Crisis and Continuity at the Abbasid Court: Formal and Informal Politics in the Caliphate of al-Muqtadir (295–320/908–32)

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 Crisis And Continuity At The Abbasid Court
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Nadia Maria El Cheikh
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the long reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (295–320/908–32) was a period of dramatic contradiction and paradox. on the one hand it is the reign in which the political power of the Abbasid caliphs was in effect destroyed, the army of the caliphate was broken up and the bureaucracy was reduced to serving the needs of the self-appointed military commanders who increasingly replaced the servants of the dynasty as the leading political actors.

on the other hand, it was an age when the cultural life of Baghdad and the caliphal court flourished and attained a richness and variety that has few equals in the history of the pre-modern Middle East. And we are amazingly well informed about the politics and culture of the reign.

 the writers who recorded the events of the reign were remarkable in their literary skill, the variety of their approaches and, perhaps most strikingly, their interest in the personalities who dominated the life of the court, with all their achievements, foibles and failures. In this book we have attempted to describe and account for the development of this pic-ture, while reflecting on how to reconcile the two discourses of political decline and cultural efflorescence.

And if at some points our messages seem to be mixed, that, in a real way reflects the culture of the age.

While the royal court and court culture in medieval and early modern Europe have been for the past three decades ‘an important and excit-ing area of study in history, literature and political theory’,1 studies on the functioning of the Abbasid court are very scarce. It is significant that interpretations of one early modern European court, that of Louis XIV, dominates the academic discussion.

 this is largely due to the work of norbert Elias, who ‘restored the relevance and legitimacy of the court as a theme of research’ and whose interpretation of the court of Versailles ‘turned into the single most powerful general model for studies of courts in Europe and elsewhere’.2

His interpretation of the French court as part of a civilizing process became the norm for court studies until the 1980s, when revisionist studies began to be produced. Historians of the court have pointed to the complexity of the subject. John Larner talks about ‘the ease with which any attempt at coherent examination dissolves either into a discussion of one of its parts [. . .] or into a general account of the character and policies of the prince who presided over it’.3

Any historical investigation of the court faces the problem of definition, because courts were so diverse and also because any ruler’s court could be different on different occasions.4 Historians of the court have also pointed to the vagueness of the terminology, the term ‘courtier’ being used as a generic term for all people at court from menial servants to the ruler high-ranking intimates and including domestic as well as state servants.5 these mul-tiple associations of the terms court and courtier complicate our under-standing, and this is also the case for the court under study.6

 In this book, we do not start from a theoretical definition of court and courtier but we illustrate figures and functions on the basis of how these are described by normative and narrative sources.

With the almost total absence of court studies for various periods of Islamic history,7 we endeavour in this project to provide a polyphonic reading of the Abbasid court at a specific historical moment, hoping that it will serve as an example of the functioning of the Abbasid caliphate and also as a case study for further comparative work on medieval courts.

 through a detailed and systematic examination of the working of the Abbasid institutions, as well as the court and its domestic world during the early part of the fourth/tenth century, we shall uncover the formal and informal politics of the ruling family and the various power groups surrounding it.

the narratives describing the reign of al-Muqtadir are particularly rich for such an investigation due to the wealth of contemporary and near-contemporary sources, historical annals and other literary texts that refer to this period. Written from diverse perspectives, the accounts permit us to reconstruct a balanced and nuanced representation of the period. they are vivid and extensive. they also chronicle the lives of individuals, pro-viding fascinating details about their vicissitudes, successes and failures, so that they leap off the page as real, flesh-and-blood human beings.

our work owes much to the important studies on the reign of al-Muqtadir published in the first half of the twentieth century: Guy Le Strange’s Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate was published in 1900, Louis Massignon’s La passion d’al-Hosayn-ibn-Mansour al-Hallaj in 1922, Harold Bowen’s The Life and Times of ʿAlí Ibn ʿÍsà, ‘The Good Vizier’ in 1928 and Adam Metz’s The Renaissance of Islam (looking at the decades follow-ing the caliphate of al-Muqtadir) in 1937.8

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 In 1959–60, dominique Sourdel published Le vizirat abbāside de 749 à 936, providing a meticulous study of the institution of the Abbasid vizierate, including the reign of al-Muqtadir, which witnessed an especially rapid turnover of viziers.9

As a result of this painstaking research by some of the most important scholars in the field, the reign of al-Muqtadir was among the best-studied periods of medieval Islamic history, and one in which the widest range of viewpoints and (then) modern methodologies were brought into play. However, in more recent years interest seems to have waned and the last half-century has seen little attempt to reconsider the reign.10

the early part of the twentieth century also witnessed the edition and translation of the most important historical works for this period, namely, Tajārib al-umam by Miskawayh (d. 421/1030), which was composed at the Buyid court and which covers the years up to 373/983–4. Miskawayh’s his-tory, distinguished by an effort towards synthesis and explanation, sub-jects events and people to critical evaluation. In his capacity as a secretary for a number of Buyid viziers, Miskawayh provides a bureaucratic view that places the great administrators at centre stage.11 H. F. Amedroz and d. S. Margoliouth provided a partial English translation, including the part recounting the events of the reign of al-Muqtadir.12

Al-Ṭabarī’s (d. 310/923) Ta⁠ʾrīkh al-rusul wa-l-mulūk, a monumental uni-versal history which forms the basis of much of our knowledge of early Islamic history, was continued until the year 302/914–15, but the author’s treatment of the events of the reign of al-Muqtadir is brief and contributes little new.13 Much more important is the Ṣilat ta⁠ʾrīkh al-Ṭabari by ʿArīb b. Saʿd al-Qurṭubī (d. c. 370/980) which continues al-Ṭabarī’s history down to the end of al-Muqtadir’s reign.14

despite the fact that he lived all his life in al-Andalus and never, as far as we know, visited the East, his information is extensive and detailed and his work is a major source for the political history of the reign. Al-Ṭabarī’s Ta⁠ʾrīkh was published in the late nine-teenth century but its systematic translation was only begun in the 1980s and was completed in 2007.15 ʿArīb’s Ṣilat has not been translated.

Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī (d. 335/947) presents a contemporary and more per-sonal account of this period. As a boon companion under a number of caliphs, as well as a tutor, he provides a unique picture of life at the caliphal court based on first-hand knowledge. His Kitāb al-awrāq consists of his-torical material, personal recollections and eyewitness accounts.

 James Heyworth-dunne edited a number of sections from Kitāb al-awrāq in the 1930s, including the chronicles of the years 322–33/933–44. this part was translated by Marius canard in the late 1940s but received little attention. the part of the Awrāq concerning specifically the caliphate of al-Muqtadir was only published in 2000; until then, al-Ṣūlī’s accounts were only known through ʿArīb’s Ṣilat, where he is often quoted as a source.16

Another important author is Hilāl al-Ṣābiʾ (d. 448/1056), a secretary and at one point director of chancery at the Buyid court. Hilāl belonged to a dynasty of learned men, a family that illustrates ‘the affinity between chronography and ruling courts’, since they were commissioned to write dynastic history by the Buyid rulers.17

 His two important works are Tuḥfat al-umarāʾ fī ta⁠ʾrīkh al-wuzarā and Rusūm dār al-khilāfa. the latter, redacted in the earlier part of the caliphate of al-Qāʾim (423–68/1031–75), relates the rules and regulations of the Abbasid court. It includes a myriad of material ranging from advice to viziers, secretaries, boon companions and others on how to dress, how to sit, and how to address the caliph, to descriptions of caliphal audiences.18

Miskawayh and al-Ṣūlī worked at court and Hilāl al-Ṣābiʾ belonged to a secretarial family that was affiliated to the court over several genera-tions. It is hence not a coincidence that in attempting to understand the history of the Abbasid court, we should fall back on their works, since they were personally interested in including information about the inter-nal organization of the court and the administration.

However, this factor also means that the sources were written by an elite group with a par-ticular agenda. Moreover, the exemplary character of the sources makes many of these narratives as much mirrors for good governance as they  are histories.

the sources described above differ in format, methodology and aims. Al-Ṣūlī’s is a chronicle of events of his own times, many of which he has witnessed; al-Ṭabarī’s Ta⁠ʾrīkh is a monumental universal history, which ʿArīb’s Ṣilat seeks to continue. Hilāl’s Wuzarāʾ and Miskawayh’s Tajārib al-umam are histories with a strong focus on the civil administration of the caliphate. other important sources used in this volume, such as al-Masʿūdī’s (d. c. 345/956) Murūj al-dhahab and al-tanūkhī’s (d. 384/994) Nishwār al-muḥāḍara,19 maintain a rough chronological order but are collections of anecdotes rather than chronicles. Al-tanūkhī’s al-Faraj baʿd al-shidda is a collection of stories with an happy ending.20

In some cases we also use later works such as Ibn al-Ṭiqṭaqā’s al-Fakhrī, an eighth-/ fourteenth-century digest of history.21 despite this variety, these sources share a basic building block, the khabar (pl. akhbār), a self-contained account of varying but limited length, often introduced by a chain of transmitters validating its authenticity. Akhbār can be compiled, short-ened, edited, grouped thematically or chronologically, and merged, to suit the purpose and format of a given text.

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 thus, on a formal level we can distinguish a chronicle, where akhbār will succeed one another in rough chronological order, from a collection of instructive stories, where they will be grouped thematically; from a biography, where they will be clustered around particular characteristics or events in a person’s life; and from a normative manual, where they will be inserted to illustrate specific rules and practices.

 on a further level, some sources will convey their portrayal of an event or individual by juxtaposing akhbār and leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions, while other sources will reshape their material into one single coherent account or general assessment.

In this volume, we explore various approaches to this vast pool of infor-mation, exploiting the sources’ sophisticated techniques through the filter of different lenses. In Part I, we look at the image of the reign as it has come down in narrative sources. chapter 1 by Hugh Kennedy provides an overview of the reign of al-Muqtadir and of the historical sources dealing with it.

It gives a brief account of the Abbasid caliphate up to the caliphs’s accession as well as a chronological account of the reign and a general discussion of the problems faced by the caliph and his administration during this period. It also discusses the impact of al-Muqtadir’s reign on the subsequent history of the Abbasid caliphate and the wider Islamic Middle East. chapter 2 by Letizia osti looks at how the contemporary and later sources portray and evaluate the reign of al-Muqtadir as the beginning of the ruin of the Abbasid caliphate. A few centuries after the death of al-Muqtadir, the Arabic sources seem to agree that women and servants are to blame for its weaknesses, owing to the excessive influence they had on the young caliph. However, this opinion is reached gradually, through the editing and reshaping of accounts across different sources and successive times.

Juxtaposing different accounts and reconstructing their motives and context help retrace the development of al-Muqtadir’s persona, and, at the same time, brings out conflicting and articulated views held by his contemporaries before they were assimilated into the general consensus of later centuries.

the second part of the volume focuses on three of the caliphate’s main institutions, the vizierate, the bureaucratic apparatus, and the military, looking at prescriptive literature as well as chronicles. chapter 3 by Maaike van Berkel deals with the highest state official, the vizier. It addresses the viziers’ responsibilities, their perceived personalities, politics and net-works. the vizier stood at the head of the Abbasid bureaucracy.

He kept the caliph informed of the ins and outs of the state’s administration and implemented the latter’s instructions. this chapter discusses the various ways in which al-Muqtadir’s viziers acted in court politics and how they related to other power groups represented at the court, especially the military, the harem and the court servants. chapter 4, also by van Berkel, deals with the functioning of the bureaucratic apparatus and its officials during the reign of al-Muqtadir.

 It discusses the institutional organiza-tion of the administration, the background education and specialization of its employees and the sometimes conflicting views between their self-representations in the administrative literature and their day-to-day life in the administration. chapter 5, by Kennedy, discusses the role of another main institution, the military.

It provides an account of the army as it existed at al-Muqtadir’s accession and discusses the financial strains that the maintenance of this force imposed on the government. the leading figures in the military are investigated, notably Muʾnis al-Muẓaffar and naṣr al-Qushūrī, as well as the attempt of the government to secure the services of a local leader such as Ibn Abī l-Sāj. this chapter ends with an investigation of the failure of the military system and its role in the col-lapse of caliphal power.

the third part of the volume tackles the court, court culture and harem during the reign of al-Muqtadir, again through both prescriptive and descriptive literature. chapter 6 by nadia Maria El cheikh studies the particular functions, roles and influence of chamberlains as exam-ples of courtiers.

the investigation of the texts reveals the multiplicity of roles that chamberlains could and did exercise. the extent of power and influence which chamberlains could attain are best reflected in the career of the chamberlain naṣr al-Qushūrī whose connections with both the bureaucracy and the military establishment and his influential role at the court conferred upon him an impressive amount of political power.

understanding the function of the ḥājib (chamberlain), thus, helps us chart the political map of power relations at court in the presence of vari-ous circles of courtiers, during the early fourth/tenth century. chapter 7, also by El cheikh, examines the harem of al-Muqtadir.

Studying the most important woman at the court of al-Muqtadir, his mother Shaghab, the chapter explores her sources of authority, her networks and other chan-nels of influence. Her example is significant as it provides a spectrum of the possibilities open to such indirect exercise of authority while simul-taneously revealing much about politics, gender and the interpretation of the past as presented exclusively by men.

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 the chapter also examines the multiplicity of roles that the qahramānas (harem stewardesses) and eunuchs exercised, notably in mediations and transactions across bound-aries. chapter 8 by osti explores how education at court was organized, illustrating how learning and culture were valued by different members of the caliphal household and the kind of political influence that court scholars attained as a result of their proximity to power. this discus-sion attempts to frame and unify the two standard narratives about the caliphate of al-Muqtadir: that, on the one hand, it was a period of political decline, and, on the other, it was the golden age of Arabic culture.

the Appendix, by Judy Ahola and Letizia osti, contains a topographical study of Baghdad in the time of al-Muqtadir on the basis of evidence from biographical and historical sources as well as maps and photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here again the wealth of the nar-rative sources comes to the fore, complementing the very little archaeological evidence that we have on Abbasid Baghdad.

While our aim in writing this book is to make sense of the sources on the caliphate of al-Muqtadir, providing a model for the functioning of the court and addressing general issues, certain aspects of the period, inevita-bly, have been left out of our portrayal, such as foreign diplomacy, some aspects of literary and intellectual life, religious and juridical policies, and material culture.

Moreoever, while fundamental economic problems plagued the reign of al-Muqtadir, we did not feel that it was part of this book’s goal to outline them here since some important work has already been done by Hugh Kennedy elsewhere.22

 Another feature of this period that this book does not cover are the important trials that took place dur-ing the reign of al-Muqtadir, especially, the celebrated trial of the mystic al-Ḥallāj in 308–9/921–2, which was thoroughly studied in the seminal work of Louis Massigon.

the genesis of this collaborative project was a panel on al-Muqtadir organized by Hugh Kennedy at the School of Abbasid Studies meeting in Leuven in 2004.23 At the following meeting, in St Andrews in 2006, a number of papers again focused on aspects pertaining to the caliphate of al-Muqtadir. Especially refreshing were the various angles and approaches that seemed to offer a critical and comprehensive reassessment of the reign of al-Muqtadir.

our discussions naturally evolved in the decision to put together our different perspectives in a coauthored book. Judy Ahola has been part of this project since its inception and has our warmest grati-tude for contributing to it with her precious work in the Appendix.

this is a collective effort. While we realized the difficulties involved in the production of a multi-authored work, the interpenetration of our research on the subject almost dictated that we embark on this risky jour-ney. the complications inherent in the process of collaborative venture such as this one are many, notably the overlap in some of the material presented in different chapters.

We have pointed to salient ones in the main text, and have noted parallels in the footnotes. on the other hand, we view the coexistence of our diverse approaches as one of our strengths, as it is not a simple juxtaposition, but rather the result of constant dia-logue and discussion over the years.

the School of Abbasid Studies provided the perfect environment for our exchanges, and its members gave much support and input during the various conferences, starting in Leuven 2004. In this context, it is our intent and hope that this volume contributes to filling an important gap in Abbasid studies, and more broadly, in court studies.

In order to make the primary material more accessible to non-Arabists, we decided to provide references to the English translation of some of the primary sources we refer to, when available. In particular, we con-stantly refer to Elie Salem’s translation of al-Ṣābiʾ’s Rusūm dār al-khilāfa, and, when available, to Margoliouth’s partial translation of al-tānūkhī’s Nishwār al-muḥādara.24

 In the case of Miskawayh’s Tajārib al-umam, we refer to the original Arabic which, however, is cross-referenced in the Eng-lish translation by Margoliouth forming part of the same set of volumes under the title of The Eclipse of the Abbasid Caliphate. Similarly, in the case of al-Ṭabarī’s Ta⁠ʾrīkh al-rusul wa-l-mulūk, we refer to the original Arabic, which is cross-referenced in the integral English translation The History of al-Ṭabarī.25 throughout this volume our translations of passages from these sources are based on the above-mentioned English translations, with adjustments in wording and transliteration, unless indicated otherwise.

For rendering Arabic words the transliteration of the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān is used. Familiar geographical names such as Iraq, Mecca and Baghdad are given in their common English spelling; other geographical names are transliterated in agreement with the transliteration of the Ency-clopaedia of Islam. Both hijra and common Era have been given….

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