The new Islamic State leader faces a major challenge: how to make himself appear legitimate in the eyes of the group’s followers and the broader community of Muslim believers. Baghdadi’s appeal, of course, rested on his claim to be restoring the caliphate from the early centuries of Islam.
He did this first by emphasizing his descent from the prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh, to which all legitimate caliphs must belong. He styled himself “Abu Bakr,” the name of the first caliph after Muhammad’s death. He addressed his followers in a stilted, self-consciously medieval form of Arabic. Even the famous black flags of the Islamic State — printed in an ancient Arabic script — were meant to invoke the black banners that heralded the arrival of Iraq’s other caliphate, that of the Abbasids, during the eighth century.
We should not forget how audacious it was for Baghdadi to proclaim himself caliph. The term “caliph,” from the Arabic khalifa, means “deputy,” and in the early centuries of Islam, the caliph was considered the deputy of none other than God Himself. Through his leadership of a spiritual, as well as political, community — the Muslim umma — the caliph guaranteed the welfare of his subjects on Earth and fought for their salvation in heaven.
Given the exalted nature of the office, and the fact that most caliphs were widely recognized by Muslims of their time, it is unsurprising that past terrorists such as Osama bin Laden shied away from the lofty title — despite their extremism on other fronts.
What made Baghdadi different — and a plausible caliph in the eyes of so many terrorists and their supporters around the world — was his control, at its peak, of a pseudo-state roughly the size of Britain. Even more importantly, the Islamic State straddled the borders of Syria and Iraq, two historic centers of Islamic civilization and the seats of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. In other words, the proof of Baghdadi’s caliphate was very much in the pudding.
It’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of Muslims never accepted Baghdadi’s claims. The conduct of his Islamic State was manifestly un-Islamic, and indeed, most of his victims over the past five years have been fellow Muslims. Yet it is revealing that Muslim clergy — beginning with the prominent signatories of a public letter to Baghdadi from September 2014 — have felt compelled to continuously refute his arguments, as if tacitly acknowledging their power and appeal. Baghdadi might have been an ersatz caliph, but in some respects he succeeded in looking the part.
Throughout time, caliphs have had the habit of unifying Muslims as much as dividing them. For every believer who felt inspired to a follow a caliph because of his claims to spiritual and political authority, there were many more who felt alienated and driven to revolt. This meant that caliphs — pious and impious alike — have tended to die grisly deaths. Baghdadi’s heir should take note.
All but one of the four “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” who ruled immediately after Muhammad’s death were assassinated. The first dynasty of Islam, the Umayyads, came to power by usurping and killing various members of Muhammad’s family. The Umayyads, in turn, were deposed by the Abbasids, who announced their new caliphate by digging up the graves of dead Umayyad family members and crucifying their remains in public. This tradition of bloodshed has obvious echoes in the short yet tumultuous history of the Islamic State.
Despite the violence, the death of a caliph has not necessarily spelled the end of a dynasty. This is the basic lesson regarding the future of the Islamic State, too. We know very little about the newly appointed caliph; the Islamic State audio announcement proclaiming the news describes him as a “religious scholar” and a “military commander.” What is clear, however, is that he will preside over a shattered sliver of the group’s once mighty state, which means he is unlikely to cut the same inspiring figure as his predecessor. That could change, of course. While Iraq and Syria remain the Islamic State’s spiritual home, its branch in Afghanistan is thriving and may make for a good base in the future.
Islamic history began with a single unitary caliphate based in Medina, Damascus and then Baghdad. Yet this gradually gave way to multiple, competing caliphates across the Islamic world. The gradual devaluation of the caliphate brand that began in the Middle Ages has endured to the modern day. It is what enabled Baghdadi’s upstarts to create and now continue their barbaric state, and it is what will enable entrepreneurial terrorists of the future to probably do the same.