Is the Caliphate back?

A sad political ghost returns after 700 years as a cover for savagery.

When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) proclaimed religious authority over all Muslims worldwide as a caliphate in 2014 – with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as self-styled Caliph – it invoked a link with the very origin of Islamic history.

The institution took form on Muhammad’s death in 632: the Prophet had created a state based on a common religion within the boundaries of the Arabian peninsula, leaving to a group of Elders in Medina the task of designating a political leader as his “vicar and successor” (Arabic khalifā).

On election to the role, Abū Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law, adopted the title of khalifat rasul Allah (Successor of the Messenger of God), marking the beginning of a period regarded as a golden age of Islamic purity. The first four caliphs—Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān and ‘Alī—traditionally called the rāshidūn (‘rightly guided’), established the administrative and judicial organisation of the Muslim community.

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