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

(RNS) The last caliph reigned from the seat of the Ottoman Empire -- that’s Turkey to you -- until he was deposed in1924. Since then many Islamic groups have called for the re-establishment of the caliphate. So how big is the new caliphate, and what does it all mean?

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

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.”