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In Iraq, an ancient Muslim empire rises. Maybe.

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 2, 2014 10:53 AM

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Last Sunday the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) declared the restoration of the Caliphate—a dream more than a millennium old of a single empire to unite all the Sunni Muslims of the world. In a statement, which was posted online in multiple languages, ISIS declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph (leader of the empire), stated that he traces his lineage back to tribe of the prophet Muhammad, and commanded all Sunni Muslims to “gather around” him as citizens of a new transnational state governed by sharia law.

The idea of a new Caliphate is by turns breathtaking and preposterous, and seemingly more suited to the medieval ages or Game of Thrones than to the modern world. In fact, however, ISIS, which has gained significant ground in Iraq over the last several months, can find inspiration for its vision in the surprisingly recent past. The first Caliphate was established in the seventh century AD, but the last Caliph was dethroned less than one hundred years ago, in 1924, when the victorious West divided up the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I.

In order to better understand the history of the Caliphate, and what ISIS hopes to achieve by invoking it, Ideas recently spoke by phone with Philip Jenkins, co-director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor University and author of the new book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.” Jenkins explains why the idea carries power in the Sunni Muslim world, and also a lot of baggage, and offers a prediction for what this aspiring empire will look like a year or two from now.

IDEAS: What does ISIS hope to achieve by invoking the Caliphate?

JENKINS: What they’re trying to do is establish themselves symbolically as the leading force in reviving Islam. They’re trying to get back to the earliest stages of the Islamic faith. It’s also a symbolic statement to try and get one up on the various other groups that are claiming leadership of Islam.

IDEAS: How resonant is this idea for Sunni Muslims?

JENKINS: The idea itself is very attractive, but it also runs into a couple major problems because the Caliphate idea has become associated with a lot of radical baggage. It almost limits the status of Muslim to absolute true believers who go along with ISIS, and at the same time it invalidates the Muslim credentials of any and all states. [The Caliphate] carries some very ugly baggage, which even people who are quite militant and quite pious Muslims do not want to accept.

IDEAS: How does this declaration affect the more general Sunni-Shia conflict?

JENKINS: The Ottomans would certainly have regarded Shias as an inferior breed of Muslim, but generally they accepted them as Muslims. The modern Caliphate is not just saying that Shia aren’t real Muslims, they’re saying that many Sunnis aren’t real Muslims either. They’d say any Sunni who doesn’t go along with them is not a real Muslim. It’s an extremely exclusive, elitist, narrow idea. It’s almost as if ISIS is painting targets on their chests, they’re provoking so much opposition.

IDEAS: Do you think this was more of a strategic play by ISIS, or an expression of true belief?

JENKINS: I would say it’s mainly the first. It invites so much opposition, and once the Caliphate is in play, it invites other groups to set up a Caliphate. I bet in a year or two you wont be able to throw a stone without hitting a Caliph.

I wonder if the modern Saudi monarchy might respond to this by saying, no, we’re the Caliphs. When you declare yourself Caliph, you’re setting yourself up for lots of rivals. Three of the four first Caliphs were assassinated. The fourth was assassinated and his murder led to the whole Sunni-Shia split, which is a gaping wound 1300 years leader. Saying I’m the Caliph invites rivalry, civil war, and assassination.

IDEAS: Is that the kind of chaos ISIS wants?

JENKINS: I’m honestly wondering if they’ve thought it through. They might also figure, what have they got to lose, they’re in such a risky, exposed position.

IDEAS: Where will ISIS be a year or two from now?

JENKINS: Let me go out on a limb here. What I would expect to see is ISIS ruling a limited Sunni state within what is presently Iraq and with Iran and its Shia allies governing most of the south. I would expect to see Iraq partitioned and there would be one tiny state in Iraq and maybe stretching over to Syria calling itself the Caliphate.

Image of Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph, via Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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