The caliphate is dead.
Last Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been driven out of Iraq:
Today, our troops were able to purge islands of Nineveh and Anbar in full, and they (the forces) are now fully controlling the Iraqi-Syrian borders. These victories are not only for the Iraqis alone, though the Iraqis were themselves who achieved such victories with their sacrifices. But the victories are for all Arabs, Muslims and the world alike…Honorable Iraqis, your land has been completely liberated….The flag of Iraq is flying high today over all Iraqi territory and at the farthest point on the border.
With this, the Islamic State’s chief claim upon the allegiance of Muslims worldwide, and the reason why it was able to draw 30,000 Muslims from 100 countries to Iraq and Syria to join it, is gone.
On June 29, 2014, the group that had up to that point called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Shams in Arabic (hence the synonymous acronyms ISIL and ISIS) announced that it was forming a new caliphate – the single unified government of all the Muslims, according to Sunni Muslim thought – and would henceforth drop the second half of its name and call itself simply the Islamic State.
This claim to constitute a new caliphate became the basis of its appeal to Muslims worldwide, who have traveled in unprecedented numbers to Iraq, Syria and Libya to join it. Once it declared itself the new caliphate, the Islamic State swiftly began to consolidate its control over the large expanses of Iraq and Syria that it controlled – in its heyday, an area larger than the United Kingdom, with a population of eight million people. Blithely disregarding the world’s universal condemnation of its pretensions, it moved to assemble the accouterments of a state: currency, passports and the like. Its control of oil wells in Iraq quickly gave it a steady and sizeable source of wealth. It organized a police force, amassed an army of over 100,000 fighters, and became the world’s richest (and best-armed) jihad terror group.
The inability or unwillingness of the world to crush this rogue state in 2014, 2015 and 2016 supported its claim to be the caliphate. The caliphate in Islamic theology is the Islamic nation, embodying the supranational unity of the Muslim community worldwide under a single leader, the caliph, or “successor” – that is, the successor of Muhammad as the spiritual, political and military leader of the Muslims.
The caliph is considered to be the symbol and center of the unity of the Muslims worldwide. In traditional Islamic theology, the Muslims worldwide constitute a single community (umma), and are rightfully citizens only of the Islamic caliphate. The caliph, as the successor of Muhammad, is the only earthly authority to whom Muslims owe obedience.
Reliance of the Traveller, a manual of Islamic law that Cairo’s prestigious and influential Islamic university Al-Azhar (where Barack Obama delivered his outreach speech to the Islamic world in June 2009) certifies as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community,” explains more of why the caliphate is so pivotal for Muslims worldwide (or at least for Sunnis, who are eighty-five to ninety percent of the world’s Muslims; the Shi’ites have a very different idea of the authority within the Muslim community).
The caliphate, the Sharia manual says, is “both obligatory in itself and the necessary precondition for hundreds of rulings…established by Allah Most High to govern and guide Islamic community life.” It quotes the Islamic scholar Abul Hasan Mawardi explaining that the caliph’s role is “preserving the religion and managing this-worldly affairs.”
The caliphate is a “communal obligation,” according to Reliance of the Traveller, “because the Islamic community needs a ruler to uphold the religion, defend the sunna, succor the oppressed from oppressors, fulfill rights, and restore them to whom they belong.” The “sunna” is what is established by the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example as acceptable practice for Muslims.
Even more, only the caliph is authorized to declare offensive jihad. Reliance of the Traveller declares that the caliph “makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax.”
This jihad is an obligation upon the Muslim community as a whole, from which individual Muslims are excused if other Muslims are performing it. But jihad becomes an obligation for every Muslim when a Muslim land is attacked – that is defensive jihad and requires no caliph. All jihads, therefore, since 1924, even 9⁄11, have been classified as defensive, and their perpetrators and defenders justify them by reference to a long list of grievances. But once a caliph is in power, no such justification is needed: the caliph is obligated to declare jihad – and thus non-Muslims can expect that with the coming of the Islamic State caliphate, there will be even more jihad than there has been already.
Convinced and battle-trained Islamic State jihadis will continue to commit jihad mass murder in the Western countries to which they have returned, and which have foolishly let them back in. But its claim upon the world’s Muslims has been decisively repudiated by the victory of the Iraqi army. The caliphate dream is over. For now.