ISIS’ declaration of an Islamic State begs a fundamental question: When and how did that concept become a part of the political vocabulary of Muslim societies? After all, the idea hasn’t been around forever, and its popularity has waxed and waned over time. In fact, its emergence and popularity are tied to the specific conditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Muslim societies responded to European colonial rule.

As long as Muslim rulers ruled over Muslim lands, no matter how arbitrarily, the notion of an Islamic state was dormant, if not nonexistent. Although the concept of sharia existed in Muslim political vocabulary, sharia law was normally confined to personal matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The corpus of criminal and civil law was viewed as rightfully created and administered by states. One of the greatest Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, was even given the title Qanuni (law-giver) as testament to the fact that much of the legal sphere naturally fell outside the purview of sharia.

The normal order of things broke down once non-Muslim powers came to rule over most Muslim societies in the age of colonialism. European governments set out to define hardened colonial boundaries where frontiers had previously been fluid, and they attached legal sanctity to the lines drawn on maps. In the premodern states, legitimacy had been based on conquest and ability to defend territory. The states were also minimalist in terms of their intrusion into the lives of their subjects. By contrast, the colonial state’s legitimacy rested not only on conquest and holding territory but also on its capacity, modeled on European nation-states, to weld diverse subjects into a homogenous mass through a common language, a common legal system, and the provision of basic services, in return for taxes and other resources.

Iraqi security forces arrest suspected militants of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) during a raid and weapons search operation in Hawija, April 24, 2014.
Iraqi security forces arrest suspected militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) during a raid and weapons search operation in Hawija, April 24, 2014.
Yahya Ahmad / Reuters
The arrival of colonial rule kicked off the search in Muslim lands for the answer to what went wrong, that is, how the natural order of things—namely, Muslim rule over Muslim lands—was overturned. One of the most popular answers, and also the most simplistic, was that the natural order was crumbling because Muslims were no longer faithful to the fundamentals of Islam. The only way to remedy this situation, the thinking went, was to return to the pristine age of Islam, the period of the salaf-al-salih (righteous ancestors), covering the first four decades from the founding of the Muslim polity in 622, when the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors exercised power. This longing for a return to pristine Islam included the re-creation of that imagined golden age’s political system. These ideas were grafted onto the increasingly dominant European style nation-state, creating the hybrid notion of Islamic state, or rather the Islamic nation-state.

The urge to create an Islamic state gained further momentum in the second half of the twentieth century, as secular post-independence regimes in the Muslim world—politically authoritarian, economically inefficient, and morally bankrupt—failed to deliver power, wealth, or dignity to their peoples. The slogan “Islam is the solution” gained currency precisely because every other model of governance seemed to have failed. And so “golden age” and “caliphate” crept into the Muslim world’s political discourse.


In the process of building modern Islamic states, however, the idea’s proponents tended to gloss over the concept’s inherent problems and internal contradictions. The most important of these was, of course, the fact that the Islamic state is an idea borrowed from the experiences of the West and, therefore, had no basis in the historical experiences of the Muslim world. Further, they ignored the problem that the imagined golden age was fundamentally un-replicable because all revelation ended with the death of the prophet and so divine guidance in political and social affairs was no longer possible.

Perhaps even more troubling, the golden age wasn’t even particularly golden. Three of the first four caliphs (the Rashidun, or “rightly guided”) were assassinated, itself an index of high political instability. Political and social fissures between the natives of Medina and migrants from Mecca, and, more important, disputes among the Meccan elite—especially between the Banu Umayya and the Banu Hashim, the two powerful clans of the Qureish, the Prophet’s tribe—plagued the period, and civil wars soon became the order of the day. Eventually these conflicts ended up creating the theological divide between Sunni and Shia.

Meanwhile, rapid expansion of the Arab-Muslim empire created its own divisions and frailties, especially as the “Arab” empire under the Umayyads became the “Muslim” empire under the Abbasids with the induction of Persian and Turkic notables into the political and military elite. By the mid-tenth century, the caliph reigned only in name with local warlords, predominantly Turkic, holding most of the power.

Fighters from Islamic State ISIS hold their weapons as they stand on confiscated cigarettes before setting them on fire in the city of Raqqa, April 2, 2014.
Fighters from Islamic State (ISIS) hold their weapons as they stand on confiscated cigarettes before setting them on fire in the city of Raqqa, April 2, 2014.
To be sure, the concept of the caliphate, which became important as a way to hold the community together after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, remained important at least in theory. But there is little to suggest that it was ever integral to the practice of Islam. Beyond being hard to justify as a Koranic concept, it has an extremely checkered history. Succession after the prophet’s death was a far more complicated affair than the popular hagiographic accounts indicate. There were at least three parties contesting for power in those days: the leaders of the Ansar (the tribes of Medina); leaders of the Meccan refugees, especially from the tribe of Qureish, from which Muhammad had hailed; and a splinter group of Meccans who, with support from some of the Medinites, argued that succession should remain within the family of the prophet and that Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful heir.

This enmity became intertwined with a pre-Islamic rivalry between the Banu Hashim, the specific clan of the prophet, to which Ali belonged, and the Banu Umayya, who had held much of the power in pagan Mecca before being ousted by the victorious Muslims returning from Medina. Most leaders of the Banu Umayya converted to Islam after the Muslims’ conquest of Mecca, many possibly to save their skin. The politically astute Banu Umayya eventually got their way. Their power increased as they coopted other Muslim factions, largely through the use of state power and patronage. This coalition later emerged as the majority faction in Islam known as the Sunnis.

The institution of the caliphate, now arrogated to themselves by the Umayyads, was thus transformed into arbitrary hereditary rule. It would have possibly lost legitimacy in the eyes of the believers had it not been for the proposition propagated by the ulema, the religious scholars, that Umayyad rule was legitimate. The ulema’s aim in doing so was to prevent chaos in the yet fledgling Arab Muslim community. They used the Koranic verse “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you” to justify even the most arbitrary and unjust rule. Justice, in other words, was sacrificed to preserve order, a proposition that became the hallmark of Sunni religio-political thought for a long time to come.

The Abbasid hereditary caliphate followed Umayyad rule. Its main contribution was that it saw the beginnings of a rational bureaucratic state, thanks to the influence of the newly inducted Persian elite; it was manned substantially by Persian dignitaries. However, it also introduced the Persian idea of kingship (zille-ilahi, the shadow of God on earth) thus further augmenting the arbitrary and authoritarian character of the state.

The institution of the caliphate, now based on the twin principles of force and heredity, was further degraded from the middle of the tenth century with the rise of Turko-Persian military fiefdoms. The fiction of the caliphate was maintained but real power lay with the predominantly Turkic sultans who ruled openly on the basis of the principle that might makes right, with the caliph investing in them post-facto with the right to rule over territory they already controlled by force.

It was only when Ottoman power waned in the second half of the nineteenth century (which coincided with the major European powers starting to divide up Ottoman territories) that Sultan Abdul Hamid II began to emphasize the role of the Ottoman sultan as the caliph of Islam. He used his role as the caliph to bolster his legitimacy among his Muslim subjects and to instigate rebellion among the Muslim subjects of the European powers that threatened the Ottoman Empire. In the end, the Ottomans were defeated in World War I, and Turkey’s new government, led by Mustafa Kemal, abolished the institution of caliph in 1924.

The sentiments that Abdul Hamid had helped unleash, though, endured. Anti-colonial movements, some of them described as jihads, raged in Algeria, Egypt, northwest India, Indonesia, Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere. These movements focused above all on challenging European rule and attaining independence within the distinct proto-states formed by colonial boundaries. However, they also borrowed heavily from Islamic terminology to mobilize their populations against European rule. This set the stage for the emergence of more explicitly Islamist movements bent on turning their societies into Islamic societies and their polities into Islamic states.

Several major political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan (originally India), specifically seeking to Islamize their societies and polities, emerged during the colonial period and continued to be active in the post-independence era in opposition to the relatively secular elites that took power after the departure of the colonial rulers. However, their notion of the Islamic state was largely circumscribed by the boundaries of the nation-state that had emerged following the end of colonial rule. The era of multiple Islamic states had now arrived, with the logic of the sovereign nation-state subsuming its Islamic content.


Today, around the world, each purported model of the Islamic state is distinctive and is a product of specific contexts—and each advocates the implementation of an Islamic polity within discrete national borders. This has given short shrift to the idea of a universal and uniform Islamic state. No two states are as unlike each other as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two leading self-proclaimed Islamic states. Saudi Arabia is based on the model of a hereditary monarchy that is well served by a subservient religious elite that is given free rein in the cultural and social spheres as a quid pro quo for preaching political docility and obedience to the House of Saud.

The Islamic Republic of Iran finds the idea of hereditary monarchy anathema and fundamentally un-Islamic. It prefers to govern through a pseudo-Islamic version of Plato’s philosopher-king dressed up as the vilayet-i-faqih (rule by the supreme jurist), which, according to many senior Shia theologians, violates the basic tenets of Shia theology. The Iranian system’s arbitrariness is alleviated somewhat by representative institutions such as the Majlis and an elected presidency. However, this hybridity creates its own problems and opens the system to criticism from both traditionalists and modernists—the former finding it too Western and the latter too antediluvian.

What these historical and contemporary examples demonstrate is that there is no consensus over what an ideal Islamic state ought to look like, nor is there any convincing evidence that the “righteous ancestors” ever formulated such a vision. Rather, Islam was and is used and abused by rulers in order to shore up their legitimacy. Wherever and whenever a state calls itself Islamic, it is temporal power, not religion, that is in the driver’s seat. The lesson one draws from all this is that Islam needs to be saved from the state, not that the state should become the vehicle for the imposition of Islamic norms.

Whenever and wherever the state becomes the solitary repository of Islamic wisdom, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Islam becomes the handmaiden of the rulers, which threatens its essential role as the fount of societal morality and a constraint on temporal power. Historical evidence and contemporary experience thus demonstrate that the term “Islamic State” is an oxymoron that should be expunged from the political vocabulary of Muslim societies—something that ISIS’ latest incarnation of the Islamic State makes abundantly clear.

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  • MOHAMMED AYOOB is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations and Founding Director (2006–2012) of the Muslim Studies Program, Michigan State University, and author of The Many Faces of Political Islam.
  • More By Mohammed Ayoob