Book Review: Caliphate: The History Of An Idea

Caliphate:  The History Of An Idea, by Hugh Kennedy

In this day and age where it has become a romantic ideal among at least some Muslims to revive the idea of the Caliphate, this book is a timely and important one in that it provides as thoughtful history of what the Caliphate meant during its heyday in the first few centuries of Muslim civilization when the Caliph was viewed as a figure of particularly important legitimacy in defending the Muslim faith and in leading it politically, especially against internal and external enemies.  The author, wisely, does not make the book too big by focusing too much on peripheral aspects of Muslim culture (like Islam in South or Southeast Asia) but rather focuses on the importance of the Caliphate in the core regions of Islam in the Middle East, providing a discussion of the lives of caliphs and of the political and religious justification of their actions in the Muslim world during its first few centuries, until the Muslim world became so fragmented that the Caliph became a powerless figure dependent on military leaders for his survival, seeking in the midst of this weakness to defend a rather beleaguered position, as was the case from about 1000AD onward.

This book is a bit less than 300 pages and focuses mostly on the early history of Islam, although it does discuss some later matters.  After beginning with maps and an introduction that sets the scope of the book, the material of this book is divided into eleven chapters.  First the author begins with the first Caliphs, giving some biographical information of them and the struggles they faced in establishing the Muslim state (1).  After that the author discusses the rule of the Umayyads and how it led to the Caliphate becoming vastly more divisive and political (2).  This leads to several chapters on the Abbasic Caliphate and its culture, as well as its decisive weaknesses later on its history (3, 4, 5).  After that there is a chapter that looks at three authors in search of the Caliphate (6), and the Caliphate of the Shi’ites, most notably the Fatimid Caliphate based in Tunisia and Egypt (7).  There is a discussion of the Umayyads of Cordoba (8) as well as the Almohads (9) of Morocco and Spain.  After this the book ends with a discussion of the Caliphate under the Mamluks and Ottomans (10), as well as the history of the idea of the Caliphate in the 20th century and down to the present day (11), after which there are acknowledgments, a glossary, a list of caliphs, notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

What is important about the ideal of Caliphate?  For one, the early days of Islam exert a pull over Muslims, especially those who believe that it is important to recover the early moral purity of Islam, in the same way that many of us who are Christians look to the example and behavior of the Apostles and the early church as being normative in our own religious faith.  It just so happens that unlike early Christians, early generations of Muslims were already organized into a political realm that faced difficulties in that Islam promoted equality in the eyes of God but faced a strong political tendency to view Muslims as being parts of various tears–early converts, helpers from Medina, late-converting elites from Mecca, restive Arabs from the rest of the country, and non-Arab converts all jostling for positions of honor and respect.  The difficulties of the Caliphate in dealing with the mix of religious and political demands proved too much to handle for many of the early Caliphs and later Caliphs often lacked the political and military power to even attempt to be leaders of the power of early Caliphs.  This book is surely an interesting and relevant one.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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