Why Does ISIS Want to Establish a New Caliphate?

AbuBakralBaghdadiAbodeofChaosLyonFranceThierryEhrmannFlickr.jpg
Portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph, painted on the Abode of Chaos in Lyon, France. Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr.com

The radical Islamist group ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, is intent on establishing a new Sunni Muslim caliphate. A caliph is a successor to the Prophet Muhammad, and a caliphate is the region over which the caliph holds spiritual and political power. Why is this such a high priority for ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

Consider the history of the caliphates. First, there were the four rightly guided caliphs who came directly after Muhammad and knew him personally.

Then, between 661 and 750 C.E., the Umayyad Caliphate ruled from Damascus, the capital of Syria. In 750, it was ousted by the Abbasid Caliphate, which moved the capital of the Muslim world to Baghdad and ruled until 1258.

In 1299, however, the Arabs lost control of the caliphate (although the caliph was still supposed to be a member of Muhammad's Qurayesh tribe). The Ottoman Turks conquered much of the Arab world and seized control of the office of the caliph. Up until 1923, the Turks appointed caliphs, who devolved into little more than religious figureheads under the power of the sultans. To some traditionalist Sunni Arabs, this caliphate was so debased that it is not even legitimate. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and a new secular, modernizing government took power in Turkey. 

In 1924, without consulting anyone in the Arab world, Turkey's secularist leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the office of the caliph entirely.

He had previously even scolded the last caliph for writing him a letter, saying "Your office, the Khalifate, is no more than an historic relic. It has no justification for existence."

For more than ninety years, there have been no credible successors to the Ottoman Caliphate, or the earlier historical caliphates.

Centuries of humiliation and subjugation, first by the Turks, and then by the European powers that carved up the Middle East into its present configuration after World War I, rankle with traditionalists among the faithful. They look back to the Golden Age of Islam, during the Umayyad and Abbassid caliphates, when the Muslim world was the cultural and scientific center of the western world, and Europe a barbaric backwater.

In recent decades, Islamist factions such as al-Qaeda have called for the re-establishment of the caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, but they have not had the means to achieve that goal. ISIS, however, finds itself in a different situation than al-Qaeda did and has prioritized the creation of a new caliphate over making direct strikes on the western world. 

Conveniently for ISIS, the two modern nations that contain the former capitals of the Umayyad and Abbassid caliphates are in chaos. Iraq, once the seat of the Abbassid world, is still reeling from the Iraq War (2002 - 2011), and its Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Sunni populations threaten to splinter the country into separate states. Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War rages in neighboring Syria, former home of the Umayyad state.

ISIS has succeeded in seizing a fairly large, contiguous area of Syria and Iraq, where it acts as the government. It imposes taxes, imposes rules on the local people according to its fundamentalist version of law, and even sells oil drilled from the land it controls.

The self-appointed caliph, formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is gathering young militants to his cause with his success in seizing and holding this territory. However, the Islamic State that they are trying to create, with its stonings, beheadings, and public crucifixions of anyone who does not adhere to their exact, radical brand of Islam, does not resemble the enlightened multicultural centers that were the earlier caliphates. If anything, the Islamic State looks more like Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

For more information, see:

Diab, Khaled.  "The Caliphate Fantasy," The New York Times, July 2, 2014.

Fisher, Max.  "9 Questions about the ISIS Caliphate You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask," Vox, August 7, 2014.

Wood, Graeme.  "What ISIS's Leader Really Wants: The Longer He Lives, the More Powerful He Becomes," The New Republic, Sept. 1, 2014.