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The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claims to have established a caliphate. But what is the basis for this claim and how widely is it accepted? ISIL’s main attraction for recruits rests on the fact that it controls a sizable territory where it has established what it claims to be an Islamic caliphate under sharia (Islamic law).
Within days of consolidating control over much of northern Iraq, ISIL spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani proclaimed:
Indeed, God (the Exalted) blessed you today with this victory, thus we announced the khilafa [caliphate] in compliance with the order of God (the Exalted). We announced it because—by God’s grace—we have its essentials. By God’s permission, we are capable of establishing the khilafa. So we carry out the order of God (the Exalted) and we are justified—if God wills—and we do not care thereafter what happens, even if we only remain for one day or one hour, and to God belongs the matter before and after.
To recruits, this seems to be the first authentically “Islamic” state since the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001. Unlike Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, ISIL has been constituted in the Islamic heartland, within striking distance of Islam’s ancient capital cities of Damascus and Baghdad, and in proximity to the sacred cities of Jerusalem, Medina, and Mecca. A caliphate in Mesopotamia evokes memories of an idealized golden age of Islam far more powerfully than an Islamic state in remote Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar was content to claim the title amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers) and Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders pledged their loyalty to him as such. In early Islam, amir al-mu’minin and khalifa (short for khalifat rasul Allah, or “successor/vicegerent to the Messenger of God”) were interchangeable titles, both referring to the head of the Muslim community and empire. But explicitly claiming the title of caliph was apparently too brazen a move even for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Perhaps they were deterred by the requirement in classical legal sources that the caliph must be a descendant of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca to which the Prophet belonged. This requirement spawned fierce disputes dating back to the earliest period of Islamic history. The Kharijites notably disavowed it in the seventh century and many contenders for the caliphate have not been stymied by it since, including the Ottoman sultans, who were the last to use the title of caliph with any degree of credibility.
In his proclamation of the caliphate, Adnani stressed Baghdadi’s Quraysh lineage. The entire statement takes pains to present ISIL as the faithful upholders of Islamic tradition: “The shura (consultation) council of the Islamic State studied this matter after the Islamic State—by God’s grace—gained the essentials necessary for khilafa, which the Muslims are sinful for if they do not try to establish.” In other words, the caliphate is so fundamental a religious requirement that Muslims cannot shirk it when the necessary conditions for it are present. To back this claim, Adnani quotes Verse 2:30: “And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I will make upon the earth a khalifa,’” and then proceeds to quote the thirteenth-century Quranic commentator al-Qurtubi (d. 1273), who interprets the verse as a proof-text for the caliphate established by the Muslim community immediately after the Prophet’s death.
As with most propaganda, ISIL’s statements about the caliphate contain a kernel of truth surrounded by a mass of half-truths and outright falsehoods. If it were a fundamental requirement of Islam, surely the caliphate would have been referenced in the Quran and set up by the Prophet himself. Yet, the Quran does not mention it, nor did the Prophet establish it before his death. The Quran uses the term khalifa or its plural forms khala’if and khulafa’ nine times to describe human beings collectively as God’s stewards on earth (Verses 2:30, 38:26), or one group of people as successors to another (Verses 7:69, 10:14). Only one verse, 38:26, refers to a single individual as caliph, and that individual is Daud (the biblical King David).
In the Sunni tradition, the Prophet never interpreted any verse of the Quran as requiring the establishment of a caliphate. When the Prophet died without clearly establishing guidelines for his succession, the community was left to fend for itself. When asked many years after the event to describe how Abu Bakr became the first caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, famously responded that it had been falta—a chance or unforeseen occurrence. In other words, the caliphate was born not of divine or Prophetic instruction but of pure improvisation.
Indeed, the Quran and the sunna of the Prophet are silent not only on the caliphate but on political institutions generally. Despite the claims of a number of fundamentalist Muslim writers on what is required of an “Islamic state,” the Prophet did not leave behind a blueprint for a state. Had he done so, the Sunni-Shia divide would likely not have occurred. At most, the Quran and the sunna provide only broad moral guidelines for the conduct. These broad guidelines provide the basis for a number of conceivable political institutions, as long as they promote the spiritual and material well-being of the Muslim community.
It is true that the Sunni political theory that developed centuries after the death of the Prophet lavished considerable attention on the institution of the caliphate and that many influential theorists considered it to be a religious requirement. But as demonstrated in the reference to Qurtubi in Adnani’s statement, classical theorists read back into the Quran and sunna support for an institution where no direct support existed. Their motivation was to resuscitate an initially improvised office that had come over the centuries to symbolize the ideal of Muslim unity and power. The most ardent defense of the caliphate as an institution required by divine law (sharia) and not by human reason came in the 11th and 12th centuries when it had already become largely irrelevant.
Reading Verse 2:30, which is about human stewardship of God’s creation, as a proof-text for the caliphate was a stretch of the exegetical imagination in Qurtubi’s time—and is even more so today. Two modern Quranic commentaries that are influential in Salafi circles—those of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) and Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi (d. 1979) —make no reference at all to the caliphate in interpreting Verse 2:30. In his 1960 treatise Islamic Law and Constitution, Mawdudi discusses the meaning of khalifa: “This vicegerency is a popular vicegerency. Basically it belongs to all mankind and is not the exclusive privilege of any individual, family, tribe, class or sect.”
Before ISIL, the idea of reviving the caliphate was largely a messianic dream in the Salafi agenda. Very few groups dealt with it seriously. The leaders of al-Qaeda only mused in passing about the need in some later phase of their jihad to reinstate the caliphate. In Knights under the Prophet’s Banner (2001), Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote: “The establishment of a Muslim state in the heart of the Islamic world is not an easy goal or an objective that is close at hand. But it constitutes the hope of the Muslim nation to reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory.”
Only one contemporary group, Hizb al-Tahrir, has devoted any significant attention to the task of reestablishing the caliphate. Founded in the early 1950s in Jerusalem and now with an organizational presence in some forty countries, Hizb al-Tahrir’s overarching goal is dawa, or the call to Islamic faith. But, unlike the vast majority of similar groups today, it links this religious mission with the political ambition of creating a universal Islamic state led by a caliph. The group’s draft constitution establishes that the caliph will be elected by the universal franchise of Muslims, and once in power, only he will have the authority to pass the “final constitution” of the Islamic state.
The “draft constitution” for Hizb al-Tahrir’s proposed Islamic state may be found in a 300-page document titled “The Ruling System of Islam.” The treatise opens by outlining what the Islamic system is not: it is not monarchical, republican, imperial, or federal. Rather, the true Islamic system is the caliphate. The treatise then specifies how the caliphate is to be brought about, what powers the caliph would exercise in a state governed by sharia, and which departments and government officers would assist the caliph in governance. This book is supplemented by further information on the group’s website, complete with detailed organizational charts outlining the structure of the entire system as well as sub-departments.
The extent to which ISIL ideologues are influenced by Hizb al-Tahrir is unclear. What is clear is that Hizb al-Tahrir has rejected ISIL’s claim that it has established a new caliphate. A statement issued by Hizb al-Tahrir in July 2014 declared the ISIL proclamation of a caliphate to be “empty.” The announcement changed nothing “about the reality of the organization… being an armed movement before the announcement … and it remaining so after the announcement. This is because there is no real sulta (authority) for this organization upon the land of Syria or Iraq. The security has not been established internally or externally and it is impossible for a caliphate to have a real existence in the absence of a real authority upon the land.” In addition, Hizb al-Tahrir leaders insist that they—unlike ISIL—intend to realize the caliphate entirely through peaceful means.
In short, ISIL’s claims to having established a caliphate has unleashed a war of words within the ranks of radical Islamists. Far from finding support, ISIL’s claims have been vociferously challenged and rejected by other groups harboring the same ambition.
 Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “This Is the Promise of God,” June 29, 2014. https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/isis-spokesman-declares-caliphate-rebrands-group-as-islamic-state.html.
 There is some dispute as to whether al-Qaeda leaders considered Mullah Omar to effectively be a caliph when they pledged allegiance to him as amir. See Cole Bunzel, “Al-Qaeda’s Quasi-Caliphate: The Recasting of Mullah ‘Umar,” July 23, 2014. http://www.oasiscenter.eu/press-review/2014/07/24/al-qaeda-s-quasi-caliph-the-recasting-of-mullah-umar. In 2008, Ayman al-Zawahiri demurred when asked if Mullah Omar was caliph, but in light of ISIL’s declaration of a caliphate, he may be trying to assert Mullah Omar as a rival caliph based in South Asia. See William McCants, “Zawahiri’s Counter-Caliphate,” September 5, 2014. http://warontherocks.com/2014/09/zawahiris-counter-caliphate/.
 Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 9: The Last Years of the Prophet, trans. Ismail K. Poonawala (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 192.
 Asma Afsaruddin, “The ‘Islamic State’: Genealogy, Facts, and Myths,” Journal of Church and State, Vol. 48 (2006): 153-173; and Sohail H. Hashmi, “Islam and Constitutionalism,” February 1, 2013. http://www.libertylawsite.org/liberty-forum/islam-and-constitutionalism/.
 A concise overview of Muslim debates on the caliphate is available in H. A. R. Gibb, “Constitutional Organization,” in Law in the Middle East, ed. Majid Khadduri and Herbert Liebesny (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1955), 3-27.
 Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi, Islamic Law and Constitution, 9th ed. (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1986), 173.
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, His Own Words: The Writings of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, trans. Laura Mansfield (TLG Publications, 2006), 215.
 Hizb al-Tahrir. The Ruling System in Islam. http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/PDF/EN/en_books_pdf/07_The_Ruling_System_in_Islam.pdf.
 Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, “Media Statement Regarding ISIS’s Declaration in Iraq,” July 1, 2014. http://www.hizb.org.uk/current-affairs/media-statement-regarding-isiss-declaration-in-iraq; and Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, “‘Crackdown’ on Hizb ut-Tahrir and Implications for Muslim Community and Wider Society,” February 19, 2015, http://www.google.com/search?q=hizb+ut+tahrir+crackdown+on&gws_rd=ssl.
is distinguished professor of Islamic studies and international relations at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
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