The Caliph Has No Clothes

Ramadan, which began this year on June 28, gives Muslims the chance to look to the past and future. It calls for fasting, but fasting for a purpose, above all for renewing ties with family and with faith.

But this year the start of Ramadan was punctuated by a sinister audio message, sonorously delivered in just short of 20 minutes by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the increasingly notorious leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Qaeda offshoot that now controls a large swath of Syria and Iraq. A video released on July 5 purported to show him in a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to ISIS in early June.

Mr. Baghdadi’s ambitions don’t end in Mosul. ISIS has proclaimed nothing less than the re-establishment of the caliphate, that venerable institution of Islamic rule that was abolished in 1924, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. And while he’s been elusive on camera, Mr. Baghdadi betrays a great deal of himself in the recorded speech.

Anyone looking for a detailed understanding of ISIS’ political vision will be disappointed, but to dismiss the speech as mere bombast is to miss its jihadist target. Mr. Baghdadi’s rhetoric — however opaque or abhorrent to Western observers — makes claims to religious authority through style and allusion that are plain to fellow jihadists.

In other words, what the recording shows is Mr. Baghdadi’s donning the mantle of anticolonial redeemer and trumping jihadist rivals, like the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a war of words and symbols. Osama bin Laden was said to have been nervous about the quality of his preaching, fearing that recordings would document his mistakes. Mr. Baghdadi, who according to jihadist websites comes from a learned family and has a doctorate in Islamic studies, is turning that training to his advantage.

The style of his address is formal, loosely rhyming classical Arabic infused with Quranic words and phrases. The form is a “letter addressed to those undertaking jihad and the Islamic community.” The mode of persuasion is to adduce scriptural truths to induce action — above all that Muslims are to fear God and fight on God’s behalf. In these and other respects, the address bears striking similarities to the letters, sermons and speeches of Islam’s caliphates in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, powerful empires that legitimized their rule by claiming succession from the Prophet Muhammad.

The medium being the message, its symbols are deliberately archaic. When Mr. Baghdadi calls metaphorically for the conquest of “Rome,” he’s signaling to his audience command of a repertory of tropes and symbols: When early Muslim caliphs announced their ambition to conquer “Rome,” they had in mind Constantinople (now Istanbul) — the “new Rome” as it was then understood, the Greek-speaking capital of Byzantium, and the caliphate’s only rival for religious and political supremacy.

The few contemporary references in Mr. Baghdadi’s remarks — to Burma, America, the veil in France, democracy, secularism — are not intended to show off any command of current affairs, but are gestures intended to illustrate the mythic conflict between belief and unbelief, between God’s justice and human tyranny.

Mr. Baghdadi is introduced in the recording as “our master, commander of the faithful, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qureishi al-Baghdadi.” The phraseology is at once formulaic (“commander of the faithful” was the conventional title of address for a caliph) and cynical. The nom de guerre “Abu Bakr” recycles the name of Muhammad’s father-in-law and Islam’s first caliph, chosen by contemporaries over the objection of those who favored Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali — the Shiites. Meanwhile, Mr. Baghdadi’s alleged descent from the Qureish tribe fulfills one of the qualifications for the office held crucial by pre-modern Muslim scholars, who required that caliphs share Muhammad’s kinship. Baghdad, of course, was the principal seat of the caliphate from the eighth through the 13th centuries, when it was conquered by the Mongols.

In sum, Mr. Baghdadi deploys language that valorizes violence in religious terms drawn from a venerable history. Here there is a real irony, one that is lost on those who accept Islamists’ claims about “returning” to a glorious past. For all its archaizing features, his address plainly reflects modern Islamists’ distinctively 20th-century ideas of revolution.

Little of what he says is new, although his extended apologetics in favor of “striking fear” into the heart of the enemy — that is, terrorism — are noteworthy. What he mainly recycles is a series of slogans and ideas that enjoin Muslims to immigrate to his territory in order to carry out jihad, and anathematize as non-Muslims those who fail to do so — thus making them the target for his crusade. In seeking to justify their overthrow of Muslim states, Mr. Baghdadi and his ilk are reactivating a long extinct strain of Islamic thought and practice known as Kharijism, which had its origin in the seventh century.

Already in the ninth century the Kharijites’ violent politics had driven them out of the Islamic mainstream, intellectually and geographically. Caliphs and scholars alike rejected their views on the office of caliph, which didn’t require descent from the Qureish, along with their cult of jihad.

Some have argued that Mr. Baghdadi’s call for a reconstructed caliphate betrays the cosmopolitan history of pre-modern caliphates, where rationalism ruled and Muslims and non-Muslims lived in glorious coexistence. This is credulous history, however. Although wealthy and tolerant by contemporary Christian standards, those polities were a mixed bag.

In any event, modernity has sent the institution into permanent obsolescence. Serious Muslim scholars understand that irreversible forces of nationalism and globalization have transformed subjects into citizens. By the time of its abolition by the Turkish Republic, the institution had long lost any effective power, its theocratic underpinnings having collapsed. Mr. Baghdadi’s dystopian vision may have some appeal to those brutalized by war and radicalized by sectarian strife, but it has no legs.

Chase F. Robinson is a professor of history and the president of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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