Some thoughts on the proclamation of a Universal Caliphate today (June 29 2014)

It’s hard to say whether the announcement early today will be remembered as a key stage in the disintegration of the post World War I (!) Middle East. The Dawla Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wal-Sham (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, often abbreviated ISIL or ISIS (the second S in ISIS stands for Syria or Sham) announced the restoration of the Caliphate. Specifically, the speech that they released indicated that a Caliphate was normative in Islam, and that the situation was such that it had to be declared. They declared Abu Bakr Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi as the Caliph.

Traditionally the Caliph has to be a member of the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe – and he is said to be that –indeed, he is said to be a “Huseini”—a descendant of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein. 

The group now is known as “The Islamic State” or “the State of the Islamic Caliphate” and talks about the need for all Muslims everywhere to swear allegiance (Arabic: Bay’a) to them, of collecting the jizyah from non-Muslims and the Zakat from Muslims, and other traditional Islamic rights and privileges.

Much has been made of the timing of this announcement: 100 (Western) years after the beginning of World War I; the Ottoman Empire came to an end largely as a result of the outcome of WWI; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk cancelled the Caliphate as part of the modernizations he imposed; sometime after he had already cancelled the Ottoman Sultanate (i.e., a member of the Ottoman family held the at-that-time symbolic title of Caliph even after Ataturk had abolished their rule). Perhaps more important, the announcement came on the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and spirituality.

There are a number of maps of the current situation: if the”Islamic State” is taken as a state with geographical borders, it controls much of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. The group has proven its attractiveness to some potential fighters—there are reports of massive desertion from the Iraqi army to join them—and a reputation for brutality to those who oppose them; perhaps fear of what could happen under “Islamic State” control plays as large or even a larger role than Sunni dissatisfaction with the current state of Shia control in Iraq in compromising the ability of the Iraqi military to defend against their expansion. Al-Sham (The Levant in ISIL) refers to a far larger area than modern Syria; in classic Arabic sources, al-Sham stretched south to Gaza—i.e., the ISIL nomenclature could easily be understood to include a claim not only on Syria but also Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian Authority and Israel. And as of the newest announcement, they have dropped the reference to Iraq and the Levant, and asserted their claim to universal loyalty of Muslims.

As noted, there are various maps of their current geographic holdings. It does not seem that there are substantial forces organized against them; if they in fact hold the land they have won and perhaps make additional inroads in likely areas, it’s hard to imagine Iraq as a viable country: it will cease to exist, possibly with the Shia majority areas in the South holding on to the Iraq name, (in classic times, Iraq referred only to this area anyway), and a separate country of Kurdistan emerging in Kurdish areas—I do not see the Islamic State as successfully conquering these areas. Guessing the future in Syria is more difficult; it depends in part on whether and how long the Asad regime retains any strength. It is hard to imagine that the Islamic State will remain satisfied with its current holdings in these areas. Jordan, with its massive refugee problem and a King who is a descendant of another individual who claimed the Caliphate, Sharif Hussein of Mecca—who proclaimed himself Caliph after the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in March of 1924 but was forced out of Mecca by Saudi forces within the year.  It’s less clear to me that this group will seek to extend its control—in the near term– after Lebanon and Israel and areas of Syria that are not largely Sunni.  Of course, their stated plan is to seek universal Caliphal hegemony; the text of the statement reminded the world that within 25 years of the establishment of the first Islamic state, it had defeated both massive empires of that time—the Byzantines and the Persians.

By the way, the Caliphate had been a completely symbolic role since Abbasid times—very few caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty exercised any real power from the 10th century onwards (The Abbasids were in Baghdad from the eighth through 13th centuries, and had a symbolic presence in Mamluk Egypt until 1517). In the nineteenth century, there was a growth of interest in reasserting Caliphal authority, especially in India and in some Ottoman circles; after the events of 1924 in Turkey and in the Hijaz, there was increasing thought about restoring the Caliphate. Mohandas Gandhi was even on a Caliphate committee, and there was a conference in Egypt on the subject. Although there has been much talk, and a few leaders who claimed some of the titles usually reserved to the Caliph, there were few or none who were prepared to actually assert full caliphal authority. Until today.

The full text of the pronouncement is available in English in a number of locations, for example –this website also has a few of the previous announcements of the ISIL available in translation.

It’s worth reading in full, rather than just relying on journalistic summaries of the main points.

Some of the previous announcements whose texts are on this blog:

This blog has a link to the map showing the new frontiers within the Arab world, based on the IS pronouncement: — the map is a link from 

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