The Muslim caliphates

A caliphal international system

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The Fatimid Caliphate, 909-1171 CE, is usually considered as the last of the four original caliphates which succeeded the prophet Muhammad. The Fatimids were originally Berbers from Tunisia but claimed their descent from Fatimah, the prophet’s daughter, and they were Shia Muslims, which make them unique among caliphs. Yet the Fatimid Caliphate was not the successor to the Abbasid Caliphate as much as its contemporary to the west. While the Abbasids were based in Baghdad and ruled Iraq and the lands north and east of that country, the Fatimids were based in Cairo and ruled everything west of Syria, including the western part of the Arabian peninsula, Sicily, and all of North Africa. In 969 they moved their capital to Cairo, a new city at the time which they had built for the purpose. Fatimid Cairo displayed much the same multi-cultural mix and intellectual vigor as the capitals of the other caliphates. The Fatimids founded the al-Azhar mosque here in 970, and also the al-Azhar university, associated with the mosque, where students studied the Quran together with the sciences, mathematics and philosophy. Al-Azhar university is still the chief center of Islamic learning in the world and a main source of fatwas, religious rulings and opinions.

Yet neither the Fatimid nor the Abbasid caliphate was an empire, if we by that term refer to a united political entity which imposes its authority on every part of the territory it claims to control. In fact, each caliphate had barely become established before it started to fall apart. The Abbasids lost power over North Africa, including Egypt, already in the eighth-century, and this is where the Fatimids came to establish themselves. Yet the Fatimids soon lost power too, including power over their Berber heartlands where the Almoravids and Almohads took over. Sicily was next to break off, first establishing its own independent emirate and then, in 1072, the island was occupied by the Normans, that is, by Vikings from France. [Read more: Kita Rudjdjar and the Emirate of Sicily] In the end the caliphs were really only in control of their respective heartlands which, in case of the Fatamids, meant the Nile river valley. Yet much as the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Fatimids soon lost control over the center of the caliphate. The caliphs relied on advisors to execute their orders but the advisors soon acquired enough power to challenge their employers, and before long many caliphs were reduced to figureheads with responsibility mainly for matters of religion. Soon military leaders reasserted themselves too, staging palace coups, organizing uprisings, or playing a part in the constant struggles over succession. Few members of the caliph’s court slept comfortably at night.

The result was an international system with unique characteristics — perhaps we could talk about a “caliphal international system.” Instead of being an empire, each caliphate was more like a federation where the constituent parts had a considerable amount of independence from the center and from each other. The system as a whole was held together by institutional rather than by military means — by its language, its administrative prowess, and by an abiding loyalty to the idea of the caliphate itself. And by religion too of course. The caliphs were religious leaders of enormous cultural authority, and this applied in particular to the caliph, such as the Fatimid caliph, with responsibility for the holy sites at Mecca and Medina. The result was an international system where there occasionally were conflicts over boundaries and jurisdictions but where there were no wars of conquest. Political entities beyond the caliphate’s borders would occasionally make trouble of course, and military expeditions would be dispatched to punish them, yet the caliphs much preferred to control the foreigners by cultural means. For example: Baghdad would dispatch missions to the Bulgars, a people living on the river Volga in present-day Russia, in order to instruct them how to properly practice the Muslim faith. [Read more: A Viking funeral on the Volga] Rulers such as the Bulgars paid tribute to the caliphs, and as a result the caliphates came to exercise a measure of control over far larger areas than their armies had occupied.

There were two main exceptions to these arrangements — the European Crusaders and the Mongols. Both had come to Muslim lands from very far away indeed, and they had no respect whatsoever for Islamic civilization or for the idea of the caliphate. Both were bent on territorial conquest rather than on accommodation. With people such as these no negotiated settlements were possible and the wars which followed were indeed horrific. The Europeans, known to the Arabs as Faranj, from “Franks,” first arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in the final years of the eleventh-century and proceeded to capture Jerusalem and what they regarded as the “Holy Land.” They then returned again and again as the First Crusade, 1095-1099, was followed by major military campaigns in 1145, 1189, 1202, 1213, 1248 and 1270, as well as by several less extensive incursions. The Faranj established small kingdoms on the territory of the Fatimid caliphate, and they made war in a barbarian fashion — the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and the subsequent massacre on civilians, is perhaps the most notorious example. In 1291, with the fall of the last Crusader state, the Europeans were eventually defeated. As far as the Mongols are concerned, they captured and destroyed Baghdad in 1258, yet only two years later, at the Battle of Ain Jalut, they were defeated and their advance stopped. Although the Mongols had been beaten before, they would always come back to exact a terrible revenge. After this battle, however, this did not happen, and it signaled the beginning of the end of the Mongol empire. [Read more: Saladin]

The power of the Fatimid caliphate, we said, was undermined both from the outside and the inside; its grip on the periphery of the caliphate was weakening but eventually the center too failed to hold. Why empires rise and why the suddenly fall, was a question which preoccupied Ibn Khaldun, a historian and philosopher, working first in Tunis, then in Cairo, at the turn of the fifteenth-century. [Read more: Ibn Khaldun and the role of asabiyyah] What makes a state powerful, Ibn Khaldun argued is the communal spirit that animates its people, and the way people, such as the Berbers of North Africa, are prepared to work together even under the harshest of circumstances. A state loses power, by contrast, once the leaders are separated from the led and begin to live a life of luxury and ease. The Fatimids and Abbasids were good cases in point. In both cases they had become separated from the people they led, and they certainly lived the good life in their respective capitals.

In order to avoid the fate which Ibn Khaldun had identified for them, the Fatimids came increasingly to rely on foreign soldiers. Mercenaries were going to compensate for their own lack of martial spirit. These soldiers were known as mamluks, meaning “possessions” or “slaves.” The Mamluks were bought, or captured, already as children, often from the Caucasus or Turkish-speaking parts of Central Asia. From here they were taken to Cairo where they were housed in garrisons together with other Mamluks, brought up in the Muslim faith and taught martial arts — archery and cavalry in particular. [Read more: Furusiyya and Arabic horses] With no families to protect them, and with no loyalties except to the rulers themselves, they constituted an elite guard which could be relied on to carry out the caliphs’ orders. The Mamluks served as soldiers and military leaders but also as scribes, courtiers, advisers and administrators. Yet before long the Mamluks established themselves as rulers in their own right. In practice they were never as loyal to the caliphs as they were to their own group, and as the caliphs should have realized, slaves with weapons in their hands are impossible for their masters to control. Ousting the Fatimids and all other dynastic families, the Mamluks took power in Egypt in 1250 and ruled the country until 1517, when the Ottomans invaded. They ran a meritocratic regime, rewarding the talented and the hardworking rather than the well-connected, but since succession did not follow a family line, the infighting at the Mamluk court was intense. Whoever managed to kill the existing sultan had thereby proven himself worthy of becoming the next sultan, and some rulers ruled for days rather than years.

During the Mamluk period, Egypt was thriving economically, in particular from proceeds from the trade in spices and other goods coming from the east. Once the threat posed by Crusaders and Mongols had been defeated, there was, apart from the perpetual struggles over succession, peace throughout the land. The Mamluks embarked on ambitious architectural projects, constructing mosques and other public buildings in a distinct architectural style of their own — the most celebrated remnant of which is perhaps the al-Hussein Mosque. Cairo, as Ibn Khaldun concluded, is “the center of the universe and the garden of the world.”