Project Phase 2
Regional and Imperial Elites
What was the role of regional elites and ‘imperial’ mobile elites? The conceptualization of elites in the pre-modern Islamic studies is not well advanced, except for some segments of military and clergy. In order to use this concept for the functioning of the empire, the definition has to be refined in regard to old/new elites, their mobility, exclusivity, and re-productivity. Jürgen Paul’s study (1996) on the link between government, and society in eastern Iran at the last century of our period might serve as a model. Three strata of elites are looked at: the trans-regional political and military elite in the regions (mainly Arabs and Turks); the Islamic judicial and theological elite; and non-Islamic elites in all key regions. This phase sets the elites and their movements into the political chronologies of the regions, parallelizing and connecting them with governmental action, rather than seeing each as isolated.
1) Seemingly the most mobile group in the first hundred years of the empire is the tribally organized Arab-Islamic military, founding central cities, amsar, as power bases all over the empire. They were followed by Arab settlers and investors in agriculture. Do those families of Arab descent ensure the cohesion of the empire among the provinces, while those elites from the regions ensure loyalty and re-distribution of resources in the center? Later the Abbasids based their power on elite of Khurasani military, led by commanders of Iranian petty nobility, assuming posts and manning garrisons all over the empire. In al-Rafiqa in the Jazira, at the beginning of ninth century, Persian was a spoken language. In the middle of the ninth century a nobility of Sogdian stock with their Turkic armies arrived to Samarra in Iraq and served as military and governors of provinces all over the empire (De la Vaissière 2007). Did this elite serve more the cohesion of the empire or alienated the regional elites ?
2) The role in the formation of the empire of the mobile Islamic judicial and theological elite in the provinces and the centers cannot be overestimated (Van Ess 1991-1997). They served as judges and teachers, and developed the Islamic law as a cohesive system. In their search for knowledge they established networks over the empire and at some stage of their career they all always passed by the centers in Iraq and Mecca and Medina where they met colleagues. How far these elites contributed to the coherence of the empire by creating coherent legal system cannot be explored in full within this project (Jokisch 2007). But their role is apparent, because the Islamic Empire did not have an imperial central legislation as the Byzantine or the Holy Roman Empire. The reach of Islamic law became the defining hallmark of the empire – dar al-islam, the sway of Islamic law, versus dar al-harb, the sway of violent struggle.
3) The third group, regional, non-Islamic elites, are more difficult to trace, the Zoroastrians and Nestorians in Fars and Khurasan, the Buddhists in Khurasan, the Greeks and Jacobites in al-Sham, the Jacobites and Sabians in the Jazira, and the Jews in the entire empire. These groups together constitute far more than half of the population, but they are under-represented in the Arabic-Islamic sources. Learned people from these constituencies, however, such as the Sabians and Jacobite Christians, served as scholars and administrative elite in various capacities in the capital. For example Sabians from the Jazira moving to the capital Baghdad became influential at the caliphal court. This had tremendous repercussions on the Jazira: protection for the remaining communities, but also a brain drain. While this is well known for the Jazira and studied in the course of the translation movement of the 8th and 9th century (Gutas 1998), such movements of non-Muslims to the center are much less known from the other key regions. For example, before serving as viziers of the empire the Barmakid family served in a stupa in Balkh. Bulliet reconstructs the “Patricians of Nishapur” (1972) and the conversion of the local elites to Islam. The matter of conversion and governmental functions will be addressed.
Sources in this phase are biographical dictionaries, which are mainly concerned with theologians and legal scholars, and chronicles, and Syriac literature. These elites will be gathered in databases and cross referenced. Major results are expected for questions of cohesion of the empire, the impact of regional elites on its policies, and the transmission of imperial Islamic culture to the provinces.