Abstract Dr. Marie Legendre
Marie Legendre ( SOAS, University of Edingburgh)
Abstract: Central or Provincial Rationale? An Inquiry on Fiscal Centralization in the Early Islamic Empire
The centralization bias of Abbasid sources has long been framed in research concerning the formative period and development of the Medinan and Umayyad state. The recent publication of Joshua Mabra’s Princely Authority in the Early Marwanid State, The life of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Marwan (d. 86/705) is building on this. This work puts into question the centralized apparatus of the Umayyad state under ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) in arguing for an autonomy of the Egyptian province in that period under his brother’s authority. To an extent, one can wonder whether this autonomy was only restricted to the turn of the 8th century as, if it wasn’t, it would have been eventually glossed over in the centralistic blend of Abbasid sources.
In this paper, the consequences of this debate will be addressed for the study of fiscal administration with further references to the province of Egypt. There are reasons to doubt whether in the Umayyad and Abbasid period fiscal revenues from the provinces systematically reached the caliphal capital. In the latter period, the difficulties the Abbasid encountered in maintaining their control of much of the peripheral provinces of the empire, including Egypt, is clearly visible in the contemporary chronicles as early as the second half of the 8th century. Along those lines, it is conceivable that the Abbasid centralization bias has more to do with a representation of authority from the centre than with an effective control visible at the periphery. Furthermore, if fiscal revenues would not always reach Baghdad, how could central control be discernible in the mechanism of fiscal collection?
From the last decades of the 8th century, a large body of literature written in Abbasid Baghdad provides norms concerning fiscal practice and fiscal categories defined at the centre. In the current state of research, those norms are often conceived as applicable to the whole empire and each of the provinces. This represents an obvious shift in comparison to how the 7th century administrative context is understood. In this period, it is clear that the assessment and collection of taxes were operated differently according to each province as the new Islamic administration was drawing largely on the local fiscal culture in place under Sassanian and Byzantine rule. In other words, the fiscal collection system and fiscal categories were defined from below. Then, how can we explain that this diverse post-conquest taxation system, defined from below, would effectively turn into a system entirely defined from above in Abbasid times? How and when would the Abbasid have managed such a harmonization, if ever? In this paper, it will be argued that fiscal legislation needs to be understood as a representation of the ruling power and a different historical phenomenon than fiscal administration and practice. To reveal that, the collection of the poll tax and land tax will be examined as visible in Arabic and Coptic papyri from Egypt dating to the Late Umayyad and Abbasid period, as well as in the contemporary Egyptian and Iraqi literature.