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9 questions about the ISIS Caliphate you were too embarrassed to ask

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself the new caliph
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself the new caliph
Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On July 4, a 42-year-old Iraqi jihadist leader who fights under the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a mosque in the city of Mosul, which his group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) had seized weeks earlier as part of its drive capturing swathes of Iraq and Syria. Al-Baghdadi, dressed in long black robes and wearing a conspicuous luxury watch, delivered a sermon announcing that he would henceforth be known as Caliph Ibrahim, emir of the faithful in the Islamic state.


ISIS areas of control (The Economist)

A week earlier, ISIS had declared itself to be a sovereign state. Now, according to the self-crowned Caliph Ibrahim, it is much more: that stretch of terrorist-run territory in Syria and Iraq is the rebirth of the long-expired Caliphate. This new caliphate is doing terrible things to the people unlucky enough to be under its reign. They have particularly targeted Christians and and ethno-religious minority known as the Yazidi, tens of thousands of whom ISIS fighters have trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq. The Yazidi have to choose between staying on the mountain and starving or descending and being killed by ISIS, a plight so dire that the US may launch air strikes against the militants.

You may find yourself wondering: what is a caliphate, anyway? Why is the old one such a big deal? What does this new caliphate have to do with the original? And what is it trying to accomplish? Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions.

1) What is a caliphate?

A caliphate is a an Islamic state — and then some. In theory, a caliphate is more than just a country that happens to be officially Muslim; it is supposed to encompass every Muslim on earth. The last time that sort of caliphate existed was many centuries ago. But the word caliphate still evokes the idea of a glorious and unified Islamic civilization, which is what the first caliphates were.

To understand what caliphate actually means and where the name comes from, you have to go back to the 620s A.D., in the western part of what is today Saudi Arabia, when the Prophet Mohammed founded Islam and led its first followers. The idea of a unified community of all believers is important in Islam, so Mohammed and his followers organized a self-governing political system that included all Muslims — at the time, not so many people. In other words, Islam was founded as a religion and a state. In the last ten years of his life, Mohammed led military campaigns in present-day Saudi Arabia to unite disparate Arabian tribes, which joined in his state-that-was-also-a-religion.

Just to give you a sense of place, here's Mohammed's early Islamic community, as of 624 AD, marked in green. You'll notice that it was pretty tiny, and in what was at the time a relatively remote part of the world. You'll also notice that it existed at a time when Europe and Asia were dominated by huge land empires:


Historical Atlas of the Mediterranean

But Mohammed's Islamic community didn't become a caliphate until he died in 632 AD. That's when one of his followers took over leadership: a man named Abu Bakr (the present-day Iraqi jihadist leader borrowed this name, calling himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). Within the community he was referred to as the khalifah, which is Arabic for successor, as in the successor to Mohammed. Khalifah can also mean representative, in this case of both Mohammed and God. So when the khalifah (simplified as caliph) Abu Bakr took over Mohammed's Islamic mini-state, that mini-state was called the caliphate.

2) So how did that first caliphate become a big important empire?

By one of the most successful and rapid military expansions in history. The original caliphate existed from 632 AD, when Mohammed died and the first caliph Abu Bakr took over, until 661 when it fell into civil war (that civil war also led to the permanent divide between Sunni and Shia Islam). It was ruled by four successive caliphs and it grew over a remarkably short time to be one of the largest empire in the world.

Those first four caliphs, or leaders of the Islamic community-that-was-also-a-state: were really good military commanders. At the same time, the two major empires nearby, the Byzantine Empire (what was left of the eastern Roman Empire) and the Persian Empire, were both growing weak, and were militarily exhausted from fighting one another.

Under Mohammed, the Islamic community challenged or absorbed the Arabian peninsula's disparate tribes until it controlled most of the land in the Middle East not already controlled by either the Persian or Byzantine Empires. Under the caliphs, it invaded and took lots of land from the Byzantines and Persians. Here, you can watch the Caliphate expand from its inception until the height of the first caliphate, in 655 AD:


Mohammad Adil

That first caliphate wasn't just a big military empire — it was a community that encompassed all Muslims and that was practically synonymous with the Islamic faith. The caliphate spread Islam as it went, so you're seeing the growth of Islam from a small corner of the Arabian peninsula to encompass virtually all of what we today consider the Middle East, parts of Central Asia, even the southern tip of Spain. The Caliphate also spread the Arabic language, which before 632 was limited to present-day Saudi Arabia, and is now a primary language thousands of miles away in present-day Morocco. These conquests are why almost all of the Middle East and North Africa today speaks Arabic and often considers itself ethnically Arab.

3) But there were more caliphates, right? Even bigger ones?

Yes, that's right. That first caliphate, based on Mohammed's original community, evolved into a second and third caliphates over the next centuries. The second caliphate begin in 661, after the first Muslim civil war, and lasted until 750 AD. It was the largest caliphate and the most successful, making it the height of the Islamic state. Its capital was in Damascus, which is today the capital of Syria — this is part of why today's caliphate-nostalgists love the idea of a reborn caliphate based in Syria.

The second caliphate (known as the Umayyad Caliphate) expanded way into Central Asia and into Spain:



That was followed by the third caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate, which lost Spain and part of North Africa but still ruled a pretty huge area from 750 to 1258. That was the last real caliphate, in that it could plausibly claim to include a unified community of Muslims.

The present-day Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in declaring himself a caliph and his terrorist mini-state a caliphate, is communicating that he believes he is fighting on behalf of all Muslims worldwide (he does not count Shia Muslims in this, only Sunnis) and that he is the representative of God on earth. He is also sort of suggesting a desire to continue ISIS's advance until he has conquered all Muslim-majority lands, which is an aspiration that's hinted at frequently in jihadist maps of a unified Islamic empire:



4) Why did the caliphates end?

The Ottoman Empire claimed to be the last caliphate, and it lasted right up until 1914. So technically there was a caliphate until just a century ago.

But when people talk about "the caliphates" what they typically mean are the big imperial states that continued Mohammed's original vision of a unified political community of all Muslims, centered around the ethnic Arabs who originally founded it.

That ended, very roughly, around the year 1000 for two reasons. First, the Abbasid Caliphate, which really was the continuation of Mohammed's original community-state, fractured in a few places. Its territory in present-day Spain and Portugal broke off into the Cordoba Caliphate, for example, and you can't really have multiple caliphates at the same time.


The mosque at Cordoba, Spain. Nathan Wong

The second reason is that Islam was spreading naturally beyond the borders of the caliphates, in sub-Saharan Africa and in southeast Asia and present-day India, so the caliphate no longer included even close to all Muslims. The Ottoman Empire claimed to be a caliphate up until World War One, and did control holy sites in Mecca and Jerusalem, but functionally operated as just an empire that happened to be Islamic.

The dream of a caliphate that represents a unified community of all Muslims was easy enough to see through in the seventh century, when that community was pretty small and geographically clustered, but Islam has just spread too widely and too quickly for that dream to last. The last "real" caliphate, the Abbasids, eventually splintered under its own weight, with various parts of the empire breaking apart, and finally succumbed to rising Persian and Turkish powers.

5) What does a caliph do, exactly?

Originally, the caliph was the person who took over Mohammed's two earthly responsibilities: (1) rule over the unified Islamic state and (2) responsibility for all Muslims. Over the next seven hundred years, Mohammed's memory obviously faded, but those remained the two defining responsibilities: rule over a unified Islamic state and bear responsibility for the community of all Muslims, or the ummah.

Over the caliphate's growth and centuries of history, being the caliph started to be more about empire-running and less about religion. But, at least symbolically, the caliph was supposed to be both the head of state and the top divine representative on earth, sort of like a Roman emperor and a pope at the same time. When the Abbasid Caliphate broke apart and dissolved in the 1100s and 1200s, that role ended.

The title of caliph did stick around until the early 1900s, but it mostly served as just a religious title that certain heads of state would adopt if they also happened to rule over enough Muslim holy sites. It was held by Turks for a long time, who used it to claim responsibility for the global Muslim community but in execution mostly just adopted it as a tool to bolster his own legitimacy.

The last caliph was in 1924, when the office was abolished by then-Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a secular nationalist who wanted to reduce the role of religion in the state.

6) Can we take a caliphate-themed music break?

A poetry break would probably be more appropriate, given the rich tradition of poetry in the early caliphates, but yes let's do music. There's a traditional form called Anasheed, Islamic music that is typically sung a cappella (sort of like medieval Christian chant) but sometimes includes light percussion. This is to adhere to conservative interpretations of Islam that prohibit musical instruments. It's an old form and can be quite beautiful; here's one:

The form also has lots of lighter incarnations. But there is also a pretty significant, modern strain of jihadist Anasheed, which the jihadist movements use to communicate the idea that they represent the old piety and glory of the early Islamic empires. If you browse through Anasheed music videos on YouTube (what can I say, I have a weird job), you'll see lots of Arabic chants set to images of bearded jihadists wielding assault rifles and black flags; the lyrics are typically about God and righteousness and so forth. Here's one produced just this week by ISIS that is specifically about reestablishing the caliphate:

To be clear, not all Anasheed are jihadist. And most of the ancient, caliphate-era poetry was about the same stuff everyone writes poetry about: love, family, nature, and so on. But the point is that modern jihadists have co-opted to Anasheed form to advance their agenda and ideology, just as they have attempted to lay claim to the mantle of the original caliphates.

7) Why are jihadists so obsessed with this stuff?

Jihadists see the caliphates as the height of Islam's glory, as the banner of a sort of Islamic nationalism. It's more than that, though: many modern-day jihadists and Islamists also see the caliphates as the answer to the last two centuries of subjugation and humiliation at the hands of Western powers.

Framing your jihadist movement as the rebirth or continuation of the caliphates is a way of asserting the idea that all Muslims should be joined in one state, that they should be ruled by Islam rather than by a secular system, and maybe most important of all that the Islamic world by religious right should be much stronger than the Western powers that have long invaded it.

The jihadists also assume that, because the caliphates existed a long time ago and were politically organized around Islam, that they must have therefore been ultra-conservative theocracies.

8) The caliphate was in fact a place of ultra-conservative Islam and anti-modern intolerance, right?

Wrong! That's what jihadists, like today's ISIS leaders, want it to be, because they themselves wish to run an oppressive, intolerant, anti-modern, ultra-conservative state. But this is a fantasy they've constructed to justify their much more modern ideas about ultra-conservatism and their romanticizing an era that went very differently than they imagine.

Here is the journalist Khaled Diab, who debunked this myth in the New York Times recently:

The Abbasid caliphate was centuries ahead of Mr. Baghdadi's backward-looking cohorts. Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture - in sharp contrast to ISIS' violent puritanism. The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

Centered on the Bayt al-Hikma, Baghdad's "House of Wisdom," the Abbasid caliphate produced notable advances in the sciences and mathematics. The modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by Ibn al-Haytham, who has been called "the first true scientist."

And so on. You don't get to be one of the largest land empires in history, as the early caliphates were, by rejecting science and making your biggest priorities persecuting women and minorities; you do it by emphasizing science and the arts and pluralism. But that's not what jihadists want to hear.

9) Why are jihadists basing their 'new' caliphate on this fictional conception of the original?

This gets to a sort of ideological crisis that politics in the Arab Middle East have been struggling with for nearly a century: how to reconcile their region's long history of greatness, particularly during the time of the caliphates, with its more recent history of subjugation by Western powers? How to answer that subjugation, and how to reclaim past greatness?

There have been many different ideological strains and reactions to this, but one of the two most consequential has been Arab secular nationalism, which says that ethnic Arabs should unite, politically or metaphorically, and should challenge the Western imperialists by learning from their secularism and technological progress. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a secular Arab nationalist; so was Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

The second of those two has been Islamism, which says that Muslims should unite, reject Western ideas, and organize society around conservative interpretations of Islam and an Islamic identity, as a way of reviving and reclaiming the old caliphates. Jihadists are an extremist sub-set of Islamists, hence the obsession with the caliphate, which for them is both a symbol of paradise lost and the rightfully ordained state of the world. This is part of why Islamists and jihadists hate and fight against Arab secular nationalists as much or more than they hate and fight against the West.

The fact that the present-day, terrorist-run "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria has so little in common with the original caliphates is beside the point. They're fighting for a mythical memory they've constructed. Unfortunately for Iraqis and Syrians coming under ISIS's rule, enough people believe in that myth to fight and kill for it.