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Explainer: What Is The Islamic Caliphate?

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province on June 30 to celebrate the announcement of a new Islamic Caliphate by ISIL.
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province on June 30 to celebrate the announcement of a new Islamic Caliphate by ISIL.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has formally declared the establishment of a new "caliphate," or Islamic state, in territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria.

Accordingly, ISIL has dropped Iraq and Levant from its name, referring to itself simply as "Islamic State," and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its "caliph." The Islamic State has called on the world's entire Muslim population, the "Ummah," to swear loyalty to him, including rival militant groups.

Islamists have long dreamed of recreating the caliphate that ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa, and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history.

What Is A Caliphate?

In Arabic, caliphate means "government under a caliph." The caliphate was the Islamic state established after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in the seventh century.

The word caliph comes from Arabic, meaning "successor" to Muhammad. A caliph was the Islamic state's supreme religious and political leader. He was considered the spiritual leader of the entire Muslim population in the world. The caliph was often referred to as the Amir al-Mu'minin, or "Commander of the Believers."

The Beginning And The End?

The Rashidun caliphate (632-661) was the first, and was founded after the death of Muhammad. "Rashidun," under Sunni Islam, refers to the first four caliphs of the Rashidun caliphate -- Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Rashidun, in Arabic, means "righteously guided."

After the first four caliphs, the caliphate was claimed by various dynasties such as the Ummayads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1258). The caliphate languished after the Mongol Invasion until the Ottomans claimed it (1453-1924). The caliphate was abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, in 1924.

There have been efforts made to revive the caliphate, but they have collapsed because of political infighting among Muslim leaders.

Was The Title Caliph Disputed?

Dr. Carool Kersten, a senior lecturer in Islam at King's College London, says the caliphate was the desired political model for the political organization of the Sunnis, but not the Shi'a.

Shi'a believed the successor of the Prophet Muhammad should come from his family. Shi'a believe Ali, who was a cousin, and son-in-law of the prophet, was the only legitimate successor to Muhammad.

But under Sunni traditions, the leadership was elected, meaning Ali was the fourth caliph after Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.

"[Followers] didn't call Ali a caliph, they called him an Imam. And after that the Shi'ites recognized a succession of Imams," not caliphs, says Kersten.

Even under Sunnis, there were competing claims to the caliphate for much of its history. There were counter claims from rival dynasties in Spain and Egypt.

What Is The Significance Of ISIL's Declaration?

Many observers agree that ISIL's declaration of a caliphate is an attempt to add legitimacy and credibility to its position following its huge territorial gains in Iraq.

Kersten says ISIL will challenge the current borders of the Middle East by offering a "genuine, authentic, and alternative Islamic political [system]."

"By proclaiming a caliphate they want to strengthen and emphasize that they wish to exercise political control over that territory that is different from the nation-state model based on which the international system functions at present," says Kersten.

Kersten adds that the timing of the declaration, a day after the holy month of Ramadan began, is not coincidental. "It's a very powerful point of time because Muslims express a heightened sense of religiosity at that time of the year."

Few in the Middle East are expected to accept the caliphate of ISIL, however.

The extremist group's claim to the caliphate could also have an impact on the international jihadist movement, especially on the future of Al-Qaeda, which disowned the group after falling out with ISIL's leadership in Syria.

Al-Qaeda has long carried the mantle of the international jihadist cause. But ISIL has accomplished in Syria and Iraq what Al-Qaeda never has -- carved out and taken control of a large swath of territory in the Middle East.

ISIL's proclamation also poses a direct challenge to the Arab Gulf states, particularly for Saudi Arabia, says Kersten.

"Saudi Arabia, although it has supported organizations such as ISIL, will certainly not take kindly to this because the king of Saudi Arabia has given himself the title, 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [located in Mecca and Medina],' which is almost like an alternative title to a caliph."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.