On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State (also called ISIS) declared the “State of the Islamic Caliphate,” which adherents and supporters regard as nothing less than a restoration of the earliest model of the caliphate. Banners throughout the lands ruled by ISIS proclaim it the khilafa ʿala minhaj al-nubuwwa—or the “caliphate in the prophetic method”—that is, the model set out by Muhammad himself 1,400 years ago.
More remarked on by Western observers, of course, have been ISIS’ gruesome public beheadings, mass executions, immolations, and its slave markets and cryptic apocalyptic notions. Its spectacular and seemingly arbitrary violence has spawned an obsession with dramatic questions: Is ISIS truly “Islamic”? Or is it better compared to modern nihilists and exotic apocalyptic death cults?
Although such questions make for interesting thought experiments, they do not bring the world closer to understanding how ISIS governs tens of thousands of square miles and millions of people. Indeed, whatever ISIS believes about the apocalypse, it sees itself as creating a distinctive and authentic legal order for the here and now, one that is based not only on a literal (if selective) reading of early Islamic materials but also on a long-standing theory of statecraft and legal authority.
It isn’t surprising that ISIS makes claims derived from Islamic law or that a group controlling territory should enact lawlike structures of governance. After all, states are built on legal institutions that legitimize the regime’s monopoly on violence, resource extraction, and political authority. So what is ISIS actually doing and saying on the ground in the areas it controls? Ongoing research shows that ISIS is using Islamic law not simply to terrorize foreign hostages and non-Muslim groups, such as Christians or Yazidis, but also to establish a social contract with the Muslim population it aspires to govern. Despite suggestions that ISIS has “peaked” or is already in “decline,” its concern for establishing a law-based political order indicates that the group has aspirations for long-term governance—aspirations that should be