Book Review: “The Caliphate” by Hugh Kennedy

The Caliphate by Hugh Kennedy

In recent years, the ancient idea of The Caliphate reemerged as a powerful inspiration and model for many Muslims around the world. The contemporary idea of the caliphate is a transnational Muslim state, with the caliph as leader of all Muslims everywhere.

Hugh Kennedy traces the history of this idea throughout the Muslim age. The Caliphate has appeared in many places over the centuries, with many variations in expectations and political reality, “[T]he idea of caliphate is a rich and varied tradition.” (p. xvi)

Kennedy points out that interest in a new Caliphate is notable because it is more than just nostalgia for a more glorious past, for a time when men were pious and willing to sacrifice for the path. For many, historical events are not just a heritage, but they are take as a concrete model and justification for contemporary action. IN contrast, contemporary Britons might find interest and inspiration from, say King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but few people would take it as an example for contemporary politics to follow.

Over the centuries, ideas about the Caliphate have evolved and been disputed. The very word means “deputy” or “successor”., who all Muslims owe allegiance. But does this mean the caliph is a deputy for God, or successor of the Prophet? Is the caliph ordained by Allah, selected by people, or recognized by military success?

What is the job of the caliph? He should defend Muslims through jihad, and should protect the hajj. He should mint money, and support civil order. But does he interpret or enforce sharia law? And which versions of Islam does the Caliph represent?

Over the years, these and other questions have been disputed, and there have been many Caliphs, with capitals in Baghdad, Egypt, Cordova, and other cities. Some Caliphs were militarily powerful, others were captives of military rulers. Some were Sunni, some Shia. Arabs, Persians, Turks, and others have been Caliph.

Kennedy sketches the lives and times of some. There “have been caliphs of many different sorts, warrior caliphs, pious caliphs, intellectual caliphs, pleasure-loving caliphs, cruel and tyrannical caliphs.” (p. xvi) today and in ages past, opinions differ on the merits and even legitimacy of different historical caliphs.

Clearly, the Caliphate is not a simple or uncontested concept.

Along the way, Kennedy visits a broad swath of Islamic political and religious history, much of which is still visible today. He relies almost entirely on Muslim sources, which certainly have their flaws and biases, but do not suffer from the orientalist myopia of Western and Christian sources.

From this point of view, Kennedy does an admirable job of portraying Muslim history in its own terms, with due respect for the people and the times. Much of the story recounts complicated (if not downright obscure) clashes along many political, cultural, and religious lines. Many of these disputes are outside my own experience and, I suspect, are almost as distant from the life of contemporary Muslims.

On the other hand, long-standing conflicts persist today between Shite and Sunni, and among ethnic and tribal groups persist today, and cannot be comprehended without understanding their history.

I learned a lot of history from this book, much of which I had never heard before. Like many Westerners, my schoolbooks gave me very limited and highly distorted versions of Islam. Kennedy has used the Caliphate as a vehicle to help rectify this gap in my own and many non-Muslims. This is a timely and important lesson.

Definitely worth reading.

  1. Hugh Kennedy,, The Caliphate: The History of an Idea, New York, Basic Books, 2016.


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