While the idea of a “caliphate” and a “caliph” does resonate back into Islamic history, I hope I’ve managed to dissuade you or your impressionable relatives of the notion that the office has some kind of special magic powers or that Muslims all over the world must be irresistibly drawn to any old schmuck who declares himself caliph. Caliph Ibrahim, as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi apparently wants to be known, no doubt had several reasons for declaring the rebirth of the caliphate the other day, but the most immediate was a desire to see his organization become the leading brand in global jihad, the Coca-Cola to Al-Qaeda’s Pepsi. Well, on that score he’s having some success:
ISIS leaders took advantage of the bonds that were still strong between them and some leaders of jihadist organizations to convince them to join their group or their caliphate. ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed Adnani issued a call asking all al-Qaeda branches around the world for their opinion concerning the group and the dispute with al-Qaeda. This call was met with silence from top-tier leaders in these factions, except for the Caucasus Emirate, which did not fear stating its support for Jabhat al-Nusra.
Thus, it was not very odd that the statement made by a group from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), led by Abu Abdullah Othman al-Assimi, condemned the silence of the leaders of their organization. This pushed the group to film a video, in which it declared its support for ISIS and pledged allegiance to Baghdadi as caliph of the Muslims.
This is not the only pledge of allegiance that ISIS got after announcing the caliphate, since there was quasi-verified news of Ansar al-Bayt al-Maqdis pledging allegiance as well. Sheikh Mamoun Hatem’s group, leader in Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, known for supporting ISIS even before the caliphate, also pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. The pledge of allegiance also came from a group from the Taliban of Pakistan in Kharasan, led by Sheikh Abu Yazeed Abdul Qahir al-Khurasani, in a statement published on social media websites.
So no dice with the folks in the Caucasus, but AQIM is a pretty big get, and groups in Sinai, Yemen, and Pakistan as well, that’s not bad. If they’re really getting support from Pakistani Taliban (i.e., Pashtun), that’s symbolically important as well, since Baghdadi is known for being kind of an Arab chauvinist who tends to alienate non-Arabs and doesn’t really seem to care that he’s doing so. Coca-Cola wasn’t built in a day, after all, and this is definitely progress for the Islamic State.
On the other hand, if Caliph Ibrahim was looking to expand his prestige beyond the world of nihilistic Sunni extremists, well, he’s not having the same success there:
So far, Al-Azhar has not issued any official stance regarding ISIS, with the exception of some statements made by the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb and some Azhar graduates, including Sheikh Alawi Amin. The latter believed that “ISIS is a terrorist group which was born out of colonialism and US and Western intelligence for the purpose of slitting the throats of Muslims and dividing the Islamic nation.”
Amin called for the whole Muslim community to unite and stand side by side to face this group. “Islam renounces any connection to them,” he said.
A few days earlier, Al-Azhar issued a statement indicating that “it is watching with great concern the fast-paced developments in Iraq and the growing confessional and sectarian dimension of these developments.”
Al-Azhar called on all officials to do everything in their power to prevent the bloodshed of innocent citizens, whatever their religious, ethnic, sectarian or geographical affiliation might be. Al-Azhar also emphasized the need to combat by all means any incitement that may affect or prejudice the religious symbols or institutions in order to preserve the unity of the nation.”
Al-Azhar has been the seat of Islamic learning almost back to its foundation by the Fatimids in the 10th century (it was converted to Sunnism when the Fatimids were overthrown by Saladin in the late 12th century), and it is still the home of most leading Sunni scholars. If Ibrahim were to have any hope of convincing rank and file Muslims that his is the true caliphate, he’d have to get the faculty of Al-Azhar on his side, which they clearly are not. Their consensus seems to be that the Islamic State is too violent, too political, and too insistent on their definition of Islamic purity to be a legitimate caliphate. The essential obligation of rulers in Islamic philosophy has always been justice, to the extent that it is often argued that the rule of a just non-Muslim is preferable to the rule of an unjust Muslim. Baghdadi seems like the dictionary definition of an “unjust Muslim ruler,” so as far as the scholars are concerned he’s not a legitimate caliph.
Cynically, one could argue that scholars like the ones at Al-Azhar are going to be opposed to anyone who declares himself “caliph,” since the prerogatives of a caliph could theoretically conflict with their prerogatives as scholars to interpret the Law. But even so, they have a pretty strong case for Baghdadi’s illegitimacy.