Longing for the Lost Caliphate

A Transregional History

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Mona Hassan
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , January
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mona Hassan’s book Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History explores the “trauma” and “nostalgia” of the unexpected disappearance of the Abbasid and Ottoman caliphates in 1258 and 1924, respectively. Hassan uses a range of conventional and unconventional sources and adopts four conceptual methods—narrative, discursive, embodied, and artistic—to investigate the Muslim responses vis-à-vis two essential questions: “What did Muslims imagine to be lost with the disappearance of Abbasid and Ottoman caliphate?” and “How did they attempt to recapture that perceived loss and in doing so redefine the caliphate for their times, under shifting circumstances?” (2).

The book can be divided into two parts of three chapters each. The first part (chapters 1, 2 and 3) discusses the abolition of the Abbasid caliphate and its impact on Muslim community. The dreadful calamity—the fall of the cosmopolitan city of the peace (Dar al-Salam), Baghdad—was so dire that the Muslims in their five daily prayers “beseech[ed] God for the caliphal capital’s safe and victorious deliverance” (33). After Mongols successfully besieged Baghdad, they unleashed their swords on its inhabitants for forty days, in which “men, women, the elderly, children, preachers, leaders and memorizers of Qur’an were all slaughtered” (37). The mosque was reduced to common stables. It was as if the Mongols were Gog and Magog or their predecessors (56-65).

Chapter 2 investigates the reestablishment of the Mamluk caliphate in Cairo. Prominent religious scholars such as Izz al-Din Abd al-Salam (1181-1262), refused to pledge allegiance to the Mamluk ruler, intimating that his slave status disqualified him from serving as the head of state (67). Hassan discusses the intensely problematic question of political and legal legitimacy for premodern Muslim states in the wake of the Abbasid caliphate’s demise. The problem of caliphal nonexistence, finally, was resolved by recruiting the doubly political and spiritual institutions in Cairo, where the caliph delegates his authority to the sultan and radiated spiritual blessings through his physical presence.

The Muslim political discourses vis-à-vis the necessity of the caliphate after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad to the Ottoman conquest of Cairo are discussed in third chapter. Hassan reviews the following scholars: al-Mawardi (d. 1058), al-Juwayni (d. 1085), his disciple al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), Ibn Jamaah (d. 1333), al-Dahabi (d. 1348), al-Tarsusi (d. 1357), Ibn Kaldun (d. 1406), and al-Suyuti (d. 1505). Based on the scholarly works, Hassan argues that not only Sunnis, but also “Mu’tazilites, Murji’ities, Kharijities, and Shi’is all agree upon the necessity (wujub) of the imamate” (99-116).

In the final part (ch. 4, 5, and 6), Hassan discusses the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate and its influence on the Muslim community. Hassan illustrates how modern regional contexts, professional polemical debates, and “the feeling of loss” were expressed in the form of poetry. On the one hand, Mustafa Sabri “vigorously defended Sunni traditionalist position of caliphate’s juridical and socio-cultural necessity” (142); while on the other hand, Ahmad Shawqi supported Mustafa Kamal, “who strove to liberate Turkish lands from autocratic rule” (142-43). Finally, the Muslim division, Hassan argues, led to the decline of Ottoman caliphate.

The vibrant discussions of early 20th century scholars regarding how to revive the caliphate in the post-war era are discussed in Chapter 5. The Muslim scholars approached the caliphate from all possible directions—legal, historical, and political—to preserve the bonds of the Muslim community. Some scholars focus on the traditional caliphal figure hood (the power and position of caliph), while others proposed new models of internationalism that embraced the nation state and international organizations. Finally, the collapse of Ottoman Caliphate in 1920s lead to the intriguing question of whether or not the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) should be considered as an alternative model of the caliphate.

Twentieth-century Muslim political discourses (traditionalists and modernist) vis-à-vis the necessity of caliphate, mostly from Turkey and Egypt are discussed in chapter 6, entitled “Debating a Modern Caliphate.” To equalize the debate of caliphate, Hassan discusses both the opponents and proponents. Among the proponents, Hassan considers Ismail Sukru (d. 1905) and Mustafa Sabri (d. 1954). Mehmed Seyyid Celebizade (d. 1925) and Ali Abd al-Raziq (d. 1966) argue in favor of secular governance above and beyond the discursive tradition of Muslims jurists. Sukru argues that the “caliphate shouldn’t be reduced to mere spiritual institution” that will result in destruction (218-19). Said Nursi (d. 1960) advocated for superior, spiritual caliphate, who would inherit the prophetic mission and teach people how to balance and perfect their character by incorporating the Sufi paradigm. The book, furthermore, discusses the birth and development of Islamist movements of widely divergent in a rich epilogue entitled, “The Swirl of Religious Hopes and Aspirations.”

Longing for the Lost Caliphate is a pathbreaking study and a transregional history with a main focus on Arab and Turkish Muslim political thinkers. The most important aspect is the diversity of primary sources—an impressive range of languages, poetry, music, coinage, archival sources, newspapers, historical chronicles, biographical dictionaries, and eschatological treatises—to understand Islamic political thought and to express the intense grief among inhabitants of Arab and Turkish nations.

The selection of scholars, however, is open to debate. Hassan’s description of premodern, scholarly responses to the abolition of the caliphate, along with poetry and music, is insightful. However, Hassan ignores modern responses from outside the scholarly compass, despite being relatively easier to trace. The attempt to combine two temporally distinct events—(pre) modern periods—might be considered dangerous.

The book fills a gap in scholarship by discussing the comparative consequences of the (pre)modern abolitions of the caliphate and opens new avenues for further research on how Muslims from other parts of the world perceive the loss and the efforts to recall it. In short, the book is not only a valuable contribution to Islamic political thought and the burgeoning field of its history but a helpful resource in conceptualizing and contextualizing complex political theories.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Owais Manzoor Dar is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mona Hassan is an assistant professor in the departments of Religious Studies and History and the International Comparative Studies program at Duke University.


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