Al Jazeera's ambitious new three-part documentary series The Caliph pieces together a rich history that officially endured over the course of thirteen centuries. At times, this history has been perverted for savage purposes, as seen in recent years with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and their self-aggrandizing resurrection of its own caliphate. In spite of this troubling development, the role of the caliph has long represented an essential and sacred component of Islamic culture.
The film's first segment deals with the foundation of this tradition, which began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632. The caliphs, a title whose literal translation means successor or deputy, were chosen to carry on his efforts to build a strong and thriving Islamic State. Renowned scholars of Islamic history recount how these early leaders spread their new religion to various regions within and beyond the Arabian Peninsula, and built the world's largest empire in the process.
Great division enters the equation in the film's second segment. The origins of this conflict were first rooted in the aftermath of the Prophet Muhammad's death as disagreements erupted over his eventual successors. This led to two separate denominations of the religion known as Sunni and Shia. Throughout history, the tensions between these two sects have persisted, and they continue to inspire tremendous turmoil in the Middle East to this day.
The third segment recalls the decline and the official end of the Caliphate. The Ottoman Empire first adopted the Caliphate in the 1300s. But in 1924, as the empire fell, the victorious Turkish Republic abolished the entity and exiled its most prominent and vocal supporters. As these populations dispersed and scattered across various surrounding territories, the notion of a supreme leader for a united Islamic society became untenable.
The Caliph takes viewers on an amazing journey populated by fascinating characters, brutal wars, and a heritage of belief that is often misinterpreted in our present climate of unrest. Clocking in at nearly three hours and packed with dense historical insights, this hugely impressive film provides an exhaustive look inside a topic of great importance.