I was greeted this morning by the news that ISIS has declared itself a Caliphate and its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the Caliph Ibrahim (Abraham). It is a move that seems premature, seeing that his movement controls only a fraction of the territory of the original Rashidun Caliphate, and does not possess the Haramayn ("Two Holy Ones"), the cities of Mecca and Medina. And ISIS has yet to decisively defeat either Syria's Assad regime or that of Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki. At least Henry Tudor waited until after the Battle of Bosworth Field to call himself King Henry VII.
The word caliph deives from the Arabic verb khalafa, to follow, and means literally a deputy or successor. The title Caliph was originally khalifat rasul Allah, "successor of the Messenger of God", and was given to Abu Bakr ibn Abi Quhafa after the death of Muhammad in 632. Abu Bakr did not inherit any of Muhammad's spiritual authority but only the government of the Muslim community. His claim to the title was disputed by partisans of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's son-in-law, who eventually became the fourth Caliph; this dispute is the origin of the split between Sunnis, who recognize Abu Bakr and his two successors Omar and Othman; and Shia, who recognize only Ali.
Sunnis call these four men the Rashidun ("righteous") Caliphs, as opposed to the rulers who followed them. Ali was assassinated in 661 during the first Fitnah, or civil war; his rival Mu`awiya ibn Abi Sufyan then made peace with Ali's son Hasan, who agreed to surrender the Caliphate to Mu`awiya. The title then became heriditary in Mu`awiyah's family, the Umayyads, whose empire came to extend from Central Asia and the borders of India all the way across the Middle East and North Africa through Spain to southern France, where it was stopped by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732.
In 750, the Umayyad family was overthrown in a popular revolution leading to the enthronement of Abu Abbas al-Saffah ("Spiller of Blood") as the new Caliph; however, the title was now khalifat Allah ("deputy of God"). Al-Saffah was a member of the House of Abbas, descendents of an uncle of Muhammad, and the Caliphate was held by that family until 1517, when the last Abbasid caliph surrendered it to the Ottoman sultan Salim I after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. For much of this period the Caliph's authority was purely nominal, actual power being wielded by various local rulers. After Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, Cairo became the seat of the Caliphate.
The Ottomans are reckoned to have held the title from 1517 until 1924, when the new Turkish republic abolished the Caliphate. However, unless I misremember, the first actual use of the title Caliph by an Ottoman ruler was in 1774 in the Treaty of Kucuk Kainarca, as an attempt to maintain some semblance of authority over the Crimea, which the treaty obligated the Ottomans to give up after a humilating military defeat by Catherine the Great's Russia. As the Ottoman empire became increasingly weak and dysfunctional, its rulers sought to assert spiritual authority as Caliphs over the greater Muslim world; but the Caliphate had never held religious authority in Sunni Islam; it was essentially a Muslim Holy Roman Empire.
There was one last claimant, the Emir Husayn ibn Ali of the Hejaz, who held the title of Caliph for a few months before his kingdom was invaded and annexed by the Saudis in 1925. Since then, the Caliphal throne has been vacant.
Does al-Baghdadi truly claim to be the "deputy of God"? And does he claim the other title that traditionally goes with the Caliphate, that of Amir al-Mu'minin ("Prince of the True Believers", or alternately "Commander of the Faithful")?
This man's hubris would seem to know no bounds. Angela Merkel could more rightly call herself Holy Roman Empress of the German Nation, or Vladimir Putin the Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias.