The militant group Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has declared that it is restoring the Islamic Caliphate, renaming itself as simply the Islamic State (IS) and naming leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph.
The original Caliphate was established in the year 632 in the Arabian peninsula, and the title of Caliph, or Khalif, was given to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq who became the first leader, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The word 'Caliph' means successor, and designates the political leader of the Islamic community, or ummah. By using the language of Caliph and Caliphate, ISIS is attempting to establish itself as the leader of a worldwide Muslim movement and mobilize a broad coalition of support by erasing national boundaries.
John L. Esposito, Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, told The Huffington Post, "Historically, the caliph was the successor to the prophet, the political leader of the community, and therefore the head of the early transnational Islamic empire. That's important -- the idea of it being a transnational empire, that reflected the ummah, and transcended national boundaries."
The Caliph Abu Bakr as-Siddiq was a friend and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, though Shi'ite Muslims dispute the legitimacy of his leadership and believe that Ali, his son-in-law, should have been chosen instead. The first four Caliphs are known as the Rashidun in Sunni Islam, which means "The Rightly Guided" or "Righteous" Caliphs. The Islamic Empire expanded greatly during this time, from Arabia to Persia, Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and Cyprus.
The caliphate came to an end in the 20th century, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared Turkey to be a secular state in 1924 and abolished the Ottoman Empire. By announcing the "restoration of the caliphate," ISIS hopes to place itself as a successor in the line of Islamic rulers of empire.
Though the caliphate claim is an attempt at greater political and theological legitimacy for ISIS and its militant goals, it makes no difference for the large majority of global Muslims who will not respond to ISIS' call for "all Muslims to pledge allegiance to (Baghdadi) and support him."
"In terms of legitimacy- unless you're someone who's ready to join a terrorist group at this point, for the vast majority of Muslims there is no legitimacy with this group," said Esposito. "Though there's no appeal to the greater Islamic community, the danger is to what extent can they enhance their appeal, and therefore their legitimacy, in terms of other potential recruits."
The idea of creating an international Islamic state is certainly not a new one, said Esposito. "It's appealing to an ideal that emerged in the late 20th century, which was put forward by a number of people including the ideologue (Osama) Bin Laden. They talk about reversing the Sykes-Picot Agreement, playing into the notion that that was when the Muslim world became divided. In order to mobilize broad support in the Muslim world, mobilize fighters, and legitimize what they want to do, they talk about the creation of this identity."