The Caliphate Question examines the British government's actions toward the Ottoman Empire around World War I—during the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 and after. Oliver-Dee's purpose is to "address the strengths and weaknesses of previous approaches to questions of Islamic governance with a view to furnishing present policymakers, commentators, politicians, and advisors with an evidence-based rubric for effective engagement in this vital area."
The author, an associate research fellow at the London School of Theology, first establishes context by exploring whether the concept of the caliphate was theologically justified, concluding that "the scriptural basis for the Caliphate seems remarkably small," a fact that undoubtedly prompted Kemal Atatürk, Turkey's founder who abolished the caliphate in 1924, to declare, "Our Prophet has instructed his disciples to convert the nations of the world to Islam; he has not ordered them to provide for the government of these nations. … The notion of a single Caliph exercising supreme religious authority over all the Muslim people is one which has come out of books, not reality."
The bulk of the book examines primary-source texts and correspondences from the British Empire's files concerning the caliphate. Although bureaucratic in nature and dry reading, these documents make Oliver-Dee's case, namely that, because the British did not understand the significance of the caliphate, "their discussion was therefore predicated on an incomplete picture, which increased the opportunity for error."
Oliver-Dee shows how Arabic words—such as din, which is routinely translated into English as "religion"—have misled the West, including the British Empire: Far from having any spiritual connotations, din means "obligation, submission, judgment." Most significant are the relevant analogies: The British made it a priority to "satisfy Muslim interests in the [British] Empire" by making, according to one 1917 governmental memo, "a few needed concessions" to the Islamic world—by placing "the concerns of all other religious and ethnic interests within the Empire beneath the necessity of securing Muslim loyalty," which was hardly secured.
This, then, is the book's important message: An approach similar to that taken by today's Western governments toward the Muslim world—especially a failure to understand the Muslim worldview and a belief that appeasement buys loyalty—dramatically failed nearly a century ago. Worse, whereas British politicians operated in an epoch when many Muslims were, in fact, open to Westernizing and apathetic to Islam—excusing these politicians for not taking the caliphate's role more seriously—there is no excuse for their modern day counterparts, who seem to take it even less seriously, even though Muslims today are constantly declaring the need to resurrect it.