Caliphate – what Caliphate?

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ISIS Men with flag

Many Christians and Muslims share something in common; both are grieving for what they see as the ‘glory days’ of a lost Empire. While most Anglo-Saxons are content to engage with this reality through democratic means, there is a certain type of political activist – found in the ranks of the EDL (English Defence League) and some Islamist groups – who want their Empire back.

This is why we keep hearing from Iraq, the word “Caliphate” (khalifa in Arabic). This word means “succession” (and a “Caliph” is the pope-like “successor”). It’s a reference to the “apostolic succession” of global Islamic leadership that goes back to the founder Muhammad. The current claim by IS (Islamic State) in Iraq that they have created a Caliphate, is meant to herald their intention to set up another Islamic Empire, under their “mad-mullah” leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The problem is that even Muslims, who actually want this, disagree about how this “succession” happens and who should be its Caliph. Shi’ite Muslims say it can only be passed down through the blood-line of Muhammad, while Sunni Muslims accept any ‘rightly appointed’ person (assuming they can agree who – which they can’t). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is Sunni but (like Saddam Hussein) he conveniently claims to be related to Muhammad.

The notion of a restored Caliphate is a millennial dream of an Islamic utopia, which is great, just, pure and a multi-national empire of faith.                                       

Past claimants to the title of “Caliph” include Ben Fodio of Sokoto Nigeria in the 19th Century; Osama Bin Laden (early leader of the Mujahideen that morphed into the Taliban); Mullah Omar (leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan); and now we have the leader of IS (Islamic State) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Men like this have always been detached from the mainstream of Islam – and reality itself, for that matter. To claim to be the new ‘Caliph’ is tantamount to claiming you are the sole legitimate successor to Muhammad and thereby the leader of all Muslims everywhere.

Although fundamentalist Muslims see Caliphate as the apex of Islamic glory, the reality is that it harks back to the most austere and repressive era in Islamic history where the strictest form of shari’a law was imposed – hands of thieves cut off; people stoned to death for fornication; women banned from education; western products banned from shops and music, alcohol, cinemas, dancing and even kite-flying banned.

Extreme Caliphate ideology has been in the UK since the 7/7 bombings in LondonISIS Demonstration

The British security services have around 2000 “extremist” young men in their sites. They are the type I have seen pasting khalifa slogans on lamp-posts in Birmingham. An estimated 500 such Britons have joined the Islamic State fighters in Iraq where British items have been found on their dead bodies, including English football club and London gym membership cards.

It is interesting that other jihadi Muslims might be enraged by, what they see as, blasphemy on the part of IS.

The claim of IS to be the creators of a new Caliphate could provoke other jihadi groups to challenge them because they may be perceived as pretenders for daring to make the claim –on a “why you and not us?” basis.

The avowed aim of Islamic State in Iraq is to demolish what they see as the ‘artificial boundaries’ set up in 1916 across the Middle East by the Anglo-French agreement known as Sykes-Picot.

This agreement broke up the last Islamic mega-state – the Ottoman Empire. The name-change from ISIS to IS (the Islamic State) is an attempt to reflect the demolishing of the former arrangement, which were clumsily imposed by the West.

The underlying issue playing out in East and West is how we navigate politically in a post-modern world that is also “post-empire”.


  1. PeterS

    Good stuff, Steve. The evangelical Khilafa is the apostolic age of Acts, which many desire to see reproduced in our time. Evangelicals are uniquely placed to sympathise with this yearning for the rebirth of a golden age.

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