What is a caliphate?

Samira Shackle in The New Humanist:

FlagISIS has declared a new caliphate in Iraq and Syria – but has overstated its theological authority. This week, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) announced that it was establishing a caliphate: the Islamic State, spanning the territory in Syria and Iraq that it has seized control of in recent weeks and months. The Sunni militant group’s statement, published online in various languages, said: “Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of monotheism, rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala.” The new caliph is the ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The restoration of a caliphate has long been the stated objective for many jihadist organisations, which seek to overthrow the nation-state system imposed on the Middle East after World War I. But what exactly is a caliphate, and is the jihadist interpretation of the term accurately rooted in history?

In the simplest sense, the word “caliphate” means “succession” in Arabic, and refers to a political-religious entity. The term dates back to the 7th century, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Various caliphates ruled over large parts of the Muslim world over the following centuries, until the last one, the Ottoman Empire, was abolished in 1924. In recent decades, extremist groups including Al-Qaeda, and Hizb ut-Tahrir have campaigned for the restoration of a caliphate. They have been unsuccessful because, unlike ISIS, they haven’t been able to control enough territory to make the idea a reality. It’s also worth noting that such campaigns rely on an emotional connection to the idea of the Muslim ummah (community) rather than a feasible project. In the modern political context of the Middle East, national divisions are important. ISIS and other extremist groups have spoken about European colonialism imposing borders – but today, there is no wide scale clamouring to break down these borders among populations in the region. Historically, caliphates are governed by Islamic law. In the Sunni tradition, the leader is elected, and in the Shia tradition, selected from a group of imams. However, the Ottoman Empire – the last widely acknowledged caliphate – was certainly not a beacon of religious piety.

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