On the first of Ramadan 2014, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Shaam (ISIS) declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the new Caliph of Islam and renamed themselves the "Islamic State". By doing so, they attempted to lay claim to a powerful symbol within Islam, the Khalifa. For many Muslims, a Khalifa represents just rule - epitomised by Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, the first four Caliphs of Islam. When the Ottoman Empire fell in 1924, so did the last vestige of the Caliph. Much like Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, it was a watershed moment in the continuing story of European colonialism of the Middle East.
Of course, the picture is more complicated than that. 1,400 years of Islamic history attests to countless Caliphs. Some were pious, some were corrupt. Caliphates often fought against each other as they vied for ascendency and control. The Ottoman Caliph may have had authority over the Middle East, but that meant little to Muslims living in South Asia under Mughal rule. Yet the allure of the image of a single temporal and spiritual leader of the Muslim world still evokes powerful responses today, especially as few Muslims consider current Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers of Muslim-majority countries as in anyway representing the ideals of Islam.
ISIS have proven themselves adept at using social media and even mainstream journalism to their benefit. Declaring their ragtag militia a Caliphate, and their hitherto unknown leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a Caliph, was an impressive means by which to legitimise their land grab amongst other Muslims. They weren't the first to use the term Caliph to their benefit of course, many have done the same. The famous Siege of the Grand Mosque of Makkah in 1979 saw Juhayman al-Otaybi declare himself Caliph in an attempt to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, and of course the current King of Morocco still calls himself Commander of the Faithful (a historic term synonymous with Caliph).
Yet ISIS is perhaps unique in their global ambitions, unlike other wannabe-Caliphs, they have called the entire Muslim world to pledge allegiance to the Abu Bakr al-Baghadi and move to their new state.
I could mock their naïve call to obedience, but instead, here is an honest attempt at outlining why I won't be pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
1) Protection of Religious Minorities
This is reason enough that ISIS has no religious claim on the title of Caliph. The second Caliph of Islam, one of the four to whom Sunni Muslims turn as sources of religious authority guidance, advised his successor with the following: -
"I urge him to take care of those non-Muslims who are under the protection of Allah and His Apostle in that he should observe the convention agreed upon with them, and fight on their behalf and he should not over-tax them beyond their capability." (Bukhari, 52:287).
I reflect too on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, who clearly outlined the danger of Muslims failing to protect religious minorities: -
"Whoever hurts a non Muslim , I am his adversary, and I shall be an adversary to him on the Day of Resurrection." (al-Khatib)
ISIS clearly have no interest in fulfilling any of theological obligations that go along with the Caliphate. Historically, Iraq was the centre of many Middle-Eastern Caliphates, none of whom sought to uproot or remove the ancient religions that called it home. Iraq is one of the most religiously diverse places in the world with Mandaeans, Yazidis and Zoroastrians among more familiar world religions such as Christianity and Judaism. If ISIS want Muslims to take their call to allegiance seriously, they should begin by protecting the rights of the weakest in their societies - the religious minorities.
2) What's the purpose of a Caliphate?
When the Prophet Muhammad migrated to the city of Madinah, fleeing the persecution he and other Muslims endured under in Makkah, he was welcomed with open arms. The city of Madinah had largely converted to Islam, and invited the Prophet to the city as leader.
One of the first actions he took was to create a covenant between the Muslims of the city, and nearby Jewish, pagan and Christian tribes. The Covenant of Madinah, as it is sometimes called, outlined the equality and rights of all those who called Madinah home. It was a document that sought to establish peace, safety and relations with those nearby.
By contrast, ISIS has shown itself to desire expansion, conquest and military might. They exploited the revolution of the Syrian people against a violent and repressive regime for their own purposes, leading to more disaster and conflict. They took advantage of a weakened and war-torn Iraq, left in ruins after American invasion, to mark out new boundaries for their frontiers. Rather than seeking any diplomatic or political solutions, that might provide already traumatised Syrians and Iraqis with some degree of stability, ISIS have sought further conflict - including a ridiculous announcement that they intend to conquer Rome.
Clearly not every Caliphate in the previous 1,400 years sought stability and peace in the regions they ruled, but the Caliphs Muslim's remember today, such as the Umayyad Caliph Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz, were known for their social reforms and dedication to the welfare of their subjects - something ISIS has shown itself to have no interest in.
3) Support from Religious Authorities
Despite ISIS' grand claims, almost every Islamic religious authority has dismissed their legitimacy to the Caliphate. These include those from across the spectrum. The International Union of Muslim Scholars was one of the first to do so, but were quickly followed by many more internationally and here in the United Kingdom. In fact, I struggle to think of any issue which has prompted a swifter and more united response from Muslim scholars than on the issue of ISIS' Caliphate. The names of those disavowing ISIS' include heavyweights such as Yusuf al-Qardawi and Shaykh Mohammed al-Munajjid - men whom few would dare call "scholars for dollars".
The lack of religious approval of ISIS is important. What separates an armed militia with a leader from an actual claim to be a Caliph of Islam? The only distinction that has ever really mattered is the response of religious scholars to such claims. Any temporal authority can call themselves Caliph (think back to the King of Morocco), but without the support of those with spiritual authority, the claims mean nothing.
ISIS has fulfilled many of the criteria for statehood by modern geopolitical definitions, but in terms of laying claim to a Caliphate - it falls abysmally short. Like many Muslims, I'm in no rush to offer my allegiance.Suggest a correction