3 Jul 2022


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: The resurgence of the caliphate

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“ We fled the horror of Islamic State and civil war in Syria, and found safety in Scotland ... but our loved ones remain behind and we fear for their lives every day” (Loxton, 2015). 

This is the response that a survivor of the atrocities committed by the Islamic State gave regarding her experiences. The Islamic State wishes to establish a caliphate where Sharia law will be applied (Lister, 2015). This group employs force and terror to achieve its groups. It has committed atrocities that range from beheadings to ethnic cleansing of minorities. In an effort to earn legitimacy, this group cites the Quran as the basis for its ideology (Bunzel, 2015). The actions of the group have seen Muslims across the globe suffer violence as Islamophobic sentiments grow. Across the globe, Muslims have been quick to distance themselves from the group arguing that the Islamic State does not act in the name of Islam and that the group’s ideology has no place in the Quran. In this paper, the Islamic State and caliphates in general are examined. The paper explores the religious factors that drove caliphates that came before the Islamic State and how these forces manifest in the Islamic State. The paper also offers a comparison of the Islamic State and past caliphates. An examination of the role that the Quran plays in the advancement of the ideology that the Islamic State subscribes to is also offered. 

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Tenets of Islam and Relationship to Justice, Conflict Resolution and Forgiveness 

To fully understand the emergence of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, an examination of the position of Islam on justice, conflict resolution and justice is necessary. In Islam, God is regarded as just (Souaiaia, 2010). This can be taken to mean that God promotes justice and desires that believers promote fairness. In Islam, justice is also regarded as divine. It flows from God who demands that his creation embraces justice. One of the tenets of the Islam is the declaration of faith. Believers need to proclaim their faith confidently. This tenet is closely related to the concept of justice. If individuals claim to be Muslim, they must abide by the requirements of this faith. They must proclaim their faith by demonstrating justice. The Islamic State has committed atrocities that God would find unjust and unacceptable. This group has murdered thousands and faced many more out of their homes (Kerekes and Slater, 2016). The group continues to wreak terror despite calls from Muslim clergy that the group should abandon brutality. It is clear that the practices of the Islamic State are not in line with the provisions of Islam. While Islam demands that followers should uphold justice in their engagement with others, the Islamic State has continued to commit acts that amount to injustice. The position of Islam on justice offers the Western world a tool to use in its fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The West needs to remind sympathizers of terrorist groups that Islam requires that believers embrace justice. If these believers truly obey God’s voice, they will act justly and condemn the Islamic State and other terror cells. 

Islam offers guidelines on conflict resolution and forgiveness. Sharia law is the primary tool used for conflict resolution in Islamic countries. Essentially, Sharia law spells out the measures that should be taken in various situations (Keshavjee, 2013). The other tenet on which Islam is founded is giving. Muslims need to be generous especially in their interactions with the poor. This tenet can be combined with Sharia law to deliver justice particularly to communities who have suffered oppression. It has to be noted that terrorist groups adopt an extreme interpretation of Sharia law. This law has also been blamed for conflicts among communities across the globe (Svensson, 2013) The application of this law should be for the purpose of resolving differences and bringing warring parties together. As is true for the concept of justice discussed above, the Islamic position on conflict resolution can be added to the arsenal that the West is using in the battle against ISIS and similar groups. The West needs to work with Muslim communities and identify peaceful measures for conflict resolution. As it does this, the West will be able to earn the confidence and support of the Muslim world. This will allow the West and other parties involved in the war against ISIS to defeat terrorism. 

Apart from justice and conflict resolution, Islam has also adopted a position on forgiveness. In Islam, God is recognized as merciful and forgiving (BBC, n.d). When those who have sinned seek forgiveness, they are guaranteed forgiveness. If it truly desires to destroy the Islamic State, the West needs to understand the role that forgiveness plays. While it may upset the victims who have borne the brunt of the brutality meted out by the Islamic State, the West could reach out to this group with the promise of amnesty to members to surrender. This will allow the West to peacefully resolve the challenge brought about by the Islamic State. Given the prevailing political environment and the gravity of the crimes committed by the Islamic State, it is rather unlikely that the West will forgive the group. 

Visiting Mecca, praying and fasting during Ramadan are the other tenets of Islam. Muslims are required to pray frequently and fast with others and those who have the means are encouraged to be part of the Mecca pilgrimage (PBS, n.d). These tenets can be extended to the concepts of justice, conflict resolution and forgiveness. The tenets have a divine origin and Muslims need to obey. It would be rather hypocritical for a Muslim to fast and visit Mecca while refusing to uphold justice or forgiving. Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State are clearly in breach of the requirements of Islam. These groups claim to be Islamic but their actions are inconsistent with what the Quran demands. The West should never forget that the Islamic State is in no way a representation of Islam. The West should partner with moderate and peace-loving Muslims to defeat terrorism. 

Religious Driving Forces 

Prophet Muhammad 

Muslims across the globe recognize Muhammad as the prophet of God. He wields influence in the daily lives of Muslims and his teachings have been embraced for generations. He is probably the key driving force in the formation of caliphates in the past. Following his death in 632 AD, Abu-Bakr who was Muhammad’s father in law assumed power over the Arabian region (The Latin Library, n.d). Abu-Bakr is recognized as the first Caliph, which translates roughly to ‘the Prophet’s deputy’. With the power that came with his position, Abu-Bakr embarked on a campaign to spread Islam and demonstrate political might. He also sought to guarantee political stability (The Latin Library, n.d). An examination of the rise and the leadership of Abu-Bakr reveals that the caliphate was primarily intended to serve as a tool for promoting Islam. It is quite clear that the caliphate has its roots in Muhammad whose father-in-law wished to propagate the Islamic faith and establish a political empire. 

It appears that the first caliphate was established with the main aim of promoting the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and those enshrined in the Quran. The Islamic State argues that its practices are founded in the Quran (Sreenivasan, 2014). However, critics of the group hold that the Quran lends no support for this group. The group has in fact been described as unislamic. The Quran and the larger Muslim faith calls on believers to embrace peace. The Islamic State has been anything but peaceful in its campaigns. For this reason, it can be argued that the teachings of Prophet Muhammad which guided past caliphates do not manifest in the Islamic State. The chief goal of this group is to set up an oppressive global government that will carry out acts of brutality. That the group does not subscribe to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad is evidenced further by the destruction that it has caused. In its terrorist campaign, the group reduced a mosque in Medina which is associated with Prophet Muhammad (Shaheen, 2016). It is evident that not only does this group reject Prophet Muhammad’s teaching but it has also failed to demonstrate respect and reverence for the Prophet. 

The Quran 

It is generally accepted that the Quran established the idea of a government led by a Caliph. There are a number of verses in the Quran which are interpreted as sanctioning the establishment of the caliphate. There is a particular verse that reads as follows: 

“ Say: I do not ask of you any reward for it but love for my near relatives” (Quran 42:23). 

While it is difficult to determine with certainty what is communicated in this verse, it is interpreted as an instruction from the Prophet Muhammad to his followers. The Prophet was urging his followers to subject to the rule of his relatives (Al-Islam, n.d). Through this verse, the Prophet effectively established the caliphate. It is held that the Prophet bestowed on his close relatives the authority to rule. The establishment of a caliphate is echoed in the following verse: 

“ And if you back up each other against him, then surely Allah it is Who is his Guardian, and Jibraeel and the believers that do good. (Quran 66:4” 

The verse above is used to support the argument that His Eminence Ali, who was a close relative of the Prophet had been divinely appointed to rule (Al-Islam, n.d). There are numerous other verses that allude to the divine origin of the caliphate. It seems that God desired that his people should be ruled by righteous men. Overall, the Quran appears to support the idea of the caliphate. Past caliphates derived their legitimacy from the Quran. 

In an effort to justify its brutality, the Islamic State usually cites texts in the Quran (Sreenivasan, 2014). This group uses the Quran to defend itself against criticism for the beheadings and the stoning of women caught committing adultery (Hasan, 2015). Sympathizers of the group argue that the Quran does indeed call for acts of violence against those who sin. However, what the sympathizers and the Islamic State itself fail to realize is that their interpretations of the Quran are extreme. This group simply ignores the texts in the Quran which urge believers to promote peace and tolerance. 

Religious Divisions 

There exist a number of sects within the Muslim faith. Sunni Muslims make up the largest group. Other groups include Shiite and Sufi Muslims, among others (Slick, n.d). The different groups emerged following differences on succession in the caliphate. Following the death of the fourth caliph, there arose differences regarding who should succeed him. The Shiite Muslims held that the caliph should have been replaced by Ali who was Prophet Muhammad’s son in law (Slick, n.d). The divisions that arose set the stage for the collapse of the caliphate. As more groups emerged, it became increasingly difficult to administer the Muslim world. Religious divisions clearly played a significant role in shaping the caliphate and the eventual collapse of this form of government. 

The religious divisions described above seem to have facilitated the rise of the Islamic State. The rise of this group can be traced to Iraq whose government had been partisan in its policies (Jaafari, 2014). Under the leadership of Nouri Al Maliki who served as Prime Minister, the Iraqi government undertook programs that favored Shia Muslims. As it emerged, the Islamic State was welcomed warmly and with sympathy by Sunni Muslims who had endured years of mistreatment under Maliki’s government (Jaafari, 2014). 

From the discussion above, it can be concluded that the religious divisions facilitated the rise of the Islamic State. However, when recent events are considered, a different picture emerges. It appears that the divisions could be dealing a blow to the Islamic State. Such groups as Kurds which are a class within the Muslim community have been involved in a campaign to destroy the Islamic State (Hawramy, 2016). Kurdish fighters have partnered with Western government forces in an effort to erode the advances that the Islamic State has made. These fighters have even been described as the most effective tool against the Islamic State. The actions of this group indicate that religious divisions have also served as an impediment to the Islamic State. 

Islamic State versus Past Caliphates 

The Islamic State and past caliphates share some similarities and there are also differences between the two. In the discussion below, these similarities and differences are explored. 


The main similarity between the Islamic State and past caliphates lies in the purpose for their establishment. In the past, caliphates were constructed in an effort to bring together Muslims from different regions. The Caliphate was headed by a caliph who wielded political influence. The caliph also served as a religious leader (Chandler, 2014). The authority that the caliph enjoyed was absolute and was not to be challenged. The Islamic State claims that its primary agenda is to bring together Muslims from across the world. The group seeks to create a unified form of government under which all Muslims would be subject. The Islamic State also desires to extend its rule beyond Muslims. It has made clear its intention to convert non-Muslims. In its reign in Iraq, the group has carried out attacks against such religious groups as Yazidis. These groups are offered the option of converting to Islam, paying a protection tax or being killed. With regard to the purposes for which they were established, the Islamic State is similar to past caliphates. 

The other similarity between the Islamic State and past caliphates is found in the authority wielded by the caliphs. In the past caliphates, the leaders exercised authority over a wide range of issues. They served as both religious and political leaders. For example, Abu-Bakr, who served as the first caliph was charged with the mandate of encouraging Muslims to adopt the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (Alim.org, n.d). Abu-Bakr also enforced the commandments that God had issued through the Quran. The caliph was aided in the performance of his duties by an advisory council that dispensed advice. Abu-Bakr also managed the social, political and economic affairs of the caliphate (Alim.org, n.d). The Islamic State today is led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi is revered by members of the Islamic State. Thanks to his leadership, the Islamic State has managed to make inroads into Syria and Iraq. These accomplishments are the result of the immense influence that he commands among his followers. 


There are numerous differences between the Islamic State and past caliphates. The first difference lies in legitimacy. The past caliphs were recognized as legitimate governments. Muslims subjected themselves to the rule of these governments. For example, Ali ibn Abi Talib who served as the fourth caliph was widely respected (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012). He stayed clear of controversy and he is hailed as a great ruler. On the other hand, the Islamic State does not enjoy support. Even the Muslim community that the group seeks to appeal to rejects its ideology and practices. For example, the Kurdish group mentioned earlier which subscribes to the Islamic faith has been involved in a campaign against the group. The group has also failed to earn legitimacy within the global community. The Western world is particularly opposed to the group as evidenced by the efforts that it has undertaken to defeat the group. 

The second difference between past caliphates and the Islamic State is the methods used to govern. As mentioned previously, the caliphate has its roots in the Quran. Caliphs were required to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and lead Muslims in obeying the commandments issued by God. The past caliphs were godly in their conduct and ruled in accordance with the provisions of the Quran. The Islamic State has adopted a different method to exert control in the areas that it administers. This group uses terror as its primary method of gaining support and exerting control. It has beheaded Western journalists, carried out mass murders of Iraqi soldiers, killed members of the Yazidi community and destroyed structures that hold cultural significance. 

In the past, caliphates were established and administered in accordance with Islamic law (Withnall, 2014). The selection of the caliph involved Imams who used Shia traditions to identify the individual who would serve as the caliph. Overall, the caliph system was well-organized and there were proper structures for choosing the caliph. The Islamic State today is in sharp contrast to previous caliphates. The process used to select the caliph was not followed by this group. The Islamic State simply declared that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was the caliph (Withnall, 2014). According to the group, this declaration effectively made Baghdadi the leader of all Muslims. 

Quran and the Promotion of ISIL Ideology 

The Muslim community is united in its condemnation of the Islamic State. This community argues that the Quran does not encourage the practices or the ideology that the group has adopted. However, there are those who hold that there are certain provisions in the Quran that actually support Islamic State’s ideology and have therefore facilitated the spread of this ideology. One verse in the Quran reads thusly: “Therefore, when you meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks.” (Sreenivasan, 2014) . This verse is interpreted as a call for Muslims to take up arms and attack those who do not share their faith. The Islamic State uses the verse above as justification for the dozens of beheadings that it has carried out (Sreenivasan, 2014). It should be noted that the interpretation that the Islamic State uses is selective. This group fails to abide by the call that the Quran issues for compassion and generosity. 

There are numerous other verses in the Quran that are usually quoted by the Islamic State in support of their ideology and practices. The following is one of these verses: 

“ The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.” (Quran 5:33). 

The verse above reads like a call for Muslims to wage war against those who do not share their beliefs. It is as though the Quran is sanctioning execution, crucifixion, forced eviction and chopping off of limbs. If one limits their reading of the Quran to such verses, they are likely to believe that the Islamic State is executing some divine mandate. It must be noted that the Quran does not in any way encourage violence. If anything, Muslims are urged to embrace love and promote peace. The peaceful nature of Islam was made clear by Imam Ahmedin Mehmedovic. He issued the following statement in an interview: 

“ If (the shooter) followed the true meaning of the religion, they would know they shouldn’t commit violence. They wouldn’t be able to. In this religion, there is no time, no space for any type of violence.” (Spencer, 2016). 

The Islamic State simply exploits the ignorance of many to promote its perverted ideology. 

Role Played by the West 

In the discussion above, the factors that have driven the establishment of the Islamic State have been explored. In addition to these factors, the Islamic State has been aided by the West. In fact, the Obama administration has been accused of setting the stage for the emergence of this group (Kopan, 2016). The military campaigns that Western governments have initiated nations in the Arab world have particularly been cited as a key factor driving the Islamic State. The West has been accused of committing atrocities in these campaigns. For example, the drone strikes launched against bases operated by terror groups have led to civilian deaths (Koomen and Pligt, 2015). Such groups as the Islamic State exploit the anger and resentment of Muslims in the Arab World to recruit members and gain support. It should be noted that the blame that the Islamic State places on the West is part of its propaganda program. The West has always insisted that it avoids causing civilian casualties and the civilian deaths that occur are simply unavoidable and necessary. 

Accusations have been leveled against the Western world that it is directly supporting the Islamic State by providing weapons and funding. In an effort to defeat the Islamic State, the US government and its partners work with moderate rebel groups. They provide funding, training and weapons. Some of the weapons have found their way into the hands of the Islamic State which it uses to commit atrocities (Cohen, 2015). The role that the West has played in advancing the Islamic State has served to erode support among civilian populations. It will be difficult for the US and its allies to earn back the support that it used to enjoy. 


The Islamic State is one of the greatest security challenges that the globe faces today. This group is committed to carrying out acts of terror. The group has killed thousands and forced many more to flee from their homes. The world has consolidated its efforts in a bid to defeat the Islamic State. The Western world has partnered with Arab countries and this effort is bearing fruit. This group has lost territory that it used to control and some of its leaders have been killed. The Islamic State will only be defeated through an ideological war. There is need for individuals to be educated on the truth about Islam and be encouraged to embrace peace and tolerance. 


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