Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest. The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia

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 Empire And Elites After The Muslim Conquest
  • Book Author:
Chase F. Robinson
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This study is intended to demonstrate that one can write Islamic provincial history in the post-conquest and Umayyad periods (c. 640–750 CE), a time for which the source material is patchy, late and frustratingly inconsistent. The book’s method is to marry history and historiography; its concern is with Muslim and non-Muslim élites who lived in a peripheral area at a time of political and social change.

The area – for the most part, present-day north- ern Syria and Iraq – was peripheral because the caliphs lived in the south, while the Muslim–Byzantine frontier lay to the north. It was a time of political and social change because, in defeating Byzantine and Sasanian armies, the Muslims would begin to transform a region heretofore divided between Byzantine east and Sasanian west into the northern tier of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires.

To write seventh- and eighth-century history we must come to terms with our sources; and as long as early Islamic archaeology, epigraphy, papyrology and numismatics remain as underdeveloped as they presently are, this means coming to terms with authors who wrote well after the events they describe.

 We are thus forced to rely in large measure on the learned élite’s representation of its past, and, this being representation rather than record, we can no longer subordinate the study of early Islamic historiography to historical reconstruction. T

he reader may find frustrating the interweaving of history and historiography that follows; and he may frequently feel that he is taking two steps forward only to take a third back. But he can at least take consolation in being forewarned, and perhaps also in knowing that the approach reflects what is now twenty years of fierce debate – and measurable progress – in the study of the early Islamic historical tradition.

History and historiography are thus intertwined in several ways. We begin with northern Mesopotamia writ large, and then focus on the city of Mosul, then as now the principal city of northern Iraq. Although this plan certainly reflects the growing political significance of the city, it more closely corresponds to the quantity and quality of our sources. One can say something in detail about Mosul in the eighth century for the simple reason that a Mosuli native, Yaz¯ıd b. Muh· ammad al-Azd¯ı (d. c. 334/945) did, writing a history of Mosul that survives in part; one can say nothing comparable about Edessa or Nisibis – to take two of the most obvious examples from western northern Mesopotamia (the Jazira) – because they failed to produce an Azd¯ı.

For provincial traditions of historiography grew where the soil was most fertile. The great Islamic con- quests of the early seventh century set in motion waves of settlement and urban- isation whose ripples travelled up the Tigris as far as northern Iraq, producing early medieval Mosul; the result was an Islamic city recognisable not only by its institutions (e.g. mosques, tribal quarters, governing palaces), but also by its politics and élite culture more generally.

 Mosul inherited Nineveh’s enviable position astride the Tigris, became an administrative and military centre early on, and, by the end of the eighth century, had established itself as an entrepôt for riverine trade to the heart of the empire.

 An ambitious élite was the result; and it was this élite that generated the learning out of which al-Azd¯ı’s city record – and thus ours too – emerged. More precisely, al-Azd¯ı’s historiography was pro- duced by a maturing local historiographic tradition that found itself, at the turn of the tenth century, in one of the two capitals of an ambitious provincial dynasty (the H· amda¯nids), one that actively patronised learning and had an interest in the past (Umayyad and Abbasid); al-Azd¯ı’s exceptional interest in

local tribes of a century and half earlier – that is, the very material on which we must base our account of Umayyad (and Abbasid) politics – is not unrelated to the (tribal) H· amda¯nid milieu in which he wrote.

By contrast, cities of the early Islamic Jazira such as Edessa and Nisibis suffered multiple misfortune. The Euphrates, Bal¯ıkh and Kha¯bu¯ r rivers, and even more so the Syrian steppe, failed to conduct the same forces of settlement and urbanisation as did the Tigris; and such Muslim settlement as there was in the Jazira on the whole seems to have been conditioned by opportunism and desperation, rather than by the Qurash¯ı élite’s enthusiasm.

Moreover, if a for- tuitous combination of geography and Christology had endowed these cities with disproportionate political and cultural significance in Christian Late Antiquity, they were quickly marginalised in the pattern of regional politics ushered in by the conquests: too far south to serve as effective garrisons on the northern frontier on the one hand, and so well skilled in expressing local iden- tity in Christian terms on the other, they had little appeal to, and apparently little interest in, the Muslim élite.

Syriac learning, at least as measured by the barometer of (non-Edessan) historiography, more and more retreated to the monasteries; but Islamic learning did little to fill the consequent breach, most of it being concentrated in al-Raqqa. Writing a history of Mosul might fairly be called re-writing al-Azd¯ı, whereas writing a history of the Jazira is writing almost ex nihilo. The present book’s coverage illustrates precisely this.

 The experience of cities within the early Islamic north thus contrasts sharply, and it is precisely from the contrast that lessons can be learned; this is the princi- pal reason why I treat together an area that was politically divided in the pre- Islamic period by the Byzantine–Sasanian frontier, and administratively divided in the early Islamic period.

Chapter 1 replaces the conventional survey of sources with a close exami- nation of the conquest traditions of the Jazira and Mosul; the purpose of the chapter is not simply to distinguish what is valuable for reconstructing con- quest history from what is not, but to draw some conclusions about the char- acter of the conquest tradition and that of early Islamic rule itself.

 We shall see that the conquest tradition does provide invaluable evidence for under- standing the conquests; but in greater amounts it records the controversies that arose as the post-conquest north was transformed into two imperial provinces, controversies conducted by the Christian and Muslim urban élites who shared the stewardship of what were now Abbasid cities. This transfor- mation is the topic of chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5.

In the Jaziran west, a relatively loose, tribute-based rule in the post- conquest period yielded to a relatively formal, taxation-based provincial administration during the late seventh and eighth centuries (chapter 2);

 it was only with the imposition of direct Muslim rule under the Marwa¯nids that the increasingly articulated state began to make consistent claims to sovereignty, these being expressed principally in the demand for provincial revenues. Here in the Jazira, where Syrian authority remained attenuated throughout the post-conquest and Sufya¯nid periods (c. 640–85), conquest had had but a minimal effect on local élites; the social power of some urban Christian nota- bles, who seem to have enjoyed virtual autonomy, may have actually increased.

 It was also in the early Marwa¯nid Jazira, when Muslims began to rule in earnest, that we begin to discern a form of Islamic belief (Kha¯rijism) that took hold among some of those members of the Islamic élite who had failed to sedentarise in the wake of the conquests, particularly those who had material grievances of one kind or another (chapter 5).

Stubbornly insisting on a conquest-era fusion of kinship, piety and undifferentiated jiha¯d, Jaziran Kha¯rijites illustrate how articulating primeval Islamic belief could channel what might otherwise have been mere banditry on the part of pastoralists and semi-pastoralists into a coherent (if ultimately futile) programme of rebellion. These Kha¯rijites were an ascetic élite, one that acquired its status by exempli- fying the community’s passing virtues.

Meanwhile, in the Mosuli east, a garrison founded and ruled by Kufans was transformed by the Marwa¯nids into what turned out to be an unruly city (chapter 3). Mosul, which lay on the western bank of the Tigris, now eclipsed the Sasanian settlement that had grown in the weeds of ancient Nineveh on its eastern bank, the shift from garrison to city being neither gradual nor natural, but rather resulting from a Marwa¯nid commitment of resources and energies that established Syrian rule in Mosul for the first time.

In practice this meant appointing kinsmen to rule as governors, and acquiring and developing land; the result was the partial eclipse of a conquest élite by a land-owning élite. The signs of Mosul’s transformation appear not only in brick and mortar, but in the pattern of politics itself, since the urban forces that the Marwa¯nids unleashed overtook them within two generations.

 In the Mosuli hinterland, where imperial pressure was considerably lighter and Arab settlement all but non-existent, change was predictably much slower (chapter 4).

Here a landed gentry formed the élite of a number of towns and villages, retaining their (deviant) Christianity and their land until well into the Abbasid period.

In chapters 6 and 7 I turn to the first and greatest crisis of state–provincial relations in the early medieval history of Mosul: the dreadful massacre com- mitted by the Abbasid army only months after its defeat of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwa¯n II, on the nearby Za¯b river in 132/750. Since al-Azd¯ı’s descrip- tion of the events is exceptionally valuable, here too my method is to carry out historiographic and historical inquiries in tandem.

That the Marwa¯nid city could become unruly reflects a truism of pre-modern Islamic social history: limitations imposed by technology and geography meant that state power was almost always made effective by locals, rather than by its agents and armies. What makes the case of late Marwa¯nid and early Abbasid Mosul noteworthy is our evidence, which allows us a glimpse of state–local relations a century before they can be discerned elsewhere.

Here we can see that the so-called ‘pol- itics of notables’, whereby locals acquired (or preserved) social power by acting as intermediaries between the state and provincial subjects, did not simply appear, perhaps in accordance with some kind of centre–periphery functionalism unmoored in history; rather, locals and imperialists (the cate- gories overlap) only reluctantly made their way towards compromise. For a relatively brief historical moment, provincials seem to have experimented with autonomy.

In different ways then, these chapters are all generally concerned with how two provinces experienced projections of power from the south and west, which varied in intensity and character; they are particularly concerned with how provincial élites, indigenous and immigrant alike, responded to the opportunities and challenges posed by the conquests, the Marwa¯nids, and finally the Abbasid Revolution.

By ‘élites’ I mean those social groups whose assertions of high status were underpinned by economic and/or cultural resources, these being principally (but not exclusively) land, descent, history and piety – the economic, cultural and symbolic ‘capital’ of some contempo- rary sociology. Whether these groups had a clear sense of corporate identity – the ‘collective consciousness’ sometimes held necessary for the designation of class – is usually impossible to determine, but in my view less significant than the effectiveness with which they broadcast their claims; with one exception (the Kha¯rijites), all of these élites did enjoy some real and enduring success.

It almost goes without saying that the picture is incomplete, focused in spots and unfocused in others, sometimes still and sometimes moving; the evidence rarely allows us to describe the élites as the dynamic, self-reproducing things that they generally are. Still, it is clear enough that the driving force of social change for these élites – their creation, adaptation, transformation and disap- pearance – was power projected by the Qurash¯ı clans that ruled successively from Medina, Syria and Iraq, and which, starting in the last decade of the seventh century, began to construct a framework for their own long-term reproduction: a dynastic state.

The speed and character of change among the élites of northern Mesopotamia were determined by the confluence of history, settlement and geography that distinguished the Jazira and Mosul from other regions – and indeed from each other. On its western flank a part of Syria, and on its eastern flank a part of Iraq, northern Mesopotamia can shed some light on early Islamic state building in both its Umayyad and Abbasid phases.

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