In 2014, IS conquered vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and declared itself to be the “caliphate.”
Defined and applied in different ways over the centuries, the fundamental idea behind the caliphate is the just ordering of society according to the will of God.
The Islamic State’s caliphate was never widely recognized among the global Muslim community and no longer has significant territory. But the Islamic State still uses the history of the caliphate to push their claims.
As a scholar of global Islam, every time I teach my “Introduction to Islam” class, questions about the caliphate come up, in part because of IS’s claims.
The leader of a caliphate is called the caliph, meaning deputy or representative. All caliphs are believed to be the successor to Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was not a caliph; according to the Quran he was the last and greatest of the prophets.
That means no one can replace Muhammad as the messenger of God. The caliph, for example, is not always seen as holding special spiritual authority. But he is meant to preside over the caliphate in the absence of Muhammad.
The debate over who was the rightful representative of the prophet began immediately after his death. While the majority supported Abu Bakr – one of the prophet’s closest companions – a minority opted for his young son-in-law and cousin, Ali.