What gives ISIS the right to declare an Islamic Caliphate?

To many Sunnis in Iraq, nothing does. And the group’s brazen gambit appears to be backfiring.



The mayhem in Iraq took a surreal turn this week. After three weeks of rapid expansion in the Sunni-dominated west and north of the country, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) announced that the areas it controls will now be the new Islamic Caliphate and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph.

It was a bold move—the most troubling development in the global jihadist movement since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 according to some—but also potentially catastrophic for radical Islam.

For everyday Iraqis, however, it was merely laughable. “Caliph?” said one Sunni Arab taxi driver in Kirkuk. “Okay then, call me Wazir.” (Wazir is a minister, usually the chief minister and the right-hand man of the Caliph).

His sentiment was repeated a dozen times in this ethnically mixed, oil-rich city in Iraq’s north. “Who is al-Baghdadi?” many asked. “What gives him the right?” others questioned.

As one Sunni cleric, requesting anonymity, pointed out, historically, the Caliph of Sunni Islam is supposed to be a uniting figure, the overarching authority similar to the Grand Ayatollah in Shia Islam. “People like al-Baghdadi are dividing the Muslims in Iraq and around the world,” he said. “So how can he call himself Caliph?”

That question lies at the heart of what many orthodox Muslims consider to be little more than a cruel joke, verging on sacrilege. The term “Caliph” means “successor” and is given to the person anointed to carry on the message of the Prophet Muhammad. The Caliph is supposed to be Muhammad’s representative, his voice, and the embodiment of his values. No single Muslim, or group of Muslims, has the right to create a Caliphate. And, according to senior Imams, there is no precedence in Islam for using violence to establish a Caliphate.

How legitimate, then, is the ISIS declaration?

That may not be the point, some argue. What ISIS has done is less about legitimacy and more about the growing internal power struggles between various jihadist movements. Claiming the Caliphate is, then, a kind of strategic play that forces jihadi leaders and followers around the world to decide whether or not this is the right move in the struggle to establish a pure Islamic state.

In that sense, it is a politically astute step. There is a growing fracture between ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremists movements, primarily over strategy.  While al-Qaeda appears to have adopted an amorphous, de-centralized approach that focuses on the long-term struggle, ISIS has chosen a more brash, impatient path. There is disagreement between jihadist leaders over which is the better strategy.

“There are definitely some cadres involved with al-Qaeda’s branches in the Arabian Peninsula and in northern Africa, who have sympathies for ISIS and the Caliphate they declared,” Yassin Musharbash, a journalist and Arabic language specialist in Germany, told the Middle East Eye. “Given the advances of [ISIS] and the pull effect a declaration of a Caliphate may have, I would not rule out that quite a few even high-ranking members of al-Qaeda may see this as a more promising way and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

The risk, for the jihadists, is that rather than help the disparate movements coalesce, making such a bold statement now will instead cause deeper fissures.  That would be a good sign for the vast majority of Muslims around the world who would like to see extremist movements implode.

In Iraq, specifically, ISIS has made a blunder. There is no love for the kind of Islam they preach among Iraq’s Sunnis, many of whom have reluctantly backed the extremists as a way of pushing back the influence of the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Iraq’s tribes and Arab nationalists, people in Kirkuk say, will not accept ISIS rule. Declaring a Caliphate is further proof that their aim is not simply freeing Iraq’s Sunnis from Shia domination, but shackling them with total submission to their brand of Islam.



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What gives ISIS the right to declare an Islamic Caliphate?

  1. People, groups and organizations often make claims but have no foundation to support them. Islam radicals get support as in Islam, the big crime of them all is impeding Islam. Even murder of a Islam follower is less of a crime.

    Part of why less radical majority never really stands up to them. Its a “religious threat” to impede Islam dominance.

    Anyone can claim the rank, jurisdiction, or government of a caliph/Sharia statism, but the question is will they support it. Sort of like fiat money, its only as good as its acceptance.

    So its really about acceptance. But religion gets people to have too much “blind faith” that discards ethics, discards morals, discards peaceful behaviors, nulls rational and pragmatic thoughts, all for dominance over others. People the “blindly” follow religion are dangerous and weak minded.

    But its all about greed, power, control by so few that find it so easy to lead naive masses.

  2. Mr. Khan claims to be writing on behalf of “many orthodox Muslims.” Now isn’t that a fascinating notion, even though the question of who is to be regarded as an “orthodox” Muslim remains unclear. Will the journalist please tell us, non-Muslims, what the authentic, true, and orthodox Islam exactly is? Is it the Sunnis, the Shias, or the Alawis? The Wahhabis, the Salafis, the very moderate, the slightly moderate, or the crazy moderate Muslims? Who is to say? Does Mr. Khan really care to arbitrate these questions? And, more importantly, can he? Where is the authority that defines who is the true interpreter of the Prophet and of Allah’s word? Truth is, such an authority is nowhere to be found, as Mr. Khan knows full well. Which, by the way, is precisely the raison why the Muslim world finds itself in such a mess.

    • Who are the true Christians? The Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptist….?

      Who are the true catholics for that matter? The Vatican, the Russian orthodox, the Coptics…

      Maybe it’s the crazy fundies…..Pat Robertson and Duck Dynasty?

      The Christian world has always been in a mess.

      • @EmilyOne.
        You take the words right out of my mouth. Indeed, Christian beliefs, doctrines and creeds are exactly the same as the Islamic ones: balderdash! Honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Which is why Muslim-majority countries so badly need what all formerly Christian countries have implemented long ago: a secular state with a godless constitution.
        By the way, just in case you hadn’t already noticed:
        – Proposed Constitution for a Palestinian State (2003): “Article 4. (1) Islam is the official religion in Palestine. (2)The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation.”
        – Constitution of Iraq (2005): “Article 2. (1) Islam is the official religion of the State and it is a fundamental source of legislation. (2). This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people…”
        – Constitution of Syria (2012): “Article 3. (1) The religion of the President of the Republic has to be Islam. (2) Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation.”
        – Constitution of Egypt (2014): “Article 2. Islam is the religion of the State. The principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.”
        And remember, these are supposed to be SECULAR states, as opposed to the Iranian theocracy or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Does anyone still wonder why there can be no peace in the Middle East?
        Lastly, why can’t we tell an inconvenient truth about Islam without the @EmilyOnes of this world automatically replying, “Well, maybe, but Christians aren’t any better”? Which was certainly true at the time of the Crusades (1095-1291) or the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572), but then what’s the point? We’re talking of 2014 Iraq here, are we or aren’t we? And when was the last time we saw a group of French ultra-Catholic rebels seizing parts of France by force, restoring the Capetian dynasty as well as the Inquisition, and crucifying Protestants wherever they find them? Seriously?

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