Ruth Gledhill’s dodgy caliphate factoids

Ruth Gledhill, Times correspondent on religion and blogger, had a post on the controversial Turkish hadith project. I think I have said as much as I can about this topic, but wanted to note a glaring historical error in her blog post. She writes:

[‘Interpretation’ of texts] was the general practice until about 1400, when the Caliphate, based in Turkey, announced that this process of interpretation was closed. The Caliphate decreed that Islam had reached such a state of perfection, no further reasoning was necessary.

I have no idea where she got the impression that around 1400 the Caliphate was in “Turkey” (there was no state-like entity called “Turkey” in 1400!). Nor do I know how she (or the Times correspondent Michael Binyon who she says she spoke to) formed the idea that the caliphate made a decree that the “process of interpretation was closed”.

Starting with the plainer facts, it should be noted that the Abbasid Caliphate was brought to a shuddering halt in 1258 at the hands of the Mongols (who committed something of a ‘holocaust’ against the people of this area), when they sacked Baghdad. Thereafter, a ‘shadow’ caliphate existed in Cairo under the patronage of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, who installed a relative of the Abbasids to the role of caliph (and it doesn’t take a PhD in Islamic history to work out where the power rested in that political relationship). When the Ottomans ended Mamluk independence in 1517, one might naturally assume they took on the role of caliphs; such a view would be understandable, although there is some controversy over this. Around 1400, the Ottomans themselves were still growing as an empire. And even when they did acquire Mamluk lands in the 1500s, there is a question mark over whether had indeed become caliphs. In fact, it is suggested the Ottomans did not use the title of caliph with any real vigour (preferring the title of sultan like other dynastic empires before them) until 1774 at the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. (I think it is also worth mentioning that in Muslim Spain, which came to an end by the mid-1400s, a rival caliphate was also announced; and this all without even considering the Shi’i claims to leadership of Islam.)

Next, I have to say Gledhill’s claim that “the Caliphate decreed that Islam had reached such a state of perfection [that] no further reasoning was necessary” is nonsensical. There are two parts to this.

First, as a matter of faith, Islam is “perfect” for Muslims as the sources of religion (the Qur’an and the prophetic sunna) are considered completed: nothing can be added or taken from these sources.

The second part to this, and in some ways more important, is that slippery word interpretation. I am not aware that the caliphate decreed “reasoning unnecessary” in 1400 (for, as we have just discussed, there was no actual caliphate with the power to do so in or around 1400). In fact, most charges of the closure of ‘reasoning’ are laid at the feet of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who lived and died long before 1400. Aside from this claim being historically inaccurate and a gross misrepresentation of al-Ghazali’s views, as discussed by some (Western) scholars of Islamic history, it is a wholly mistaken notion that ‘reasoning’ came to an end amongst Muslims. As I noted in my brief note on the Turkish hadith project, it is almost always the case that the extent and the scope of interpretation, and the question of who can undertake such a task, is the source of intellectual conflict amongst Muslims, not merely the idea of ‘reasoning’ from Islamic texts.

People who we can loosely call ‘traditionalists’ view the boundaries of intellectual conflict have been formed and settled upon, and it is within these confines (which are larger than you think) that reasoning can continue to take place, albeit in the hands of a specialist trained in Islamic knowledges. (For example, Muslims who want answers to a novel situation they find themselves in have traditionally turned to someone who is considered suitably trained. How does this problem get resolved? The trained specialist will turn to various texts and ‘reason’ from them.) On the other side of the divide, are those who we can loosely label ‘modernists’ do not hold these boundaries to be boundaries at all, but outcomes of time and place (i.e. history). They feel these boundaries can be re-created and re-formed by different communities. And then there are a whole set of people who are somewhere in between (in fact, my traditionalist/modernist dividing line is porous).

While I agree the second part of my response to Gledhill — on the need for reasoning — is a source of perpetual conflict amongst Muslims (so understandable if she is unable to provide the whole picture), checking basic facts like the existence (or not) of caliphates is very easy. I don’t think this is specifically a “Muslim problem” journalists like Gledhill have (and again this is understandable as they are less familiar with Muslim themes and histories). Rather it is a general problem with ‘churnalism’, where facts are loose or don’t exist and you can just make things up if you need to. And blogging only makes churnalism easier — afterall, “it’s only a blog”, so who cares right?

Having said that, this is the second time someone writing for the Times has just made up what can be considered rather basic historical facts when it comes to discussing topics involving Muslims. Last year, I noticed Michael Burleigh doing the same thing, and he is meant to have a PhD in history.

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4 Responses to “Ruth Gledhill’s dodgy caliphate factoids”


  1. 1 dawood March 7, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Wow, glad you picked up on that – I was shocked when I read the piece! I think anyone writing in this area should read Lapidus or something. I just find it interesting that they connect the closing of interpretation to a Caliph – but it must be right? Saying as there is “no separation between church and state in Islam” and all that. Again, Lapidus has an amswer to that, dating from the mid-70’s and also more recently.

    I have to say though, I hate shoddy journalism.

  2. 2 thabet March 8, 2008 at 5:07 am

    It’s bad journalism and shoddy reaearch. If I speculate there is an anachronism at work: imposing what we see of Muslim states today back onto “the past”.

    Gledhill isn’t entirely to blame through: there are enough Islamist groups at work who present the same picture of a totalitarian, state-centred, picture of “Islamic politics” (which is incorrect: it is not religion and politics that have been inseparable throughout Islamic history, but religion and law — subtle but crucial difference).

  3. 3 dawood March 8, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Just noticed the mistake with the bold before, that is annoying. But you are right – and one could also say that the connection between religion and law was often tenuous at best (specifically law as in that which was maintained by the ruling authorities instead of theory). Which is why as I find both of these caricature approaches to Muslim history to be very amusing and annoying at the same time.


  1. 1 » Richard Dawkins told a session of the Ed … Talk Islam Trackback on August 19, 2008 at 1:21 pm

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