A recent Guardian report states that the head of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was seriously injured in an air strike by the US-led coalition in Iraq. A more detailed report from Newsweek suggests that Baghdadi has been incapacitated—at least temporarily—and is currently unable to lead IS. An Iraqi expert on IS says that a new leader, Abu ‘Ala al-‘Afri, who trained in Afghanistan and who seems to be open to working with al-Qaeda (AQ), has taken over the day-to-day running of the group.
If Baghdadi is removed from office and replaced by ‘Afri, there is a chance that AQ and IS will find a way to work more closely together. Given that a change in leadership could transform IS’s basic orientation, the question of how extremists like IS would decide when to replace their Caliph deserves some analysis. While there are likely to be factors taken into consideration that no one but IS insiders will know, there is one publicly available resource that might be helpful in understanding the decision-making process of the group: the rulings of Shariah law on this issue.
There is another reason to look at this issue as well. All extremists, and jihadi-salafists (like AQ and IS) in particular, claim to act solely on the basis of Islamic law. The potential incapacitation of Baghdadi offers an opportunity to test their adherence to Islamic law, since the rules for replacing a Caliph are an area of Shariah that has been thoroughly studied and debated by Islamic scholars.
A widely known book written at the beginning of the 11th century, Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya wa-l-Wilayyat al-Diniyya (The Ordinances of Government and the Institutions of the Faith), which is much favored by jihadi-salafistsof all sorts, summarizes the guidelines for replacing a Caliph in case of moral failure or physical incapacity. As we are only aware of the potential for physical injury to Baghdadi, we can confine our analysis to the latter.
According to Al-Ahkam, there are three sorts of physical defects that might disqualify a serving ruler and require his replacement: deficiencies in senses, members, and freedom to act.
According to Al-Ahkam, there are three sorts of physical defects that might disqualify a serving ruler and require his replacement: deficiencies in senses, members, and freedom to act. Al-Ahkam says that the only defects in senses that all scholars agree upon as disqualifying a Caliph are a loss of intellect (either through insanity or unconsciousness) and total blindness. There are some exceptions even to these rules, however. For instance, if the madness or lack of consciousness is only intermittent and periods of awareness and lucidity are longer than those without them, the Caliph could retain his position. Concerning deafness and lack of speech, there is, according to Al-Ahkam, no agreement among the scholars on their disqualifying effect.
The deficiencies in limbs that would absolutely disqualify a Caliph are given by al-Ahkam as loss of both hands or loss of both legs. Loss of just one limb is recognized as disqualifying by some scholars and not by others. “Deformities” (like the loss of the nose or one eye, which might occur during an air strike), are understood by more scholars as disqualifying, “lest he be reproached and belittled for it and lest respect for him be diminished.”
Finally, al-Ahkam discusses the deficiencies in a Caliph’s capacity to act—that is, his control or coercion by others. The only absolute disqualification is capture or control by “polytheists.” Another Caliph would need to be chosen in this case, even if the community continued to attempt to free their former leader from captivity. Even if the Caliph were to later win his freedom from the “polytheists,” he would not be able to take up his position again. If the Caliph were to be held by rebel Muslims, on the other hand, he is still legally the leader of the community while there is hope for his release. Once that was completely gone, he would need to be replaced as well.
This brief exposition allows us to conclude that Baghdadi could be excluded from leadership of IS without necessarily being killed outright. Instead, if he has been seriously incapacitated; is in a coma or unconscious; has lost limbs, eyesight, or is disabled; or if he were to be captured by the U.S., Syria, or Iraq, his lieutenants could legally rule that he was “deficient,” and begin the process of choosing a new leader for their group. Whether his followers will choose to do this is another question entirely.