Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the caliph of The Islamic State.

The 'Splainer: Who is the new caliph on the block?

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which Kimberly Winston and other RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the caliph of The Islamic State.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the caliph of the Islamic State.

On Sunday (June 29), the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni rebel group, declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “the caliph of the Muslims.” In doing so, the group has revived a dream and dispute that has both united and riven Muslims for centuries. So, what is a caliph? And what is a caliphate?

Q: What is a caliph?

A: “Caliph” is an Arabic word that means “successor.” It is the title Muslim rulers held since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Problem is, no one can agree who is the "true" caliph. This goes back to the Sunni-Shiite divide, which The 'Splainer attempted to 'splain a few weeks ago. Sunnis believe the caliph should be elected from the most qualified leaders, while Shiites believe the true caliph is a descendant of Muhammad. ISIS is a Sunni group, but in a recorded statement it released on June 29 announcing the caliphate, the group described al-Baghdadi as “descendant from the family of the Prophet, the slave of God.”

The last caliph reigned from the seat of the Ottoman Empire -- that’s Turkey to you -- until he was deposed in 1924. Since then, many Islamic groups have called for the re-establishment of the caliphate -- Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiya and, of course, al-Qaida. Re-establishing the caliphate represents the dream of restoring Islam to its glory days as an empire.

Q: How big is this guy’s caliphate or is he just happy to see me?

A: Right now, ISIS -- which changed its name to the Islamic State on the same day it announced al-Baghdadi’s title -- claims territory from Aleppo, Syria, to the Diyala province in Iraq. At its peak, the caliphate under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) reached all the way from the tippy-toe of Yemen to Vienna, Austria.

Q: Is this a stunt, like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic” standing on the prow of the boat and declaring, “I’m King of the World”?

A: It could be a message. In announcing the caliphate, the Islamic State’s spokesman said: "The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas. Listen to your caliph and obey him.” That could be a challenge to al-Qaida, once its ally, now a jilted ex. The group split from al-Qaida earlier this year. Al-Jazeera recently wrote that Islamic State’s overall goal is “a return to a medieval-style Sunni caliphate for the Arab World.”

Q: Yikes! How do other Muslims feel about this?

A: Reaction has been, shall we say, “mixed.” There was celebration in the streets in the areas directly under the Islamic State’s control. But no one in the United Arab Emirates was bending the knee to the new caliph. Many Muslims were quick to condemn and even ridicule the declaration. But Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who keeps tabs on the Middle East, said this of the declaration of the new caliphate in The New York Times: “People don’t have to like it, but they have to respond to it. Now that there is an actual caliphate with a caliph, a lot of Muslims are going to have to talk about what that means, and there is going to be some sympathy.”




  1. Declaring a caliphate is an attempt to claim divine right. Its extending the political and social mandate given by the prophet muhammad to this new leader.

    I say fine. Let him. He has ever right to claim his leadership divine and the fulfillment of prophesy.

    I don’t see how we couldn’t agree to allow it while we support another nation state of exclusive religious persuasion who claim divine right to land in the same region.

    To validate one and not the other only would make us face our internal hypocrisy.

  2. The relevant verse from the Quran regarding Khilafat (caliphate):

    “Allah had promised to those among you who believe and do good works that He will surely make them Successors in the earth, as He made Successors from among those who were before them; and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them; and that He will surely give them in exchange security and peace after their fear: They will worship Me, and they will not associate anything with Me. Then whoso is ungrateful after that, they will be the rebellious.” (24:56).

    The relevant Hadith (saying of Muhammad(sa)):

    “Prophethood shall remain among you as long as Allah shall will. He will bring about its end and follow it with Khilafat on the precepts of prophethood for as long as He shall will and then bring about its end. A tyrannical monarchy will then follow and will remain as long as Allah shall will and then come to an end. There will follow thereafter monarchial despotism to last as long as Allah shall will and come to an end upon His decree. There will then emerge Khilafat on precept of Prophethood.” He said no more. Source: Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

    I have some questions for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What “good works” (as mentioned in the Quran) have you done, upon which you base your claim, and for which you could expect God’s promise of security and peace? Where in the Quran does God mention the Caliph as establishing and securing anything other than the spiritual continuation of Islam? And where is the authority for the Caliph to wage war, expropriate territory and commit murder in the name of religion?

    The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community celebrated 100 years of peaceful spiritual Khilafat in 2008. The Fifth Khalifa (Caliph), his holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, recently said:

    “The Khilafat of the Ahmadiyya Community can never depart from Islam’s core teachings of fulfilling the rights owed to God and to mankind. Today, the institution of Khilafat is striving for peace in every possible way and to spread love and affection throughout the world”

    “Let me make it clear that the institution of Khilafat leading the Ahmadiyya Community has no interest in power or government. Rest assured that true Khilafat has no worldly or political objectives. The sole concern of the Ahmadiyya Khilafat is that the people of the world come to recognise their Creator and bow down before the One God.” – Germany Annual Convention, 13 June 2014.

  3. These ahmadys are as crazy as the caliph mongering zelots there is no short cuts to good governance

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