"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Whose Caliph? Which Caliphate?

In teaching a course to my students this summer about ISIS and the Crusades, we had occasion to illustrate my point about the uses and abuses of history, including romanticized nostalgia for a past that never was, by discussing the notion of a caliph and a caliphate that ISIS makes so much of today. In doing so ISIS conveniently ignores the fact that the last caliphate was unceremoniously abolished in 1924 with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (recently discussed here) and an attempt at resurrecting it two years later met with a collective shrug of indifference from the Islamic world. The last caliph himself was wanted by nobody in the Islamic world, and so had to be ingloriously shipped off to exile in Paris via a British gunboat.

The history of the caliphate, then, and any coherent understanding of that office, let alone resurrection of it, are all therefore far from straightforward, and the idea that it is a central institution demanded if not beloved by all Muslims is obviously false. The complexities of all this are discussed in a forthcoming book by Hugh Kennedy, Caliphate: The History of an Idea (Basic Books, October 2016), 336pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Caliphate, Islamic historian Hugh Kennedy dissects the idea of the caliphate and its history, and explores how it became used and abused today. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one enduring definition of a caliph; rather, the idea of the caliph has been the subject of constant debate and transformation over time. Kennedy offers a grand history of the caliphate since the beginning of Islam to its modern incarnations. Originating in the tumultuous years following the death of the Mohammad in 632, the caliphate, a politico-religious system, flourished in the great days of the Umayyads of Damascus and the Abbasids of Baghdad. From the seventh-century Orthodox caliphs to the nineteenth-century Ottomans, Kennedy explores the tolerant rule of Umar, recounts the traumatic murder of the caliph Uthman, dubbed a tyrant by many, and revels in the flourishing arts of the golden eras of Abbasid Baghdad and Moorish Andalucía. Kennedy also examines the modern fate of the caliphate, unraveling the British political schemes to spur dissent against the Ottomans and the ominous efforts of Islamists, including ISIS, to reinvent the history of the caliphate for their own malevolent political ends.

In exploring and explaining the great variety of caliphs who have ruled throughout the ages, Kennedy challenges the very narrow views of the caliphate propagated by extremist groups today. An authoritative new account of the dynasties of Arab leaders throughout the Islamic Golden Age, Caliphate traces the history—and misappropriations—of one of the world’s most potent political ideas.
Kennedy is author of an earlier study of some use: The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In.

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