The Caliphate and the Kingdom: IS as the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy

First, they grabbed power militarily, then, promulgated the notion that the state is Islamic, and the next thing they are trying to do, with some success, is to ensure the obedience – though not necessarily the approval – of the people living under their rule, as well as trying to gain the recognition of the Islamic scholars in the region and the majority Muslim parts of the world. By using these tactics, In late June 2014, the group that call themselves the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiya; or as it is now known by its acronym, IS), announced that it was bringing back the Caliphate, declared its rule once again, and proclaimed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the first Caliph of Islam in this new era. [1]  The Islamic State (IS) is aggressive and expansionist and poses a real danger to the region. For example, shortly after its declaration of the Caliphate, jihadist warriors of IS were quoted by the Al-Monitor news website proclaiming that they “understand no borders” and are ready to fight wherever the Sheikh Baghdadi sends them to fight. [2]  Although John L Esposito, Professor of Religious and Islamic Studies, a prominent authority in his field, has been quoted in an article in the recent Huffington Post referring to IS, “for the vast majority of Muslims there is no legitimacy with this group.”; [3]  the growth of IS and its military campaigns have heightened security concerns in neighbouring countries including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the two holiest places in Islam are to be found.

Although Sunnis dramatically outnumber Shi’a Muslims across the Middle East region, the current geopolitical situation is that the power of Shi’a groups is undeniably growing, leaving Saudi Arabia in an increasingly hostile neighbourhood. Nonetheless, contrary to an emerging consensus within some Western political analysts and especially within pro-Iranian camp in Arab world – raising questions on IS military advances and its rapid takeover of large parts of land – sparked accusations of the Saudi Kingdom aiding IS in order to promote its radical Salafi-Wahhabi interests of a wider plan against Shi’a Muslims of the Arab world. It is one thing for the Saudis, especially the official Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment (ulama), to view all Shi’as as potential danger under the influence of Iran – especially after the West’s ongoing nuclear talks that they believe will bring Iran back to the international community which could allow its pursuit of regional hegemony to go unchallenged.  But it is another thing to believe that they actively support the heavily armed Salafi rebellion, sitting right on the Kingdom’s doorstep, led by IS. This accusation does not make much sense. The logic behind this argument is that as a result of rise of IS and its declaration of the restoration of the Caliphate, the Kingdom, as a state, has more to lose than any other state in striving for influence not just in the region, but in the Sunni Muslim majority parts of the world in general. As a state which prides itself as custodian of the two holiest places in Islam, and has sharia as the basis of its law, declaration of a Caliphate by IS has significant political as well as theological implications for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In this context, in order to understand the seriousness of the threat, the most important question to be asked is: how legitimate is the declaration of the Caliphate by IS, and what challenge can it pose to the al-Saud ruling family and its official ulama supporters?


Threat of a political nature:                                                                                                                                       

The essential thing to understand when talking about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is that the Saudi ruling family as well as the Saudi official ulama have a deep rooted belief that they should be the ones who should attain significant influence in the region and the wider Muslim world due to their special cultural qualities and lifestyle. They believe, therefore, that the Saudi political as well as religious lifestyle should generate especially broad approval, whether merely respected or copied, due to their adherence to the teachings of what they call “Salaf” – early Muslims, especially the first three generations of Islam. Being the land that witnessed the dawn of Islam and the home to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has been venerated by Muslims worldwide as the religious centre of Islam. In this respect, the Saudi ruling family and the official ulama view the Kingdom they govern as the centre of three important worlds: the Middle East, the Arab world, and the majority Muslim parts of the world. The foreign policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the later-half of the 20th century and more recently (such as the establishment of the Muslim World League that has Salafi orientation, distributing works particularly by Ibn Taymiyyah and al-Wahhab, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) is a statement of the quest to be a centre of the three worlds.

Since the rapid takeover of large swaths of land by IS and its subsequent declaration of the Caliphate, The al-Saud ruling family has enough to worry about for itself not just because IS has significantly influenced regional politics, and has served as inspiration for extremist sympathisers in other parts of the world. More specifically, the IS declaration of the caliphate is a direct challenge to the monarch of Saudi Arabia and his leadership in the Sunni Muslim majority parts of the world as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, protector of the most important holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Kingdom often sees regional politics as zero-sum game scenario, where a gain in every major issue of regional concern is viewed as a loss not just vis-à-vis Iran but any other state or group that can compete with the religious-political model of the Saudi Kingdom (coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Saudis’ negative reaction is a case in point). This results from not just a competition for influence vis-à-vis Shi’a Iran, but also the division that exists within Sunni Islam and various understandings of it. Apart from the importance of domestic political legitimacy for the al-Saud ruling family, that is, the reminder that they should be honoured and respected as a heroic legacy of overcoming great obstacles in joining independent regions of central Arabia that had been in an adversarial relationships for centuries, and carrying on the great union; on the regional front, since Salafi Islamic doctrine and Sharia law which is continually reiterated by Saudi ulama to be based on Salaf is regarded as the foundation of Saudi foreign policy, therefore, the title that the Saudi king has as custodian of the two holiest places of Islam is seen by the Saudi monarch as almost an alternative title to a caliph. And the Saudi model of Islam is presented as the best model for the region and for the Sunni Muslim majority countries in general. IS ideology is not just a challenge to the title that comes with the political legitimacy of Saudi Islamic model in the region; it is a serious threat to the survival of the al-Saud ruling family itself, which regards itself as the modern alternative to a caliph.

There have been relatively few cases of ultimate opposition to the political legitimacy and the rule of the al-Saud ruling family since the foundation of the third Saudi state within its present borders (1932). Despite the violent opposition of the Salafi-Wahhabi religious militia (Ikhwan)  in the late 1920s accusing the ruling family in abandoning jihad (when its territorial expansion had reached the border of territories controlled by the British colonial power) for worldly politics; or the menacing precedent of the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, by Salafi extremists openly calling for a revolt against the Saudi monarchy, accusing it of having betrayed Islamic principles; the al-Saud ruling family has never faced such a direct and open challenge to its political legitimacy from a politically active radical Salafi group now embarked on the statehood building project with the aim of eventually creating an empire, that is a Caliphate. The main reason for this is that IS has dropped its geographical focus and embraced a more Universalist outlook, and now the group calls itself simply the “Islamic State”. Anyone swearing an oath to it would simultaneously declare that they no longer recognise: the borders, laws, or authority of states in the majority Muslim parts of the world. First of all, this certainly represents a direct challenge to the existing borders in the region.  In a phone interview, an imam at a mosque in Syria, who defected from IS and identified himself as Sheikh Maher Abu Ubaida, said that IS wants to restrict its forces to the oil regions, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is its next target. [4]  This threat to the Kingdom was confirmed by the first issue of the IS online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, which called all Sunni Muslims around the world to join the Caliphate and contribute to the battle to liberate Mecca and Madinah. [5]

As a group that calls itself the Caliphate, in order to justify its name, in its present nature it tries to transcend the geographical focus from being merely an Islamic emirate which in itself assumes a leadership of a local area, to embracing a universalist outlook. In this context, IS proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, realises that no one can claim to be the Caliphate, without controlling what Salafis in general and IS group in particular perceive as the main centres of power, that is Islam’s holy places of Mecca and Madinah. Historically, it has been allowed by various classical Islamic scholars in the past, under the circumstances of a divided and fractured ummah (transnational Muslim community) that, Muslims could obey local rulers as long as the laws were considered to be Islamic, until the powerful leader arose who could re-unite the Muslim territories by conquest. Therefore, in order to justify its claim to universal rule and the establishment of the Caliphate IS presents its leader, al-Baghdadi, as such a powerful leader, and in order to control the centres of power of the ummah, the conquest of the Saudi Kingdom is their primary focus. By doing this, what they call “liberation of Mecca and Madinah”, it can be said with certainty, IS hopes to prove its infallibility or divinely ordained success argument by which it will expect to start receiving pledge of allegiances from each and every corner of the world.

Within the context of this grand strategy a pursuit of an absolute political as well as religious authority, in order to prove the divinely ordained success argument, the IS group gives priority to fight what they call the “near enemy”.  This notion of “near enemy” is important to understand as it aims to bring all the Muslims back to what they perceive as the true and only pure way of Islam. Amongst the “near enemy” are hypocrites, who call themselves Muslims but refuse to follow pure way of Islam, for as they argue those hypocrites pose greater danger to preserving the originally divined creed and the unity of the ummah. The al-Saud ruling family is seen to be such a hypocrite under whose political control lie the two holiest places of Islam. It is of utmost importance for the IS group and its leader to be seen to emulate the first Islamic political system, therefore waging merciless war against such hypocrites (who also are seen as apostates from the true and pure way of Islam) just like the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, did against those numerous Arabian tribes who refused to submit to his rule. As Raymond Ibrahim, the Middle East and Islam specialist and widely published author, speaking about politically active radical Salafi groups, observes, that they “appreciate that the Islamic State is patterning itself after the first caliphate of Abu Bakr”, and the mission to fight against hypocrites is important for them because the IS group “finds itself operating in the same circumstances”. [6]

Amongst the ranks of IS’s fighters there are large number of Saudi jihadists who are preparing to fight their way to Riyadh. Indeed, over the past months, IS has released propaganda videos showing its Saudi fighters not only tearing up their passports, but also vowing to liberate Mecca and Medina. [7]  The question to be asked here is: what is the extent of IS power that poses such a serious threat to the legitimacy and subsequent survival of the al-Saud ruling family? The answer is: It is political power they are escalating. There is a large part of land under IS control. But it’s not just a land itself; it’s what that land holds that suggests the further extent of political power of IS. As Janine Davidson, defence expert at the Council of Foreign Relations wrote, IS “controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organisations”. [8]  Furthermore, experts estimate that IS makes “as much as $3 million per day in oil” under their control. [9]  Therefore, with its control over territory and resources at unprecedented levels, it should be expected that IS will be able to intensify its media efforts aimed at recruitment as well as legitimising itself as a state governing over land now under its control.  At this point, however, it can be argued that despite the fact that IS now controls territory and everything within it at unprecedented level in the history of extremist Islamic groups, it still may not have the manpower to extend its newly-declared Caliphate beyond the borders of what they currently control. Nevertheless, the appeal of its message of jihad and the importance of hijrah (immigration to the Islamic State) seems to be much stronger than the analogous call made by any other extremist terrorist organisation in the region. Therefore, its ability to attract to its cause and spread unrest should not be underestimated. Given its determination to build the Caliphate with the first “rightly guided Caliphs” as their example to follow to “purify” dar al-Islam (the house of Islam), it is very real that Islamic fundamentalist and extremist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda or any other organisation in the region and beyond, those allegiances may shift to IS and make it a more emboldened and dangerous group whose eyes, in the words of Sheikh Maher Abu Ubaida, a defector from IS mentioned above, are in the oil rich Eastern region of Saudi Arabia, and subsequently Mecca and Medina.

Furthermore, regardless of the argument made by Daveed Gartenstein and Thomas Joscelyn [10], suggesting that it is actually al-Qaida, not the Islamic State, which is still the most “dangerous terrorist organisation”, because it enjoys larger support amongst other small jihadist organisations, it is important to note that the rejection of the borders separating Muslim-majority countries and people, is a common theme in the rhetoric of jihadists, which so far have been unsuccessful to its realisation. But the IS moves to actual action, which strengthens the perception of the authenticity of the Caliphate declared by IS, and its true commitment to the cause. Most importantly, IS has emphasised the authority of the “Caliph” to summon – rather than simply encourage – all Muslims to join, and it is an important element that was absent from al-Qaeda mobilisation attempt. Both, the call to mobilisation and the commitment to the cause might be the biggest driving force for jihadi fighters declaring allegiance to al-Baghdadi and willing to fight alongside IS. [11]  As the US Central Intelligence Agency’s latest estimates shows, the number of IS fighters is much higher (triple) than previously thought. [12]               

What is more, assessing the seriousness of the threat of the IS to the legitimacy of the al-Saud ruling family, it is a matter of the utmost importance to note, that although the past examples of power-grabbing attempts by various groups of jihadists in many parts of the Islamic world shows that they always fail at governing, nonetheless, the first and most important attribute of statehood that IS shares is its determination to be a state and the conviction that it is a state. Clearly the Islamic State sees itself as, and behaves as, a state; although it is still far from what the basis of statehood is, that is the government. What makes a government viable is its ability to provide security in order not to become a failed state, in this regard IS is clearly unable to provide that as its leader himself is quite insecure to have security to make open public appearances. But in other aspects IS militants are slowly learning how to govern territory they have conquered. It is serious about social services and as part of its state-building project it is building all of the services which would normally be expected from any local government such as ensuring access to food and building all necessary infrastructure. [13]  It has started print and electronic newspaper underlining its statehood [14], vehicles running with “Islamic Caliphate” licence plates, and has even issued its own IS passports. [15]  As the counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, quoted in Foreign Policy website pointing out that IS has good “[…] understanding of the importance of effective governance.” [16]  It has also, as its plan to mobilise the Muslim masses, made an announcement not just to volunteers for joining the fight, but to professionals required to meet the demands of its state building and governance project. [17]  Most importantly, the aggressiveness of the group is further revealed in that although states exist through the recognition of other states, IS shows no interest in entering into relations with any other governments of the Muslim majority parts of the world, because it sees itself as the radical alternative to all of them.

Historically, the medieval Caliphates of Abbasid, Fatimid and Umayyad as well as small emirates and sultanates have been replaced by modern nation-states. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a product of these modern political developments, especially the unification of the third Saudi state. Nonetheless, although it will never be a popular decision for the majority Salafi Muslim Kingdom to openly and radically oppose another Salafi (with the main difference of absolute obedience to the King), IS very commitment to fight for the actual rejection and abolition of the borders that separate Muslim-majority countries from each other forces the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to take this threat very seriously. For the al-Saud ruling family the proclamation is tantamount to a war. This threat was realised by the Saudi ruling family immediately after IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate, and took a momentous decision to act without delay.  Feeling imminent danger to the Kingdom’s monarchical nature and the al-Saud ruling family as a whole, shortly after the declaration of the re-establishment of the Caliphate by IS, the Saudi monarch presided over a meeting of the Saudi National Security Council to order all necessary measures be taken to defend the kingdom from menace of the group that call themselves the “Islamic State”. [18]  This urgent, almost instantaneous Saudi National Council meeting should be seen in light of the importance for the al-Saud ruling family to counter real possibility of its gradually growing ideological influence within its own borders because of the Caliphate’s nature of universal call. The purpose of the National Council meeting therefore was to prepare what it can to defend its political legitimacy, that is its survival that it finds in the title of the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, protector of the most important holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Sunni Muslim majority parts of the world, by taking all necessary measures to halt IS potential military advances towards its borders in order to debunk IS promises of divinely ordained success.


Threat of a religious nature:                                                                                                                                       

The establishment of the Islamic Caliphate which in its nature transcends the boundaries of not just merely the notion of an Islamic emirate or a state ruled over any particular piece of land, its limitless design for the only rightful ruler of all Muslim lands in the region is a significant development within the Sunni Islamic world. With this move on such an unprecedented scale, IS has defined itself as the only true Islamic state; Its leader who has awarded himself the title Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the absolute ruler with complete power, that is the leader of all Muslims on both political and religious matters. This means, in their view, disobeying or waging war on IS constitute waging war on “God and His Messenger”. On the other hand, official Saudi Salafi-Wahhabi ulema’s strategic thinking is shaped by an inherent belief and attitude that there can be no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of the Salafi-Wahhabi credentials of Islam’s holiest shrines. They believe that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth, and if there will be a Caliphate, they should be the ones running it.

In order to understand the highly privileged position of official Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment within the Saudi Kingdom, a brief overview is appropriate. In the early eighteenth century, an Islamic scholar of the Hanbali school (one of the four orthodox Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence) and a preacher of literalist, strict and puritanical approach to Islam known as Salafi Islam, Muhhamad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Najd, recognised the necessity for the political support needed to apply his purist Salafi ideology and interpretation of the Shari’a to gain religious influence. As a result, the historical alliance reached in 1744, between al-Saud and al-Wahhab, guaranteed unquestioned political leadership of the Muslim community to the King and his descendants, and control over the interpretation and enforcement of the Shari’a to the preacher and his descendants. This historical pact provided a novel momentum for political and religious centralisation. Therefore, contemporary Saudi official ulama embrace the traditional stance of their forerunners, which gives them a highly privileged position in almost all the internal affairs of the Kingdom.  In this regard, official ulama were and still are the most important source of legitimacy of the al-Saud ruling family. And based on an understanding that the politico-religious alliance’s survival depends on mutual support, the theology of obedience to the ruler serves as official ulama’s preserving and maintaining factor for the status quo.

Bearing in mind this brief summary of the official ulama’s privileged position in the Kingdom, it is no exaggeration to say that the biggest challenge on Salafi theological grounds to the theology of obedience that the official ulama promotes to maintain the unity of the Saudi Kingdom, came from IS in a form of the Caliphate. The announcement of the establishment of the Caliphate by the IS group is the most significant development within the Sunni majority parts of the world. But most importantly, it is the most significant and major political and religious development within Salafi Islam to which the official religious establishment of Saudi Arabia and the IS group are parts. As followers of Salafiyyah Islam, who consider themselves as the only true believers, they both share fundamental religious doctrinal similarities. They both differentiate themselves from mainstream Sunni Islamic thinking on the assumption that they follow sahaba (the Prophet’s companions), the companions’ followers, and the followers’ followers – the first three generations of Islam. Therefore, the point of consensus among Salafi movements is that they all consider themselves alone as correctly emulating the teachings and beliefs as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible, as they are known in Islam, of salaf al-salih (the righteous predecessors). This important notion must not be overlooked. Since the announcement of the establishment of the Caliphate by the IS group, there have been numerous articles written and arguments made by political scientists, regional specialists and commentators emphasising the various Muslim organisations’ opposition to the Caliphate and the way the IS group had it established.  One such argument was proposed by the political philosopher, John Grey, in which he suggested that despite IS claiming it is reviving the traditional Islamic system of government, its atrocities, and the aim through which the group tries to build a new society, a Caliphate, has nothing to do with a return to mediaeval values; but “has more in common with modern revolutionary movements”. [19]  Although such arguments have merit, nonetheless, going into detailed discussion will be of little importance since it misses the main point – the necessity of the establishment of the Caliphate on “prophetic teachings” as understood by the followers of Salafiyyah Islam. This is where the genuine threat comes from vis-à-vis the official Salafi-Wahhabi establishment of Saudi Arabia.

In order to access the theological significance of the threat that the IS group poses to the official Salafi-Wahhabi establishment of Saudi Arabia, the first question to be asked here is: is the announcement of the caliphate as a highest religious authority consistent with the shari’a law as understood by Salafis? In its outward-looking Caliphate vision the IS group invests significant resources for its religious argument to explain why it is religiously justified and superior to any other Muslim-majority states or rival organisations. By observing its religious argument, it can be said that the IS group is not willing to risk religious challenge by opponents therefore, it takes extreme care to use only either Quranic verses or the most reliable and trustworthy hadith (reported speech, sayings and teachings of the Prophet of Islam) known as sahih. Salafis believe that Islam has detailed a very specific method for transferring religious and political authority for all the Muslim community to a Caliph generation after generation as it is revealed in the Quran, surat al-Baqarah. This method is understood by Salafis as bayah (the contract of allegiance) as practiced by, as they are known in Islam, rashidun (first four “rightly guided caliphs”). There are numerous mentions of the necessity of having a Caliph upon all the Muslim community in the sahih hadith books which, although not regarded as the spoken word of God like the Quran, is an important source of doctrine, law, and practice. It is the second most important text in Islam next to the Quran, especially for Salafis. Of the six hadith books, the sahih of al-Bukhari and the sahih of al-Muslim are the best known and most quoted. Therefore, there are numerous hadiths in al-Muslim as well as in al-Bukhari where it is explicitly stated that the Caliphate is an integral part of Islam. Where it is narrated that after the Prophet of Islam there will soon be Caliphs and they will be succeeded one by another. There are also narrations which speak of the bayah as being an obligation upon all Muslims to avoid living in jahiliyyah (the “age of ignorance”) which is taken to refer to the pre-Islamic period. This point of the necessity of the Caliphate for all Muslims is emphasised with the well-constructed argument in its first issue of online magazine, Dabiq, titled “The Return of Khilafah” with which the IS group justifies its rule via the most trusted collection of religious material.

In this regard, in its justification for the announcement of its Caliphate, the IS group had followed the classical Islamic concept of Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd – scholars and religious leaders who are qualified to act on behalf of the Muslim community in electing a caliph. In this context, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been judged by a group of scholars described as Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd, and as a result of their judgement, he was found to have met the requirements of eligibility and to be a pious Muslim ruler who fits all the criteria for a Caliph and is therefore worthy of believers’ bayah. This was followed  by the declaration by the spokesman of the IS group, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, that the legality of all current rulers of majority Muslim states had become annulled  since the bayah should be the Caliph’s only, thereby forbidding the acceptance of multiple leaders. [20]  It is important to understand that the Salafi scholars’ debates on alternatives to the establishing the Caliphate is not principally different, but only procedural.  In this context, the Saudi official ulama are now in the position where they know that IS must be challenged at its ideological roots. Otherwise they understand that they can be charged of being a tool for state consolidation and control for such corrupt and hypocrite rulers as al-Saud ruling family. In this regard, the Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, the Kingdom’s top Islamic leader, openly denounced IS and branded it as “enemy number one” of Islam. [21]  Before that, there were other scholarly opinions on IS, the majority of them Saudis or Saudi educated with close connections to the Saudi official ulama, declaring it illegitimate.

Looking at the Saudi official ulama’s attempt with the above mentioned Saudi educated scholars to dismiss the IS claim to Caliphate; it is evident that the dismissal is not fully directed to the cause of its appeal; as it is mainly directed at the procedural approach. In this context, the main argument against IS is that general leadership is determined by consultation amongst believers, not for the individual to assume, referring to its leader, al-Baghdadi. Thus, loudly rejecting the appropriateness of the IS group’s use of the concept of Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd and the way it was used for the establishment of the Caliphate. A growing chorus of religious scholars, including a joint statement issued by 47 scholars in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, objecting to the IS declaration of a Caliphate on the grounds that the group had employed the Islamic concept of Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd for Baghdadi’s general leadership of all Muslims without consultation amongst the majority of scholars and believers and have called the group nothing more than a “faction”; called into question the people of religious authority of Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd which al-Baghdadi received his legitimacy from, and compared the IS group’s actions and beliefs with the fanatical “Khawarij” (considered to be the first group with extremist tendencies in early Islamic history). [22]

As discussed above, one of the central doctrines within the various Salafi scholars’ circles is the dialogue on the necessity of the establishment of the Caliphate on “prophetic teachings” as practiced by the Sahaba; as understood by the followers of Salafiyyah Islam. It is true that in Sunni Islamic theology, a proper method to appoint a Caliph is that there should be general consensus amongst the most influential Sunni Islamic scholars in choosing a leader and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi clearly does not have that general consensus – at least not yet. Although it must be noteworthy that the counter-argument that the other Salafi movements, including the Saudi official ulama, must deal with if explicitly directed against them; because claim to be followers of the Sahaba uniquely emulating the teachings and beliefs as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible, is that theologically, by reflecting upon the history and practice of the Rashidun Caliphate, Sunni Muslims have only three days to be without a Caliph for the ummah. Historically, the bayah was concluded for all the Rashidun Caliphs within three days and nights except for the fourth, Imam Ali. The delay of the appointment of Imam Ali as the forth Rashidun Caliph is often explained as due to the third Rashidun Caliph Uthman’s assassination and the taking of Medina under the control of rebels. According to the logic of this history of the Rashidun Caliphate period as understood by Salafi scholars, then, in today’s reality Muslims have been without a Caliph as demanded by the Sharia, evident in the practice of the sahaba that the Salafis look to as their guidance. Therefore, as Salafi scholars would argue, all Muslims must work today according to the general consensus of the sahaba and re-establish the Caliphate and contract the bayah to a Caliph. This is precisely the point of the IS group who argue that now the urgency of the matter demands that it becomes fard (a religious duty) for every Muslim to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This point is emphasised in their written official declaration of the Caliphate that IS has “gained the essentials necessary for Khalifah” and argues that the ummah will be “sinful if they do not try to establish.”

Furthermore, in response to the collective scholarly opinions including a joint statement issued by 47 scholars in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia criticising its procedural approach – already anticipated before the announcement of the caliphate – the IS group’s official declaration of the Caliphate, published online and translated into many languages, emphasises this point of an urgent need of unity. As it argues, in various scholars’ attempts at criticism in order to “raise misconceptions” within the ummah the question will be asked, “How can you announce the Khalifah when the ummah [the whole Muslim community] has not rallied behind you? For your authority is not accepted by the groups, factions … sects, parties … movements, and organisations”. The answer to this, as the contention goes, the IS group poses the argument that “they have never united on a single issue, nor will they ever unite on any issue except for those whom Allah has mercy upon…” and concludes that because the issue demands utmost urgency the ones that offer allegiance to al-Baghdadi are the ones who truly “want unity”. [23]  The IS group has argued that by re-establishing the Caliphate it fulfils the duty as demanded by the sharia. The group’s leader, al-Baghdadi, has been contracted by the bayah by the small group of scholars regarded as Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd and the people living on the territory under their control even if this does not represent the majority of the influential people who represent the Islamic ummah. This concept is derived from the understanding of many Salafi scholars that a Muslim can legitimately become a Caliph if he establishes his claim by conquest, even if he does not fulfil the general consensus of the majority of scholars. This understanding of the above concept is noteworthy especially vis-à-vis Saudi official ulama. It was this same concept of legitimacy by conquest that Salafi-Wahhabis spread their influence in central Arabia as the only legitimate interpreters of the sharia, and effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation that guaranteed the political supremacy of the Saudi ruling family. The creation of the Saudi Kingdom within its present borders in 1932 is a result of that legitimacy by conquest that had begun in 1744.

The Salafi scholars’ vision is divided by two stages in history. These are the stage of jahiliyyah and the stage of Islam. According to this vision, today’s world is witnessing an era of modern jahiliyyah for which jihad is a must in order to lay the foundations for the future Islamic era (although the level of jihad – more quietist or politically active and violent – varies among different Salafi movements). Considering this point within the understanding of various Salafi movements’ attitudes towards the obligation of obedience to the highest Islamic ruler – especially the IS group’s claim of al-Baghdadi as a Caliphis appropriate: for example, historically the question of a multiple leadership has been a point of consensus among majority of Islamic scholars. In this context, the leadership of a local area has been allowed by majority Islamic scholars until a powerful leader arose and re-united the Muslim territories, by conquest if needed. Salafis, whether with quietist or violent jihadi trend believe that according to this compromise, the unity of the ummah (exclusively under their understanding and interpretation) must be a priority. This is one of the points in Ibn Hanbal’s understanding of the doctrine (an important scholar and theologian especially for Salafis, and the founder of the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence). Ibn Hanbal’s understanding was that in a conflict between unity and justice, the unity of the ummah must have precedence. He wrote that if a Caliph has seized power, it is forbidden to fight him, and emphasizing that he must meet his responsibilities under Islam. Clearly, the IS group proclaims al-Baghdadi as such a powerful leader. [24]

One thing that is important to understand is that the followers of Salafiyyah Islam irrespective of the trend, whether politically quietist or jihadi, are theologically militant as is evident in their strict literalist understanding of the religious texts. They view the passage of the Quran, surat al-Muhhamad, as strictly straightforward command that the Muslims should not cry for peace when they should be uppermost, and that the God will help them in their fight. This is one of the main contentions of the IS group. When the community is strong enough to fight the hypocrites, peace with them is not an option. If one analyses the Arab uprisings known as the Arab Spring and its chaotic outcome, and especially following the great reluctance of the US to intervene in the Middle East, then one can conclude that in their understanding, the current situation in Syria and Iraq gives such an opportunity and great chance to take over and be triumphant, therefore, as commanded, becoming their duty to do so. This point is strongly emphasised in al-Baghdadi’s message issued by IS in which he urges Muslims to raise their “ambitions” to fight for the Caliphate. [25]  His call for the need of raising ambitions can be seen in accordance to the above-mentioned surat al-Muhammad.

The debates between the Salafi scholars regarding above Quranic command do not represent the point of contention with regard to the use of this concept, merely its application. For example, the belief that the Islamic state is the imperative that will eventually come is the point of general consensus. The disagreement is that the Muslim society today is not prepared and educated to be ready for the true Islamic state. This is the main reason that the Saudi official ulama stress the need for dawah (a call or invitation) to accept the true understanding and practice of Islam, for spreading the influence of salafiyyah Islam. The official Saudi ulama, therefore, contend in this ongoing debate that rulers can be advised and pushed to take a direction that will lead them to the realisation of this ideal. They understand themselves to be in the vanguard of this ideal. Indeed, this dawah plays the major part in Saudi Arabia’s regional foreign policy to boost its image as the exemplary Islamic state.

The challenge on theological grounds to the Saudi official ulama is that there is the genuine belief amongst the adherents to IS that what they are doing is the correct way to found this Islamic ideal. This genuine belief is based on the understanding that when the urgency of the matter demands action, as they interpret the sharia and the Quranic commandment discussed above, the Caliphate to unite the umma can only be achieved by through Islamically inspired revolution. And the Caliph al-Baghdadi as the vanguard of this revolution must be obeyed and supported. For precedent, IS cites sahih hadiths that in their understanding support this revolution. One such hadith, reported by Abu Dawud, talks about mobilised armies, and the best of these armies will be the army in al-sham (the Levant or the region of Syria), and urges Muslims to go there and join that army. [26]  For precedent, IS also cites Ibn Taymiyya. Ibn Taymiyya is important because contemporary Salafi scholars trust those scholars from the classical Islamic periods that are considered pious Muslims whose knowledge and religious practice they also emulate. Ibn Taymiyyah is undoubtedly one such scholar. Ibn Taymiyya is quoted by IS Dabiq online magazine “Islam in the end of times will be more manifest in Sham.” [27]  Quoting Ibn Taymiyya in this context has a significant meaning. The title of the Dabiq online magazine has symbolic meaning. Dabiq is a small town in Syria where according to the apocalyptic narrative of sahih hadith of al-Muslim the final battle between Islam and the infidels will take place. [28]  Part of the genuine belief amongst the adherents of the IS group about a proper way of achieving the establishment of the Islamic state can be seen in their action to capture Dabiq to fulfil the prophecy. Dabiq has theologically  an immensely important meaning for the IS group that, as the Brookings Institute points out, the IS group immediately presented its capture, and the seized hilltops, with the text of the prophecy shown in the photos distributed by its supporters, as part of above mentioned apocalyptic narrative. [29]  Using Ibn Taymiyya’s authority as one of the most prominent scholars especially for Salafis, and the apocalyptic narrative of sahih hadith of al-Muslim, there is no doubt that IS wants to be seen as the group defending good that wages jihad against evil, thereby it will lead the Muslim community into worldwide domination.

The challenge on theological grounds can come from the widely accepted and practised doctrine of loyalty and disavowal, or as the majority of Salafis would explicitly use the term, love and hate for the sake of Allah (al-wala’ wal-bara’). According to the obligatory nature of this doctrine, the Saudi official ulama can be accused of illegitimate loyalty to the al-Saud ruling family, especially now that the Caliphate has been established. Illegitimate loyalty (al-wala) to the Saudi rulers who are often considered excessively friendly to non-Muslim countries (especially to the West) due to their close military, political, and economic ties with them.  As the Caliphate has been established now, the Saudi official ulama can be accused of ignoring the obligation of disavowal (al-bara) by continuing working for state institutions that are part or are funded by the Saudi ruling family. Instead, the Saudi ulama maintain its mainstream position in which any criticism of the al-Saud ruling family is seen as a theological deviation.



While this article does not provide an absolute picture of IS with its political as well as religious nature of the threat to the region in particular due to group’s still early stages of development and the fluidity of the situation in Iraq and Syria; the above research was intended to offer a more nuanced, reasoned understanding of the threat that the IS group poses vis-à-vis the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been only a few months since the rise to power of IS; its significance should not be ignored. IS has captured the attention of the international media like no terrorist group before it. The group’s rise and continued existence is a truly impressive accomplishment in today’s world order. As discussed above, IS has already established a judicial system, runs schools and offers social services. Although Baghdadi still needs to demonstrate that his Caliphate can succeed in governing and offer economic opportunities to people living on the territories under its control.

IS, this research argues; poses a different kind of threat to the Kingdom than their terrorist precursors. From the group’s view, the land of the Kingdom, (where the two holiest places in Islam are to be found), has been turned into tribal and family fiefdoms. It believes that its survival is based upon the accumulation of national wealth in private hands. The group’s refusal to interact with any organisation or leader it deems impure, compels it to pursue military, rather than political forms of expansion in the region. This can be seen by the new generation, especially those who subscribe to the Salafi ideology, as legitimate opposition to the established order in the Kingdom. This is the scenario the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tries to avoid. The al-Saud ruling family with the endorsement of Salafi-Wahhabi ulama allocated a huge budget in its support to Egypt’s al-Sisi government after the overthrow of the religious regime of the Muslim Brotherhood in order to prevent the rise of a model of Islamic rule that could compete with and potentially undermine the legitimacy of al-Saud’s rule on the Salafi-Wahhabi principles. Even worse, now there has appeared from within the Salafi arena the group who carry a competing project with religious justifications and human power seemingly capable of making themselves an alternative. The purpose of the National Council meeting, as mentioned above, was to prepare to defend its political legitimacy.

On the nature of a religious threat, one thing that can be said by now is that Baghdadi’s claims to speak for all Muslims is dismissed by the majority of Islamic scholars (especially scholars who do not subscribe to the Salafi jihadist stream) and rejected as absurd by practically the entire Islamic world. But most importantly on the Salafi arena, the Saudi official ulama regard itself as the most authentic source of Islamic jurisprudence and religious doctrine. Even so, IS poses a real threat to the Saudi official ulama’s privileged position within the Kingdom. Even though the IS group is yet to show that it is able to change the position of prominent Salafi jihadi scholars who have rejected its claims to authority previously, its leader, al-Baghdadi, appears to be powerful, no argument or counter-argument will suffice if they continue to take and hold territory. As the IS group continues to proudly argue that unlike those Muslims who criticise them, the Islam that they follow has not been influenced by changing moral fashions – an idea that all Salafis subscribe to – and the striving towards the establishment of the Caliphate that Ibn Taymiyya, who is considered a pious Muslim whose knowledge and religious practice Salafis also emulate, is quoted as holding an opinion regarding it as “one of the greatest obligations”[30],  justify its ideology of conquest based on Salaf: early Muslims, drawn from the wars launched to establish the original Islamic state. In this context, it seems that the vast majority of the IS group’s followers genuinely believe in what the group persuades them, that is, hope in personal and religious fulfilment. In this way, IS has revolutionised the ultimate Salafist vision, inspiring or making its viewers dreaded, depending on who they are. As one of the Lebanon’s Salafi leaders has been quoted, while calling the declaration of the establishment of the Caliphate by al-Baghdadi “a rushed step”, nonetheless, he suggested waiting to see how the Caliphate will go on and govern before their decision will be taken on how to deal with them. [31]

Another thing is that a caliphate and a caliph may excite the imagination of some enthusiastic youths, amongst them many Saudis, who could become sympathetic to its cause. The possibility is that the Sunni Muslim starting to consider the Islamic State’s opposition to the established order as more authentic and genuine, according to Qatar’s former ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa. He tweeted a warning to the US in July not to intervene against the Caliphate arguing that it would be understood by Sunni Muslims as “an act of war” against them all. [32]

Taking these various factors into account, it can be said that if the IS group with its religious propaganda manages to grow the numbers of its sympathisers and followers among politically quietist Salafis and Salafi jihadists, the more Saudi official ulama’s credibility in a wider Salafi arena will be challenged. The Kingdom’s highest Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh’s open denunciation of IS branding it as “enemy number one” of Islam; as well as a meeting of the Saudi National Security Council which ordered that all necessary measures should be taken to defend the kingdom, endorsed by the official ulama, serves a strategy that the faster the Islamic world can be shown that the IS group is not invincible as they claim to be, and does not have a divine mandate to rule the Islamic world, the sooner its citizens and the Sunni Muslims in general, will stop believing its claims to authenticity.


Irakli Tusiashvili is a researcher at Liberation. His research interests include Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on Political Islam and their foreign policies.




[1]    “Sunni rebels declare new ‘Islamic Caliphate’” Al-Jazeera, June 30, 2014

[2]    “Bulldozing the Border Between Iraq and Syria: The Islamic State”  YouTube video ; Katie Welsford, “When borders are meaningless: the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs, July 2014

[3]    “What Is A Caliphate? ISIS Declaration Raises Questions” Huffington Post, June 30, 2014

[4]    “Islamic State defector says Saudi Arabia next stop for group” Al-Monitor, July 31, 2014

[5]    Dabiq online magazine, first issue.

[6]    “New Islamic Caliphate Declares Jihad on … Muslims” Middle East Forum, July 18, 2014

[7]    YouTube video

[8]    “Islamic State ‘now controls resources and territory unmatched in history of extremist organizations’” Washington Post, August 4, 2014

[9]    “ISIS Makes Up To $3 Million a Day Selling Oil, Say Analysts” ABC News, August 2, 2014

[10]   “Zawahiri’s Revenge” Foreign Policy, July 31, 2014

[11]     “Global jihadists recognize Islamic State” Al-Monitor, July 3, 2014 ; “Does Islamic State ideology threaten Indonesia? BBC News,     August 11, 2014

[12]     “CIA says IS numbers underestimated” Al-Jazeera, September 12, 2014

[13]    “Islamic State works to win hearts, minds with bread” Al-Monitor, July 29, 2014 ; “From Electricity to Sewage, U.S. Intelligence Says the Islamic State Is Fast Learning How to Run a Country” Foreign Policy, August 19, 2014

[14]    “ISIS issues print, electronic newspaper” Al-Arabiya, July 10, 2014

[15]    “The Islamic Caliphate Car Number Plates Come to Syria” Global Voices, December 28, 2013 ; “Why Islamic State’s caliphate is trouble for Egypt” Al-Monitor, July 18, 2014

[16]     “From Electricity to Sewage, U.S. Intelligence Says the Islamic State Is Fast Learning How to Run a Country” Foreign Policy, August 19, 2014

[17]    “Isis leader calls on Muslims to ‘build Islamic state’” BBC News, July 1, 2014

[18]    “New Saudi spy chief confronts ‘Islamic State’” Al-Monitor, July 1, 2014

[19]    “A Point of View: Isis and what it means to be modern” BBC News, July 11, 2014

[20]    “Sunni rebels declare new ‘Islamic caliphate’” Al-Jazeera, June 30, 2014

[21]   “‘ISIS is enemy No. 1 of Islam,’ says Saudi grand mufti” Al-Arabiya News, August 19, 2014

[22]    “Conclusive scholarly opinions on ISIS” Islam21c, July 10, 2014

[23]   “This Is the Promise of Allah” US Archive, PDF document


[25]   “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan” Bryn Mawr College, July 1, 2014

[26]   Hadith Collection Database website

[27]   Dabiq, issue 3. can be found at Clarion Project

[28]   Dabiq, issue 1, p-4. Clarion Project ;  This hadith can also be found at Hadith Collection Database website

[29]   “ISIS Fantasies of an Apocalyptic Showdown in Northern Syria” Brookings Institution, October 3, 2014

[30]   “Classical Scholars on Khilafah” PDF document

[31]   “Lebanon’s Salafist leaders reject ISIS ‘caliphate’” Al-Monitor, July 2, 2014

[32]   “Al Qaeda to ISIS: Get Off My Lawn—The Theological Debate Behind the Caliphate” The Daily Beast, July 9, 2014