By Hugh Kennedy
Kennedy is a professor of Arabic at SOAS, University of London, and the author of Caliphate
What is caliphate? What does the term mean? What is the history of the idea? Is it an ancient irrelevance, only interesting as a voice from a past that is safely consigned to history? Or is it a concept that we can interpret and use today?
The concept of caliphate has had many different interpretations and realizations through the centuries, but fundamental to them all is that it offers an idea of leadership which is about the just ordering of Muslim society according to the will of God. Some have argued that the caliph is the shadow of God on earth, a man whose authority is semi-divine and whose conduct is without blame; many more would accept that the caliph was, so to speak, the chief executive of the umma, the Muslim community, an ordinary human with worldly powers, and there is a wide spectrum of ideas in between. All are informed by the desire to see God’s will worked out among all Muslims.
In order to understand ISIS’s idea of caliphate, and why it should prove relevant and important to many, we have to understand its roots deep in the Muslim tradition. ISIS has made the revival of the caliphate a keystone of its project for Islamic renewal, and the response this has generated shows the potency of the idea almost 14 centuries since it first emerged. For modern Islamists searching for a basis to construct a viable political vision for the revival of the Muslim umma, the events of the four centuries between the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and the coming of the Crusaders to the Middle East in 1097 are at once an inspiration and a justification