On June 29, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS, or also, because the Arabic permits both translations, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"), announced the formation of a caliphate. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the pseudonym of ISIS’s leader, is now “Caliph Ibrahim,” “Commander of the Faithful,” and he has summoned Muslims worldwide to obey him.
The institution of the “caliphate” first emerged spontaneously in the chaos following the Prophet Muhammad’s unexpected death in A.D. 632, when leaders of the still-small and local Muslim community elected a respected early Muslim convert named Abu Bakr to succeed Muhammad. (The Arabic “khalifa,” from which English “caliph” derives, means “deputy” or “successor.”)
Some dissenters, however, believed Muhammad had designated his son-in-law, Ali, as his successor; the “Shi'at Ali,” or “faction of Ali,” eventually became today’s Shiite Muslim community. Both sides agreed, though, that the caliph should come, minimally, from the Prophet’s tribe of Quraysh. Unsurprisingly, in that light, recent ISIS materials have also referred to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” as “al-Husayni al-Qurashi,” presumably to signify his purported descent from Muhammad through the martyred Husayn — Ali’s son, the prophet’s grandson — much venerated by Shiites.
At his death just two years later, that original Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, who was then succeeded by Uthman. Finally, Ali himself ruled briefly. Together, to distinguish them from what followed, these four men are often called the “Orthodox Caliphs.” But Ali was overthrown by the Muslim governor of Damascus, who established a hereditary dynasty of caliphs called the Umayyads.
Unfortunately, these caliphs often ruled like conventional kings, ignoring Islamic ideals, and the Umayyads themselves were toppled in A.D. 750 by a revolt originating in the neglected eastern portion of the Islamic empire (roughly today’s Iran and Afghanistan). That revolution, still remembered for its famous black banners — on which the black flag of today’s ISIS is obviously patterned — installed the new Abbasid dynasty, and the Abbasids soon moved the imperial capital eastward, to a new city nearer their power base that they named “Baghdad.”
Subsequent Abbasid caliphs ruled at first like emperors, but, with the passage of time, they became mere figureheads. And, eventually, a serious rival Shiite caliphate arose in Egypt and then another Sunni caliphate in Spain, which had remained under the control of survivors from the Umayyad line. In the meantime, the largest Shiite faction, the “Twelvers,” recognized none of them as legitimate, venerating, rather, its own series of “imams” (including Husayn) and waiting for power to return to those to whom, in Twelver eyes, power rightfully belonged.
By the 1500s, only the Ottoman sultan, based in Istanbul (in modern Turkey), remained as a more or less plausible claimant to the title, and even he placed relatively little emphasis on it. The title “sultan” comes from the Arabic word “sultah,” meaning “power,” clearly suggesting that his authority derived, ultimately, from military and political might more than from his putative spiritual prestige.
With the rise of the Turkish Republic in the wake of World War I, however, many Turkish politicians and intellectuals saw the caliphate as a liability, as a link to old traditions that needed to be jettisoned, so, in 1924, the Turkish Grand National Assembly and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk formally abolished it.
The move sent shock waves through the Muslim world. Various efforts were made to re-establish the caliphate, and several claimants stepped forward, but no agreement was reached and, as time passed, interest in the topic waned. Some writers pointed out that the institution wasn’t essential to Islam, and even most recent Islamist movements have shown little enthusiasm for reviving it. But re-establishment of the caliphate was a priority for Osama bin Laden, and, in that respect, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has followed him.
Many in the Muslim world — not merely Middle Eastern governments, who, unsurprisingly, don’t welcome the competition — have criticized the new ISIS “caliphate’s” claims. Even other jihadists have rejected what they see as presumption, and various Sunni scholars have argued that the title of “caliph” must be given by the Muslim community as a whole, not simply proclaimed by a regional group. Moreover, it’s unlikely that Iran, the most powerful Shiite state, will permit a militantly Sunni faction claiming universal authority to go unchallenged next door.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the meantime, has high ambitions. On July 2, he announced that ISIS will reconquer Spain (much of which was under Muslim control for nearly eight centuries) and seize Rome.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.