Twenty-five Syrian soldiers about to be executed by Islamic State in the Roman amphitheatre in Palmyra, western Syria, in July

The truth about the caliphate

To tackle Islamic State, we need to understand the dream of the caliphate and its real roots in history
August 19, 2015

In March, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a former stonemason who is the chief spokesman for Islamic State (IS), issued an audio clip to acknowledge a pledge of allegiance from the Nigerian group Boko Haram. This expansion into a part of the world in which it had previously had no presence was something of a coup for his organisation. However, al-Adnani addressed only a few brief sentences to welcoming the west African “brother mujahideen,” devoting most of the 30-minute statement to a lengthy tirade against the Jews, the Crusaders and the “filthy” Shia.

Among the threats he addressed to IS’s various enemies was the following: “We will surely bring back Badr and Uhud... Mutah and Hunayn... Qadisiyyah and Yarmuk. We will surely bring back Yamamah, Hattin and Ayn Jalut. We will bring back Jalawla, Zallaqah and Balat ash-Shahada... I swear, I swear, Nahawand will return.”

To most western observers, this sounds like nonsense, or at the least the sort of invocation of esoteric religious figures, events or concepts by Muslim extremists that has become wearily familiar over recent decades. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss these lines. Though they refer to events which mostly took place hundreds of years ago, they allow a crucial insight into the thinking and world view of IS, as well as many other Islamic militants active today. The names cited by al-Adnani are all battles. The earliest—Badr, Uhud, Muta and Hunayn—took place during the last decade of the life of the Prophet Mohammed. The Battle of Yamama was fought in the Arabian Peninsula during the “Apostate Wars” which followed the death of the Prophet in 632. Yarmuk, a major battle between the Byzantine Empire and Muslim Arab forces, took place in 636.

The battles of Jalula, Nahawand and Qadisiya were all roughly contemporaneous victories over the forces of the Sassanid Persian empire; Balat al-Shuhada refers to the Battle of Poitiers in 732 where the Frankish forces repulsed a strong Muslim raiding force. The battle of Sagrajas, known too as Zallaqa, was fought between a local Muslim dynasty’s army against Christian forces in present-day Andalusia in 1086. Hattin took place just over a century later and saw forces under Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known in the west as Saladin, destroy a Crusader army. “If yesterday our forefathers fought the Romans, the Persians and the apostates altogether, on various separate fronts, then we take pride in fighting them today on one front and gathered under one leadership,” al-Adnani told listeners.

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been much western interest in Islam. Barack Obama, Tony Blair, George Bush and many others have all spoken of the religion as one “of peace.” Others have argued the opposite. But the debate about the nature of the faith and its relation to violent extremism is missing an important element. If we want to understand the world view and aims of IS, and why some people seem attracted to its project, we would do better to focus more on the history of Islam, both as understood by militants and as it actually occurred, than the extraordinarily difficult question of the essential nature of a religion.

One obviously important area of historical inquiry is the life of Mohammed. Dozens of books have been published explaining the centrality of the Prophet within Islam, as well as the consequences of the the various imperialist incursions and occupations in the Islamic world since the 19th century. But the 11 centuries between the death of Mohammed in 632 and the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798 have received less attention outside specialist circles. This is a shame because much of what is happening now can be explained by what happened then—particularly IS’s project. It may allow us some, very qualified, optimism about the long-term prospects for the group.

It was not Mohammed himself but his first four successors who oversaw the campaigns that turned Islam from a new creed restricted to the Arabian Peninsula into a global imperial force. Around half of the historical references cited by al-Adnani in his statement in March occurred during the rules of the caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali from 632 until 661. In his book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, the Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary argues that the core religious allegory of Islam—analogous to exodus, bondage and the return to the promised land for the Jews, or the last supper, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ for Christians—is not limited to Mohammed’s life, but includes the reigns of these men too.

Quite why Islam spread as fast as it did is still debated. Some historians suggest it was the military superiority of the early Arab armies that was primarily responsible. The black flags under which contemporary extremists fight, and which they use as idents on their videos and fly above their offices in places like Raqqa, deliberately recall what are imagined to be the battle banners of the earliest Muslim forces. Those troops’ historic success may have been due to extremely capable battlefield leaders, the faith of the fighters, their ability to do without cumbersome supply trains, or flexible and innovative tactics. It may also have been because the faith emerged at a time when the two superpowers of the era—Byzantine Rome and the Persians—had exhausted themselves in centuries of conflict.

The conquests meant that Muslims’ collective memory has a different starting point from that of Jews or Christians. Mohammed did not merely outline a vision of a utopian community to be realised at an unspecified future date but actually built one during his lifetime. That community then transformed much of the known world, through diplomacy, trade, cultural exchange and war. While for Jews the collective memory of the earliest believers is exile, and for Christians persecution, for Sunni Muslims at least, it is one of the most successful military and political campaigns in history.

Moreover, as its great cities expanded and its traders prospered, the new Islamic empire developed into a hugely rich and powerful civilisation. The Umayyads, who ruled from the death of Ali in 661 to 750 from Damascus, continued to acquire new territory, extending their rule as far as the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula to the west and the Indus valley in the east. They gave the new imperial entity a permanence in other ways too. Some of the most famous examples of Islamic architecture—the Great Mosque of Damascus, the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem—date from this period.

The Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750, ruled from a series of cities including Baghdad, Raqqa and Samarra, and are credited with ushering in a golden age of Islamic civilisation. By the turn of the first millennium, the new empire had splintered into states run by competing dynasties, but brilliant cultural activity continued, and the various incursions of the Crusaders from the west were eventually repulsed and invasions from the east successfully resisted. Even the catastrophic sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 did not mean the era of the great Islamic rulers was over. Those who had destroyed the great city converted to Islam themselves. Within 200 years, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who went on to conquer much of the Balkans and threaten central Europe. Even as late as the 17th century, no European state, with the arguable exception of Catholic Spain, came close to rivalling the Ottoman empire’s territorial extent, military capability, scientific knowledge and artistic achievement. From Delhi, the Mughals, an Islamic dynasty descended from Mongol converts, dominated south Asia. Their wealth and power were fabulous. Between these two superpowers, the Safavids built their spectacular Shia state in Persia. The contrast with the poor, backward, bickering, strife-torn nations of Europe is striking.

What today’s commentators in London and Washington often forget—and militants repeatedly remind themselves and anyone else prepared to listen—is that the supremacy of the west is a relatively new phenomenon in historical terms. Across much of the world, for two thirds of the last 1,300 years, the power, the glory and the wealth was, broadly speaking, Islamic. The story of the caliphate, both as historical reality and as imagined by extremists like those of the Islamic State, can only be understood within the context of this overarching narrative, as the means by which the militants seek to return the world’s Muslim community to what it sees as its rightful status: a global superpower.

When Mohammed died, he left no clear instructions as to who should succeed him and also gave no indication of what sort of leadership the Muslim community should expect in his absence. Many questions were unanswered. What would a successor’s powers actually be? Would he have a spiritual role as well as a temporal one? Would there be a succession at all?

When the elderly Abu Bakr was chosen to lead the Muslims after a debate among the close associates of the Prophet, he was designated the caliph, which simply means deputy. No formal decision on his powers was taken. The caliphate was thus, from the beginning, an ad hoc arrangement, not a specifically designed institution, and no consensus has ever been reached on exactly what role the caliph plays.

It was perhaps inevitable that the office would become the subject of fierce competition and conflict. The split over the first succession became the division between the Shia and the Sunnis. Three of the first four caliphs also died violently at the hands of fellow believers. The Umayyad caliphate was, and remains, deeply controversial. Its replacement by the Abbasids led to the creation of a rival caliphate in Andalusia. Another arose in Egypt. This chaos and competition continued over the centuries. The title eventually ended up with the Ottoman sultans, from the 16th century to the 20th. But by then these various conflicts had undermined the credibility of the institution. As the modern era dawned, there was little left of the awesome grandeur that the title had once evoked. The link to the men who had built the Islamic empire had long been broken.

When Kemal Atatürk, the modernising ruler of Turkey, effectively abolished the caliphate in 1924, there was uproar in many parts of the Islamic world but no effective resistance. Atatürk dispatched the last caliph into ignominious exile in France. The institution lapsed into redundancy, existing theoretically, but not physically. Undefined, incorporeal, the caliphate was ripe for reinventing.

Within less than a decade of the caliphate’s abolition, activists within the Islamic world had begun to see its restoration as the panacea to all its ills. One of the first to do so was Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. By the 1990s, a new wave of violent militants would also be calling for a restoration of the caliphate, among them Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s present leader. For them, as for their predecessors, the institution represented a return to the days when Islamic sovereigns were feared and respected by western rulers.

But bin Laden and al-Zawahiri saw such a restoration as a distant goal, unlikely to be realised in their own lifetimes. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, did not share this long-term vision and last year took the unilateral decision to re-establish the caliphate shortly after seizing the city of Mosul. He appointed himself at its head. Not long afterwards, al-Baghdadi, a former religious studies student and veteran militant, issued a message that summed up the world view not just of IS but of all Islamic extremists active today.

First and foremost, the caliphate would allow Muslims to heal the damage done by centuries of western dominance, through dismantling all the structures it had imposed. “The Muslims were defeated after the fall of their caliphate,” al-Baghdadi wrote. “Then their state ceased to exist, so the unbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as civilisation, peace, coexistence, freedom, democracy, secularism, Baathism, nationalism and patriotism, among other falsehoods.”

Surveying the Islamic world, al-Baghdadi described sectarian clashes everywhere from Burma to the Central African Republic. He listed alleged atrocities, including repression of Muslims in western China, the ban on the hijab in France, “the destruction of Muslims’ homes in Palestine, prisons everywhere full of Muslims, the seizing of Muslims’ lands, the violation and desecration of Muslims’ sanctuaries and families” and the “propagation of adultery,” though quite where this final crime was occurring was left unclear. All this violence was attributed to the west and aggregated into a single global conflict between belief and unbelief, between the west and their proxies in the Islamic world and true Muslims. The solution was the caliphate. “Raise your head high, for today—by Allah’s grace—you have a state and caliphate, which will return your dignity, might, rights and leadership... rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.”

That this might be attractive to young men in the chaos-hit countries of the Middle East is not difficult to understand. There has been much interest in the apocalyptic tone of so much of IS’s rhetoric. Yet although this is undoubtedly present the historical element is just as powerful and possibly more widespread. Films about military heroes of the early Islamic period, or the battle of Yarmuk or Hattin, often get half a million YouTube views. The reading material of one detained IS fighter, from India, comprised a copy of the Koran and biographies of Saladin and Khalid bin Waleed, a legendary 7th-century Muslim General. This is typical. As with all Islamic militant groups, the names taken by recruits are almost all those of important personalities from the first decades of the faith. In his speech at the mosque in Mosul in July last year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi cited entire paragraphs taken from the acceptance speech of his namesake the caliph Abu Bakr some 1,400 years earlier. That he should do so, and thus claim the legacy of a man revered by a lot of Muslims, angered many.

For most Muslims, al-Baghdadi’s hubristic announcement does not make him caliph at all; it simply makes him the latest of a long line of religious revivalist leaders, of all faiths, who have claimed the right to lead a given religious community to redemption. But while his claim to the title may have been dismissed by all major Islamic religious authorities, and most minor ones too, none would dispute its subtext: the resurrection not simply of a title but of the power, dignity, wealth and military renown of Muslim rulers from the 7th to the 18th centuries.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers have not simply revived the caliphate but reinvented it. This has some important strategic implications for the west. Until the emergence of IS, the territorial extent of any putative caliphate was fairly well defined, broadly limited to the historic extent of the great empires—Abbasid, Mughal, possibly Ottoman—with the addition of Muslim-majority parts of the Asia Pacific region and Africa. It does not seem to have occurred to extremist thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s that they might attack the west directly, let alone conquer western nations. Speaking in the 1980s at the end of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Abdallah Azzam, the best-known ideologue among the leaders of the foreign legion of largely Middle Eastern fighters in that conflict, had spoken of the “mujahideen” liberating areas from southern Spain (once a Muslim state) to the Far East, but not beyond. The Management of Savagery, an anonymous but highly influential text published around 2004 which is still circulated among extremist leaders and fighters, including those of IS, tells militants that if they capture Algeria they should “begin to prepare for conquering Libya and Egypt the following morning,” while “if the mujahideen are given victory on the Arabian Peninsula, on the following day they must prepare immediately to begin conquering the smaller states which these paltry regimes in Jordan and the Gulf rule.” It does not, however, mention any major operations outside what is usually defined as the Islamic world. There is no evidence that either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri ever envisaged invading western nations either.

The imagined borders of IS’s caliphate are still unclear. In his statement ostensibly welcoming Boko Haram in March, al-Adnani sent mixed signals. He said that the Muslims would “return to mastership and leadership in every place” and listed a dozen cities within the Islamic world. But he also threatened to “destroy the White House, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower... just as [Muslim armies] destroyed the palace of [the Persian monarch] Chosroes [at Ctesiphon in Iraq in 637]” before stating bluntly that the group “want Paris” and “will enter Rome.” Al-Baghdadi himself, in an audio tape in July last year, told his fighters that “brothers all over the world” were waiting for their arrival and, if they followed his orders, they would enter “Rome.” Rome, for the early Muslims, meant Byzantium. Do al-Adnani and al-Baghdadi actually mean the capital of Italy? It seems unlikely that they mean Istanbul.

A new vision of the extent of the caliphate does appear to be emerging, in which the new Islamic superpower is no longer constrained by the boundaries of earlier Islamic empires. A British fighter with IS, writing in June this year, promised that: “When we descend on the streets of London, Paris and Washington the taste will be far bitterer [sic] because not only will we spill your blood but we will also demolish your statues, erase your history and most painfully convert your children who will go on to... curse their forefathers.” Others have spoken (with hyperbole) of flying the black flag of IS over the White House.

This new vision of a genuinely global caliphate may sound like bad news for the west. Yet this is not entirely the case. IS may have deployed this new global vision precisely because it faces key vulnerabilities. It is, after all, only a fractured coalition of different extremist strands and groups which have been empowered first by a decade of violent conflict from 2001, and then by the failings of policymakers in Iraq and Syria after the Arab Spring. IS rules by a mixture of threats of horrific violence, the provision of some basic services, exploiting a Sunni fear of Shia domination and the promise of a degree of security. If it can no longer deliver on any of these then its current power may start to wane.

For decades, when faced by significant challenges, Islamic militant groups have “gone global.” Al-Qaeda emerged following the check of local campaigns in the early 1990s around the Islamic world. Algerian militants joined al-Qaeda’s international network in 2009, when it was clear that almost 20 years of efforts in their own neighbourhood had failed. Their leaders admitted they hoped for “breathing space” and a “change of image.” Commanders attracted to IS in Afghanistan currently are often those who have lost out in internal power plays. Factions of al-Shabab in Somalia were drawn to the more global vision as their hold on terrain shrank and internal disputes sharpened.

Continued expansion is key to the group’s survival. One reason for the successful campaigns of the early Muslims was that every victory appeared to justify the claim that “Islam was the solution.” Many battles were won before being fought, with defections or surrenders bringing them huge amounts of territory. Leaders of IS, and their recruits, clearly believe that they too are now executing God’s projects on earth.

Yet as with all such claims, this cuts both ways. For if IS starts to lose significant amounts of ground, or even stops gaining new territory, then the group’s credibility will be significantly damaged, as it will if al-Baghdadi is killed. Its followers understand that those favoured by God are tested, but they are not usually repeatedly defeated.

When this has happened previously, rulers in the Islamic world have turned to other resources to bolster their legitimacy and support. Sometimes this simply involved paying off key figures. Sometimes it involved disseminating new interpretations of Islam. But neither tactic is likely to work for IS for long. Neither ploy will allow it to fulfil the threats or the promises on which its current power depends.

A series of reverses, especially if al-Baghdadi is somehow eliminated, will probably fragment IS permanently. Given luck and a scintilla of sense among regional powers as well as international ones, the organisation may be relatively rapidly reduced to a much-weakened remnant that is bothersome rather than dangerous. In the short term, sadly, however, this is something to be hoped for, rather than anticipated.