In one sense, the Islamic Caliphate is actually quite simple to understand. The Caliph is the successor to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. In Muhammad, religious and political power were fused. When he died, provision was made for choosing a line of successors to function as Islam’s religious and political leaders.

To be more clear, one successor at a time is chosen, and this one Caliph is to watch over and symbolize the unity of Islam as a complete religious, political, and moral way of life (sunnah) that is destined, by Allah, to rule the world in accordance with what was revealed to Muhammad (the Koran) and in imitation of the prophetic traditions of Muhammad’s own life (the Hadith).

The two main divisions of Islam are defined by differences in judgment about who can be a Caliph. Sunni Muslims believe that the Islamic community should elect the Caliph, and Shi’a Muslims believe that the Caliph must be blood related to Muhammad. But both agree that the Caliph, as successor of Muhammad, is necessary, and that he has as his goal the world-wide unification and expansion of Islam.

ISIS devotees are Sunni Muslims, and according to their view, the first legitimate Caliph was Abu Bakr, whose Caliphate lasted from 632-634 AD. We can perhaps now see the importance of ISIS declaring Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be the Caliph on June 29, 2014, almost 1400 years after the first Abu Bakr’s death. He is to finish what the first Caliph started.

About this also we must be very clear: when ISIS lifted Abu Bakr to the Caliphate of the Islamic State, it was not merely declaring him to be a leader of a particular area or nation. The Caliph is theleader of Islam, not a leader of a particular Muslim state. He is the worldwide leader whose existence is taken, by Muslims, to be essential for the ultimate unification of all Muslims everywhere. This unification of Muslims will remove all the artificial national barriers erected and imposed by the infidel and secular West, and replace them with a worldwide religious and political order centered on the Caliphate in Iraq.

That is why, right now, Muslims from all over the globe, male and female, are flowing to Iraq and joining in ISIS’s efforts—leaving the nations in which they happen to have been born so that they may be a part of the full establishment of the Caliphate that will unify Islam. The Caliphate is the condition for full implementation of Islamic Sharia law, that is, for what Allah intended and Muhammad preached. The various nations are temporary and transient, and will be dissolved when Islam is full established.

While many Muslims do not agree that the Caliphate established by ISIS is in fact legitimate, and many also reject the brutal tactics of ISIS, all Muslims agree that a Caliphate is necessary in much the same way that all Catholics agree, as Catholics, that the unity of the Catholic Church needs the papacy.

To grasp on a yet deeper level what is going on right now in Iraq with the Caliphate, we must view history in a much wider perspective, the perspective taken by ISIS and many other Moslems. That means understanding the struggle within Islam for purity and universality, the struggle against the infidels, and finally, the struggle against the encroachments of Western secularism.

As to the first, we’ve already seen that among Muslims there is disagreement about legitimate succession to Muhammad. The first four Caliphs represent, for Sunni Muslims, the golden age of Caliphs called the Rashidun, or “Rightly-guided” Caliphs. Shi’a Muslims accept only those Caliphs as true successors who were actually related to Muhammad, so for them, only one of the four, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was legitimate.

During this golden age, Sunni Muslims assert that the Caliphs maintained the intended unity and purity of Islam, as did the first three generations of Muslims adherents. So declare the Salafist Muslims, those who believe that these first generations immediately after Muhammad were, for all later Muslims, to be considered the epitome of what it truly means to follow Islam (salaf means “ancestors” or “predecessors”).

Al-Qaida, as well as its offshoot, ISIS, are Salafists who believe that exact imitation of the earliest Muslims in the 7th century is the key to defining how Islam must be lived out today, and consequently, that those Muslims who differ are impure and hence eliminable (especially those adopting modern secular Western ways).

After the original golden period, Islam existed in a degraded form, with many conflicts about headship and purity. Yet, conflict about the office or doctrinal caliber of the succeeding dynastic Caliphate (the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750) did not hinder it from expanding the empire of Islam to about three times the size of the original Roman Empire, or to put it in modern comparison, almost half the size of the later British Empire.

If you see its extent on a map, you immediately realize that ISIS, from its Caliphate in Iraq, considers its goal to be the regaining of lost holiness as well as lost territory in the Holy Land, Middle East, Africa, Spain, and eastward towards India—land that in a long historical ebb and flow since the 8th century, has come to be controlled and defined by infidels (Jews and Christians) and Western secularizing governments.

This antagonism toward Jews, Christians, and the secular West was doubly reinforced by destruction of the Ottoman Caliphate, the last universally accepted Caliphate and also the longest lasting (1362-1924). The Ottoman Empire centered on the Caliphate was dismantled after World War I by Western powers, and the Caliphate itself was dissolved in 1924 by the new secular president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Since the destruction of the Caliphate, Muslims have not had that necessary headship of a Caliph nor any Empire based upon it. Needless to say, they blame Jews, Christians, and the secularizing West. What was done historically must therefore be undone. The Caliphate must be restored to restore Islam, and what was lost must be reconquered.

The success of this reconquering is, so ISIS believes, dependent in great part of the internal purity of Islam, hence the struggle that is jihad, is aimed both within and without. The infidels and secularists will be removed, and Islam will regain its lost lands and conquer the rest of the world, only if Islam returns to its original purity.

The success of the Caliphate as the unifying hub therefore depends essentially on strict adherence to orthodox Islam, that is, on reinstating the life of the earliest generations after Muhammad. That is what Sharia law means, and that is why ISIS kills Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Muslims who are deemed insufficiently pure or compromising, and especially secularized Muslims.

But of course the infidels and Western secularizers must also be removed. Such is the source of the implacable hatred of ISIS, and HAMAS, against the Jews, as well against Christians (or Crusaders) and secularists—all of whom, so they assert, have conspired to dismantle the Caliphate and destroy Islam.

Here are a few choice words from the ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr sent out to the faithful in 2014 in the month of Ramadan, that vividly capture why the Caliphate is central to understanding the real universalist aims of Islamic jihadists today.

And there is no deed in this virtuous month or in any other month better than jihad in the path of Allah, so take advantage of this opportunity and walk the path of you righteous predecessors. Support the religion of Allah through jihad in the path of Allah. Go forth, O mujahidin [guerrilla fighters against non-Muslims] in the path of Allah. Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death in the places where you expect to find it, for the dunyā [worldly life] will come to an end, and the hereafter will last forever….

So take up arms, take up arms, O soldiers of the Islamic State! And fight, fight!…For your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades….So let the world know that we are living today in a new era…. Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature….

So listen, O ummah [the entire community] of Islam. Listen and comprehend. Stand up and rise. For the time has come for you to free yourself from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny, against the treacherous rulers – the agents of the crusaders [Christians] and the atheists, and the guards of the jews.

O ummah of Islam, indeed the world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr [disbelief] and hypocrisy – the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the jews. 

Indeed the Muslims were defeated after the fall of their khilāfah [the Ottoman caliphate]. Then their state ceased to exist, so the disbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as: civilization, peace, co-existence, freedom, democracy, secularism, baathism, nationalism, and patriotism, among other false slogans….

Terrorism is to worship Allah as He ordered you. Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination [to the kuffār – infidels]. Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honorably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up….

O Muslims everywhere, glad tidings to you and expect good. Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and khilāfah [Caliphate], which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership. It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers. It is a khilāfah that gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shāmī, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribī [North African], American, French, German, and Australian. Allah brought their hearts together, and thus, they became brothers by His grace, loving each other for the sake of Allah, standing in a single trench, defending and guarding each other, and sacrificing themselves for one another. Their blood mixed and became one, under a single flag and goal, in one pavilion, enjoying this blessing, the blessing of faithful brotherhood….

So all praise and thanks are due to Allah. Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s. {Indeed, the earth belongs to Allah. He causes to inherit it whom He wills of His servants. And the [best] outcome is for the righteous} [Al-A’rāf: 128]. The State is a state for all Muslims. The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims.