The announcement that the caliphate was restored was issued by the extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) on 29 June. I have been told by friends in the Middle East that the response of some young people was “What is the caliphate?” If that is the case with Muslims, how much more is it the case with non-Muslims throughout the world. What is the caliphate? What is the significance of it being restored? Is this something that should worry us?
I tried to answer a few of these questions in an essay published this week in America magazine:
For most people in the West the caliphate is an unknown. It sounds exotic — like something out of A Thousand and One Nights, a topic more suitable for National Geographic than The New York Times. However, ISIS and the newly proclaimed caliphate have taken over large sections of northeastern Syria as well as large sections of Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. With efficiency and startling brutality ISIS has terrorized the Iraqi population, thrown the army into chaos and is marching on Baghdad where it threats to slaughter Shiites en masse.
Clearly the caliphate is back on the world stage. Contemporary information about the caliphate, mediated through the Western media, is a mixture of what ISIS thinks the caliphate was/is/should be, coupled at times with a historical reflection. As is the case in many ideologically motivated recreations of a historical past, the caliphate of ISIS relies on an idealized past, which, if it ever existed, did not exist for a very long time. While it is fair to say that the caliphate started with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in June 632 and continued until it was abolished by Atatürk in 1924, its form, authority and success differed greatly from place to place and time to time.
Read the full article, “Contesting the Caliphate,” in the current edition of America.