- Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History by Mona Hassan
The Caliphate is a set of historical Muslim institutions in specific times and places. The Caliphs were the leaders of the community of Muslim believers following the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the title continued to be used by various rulers in the following centuries. The Caliphate is also a symbol of the ideal Islamic society, especially for Sunni Muslims. Mona Hassan presents a broadly conceived discussion of the relationships between these two [End Page 325] dimensions as they are viewed in the historical memory of Muslims. The core of her analysis is an examination of how Muslims understood the caliphate in the contexts of its absence – in the thirteenth century, when the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, and in the twentieth century, when the Ottoman caliphate was abolished in 1924 by the new Turkish Republic of Mustafa Kemal Pasa. Hassan argues that "the caliphate signifies a pivotal cultural symbol that Muslims have imbued with different meanings according to their particular social contexts" (p. 19). The continuing power of this symbol, even in the twenty-first century, is shown in the appeal of the "emotive rhetoric of a caliphate" used by militant extremists in the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (p. 254).
Narratives of Muslim history commonly present a story of a great Golden Age of the early Caliphates followed by a long decline. Similarly, Ottoman history is commonly presented as a story of a dynamic early empire followed by a long decline. The ending of the caliphates, in this narrative, is seen as a culmination of the decline. However, Hassan argues that the military and political defeats of the Baghdad and Ottoman caliphates did not bring an end to the importance of the concept of the caliphate in Muslim historical memories. A major theme in Hassan's analysis is showing how Muslims understood the loss, so that they could "redefine the caliphate for their times" (p. 2). These efforts often represented significant intellectual dynamism rather than manifestations of a long civilizational decline.
Hassan sets the foundations for her analysis in an introduction that provides historical and conceptual contexts for understanding the ways that Muslims have "striven to reconfigure their political and intellectual constructs as a part of a living and dynamic cultural memory" (p.16). The introduction provides summaries of the histories of the caliphates but this is primarily a study of historical memory rather than chronological history. The trauma of the destruction of the caliphate in 1258 inspired a broad spectrum of responses, which are analyzed in chapter one. Poets as well as scholars responded to the events and the cultural memories of those events. The comprehensive nature of Hassan's study is emphasized by her distinctive discussion of popular musical responses which created an "emotive soundscape" (p. 52) in the Muslim collective memory.
Following the destruction of Baghdad, the Mamluk military rulers of Egypt established a member of the Abbasid family as caliph in Cairo. The Mamluks worked "to reinvent the Abbasid Caliphate for their times" (p. 67). The common historical narrative as developed by Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis is that these caliphs were "minor [End Page 326] Court pensioners with purely ceremonial duties to perform."1 Hassan, in chapter 2, presents a well-documented, contrasting view: "the Abbasid Caliphate was resurrected in the Mamluk State as a significant religio-political institution" (p. 95). The conceptualizations of the caliphate after the destruction of Baghdad presented in chapter 3 are the product of dynamic intellectual life of Muslim scholars in the Mamluk era like Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Khaldun and others. Again, as with the Mamluk Caliphate, the picture presented by Hassan counters the old narrative of Muslim decline.
The end of the Ottoman Empire following World War I is usually viewed through the lens of the creation of the Kemalist Turkish Republic and triumph of Turkish nationalism. However, Hassan shows in chapter 4 that even among nationalists there was eloquent...