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Caliphate, An Idea Throughout History: An Interview with Hugh Kennedy

[Byzantine envoys before Caliph al-Mu'tasim (seated, right). Image of miniature from the [Byzantine envoys before Caliph al-Mu'tasim (seated, right). Image of miniature from the "Madrid Skylitzes" via Wikimedia Commons]

What is a caliphate? Who can be caliph? What is the history of the idea? How can we interpret and use it today? These are the themes discussed in Hugh Kennedy’s new book, The Caliphate (Pelican Books), which aims to find the long-term historical context for the idea of caliphate. Tracing the history from the choosing of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, in the immediate aftermath of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, through the orthodox (Rashidun) caliphs (632-661), the Umayyads (661-750), the Abbasids (750-1258) and the use of the idea of caliphate by the Ottomans, down to the emergence of another Abu Bakr as “caliph” of the “Islamic State” in 2014.

In Episode #240 of Ottoman History Podcast, we talk to Kennedy about his recent work and what motivated him to follow the idea from the early caliphates to its use in the contemporary moment. This idea of the caliph and of caliphate as a formative concept in the politics of Islam dates back to the Quran itself, and the earliest days of Islamic political society in the days immediately after the Prophet’s death. It remains a motive and inspirational force in the contemporary world. But the term is widely misunderstood by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Far from being a rigidly defined office with a clearly recognised series of rights, powers, and duties, it is a fluid concept which could be adopted and manipulated by different groups at different times.

Kennedy points to the title itself: “Khalifa, caliph in English, is an ambiguous word. It either means a deputy [khalīfat Allah fi arḍihi], somebody who substitutes for somebody else, or it means the successor [khalīfat rasūl Allah], and this gave rise to a lot of uncertainty when trying to work out what the office of caliph meant.”

Throughout, his discussion focuses on key issues of continuing relevance: who should be caliph, how should the caliph be chosen, what powers should the caliph have in the political sphere and in the sphere of law making and the sharia? The ninth-century Abbasid caliph Ma’mun supported the doctrine of the “createdness of the Quran,” provoking opposition in Baghdad among a group increasing in importance known as the ulama, the learned people. The ulama‘s counter view of the caliph as a lawmaker “that is the beginning of the undermining of the status and power of the caliphate. Because a ruler who can’t make laws is only half a ruler.”

With the Abbasid caliphate’s fragmentation and its end with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, the title of the caliph is still used continued to be used in Cairo until the Ottoman conquest of 1517 after which the main claimants became the Ottoman dynasty. Sultan Selim assumed not the title of caliph but that of the Khadim al-haramayn alsharifayn (Guardian of the Two Noble Sanctuaries). The Ottomans used the title caliph only intermittently until the late nineteenth century, when Sultan Abd al-Hamid II used the office of caliph to create Muslim solidarity inside and outside of the Ottoman Empire.

Another Abu Bakr, “caliph” of the “Islamic State,” has most recently adopted the title. He dresses like an Abbasid caliph, wearing all black. Their propaganda, through their online publication Dabiq, has constant references to the early caliphs, using, manipulating, and inventing records of what the early caliphs did as a way of justifying themselves.


Hugh Kennedy is Professor of Arabic at SOAS, London. He has been studying the history of the caliphate for almost fifty years and has written numerous books including “The Courts of the Caliphs” (2004) and “The Great Arab Conquests” (2007).

Taylan Güngör is a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS). His research interests center on Medieval and Pre-Modern Eastern Mediterranean trading circles. His dissertation research is on trade in Istanbul after 1453. 

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