A New Caliphate?

PRINCETON – The recent declaration of a caliphate by the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an unprecedented event in modern times. Regardless of how it turns out, one thing is clear: violent jihadism is now an entrenched feature of the Arab political landscape.

Not since the Turkish Republic abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 has any Muslim group in control of territory made such a bid. Even Al Qaeda and the Taliban have limited their demands to the creation of statelets (emirates), which they hope will eventually coalesce into a caliphate.

This hesitation can be explained, at least partly, by the fact that neither Osama bin Laden nor Mullah Omar (the Taliban’s leader) can fulfill the conditions for being a caliph, one of which is proof of descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. The new caliphal claimant, the Islamic State’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can.

As conceived in Islamic political thought, a caliphate, unlike a conventional nation-state, is not subject to fixed borders. Instead, it is focused on defending and expanding the dominion of the Muslim faith through jihad, or armed struggle.