Book review: The Inevitable Caliphate by Dr Reza Pankhurst

A comprehensive study of Islamic polity

The caliphate or “khilafah” is an Islamic political structure that has been central to Muslim history for 1300 years, writes Dilly Hussain.

Many British Muslims have viewed it as something of an “abstract idea” or “an unattainable dream” but since the Arab Spring the issue of khilafah has been on the lips and minds of Muslims like never before. For this reason, I felt it was important to write a review on one of the first books specifically dealing with the subject of the khilafah in English by a Muslim author.

Whilst writing my dissertation in my final year of politics at university, I could have only dreamt of a book like the Inevitable Caliphate: A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the present because it was one subject that would always put me under the spotlight in lectures, seminars and discussions with tutors.

Unless you were well versed in the scriptural evidences (Quran, hadith and classical juristic works) and its contextual meaning, the subject of a caliphate could get you into uneasy situations in a room full of secular non-Muslim academics.

So when the news came to me that political scientist and historian, Dr Reza Pankhurst, would be publishing a book dealing with the issue of a caliphate and Islamic polity, I was pleased that academics and students of knowledge alike now had a comprehensive reference point for research.

Islamic polity

Dr Pankhurst deals with the idea of khilafah in the first two chapters. What I commend about his approach was that he intentionally chose to study the concept without referring to Western political paradigms like liberal democracy and refrains from using terms such as “Islamists”.

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Instead, he applies normative Islam, classical works of Islamic jurists, the method of “ijtihad” and the views of different Islamic activists who tried salvaging the Ottoman caliphate before 1924 and reviving it immediately after. The early section of the book also goes through the contradictory, problematic and selective approach of orientalist commentators.

Whilst complimenting the works of many non-Muslim academics who wrote on the subject of a caliphate, Dr Pankhurst goes further by tackling the Islamic aspects like the appreciation of divine scripture, the relevance of Usul al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence) and generally the Muslim attachment to the notion of a unified pan-Islamic polity and brotherhood, the global Ummah.

Islamic movements

Chapters two to four are case studies of the main Islamic movements that have made the caliphate the focal point of their work. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Al-Qaida and numerous movements of the subcontinent like Murabitun and Tehreek-e-Khilafat. The thoughts and concepts of Hassan al-Banna, Syed Qutb, Taqiudeen al-Nabhani and Osama bin Laden are explored in-depth. Other notable thinkers are also touched upon like Dr Israr Ahmed, Abu Ala Maududi and Rashid Rida.

The vigorous dissection of these three movements was an aspect of the book I appreciated the most because in modern day reality (with the exception of the Salafi and Sufi movements) the majority of Muslims generally fall into these three movements or their political thinking.

You get gradualist Ikhwanis who engage in democracy for a “bottom up” change, what the author refers to as a western political framework although their definition of “democracy” is not the same as the west’s. Non-violent Hizbis who abstain from democracy to re-establish the caliphate but perceive Muslim public opinion and a radical “top to bottom change” as the prophetic method. And lastly, the reactionary jihadi movements who see no other way but armed struggle to change the status quo.

These three case studies were the most intriguing part of the book because after the Arab Spring, Ikhwani, Hizbi and jihadi political thoughts have flourished like never before. The author also explains how Salafis who have historically been apolitical became politicized as a result of the Arab Spring and in some way or another have been affected by the thinking of these three movements like in Tunisia (jihadi), Egyptian Al-Nour Party (gradual democrats) and Syria (FSA and Islamist brigades).


I couldn’t really find a flaw (from an academic perspective) in Dr Pankhurst’s study. He did not hide any historical mishaps or disagreements between Muslims on an Islamic polity, was clear about why he didn’t include the Shia concept of “Imamate” (because they are waiting for the Mehdi and believe the Imams are divinely chosen) in his study and was very clear about the differences between the major movements who call for a caliphate.

Similarly, he is critical and complimentary of numerous Islamic movements, their founders, methodologies and offers legitimate reasons for why they failed. Most importantly, he dismisses liberal democracy and secular ideologies as a benchmark for a viable and realistic Islamic polity to be understood from an imposed paradigm. However, Dr Pankhurst does not refrain from referring to some key works and theories by western academics, giving credit where its due and expanding where necessary.

I would advise anyone studying Islamic history, Middle Eastern politics or political Islam to buy this book.


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