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The Venture of Islam, Volume 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods
Conscience and History in a World Civilization
By Marshall G. S. Hodgson
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1974 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Formation of the International Political Order, 945–1118
The Earlier Middle Period faced problems of totally reconstructing political life in Islamdom. The time saw great political inventiveness, making use, in state building, of a variety of elements of Muslim idealism. The results proved sound in some cases, but provided no common political pattern for the Islamicate society as a whole; but that society nonetheless retained its unity. This was provided rather by the working out of political patterns on relatively local levels, both military and social, which tied the world of Islamdom together regardless of particular states. The Jamâ'î-Sunnî caliphate assumed a new role as a symbolic rallying point for all the local units. The resulting political order turned out to have remarkable toughness and resiliency and expansive power.
Development of political and cultural multiplicity
From the point of view of what had preceded, the political developments of the tenth century can be looked at as the disintegration of the caliphal empire. Where opposition Shî'î movements did not gain a province outright, the provincial governors became autonomous and founded hereditary dynasties, or local herdsmen-soldiers seized power and gave the caliph only a nominal allegiance. In any case, this one generally acknowledged authority was rendered impotent and, after 945, the government he headed, already internally disrupted by its mercenary soldiers, lost control even of its home provinces. The caliph became a mere cipher in an empire parcelled out among usurpers.
What broke down, of course, was the political idea that had supported the caliphal power. It is what may be called a 'political idea' which gives individuals and groups a historical basis for expecting that the state will endure as a power to be reckoned with despite any given current crisis. This implies not merely the subjective prestige of legitimacy (important though that is) but also concrete geographical, economic, military, and socio-cultural components which gather together standing group interests effectively enough to give most groups concerned a practical reason for hoping the state will survive, or at least for expecting others will so hope. On this basis they will, willingly or by way of precaution, forgo short-term interests if they conflict with the long-term interests of the state power.
It was a conception of the advantages of the unity of the Muslims that had held the caliphal state together through a series of major crises—the first fitnah at the time of 'Alî, the second at that of 'Abd-al-Malik, then the revolution which overthrew Marwânî power, and finally the division of the empire between al-Ma'mûn and al-Amîn. All parts of the arid region from Nile to Oxus had relatively close ties with the rest; men in any part of the region were likely to travel to other parts or at least have connections there, and were concerned to see a common political stability. Sustained by the concentrated resources of the Sawâd, the central bureaucracy was able, on the whole, to command peace within the region as a whole and to suppress local inequities, and to assure the free flow of trade and the existence of large concentrated markets. Throughout the empire, the idea prevailed among the politically active that not only the greatest moral prestige but also the greatest material advantage was to be had through unity—in practice, that is, through accepting whichever claimant to central power could command strongest support. In the last resort, if secondary interests proved inconsistent with unity there were usually enough who chose to bet on the side of unity to ensure its victory. Consequently in any crisis, when some section of the body politic defected, the central power was able to command the support of other sections in sufficient strength to break up the points of resistance.
But by the time of al-Mutawakkil, the central civil authority was becoming discredited. However much ideally the notion of Muslim unity was still cherished, in practice the idea had ceased to work. The court was financially mismanaged and unable to give effective leadership; under these circumstances, the soldiery, which as a body of mercenaries did not identify itself with the Muslim community at large so much as with their individual commanders, ceased to respect the court; their commanders were therefore in a position to override the civil authority; and—the crucial point—there was no other section of the population which identified its interests with the central caliphal power and possessed enough solidarity to counterbalance the soldiery if the soldiers ever united on anything. With the central power thus paralyzed at home, respect for it failed in the provinces; those who counted there politically found it profitable and feasible in the immediate circumstances to support a governor who retained the revenues at home rather than send them to Baghdad. As the court's revenues diminished, its power of attraction dwindled and defection snowballed.
In the tenth century it was still locally established powers, or the armies they had originally raised, that took up the leadership that the Baghdad court no longer provided. But the separate governors and generals stood, in themselves, for no serious political ideas; they presented mere fragments of the old caliphal state. By the eleventh century political disintegration had proceeded so far that alien wandering Turkic nomads, possessed of the single unpurchasable virtue of military loyalty to their tribe, had solidarity sufficiently greater than that of any other body, to enable them to seize power in the heart of Iran and to lord it over the caliphs.
Looked at from the point of view of the caliphal state, this was a process of almost unrelieved political disintegration. But the same process can be looked at from the point of view of the international society which followed. From this viewpoint we can see it as the beginnings of an articulation of the society of Islamdom on a new and more flexible basis. As the great political idea of the caliphate proved unworkable, there were gradually worked out new political ideas. This was usually by accident; some of those who created them intended simply to renew the Muslim unity on a different basis, for instance, and their success in creating an actual state meant a failure in their wider intentions. Whatever the conscious motives, in fact a series of new state structures, based on new political ideas, ensued. And one of the greatest of these was the work of those wandering Turkic tribesmen.
The Fâtimîs: a Shî'î state based on the Nile and a navy
Before those tribes came on the scene, the most grandiose of the efforts to restore Muslim unity had been worked through. The ideal of the Fâtimid rulers of Egypt, and of the Ismâ'îlî Shî'î sect which supported them in all the lands of Islam, was to reunite the Muslims under a new 'Alid caliphate and to bring it to final victory in the whole world. In this they failed. They did succeed, however, in making of Egypt, and of their new capital Cairo, a centre of commerce and of the arts and sciences, which rivalled Baghdad in the eleventh century. The Fâtimî state was one of the most successful in overcoming the threat of reduction to despotism and anarchy. This state was based on a threefold political idea. A primary component in the political synthesis was the agrarian wealth of Egypt. The Fâtimîs maintained in full the bureaucracy of the Nile valley. A second, and more distinctive, foundation of the Fâtimî Egyptian prosperity was sea commerce. On the basis of this commerce (combined with the natural productivity of Nile-fertilized Egypt), wealth flowed into Cairo, to be distributed again from there. The government at Cairo was thereby enabled to hold the sort of loyalties that Baghdad had forfeited, and to set the fashions within its sphere. Finally, a third component in the political idea, of more ambivalent effect, was the standing appeal of the Cairo régime to the Ismâ'îlî subjects of its rivals throughout Islamdom.
Egypt has commonly been two societies in one: that of the land and that of maritime commerce. Flooded yearly with silt-rich Nile water, Egypt has for millennia been a fabulously productive agricultural land, apparently not subject to the natural vicissitudes of the Iraq. Though sometimes agriculture was more extensive than at other times, Egypt's rulers have never wanted for agrarian wealth. But the peasants and their gentry have tended to form a closed society, set apart from the constantly changing society of the cosmopolitan commercial classes, which in turn have often had alien origins and sympathies. (This may partially account for the relative sterility of Egypt in bringing forth figures great beyond its own confines.) These commercial classes have sometimes been more dominant and sometimes less, for the use made of Egypt's geographical position for commerce has been less unvarying than its agriculture, and has largely determined its relative prosperity from time to time. It is perhaps especially in Ptolemaic, Fâtimî, and latterly in Levantine Egypt that the 'alien' commercial classes set the tone of the Egyptian state.
The Egyptian rulers and merchants of Hellenistic and Roman times had much increased their wealth from the trade between India (and all the Southern Seas) and the Mediterranean lands, one of the two best routes for which was the nearly all-water route across the Arabian Sea, up the Red Sea, and across a brief portage (sometimes made into a canal) to the Nile and thence the Mediterranean. India and the Indies produced a variety of luxury goods—spices, perfumes, fine cloths, steel goods, etc.—which found a ready market in Syria, Anatolia, the Ukraine, Greece, and the other Mediterranean lands; they were paid for with fine glassware, cloths, and other works of handicraft or else with unworked products of the northern and southern hinterlands such as furs and gold. Much of this trade passed through Alexandria, and the Egyptian middlemen reaped great profit. But always other routes were at least as advantageous, and especially since about the third century, when the Sâsânian empire had come into being, the Egyptian trade route had been less prominent; for a still larger share of the trade than usual went along the chief rival route (the best route by nature): passing up the Persian Gulf and the TigrisEuphrates rivers, in Sâsânian territory, and thence overland through Syria to the Mediterranean. With the breakdown of 'Abbâsî authority and the reduction of purchasing power at Baghdad itself, and the advent of a number of petty states in the Fertile Crescent, often at war with each other, the Euphrates trade route apparently became less profitable as compared with the route via the ever-opulent Nile delta.
The Egyptians, under a series of essentially independent governors, took advantage of the situation to lure a larger share of the trade back to the Red Sea and the Egyptian ports. This policy came to full fruition under the Fâtimid dynasty, which was able to maintain in dependency many distant provinces important for the trade, to the advantage of the Egyptian privileged classes. The Ismâ'îlî Shî'îs who had come forth in rebellion in 909 in North Africa and established their imâm in place of the Aghlabid ruler in what is now Tunisia, had enlarged on the strong Aghlabî position in the west Mediterranean, extending their sway even to Morocco. In 969, after numerous tries, they annexed Egypt with the aid of a few local Shî'î supporters, of many other Egyptian malcontents, and of Berber tribal troops from the Maghrib. In Egypt they continued to be naval-minded. There they built a new city, next to the old capital, Fustât; this was Cairo, designed to rival Baghdad; and they ruled as caliphs. But Cairo was not only a strategic centre but also an inland port with busy ship traffic up the Nile; it quickly became a major transshipment point between the Mediterranean and the Southern Seas. The first caliph at Cairo, al-Mu'izz, was glad to foster the prosperity of his new seat of power.
In accordance with the Ismâ'îlî ideal of making Islam triumphant in all the world, it was hoped the strong Fâtimî navy could be used in the conquest of Constantinople and the Christian empire. In the meantime, it was useful in ensuring Egyptian prosperity. Already Ibn-Killis (d. 991), the vizier of al-Mu'izz, took pains toward the end of the tenth century to foster trade. The Fâtimids had strong religious reasons for controlling Mecca and Medina, where their caliphate could be proclaimed to all the Muslim world. This coincided with a need to maintain political oversight of the coasts of the Red Sea as far south as the Yemen, so that there could be no excessive interference with trade by local middlemen there. The Fâtimî navy controlled both the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean seaways; Fâtimî power was respected from Sicily, which owned Fâtimî overlordship, to Sind, where an Ismâ'îlî dâ'î was established. Though the Ismâ'îlî party was very strong in the inland areas of the Iraq and Iran, the Fâtimîs had little fortune there; to the end, it was the reach of the Fâtimî navy that determined the extent of the dynasty's control outside Egypt.
Nevertheless, Ismâ'îlî loyalties helped mould both the internal and the foreign policy of the state. By the time the Fâtimîs took over Egypt, they had little of the revolutionary left in their practical programme. But they intensified their radical theoretical appeals to the underground Ismâ'îlî movement that still was proving popular with malcontents in the central Muslim lands. The Qarmatians of Bahrayn, independent in east Arabia, were not disposed to recognize the enthroned imâm. But the ordinary Ismâ'îlî dâ'îs in the Iraq and Iran mostly decided to recognize the new power, which was quick to honour them and their ideas; with fresh vigour, they renewed their efforts and hopes for completing the goals of the Ismâ'îlî movement throughout Islamdom.
These Ismâ'îlîs living outside the Fâtimî state supplied both a ready-made foreign policy and a source of internal leadership. Unless it disowned them altogether, the Egyptian government had to serve as an eccentric focus for revolutionary forces from Nile to Oxus, and necessarily stood opposed to the entire series of Iranian régimes that were occupying the former 'Abbâsî territories, whatever their relations among themselves. But these foreigners also contributed a certain number of disciplined and intelligent administrative leaders to Egypt itself. Parallel to the regular state organization was a religious hierarchy, charged with teaching the Ismâ'îlî doctrine to those who chose to be initiated, and also with organizing and disciplining the movement both beyond the Fâtimî frontiers and within them. This Ismâ'îlî hierarchy had almost as much prestige as the governmental hierarchy; the chief dâ'î at its head ranked alongside the vizier; indeed, the same man sometimes served in both posts at once.
The consequences of this Ismâ'îlî presence may have been felt chiefly in the continuity and dependability of the Fâtimî policies, which gave the dynasty a prestige and longevity unparalleled in Islamdom in that period. Indeed, the social structure within Egypt continued little changed—unless, perhaps, so far as it was marked by a systematic concern for the needs of the commercial and tradesman classes. But the intellectual atmosphere was one of notable ferment (though much of its more distinctive activity, being restricted to an Ismâ'îlî context, had little overt effect on later periods in Islamdom). The old Ismâ'îlî interest in Falsafah was now given free rein among the intellectuals; it was, in effect, just another sort of luxury indulged in by those who could afford it. Ismâ'îlî thinkers had only their hierarchical superiors to answer to for their inner beliefs, and delighted in a wide range of speculation. Much of this was a matter of strictly Ismâ'îlî allegorism and symbolism: beautiful systems were built up in which the figures mentioned in the Qur'ân and in Shî'î lore shadowed forth the spiritual structure of the universe. But an interest was also taken in every aspect of natural and philosophic inquiry. The Ismâ'îlîs made Cairo a centre of learning. The Azhar mosque, the chief mosque of the city, was (as it is even now, under Jamâ'î-Sunnî auspices) above all a centre of study, endowed for this purpose by several Fâtimid caliphs, notably al-'Azîz (976–996) and al-Hâkim (996–1021), the successors of al-Mu'izz. It had a library, and stipends for teachers and students.
Excerpted from The Venture of Islam, Volume 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods by Marshall G. S. Hodgson. Copyright © 1974 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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