Sunni Muslims Declare New Caliphate, Is It For Real?

The Muslim Caliphate has not existed since the 13th century. Renee Montagne talks to historian Juan Cole, who believes this is a grandiose claim that history shows is doomed for failure.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We've been hearing a lot these past few weeks about the extremist Sunni militants who call themselves ISIS and have taken over large parts of Iraq. On Sunday, to mark the beginning of Ramadan, ISIS rebranded itself simply the Islamic State. It announced that this new, so-called state was the return of the caliphate. The caliphate was a Muslim kingdom ruled by descendents of the prophet Mohammed. For more, we've got historian Juan Cole on the line. His latest book out today is "The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation Is Changing The Middle East." Welcome to the program.

JUAN COLE: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Now, what does it mean in the Muslim world when a group declares itself the new caliphate?

COLE: Well, it's a little bit odd because there hasn't been a recognized caliph since at least 1924 and I think for most of the Muslim world you go back to the medieval time since there has been one. So it's anachronistic.

MONTAGNE: Though for the group itself, what is it trying to say to the world?

COLE: Well, it's a claim on religious authority, but this is a relatively small guerrilla group, a few thousand fighters, who've had success in making political coalitions in northern Iraq because the Sunnis there feel oppressed and desperate, but it's faintly ridiculous.

MONTAGNE: You know, we know the Muslim world is divided between Sunni and Shia - where does this whole concept of a caliphate fit into that?

COLE: Well, it is a Sunni political institution of the medieval period. After the prophet Mohammed died in 632 in Medina, there was a question of how he should be succeeded - who his vicars should be. And just as in Christianity, you know, Protestants have a preference for the teachings of Paul perhaps and Roman Catholics tend toward Peter. So in Islam, the Shiites rallied around the prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali, whereas the Sunni tradition believes that he was properly succeeded by a series of notables chosen by consensus from the same tribe as the prophet, the Quraysh.

MONTAGNE: So, in a sense, for a Sunni group to declare its lands that it's grabbed, a caliphate, that is saying something to the Shias.

COLE: Well, it is, in a way, in the sense that the Shia reject the Sunni idea of the caliphate, but it's mainly an attempt to rally the Sunnis. And it is also a response to European colonialism because the narrative of these people is that the European colonialists divided up the Muslim world, which had been united - or at least more united - under the Ottoman rulers some of whom claimed to be caliphs. And so by having a center of religious authority that would unite the 1.5 billion Muslims, they could more easily stand up to the West.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, the caliphate was something - a caliphate - was something Osama bin Laden was trying to create. It's worth remembering, obviously, he failed to do that. Is there any reason to think that this small group will succeed where he failed?

COLE: Oh, no, as I said, it's in the urban centers of the Muslim world in Cairo and Jakarta - the vast majority of people would be offended. This is not something that's likely to have much success. And remember, as you say, Mullah Omar of Uruzgan in Afghanistan made similar claims and I think almost nobody accepts those.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

COLE: You're very welcome.

MONTAGNE: Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and his latest book is called "The New Arabs."

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What's A Caliphate?

An Iraqi Turkmen fighter looks at an icon of seventh century Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, Islam's fourth caliph and cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, in Taza Khormato, Iraq, earlier this month. i i

An Iraqi Turkmen fighter looks at an icon of seventh century Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, Islam's fourth caliph and cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, in Taza Khormato, Iraq, earlier this month. Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi Turkmen fighter looks at an icon of seventh century Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, Islam's fourth caliph and cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, in Taza Khormato, Iraq, earlier this month.

An Iraqi Turkmen fighter looks at an icon of seventh century Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, Islam's fourth caliph and cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, in Taza Khormato, Iraq, earlier this month.

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic caliphates had a long and glorious run, but in the 21st century, they seemed consigned to history. Simply put, a caliphate is an Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader, and it has existed in one form or another for most of the 1,400-year history of Islam.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago marked the end of the last caliphate, an extraordinarily powerful one that had survived for more than four centuries.

But on Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria declared it was re-establishing a caliphate that will be headed by its shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

It's a bold propaganda ploy, because a caliphate seeks dominion over the world's Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of the roughly 1.5 billion Muslims around the globe.

This undated photo shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who unilaterally announced the creation of a new Islamic caliphate in an audio recording released late Sunday. i i

This undated photo shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who unilaterally announced the creation of a new Islamic caliphate in an audio recording released late Sunday. U.S. State Department via AP hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. State Department via AP
This undated photo shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who unilaterally announced the creation of a new Islamic caliphate in an audio recording released late Sunday.

This undated photo shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who unilaterally announced the creation of a new Islamic caliphate in an audio recording released late Sunday.

U.S. State Department via AP

"The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect — the time has come for them to rise," ISIS said in a statement on Sunday.

In this grand pronouncement, the group also said it was changing its name to show its ambitions were no longer restricted to Iraq and Syria, countries where it is battling governments. From now on, the group is simply calling itself the Islamic State.

A Goal Of Sunni Muslim Fundamentalists

Re-creating a caliphate has been a goal of fundamentalist Sunni groups for decades, including al-Qaida. From their perspective, the caliphates represented a golden age of Islam, when Muslims had vast political and economic power and were at the cutting edge in many arts and sciences. Re-creating the caliphate is the path to restoring that lost glory, in their view.

But none of these groups has made any real progress, mostly because they haven't been able to claim control over a sizable chunk of territory.

However, the Islamic State has seized large parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and has sought to administer them as a government. In pursuing its vision of a caliphate, the group is directly challenging al-Qaida.

"This announcement poses a huge threat to al-Qaida and its longtime position of leadership of the international jihadist cause," says Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "Put simply, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared war on al-Qaida."

Still, proclaiming a caliphate is one thing. Getting the world's Muslims to honor it is something else altogether. Even other Islamist rebels in Syria and Iraq have rejected it, let alone the rest of the world's Muslims.

The Earliest Days Of Islam

The caliphs go back to the earliest days of Islam. They were the successors to Muhammad, the founder of Islam in the seventh century. The battle over who should lead the Muslims following his death led to the bitter split that created the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. That division remains and is playing out in the sectarian fighting in Iraq.

Some scholars claim the caliphate effectively ended in 1258 when the Mongols, the descendants of Genghis Khan, stormed across the Middle East.

But the Turkish Ottoman empire claimed the caliphate in 1453 and exercised authority over vast parts of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond until the empire withered and ultimately collapsed at the end of World War I.

As Time magazine noted:

"The position has been vacant since 1924, when the founder of modern Turkey abolished the office as a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, and bundled the last man to hold it, a bookish Francophile named Abdulmecid Efendi, into exile aboard the Orient Express."

Islamic scholar Juan Cole, who offers a concise history of the caliphates, says the claims of a new caliphate are hugely exaggerated. He says Baghdadi has no proven support beyond his own group and has no realistic prospect of winning support among the broader Sunni Muslim community.

"Sunni Islam has come sociologically to resemble Protestant Christianity, lacking a formal center and largely organized on the basis of the nation-state. Thus each Muslim-majority country has a mufti, who is the highest legal authority, giving rulings on practice for the state. Ask the muftis, who have real authority backed by Muslim states, what they think of the serial murderer, al-Baghdadi."

Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1

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