The word “caliph” (khalifa) literal means “vicar” or “substitute” and is used twice in the Koran, the first time referring to Adam (Q. 2:30) and the second time referring to David (Q. 38:26). In both cases the two patriarchs are described as God’s “vicars” on Earth, especially when referring to Adam, father of humankind and in neither of these cases is there an explicitly political meaning. The word caliph assumed political meaning when it involved replacing the deceased Prophet in his functions as the head of the Muslim community (the religious aspect as the divine messenger had obviously died with him).
The caliphate not only evokes Islam’s golden era, when this civilisation was rapidly expanding, setting a shining example of civilisation and ideas, but it above all evokes the unity of the Muslim community (umma), the privilege of having been chosen and led by God. This is the real legend for which the caliphate has traditionally been the symbol. This occurred primarily in the times of the Prophet Mohammed’s first four successors following his death in 632, Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), ‘Umar (r. 634-644), ‘Uthman (r. 644-656) and ‘Ali (r. 656-661), the so-called “well-guided caliphs” (khulafa’ rashidun). This era is considered by Sunnis as one of incomparable greatness and perfection for Islam, and therefore attempting to recreate it means recreating the exceptional circumstances during which Islam prevailed as a religion, as a political system and as a culture. It is also true that dynasties that succeeded the “well-guided caliphs”; the Umayyads in Damascus (r. 661-750) and the Abbasids in Baghdad (r. 750-1258), represented a downturn of the ideal and it experienced increased decadence. However, the caliphate’s mythology has survived history’s storms.
From the perspective of a political school of thought, however, the theorisation of the caliphate occurred late in the day compared to the evolution of education. The two authors who were the milestones, alongside other philosophers, were Ibn Hanbal (m. 855) and al-Mawardi (m. 1058). The first was the theoriser, or perhaps rather the organiser, of the retrospective utopia of excellence and precedence. According to this utopic ideal, the era of the well-guided caliphs was that of Islam’s perfection, the model to be applied when creating a political future and, furthermore, the well-guided caliphs succeeded one another in order of excellence and moral perfection, making Abu Bakr better than ‘Umar and so on (this idea is rejected by the Shiites who believe that the best was ‘Ali and ‘Ali should have become the Prophet’s caliph immediately after Mohammed’s death).
Al-Mawardi, on the other hand, what the first systematic theoriser of the doctrine of a Sunni caliphate in his famous Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (The Ordinances of Government). Al-Mawardi’s doctrine is still the most complete presentation of the theory and is based on the following cornerstones: 1) the caliph must be male, free, a man of character, healthy in mind and spirit; 2) He must be a Quraish, a member of the Prophet Mohammed’s tribe; 3) he must be a scholar of religious science, he must therefore be an ‘ulema, capable of providing juridical and religious opinions; 4) he must be brave in leading armies in battle; 5) he must be freely elected by the community (ikhtiyar) through his representatives, the ‘ulema.
In modern times the theorisation of the caliphate was resumed and renewed by the Syrian-Egyptian Rashid Rida (1865-1935) who, in 1922, published Caliphate or Supreme Imamate (Al-Khilafa aw al-imama al-‘uzmà). The book was published not long before the ending of the Ottoman Caliphate, the last surviving one in the Muslim world, by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ridà repeats some classic principles, such as the Quraish origins of the caliph and his expertise in religious science; he did however set these principles within the framework of a profound transformation of Islamic political ideals in view of modernity. After Rida, calls for a caliphate became the Leitmotiv for Islamist political organisations starting with the Muslim Brotherhood, created in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949). In all events, this was always a universalist, transnational demand aimed at a peaceful unification of the many varied aspects of the Islamic world.
This necessary historical reconstruction clearly proves that the claims to a caliphate expressed by the jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are highly illegitimate and unfounded. Not only is he not a Quraish, nor an ‘ulema, not only has he not been freely elected by the community receiving the people’s approval and oath of loyalty (bayʻa), but above all his objective is not the universalistic reunion of the umma, but its sectarian laceration. Contemporary jihadists in fact aspire to spark an internal fitna, “dissent” or rather “discord”, which would allow them to destroy their enemies, to impose their extremist version of Islam, to sentence as sinners and anti-Muslims all those not sharing their ideas.
Seen from this perspective, it is evident that the majority of Sunni public opinion, and even more importantly the majority of Sunni ‘ulema, look to the claims made by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS with suspicion or even downright hostility. On the other hand, it is equally evident that the jihadists try and repress and oppress rights of women, of so-called false-Muslims (all those who do not agree with them), minorities (Shiites, while the issues concerning Christians albeit widely reported on. are marginal at a local level). The fitna, the discord and chaos that jihadist organisations plan to spread in the Levant, is one step ahead of the strategies of the now-deceased Bin Laden. His jihadism claimed to unite under the flag of the Prophet all sincere Muslims who were enemies of the West, albeit through terrorism. ISIS’s strategy is to bring chaos to the Levant in order to destabilise states and monarchies, thereby favouring a violent seizure of power, regardless of the community’s consent.
Translated by Francesca Simmons