The release of a video purporting to be the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in Mosul this weekend was the visual debut of the man who seeks to be recognized as the Caliph of all Muslims. This is his first ever video message, assuming it’s really him. His Shia enemies in Iraq and Iran finally have seen their tormentor in the flesh.
It’s tempting to dismiss the self-appointed Caliph Ibrahim (formerly Mr. Baghdadi) as a monumental egomaniac. And predictably Sunni clerics including some with jihadi credentials are labeling his Caliphate illegitimate. He probably has over reached much too far. But his command of the symbols and iconography of medieval Islamic history is striking. He has adopted a persona designed to evoke memories of revolutionary movements from early and medieval Sunni Islam.
Take his choice of the Al Nouri Mosque in Mosul to have his first ever video filmed. It was built by Saladin’s predecessor a thousand years ago and was the family mosque of their dynasty, the Ayyubids, which defeated the Crusaders and regained Jerusalem for Sunni Islam. His black attire and the now ubiquitous black Al Qaeda flag behind him recalls the black flags of the Abbassids who overthrew the Omayyads and created the largest Islamic state in history, a true caliphate, with its capital in Baghdad.
Ibrahim also claims to be from the prophet’s tribe (Quraysh) and his family (Hashemi), and thus a direct descendant of Muhammad. But choosing the title Caliph Ibrahim is another step, he is styling himself as the modern equivalent of Ibrahim or Abraham, the creator of the Kaaba and thus the first Muslim. Mecca is the city of Ibrahim, not Muhammad (that is Medina). Ibrahim is, of course, buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. That establishes his pedigree to defend Palestine.
These claims all challenge the legitimacy of every Muslim leader, especially the current ‘custodians’ of Mecca, the Saudi royal family. They are false leaders, Ibrahim is saying, with no right to rule the holy Hejaz.
This video will undoubtedly set off a heated debate across Islam. The Iranians and Saudis will both denounce Ibrahim. Al Qaeda’s Amir Ayman Zawahiri will have his say on the Caliph, rumors of an imminent statement from his hide out in Pakistan are rife. One thing is certain, Al Baghdadi has a flair for the dramatic.