The ultra-radical Islamist group Isis (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [Syria]) has declared that the territory they hold is to be a caliphate. In taking this step they have reverted to a model that has been the reality in parts of the Islamic world for most of its history. For nearly 1,400 years the caliph was head of the entire Islamic state. He often wielded unimaginable power, and always great influence.
The Prophet Muhammad died in 632 or thereabouts. According to Islamic tradition, for the last ten years of his life, when he lived in Medina after leaving his native Mecca in 622, he gradually developed a new form of society based on the Qur’an (for Muslims God’s direct utterance and therefore beyond question or criticism) and his own sunna (his customary practice). In this period he set an example of how the state should be run. The rulers who immediately followed him maintained his model, adhering closely to his teachings. They took the title khalifa, meaning ‘representative’ or ‘deputy’ (in the Qur’an, the first man Adam is called khalifat Allah, God’s representative). In later times, this title was often expanded to Khalifat Rasul Allah, ‘Representative of the Messenger of God’.
The four rulers who immediately succeeded the Prophet as caliph (the Anglicised form of khalifa) are regarded by most Muslims (Shi`a Muslims are the exception) as model rulers and upholders of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s sunna. For this reason they are called the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and it is their period of rule in seventh-century Medina, together with Muhammad’s rule before them, that is regarded as the golden age of Islam. In declaring a caliphate, Isis is attempting to establish rule according to the precedents set at this time.
This early period of the caliphate was more an ideal than a reality. For while the Islamic state was indeed brought into being under them, these four caliphs encountered considerable opposition from outside in the form of Arab tribes who refused to acknowledge them, and from inside in the form of disagreement with policies they pursued, and even their persons (only one of them died in his bed). The most vehement dissent came from the followers of `Ali, who was both Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law (Muhammad’s sons died in infancy). He was elected the fourth caliph, though his followers thought he should have succeeded Muhammad directly. They formed the Shi`at `Ali, the Party of `Ali, the start of a movement of dissenters who continued to oppose the norms of government for centuries, and now form the second largest division in Islam after the Sunnis. While Sunnis base authority on the Qur’an and sunna of Muhammad, Shi`as base it on the Qur’an and interpretations given by `Ali and his descendants. Most Shi`as revere a line of 12 of these descendants, whom they regard as inspired by God and call Imams, and against threats from Isis in recent weeks thousands of Iraqi Shi`as have rallied to defend the shrines of many of these Imams, who are located in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
The institution of the caliphate continued from the seventh century until its abolition in 1924. The caliph was sometimes an autocratic ruler, and more often a figurehead who symbolised the unity of the Islamic state. His function, whether actual or ideal, was to maintain the Qur’an-based law and the Islamic character of the state.
A perennial question among political theorists concerned the qualifications for the office. Most settled on descent from the Meccan clan to which Muhammad belonged, soundness of mind and body, and diligence in observing the faith. But there was always disagreement, and rivals regularly rose up to challenge the current ruler.
The new self-proclaimed Isis caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’, could well find himself challenged not only by Shi`as in Iraq and Iran but also by other extremist Sunnis rising up to dispute his credentials. Far from being a symbol of unity in the Islamic world, he could intensify dissension and provoke further bitter fighting.