scorecardresearch Skip to main content

What is the Caliphate, exactly? A primer.

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Last Sunday the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, declared the restoration of the Caliphate—a dream more than a millennium old of a single empire to unite all the Sunni Muslims of the world. ISIS declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph, said he traces his lineage back to tribe of Mohammed, and commanded all Sunni Muslims to “gather around” him as citizens of a new transnational state governed by sharia law.

The idea of a Caliphate is by turns breathtaking and preposterous. It sounds resurrected from the medieval past, and indeed its roots lie in the 7th century. But the last Caliph was dethroned only in 1924, when the victorious West divided up the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I.

In order to better understand the history of the Caliphate, and what ISIS hopes to achieve by invoking it, Ideas recently spoke by phone with Philip Jenkins, a religious history professor at Baylor University and author of the new book "The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade."


IDEAS: What does ISIS hope to achieve by invoking the Caliphate?

JENKINS: What they're trying to do is establish themselves symbolically as the leading force in reviving Islam. They're trying to get back to the earliest stages of the Islamic faith.

IDEAS: How resonant is this idea for Sunni Muslims?

JENKINS: The idea itself is very attractive, but it also runs into a couple major problems because the Caliphate idea has become associated with a lot of radical baggage. It almost limits the status of Muslim to absolute true believers who go along with ISIS, and at the same time it invalidates the Muslim credentials of any and all states.

IDEAS: How does this declaration affect the more general Sunni-Shia conflict?

JENKINS: The Ottomans would certainly have regarded Shias as an inferior breed of Muslim, but generally they accepted them as Muslims. The modern Caliphate is not just saying that Shia aren't real Muslims, they're saying that many Sunnis aren't real Muslims either. They'd say any Sunni who doesn't go along with them is not a real Muslim. It's an extremely exclusive, elitist, narrow idea.

IDEAS: Do you think this was more of a strategic play by ISIS, or an expression of true belief?


JENKINS: I would say it's mainly the first. It invites so much opposition, and once the Caliphate is in play, it invites other groups to set up a Caliphate. I bet in a year or two you wont be able to throw a stone without hitting a Caliph....Three of the four first Caliphs were assassinated. The fourth was assassinated and his murder led to the whole Sunni-Shia split, which is a gaping wound 1,300 years later.

IDEAS: Is that the kind of chaos ISIS wants?

JENKINS: I'm honestly wondering if they've thought it through.

The things they carried (or tried to)

Weapons seized by the TSA at JFK, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, and Jacksonville International airports.Bob Burns/Transportation Security Administration

If you fly often enough, maybe your belt buckle will set off a metal detector. Lots of people, however, fail their security screens in far more spectacular fashion.

Recently the official blog of the Transportation Security Administration ran a surprisingly scintillating post detailing the wide range of weapons confiscated at airport security checkpoints in the previous week. The list includes brass knuckles, stun guns, ammo, inert grenades, spent artillery shells, "a lot of sharp pointy things," and a small militia's-worth of handguns. Among the most frequently confiscated weapons? So-called credit card knives, lethal looking things that fold down and can be tucked neatly into a wallet. TSA agents seized 61 of them in a week.

There's no suggestion that any of these weapons were intended for in-flight use, which is both reassuring and disturbing: If this is what people bring to an airport, what the heck are they carrying on a day-to-day basis?

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at