Bye Bye Iraq? Hello Caliphate?

(NOTE: I originally started to write a series of blogs on the ‘Battle for Jerusalem.’ In essence, the ultimate battle is a fulfillment of Psalm 2 and Zechariah 14, but the current one starts out in the spiritual realm. As it is, there is also a very low-level physical conflict at the moment, but as always, we are commanded to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6). Events in Iraq have caused me to put aside the Jerusalem series for the moment. This series will be continued soon).

On July 2nd, we had a long flight from Kuala Lumpur to London via Dubai. On the Emirates flight out of Dubai, I started to view the ‘Flight Path’ facility on my individual monitor. To my surprise, I saw that we were flying over Iraq! At first, it was Baghdad. No, I did not see much, and certainly no evidence of conflict. To add to my surprise, the plane deliberately flew over the second largest city of Iraq called Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) just days before. Again, no smoke, no conflict, no black flag of ISIS, either. With the tumultuous events that have occurred in Iraq over the last few weeks, it was interesting how calm and ‘business as usual’ the Emirates flight was. But make no mistake about it -- the dark clouds are rolling in.

A New Caliphate is Born?

News coming out of the land of Babylon is rarely positive and, in these days, has taken a decided turn for the worst. ISIS has had a full schedule of late and took two important, if not symbolic, actions:

1.  To drop the phrase ‘Iraq and Syria’ from their name. They will now be called simply the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). Ostensibly, they don’t want to limit there territory only to Syria and Iraq. Lebanon, Jordan, Israel are in their cross-hairs.

2.  On June 29th, just 3 days before our flight over Mosul, at the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, they declared a caliphate from Aleppo in NW Syria to Diyala Province in eastern Iraq. This caliphate corresponds with territory that they currently hold.

If such developments presented headaches for Iraq’s embattled Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, there was more to come from the north of the country. The autonomous Kurdish region, which has been peaceful and prosperous since the 1990s, announced that they will hold a referendum for independence from the central government in Baghdad.

Do these developments spell the end of Iraq as we know it? This is a strong possibility, when you consider that ISIS totally disregarded the international border between Syria and Iraq in order to gain their current conquests.

Iraq and its borders was a creation of the League of Nations in 1920, after the defeat and demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The new nation was the merger of three former Ottoman provinces: Baghdad in the center, Basra in the South, and Mosul in the North. Placed under a British Mandate, like Palestine, Iraq gained a monarchy in 1921, independence in 1932, and became a republic after a coup in July 1958. Broadly speaking, the Iraqi population is 60% Shia Muslim in the southern part, 20% Sunni Arab in the centre, and 20% Kurdish in the North.

Islamic State (IS), formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq, was formed to harass and drive out the Americans in Iraq. It nearly became extinct due to the assassination of its leader Zarqawi in 2006 and the US military surge in 2007. The Syrian civil war breathed new life on its dry bones and it became known as a formidable and ruthless fighting force called ISIS. With lightning speed, ISIS has captured key territory in Iraq including the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, and now Mosul. Their discipline and dedication against the hapless Iraqi army, plus Sunni discontent with the Shia-dominated  government of Nuri al Maliki, help to their victory.

The announcement of June 29 that the Islamic State-held territory had been declared a Caliphate, with IS’s head Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared as Caliph Ibrahim, is meant to unite the entire Muslim world. Al Baghdadi invited Muslims to come to their state and to bring professionals with them: doctors judges, engineers, military men, even scholars. He said Syria was not for the Syrians or Iraq for the Iraqis, for the earth is Allah’s.

In the Islamic State caliphate, Sharia is law. There will be no place for Shia Muslims and moderate Sunnis regimes.  As mentioned, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine are on their agenda of conquest. Christians within the ‘caliphate’ will have to convert to Islam, pay the jizya (poll tax), or leave. A quarter of Mosul’s population have done so already. Mosul, formerly the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, was home to 35,000 Christians before the US-led invasion of 2003. In May 2014, there were only 3,000 Christians and since the Islamic State took over, reports suggest that all have fled.

What is a Caliphate?

According to Stratfor, Islamic State does not have a caliphate - in the true sense of the word - and probably never will. At most, it is an emirate (emir is a prince). A caliphate implies a political and religious Muslim empire that unites much, if not all, of the Muslim world. The head of the caliphate is the caliph, meaning ‘successor to the Prophet Muhammad.’ The last recognized caliph was the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, but both his office and his caliphate was abolished by the fiercely secular father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. There has been neither a caliph or caliphate, at least on paper, since 1924.

In practice, a caliphate hasn’t existed for centuries and the last time there was a true united caliphate under a caliph was for a brief period in early Muslim history. Of interest, Baghdad served as capital of the far-flung Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), which covered the entire Middle East and North Africa all the way to the gates of Spain. Though the Abbasids superintended what was called Islam’s ‘Golden Years,’ even their rule was challenged by autonomous sultans and emirs throughout the empire.

Muslims from the very early days of Islam could not agree who should succeed Muhammad: an elected successor (as per the Sunnis) or a hereditary successor (like the Shia, followers of Ali). Complete unity has eluded them and when Ali ibn Abi Talib, the 4th Caliph, son-in-law of Muhammad (husband of his daughter Fatima), and hero to the Shia, came to power. Ali had to deal with several civil wars and was eventually assassinated in 661 AD. The violent death of Ali’s son, Hussein, at Karbala in 680 AD, represented the final break between the Sunni and Shia, where both branches of Islam would develop distinctive doctrine and a number of sects.

Today, like in the 7th Century, there is no consensus how the Muslim world should be run. While extremists like Islamic State or al Qaeda speak of taking Muslims back to a 7th century-style caliphate, replete with Sharia principles and punishments, many Muslims prefer modern things like nationalism, democracy, secularism and human rights.

For a ruthless group like Islamic State, their chances of uniting the Muslim world under their caliphate are close to zero. There are simply too much diversity in culture, ethnicity, geography, theology, and history, to bring unity. Initial response from the Muslim world to the announcement of the caliphate has been overwhelmingly negative.


ISIS’s military victories and declaration of a caliphate put them at odds with al Qaeda and its head Ayman Zawahiri, even though they were the offspring. Though al Qaeda wants a caliphate too, it rejects one run by al Baghdadi and the Islamic State. Indeed, Zawahiri expelled ISIS from al Qaeda in February 2014, in part, because they were even too ruthless. This is from the group that gave America the 9-11 terrorist attacks. If fellow jihadists cannot unite under the caliphate, what chance is there for the larger Muslim world?

(Map Courtesy of Stratfor. Used by permission www.stratfor.com)

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