They appealed to the Shia by claiming descent from Muhammad through his uncle Abbas.

Similarly the Khilafat Movement and Pan-Islamic movement of the 19th and 20th centuries both relied on unified Sunni and Shia support.

Who is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi?

Born Ibrahim Al-Badri, he is the so-called caliph of the new Islamic State that was established by the Islamist group known as ISIS. Al-Baghdadi is a Ph.D in Islamic law who has led a radical insurgent group within Iraq against the government.

His vision of Islam is puritanical and violent and his group has committed great atrocities in Iraq. Though originally associated with the wider terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, Al-Baghdadi’s group was rejected by them on the grounds of being too extreme in its methods.

Does Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate mean a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam?

Since Samuel Huntington’s 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, the “clash of civilizations” has been adopted and reinterpreted by analysts and some thinkers. It has gained traction with jihad watch groups and similar groups, but it fails to truly address the dynamics within the Middle East.

The so-called Islamic State, while hostile to the United States and the “West,” have dedicated most of their aggression towards fellow Muslims. It wouldn’t even be accurate to view this in terms of Sunni and Shia as both groups have been struck by violence from the insurgent group.

Should the United States be worried about this new so-called Islamic State?

It is certainly worrying that this new caliphate is defined by insurgency, puritanism, and extremism. However, this should be more worrying for Muslims. It is up to them to accept or reject the claims of the caliphate, which presumes to speak and lead all Muslims. While some extremists are likely to flock to the insurgents, the wider region will ban together against the threat. A new coalition of powers will form—the hints of which we are already seeing—and the dynamic within the region will shift.

Questions of who speaks for Islam, what form of government will take root in the Middle East, and what role the region will play globally are all issues that will need to be tackled by the people themselves. It is certainly going to be violent and complicated, but it is a process taking place within the Middle East itself.

What is significant about Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate?

The so-called new Islamic State gives us valuable insight into the constructed nature of the caliphate. The very term caliphate invokes apprehension in public discourse and Al-Baghdadi’s group has not help change that. But historically the caliphate was a dynamic institution. Whether it was the aristocratic Arab caliphate of the Umayyad, the Persian Islamic caliphate of the Abbasid, or the more secular caliphate-but-really-a-sultanate of the Ottomans, the caliphate has been defined differently by different people. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is just another example of this history and no doubt like previous caliphates it will be contested and rejected. The real question is how will the caliphate continue to take shape? Will it follow the extremist model of Al-Baghdadi and his ilk or is there another definition on the horizon? 


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