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How Islamic State's Succession Plan Could Destroy It

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Leaked intelligence reports say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the titular head of Islamic State, is delegating authority in anticipation of his untimely demise. That raises some timely questions: Can you have a caliphate without a caliph? What will happen to Islamic State if Baghdadi is killed? And, by extension, how much effort should the U.S. and its allies put into trying to target and kill him?

The answers are tricky. As a matter of classical Sunni constitutional thought, a caliph may indeed delegate his authority while remaining as the caliph. Yet the separation of the caliph’s role from actual military command, a hallmark of much actual Islamic history, would still be anathema to the Islamic utopia the Sunni militant group is trying to achieve. The loss of the caliph would therefore be a significant setback to recruitment efforts abroad.

QuickTake Third Iraq War

Start with a key definition. The Arabic word “caliph” actually means a delegate or a stand-in. The earliest caliphs may have been considered the stand-in for God himself, as creative Western scholars have argued. But relatively soon in early Islamic history, the caliphs came to be seen as the delegates of the Prophet Muhammad.

The first four caliphs after Muhammad, called by Sunnis the “rightly guided” ones, combined political and religious authority, just like the Prophet. Their era -- alongside that of Muhammad himself -- is the paradigm that Islamic State’s ideologues claim as their blueprint for government.

Over the course of Islamic history, however, the community of Muslims fragmented -- and, eventually, the caliph’s position of unified power fragmented, too. The way it happened had much to do with the unique position of the caliph, and is relevant to this day.

A series of non-Arab invading tribes came to dominate the caliphate, then based in Baghdad. According to emergent Islamic tradition, a candidate for the caliphate had to meet certain criteria, including descent from the Arabian tribe of Quraysh. Non-Arab tribesmen from Turkic areas of Central Asia couldn’t credibly claim Arabian origin. Thus, they couldn’t assume the caliphate.

But the caliph was also supposed to be the actual ruler of the community of the faithful, which a conquered Arab caliph couldn’t convincingly claim to be.

The creative solution was dreamed up by the scholars of Islamic constitutional thought. The caliph would remain caliph in name. But he would “voluntarily” delegate worldly authority to govern to a “sultan,” or ruler, who didn’t need to be an Arab or a Qurashi. Thus the conquerors could rule -- in exchange for a promise to observe the forms of Islamic law so dear to the scholars.

The upshot was that the caliph was no longer the actual ruler, but more of a religious figurehead. This remained the case for most of the middle ages, until the Ottoman sultans reclaimed the caliphate with some doubtful genealogy.

This history matters because Islamic State’s claim to fame is the reinvention of the caliphate, which Kemal Ataturk ended shortly after World War I when he deposed the last of the Ottomans. Baghdadi claims to be both the actual ruler of territory -- which in a way he is -- and a descendant of the Quraysh, as well as a scholar and a man of moral purity -- which he rather plainly isn’t.

Under the scholars’ version of Islamic constitutional law, Baghdadi can delegate all the military authority he wants. As caliph, he doesn’t have to monopolize military or political authority. The structure of Islamic State could therefore be highly diffuse and diversified without harming his religious claim to be the true caliph. After all, many legitimate caliphs didn’t actually rule at all.

But what’s legally permissible may be politically damaging. Islamic State has gained much of its global popularity by presenting itself as an Islamic utopia -- not simply “an” Islamic state but “the” Islamic State par excellence. Young people who weren’t prepared to join al-Qaeda simply to fight and die are eager to join Islamic State, because they want to participate in constructing an ideal Islamic society.

Of course in practice, Islamic State doesn’t match the historical reality in many particulars. It’s highly unlikely that any Islamic ruler ever beheaded so many people -- including Muslims -- so ruthlessly. And the slaying of non-Muslim minorities was the rare exception rather than the classical rule. (That’s why there are plenty of non-Muslims living in the Muslim world; they were tolerated for centuries by Islamic rulers.)

But it matters for Islamic State that it claims authenticity. And that means Baghdadi wants to emulate the caliphs who did combine political and religious authority. If he’s killed, or if his authority is sufficiently diluted, that claim will collapse.

Without Baghdadi, the Islamic State apparatus could keep fighting and even hold territory. But it would lose much of the patina of early Islam that makes it so appealing to recruits.

Ultimately, the way to defeat Islamic State worldwide is to show that it isn’t a caliphate after all -- and isn’t a legitimate utopian Islamic state. Taking its territory is necessary to this goal. But deposing or eliminating the single caliph would go some way to waking Baghdadi’s followers from the dream, which is a nightmare for those whom Islamic State has killed, or will kill in the future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net