The primary model for Muslim political organization has been the early Muslim community in Medina, ruled by the prophet Muhammad, whose foundation in 622 c.e. marks the year 1 of the Muslim calendar. Rather than maintaining the segmentary system of tribal organization, it demanded that all residents submit to the authority of the Apostle of the Faith and accorded second-class status to non-Muslims. Muslims tend to evaluate all further political developments according to how closely they replicate Muhammad’s precepts, example, and the life of the early community. Many political changes have occurred since then, but they have been legitimized by their congruity with Medinan precedents.
The enormous conquests of the first Muslim century created two new problems: the nature of leadership in the absence of the Prophet, and the relationship between the few Muslims and the vastly more numerous and sophisticated conquered peoples. The first problem was solved rather simply, by the institution of a monarchy (khalifa: "caliphate"), initially elective and subsequently hereditary. Disputes over qualifications and selection processes generated divisions in the community: Kharijites wanted to select on merit, choosing the best Muslim as leader; Shi’ites demanded a ruler from the Prophet’s family who shared his charisma; while the majority Sunnis settled for whoever could maintain order in the community, by force if necessary.
The caliphs adopted many characteristics of non-Muslim monarchs but were legitimated by their claims to relationship with Muhammad and by their enforcement of the law of God. Over time the caliphs were weakened and finally eliminated (1258), but at first they were assisted, then dominated, by warlords who used the titles emir and sultan. These warlords eventually took the title of caliph for themselves. The elimination of the caliphate caused political unity to disappear, but cultural relations continued to unite the Muslim world. In the twentieth century some sultans became kings, while others were replaced by presidents and premiers. Ideologically, some Muslims see only the caliphs as legitimate political successors to Muhammad, but most believe that the politics of the community that arose immediately after Muhammad’s death were not binding on future generations. Substitutes for Muhammad’s religious leadership are found in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s example (sunna) and their interpreters, the ulema.
The second problem, the relationship with non-Muslims, was less tractable. Political subjugation of non-Muslims was accomplished through disarmament, discriminatory taxation (jizya, kharaj), and the imposition of civil disabilities. Non-Muslims were afforded a legitimate, if secondary, status in Islamic administration; they could serve as government bureaucrats, tax farmers (private contractors for tax collection), or auxiliary troops, but could not hold primary power. If they bore arms, they were excused from jizya. Since most non-Muslims were accustomed to subject status in imperial systems, this was not a difficult transition for them.
Culturally, however, this order of subordination was reversed. Non-Arabs and non-Muslims, having been fully literate for centuries, even millennia, surpassed their conquerors in most fields: agricultural and craft techniques; urbanization and social stratification; cooking and building; literature, art, music, and dance; theological and legal argumentation; administration and record-keeping; royal governance; and court protocol. Three Arab achievements drew general admiration, however. These were poetry, which became the model for non-Arabic poetry as well; military prowess, at least in the first century; and the revelation of Islam, which trumped all the rest.
The cultural assimilation of Arabs to non-Arab civilization, accompanied by resistance from purists, became an entrenched cultural pattern in Muslim society from the first. This conflict shaped the atmosphere in which political development took place. Since the purists held the high moral ground, every step toward the adoption of sophisticated governmental techniques that had not been practiced in Medina was disguised, awkwardly over-justified, and incessantly challenged.
Medieval Islamic Government
Initially, convinced Muslims were few. To achieve his conquests, the caliph ‘Umar (634-644) recruited nominal converts and Christian Arabs into the army, but rewarded Muslim fighters by establishing a salary register (diwan) that listed combatants (plus dependents and the Prophet’s relatives) in order of conversion with the earliest Muslim converts receiving the most pay. When the caliph ‘Uthman (644-656) reversed this order in favor of members of the Quraysh tribe because of their administrative expertise, Islam’s great civil war was ignited, leading to the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions. Greater administrative development was the work of the Umayyads (661-750). They adopted the Byzantine and Sasanian bureaucracies and their land and tax records, which were translated into in Arabic beginning in 697 c.e. They developed an Islamic coinage, replacing images of kings with sacred texts. They created a standing army whose commanders became provincial governors responsible for political, military, fiscal, and religious duties. As their conquests grew more extensive, they raised the caliph from tribal chief to emperor and adopted imperial court protocol and organization. The main palace official, the chamberlain or hajib was responsible for guarding the curtain separating the caliph from his subjects, thus regulating access to the ruler.
The revolution ushering in the Abbasid dynasty (750-945) was based in part on religious resistance to the adoption of "foreign" political practices, but such practices nevertheless continued. The Abbasids were famed for their pomp and splendor, based on the wealth of Iraq, which they made their capital region. They presided over the development of Islamic law and court systems, co-opting the ulema into the bureaucracy and imposing upon them responsibilities for urban administration and taxation, despite the ulema’s own misgivings about serving secular rulers. A second governmental element, the scribes, were organized in bureaus (also called diwans ) headed by the wazir (prime minister). The scribes were often non-Arab and were influenced by non-Muslim culture. Pre-Islamic political thought provided models for imperial governance, and provincial scribes employed pre-Islamic forms of taxation and reporting. A scribal culture of encyclopedic knowledge and cosmopolitan politesse developed at court, conveyed in the literature of adab, which blended Islamic and non-Islamic influences. The third administrative element was the military. Military commanders held provincial governorships and ministerial posts, while their subordinates governed local areas.
Imperial organization, court protocol, and standardized taxation were justified in Islamic terms with quotations from the Qur’an and from the Muslim tradition as embodied in the Kitab al-kharaj (Book of taxation) of Abu Yusuf (d. 798). Conversion and settlement altered the early system, in which conquered non-Muslims paid taxes to the ruling Arab Muslims. As more people converted to Islam, political distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims were eliminated. All Muslims, regardless of origin, paid tithe (‘ushr) unless they acquired non-Muslims’ lands. In that case, they paid the non-Muslims’ higher land tax (kharaj). Jizya, initially a communal tribute, became a poll tax paid by military-age non-Muslim males in lieu of service. Non-Muslim groups retained their communal structure and personal law (administered by the clergy) but used Islamic courts for state-related purposes, although their testimony was supposedly invalid. Islamic law (shari’a) in its various schools (madhhab) systematized the interpretation of Qur’an and sunna and was administered in Islamic courts under Muslim judges (qadis). Royal courts (mazalim), administered by the ruler, adjudicated problems outside Islamic law, such as treason and governmental corruption, carrying on an ancient tradition of justice based on custom and rulers’ edicts (‘urf).
In the Abbasid period the Arab military force united by religious and tribal ties was replaced by a standing army of Khurasanian troops and a caliphal bodyguard of slave (mamluk, ghulam) soldiers, mainly of Turkish origin. At the same time, taxation became politicized, that is, the right to collect certain taxes became a political reward. This system, called iqta’ ("division," apportionment of revenues), was soon used to reward the military forces, allowing the new military groups access to money and land and creating a new aristocracy (not quite feudal, as the new "aristocrats" had no responsibility for the lands or people from which their revenues came). Iqta’ holders lived in the cities, patronizing culture and religion. They collected revenue in the countryside but left peasant producers to their own devices, widening the gap between urban and rural cultures.
Members of this aristocracy became provincial governors uncontrollable by Abbasid civil administration, and independent emirates soon emerged, such as the Samanids in Transoxiana (874-999). These local dynasties sent no revenues to the caliph, even if they acknowledged his nominal authority, but they copied the Abbasids’ administration and slave army. In 945 C.E., even the capital, Baghdad, was captured by Shi’ite warlords, the Buyid emirs (945-1055); nearly simultaneously Cairo was taken by rival Isma’ili caliphs, the Fatimids (969-1171). The Abbasid caliph became a figurehead, dispensing legitimation for the warlords, who held the actual power. They multiplied their followers by broadening the iqta’ system. The military bureaus of the administration expanded to manage iqta’s, and provincial bureaucracies developed.
The Impact of Nomad Invasions
The replacement of the Buyids by a series of nomadic Turkish and Mongol dynasties was facilitated by their adoption of Buyid-style iqta’s and Abbasid-style bureaucratic government. Speaking no Arabic and little Persian, the invaders replaced local iqta’ holders with their own men, but they depended on indigenous administrators, shari’a courts, and local authorities to govern the realm. This pattern lasted through numerous invasions and replacements of governing regimes until the modern period.
Politics at the center became a matter of competition for the throne among members of the royal house and jostling for power and wealth among the dynasty’s supporters. As the historian Ibn Khaldun observed, during and immediately after the initial takeover the ruling group was united in pursuit of conquest and control, but over time fragmentation of power and competition from other interests weakened group cohesion, permitting conquest from outside or internal takeovers. In the tug-of-war between cohesion and dissolution, centrifugal forces included hereditary devolution of office or iqta\ tribal disaffection, unjust treatment and consequent loss of loyalty, and neglect of irrigation or blockage of trade routes, leading to decreases in revenue. Conversely, rulers exercised control by building up revenue in their own treasuries, rewarding their followers generously, maintaining the infrastructure, putting down crime and rebellion, ensuring the proper functioning of administrative and legal systems, and supporting the symbols of religion: the caliph (until 1258), the ulema, and Islamic law. Equally important was the relationship between the regime’s officials and local authorities who were respected by the common people.
Peasants, tribesmen, and city-dwellers were insulated from dynastic and court politics by a layer of local notables (a’yan). These men—large landholders, rich merchants, ulema, members of old elites superseded by new conquerors—acted as intermediaries between the government and the people, presenting the people’s needs to the new rulers, providing information on local conditions and revenues, and interpreting royal decrees locally. The a’yan were connected by family, educational and sectarian commonalities, marriage relations, and patronage. Patronage also built vertical hierarchies with the people of town and village, and with members of the ruling elite.
Provincial politics was largely based upon patron-client relations passed down through generations, within which marital politics had an important part. Although women possessed no political rights in medieval Muslim society, they played a significant political role through creating family alliances, transmitting information, and preserving property within the family. In rural areas these relations were compounded by debt patronage, as large landholders and urban tax farmers loaned money, seed, and draft animals to peasant farmers, using the future crop as collateral. Tribal clientage, ever-shifting and based on power and wealth, determined nomadic politics. These relations, and the local power struggles to which they gave rise, continued independently of whoever held the capital or sat on the throne. Since they were inseparable from the revenue-producing system, they were only disturbed from above when the revenue stream was interrupted by oppression or diverted by corruption, or when the fortunes of war brought battling armies to a particular location.
The Seljuk Turks, who conquered Baghdad in 1055, ruled Iraq, Iran, and Syria for a century and dominated Asia Minor for two. Despite their origin as Central Asian tribal nomads (considered rude and barbarous by contemporaries), they wove all these disparate political elements into a single system. As Sunni Muslims, they supported the caliph and the religious establishment, unlike the Buyids and Fatimids, whose Shi’ism ran counter to the dominant religious trend.
The Seljuks also employed a professional scribal staff, which expanded as the regime split into several autonomous kingdoms. The scribal cadre’s ideas on governance, derived from Abbasid and even pre-Islamic precedents, harnessed imperial and tribal ideologies and practices to an Islamic vision of governance and the creation of a just Muslim society. These ideas were expressed in the wazir Nizam al-Mulk’s Siyasat-nama (The Book of Governance) and the teacher al-Ghazali’s Nasihat al-Muluk (Counsel for Kings), and were made the basis of administration at all levels through dissemination to governors and officials in royal edicts. An official called emir-e dad presided over the mazalim court, dispensing justice on issues outside Islamic law. The Seljuks replaced their tribal military forces with a salaried slave bodyguard and a standing army supported by iqta’s, giving iqta’ holders greater responsibility for security and prosperity on their iqta’s and granting military commanders important positions as governors and tutors of royal princes. They also presided over a restoration of agriculture through irrigation works, reversing temporarily the economic decline of the central Islamic lands. They recruited Sunni ulema to serve as administrators and judges, and their construction of mosques and Islamic colleges (madrasas) and expansion of pious foundations (waqf) gave the ulema employment and financial security.
A letter attributed to the wazir Nizam al-Mulk recommended care for irrigation systems and water sources so that blessing and abundance would not depart from the world. The wazir under the Seljuks advanced from head finance officer and bureaucrat to become a kind of co-ruler, the highest ranking of the non-Turks. He headed an administration modeled on that of the Abbasids and their successors, the Samanids and the Ghaznavids of Afghanistan (976-1186).
The Seljuks abolished the barid, but probably later reinstated it. Both the Abbasids and Samanids also had a bureau for the "crown lands" that went under various names (diya, khass). The Samanids had separate bureaus for the market inspector (muhtasib) and pious foundations (awqaf); the Seljuks developed separate bureaus for iqta’s (muqaa’at) and confiscations (mufradat).
The central government’s administrative bureaus included a diwan al-acla, bureau of the wazir; diwan al-kharaj or diwan al-istifa’, finance bureau; diwan al-insha’ or diwan al-ughra, correspondence bureau; diwan al-ishraf, bureau of inspection; and diwan al-card, bureau of the army. The Ghaznavids had a bureau for the royal household (wikala). The Abbasids and Samanids had a bureau for the post system (barid), which also encompassed a system of spies, whose job was to notify the ruler if the powerful were oppressing the weak. The chief officials besides the wazir were the treasurer (mustawfi) and the chamberlain, keeper of the royal household (wakil or emir al-hajib); civil bureau heads were paralleled by the heads of military contingents and guard corps. Some provinces were bureaucratically governed; others remained under their own local dynasties. The offices of provincial governor and treasurer were sometimes combined, but more often they were separated for firmer central control. The few civil officials in the province were outnumbered by the military, which was dispersed throughout the province both for security purposes and for pasturage for their horses.
The administration of the Seljuks was admired and imitated by all their successor states, from the Ayyubids of Egypt (1171-1250) to the Khwarazmshahs of Transoxiana (1150-1220). The most important imitators were the Ilkhanids (1258-1335) and the Mamluks (1250-1517).
The Mongol Ilkhanids ruled the northern Middle East from Anatolia to Iran and Central Asia. They initially exploited this territory as a reservoir of resources, but under several great Persian wazirs they adopted an organization like that of the Seljuks. Originally all officials had Mongol supervisors and all taxes were sent to Mongolia, but later the region became administratively independent from the Mongol homeland. Since its terrain would not support the Mongols’ nomadic economy, iqta’s were assigned to the military forces. Persian, Mongol, Chinese, Armenian, and Jewish administrators kept records in Persian and drew up manuals for government secretaries that became models of bureaucratic procedure for future generations.
Although the Mongol Empire soon fragmented, the successor states preserved Ilkhanid organization on a smaller scale; Jalayirid and Akkoyunlu copies of Ilkhanid secretarial and finance manuals still exist in Turkish libraries. As for the Mamluks, their fiscal administration was unique due to the peculiarities of Nile Valley agriculture, but their secretarial and judicial organizations show Seljuk influences. They too produced influential correspondence and finance manuals, compiling traditions of the past and changes introduced by the Mamluk regime.
The Early Modern Period
Beginning in the sixteenth century, Ilkhanid and Mamluk administrative traditions were combined in the three major empires of the early modern Middle East: Ottoman (1299-1923), Safavid (1501-1732), and Mogul (1526-1857). The sixteenth century was a time of population growth, urbanization, monetarization of the economy, and technological advancement; it was also a time of political and commercial expansion and increased governmental stability. Like contemporary European countries, the Ottomans, Safavids, and Moguls expanded through conquest and trade, creating stable empires that lasted centuries rather than decades. Long-lived ruling families traded the charisma of military prowess for dynastic legitimacy, proclaiming absolute rule but actually sharing power with family members and top administrators. The palace and harem replaced the military camp as centers of power. Women became political actors in their roles as rulers’ wives and mothers, and as guardians of minor heirs. Administrators and courtiers grew in influence, and rebels and rivals were co-opted and incorporated through power-sharing. Court politics became not just a struggle for power but a contest over policies.
The greatest development of bureaucratic administration came under the Ottoman timar system. In the late fourteenth century, timars succeeded iqta’s as economic support for the cavalry forces. Timars were individual land revenue assignments whose sizes reflected the ranks of the holders and were determined by a revenue survey held once every generation. Sultanic agents recorded all revenue sources—crops, herds, mills, fisheries, mines, manufactories, jizya and extraordinary levies, commercial taxes—and the names and obligations of all taxpayers. Survey results were recorded in registers of taxes assessed (mufassal defters) and timars allocated (ijmal defters), and timar holders were authorized to collect only the amounts recorded in the registers, plus some fees and fines. They were also responsible for police duties in their timars and could be mustered for military service during the campaigning season.
Timars were reassigned regularly to prevent formation of local ties and could be revoked for transgressing the registers or local regulations (qanun). Qanuns were compilations of sultanic decrees and local customs or conditions (especially tax rates) in force when an area was conquered; over time they were modified to accord with Islamic law. They were administered locally by qadis (officially appointed judges), working together with provincial governors whose soldiers enforced the judges’ decisions. Qanun and defter thus governed the state’s relationship with both timar holders and peasants, and their imposition marked an area’s incorporation into the Ottoman system.
Urban areas were also surveyed, but their revenues were usually assigned to provincial governors (beylerbey) or district governors (sanjakbey), who supported their retinues from these larger allocations (khass). The retinues performed police and guard duties. Governors also commanded provincial or district troops on campaign. Subordinate officers received medium-sized timars called zeamets. The sultan’s khass until the mid-sixteenth century comprised half of the empire’s revenues and paid the expenses of the palace, harem, and janissaries and other elements of the standing army and palace guard. Collection of urban revenues such as market taxes, tolls, customs dues, and manufacturing taxes was managed by agents or farmed out to wealthy merchants or moneylenders. Timar records show that the military forces and administrative cadres were diverse in origin, with members from many religions and ethnicities. All were united by a common culture called "the Ottoman way," comprising religion, language, and etiquette, acquired through decades-long training in the palace, administration, or military service.
Besides organizing the timars, qanuns regulated the palace organization from at least the era of Mehmed the Conqueror. These qanuns and those regarding timars were updated by subsequent rulers. Suleyman the Magnificent was called "The Lawgiver" because in his reign the qanuns were reconciled with Islamic law and issued throughout the empire. Modifications continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, legitimized by reference to Mehmed and Suleyman. The judges administering them had a hierarchy of posts; top posts were reserved for those who had attended and taught at the best madrasas. The highest religious official (shaykh al-Islam), who oversaw the legal and educational hierarchies, also advised the sultan on the religious legitimacy of his decisions. He appointed preachers and guided the empire’s Sunni Muslim orientation.
In the late sixteenth century, gunpowder weapons initiated a military transformation from a cavalry aristocracy to an infantry recruited from the lower classes. Recruits were paid in cash rather than land grants, and increasingly taxes were collected in cash rather than kind. They could therefore be collected by government agents or private contractors rather than cavalry members, and administration gradually became demilitarized. In other strata, too, changing recruitment patterns altered traditional relationships. Troops recruited for the campaigning season and then discharged staged a series of rebellions, the "Jalali revolts," and were defeated and co-opted only with difficulty. Janissaries stationed in the empire’s cities engaged in commerce, and urban merchants were recruited into the corps. Palace cavalrymen became tax farmers, commoners and slaves became scribes, and Muslim children entered the palace school for slaves. Simultaneously, economic distress struck the empire; rapid inflation and currency devaluation played havoc with state budgets and salaries. Old ways had to change, but traditional practices still legitimated the ruler and maintained the elite. Attempting to alter too much too fast, as Osman II (1618-1622) did, risked violent resistance and deposition. Instead, devolution of power created political factions around statesmen satisfying the needs of elite groups, while sultans were reduced to arbitrating between these factions.
The dominance of the Koprulu faction after 1656 permitted administrative reform but led directly to war in 1683. Fiscal reforms in the 1690s instituted new jizya allotments and lifetime tax farms. These innovations improved government finances, but war revealed the empire’s military inadequacy. Eighteenth-century sultans adopted policies of reform, becoming in the process leaders of their own pro-change factions. Reform, however, came in Western dress, and anti-reform factions clung to traditionalism and Ottoman patriotism. Reforms were often more successful in the provinces, as governors far from Istanbul modernized their military forces and engaged in capitalist agriculture outside imperial oversight. This conflict of interests contributed to the provinces’ growing autonomy, as did an accumulation of wealth in the provinces.
The Safavid state, based on Shi’ite Islam, consisted of Turkish warriors, Persian administrators, and a bureaucratized religious hierarchy under a ruler (shah) who was also a spiritual master. The warriors, called Qizilbash, were followers of the Safavid Sufi order that conquered Iran and instituted the Shi’ite state. Defeat by the Ottomans at Chaldiran in 1514 shattered the myth of Safavid invincibility and world conquest. Over time, the shah’s charismatic authority and the Qizilbash’s political influence decreased, while the palace personnel and a slave army of Georgians, Circassians, and Armenians gained power. A council of officials conducted government business; law was administered by religious judges. Royal workshops produced goods for sale as well as artistic products, augmenting royal income. Provincial taxation followed traditional norms, but in provinces under direct royal control (whose number grew in the seventeenth century), the farming out of taxes to nongovernmental collectors led to overextraction and impoverishment. By the eighteenth century, military weakness permitted conquest by Afghan tribesmen who made themselves heirs of the Safavid system.
The Mughal dynasty of India was perhaps least affected by these trends. Muslims, though the rulers, were always a minority in the state, forcing emperors to balance imposition of Islamic governance against the need to conciliate Hindu officials and officers. By the 1570s Islamic-style bureaucratic administration gained prominence, but it administered less of the country’s revenue than elsewhere (about 60%), and that indirectly. In the mansabdari system, counterpart of the timar system, military administrators collected land revenues to cover their expenses, but between them and the peasants stood a layer of zamindars (large landholders and former nobility), who administered the land itself. Islamic law courts were provided by the state, but they shared legal jurisdiction with non-Islamic village, caste, and clan councils. Imperial politics was overwhelmingly a politics of the nobility, a competition among the religious, ethnic, and factional demands of the state’s powerful servants. Some rulers’ unwillingness to incorporate non-Muslim elites and/or their inability to provide care and protection to productive groups alienated their loyalties and contributed to state fragmentation and British takeover. Apparently, only the Ottoman state was both powerful enough and close enough to Islamic political norms to receive the caliphal title in the nineteenth century.
See also Caliphate; Empires: Abbasid; Empires: Byzantine; Empires: Mongol and Il-Khanid; Empires: Mogul; Empires: Ottoman; Empires: Safavid and Qajar; Empires: Sassanian; Empires: Timurid; Empires: Umayyad; Qanun; Sultanates: Delhi; Sultanates: Ghaznavid; Sultanates: Mamluk; Sultanates: Seljuk.
Bailey, Harold et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968-91.
Black, Antony. The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
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Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and Faith in a World Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Edited by N. J. Dawood. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. London: Princeton/Bollingen, 1969.
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Mawardi, al-. The Ordinances of Government. Translated by Wafaa H. Wahba. Reading, U.K.: Garnet Publishing
Mulk, Nizam al-. The Book of Government or Rules for Kings: The Siyar al-Muluk or Siyasat-nama. Translated by Hubert Darke. 2d ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Linda T. Darling