Depending on how you count this kind of thing, the OG caliphate kicked off either in 632, when Muhammad died, or in 750, when the Abbasid dynasty took the office from its previous owners, the Umayyads. But it wasn’t until 909, when the Shiʿa Fatimid dynasty declared its own caliphate in the city of Qayrawan (in modern Tunisia), that you had some real, honest-to-goodness capitalist caliphal competition. Then in 929 a descendent of the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty declared that he was the caliph, in Cordoba (where the last Umayyads had fled in 750 and established an emirate), and the marketplace really started to go to work. Although since the caliphates occupied mutually exclusive empires, I guess they were really more like competing cable companies with their own local monopolies. And just like what happens when cable companies compete today, nobody won and pretty much everybody lost. But I digress.
What’s really exciting if you’re a fan of repeating history on fast-forward, or maybe if you’re just really not a big fan of Caliph Ibrahim and his Islamic State, is that while it took the old school caliphs somewhere between 250-300 years before they had a serious competitor, it took IS all of about a month, tops. Apparently on July 13, Al-Qaeda (the main operation, not one of their franchisees) released an old video of our good friend Osama bin Laden, in which the dear departed Osama described how he gave his bayat to our other good friend Mullah Omar of the Taliban, and in which he commands other Muslims to do likewise. This is very interesting, since the bayat is the oath of allegiance that all Muslims were traditionally expected to give to the rightful caliph, and also because Bin Laden refers to Omar as amir al-muʾminin, or “Commander of the Faithful,” which was one of the caliph’s regal titles after having been adopted by the second caliph, Umar. He even dismisses concerns that Mullah Omar’s Pashtun heritage might make him ineligible for the job (one of Caliph Ibrahim/al-Baghdadi’s claims is that he is descended from the same tribe (the Quraysh) that produced Muhammad).
The other reason that this is all so interesting is that it doesn’t correspond in any way with actual events. Does anybody remember Mullah Omar claiming to be the leader of all Muslims on the planet? Does anybody remember Bin Laden ever pushing a claim like that? Was there any evidence that the Taliban had any control over what Al-Qaeda was doing back then? Not really, and in fact there’s some evidence that the two groups had, at least a times, a rather tense relationship with one another. Mullah Omar did call himself “Commander of the Faithful,” but of Afghanistan (one of the features of the breakdown of the historical caliphate was that every petty Islamic king and prince suddenly started calling himself “caliph,” just because), not the entire Islamic world. Yet apparently something was going on with respect to Mullah Omar and grandiose claims to power, because here’s this video that Al-Qaeda could conveniently release to discredit Baghdadi. It’s particularly useful in that regard because it suggests that it’s Baghdadi who’s the Johnny-come-lately to the caliphate, and that this isn’t some hastily slapped together Al-Qaeda response to IS’s June declaration.
Unfortunately for all of these guys, another difference between their caliphates and the traditional batch of caliphates is that people, you know, actually believed in the legitimacy of the old caliphates. These guys? Not so much.