Winner of the AAR’s 2017 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Historical Studies A curious feature of contemporary discussions about Muslims in the West is the widespread use of terms from the Islamic lexicon as stand-alone concepts disaggregated from their historical, theological, and cultural contexts. Words like shari’a, jihad, and hijab are deployed with such ease and confidence that what amounts to theologizing talk about Islam can be carried out by all and sundry without recourse to any in-depth knowledge of the subjects at hand. One such term that has been making the rounds more frequently with the rise of ISIS in the last few years is “the Caliphate.” The discursive miasma generated by this term now conjures up images of heads being chopped off and women being enslaved for sex. And in conjunction with shari’a and jihad, it now also connotes a theocratic totalitarian state hell-bent on recreating the conditions of seventh-century Arabia in the present. Mona Hassan’s Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History offers an excellent corrective to the provincialization of the term in its contemporary usage in the West. And in examining the rich cultural history of the Khilafat not merely as a political institution but as a reservoir of Muslim memories, aspirations, and identities, it also opens up new intellectual spaces for its future evolution in the global public imaginary. The proximate trigger for Hassan’s scholarly intervention is a lacuna in the historical scholarship that has tended to treat the Abbasid Caliphate as already a spent force at the time of Baghdad’s destruction by the Mongols in 1258 and the Ottoman Caliphate as similarly inconsequential when it was abolished by the Turkish parliament in 1924. But in focusing inordinately on the role of the caliphate as a political and imperial institution, historians have by and large failed to adequately examine what the caliphate meant to the Muslim sense of collective unity and identity, and how its loss was processed in literary and cultural production. Hassan therefore begins with two essential questions that have hitherto either not been asked or inadequately addressed by the current scholarship: “What did Muslims imagine to be lost with the disappearance of the Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates in 1258 and 1924 respectively? And how did they attempt to recapture that perceived loss, and in doing so redefine the caliphate for their times, under shifting circumstances?” (2). Separated by almost seven centuries of historical time, “what binds these two scenarios together is the abiding significance of the caliphate within the Islamic context and the elusive desire for a righteous locus of central authority and leadership grounded in the Islamic tradition” (13). It is this desire, prefaced as “longing” in the title of this book, that has generated a variety of responses by Muslims throughout the ages and continues to do so even today. For as Hassan points out, “the caliphate signifies a pivotal cultural symbol that Muslims have imbued with different meanings according to their particular social contexts… [and] a cultural grammar that people readily identify and utilize to create new meanings” (19). And it is with the caliphate as this fecund symbol constituting an axis around which Muslims weave narrative webs of identity rather than as an abiding political fact that the book is primarily concerned. Prominent among the sources Hassan utilizes in the book are poetic elegies about the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 and the shock, loss, and nostalgia that this destruction elicited from contemporaries and near contemporaries. While it is certainly true that by the thirteenth century the Abbasid caliphs exerted little military or political control over vast swaths of the old Arab empire, “their symbolic socio-cultural and religious prestige as nominal leaders of a universally conceived Sunni Muslim community” remained undiminished (23). And Baghdad as “the City of the Beloved Ones (Dār al-Ahibbah)” retained its place “as the focal point of Islam both spiritually and temporally… in the Muslim imaginary” (22). The sudden and catastrophic annihilation of both city and caliphate was memorialized by countless literary lamentations that circulated among the Muslim publics across space and time and “formed an important cultural repertoire of agony and loss transmitted through wide readership, cross-generational instruction and public performance” (44). These works suggest that the singularity of the caliphate served a significant function in grounding the abstract unity of a by-then effusively diverse Muslim umma in the discursive reality of a common institution, and its loss was experienced, in this sense, “more abstractly as a tragedy for Islam itself” (31). And a “world without a caliph was so unimaginable” that the destruction of Baghdad also unleashed widespread eschatological expectations, “boding the imminent end of time itself” (57). Using the works of a variety of figures from the far-flung corners of the Muslim world, Hassan also establishes how in their very absence the Abbasid caliphs were “reconfigured into an idealized form through the frequent recollection of their past glories” (36). In the literary and historical imagination of Muslims, the lost caliphate became a locus for meditations on the loss of a primordial cohesion and unity, and marked an end to the beginning times. The office of the caliph had also become inextricably intertwined with the formulation and legitimacy of Islamic jurisprudence in the classical tradition, and there was widespread “consensus upon the obligation of appointing an individual to lead the community” (99). There had of course been debates about the qualities attendant to being an ideal caliph. But the very fact of a caliph had become “essential in enabling ordinary Muslims to fulfill their own religious obligations” and “other obligatory aspects of Islamic law as elaborated by Sunni jurists” (101–2). The loss of the caliphate was therefore a multi-pronged tragedy that effected Muslims in all the different registers of their existence and on a much wider scale than the diminished political power of the caliphate would suggest. This explains the resurrection of the Abbasid Caliphate as a diminished but still significant institution attached to the Mamluk kingdom in Egypt and the continuation of the line until its final dissolution by the Ottoman Turks. Hassan’s book provides an engaging account of this oft-ignored “Cairene Caliphate” and how it served both to assuage existential anxieties unleashed by the destruction of Baghdad and to link this medieval institution with its assumption by the Ottoman emperor some three hundred years later. The second part of the book shifts attention to the period immediately following the First World War and the furious battles that erupted both on the field and in the public sphere over the future of the Turkish nation and its relationship to the Ottoman Caliphate. Hassan does an admirable job of illustrating the global scale of Muslim participation in these debates. The fate of the caliphate was clearly of grave concern to Muslims from India to Indonesia to Egypt and beyond, and it animated social movements and literary productions brimming with trepidation. When the Turkish parliament finally abolished the Ottoman Caliphate on March 3, 1924, it unleashed a worldwide firestorm of anger, pain, and anguish that in many ways replicated the reaction to the loss of the earlier caliphate all those years ago. But there were also important differences. “The Ottoman sultan’s title of caliph [had] gained new saliency in the increasingly globalized political context of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries” and therefore “the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate signified the disturbing loss of the last great global Muslim power in the age of encroaching colonialism” (145). The idea that this loss was orchestrated by the Western powers also “left a bitter sense of betrayal among Muslims across Afro-Eurasia” that lingers even to this day and colors their perceptions of Euro-American designs on the Muslim world (151). Various attempts to remedy this situation through the appointment of a “caliphal council” of global electors or by the identification of this or that Muslim monarch with the office of the caliphate failed the tests of both consensus and of geopolitical reality (199). And as the world hurtled mercilessly toward another catastrophic bloodbath, the embers slowly burnt out on any hope of reviving the caliphate. But true to the centrality of the idea of the caliphate in their collective imaginary, Muslims have continued to debate the possibility and viability of a modern caliphate in all the years since and have certainly not given up hope of reanimating this symbol of their unity and cohesion in an age marked by the diffuse alterities of nationalism and ethnic conflicts. Hassan is a gifted writer and does a wonderful job of evoking the melancholy and sadness attendant to loss. In the cultural memory of Muslims, this particular loss comes to feel almost akin to the passing of a golden age of carefree childhood where the person of the caliph stood sentry against the confusions and complications of adulthood. Hassan also invokes the West’s own historical lexicon by comparing the caliphate in Muslim imagination to the centrality of Rome as an enduring symbol of civilization itself whose resurrection has animated countless programs of political and cultural renewal in Europe. Similarly, she identifies a swirl of dejection and aspiration in the Jewish relationship to the land of Israel and specifically to the destruction and possible resurrection of the Temple that mirrors Muslim sentiments toward the caliphate. In all these and other ways, Hassan’s book is a commendable effort to rescue the caliphate from the crass and often obtuse analysis on offer in the contemporary West and to identify it properly as one of the more significant and consequential cultural symbols in the history of human civilization. In this effort I believe she is largely successful. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. 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Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 27, 2018
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