BOOK REVIEW: Understanding the concept and history of Caliphate

27th Jan 2017
BOOK REVIEW: Understanding the concept and history of Caliphate

The Caliphate. By Hugh Kennedy. London: Pelican Books. pp412. PB. 2016. £8.99

The author of this book is currently a Professor of Arabic in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a prominent historian who has been researching and writing about early Islamic history for nearly half a century now. He is the author of many books including The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (2003), The Court of the Caliphs: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty (2004) and An Historical Atlas of Islam (Edited, 2002).

Like his previous works, the book under review is more about history than contemporary politics. Even so, the author is well aware of the power and relevance of the concept of ‘Caliphate’ in current political discourse, both in the Muslim world and the West. That motivated the author to write this book to explain the concept of Caliphate from a historical perspective.

In the author’s own words: ‘The concept of caliphate has had many different interpretations and realisations through the centuries… but fundamental to them all is that just ordering of Muslim society according to the will of God. Some have argued that the caliph is the shadow of God on earth, a man whose authority is semi-divine and whose conduct is without blame; many more would accept that the caliph was, so to speak, the chief executive of the umma, the Muslim community, an ordinary human with worldly powers, and there is a wide spectrum of ideas in between. All are informed by the desire to see God’s will worked out among all Muslims.’ (p.xi)

Consisting of 11 Chapters, a short introduction and a list of further reading, the author argues that the question of how a caliph was to be chosen was important for the early Muslim community. Some felt that the caliph had to be chosen by the Muslims themselves, whilst others argued that caliphate should be hereditary within the Prophet’s family. According to yet others, one ruler could nominate another as his successor based on the notion of nass (choice or designation).

Such differences and disagreement were inevitable in the absence of clear guidance in the Qur’an and Prophetic norms (Sunnah) on the form of governance and diplomacy. Indeed, the Islamic scriptural sources focus more on principles and values rather than on specific forms of governance, administration and diplomacy. Not surprisingly, the early caliphs (both Umayyad and Abbasid) developed, expanded and assimilated principles of governance from a combination of Islamic, Greek, Byzantine and Persian sources.

In chapter one of this book, the author traces the origin of the concept of the caliphate from Adam, the first man and Prophet, followed by an overview of the rule of the first four early caliphs, concluding with the death of Ali ibn Abi Talib in 661 (see pages 3-43). Chapter two covers the period of what the author calls the ‘Executive Caliphate’, namely the rule of the Umayyads from 661 to 750 (see pages 47-84). Since the author is a well-known specialist in Abbasid history, it is not surprising that he provides a detailed survey of Abbasid Caliphate (fl. from 750 to 1258) under three separate chapters, namely the ‘early Abbasid Caliphate’ (pages 87-133); ‘Culture of the Abbasid Caliphate’ (pages 137-172) and the ‘Later Abbasid Caliphate’ (pages 175-214).

By comparison, chapter six provides a brief discussion of the ideas and thoughts of three seminal Muslim thinkers and writers on the subject of caliphate: al-Mawardi (d. 1058), al-Juwayni (d. 1085) and al-Ghazali (d. 1111). The author concludes this chapter saying, ‘For Mawardi the important thing was to restore the power and prestige of the Abbasid caliphate, while Juwayni thought that the Abbasids were an irrelevant anachronism and that if the caliphate was to function it should pass to the most militarily powerful effective ruler of the time, provided, of course, that he was a pious Muslim. Ghazali tried to find a compromise, combining military power with spiritual leadership. The main point… is that, as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there were profound differences among leading Sunni Muslim intellectuals as to what the caliphate could and should be. There was no definitive answer or model.’ (pp. 230-1)

Chapters seven, eight, nine and ten focuses on minor caliphates, namely that of the Shi’ias, the Umayyads of Spain, Almohads of North Africa as well as the Mamluk and Ottomans (see pages 233-359). The author concludes the last chapter of the book saying, ‘I hope this book has shown that caliphate is a concept with a wide variety of meanings and interpretations. Its strength lies in its flexibility. Its intellectual justification draws on the direct connection with the earliest days of Islam and the glorious era of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. At the same time, it can be used, even twisted, to promote ideologies which are sinister and brutal. But the idea of a caliphate is not in itself dangerous or threatening. We need not be afraid of it, even if we are fearful of how some have chosen to interpret it.’ (pp. 375-6)

Although this book is largely based on the author’s previous works, nonetheless it is an interesting, well-written and much-needed book on a subject that is not only topical but widely misunderstood and misinterpreted, both in the Muslim world and the West.

Muhammad Khan. M Khan is the author of Makers of Western Islam: The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of 50 Great Western Muslims (Kube Publishing, forthcoming).

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