Christian C. Sahner
self-proclaimed Islamic State has just named its new leader. Abu Ibrahim
al-Hashimi al-Qorashi takes the place of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the man who
declared the so-called Islamic State “caliphate” in the Iraqi city of Mosul in
June 2014. The U.S. military killed Baghdadi on Oct. 26, ending a five-year
manhunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist.
new Islamic State leader faces a major challenge: how to make himself appear
legitimate in the eyes of the group’s followers and the broader community of
Muslim believers. Baghdadi’s appeal, of course, rested on his claim to be
restoring the caliphate from the early centuries of Islam.
this first by emphasizing his descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of
Quraysh, to which all legitimate caliphs must belong. He styled himself “Abu
Bakr,” the name of the first caliph after Muhammad’s death. He addressed his
followers in a stilted, self-consciously medieval form of Arabic. Even the
famous black flags of the Islamic State — printed in an ancient Arabic script —
were meant to invoke the black banners that heralded the arrival of Iraq’s
other caliphate, that of the Abbasids, during the eighth century.
should not forget how audacious it was for Baghdadi to proclaim himself caliph.
The term “caliph,” from the Arabic khalifa, means “deputy,” and in the early
centuries of Islam, the caliph was considered the deputy of none other than God
Himself. Through his leadership of a spiritual, as well as political, community
— the Muslim umma — the caliph guaranteed the welfare of his subjects on Earth
and fought for their salvation in heaven.
the exalted nature of the office, and the fact that most caliphs were widely
recognized by Muslims of their time, it is unsurprising that past terrorists
such as Osama bin Laden shied away from the lofty title — despite their
extremism on other fronts.
made Baghdadi different — and a plausible caliph in the eyes of so many
terrorists and their supporters around the world — was his control, at its
peak, of a pseudo-state roughly the size of Britain. Even more importantly, the
Islamic State straddled the borders of Syria and Iraq, two historic centers of
Islamic civilization and the seats of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. In other
words, the proof of Baghdadi’s caliphate was very much in the pudding.
worth noting that the overwhelming majority of Muslims never accepted
Baghdadi’s claims. The conduct of his Islamic State was manifestly un-Islamic,
and indeed, most of his victims over the past five years have been fellow
Muslims. Yet it is revealing that Muslim clergy — beginning with the prominent
signatories of a public letter to Baghdadi from September 2014 — have felt
compelled to continuously refute his arguments, as if tacitly acknowledging
their power and appeal. Baghdadi might have been an ersatz caliph, but in some
respects he succeeded in looking the part.
time, caliphs have had the habit of unifying Muslims as much as dividing them.
For every believer who felt inspired to a follow a caliph because of his claims
to spiritual and political authority, there were many more who felt alienated
and driven to revolt. This meant that caliphs — pious and impious alike — have
tended to die grisly deaths. Baghdadi’s heir should take note.
but one of the four “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” who ruled immediately after
Muhammad’s death were assassinated. The first dynasty of Islam, the Umayyads,
came to power by usurping and killing various members of Muhammad’s family. The
Umayyads, in turn, were deposed by the Abbasids, who announced their new
caliphate by digging up the graves of dead Umayyad family members and
crucifying their remains in public. This tradition of bloodshed has obvious
echoes in the short yet tumultuous history of the Islamic State.
the violence, the death of a caliph has not necessarily spelled the end of a dynasty.
This is the basic lesson regarding the future of the Islamic State, too. We
know very little about the newly appointed caliph; the Islamic State audio
announcement proclaiming the news describes him as a “religious scholar” and a
“military commander.” What is clear, however, is that he will preside over a
shattered sliver of the group’s once mighty state, which means he is unlikely
to cut the same inspiring figure as his predecessor. That could change, of
course. While Iraq and Syria remain the Islamic State’s spiritual home, its
branch in Afghanistan is thriving and may make for a good base in the future.
history began with a single unitary caliphate based in Medina, Damascus and
then Baghdad. Yet this gradually gave way to multiple, competing caliphates
across the Islamic world. The gradual devaluation of the caliphate brand that
began in the Middle Ages has endured to the modern day. It is what enabled
Baghdadi’s upstarts to create and now continue their barbaric state, and it is
what will enable entrepreneurial terrorists of the future to probably do the
Christian C. Sahner is associate
professor of Islamic history at the University of Oxford. He is the author of
“Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present” and “Christian Martyrs under Islam.”
Headline: The Islamic State has a new
leader. But can the caliphate survive?
The Washington Times