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The ISIS Demand for a Caliphate is about Power, Not Religion

Abdülmecid II

On 3 March 1924, the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul was surrounded by Republican Turkish troops. Inside, the last Ottoman caliph, Abdülmecid II, was reading the essays of Montaigne. Late that night, the prefect of police came to tell him that Ataturk's new assembly in Ankara had just voted to abolish the caliphate and that he was to leave the country at dawn.

Photographs of the last caliph show an elderly, intellectual figure in a fez, kaftan and pince-nez, absorbed in the books of his library. Here he composed classical music and read the complete works of Victor Hugo, while cultivating his gardens and painting portraits of his family. But the following morning, he and his family were escorted into exile in Europe aboard the Orient Express, eventually settling in Nice. He was never allowed to return.

A few years later, the last caliph was spotted by the correspondent of Time magazine. "He may be seen strolling with a mien of great dignity along the beach near Nice," the reporter wrote, "attired in swimming trunks only, carrying a large parasol."

His daughter married into the family of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and whatever the dreams of the Islamic world, there has been little interest among Abdülmecid's family to revive the office that Ataturk took from them.

In the absence of a descendant to fill the vacancy, the position of caliph was claimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during midday prayers just over a week ago in Mosul. Al-Baghdadi is the elusive leader of Isis, the group formerly known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has self-contracted itself into the Islamic State.

Clad in black robes, al-Baghdadi cut a rather different figure from his predecessor, whose favourite reading was the Revue des Deux Mondes. Instead, during his hour-long sermon in which "Caliph Ibrahim" announced his elevation, the only literary references given were to the Qur'an and the Hadiths.

The restoration of the caliphate has been a dream of Islamic revivalists since at least the 1950s, when Hizb ut-Tahrir began calling for its resurrection. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar went as far as claiming for himself one of the caliph's traditional titles, Amir al-Mu'minin, the commander of the believers; the restoration of the caliphate was often mentioned by Osama bin Laden as his ultimate goal.

But al-Baghdadi is the first Islamic leader since Abdülmecid to take the title, which, for many Muslims, distils deep millennial dreams of a great, just, pure multinational empire of faith – the nearest thing the Islamic world has ever seen, so the Islamists will insist, to heaven on Earth. Nostalgia for this lost world is directly associated with the golden age of early Islam, when under the leadership of the first four caliphs – the successors [of Muhammad] – Islam expanded from the Hejaz out through the Levant to borders of Sindh in the east and southern France in the west.

As Edward Gibbon put it in one of his most celebrated passages: "A victorious line of march had been prolonged from the Rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Qur'an would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the truth of the Revelation of Mahomet."

Yet, beyond this first century, the history of the caliphate is far more troubled, bloody and contested than many realise. For most of Islamic history the title of caliph has been disputed by a succession of Muslim leaders who were anxious to give sacral legitimacy to conquests already achieved – what the Israelis like to call "facts on the ground". As ever in the Middle East, religion is a useful mask assumed by the powerful as a way of holding on to power.

By the early 10th century, the title of caliph was contested by the two leading Islamic polities of their day – the Shia Fatamid empire based in Cairo and the Sunni Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. After Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1261 and the last Abbasid caliph died in the sack of the city, the title was claimed by the Mameluks in Egypt on the basis of one stray descendant of the last Abbasid who had made his way to Cairo.

When the Ottomans took Mameluk Egypt in 1517, they claimed the caliphate for themselves, though this was soon disputed by their rivals, the Great Mughals of India. In 1579, the Mughal emperor, Akbar, declared himself khalifatu'l-zaman, the caliph of his time, and khalifa remained one of the imperial title of the Mughals right up to 1858, when the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was packed off to exile in Rangoon by the British.

In addition to these imperial leaders of huge Muslim empires, throughout Islamic history there has been a succession of eccentric millennial Islamist mystics who have briefly declared themselves caliph – the leaders of the Sokoto caliphate in 19th century Nigeria, for example – before being declared heretical and falling from power.

It is too early to say to which of these traditions al-Baghdadi belongs and whether Isis represents a brief interlude of Islamist anarchy or marks the beginning of a permanent new jihadistan which will succeed in establishing itself on the map.

Nevertheless, for all the eccentricity of the self-declaration or its flimsy legal basis, it cannot but have great resonance through the Islamic world, coming at a moment of such destabilisation, with Syria and Iraq ablaze, Egypt restive and Israel slaughtering the people of Gaza afresh. It will inevitably attract jihadis from across the globe to the Isis banner.

It is no comfort that the terrible tragedy of Iraq is entirely a mess of our own creation.

William Dalrymple is a writer and historian. He is the author of Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India; The Last Mughal; White Mughals; and Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan, which has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper and PEN Hessel-Tiltman prizes. He is on the International Advisory Board of Critical Muslim.

This article first appeared on the Guardian website