A Caliph Arises in the East

On Sunday, the first day of Ramadan, the jihadis of ISIS declared their leader Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim to be the Caliph of all Islam, renaming themselves the Islamic State, and calling on all Muslims to swear allegiance to it and to the Caliph (whose nom de guerre was until now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). In Beirut’s al-Akhbar, Radwan Mortada interviews numerous local jihadi militants: how will the Caliph Ibrahim’s proclamation be received among groups not affiliated to ISIS?

The declaration of a caliphate in much of Iraq and Syria is clearly an attempt to bulldoze all of the other jihadi groups fighting in Syria and Iraq (and elsewhere) under the black banner of the former ISIS. But it also has obvious apocalyptic overtones, as well as being a direct allegory to the four original ‘rightly guided’ caliphs who succeeded Islam’s Prophet in the seventh century. And finally and perhaps most importantly, the armies of the Caliph can only have one final objective: Mecca and Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, spokesperson for ISIS, declared the creation of the Islamic caliphate, “the jihadis’ long-running dream.” This marks the first time the caliphate has been “restored” by anyone since Ataturk abolished it almost 90 years ago.

A few thousand ISIS fighters have ostensibly abolished the borders drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Meanwhile, ISIS has been rebranded as the global Islamic State (IS). Its black banner, once flapping over the land between Aleppo and Diyala, now sits above a borderless entity with absolute authority over all Muslim lands.

ISIS, or IS, believes that pledging allegiance to the new caliph is a duty for every Muslim, and those who fail or refuse to do so shall be deemed as apostates, and will be fought and struck down. This was clearly stated by Adnani, who said, “Beware of splitting the ranks. [For] those who want to split the ranks, strike their heads with bullets […].”

But what is the meaning of declaring an Islamic caliphate? A Salafi cleric says, “It means that borders and barriers among Islamic countries are now invalid. There will be a single Islamic economic system and currency, and an army to defend it.” He continued, “It also means there will no longer be any subservience to any country, requiring the establishment of universities and factories to make Muslims a major power in all fields.”

ISIS, represented by its senior leaders and notables, decided to declare the Islamic caliphate and to install a caliph for the Muslims, having in its view satisfied all the requirements to do so. These requirements are the same ones caliphs supposedly needed since about 1,400 years ago.

According to Salafi clerics, the caliph is required to rule a territory in every sense of the word, and not in a provisional manner. They argue that ISIS staked its claim to the caliphate on the basis that it controls vast swaths of territory, in addition to having funds, an army, and a population under its control, though ISIS did not take into account the fact that each era should have a different concept for what a state should be. Adnani had specified the role of the state as being to release prisoners, appoint governors and judges, collect taxes, and disseminate religious education, among other functions.

Some radical Islamists have criticized ISIS for declaring a caliphate without first obtaining the unanimous consent of the nation’s scholars of religion. If Baghdadi is to be a caliph for all Muslims, then is it enough for him to obtain the consent of all scholars of Iraq and Syria – assuming that even this could happen to begin with?

What is certain is that the declaration of the caliphate puts all militant Islamic groups in an awkward position. Addressing such groups, ISIS had declared, “The legitimacy of your groups is null and void. It is a sin for any of you to sleep this night without pledging allegiance,” adding that other militant groups delay victory because they are a cause for divisions.

One supporter of al-Nusra Front has questions about the meaning of this caliphate too. He said the move means that Taliban and various al-Qaeda-linked groups, in addition to jihadi groups active in different countries, would henceforth be committing a sin, and fighting them and killing their members is a duty, unless they accept Baghdadi as the caliph.

In turn, a member of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades weighs in. He told Al-Akhbar, “There is no good in declaring a caliphate under these circumstances; it is something that has evil consequences, which means it is invalid.”

The young Lebanese man, who is wanted by the authorities for his affiliation to a terrorist group, continued, “Its establishment at this time ruins everything that the mujahidin…have built everywhere. The declaration means that anyone who does not pledge allegiance to them will be declared an apostate and sentenced to die.”

When asked whether he was going to give his allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph Baghdadi, he said, “I will not split the ranks, but I will definitely not pledge allegiance. I would rather be beheaded a thousand times than do so, because I cannot accept a law that makes it lawful to kill thousands of Muslims unjustly.”

In the same vein, a leader in ISIS’ rival al-Nusra Front said, “Baghdadi ruled that Sheikh Joulani was an apostate for reneging on his allegiance to the emir [i.e. Baghdadi] even though his allegiance was something recommended rather than compulsory.” He continued, “By declaring the caliphate, they are forcing all groups in the Islamic world to be with ISIS in everything, including in its war with al-Nusra, or risk be seen as rogue and as something that ISIS soldiers must fight.”

Another Salafi cleric says that declaring the caliphate is the “essence of folly,” adding that ISIS does not meet the real requirements for doing so. He said, “Does military might establish a state? What about economists and pedagogues? In my opinion, this is suicide that will accelerate its collapse.”

Now that the Islamic caliphate is a fait accompli, jihadis say that all eyes will be on Mecca and Medina next. They say that the caliph will move to appoint envoys to every “wilaya” – a historical term for the provinces of an Islamic state.

Who knows, the wilaya of Lebanon may have its very own emir soon (reports about the appointment of a man named Abdul-Salam al-Urduni as emir of ISIS in Lebanon are incorrect, according to security sources). Perhaps the answer lies with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamist party that has been calling for years for the restoration of the caliphate.

Radwan Mortada