What is a caliph – and why has the leader of Isis declared himself to be one?

The leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, thereby appropriating an Islamic title with a long, chequered history.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built by the Umayyad dynasty. Photo: Getty
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built by the Umayyad dynasty. Photo: Getty

The shadowy leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been declared Caliph Ibrahim. Will he reign as Ibrahim II, acknowledging the previous Ottoman Sultan and Caliph Ibrahim (1640-1648)? Or perhaps Ibrahim III, recognising also the disputed reign of his Umayyad namesake in 744? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has pretensions to an ancient office. The Caliphate existed near continuously from 632 to 1924. Though the concept now appears historic, the vacancy for the last 90 years is the aberration.

From an Arabic word meaning “he who follows behind”, Khalifa is generally translated as successor. Caliphs have also used the title Amir al-Mu’minin, Commander of the Faithful, which describes the essence of the post. The Caliph, at least in theory, holds universal temporal and spiritual authority. Though the truth of the matter has always being different, even among the Muslim faithful. Throughout its long history the post has been riven by division.

Of the four Rightly-Guided or Rashidun Caliphs, who followed Prophet Mohammed as leaders of the Muslim community, three (Omar, Othman and Ali) were murdered. The disputes at this time indeed give rise to the Sunni-Shia split. Christopher Hitchens wrote of this “one at least of the schools of interpretation must be quite mistaken”. Either the supporters of Ali were responsible for murdering his predecessor Othman or Othman’s family the Umayyads were wrong to seek revenge against Ali.

The Umayyad dynasty replaced the murdered Ali and ruled from Damascus from 661-750. They were responsible for such wonders as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and standardising the coinage with the introduction of the silver dirham. But the Umayyads were never fully accepted. They acted as mere kings, with hereditary succession and a royal court copying Byzantine and Persian administrative practices. Moreover, they were descendants of Abu Sufyan, an early critic and therefore late convert to Islam. The Abbasids, descended from Mohammed’s youngest uncle Al-Abbas, overthrew the Umayyads in 750. They promised a return to a more orthodox Islam.

In power the Abbasids founded Baghdad in 762 which was conveniently sited near ancient Babylon, on established trade routes. It is seen as a golden age – Greek philosophy was preserved, science and mathematics investigated and literature flourished. The Tales of One Thousand and One Nights allegedly tell of the exploits the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809). However, provinces broke away from central control. Far off in southern Spain, a survivor of the Umayyad dynasty founded an emirate in Cordoba in 756. Local governors established independent dynasties in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Transoxiana. The Zanj Rebellion in Basra 869-883 witnessed an uprising by black slaves. Universal authority was gone.

The Caliphs in Baghdad even became vassals of local rulers in Mesopotamia. Real power was exercised by the Shi’ite Buwayids 934-1055 and then the Seljuk Turks 1055-1157. The title Sultan designating a strong temporal ruler was granted by the Caliph to the Seljuks. Autonomy was restored by Caliph Al-Muqtafi (1136-1160) but his power did not extend much beyond the capital. Again in 1175 the Abbasids named another strongman as Sultan – Saladin. He carved out an independent kingdom in Egypt and Syria.

An ignominious end to Abbasid Baghdad came with the Mongol invasion, when Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu sacked the city in 1258. The last Caliph Al-Mustasim (1242-1258) was killed, supposedly by being rolled-up in a carpet and trampled by horses to avoid the spilling of royal blood. The Abbasids were re-established, however, in Cairo in 1261. But they were now merely religious figureheads for Egypt’s ruling Mameluke Sultans. They continued in this role until the Ottoman annexation on Egypt and purloining of the Caliphate in 1517.

The main line of Abbasid Caliphs did not have exclusive claim on the title. The Shi’ite Fatimids established themselves as caliphs in Kairouan, Tunisia in 909 and ruled from Cairo after 969. They claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima. One Fatimid Al-Hakim (996-1020) was noted for authoritarian and eccentric rule. He disappeared mysteriously into the desert, though was probably murdered by anxious courtiers. Nevertheless he did inspire the Druze sect. The rivalry between the Fatimids and the Abbasid-backed Seljuks in the late eleventh century is often mentioned as one factor contributing to the successful capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099. It took another Abbasid champion Saladin to depose the Fatimids in 1171, a task he went about before bothering to tackle the Crusaders in Jerusalem. The former Fatimid capital Cairo, ironically later becoming the seat of the Abbasid puppet-Caliphate.

Europe also had its own Caliphate. The Umayyad Emir Abd al-Rahman III of Cordoba (912-961) had himself proclaimed Caliph from the pulpit of the Mezquita in January 929. Hardly a declaration of universal authority, there were already two other Caliphs, this nevertheless emphasised the flourishing independence of Andalucia. Symbolically it also reclaimed his family’s inheritance. But the Caliphate of Cordoba barely lasted a century. It disintegrated from 1009 onwards and the last Umayyad was deposed in 1031. Moorish Spain became petty principalities. A Caliphate was re-established by the Berber Almohads who seized Marrakesh in 1147 and ruled Morocco and southern Spain. Rather like some modern jihadists the Almohads were a revivalist movement seeking a return to more fundamental values. Their monomaniacal rule was their undoing, the cosmopolitan culture of medieval Spain relocating to Christian Castille and Aragon. By 1269 the Almohads had fallen, loosing Andalucia to the Spanish Reconquista on the way. The Christian knights that defeated the Almohads at the pivotal Battle of Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, bastardised the title Amir al-Mu’minin by referring to the fair-haired blue-eyed Caliph Mohammed al-Nasir (1199-1214) as the Miramamolin.

The Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim (1512-1520) grabbed the title Caliph in 1517 by right of conquest. Also stolen were a set of early Islamic relics, that reportedly belonged to the Prophet Mohammed, the Sacred Trusts, which can still be seen today in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. The Ottomans circulated the story that the last Cairo Abbasid Al-Mutawakkil III (1508-1516 & 1517) had transferred these along with his title to Selim. Nevertheless, as the preeminent Islamic power the Ottomans became widely accepted as Caliphs. This despite such incumbents as Selim the Sot (1566-1574). Indeed, the Ottomans often waved off the annual sacred caravan to Mecca with a toast of raki.

The long decline of the Ottoman Empire ended with the First World War. In the Fatih Mosque, Constantinople on 14 November 1914 the Ottoman ruler Mehmet V Resat (1909-1918) issued a fatwa to Muslims worldwide. Prompted by the Germans this proclamation stated “the killing of infidel who rule over Islamic lands has become a sacred duty”. It was aimed at the large Muslim populations in the British, French and Russian Empires. However, the declaration did not influence many in India, north Africa or central Asia. Indeed the Ottoman’s own Arab subjects famously rose in revolt in 1916 and the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Turkish nationalist leader and secularist Kemal Ataturk dismissed the last Ottoman Caliph Abdul Mecid II (1922-1924) in 1924, having two years previously abolished the Ottoman Sultanate. The end of the Caliphate was shattering, as if Italy had abolished the Papacy after the Risorgimento. The Hashemite King of the Hejaz Hussein ibn Ali, with a strong claim as a descendant of Mohammed and ruler of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina tried to proclaim himself Caliph later in 1924. But he was not recognised and within a year the Hashemites were expelled from the Hejaz by the Saudis. Without a widely accepted way of choosing a Caliph there has been no serious contender ever since. And so far there seems no reason to add the name of the Isis leader to this rich historical chronicle.

The history of a single Islamic ruler, therefore, has created dissent throughout the history of the concept. The post pretends to worldwide authority; but by claiming it Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is acting as the leader of a faction. Such presumption invites dissent from across the range of the world’s Muslims. And outright hostility from rival jihadist groups. By naming a ruler Isis may be sowing more discord than their current reign of terror has caused. There is now a fallible man rather than a concept behind their campaign. What if a faction disagrees over policy or tactics? Will their financial backers amongst the subjects of the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Qatari monarchs welcome this alternative sovereign? The history of Caliphs suggests not.

Suggested further reading:

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: Sean McMeekin covers the Ottoman fatwa and the First World War

The Court of the Caliphs: Hugh Kennedy covers the Abbasids in Baghdad

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Islamic Imperialism: Efraim Karsh covers the whole period

Ornament of the World: Maria Rosa Menocal covers Al-Andalus