The decline of the caliphate

The decline of the caliphate February 20, 2018


Tigris River at sunset, near Baghdad
مشهد لغروب الشمس في بغداد على ضفاف نهر دجلة
“A sunset view in Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris River”
(Wikimedia Commons public domain)


Moving forward in classical Islamic history:


By the time that the ninth century was well underway, however, the caliph’s office had grown much weaker. There were several rea­sons for this. First, the caliphs had begun to rely upon imported soldiery. The old military fire had gone out of the Arabians—those who had actually come from the Arabian Peninsula, or whose ancestors had done so. They were rich, comfortable, and had little enthusiasm for toilsome and risky adventures. How, after all, could they possibly be more comfortable than they already were? Why look for more? And there was a good chance that military service might cost them more than mere comfort.

So the caliphs began to import young barbarian slaves, mostly Turks from central Asia, who had never known the soft life. But these soldiers, barbarians though they might be, were not at all stu­pid. They soon realized, much like the Roman Praetorian guard cen­turies before them, that, if they were in total control of the ruler’s safety, they could also control the ruler himself. And if they con­trolled him, they knew, they would profit immensely. Indeed, after 860 A.D. they actually named the caliph, preferring to choose weak men whom they could control in their own interests. Needless to say, both the institution of the caliphate and the empire itself suffered. To make things worse, the center of the empire was growing weak, while the extremities were strong.

A kind of political centrifugal force began to pull the empire apart. Strong military governors in outlying areas became de facto independent, while still formally declaring their loyalty to Bagh­dad. They had long since lost their enthusiasm for sending the tax revenues of their provinces to Baghdad; they wanted the money to stay at home, to do good—or to do mischief—in their own lands. They were far away, communications were poor, and it would have been difficult for the caliph to impose his will on them at the best of times, when the caliphate was robust. But it was not robust. And when a provincial governor, like Ibn Tulun in Egypt, wrote to the caliph asking that his son be recognized as his successor, there was little the caliph could do. He knew, of course, that approving father-son succession was tantamount to blessing the rise of a new and more or less independent dynasty, but he also knew that, if he said “no,” he would be ignored and there would be a dynasty any­way. So both sides decided to maintain the myth of loyalty to Bagh­dad. The new dynasty received a certain kind of legitimacy from the transaction, while the caliph managed to save face and to receive, if everything went well, some token tax revenues from the provinces. But these were not enough, and the caliph’s finances deteriorated even further. To complicate things, the vastly impor­tant irrigation canals of Mesopotamia had begun to silt up and to deteriorate, and the central authorities lacked the funds to repair them. Finally, it became clear that Baghdad was, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt.



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