Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Post-Abbasid Politics

Steve Muhlberger

When the Abbasid caliphate fell apart, there was no lack of claimants to pieces of its dominion.  In fact, the caliphate fell apart because governors and generals originally sanctioned by the caliph began to act independently, on the basis of the tangible attributes of power:  loyal troops, walled cities, tax revenues.   The problem, as the caliph became a nearly mythical figurehead, with no real role in authorizing the transfer of power, was how to tell a legitimate governor from an illegitimate one.   And, in this situation, to establish and enforce some degree of law and order, both religious and secular, in Islamic societies.

Islamic society solved this problem by keeping the rulers of the day at arms length, restricting their power over their subjects by appealing to religious standards not under the control of those rulers.

In some ways this was a solution not dissimilar to the Christian response to disorder in medieval Europe.

There was no institutional church, no clergy, no single head of the religion (except, of course, the caliph).   But we do have the situation where the rulers of the Muslim world had to admit, in principle, that they did not represent more than earthly power, a power limited by the dictates of religion and by Godís holy law.

Because men are not perfect, because order had to be maintained, because Islam had to be defended against its enemies, warlords were necessary. There sometimes brutal use of their power had to be tolerated.  But it was not confused with absolute justice, divine law, or true Islam.

So if rulers were not necessarily just, and not even expected to attain a high level of justice, did that mean that Islamic society had given up on justice?   By no means.  It just meant that society was split into two different spheres:  the sphere of high politics and military effort, and the sphere of civilian life.   Different standards applied to each.

Amirs, who might be garrison commanders in a single city, or regional warlords commanding a host of other, lesser amirs, were military rulers. An amir controlled  the troops,and a bureaucracy that collected taxes.  He had many clients who were attracted to the wealth and power of his court.   He lived a  life dominated by ambition, a dog-eat-dog world, and ruled  his own followers by the standards of martial law (where the interests of the supreme authority are really more important than the rights or guilt of the individual hauled before it).   He fought his peers, and fought to make sure that his subordinates did not displace him.

An amir's most important followers were ethnically distinct from the population that he ruled over -- likely Turkish or other slave soldiers brought in from a frontier far away, or men whose fathers or grandfathers were professional military men, and who were continuing a family tradition.   The group around the amir  was a very important group, but their entire concern was with holding onto supreme power, and making war.  They lived and died by the twists and turns of  international politics.

The world of the amir was of course not self-sufficient.  It existed because it collected taxes from local civilians.  The world of the local civilian had to pay up, and might suffer abuse at the hands of the amir, but in many respects it was almost autonomous.  In particular, it had its own leaders, its own laws, and its own law courts.  Those who were not interested in playing for the highest stakes, for supreme power, might never need to concern themselves with the ins and outs of court or garrison politics, and the rough brand of justice handed out by the amir.  In fact, to the citizens of a town it made little difference which amir ruled them.  If another amir  with another army blew into town and destroyed the entire local military class and their hangers-on, nothing much would change -- unless, of course, you were killed or impoverished during the transition period.  But normally, by staying out of high politics, the ordinary townsperson was isolated from its perils.  This disengagement practically became a principle of Islamic life.

So how did this autonomous world of the city organize itself?  Who were its leaders?  The vaguely named notables:

1.   Landowners
2.   Merchants
3.   Men in honorable professions
4.   Religious leaders -- especially scholars of law and practice, the ulama, but also leading sufis, holy men and mystics.

A varied bunch, with competing claims to power. Yet all of them shared in public duties of local administration.   The religious leaders particularly important because, first, they set a standard for Islamic behavior, and second, because they were the people who received judicial appointments by the amir to enforce civil and criminal law among the local population.  (This is not the martial law enforced so ruthlessly among the members of the court and garrison, but the normal law of civilian life.)

It was a fragmented local community.  The notables were men who had the prestige and resources to attract followers, and these followers often fell into competing factions.  Muslim cities, like ancient cities going back , were divided into nearly self-sufficient quarters, distinguished by ethnicity or religion.  Organizations much like medieval European guilds also existed -- menís clubs where members united by the same trade or an interest in sports or some other supported each other like brothers.  It could be a very competitive environment.  Even religious scholars and sufis competed for a popular following, and those followings feuded.

What held this fragmented community was the idea that all were Muslims together, and that relations between them should be regulated either by Islamic law, the Sharia, or by some kind of personal agreement between man and man.  There was a very contractual view of life.  One took on only the obligations that one had personally agreed to.  (There are exceptions:  dhimmi, slaves.)  And the interpretation of the many social contracts that made up social life was left to the learned men, the ulama, who knew and enforced the Sharia.  What limited the competition between the notables and their various clienteles, and made it possible for them all to work together, on occasion, for the public good, was the ideal of  Islamic unity.   In one sense, they were all equal, equal in their submission to God, and this submission established a common standard of justice among them, the standard of Islamic law as interpreted by learned religious figures.

Some of the strengths of this society:

First, the universally venerated principle of Islamic justice sometimes allowed the people to prevent amirs from overreaching themselves and inflicting tremendous injustice on the subject population.

Second, it was a society where social mobility was much greater than in many other ancient and medieval societies.  In medieval Europe, people were most often trapped in the social position they were born into.  It was a society of corporations and fixed status.  (Citizenship today.)  In Islamic society, with its contractual basis, there was for most Muslims no legal and few traditional barriers to climbing from a lowly position to a high one, or plunging from a high one to the depths of poverty and obscurity.  (Within the even more mobile society of the garrison and the court, tremendous changes of status were possible.)  Equally important is sideways mobility, especially within the notables:  landowners might become merchants who might become religious leaders.   Compare this with the vast differences of status between medieval Christians, where nobles and merchants were two different kinds of beast, and the clergy were supposed to live a life entirely distinct from that of all lay people.

Third, it was a very cosmopolitan society.  Although ethnic and linguistic differences had their practical importance, local society was open to the idea that someone from far away, as long as he was a Muslim, could move into town and, as a Muslim, be accepted into local society at his individual worth.   This kind of mobility particularly evident among merchants and religious figures, though of course soldiers were another very cosmopolitan group.   This mobility was very important for the maintenance of  Muslim unity across the vast area where Islam was dominant.  The fact that ulama, literary men, and sufis often traveled from city to city, trading information, opening schools, and creating bodies of disciples, prevented various regions from drifting too far apart culturally and splitting Islam into different, hostile religious sects.   The kind of personal connections between patrons and clients so typical of local society worked internationally as well, so that all parts of the Islamic world were in constant communication on matters of law, religion, and culture.

Fourth, because it was based on local institutions and grass-roots action, Islamic society in this period was both attractive and adaptable.  The result of this was that Islam finally became the majority religion during this post-Abbasid period.  Even peasants came to adopt what had been a mainly urban religion: as Muslims, they  at least had the possibility of appealing to the Sharia for justice.

A great weakness of this kind of society is the fact that government was left to be entirely irresponsible.

Law enforcement within the civilian population might be guaranteed by public attachment to Islamic standards of justice, and the autonomous position of its interpreters, the ulama, and the judges appointed by amirs from among the most prestigious ulama.  But matters of war and peace, and decisions about who should rule, were entirely outside the competence of religious law, unless some specifically religious issue was at stake.   One might say that the uninvolvement of the general population in high politics was no big loss, most of the time, and I am sure that most people of the time would agree.  But if even the town notables had no influence on high politics, they could not prevent disasters foisted upon them by incompetent or greedy rulers.  If your city was sacked and the entire population, including yourself and your family, was killed, then your independence from high politics most of the time proved pretty pricey.

It has been aruged that these irresponsible governments, less tied to the particular geography of an area than many governments in history, were thus willing to sacrifice local communities for other goals, and that the complete destruction of communities in war was more common in the Middle East in this period than it was in contemporary Europe.  In fact, it has been argued that the continuing competition between warlords with no local ties inflicted continued damage on the agricultural and urban infrastructure.  This in turn led, according to some scholars, to a slow economic decline.

Yet in some ways this was a very successful culture.   Its flexibility and cosmopolitanism made Islam stronger than ever before, with a more profound effect on daily life and culture than ever before.   The vitality of  Islam was not harmed at all, it was increased.   This is demonstrated by developments in later centuries, when this new Islam, no longer dependent entirely on the state, began to spread to many regions where Arab armies never set foot.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.