What is a caliphate?

Sunni armed militants, who have taken control of parts of Syria and northern Iraq, on Sunday declared their territory a new “caliphate” governed by strict sharia law.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) said in a document that they are now called the “Islamic State” and their caliph, or the leader of Muslims everywhere, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They urged all Muslims to support the new caliphate, which they said extends from Diyala province in northeastern Iraq to the city of Aleppo in Syria.

A caliphate is an Islamic state of the Muslim faithful, or ummah. It is not like a nation-state, because it is not bound by international law or interactions with other nations, said Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College who teaches about jihadi movements and the Middle East.

After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, Muslims formed the first caliphate to institutionalize the prophet’s teachings, led by a caliph. “The first caliphs are considered the golden age of the Islamic caliphate,” because they knew the prophet and had his example rather than relying on stories that are further removed from his life, said Mendelsohn.

But the caliphs, although they were successors to Muhammad, didn’t have his religious authority. “If you think about Muhammad as the military, political and religious authority, no one could replace him on the religious side. Muhammad got his revelations from God. Nobody else is going to get that,” so over time the religious authority moved away from the caliphs, said Mendelsohn.

The last caliphate was in the Ottoman Empire, which ended in 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey.

By returning to the old ways and declaring a caliphate, ISIL is presenting itself as indisputable because it has the authority and legitimacy that comes from it being an Islamic state, said Mendelsohn. It’s meant to elevate them above other organizations, he said.

Tarek Masoud, a Middle East specialist and associate professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, told PRI’s The World that Muslims today generally don’t think about caliphates on a daily basis. More often, he said, they accept the legitimacy of nation-states where they live.

The call to Muslims to come to the caliphate is “very bold,” said Mendelsohn. They’re saying, “You need to come to your state. This is not Iraq or Syria; it’s a caliphate now and the place for all Muslims.”