The Muslim caliphates

A caliphal international system

The Fatimid Caliphate, 909-1171, 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. They were Shia Muslims, which make them unique among caliphs. In 969, they moved their capital to Cairo and from here they ruled all Muslim lands west of Syria, including the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, Sicily and all of North Africa. Fatimid Cairo displayed much the same multicultural 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 the main source of fatwas, religious rulings, and opinions.

Yet the Fatimid Caliphate was not actually an empire, if we by that term mean a united political entity that imposes its authority on every part of the territory it claims to control. Much as the other caliphates, it had barely established itself before it began to fall apart. First, the Fatimids lost power over their Berber homeland, 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 Vikings from France. In the end the caliphs were really only in control of their heartland in the Nile river valley.

In addition, the Fatimid caliphs became increasingly dependent on mercenaries, known as mamluks, meaning “possession” or “slave.” The mamluks were bought or captured 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 captives, brought up in the Muslim faith and taught martial arts — archery and cavalry in particular. The mamluks served as soldiers and military leaders but also as scribes, courtiers, advisers, and administrators. As it turned out, however, it was not a good idea to give slaves access to weapons. The mamluks ousted the Fatimids and took power in Egypt in 1250. They continued to rule the country, as the Mamluk Sultanate, until 1517, when the Ottomans invaded. The Mamluk sultans ran a meritocratic régime which rewarding the talented and the hardworking rather than the well-connected, but since succession did not follow a family line, the infighting at court was intense. Some rulers ruled for days rather than years and none of them slept comfortably at night. The Mamluks embarked on ambitious architectural projects, constructing mosques and other public buildings in a distinct architectural style of their own. 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 it was held together by religion too of course. The caliphs were religious leaders of enormous cultural authority. This applied in particular to the caliphs, such as the Fatimids, who had responsibility for the holy sites at Mecca and Medina.

In this international system, there were occasional conflicts over boundaries and jurisdictions, but there were no wars of conquest. Political entities beyond the caliphate’s borders would occasionally make trouble, 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. Rulers such as the Bulgars paid tribute, and as a result, the caliphates came to exercise a measure of control over far larger areas than their armies could capture.

Two external incursions temporarily wreaked havoc with these arrangements — the invasions by European Crusaders and by 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 also bent on territorial conquest. 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.” [Read more:Saladin and the Crusaders”] They then returned again and again as the First Crusade, 1095-1099, was followed by similar military campaigns in 1145, 1189, 1202, 1213, 1248 and 1270. 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 of civilians, is only the most notorious example. In 1291, with the fall of the last Crusader state, the Europeans were finally 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 themselves defeated and their advance stopped. Although the Mongols had been beaten before, they would always come back to exact a terrible revenge. After Ain Jalut, however, this did not happen. It signaled the beginning of the end of the Mongol Empire.

Why empires rise and fall was a question that preoccupied Ibn Khaldun, 1332-1406, a historian and philosopher, who worked first in Tunis, then in Cairo. It is the communal spirit of a people, he argued, which makes a state powerful. This is the spirit that makes a people, such as the Berbers of North Africa, work together even under the harshest of circumstances. Yet, once they have come to power and settled in cities, they lose their communal spirit. Instead, everyone becomes more selfish and the political leaders start fighting with each other. Ibn Khaldun’s work, the Muqaddimah, published in 1377, is sometimes considered the first text on historical sociology.

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