Restoring the Caliphate: A Declaration of War

As the month of June drew to a close, our thoughts naturally turned back in time to that fateful June 28th in Sarajevo one hundred years ago when Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. No one at the time could have ever imagined the scale of the destruction that would result from this one act.

Our time for reflecting on a past war and its causes was abruptly cut short on Sunday, however, with a chilling announcement from the brutal terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS’ announcement was nothing less than a declaration of war. On Sunday, June 29, the first day of Ramadan, ISIS declared that all territory now under its control formed the new ‘Islamic State’. (I found the timing of their announcement most interesting.) According to ISIS, there is only one Muslim country now: the Islamic State, or IS. The acronym ISIS is now defunct. And the head of the new Islamic State is none other than ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ as he is now to be referred to. Spokesman for the terrorist group, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, made the proclamation in Arabic into an audio file, stating that “The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and arrival of its troops to their area.” ISIS spokesman called on Muslims everywhere to declare allegiance to their new caliph.

With Sunday’s proclamation, ISIS had restored the caliphate. What exactly is the caliphate? The word caliphate is defined as the ‘concept of a nation of Muslims worldwide ruled by Sharia law under a caliph who holds both spiritual and secular authority’. And caliph means ‘successor’ or more precisely in this case, ‘successor of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’. An institution established at the time of Muhammad’s death, the caliphate existed in an unbroken chain throughout 1400 years of Islamic history until 1924 when the Turkish reformer Atatürk abolished the institution. The last caliph was the Ottoman ruler, Abdulmedic II. Convinced that all the old Islamic institutions had to go in order to bring Turkey into the 20th century, Atatürk dispensed with the caliphate.

And now ISIS has revived it, or so it claims. By reinstating the caliphate, ISIS means to restore the unity of the Islamic ummah, the worldwide Muslim community, that once existed under the caliphate. More importantly, with the restoration of the office of caliph, the Islamic State believes that it can now launch an offensive war. According to Sunni law, only the caliph can issue the call for an offensive war. For the last 90 years, all Islamic military actions have been defensive ones (right!). Any future war that ISIS undertakes is now valid, if the caliph so orders it. The proclamation issued by ISIS on Sunday was, in essence, a declaration of war. The caliphate throughout history was synonymous with empire–an empire achieved largely through warfare. Think of the extent of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. ISIS is not content with the territory it now holds in Syria and Iraq. In fact, it has Jordan and Lebanon in its immediate sights.

The big question is, then: How many of the world’s Muslims, particularly Sunni Muslims, will recognize al-Baghdadi aka Caliph Ibrahim as their spiritual and political leader? Some jihadist groups have already rallied to ISIS’ cause; others have rejected ISIS’ claims outright.

The so-called restoration of the caliphate by ISIS brings to mind the Mahdist Revolt in Sudan in the late 19th century. In that instance, a man by the name of Muhammad Ahmad claimed that he was the long-awaited Mahdi and invited all true believers to join him in a holy war against the Christians. Turned out he wasn’t the Mahdi–the Muslim End-times figure–after all, and his movement ultimately failed, but not before a lot of blood had been shed, tragically. Will ISIS’ caliphate meet the same end?

ISIS has just issued a call for Muslims, particularly professional people, to immigrate to the new Islamic State in order to populate and build up the swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq now under ISIS’ control. The world will be watching to see who responds.

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