The Ideology Of Islamic State And The Caliphate’s Importance by Bill O’Grady of Confluence Investment Management

The March edition of Atlantic Magazine published an article1 about Islamic State (IS) that examined its theology and ideology. This article along with a paper from the Brookings Institute2 on the ideology of IS form the basis of our report this week.

In this report, we will examine the intellectual foundations of Islamic State, showing how it evolved from two different sources of thought. We will follow this with an analysis of the concept of the Caliphate and the critical importance it has in Islamic theology. A Caliphate is a form of Islamic government which, in some Islamic conceptions, is a universal government for all people. An examination of the eschatology of Islamic State will also be included. The consequences of IS’s ideology will be discussed. As always, we will conclude with potential market ramifications.

The Intellectual Foundation

The intellectual foundation of Islamic State comes from two streams of thought—Jihadi Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jihadi Salafism is a Sunni movement focused on purifying the faith. It has two major tenets, monotheism, a key concern of the Prophet Muhammad, and a strong rejection of idolatry (shirk). The theological roots go back to Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th century Islamic theologian, and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century Islamic scholar. Wahhabism is the primary form of Sunni Islam in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The union of Wahhabi clerics and Ibn Saud’s military prowess created today’s Saudi Arabia.

Salafism is an attempt to create the pure faith of the founders of Islam. A return to a time of purity is common among religious reformers of most faiths. In Christianity, much of the Protestant Reformation was centered on eliminating the extraneous practices that developed under Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox religions. The Protestant reformers focused on the Bible and reduced the role of tradition in the understanding and practice of the faith. In Islam, the Salafists are trying to do the same thing. One of the key differences between Christianity and Islam is the idea of a physical state, the Caliphate, which is central to the faith. The idea of Christendom is not a key component of Christianity. In fact, Jesus pointedly said that his kingdom “was not of this world.”3 There is a political element to Islam which can create, at least in some movements, the desire for actions consistent with exercising political power, such as terrorism and warfare. It should be noted that the projection of political power within Islam isn’t universally held; there is a strain of the religion that is quietist4 and believes that God brings the conditions that create the Caliphate and mere humans forcing the conditions of the Caliphate and the end of the world is a form of idolatry in itself. Needless to say, the theologians supporting Islamic State are not supportive of the quietist position.

One factor common to movements designed to purify a religion is an attempt to outdo earlier reformers. Each new reforming group will tend to accuse its predecessors of laxity in bringing the faith to a new level of reform. To a great extent, we are seeing this factor play out in the relationship between al Qaeda and Islamic State. The point here is that IS is yet another variation of the Salafist reform theme. IS has made a name for itself by destroying ancient artifacts, mass killings and horrific executions. These atrocities are mostly done to prove that IS is even more reformist than earlier Salafist groups.

The second major stream of thought comes from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The MB was founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, six years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Banna was opposed to foreign influence in the Middle East and wanted to create an Islamic alternative to the colonial powers or their puppet states which dominated the region. The MB was a political movement, and although it was Sunni, it did not discriminate against Shia or Sufi versions of Islam. The MB is important because it created the concept of a modern Islamic state that could be an alternative to the colonial regimes that existed at the time. Banna believed in the Islamic concept of the Caliphate, noting that the end of the Ottoman Empire also ended the Caliphate.

These two intellectual roots fostered the development of the radical Islamic movements that exist today. The two most prominent, al Qaeda and IS, borrow from Sayyid Qutb, an MB ideologue who was active in the 1950s and 1960s. Qutb argued for a revolutionary Islam that would create an Islamic state based on sharia. Although Qutb started out as a secularist, during a long imprisonment in Egypt he concluded that a government led by sharia was the best answer to the problems faced by Middle Eastern societies. His call for revolution inspired numerous radical Islamic movements.

Although the leadership of these radical movements admired Qutb and Banna, they generally concluded that they were too secular and not strictly Islamic. From the MB, the emerging Islamic groups borrowed the notion of revolution, supporting the overthrow of governments in the region. However, they decided to also become increasingly strict in religious observance, harking back to the practice of the faith from the 14th century from a solely Sunni perspective. Shiites, Alawites, Sufis and Yazdis were all seen as heretical, worthy of excommunication and execution. In a 2007 speech, Umar al-Baghdadi, the late leader of Islamic State, offered this quote from a Wahhabi-trained scholar on the purpose of jihad: “The end to which fighting the unbelievers leads is no idolater remaining in the world.”5 In practice, these leaders, especially from IS, have tended to accuse those who don’t follow the religion with sufficient vigor as committing heresy and subject to excommunication (takfir). Unfortunately, the line between sin and heresy is often difficult to discern. Islamic State has tended to lean toward calling sinners “heretics” and subjecting them to death.

The Importance of the Caliphate

The Caliphate is ruled by a Caliph who is an adult Muslim male descended from the Quraysh tribe (the tribe Muhammad came from) and exhibits moral probity and has authority. The latter is rather tricky. Generally speaking, it is the judgment of learned theologians that grant authority. However, throughout history, it has been seized militarily or bequeathed to family members.

It is the duty of all Muslims to live in a legitimate Caliphate. A Caliphate is the Islamic State. Unlike the post-Westphalian Western model of the nation-state, where nations respect borders and violations of borders are casus belli, the Caliphate’s legitimate borders contain all the land on Earth. In other words, it respects no borders. It is a religious and political state where sharia is practiced, ruled by a legitimate Caliph. It isn’t a democracy; there is no need for a legislature, since all the necessary laws are encompassed in sharia. There is a need for a judiciary, staffed by clerics, to adjudicate sharia, and an executive to enforce sharia.

A key concept tied to the Caliphate is bay’a, or fealty to the Caliph. The bay’a is best described as a contract between the Caliph and Muslims. The Caliph is responsible for maintaining the Caliphate where all Muslims

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