New Horizons in Understanding Imperial Politics - State of the Art
In contrast to the conventional model of an empire founded on a religious revelation, the project is the first systematic attempt to explain the functioning of the empire through focusing on from its regions and the brokering and management abilities of the caliphate and its various elites. Three medieval empires arose from the demise of the antique Hellenistic-Roman world. The first two were the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire in the northeastern Mediterranean. Common to both was an enforced process of Christianization and their roles as successor states to the Roman Empire. The third was the Islamic Empire, which was the largest and most diverse: for the first time in history, it joined together two large geographic cultural areas of the ancient Hellenistic world, the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau.
Philological and theological borders made it difficult to view these three empires in a comparative context. While we know much about single events and certain institutions, we do not know how the empire was functioning over such a large territory. The Islamic Empire continued in both Roman and Iranian traditions, although the latter prevailed. It reversed the Late Roman ideology of one state religion imposed on all, being content with a dominating position of the new revealed religion of the ruling elite, and tolerating almost all other religious persuasions. As an imperial state religion with a low threshold to join, it gradually extended into the society. Until the 11th /12th century C.E., however, the majority of the population remained Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish, with pagan Sabian and Buddhist pockets at the edges of the empire. Neither an imposed state religion nor a central government as the source for legislation were the binding forces of that empire. The project thus emphasizes the regions and their elites rather than the center and religion as defining forces.
This ambitious project attempts to explore the reasons for the enormous administrative and economic success and the cohesion between the regions and the imperial center in the early Islamic period. The investigated period spans from the consolidation of the empire under the Umayyads in 660 C.E. to the breaking up into virtual autonomous regional states in about 940 C.E.. The view is from the regions toward the center. Traditional historiography of the early Islamic Empire mostly seems to encompass a top-down approach, based on the chronicles written in the capitals (Kennedy 1986), and evaluates the policies of the inner circles of power, the caliphs, the viziers and the caliphal military. This perception of the empire continues especially in studies on political thought (for example, Crone 2004). A step forward was Bulliet’s 1994 work “The View from the Edge” in which focuses on Khurasan, a region far removed the center.
Several studies already challenged the view of the dominating imperial center: Humphreys (2006) portrayed the caliph al-Muʿawiya, as a moderator rather than an emperor. Orthmann (2002) also saw the ruler as arbiter. Kennedy (2002) in his study on the caliphal armies recognized that the military organization in the Umayyad period (661-750 C.E.) functioned essentially at the level of the provinces, being fiscally almost autonomous. Later, when Samarra in northern Iraq became the capital (9th century), the centralization became so effective that the provincial governors did not even leave the capital city but instead sent deputies to the provinces (for example, the Tulunids in Egypt) it was the caliphal court where the governor negotiated his power and thereby impacted the administration and course of events in his province. For eastern Iran, Paul (1996) provided a model about the interaction between society and a moderating government at the end of our period of consideration, when the influence of the caliphate in provinces was waning.
The project builds on studies of certain central institutions, such as the “Armies of the Caliphate” (Kennedy 2002, Gordon 2001), or “le vizirate ʿabbāside” (Sourdel 1960) which have led to an almost monolithic perception of the inner workings of the empire, except for some regions at its fringes. How did this pre-modern empire work? Was power distributed to the provinces from a strong imperial center, or did the center function as a power broker between trans-regional and regional elites? The project here looks for innovative venues of research: a bottom-up perspective and a multilayered, multidisciplinary approach. The history of five key regions from North Africa to Central Asia will be reconstructed and their impact on the history of the empire examined by:
- Establishing the political structures and chronologies in five key regions;
- identifying regional and transregional networks of political, military, religious, and judicial elites;
- determining regional economic bases and interregional economic exchange’
- and finally, by connecting layers of policies and decision making in the capital with different regional histories, elites and economies in their dynamic relations with the center.
This approach lifts the traditional division between imperial dynastic history and regional events and elites. The project is inspired by the innovative ideas of Peter Thorau, a historian of medieval Europe, but implements these ideas with a different set of sources and methods. Thorau demonstrated impressively in his seminal study on the regency of the under-age Staufian king Henry [VII] (r. 1211-1242 C.E.), how vested interests on the part of regional and imperial elites were brokered and balanced at the imperial center, the royal court. Only when imperial government action is contextualized in the stream of regional and transregional events within the movements of elites and individuals, does the actual functioning of the empire within its legal and institutional framework become apparent. Thorau (1998) summarizes his approach and stresses the causality of the events:
(...) which links the history of the territories closely with imperial history [p. 2] (...) [This makes it possible] to see every measure rather within an interdependent network of events and interests, which on the one hand can have a rather long history, sometimes rich with previous conflicts, and on the other hand, is just reported in correct but rather formal terms (p. 4). (...) It will be attempted to overrule the traditional separation between the history of kings, centered on the individual, and the history of territories, and to see both within a network of reciprocal relations, dependencies, and permeations, and finally to synthesize both into a comprehensive imperial history (p. 5).”
Currently, the historiography of the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires seems by necessity to be guided by the narrative of the monumental imperial world histories of the 10th century C.E., and by a cast from extensive biographical dictionaries. We only have a few local chronicles, which are mostly concerned with religious praise (fada’il) and the religious figures of famous cities (for example al-Qushayri, Tarikh al-Raqqa). Our geographical knowledge of the regions of the empire is determined by a few well-known geographical works such as those by al-Muqaddasi (d. 991 C.E.) and Ibn Hawqal (d. after 988 C.E.) (Wheatley 2001). Al-Muqaddasi provides us with his well-informed, but personal perception of the empire, developing his own personal terms and terminology, which he applies to all divisions, centers and sub centers of the empire, and treating all regions alike. His approach leaves us with a much more homogeneous impression of the empire than it probably was in reality. Nevertheless, his book constitutes a rich mine of information. A huge step forward in mapping the early empire was the German Special Research Unit of the “Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients”, which resulted in a reliable mapping of the empire and the location of economic resources (Gaube – Leisten 1994), but it was not interested in the functioning of the empire.
Compared with Europe and its rich medieval archives, we have almost no primary documentary evidence (archival material) of governmental acts prior to 1500 C.E. We are best informed about Egypt because of the richness of its papyri, but mostly only on a very low level of tax collection. Recently Reinfandt published some documents gathered in the palaces in Samarra by Herzfeld (Reinfandt 2010), and Khan (2007) presented material from Khurasan. These documents are mostly concerned with tax payments.
Given the very different nature of literary sources compared to those for Europe and the current state of research, the study of the functioning of the largest of the three empires has to be conducted differently. The starting point for the writing of any history, be it political, social, or economic, remains the above mentioned set of chronicles, many of which are Iraq biased, and the impressive richness of biographical dictionaries. They provide valuable information on the regions and provinces, but this is not systematic as it occurs only as part of the main narrative. Seeking for new, ‘underemployed’ primary sources, the project includes Islamic numismatics and the results of archaeological excavations and surveys, especially as the PI has worked with a number of missions from Egypt to Afghanistan and Mongolia.
The idea of the center as a skillful power broker might give an answer on the one hand to the extraordinary political and economic success of this empire, and on the other hand could perhaps also provide reasons for the decline and fragmentation of the caliphate in the first half of the 10th century C.E. There was no external enemy, the collapse was self-inflicted by the ineptness of the caliphal government (Kennedy 2004). But why were some provinces so greatly affected, why did some decline so rapidly while others were politically and economically more resilient, and even prosperous? Since at least the 9th century C.E., the central caliphal administration and its military had worked to check the centrifugal forces, and to regain provinces in all four cardinal directions that dissociated themselves from the caliphate in various degrees of autonomy, although formally they all always acknowledged the suzerainty of the universal emperor, the caliph. Some provinces, for example North Africa and the Jazira, became autonomous under Arab governors, the Aghlabids and the Hamdanids respectively; Egypt became temporarily autonomous under the Turkish Tulunids and Ikhshids sent from by the imperial center. Other provinces gained a kind of autonomy under local elites, such as the Iranian Saffarids in Sistan and the Samanids in Khurasan. But we also observe regional divisions along religious lines, most importantly the evolution of distinct Shiite groups with their own territories and identities. The apogee of the crumbling ability of the state religion to unite under the caliph was the establishment of the rival Shiite-Fatimid claim of universal ruler ship.
To summarize, contrary to the traditional view, the caliphate will be studied as a mostly successful and skillful broker between the regions and various constituencies rather than as a monolithic empire that gradually lost its sway over the regions. After the collapse of the center, most of the regions continued as regional states. We have to reconstruct the empire from its regions, exploring the political and economic function of the provinces and its elites versus the center and in empire as a whole. The expected results will show the empire at work. Although not focused directly in the project, the results may contribute to the role of the Islamic law within the empire. Compared with the other two empires, it did not develop any imperial legislation, despite attempts. Islamic law which defines almost the Islamic Empire’s reach (dar al-Islam) was instead the result of a discourse among legal scholars spread out over the various regions of the early Islamic caliphate.