In a speech on 5 September 2006, US President George Bush warned that al-Qaeda wanted to establish a ‘violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call caliphate, where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology.’ For some observers, that predication partly came true in July 2014 when ISIS seized large chunks of territory in Iraq and Syria. Its self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Baker al-Baghdadi declared that they had re-established a religious institution formally terminated in 1924. Most Muslims worldwide rejected ISIS’s claim and even supporters of the concept of a caliphate have been horrified by the barbarity of ISIS over the last two and half years.
For Western political elites, the idea of a twenty-first century, pan-Islamic polity that unites postcolonial Muslim nation states inspires fear and loathing. Nonetheless for many believers, despite the barbarity of ISIS, the idea evokes a mix of hope and nostalgia. This is because the concept of caliphate or khilafah is infused with memories of the unified community governed by the pious al-khilafah al-rashida – the rightly-guided four successors to the Prophet between 632–61. Populist Muslim discourse paints the khilafah in an idealised way – a sort of Islamised ‘Garden of Eden’, where all was well until Muslims were colonised, oppressed by Western foreign policy and persecuted by corrupt rulers. It is an image of a lost utopian, universal Muslim ummah that transcended borders, where faith superseded ethnic, linguistic, cultural and political differences. History, however, records a far more complex story, one in which the concept of khilafah held multiple meanings and whose reality was manifested simultaneously in many great achievements as well as dark episodes.