While the loss of the caliphate is recorded as a militaristic and historical event, embedded within this loss is a deep emotional and cultural attachment that is often overlooked, according to Prof. Mona Hassan, Duke University, Islamic studies and history.
At a lecture on Monday, Hassan discussed the loss of the caliphate over history and its effect on Islamic cultural history. The loss of this essential cultural institution for the Muslim population was the focus of Hassan’s recently published book Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History.
As Hassan explained her research for the book, she said she explored primary sources that even contemporary researchers ignored. These sources mapped a different version of life after the caliphate was deemed to be “lost.”
“As I delved to the primary source materials, moving beyond the chronicles … into poetry, music and other works … that contemporaries left behind, it told a very different story, one of deep and abiding anguish,” she said. “That sense of attachment to the caliphate as a cultural institution was something that I tried to trace looking at culture, law and politics.”
Hassan also described the material she used to draw cultural patterns and conclusions — that the loss of the caliphate had been emotionally and culturally resounding — spanning from Spain to Delhi.
Hassan added that by examining “what [the loss of the caliphate] meant to different people and places and how did they try to recapture that sense of loss,” one can trace how “a historical trans-regionalism [e]merged.”
Hassan said that the collapse of the caliphate following World War I was a time in which Muslims creatively interpreted their heritage. In this way, they attempted to cope with the disappearance of a central cultural institution, she said.
“What is really interesting in this time period [early 20th century] is the collapse of this earlier imperial world order and the opportunity for new visions to be articulated,” Hassan said.
The loss then resulted in the desire for a grand international conference of Muslims all throughout the eastern world in order to solve the cultural dilemma it left in its wake.
“Muslims of the early twentieth century regarded the controversies besetting the caliphate as issues of direct and pressing concern to the entire community of the faithful,” she said.
The cosmopolitan vision of the caliphate, Hassan believes, is an important indicator which explains why Muslims throughout Islamic history relied on the cultural institution of the caliphate to preserve their solidarity and cooperation with one another.
Hassan presents the caliphate as the glue which held Muslims throughout the international community together, even in times of war or uncertainty.
“The caliphate was very much part of this optimistic hope of what could rise from the ashes of war, that a caliphate could be created to lead humanity forward in peace and prosperity and progress,” Hassan said.