The history of a political idea that has dominated the Islamic imagination for 14 centuries

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

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caliphate-1497520977-1503915347.jpgReview of Hugh Kennedy, Caliphate. The History of an Idea, Basic Books, New York, 2016


If there is a robust political idea that has dominated Islamic history for fourteen centuries, it is the idea of caliphate. Men have fought and killed in its name, as the assassination of the third caliph ‘Uthmān, the murder of Hussein and the violence now being committed by ISIS all testify. Rivers of ink have also flowed in its name, from the treatises by Māwardī (d. 1058), Juwaynī (d. 1085) and Ghazālī (d. 1111) – the concept’s first theorists – to the dissertations being written by our contemporaries. There have been moments in history when this notion of government profoundly affected the Muslim community’s organization and moments when it had almost no influence. In the twentieth century, with the birth of Islamist and jihadist movements after the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate (1924), the idea returned to the foreground.


Caliphate. The History of an Idea by Hugh Kennedy, professor of Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, examines the historical evolution of this concept and its use and abuse over the centuries. Beginning with the first four “rightly guided” caliphs, Kennedy retraces the salient moments of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, dedicates a chapter to the Fatimid caliphs in Tunisia and Egypt, examines the Ottoman sultanate and concludes with a reflection on the so-called Islamic State’s misappropriation of the caliphal concept.


The purpose of the book is to eradicate the rather widespread idea of the caliphate as an institution with self-evident foundations and one that has remained unchanged over the centuries. This by emphasizing how, in actual fact, this form of government has, on several occasions, undergone modifications dictated by historical circumstances. Suffice it to think of the debate, following Muhammad’s death, about who should lead the umma and what prerogatives he should enjoy.


For some, the caliph had simply to belong to the Quraysh tribe (and so could also be an Umayyad) whereas, for others, he had to be a member of the Banū Hāshim, the Prophet’s clan, whilst still others, the Kharijites, maintained that all Muslim males were potential candidates. There were then those who contemplated a hereditary caliphate and those, on the other hand, who accepted a successor’s direct designation (nass). All these options, Kennedy explains, led to a series of further considerations. Hereditary succession posed both the problem of establishing which branch of Muhammad’s family could accede to the office and the question of the right of primogeniture and it potentially implied the infallibility of the caliph who, as such, could interpret or even amend the Qur’an and Sunna (i.e. the Shi‘ite vision). If, on the other hand, the caliph was appointed by men, he could not be considered infallible. This is the reason why, in the Sunni context, the interpretation of the Qur’an and sharia was to become, from the tenth century onwards, a prerogative of the ulama and the jurists, rather than the caliph.


During the first four centuries, above all, no precise, unequivocal practice was followed. The first caliph, Abū Bakr, was not a member of Muhammad’s family and was elected from a narrow group of Muslims from which ‘Alī had been excluded. ‘Umar, his successor, was personally appointed by Abū Bakr, whereas ‘Uthmān was elected by a council established by ‘Umar and formed of six men, including ‘Alī. The latter became the fourth caliph without receiving any formal investiture, on the other hand: he had to win the office in the field, at the famous battle of the Camel.


According to the author, such fact confirms that the attempts made nowadays to restore the caliphate by referring to tradition are arbitrary: Islamic history has produced some very different kinds of caliphate and they cannot be reduced to a single model.


Conceived for the non-specialist, Kennedy’s book is essential reading for anyone wishing to know about this institution’s historical evolution and grasp both the importance it has had in the shaping of Islamic political culture and its repercussions on the present. Indeed, the caliphal institution cannot be understood in isolation from the historical context in which it has been moulded.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Chiara Pellegrino, “The Caliphate’s Metamorphosis”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 130-131.

Online version:
Chiara Pellegrino, “The Caliphate’s Metamorphosis”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: