Why you should care

Because the ideal of the caliphate animates Sunni extremism across the Muslim world, which means you should probably know what this medieval form of Islamic government involves.

Nostalgia is powerful, something Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Caliph Ibrahim, clearly gets. He heads the Islamic extremist group that’s conquered big chunks of Iraq and Syria.

Al-Baghdadi declared the creation of a new Islamic caliphate earlier this month, evoking the medieval golden age of the Muslim world, when Islamic leaders ruled an empire that at one point stretched from Morocco and Spain in the west to Afghanistan in the east.

The caliphate was the political structure ruling this enormous empire, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad expanded their domain after his death in the 7th century AD. The caliphate was “a new form of Middle Eastern empire defined and legitimized in Islamic terms,” explains Ira Lapidus in his book, A History of Islamic Societies.

Now, [the caliphate] represents an idealized image of Islamic ascendancy more than a particular form of governance.

The true era of the caliphate only lasted about 300 years — until the middle of the 10th century — undermined by internal rivalries. Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes put the final nail in the coffin when they sacked Baghdad in the 13th century. The Ottomans sought to rekindle the tradition of the caliphate in the 18th and 19th centuries to assert rule from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) over vast tracts of the Islamic world. But it was more symbol than reality.

Still, successive generations of Muslims have tried to reclaim the mantle since the caliphate’s heyday.

“What we’re really talking about is the history of an idea that waxed and waned and waned pretty quickly,” says L. Carl Brown, a historian who specializes in the Arab world and professor emeritus at Princeton University. Now, more than anything, it represents an idealized image of Islamic ascendancy more than a particular form of governance.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking at podium

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The first caliphs, a term derived from the Arabic word for “successor,” were followers and associates of the Prophet. In less than 30 years the empire started to splinter, even as it continued to swallow territory further and further afield from Islam’s origins in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

The third caliph, Uthman, provoked a backlash when he tried to centralize the caliphate’s authority, leading to civil war, and, ultimately, his assassination in 656 AD. The ensuing struggle for power created the sectarian split between Sunni and Shia that still vexes Muslim relations today.

Sunni Muslims supported the caliph Muawiyah, who ultimately took control and established the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, based in today’s Syria. Ever since then Sunnis, but not Shia, have embraced the concept of the caliphate, Brown emphasizes.

The subsequent Abbasid dynasty in the 9th century was a high point for caliphate rule, in terms of territory and culture. The Abbasids built Baghdad and made it the capital of the caliphate. It’s just 200-odd miles from there, in Mosul, where al-Baghdadi chose to make his appearance declaring the return of the caliphate.

“His black attire and the now ubiquitous black Al Qaeda flag behind him recalls the black flags of the Abbasids who … created the largest Islamic state in history, a true caliphate,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, observes.

Al-Bagdhadi’s “command of the symbols and iconography of medieval Islamic history,” Riedel writes, “is striking.”

Ultimately, the Abbasids could not keep control of their sprawling empire and the caliph’s power gradually dwindled. The dynasty drew its last breath when it lost control of Baghdad in the middle of the 10th century.

A little under a thousand years later, the followers of a man who now goes by the name of Ibrahim are threatening to take back that same city and start a new chapter in the history of the Muslim caliphate.

Is that what ordinary Sunni Muslims want? Al-Baghdadi’s not asking them.

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