The Debacle of the Caliphates: Why al-Baghdadi’s Grandiosity doesn’t Matter

By Juan Cole

Ibrahim al-Badri, a run-of-the-mill Sunni Iraqi cleric, gained a degree from the University of Baghdad at a time when pedagogy there had collapsed because of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and international sanctions. After 2003 he took the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and turned to a vicious and psychopathic violence involving blowing up children at ice cream shops and blowing up gerbils and garden snakes at pet shops and blowing up family weddings, then coming back and blowing up the resultant funerals. This man is one of the most infamous serial killers in modern history, with the blood of thousands on his hands, before whom Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy fade into insignificance.

Al-Baghdadi leads the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), which today changed its name just to “the Islamic State.” And its members made a pledge of fealty to al-Baghdadi as the “caliph.” Let us please call it the “so-called Islamic State,” since it bears all the resemblance to mainstream Islam that Japan’s Om Shinrikyo (which let sarin gas into the subway in 1995) bears to Buddhism.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 in Medina, West Arabia, the clans of Mecca favored as his successor notables of his noble clan, the Quraysh (the “Little Shark Tribe”). The first three were Abu Bakr, Omar and `Uthman.

Some clans in the neighboring city of Medina preferred a dynastic principle, wanting to see a close relative of Muhammad succeed him as his vicar. They favored Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, i.e., the closest thing he had to a living son at the time of his death. Ali was passed over three times by the notables in Mecca but finally became the fourth caliph in 656 AD. He was, however, assassinated in 661 only five years later. Those Muslims who accepted the first four “Orthodox caliphs” gradually became known as ‘people of the tradition,’ or ahl al-sunnah, i.e., the Sunnis.

The groups that became the Shiites think of Ali as the first vicar of the Prophet, or “Imam,” and believe his office should rightfully have gone to his sons Hasan and Husain, and then to Husain’s son, and so on through the generations. Most Shiites today believe that the Twelfth Imam disappeared as a small child but will one day reveal himself again and restore the world to justice, as the Mahdi.

After Ali’s assassination, the Umayyad kings ruled (661-750), and though some scholars have found that they claimed religious charisma, they were just Arab kings. A branch of the family of the Prophet tracing itself back to his uncle Abbas began making claims to rightful rule, however, and they were popular among the new converts from among the Persians in Iran, and in 750 they made a revolution against the Umayyads. They became the Abbasid caliphate, ruling until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258.

The Abbasid caliphs gradually separated out their religious authority from secular authority, and later on rulers like the Buyids took Baghdad and gave the caliphs a stipend and limited the reach of their authority. Ira Lapidus argued that there was a de facto separation of religion and state in the Abbasid period.

After the embarrassing end of the caliphate at the hands of the Buddhist and animist Mongols, some attempts were made to revive the institution. They failed. The Mamluk state in Egypt in the medieval period maintained that a relative of the last caliph had escaped the Mongols to Cairo, and they maintained what some have called a “shadow caliphate” (Khilafah suriya) or pro forma caliphate. I don’t know of any Muslims who know the names of those supposed caliphs, or who refer to any of their rulings. I doubt they were widely recognized.

Although subsequent sultans or secular emperors sometimes were termed “caliphs” in flowery style by their courtiers, I can’t find any evidence of anyone taking that sort of thing seriously. In the 18th century Ahmad al-Damanhuri, a rector of al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo, the foremost center of Sunni learning, wrote an essay in which he was frank that the caliphate ended in 1258, that the Mamluk ‘shadow caliphate’ hadn’t amounted to much, and that the Ottomans were kings, not caliphs. The Sunni caliphate had lapsed. He said, however, that some of the Ottomans were better and more just rulers, as secular monarchs, than some of the caliphs had been. I know of no reason to think that al-Damanhuri’s views weren’t the prevailing ones on the eve of Middle Eastern modernity. {Ahmad al-Damanhuri, al-Naf` al-ghazir fi salah al-Sultan wa al-wazir, Egyptian National Library, Taymur Ijtima`, MS 34, p. 10).

Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) was concerned about European encroachment on Ottoman and Muslim lands (white Christians conquered Muslim-ruled states of India beginning 1757, Muslim Central Asia through the 19th Century and Algeria in 1830). The Iranian diplomat Mirza Malkum Khan cabled the shah back in Tehran in 1880 that Abdulhamid had decided to declare himself a caliph so as to turn the tables and claim authority in places like British India, where 1/4 of the population was Muslim. Although the idea that the Ottoman sultan was a caliph gained some purchase in British India, I don’t think it was widely accepted. British interviews with Egyptians after they conquered that country in 1882 suggested that Egyptians didn’t see Abdulhamid as a caliph.

Abdulhamid, despite saying he was a caliph, was overthrown by a democratic revolution in 1908-1909, which instituted a constitution and a parliament and tried to reduce the sultan-caliph to a figurehead. In early 1913, Young Turk military officers, however, made a coup and sent parliament home. They unwisely took the Ottoman Empire into WW I in alliance with Austria and Germany. Mehmed V, the new sultan-caliph (now relatively powerless) used his bully pulpit to declare jihad or holy war on France, Britain and Russia. The Ottomans were nevertheless defeated (and Indian Muslim troops helped in the defeating). After the war, the British and the French divided up the Ottoman provinces among themselves. Nationalist, secular general Mustafa Kemal refused to see Anatolia or Asia Minor, the heartland of Turkish speakers, divvied up, and launched a war to stop it. He won. The Turkish state came into being. Its parliament declared itself a republic in 1923. In 1924 it abolished the caliphate.

The end of the caliphate did not matter to most Muslims. You don’t need a caliph to pray five times a day or fast Ramadan. In Egypt, Ali Abd al-Raziq, a court judge, argued in modernist fashion that no caliph is necessary. Some Egyptian clerics were uncomfortable with the idea, but they lost the argument. There was some jockeying to resurrect the caliphate in the mid-1920s, and the Egyptian king, Fuad I, threw his crown in the ring. But the fact is that none of the newly forming nation-states wanted a transnational authority like that, and no consensus could be reached, and the caliphate (such as it was, since I don’t think most Muslims bought into Abdulhamid’s project) lapsed again.

Small groups of cult-like fundamentalists ever after hoped for a restored caliphate, but it isn’t something on the minds of 99% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Sunni Islam has come sociologically to resemble Protestant Christianity, lacking a formal center and largely organized on the basis of the nation-state. Thus each Muslim-majority country has a mufti, who is the highest legal authority, giving rulings on practice for the state. Ask the muftis, who have real authority backed by Muslim states, what they think of the serial murderer, al-Baghdadi.

I remember in 2004 Usama Bin Laden issued a speech in which he complained about the calamities rained down on the Muslim world by the European Christians ‘for the past 80 years.’ He was referring to the abolition of the caliphate by Ataturk in 1924. His theory was that without a caliph Muslims were easily divided and ruled by the great powers. The flaw in that theory is that the Ottomans claimed to be caliphs toward the end of the empire but the Great Powers still divided and ruled them. It is hard to argue with military power, and fancy religious titles won’t win such power struggles. Even the original Abbasid caliphate was ended by pagan Mongol steppe warriors who had lacquered, reticulated short bows that they could fire from horseback and which could penetrate armor. (Mongols had very sophisticated fletchers).

In fact, making grandiose claims on authority was common among Muslim leaders resisting the European colonial powers Often their followers thought that such leaders had the power to deflect European bullets and cannonballs. The popular Muslim notion of a Mahdi or rightly-guided figure who will be sent by god at the last days (sometimes, it is thought, at the same time Christ returns) was invoked for anti-colonial purposes on several occasions. A Mahdi or messiah rose up against the French in Egypt in 1799. The French killed him. Another Mahdi arose in the Sudan in the 1880s. The British defeated his army, killed his successor, and then went on to rule the Sudan until 1956. Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq created the Mahdi Army, intended as a force to support the Mahdi, who he thought was about to appear, and which took on the US and British militaries in 2004; it lost on the battlefield.

And, of course, Mulla Omar Uruzgani of Afghanistan was proclaimed “caliph” by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Hopefully he and al-Baghdadi will end up in the same jail cell so they can drive each other crazy claiming to be the real caliph. In fact, virtually no one in the Muslim world thinks Mulla Omar is a caliph.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood developed the institution of the Supreme Guide, which under President Muhammad Morsi in 2012-2013 developed theocratic aspirations. The Supreme Guide, Muhammad Badie, proved conspiratorial and controlling, and Morsi proved compliant. The vast majority of Egyptians were annoyed by this grandiosity, and they overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. Badie is in danger of being executed. I think that the Egyptian elite has gone too far in persecuting Muslim Brothers and branding them terrorists, mind you, and the death sentence on Badie is a human rights violation. But I’m just pointing out that calling yourself Supreme Guide and getting the loyalty of a sectarian group is no guarantee of worldly success. And the Brotherhood is way more important the the ‘Islamic State.’

This Baghdadi ‘caliphate’ thing is doomed, as well.

You want to see the future of Islam, look at the al-Nahda or Renaissance Party in Tunisia, which just successfully completed a term in office in coalition with a secular human rights-oriented party and a socialist party.


Related video:

ITN: “The Islamic Caliphate is declared by Isis ”


Related book:

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

23 Responses

  1. Juan, thanks for some more invaluable insights into why the current extremists think and act the way they do.
    Still, the sooner they declare their Caliphate, the sooner they can start splitting into factions and commence the process of deepening internal disagreement that will set them at one another’s throats, rather than anyone else’s.

    • This is your wishful Shiite thinking!! At least you have to give credit to their incredible and fast victory over a million solders without any air-force that this world never witnessed in its recent history. Hence, this only indicates their continual strength than as you wished, killing each other.

  2. “Caliphate” is traditionally connoted in Christianty with fear and horror. One should not forget that the Abbasid Caliphate (as explained above probably the only one with some legitimacy and authority) has preserved science and even civilization for about 500 years. Why is a Caliphate such a ridiculous idea in the 21st century? (Abu Bakr’s is, of course). Maybe Muslims would benefit from a spiritual leader which could be elected in a conclave. Sunnis are not really comparable with Protestants, rather with Catholics which consider themselves not a sect but the only legitimate church. So, why not elect a Muslim pope? (Not Abu Bakr, of course.)

  3. “Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq created the Mahdi army, intended as a force to support the Mahdi, who he thought was about to appear, which took on the U.S. and British militaries; it lost on the battlefield.

    Didn’t Muqtada al-Sadr believe the U.S. invaded because they were trying to stop the Mahdi from reappearing?

  4. A quick correction to an otherwise excellent post: The British did not kill the Sudanese Mahdi. He died of natural causes in 1885, and was succeeded (following a brief interregnum) by the “Khalifa”. He’s the one the British killed in 1898.

  5. Bin Maymun

    Dwelling on #ISIS so called ‘Caliphate’ is silly if not superficial; it was an illegitimate institution & is irrelevant today

  6. From what I’ve read, even the Mamluks & Ottomans didn’t take their own caliphal control seriously. The Mamluk caliphs were completely figureheads who lived fairly plush lives at the sultans’ whim, while the Ottomans only started using the title to any degree after the Russians agreed to recognize them as caliphs over the Crimean Tatars in the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774.
    It’s plausible that ISIS is capable of establishing a radical state if the Iraqi government & others remain divided, but for them to have any semblance of caliphal authority, they’d have to occupy Mecca, and that’s not likely to happen.

  7. I have long felt that the Caliphate and the other fundamentalists backed sects are bound to fail because they are up against the most powerful political force in the modern world:


    Modern history has shown nationalism to trump every ideology/religion out there.

    Now, perhaps what we are seeing with ISIS is the expression of Sunni Nationalism.

    But I seriously doubt it. While the fundamentalist sects might have the power in the short run, I believe they are bound to fail when national interests trump religious ideology.

  8. Just as a footnote: It was Ottoman Sultan Selim I, father of Suleiman the Magnificent, who brought the title Caliph back as a souvenir of his conquest of Egypt. As you correctly noted, the use of the title was highly selective over the centuries. “Back in the day,” Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror added the title Qaisar-i-Rum to his list. To make the point clear, he had a coin minted with the title Emperor of Rome in Latin along with his name Mehmet II. That one too eventually ended up engraved along with all the other titles belonging to the Sultan. Mehmet sometimes claimed in front of Europeans that he actually had Byzantine blood due to the earlier marriages between Ottoman sultans and Byz brides. In reality, only one such marriage is known to have produced a child and he did not become sultan. Made a good story, though.

  9. It could be argued that al-Baghdadi is “our” Frankenstein monster. He was born in 1971, so he was only nine years old when the Iraq-Iran War began in 1980 (a war that the U.S. indirectly supported by giving Iraq financial aid and selling Iraq the components needed to make weapons, including chemical munitions).

    After growing up with the hardship and deprivation of the Iraq-Iran war, he was 19 or 20 when we bombed Iraq during the First Gulf War in 1991. Then he experienced the deprivation of sanctions, followed by the horror of the U.S “Shock and Awe” attack in 2003, and the ensuing bloodbath that has run from that year until today.

    One account says that he was a farmer living in the north of Baghdad when he was picked up during a mass sweep by U.S. forces in 2005 and held as a “civilian detainee”. Another account says that he was a hard-line Salafi Sunni imam and lecturer who was detained by U.S. forces on June 04, 2004. He spent four years in Camp Bucca prison, a U.S. facility that often came under heavy militant rocket fire, and he was released when the center was closed in 2009.

    I’ve yet to find a clear explanation of why al Baghdadi was arrested and held. This vagueness indicates that our military prison record keeping is deeply flawed. Per the Washington Post, Camp Bucca was “viewed by many as an appalling miscarriage of justice where prisoners were not charged or permitted to see evidence against them.” (“In Iraq, Chaos Feared as U.S. Closes Prison” by Anthony Shadid, 03.22.2009)

    Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be a textbook example of how the strategy that we’re using in our War on Terror is actually a Factory for Terror. After experiencing so much carnage and possibly torture at the hands of outsiders, is it any wonder that al-Baghdadi has turned on his creator? Uncle Sam deserves a new name: Uncle Samenstein.

    • The same can be said for Israel and the rise of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

      Look at the backgrounds of many of the leaders of those organizations and you will see a pattern of radicalization and militancy that was a reaction from a perception of human rights abuses.

  10. One other aspect of ancestry from Mohammed is that the “Hashemite status” confers a certain degree respect and legitimacy in the Arab world.

    The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is an example of a monarchy who claims an ancestral relationship from Mohammed.

    The Atassi clan of Homs in Syria claim an ancestry from Mohammed as well and have held religious offices in Homs since 1530 based upon that link and one of the Atassis became prime minister of Syria and was in office until being overthrown by Baathists under Hafez Assad in the early 1970s. Suheir Atassi, a feminist attorney, currently plays a leading role in the Syrian National Coalition.

  11. There have been other psychopathic Sunni Islamist extremists (Zarqawi, Mehsuds, Godane, Shekau, etc) that have employed such tactics for serial massacres for their ideological or religious-political cause well before Al-Badri/Al-Baghdadi or even 9/11. He just happens to be the latest player that dared to challenge other militant establishments and came out a winner with his own territory that seems as remarkable than the Taliban control of Afghanistan. Either way the radical movement unfortunately has widespread support and admirers.

    To the Shia Twelvers, the Abbasid caliphate were still considered oppressive against them. While some Sunnis (and fewer Shia) may have romantic notions of a caliphate golden age, most Shias view the caliphate as a continuing injustice and oppose entertaining such notions (though Iran’s Supreme Leader is almost along those lines). Its one of the reasons why Jinnah, in then British India, never liked the Khilafat movement, which was also joined by some Hindu leaders who viewed it as a way to oppose the British, and instead idolized the secular hardline Attaturk. The Ottomans also faced the ethnic resentment and opposition of different Arab groups.

    Wish such delusion was restricted to Al Sadr…unfortunately its not. He may sound a bit ‘sane’ now, but he destroyed a lot of lives on which his political career is built on. During the invasion the US thwarted a Shia cult who tried to assassinate Ayatollah Sistani, on the order of their self-proclaimed ‘Mahdi’ leader who was killed.

    I don’t think even the hidden Quetta Shura, or Mullah Omar himself, believe he’s caliph. Unfortunately he has his admirers which may include Pak’s establishment. While there’s no real widespread support of a ‘caliphate’, just talk, there is always the undefined ‘Islamic state’ yearning which has great sizeable sentiment, if not, support…until fundamentalists start imposing it on the dreamers, some wake up early and some too late to oppose it, while others are scarily living their dream….

  12. I’m not entirely sure why many are characterizing the caliphate as some form of supreme religious leadership with talk of “legitimacy” and “authority” over Muslims. The caliphate was never a form of theocracy like the papacy. There is no religious edict or prescription of a caliphate. It was a purely political institution whose legitimacy and authority were entirely dependent on the willingness of people to be subject to it. On that note, your point still stands that this “caliphate” has neither legitimacy or authority. That’s mostly because almost everyone, everywhere knows that a caliphate is an extinct form of government that cannot simply be revived by using the label. There are philosophical and historical connotations to the term “caliph” that are highly context dependent. The use of the word by ISIL, whoever they are, raises suspicions that the group is but another part of a war machine dependent on fear, fear that is conjured using old, irrelevant yet scary terms that a western audience can recognize. While the Arab and Muslim Worlds scratch their heads at the very bizarre, antiquated notion of a “caliph, ” (everyone is asking who on earth would call themselves that these days?) Western drones and artillery ships are being mobilized.

  13. One perhaps not so little elaboration on the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the sack of Baghdad. The Mongols were Buddhist and animist, it’s true: but a significant number of the army was also Christian (including Hulagu Khan’s lieutenant, Kitbuqa).

    Also, it’s my recollection that the Ummayads call themselves Caliphs, both when they ruled from Damascus and after they were defeated by the Abbasids and their remnants set up shop in Andalus (competing Caliphs were a very early thing!).

    And one comment on ISIS (I wonder how riled they get being called the name of an ancient Egyptian fertility goddess?): Al-Baghdadi may be “in charge”, but my understanding of what is happening on the ground at least according to Imran Khan from AJE is that the actual administration of places like Mosul is being done by Sunni Arab Ba’athist veterans. I believe that Mosul is actually being governed by the “King of Clubs” from the 2003 US Invasion Card Deck. I suspect the extreme Salafist jihadists are just being used to generate some light and heat, but that Saddam’s people are the ones actually taking back a bit of what they consider theirs.

  14. I thank Juan Cole and all of the commentators for helping to expand my still embryonic understanding of Islam. (I just finished reading Reza Aslan’s “No god but God”, which is the only treatment of Islam I’ve read outside of Wikipedia {grin}, so I’m obviously still a beginner.) Most specifically, the people and politics described on this page (by Mr. Cole and others) all started to fall into place, helping to solidify my now not quite so shaky framework. Thanks to all.

  15. When I encounter someone who is abysmally ignorant(which is most people) about the Middle East I tell them if they really want to know what’s going on in that misbegotten part of the world, they should read Juan Cole. I also wrote to those ridiculous Sunday Morning “News” shows which keep dragging in the odious ignoramus Bill Kristol and others of his ilk, that if they want credibility, they ought to bring in someone like Juan Cole.. It seems from reading this post that there are others out “there” who are far more familiar with what’s really going on in the Middle East than anyone in the traditional Media.

  16. @hpmuller, true Sunnis are against very thought of a pope.
    That is actually the reason for schism between Shias and Sunnis.
    What has happened is that some Sunnis want to emulate the Shias without saying so-hence their ideal of a Caliph.
    It has always seemed to me that the Saudis wanted Muslims to look to their King as the so called Caliph, hence their financing of madressas and fundamentalist Jihadis. The ISIL has actually hoist them with their own pitard.

  17. Those (i.e. Muslims) unto whom the people (hypocrites) said, “Verily, the people (pagans) have gathered against you (a great army), therefore, fear them.” But it (only) increased them in Faith, and they said: “Allah (Alone) is Sufficient for us, and He is the Best Disposer of affairs (for us).” Holy Quran- 3:173

  18. A great analysis by Professor Cole. While I certainly agree that 99% of Muslims do not care about Al Baghdadi’s claim I don’t think the caliphate as an institution can entirely be disregarded. Firstly the caliphate while does have some religious functions in that is meant to be governed by Sharia law, is ultimately a political body rather than religious. A caliph is not equivalent to the pope. In other words the religion of Islam carries on without a caliph and has for some time.

    That said, the caliphate is symbolic and is an essential memory/history of Muslims around the world. Rightly or wrongly, Muslims view the very concept of the caliphate as being associated with a golden age and a time when Islam was dominant. Additionally, the caliphate has eschatological and prophetic meaning as many Muslims believe that the end times is signified by the establishment of a righteous Islamic state ruled by a caliph with the coming of the Madhi.

    So while I agree with the overall message of Professor Cole’s piece, I also think that the caliphate as a symbol still has important meaning for Muslims. Which makes the claims by this murderous criminal all the more frightening.

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