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This chapter provides a brief overview of the political history of the Islamic world, from the seventh-century Arabian conquests to the formation, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of the three great early modern Muslim empires: the Ottomans in Asia Minor, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. Its structure reflects the major political formations and transformations of this period: firstly, the Arabian ‘conquest polity’ which replaced the antique balance between Rome and Iran; then, after the demise of that empire in the mid-tenth century, the tumultuous era of ‘Berber’, Daylami and Turkic leaderships; finally, following the cataclysmic Mongol conquest of the eastern Islamic lands in 1258, the assimilation of these conquerors in the east and the political achievements of Turco-Mongol military strongmen and entrepreneurs in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Anatolia. It looks at the elites and political structures that shaped and underlay this history and at their interaction with Islam. This had developed into a more fully articulated and stable ideological system, whose continued success lay in the new elites’ capacity to adopt and adapt it to their needs.
This introduction outlines the key aims of the book and its genesis, including a definition of what political culture means – the rituals and explicit legitimisation of power, status and property-holding, alongside the unstated assumptions and customs that help to channel tensions and rivalries within polities. It situates the volume’s approach – a presentation of three neighbouring and overlapping political spheres – within the recent turn towards the global middle ages. Neither a work of systematic and explicit comparison nor an attempt at overarching synthesis or grand narrative – nor a shot at tracing trans-regional connections – the book aims rather to find a conceptual language applicable to all three spheres, attempting to make each sphere accessible to non-specialists. This pioneering survey of three spheres – the Latin west, Byzantium and the Islamic world – should provide useful tools for learning, teaching and research today but is also an invitation to future study of medieval political culture.
The Qurʾan, and the problems of its interpretation, is even more central to Islamic political culture than is the Bible to the Latin west and Byzantium. It became accepted in the mid-ninth century that interpretation of the law and many case rulings should be the preserve of the ʿulamaʾ. So although the caliph was revered as the guardian of the faith and supreme leader, his rule was not engrained in the courts of law and the maintenance of property rights and inheritance in the manner of western or Byzantine rulers. This partly accounts for the relatively poor survival rate of archival holdings. Yet narratives and prescriptive texts can shed light on actual practices and help chart change over time, from the caliphate’s imperial palaces to the predominance of Turco-Mongol warlords in the later middle ages. Evidence is particularly full for the Ilkhan rulers of Iran and those of Egypt and Transoxania. Their entourages brought new ideas and practices to Islamic political culture without abandoning core elements of Islamic ideology. The Ottomans’ conquest of Asia Minor and, above all, of Constantinople created the most enduring blend of Islamic traditions and new modes of rulership.
The early Islamic empire may have been the largest by land, but military reach should not be mistaken for highly centralised administrative structures: these only developed as the empire fragmented but were replicated in the tenth-century successor states, where the position of vizier gained increasing political influence. Nor should imperial success be mistaken for a stable elite, as newcomers – notably court scribes and religious scholars – challenged the military. The Abbasid caliphs’ fortunes varied with their military, fiscal and administrative structures, but they remained necessary legitimisers of other political structures, too sacred to depose. However, it was the ʿulamaʾ who established and elaborated ideological structures that long outlasted the first Muslim empires. After the mid-thirteenth-century upheavals, the ad hoc reach of Turco-Mongol and Arabo-Berber trans-regional leaderships formed an ‘archipelago’ in a ‘sea of semi-independent regions’ characterised by violent, volatile and complex power relationships. Eventual stabilisation ended centuries of political turbulence, centred around the great early modern empires of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals.
The early caliphate adopted the political organisation predominant in the late antique Middle East – imperial monarchy, sanctioned by divine power – but with a distinctively Islamic ideology of leadership involving kinship, piety, victory and justice. The prime location for the performance of royal power was the court, particularly for caliphal accessions or successions. The warrior rulers filling the caliphal vacuum after 945 adopted Islamic means of legitimisation, including oaths of loyalty, honorific titles, robes of honour, and being named on coinage and in Friday prayers; while the ʿulamaʾ increasingly claimed spiritual authority as ‘heirs of the Prophet’. The new Turco-Mongol elites from the thirteenth century on found a role for military strongmen, incorporating the nomadic virtues of strong leadership, good fortune and royal genealogy into a fluid mixture of ideologies. Performance of power encompassed the hajj, hunting parties, public sessions dispensing justice and rituals designed to bind the palaces of the court more closely to the towns wherever they were based.