What does the term Caliphate mean historically?

King's College London's picture
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The term caliphate is taken from the Arabic word ‘khilafa’, which means ‘deputyship’ or succession’. It is related to the word ‘khalifa’ which means ‘successor’ or ‘caretaker’ – in English corrupted into ‘caliph’. It refers to an Islamic institution which came into being in the first century after the religion’s emergence in seventh-century Arabia. It was intended to provide leadership to the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632CE. Initially Muhammad’s first four successors were selected from his closest companions. While the majority of the still relatively small Muslim community, later referred to as the Sunnis, accepted this tribal practice, a smaller group rejected this decision. Known as the ‘Shia Ali’ or ‘Party of Ali’ (hence the name ‘Shia’), they insisted Muhammad had anointed his cousin - Ali as successor and that the lineage should continue through his bloodline.

What does the Caliphate mean as declared by ISIS, in 2014?

The recent proclamation of an Islamic State by ISIS (alternatively known as ISIL) and of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its ‘caliph’ is a rather anomalous event.  During the heyday of imperialism, the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph did have some rallying power for Muslim solidarity. Also there have been earlier attempts in the 1920s and 30s to revive the Caliphate after its 1924 abolition involving major political actors in the Muslim world, but none were successful due to rivalry among the contenders and their supporters.

What message does ISIS want to send the world with this declaration?


The ISIS proclamation of an Islamic state and the concurrent demand that Muslims worldwide swear allegiance to the new caliph is rather grandiose and utopian. However, pragmatically it can be interpreted as an attempt by ISIS to consolidate the astonishing territorial gains it has made in the last few weeks. The areas which ISIS claims to control straddle parts of Syria and Iraq, by presenting it as a Caliphate, ISIS introduces an – in its eyes – ‘authentic Islamic’ alternative to the present nation states.  The organisation probably wants to bank on the symbolic power of a supra-national caliphate, uniting Muslims globally,  and to galvanise support. However, it’s likely that any appeal will be limited to like-minded extremist fringe organisations and activists.

What has been the reaction of Iraq’s Shia leaders and the US?

The Shia community sees the proclamation as affirmation that ISIS drives an uncompromising, vehemently anti-Shia, sectarian agenda.  In that sense ISIS’s latest initiative will only create further polarisation. The US and other major regional actors have so far ignored the proclamation, but are acutely concerned about ISIS’ territorial gains and the ripple effect its make-up may have beyond the Muslim world.

Is it a cause for concern or just good PR by ISIS?

The caliphate claim crowns ISIS’ triumphant expansion over large and strategically important parts of Iraq and Syria, apparently unopposed. It demonstrates that a relatively small organisation must have carefully prepared this campaign in coordination with other Sunni factions without being detected by Iraqi or international intelligence agencies.
Who are ISIS – and are they now genuinely the biggest jihadist force in the world?

ISIS remains a rather opaque organisation, and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is surrounded with an air of secrecy, not dissimilar to the mystique attached to the figure of Mullah Omar, the shadowy leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban. So it is very difficult to ascertain the real influence of ISIS, and to truly determine how large it is. However, it cannot be denied that its recent achievements are quite spectacular and explain the attention it receives.

What are your predictions for the situation over the coming months?

It is too early to speculate whether ISIS will be able to sustain this level of activity, or even consolidate its gains. It very much depends on the strength of its alliance with other Sunni organisations, as well as on the reaction of key political regional players and the threat level they attach to ISIS. Active support for ISIS will likely be restricted to Islamist activists with similar extreme, violent agendas. But that does not preclude more widespread passive sympathy. The most acute danger is a further polarisation of competing political forces in Iraq, but also in Syria and elsewhere, along sectarian lines. This would deflect attention from underlying problems of political ambitions, territorial claims, and economic interests, reducing them to issues that are perceived in purely religious terms.

Dr Carool Kersten, Theology & Religious Studies, is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World, and co-author of Demystifying the Caliphate. He is currently editing a three-volume anthology on the historical caliphate.

Copy this html code to your website/blog to embed this press release.


Post new comment

6 + 13 =

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
Page execution time was 1044.51 ms.

Memory usage:

Memory used at: devel_init()=2.13 MB, devel_shutdown()=22.57 MB.