On the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year, June 29, 2014, the al-Qaeda breakaway group ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (i.e., Greater Syria or the Levant)—which has seized vast tracts of Iraq and much of northern Syria—formally declared the creation of an Islamic transnational state, or caliphate. In doing so, the group changed its name to just the Islamic State (IS), as the caliphate is to rule Muslims the world over.
The group's chief, who's borne the pseudonym Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was declared to be the new caliph or leader of the Islamic State—now Caliph Ibrahim. A spokesman for the group "called on those living in the areas under the organization's control to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and support him. 'The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,' [the spokesman] said" ("ISIS Declares Creation of Mideast Caliphate Across Iraq and Syria," CBS News, June 29, 2014).
Baghdadi then called for Muslims to rally to his new state and to conquering the Christian West, saying: "Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty . . . Rush O Muslims to your state . . . This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills" (quoted by Damien McElroy, "Rome Will Be Conquered Next, Says Leader of 'Islamic State,'" The Telegraph, July 1, 2014).
Longtime desire to reestablish the caliphate
The desire to reestablish the caliphate is driven by the goal of joining all Muslims under a single rule—as in the days of Islam's founder, Muhammad, and his immediate successors or caliphs in the seventh century. Under that rule everyone is to strictly adhere to sharia—Islamic law and jurisprudence—and follow the way of jihad or holy war to conquer the globe.
The caliphate was declared by a succession of Muslim empires over the centuries, the latest being that of the Ottoman Turks, which ended with World War I. Yet these are viewed as corrupt, and the desire of the Islamists today is to restore the initial "righteous" caliphate.
Islamist terror groups the world over, including Hamas, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc., "all profess the revival of the caliphate, the regime that was installed by Muhammed's righteous successors, the caliphs, and has become the iconic model to be emulated by all future generations of Muslims" (Raphael Israeli, From Arab Spring to Islamic Winter, 2013, p. xiii). (See "20-Year Plan for a Global Caliphate".)
During and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011-2012, momentum seemed to be building toward the formation of a caliphate, particularly with the ascendance of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, to the presidency of Egypt. Yet with the military coup in Egypt last year that ousted Morsi and instigated a major crackdown against the Brotherhood, the momentum toward a caliphate appeared to have stalled.
But now, with millions of Islamic extremists across the Middle East still pressing for that Muslim dream, where one door closes another opens (although the door in Egypt is by no means truly closed, as the population there remains predominantly Islamist).
So what are we to make of this new development?
A number of Islamist groups and prominent clerics are not supportive of the declaration of the Islamic State, as it's viewed as premature and a cause for infighting between Muslim groups and states. But significant support has come in from far quarters. No doubt a great deal of blood will be shed over this among Muslims and between Muslims and the non-Islamic world.
In considering the matter we should ask: How did the new Islamic State come to be, and what are its prospects for success as a revived caliphate? Or might another group receive wider acceptance in the role? And does Bible prophecy tell us anything regarding such developments?
The rise of ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
The al-Qaeda contingent in Iraq, headed up by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the mid-2000s, went through several incarnations before eventually becoming the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, which came to be headed up by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2010, when American forces were withdrawing from the country.
The group's extreme brutality and killing of fellow Muslims created a divide between it and al-Qaeda's international leadership, which considered Zarqawi and his followers too extreme and criticized them for alienating people from the Islamist cause.
Furthermore, Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri maintained, as do many Islamist scholars now opposed to the current caliphate declaration, that a caliphate must follow the purification of the wider Muslim world, being then based on the consent of the public.
But, as Margaret Coker explains in The Wall Street Journal, Baghdadi and his supporters "reject this doctrine of an evolving religious and social consensus. They believe instead that a pure Islamic regime can be more swiftly imposed by force" ("The New Jihad," July 11).
And in fact, this is the way the caliphate has been imposed in past centuries.
The struggle came to a head in April 2013, when Baghdadi declared a takeover of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel militia fighting against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, stating that it would be merged with ISI to form ISIS. The Nusra Front rejected the takeover bid and Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to leave Syria and maintain operations in Iraq. But in a huge affront to al-Qaeda, Baghdadi said he would follow Allah instead and maintained the ISIS merger, whereupon Zawahiri formally disowned the group.
ISIS went on to take over sizable parts of Syria and Iraq, sweeping through in a brutal blitzkrieg. It took to social media to demoralize resistance by displaying its extreme brutality. This tactic helped ISIS to wrest control of the large city of Mosul and its environs in June of this year when the Iraqi army had to retreat due to massive numbers of desertions.
The conquest of this area put huge amounts of advanced U.S. weaponry into the hands of ISIS, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars looted from banks—making it far wealthier than al-Qaeda ever was. And with U.S. forces now gone from Iraq, the new Islamic State has a great deal of room to maneuver. It thus seems poised to change the Middle East, if not the greater world scene, in a dramatic fashion.
Striking fear in the hearts and minds of opponents
Joseph Farah, editor in chief of WND (the former WorldNetDaily), commented prior to the caliphate announcement: "Do I expect to see ISIS conquer the Middle East, North Africa, part of Europe and Asia in the 21st century? No, I don't. But I do expect to see enormous carnage and destruction and bloodshed as a result of this movement—far more, perhaps, than most other analysts project. There is a ferocity to ISIS that makes even al-Qaida uncomfortable. It has already captured more wealth and armaments, including chemical weapons, than all but a handful of countries in the world possess . . .
"Brutality difficult for Westerners to even imagine is the modus operandi of ISIS. It calls for a scorched-earth policy against its enemies—which includes Christians, Shiites, Alawites, Jews, non-believers and all non-Sunnis. ISIS leadership advocates and practices barbarism designed to strike fear into the hearts and minds of its opponents and anyone who doesn't stand with them in their strict Shariah Sunni code.
"Already the ISIS marauders have crucified victims, beheaded them and conducted mass executions of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. No atrocity is beneath them" ("ISIS Rising—What It Portends," June 23, 2014).
Farah compares the speed of their conquest with the original march of Islam and even Alexander the Great. "The success of campaigns like that requires that superior forces faint in fear of the coming hordes. You can see it's working already in Iraq" (ibid.).
Is the new caliphate viable?
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner gave a helpful analysis of the situation, dealing with the question of whether ISIS can maintain its rule and viability: "Analysts point out that seizing territory is one thing, governing it is quite another" ("'Jihadistan': Can Isis Militants Rule Seized Territory?" July 8, 2014).
Despite its remarkable military success in the wake of its psychological warfare, "Isis has effectively been 'punching above its weight,' to use a boxing analogy," its numbers of between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters being low compared to competing forces. Gardner quotes a pan-Arab newspaper stating, "Isis' ability to control lands has been based on deals with local militants willing to do the 'ruling' for them."
He further notes that Baghdadi and his followers do not seem, on one hand, to have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors under Zarqawi in Iraq in their brutal treatment of the populace, which failed to win hearts and minds. Regarding ISIS, "stories abound of harsh punishments imposed for the slightest of offences, women being confined to the home, public crucifixions, kidnappings and extortionate levies imposed on businesses . . ."
While Gardner on the other hand points out ISIS taking care of municipal needs like garbage collection, the mask of public service has since come off.
Gardner further states: "To succeed as a viable state, let alone as a transnational 'caliphate,' Isis will need access to oil and water." And ISIS/IS now has both, controlling refineries and major dams in Syria and Iraq.
Gardner argues that the new Islamic state is not going away: "The only force capable of permanently ejecting Isis will be the tribes in those regions [they rule], and they have little incentive to do so while the Syrian civil war rages on . . .
"Which leaves the prospect of a violent, extremist, well-armed, well-funded and religiously intolerant militia becoming a permanent part of the Middle East landscape, a sort of de facto 'jihadistan.'" And, he notes, like Afghanistan it would also be a springboard for increased attacks against neighboring countries and the Western world.
Several key advantages and others to carry on the cause
In spite of the denunciation received from some Islamic scholars and disapproval from al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations, this group nevertheless has much going for it in the Muslim world. One advantage is in the very declaration of the caliphate, as it's unlikely that a number of claimants would start declaring their own since that would minimize the whole idea of the pan-Islamic state.
Furthermore, the fact that ISIS/IS is actually carrying out major exploits and making massive gains, with the caliphate proclamation on top of that, can capture the imagination of the younger generation of jihadists.
As noted in Newsweek: "The brutal attacks of 9/11 were almost 13 years ago; many of the jihadist fighters on the front lines now were children then. They have grown up seeing Al-Qaeda on the defensive, with few successes of its own, while ISIS has stunned the world with its victories in Syria and Iraq" (Kurt Eichenwald, "Iraq's ISIS Is Eclipsing Al-Qaeda, Especially With Young Jihadists," July 7, 2014).
Indeed, at his site Intelwire author J.M. Berger points out regarding al-Qaeda that "one of its few practical remaining plays would be to squander the entirety of whatever resources it has left on an attack against the West, in the hopes of regaining its reputation" ("A New Day for ISIS," June 11). That should serve as a stark warning of great danger for the world even in the short term.
Since the proclamation of the new Islamic State, it has seen increasing voices of support by Islamists around the world. But even if the group falters in its bid to rule the broader Islamic nation, there are others who could still try to establish the caliphate.
There remains al-Qaeda of course. Then there's the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan—by which the caliphate potentially could acquire nuclear weapons. The Muslim Brotherhood still maintains a vast network of support in the Islamic world—and Egypt may yet eventually revert to rule by the Islamist majority, the economy there being presently in shambles. And Turkey's prime minister Recep Erdogan still dreams of a Turkish-led caliphate, as was the Ottoman Empire.
But with the caliphate already declared, a broad spectrum of Muslims from around the world may try to come together to help it succeed—and this could sway other Islamist leaders to support it. On the other hand, what some see as Baghdadi's big gamble in proclaiming the caliphate could backfire in a big way if things don't pan out for him. We will have to wait and see how matters develop.
As a preview of where things are headed, one of the first acts of the new caliphate was to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering that "all women between the ages of 11 and 46 must undergo genital mutilation" (Agence France-Presse, July 24).
Again, it seems very likely that a lot of blood will flow because of the declared caliphate—both Muslims killing other Muslims and attacks being launched on non-Muslims.
Turning to the only reliable source for advance news
In the face of these events, if we want to know where the world is ultimately headed, we must turn to the only sure source of knowledge about the future—the Holy Bible, the very Word of God. Bible prophecy does seem to say, in Psalm 83, that a confederation of Middle Eastern peoples will come together with the intent of destroying Israel—apparently involving Arabs, Palestinians, Turks and others in the region.
Moreover, Daniel 11 refers to an end-time "king of the South" who will instigate a conflict with a power to the north—a revival of the Roman Empire centered in Europe—with the Holy Land caught in between.
Might the confederation and southern power in these prophecies be a restored caliphate? It seems quite likely. After all, the principal unifying factor among all these peoples is Islam—so a new Islamic empire bringing them together is not at all far-fetched.
Is the current Islamic State that power? Its leaders are so extreme that gaining a mass following among other Muslims poses a great challenge. Also, it does not yet encompass Egypt, which the southern power in Daniel 11 seems to include or even be based from. And perhaps the Islamic State won't reach that far in its current form.
Yet it could be that, just as the European Union of today seems to be the embryonic form of the coming European superpower, so the current Islamic State could be the embryonic form of a much greater caliphate to come. These developments certainly illustrate the desire of millions of Muslims to establish a caliphate.
Note again particularly the goal stated by the Islamic State to "conquer Rome and own the world." It could well be that this long-held desire of Muslims will lead to the conditions described in the latter part of Daniel 11, where the end-time king of the South provokes the king of the North into an invasion of North Africa and the Middle East.
Momentous and dangerous times lie ahead. Stay alert and turn to God and His Word with all your heart. No matter what happens, He will see you through!
[ See the related article: 20-Year Plan for a Global Caliphate ]