Jihadists Dream of the Caliphate. Here’s What You Need to Know.

There is hardly any Islamist group out there which does not expressly strive for the restoration of the caliphate. Here's why.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | September 13, 2016

What do Islamist groups want and what are their aims? Most Westerners know that groups like ISIS are in some way, shape, or form related to Islam. Thanks to the media, they also associate, correctly, Islamist groups like ISIS and al-Qā’ida with violence. Although average Americans may be told by the media how these groups are fundamentally motivated by political and economic grievances, no more than a superficial spotlight is usually cast on their religious ideology and goals.

However, one thing that your average American probably knows is that groups like ISIS are working to establish an Islamic “caliphate.” Images of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, speaking at the Grand Mosque of Al-Nurī in Mosul are likely to be conjured up.

But what exactly is a caliphate? And why do militant Islamist groups like ISIS, al-Qā’ida, Boko Harām, Jabhat al-Nusra, and even less overtly militant Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, want to establish a caliphate? And how important is the caliphate in the overall thought of Islamists? Is it perceived to be a necessary tenet of Islam? Let’s take a look.

What is a Caliphate? Who is a Caliph?

Etymologically, the English word “caliphate” is a loanword of the Arabic term khilāfa. The word khilāfa is derived from the triliteral root kh-l-f (خلف), meaning “to succeed” or to “come after.”[1] Khilāfa (خلافة) denotes a caliphate, and is obviously a noun derived from the verbal root kh-l-f; furthermore, the (slightly different) word ‘khalīfa‘(خليفة)  denotes a caliph and is an active participle meaning one who succeeds or comes after another.

The term khalīfa (خَلِيفَةً) occurs in the Qur’ān nine times and is always used by the Qur’ān to denote a successor or viceregent (e.g., “Oh David, we have made you a khalīfa upon the Earth”; Q 38:26). However, there is nothing in the Qur’ān about a khalīfa being a present ruler ruling over the believers or the Islamic umma (community). This specific application of the khalīfa-concept was clearly one that developed after the death of Muḥammad in 632 A.D.

A caliphate is essentially a state where an Islamic ruler or Caliph rules the Muslim umma. That is, a caliphate is an essentially theocratic and Islamic conception of government. It is important to emphasize that the idea of a caliphate is an exclusively Islamic notion. There is no such thing as a Christian, Buddhist, or atheist caliphate. Every caliphate is by definition an Islamic one, and every caliph is or should be a Muslim, as we will see later on.

An Outline of the History of the Caliphate

Much has been written on the history of the caliphate. The following is simply a brief overview of that history, with particular attention given to the formative years of the caliphate.[2]

The history of the caliphate begins with the death of Muḥammad, which was followed with the period of the four so-called rāshidūn or “rightly guided caliphs” (r. 632 – 661). According to Islamic tradition, after Muḥammad had conquered most of the Arabian peninsula and was nearing his last days in 632, he said that there would be a khalīfa or successor after him. In particular, the hadīth that is very often cited in this regard is recorded in the collection attributed to imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780 – 855), the namesake and founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence:[3]

The Prophethood will remain amongst you for as long as Allāh wills it to be. Then Allāh will raise it when He wills to raise it. Then there will be the caliphate (khilāfa) upon the Prophetic methodology. And it will last for as long as Allāh wills it to last. Then Allāh will raise it when He wills to raise it. Then there will be biting kingship, and it will remain for as long as Allāh wills it to remain. Then Allāh will raise it when He wills to raise it. Then there will be tyrannical (forceful) kingship and it will remain for as long as Allāh wills it to remain. Then He will raise it when He wills to raise it. Then there will be a caliphate upon the Prophetic methodology (ʿala minhāj al-nabūwa).[4]

It should be noted that although there are ahādīth (plural of hadīth) of varying degrees of reliability where Muḥammad states that there will be a caliph after him, there are no reliable ahādīth where Muḥammad states exactly who this successor will be. The above is the clearest portent that the (acknowledged) ahādīth state about the caliphate.

According to Islamic tradition, after the death of Muḥammad, a shūra (council) convened in the Saqifa (roofed-building) of the tribe of Banu Saʿida and decided that Abu Bakr (c.537 – 634), the father of Muḥammad’s prominent wife, Ā’isha,[5] was to be Muḥammad’s successor or khalīfa. Sunni Muslims, who currently make up eighty-five percent of the Muslim population, agree with this decision and regard Abu Bakr as the first caliph. Sunnis regard the first four caliphs, praised as the “rightly guided” or rāshidūn caliphs, as consisting of Abu Bakr (r. 632 – 634), followed by ʿUmar ibn al-Khattāb (r. 634 – 644), ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (r. 644-656), and Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (r. 656 – 661).

The minority Shi’i Muslims, who are today mostly concentrated in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Pakistan, however, believe that the decision by the shūra to name Abū Bakr as the caliph was an usurpation of the rightful inheritance of Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the paternal cousin of Muḥammad and one who was the first male convert to Islam (according to our earliest and most reliable biography of Muḥammad, Sirāt Rasūl Allah).[6] Shi’is believe that only someone with Muḥammad’s bloodline should be the caliph, and so they deny the legitimacy of the rule of the first three so-called rightly-guided caliphs.[7]

Be that as it may, after the caliphate of Abu Bakr, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭāb, and ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib did in fact become caliph. But Alī faced immediate opposition as soon as he ascended to the caliphate, and he was militarily opposed by people as close to Muḥammad as his favorite wife Ā’isha, whose army he defeated in the Battle of the Camel (656). Thereafter, Alī would be involved in a power struggle with Muʿ