Islamic Monarchy

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Islamic Monarchy

The question of leadership in the Islamic world is a complicated one. Although until recently monarchies were the most common form of government, Muslim understandings of a ruler's role, qualifications, and relationship to religious and worldly authority have been the focus of intense discussion and have shifted radically since a very early period. Literally hours after the death of Muhammad in 632 c.e., disagreements arose about the identity, qualities, and selection of the caliph, or successor to the Prophet (Ar., khalifah ). Although it was clear that the caliph should function as the political, military, and religious leader of the community, the method of choosing a caliph was ill-defined at first. Many felt that the caliph should possess special religious qualities, whether noteworthy piety, early conversion to Islam, or blood relation to Muhammad. But the first four caliphsAbu Bakr (r. 632634), 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634644), 'Uthman ibn 'Affan (r. 644656) and 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656661)all had varied reputations for piety and differing relations to Muhammad, and were chosen in four unrelated fashions.

It was only in 661 at the accession of Mu'awiya that the Umayyad caliphate (661750) became the first Islamic dynastic and caliphal monarchy. Knowledge of the Umayyad family is difficult to extract from the generally negative portrayal of them in later historical sources, but one criticism of them did highlight the fact that they were considered by some to be temporal kings (Ar., muluk ), not religious authorities. Although this charge is difficult to evaluate, it may be said that the Umayyads managed to restrict the caliphate to their own family, forming a dynasty of kings whose political and military authority was evident but whose religious authority may well have been in question.


Ultimately resistance to Umayyad rule led to the Abbasid revolution of 749750. The Abbasid caliphs (7501258) traced their descent from Muhammad's uncle 'Abbas, and therefore their claims to legitimacy were considered to be stronger than those of their predecessors, since they were seen as members of the Prophet's house. The Abbasids formed a dynasty in which religious and political power were mingled. According to Muslim thinkers such as Abu Yusuf (d. 798) and al-Mawardi (d. 1058), the Abbasid caliphs needed to possess justice and comprehensive religious knowledge, with which they were to uphold Islamic law and maintain Islamic society.

Caliphs were chosen through a variety of methods, including designation by a ruling caliph, election by a selected body of religious scholars, primogeniture, or any combination of these factors. A caliph had not only to be a member of the Abbasid house but also male, sane, and free of physical restrictionssuch as blindnessthat might hinder the fulfilment of his duties. While the Abbasids were in power, pre-Islamic Persian ideas about a remote and awe-inspiring monarch were adopted into the Islamic tradition. Eventually the caliph was transformed from the head of the community to the Shadow of God on Earth, elevated far above ordinary people, and supported by an elaborate state bureaucracy and a complicated court protocol.

Military Rulers

The ninth and tenth centuries witnessed the Abbasids' gradual loss of control to military strongmen (emirs, sultans) who were fast becoming the de facto rulers in the Islamic world. This period also saw the rise of anti-caliphs, whether the Sunni Umayyads in Iberia (7561031) or the Ismaili Shiite Fatimids (9091171) in North Africa. Both developments led to important changes in Islamic theories about rule, for Muslim thinkers were forced to reconcile the new reality of military rule with the purely theoretical superiority of the caliph.

This was accomplished by thinkers such as the celebrated bureaucrat Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092) and his equally famous contemporary al-Ghazali (d. 1111). Such theorists penned elaborate manuals on the proper behavior of military rulers, who had no claims to religious authority. These works drew on pre-Islamic Persian ideas about the interdependence of kingship and religion, in which neither could exist without the other because religion furnished a base for kingship and kingship protected religion. Combined with this concept was the equally ancient notion of the Circle of Justice, which espoused a belief in the importance of balance within society among four elements: the king, the army, the subjects, and justice. According to this theory, there could be no king without an army, no army without the wealth obtained from subjects, no subjects without justice in the realm, and no justice without a king to uphold it. The military rule of a sultan fit easily into the models provided by the Circle of Justice and the notion of cooperation between religion and kingship; indeed, eventually the earlier designation of the caliph as the Shadow of God on Earth was transferred to the sultan. This model also allowed scholars and statesmen to function as interpreters of Islamic norms. In this way, rule became dominated by military monarchies and regulated by religious scholars, while the caliph became a figurehead who periodically bestowed recognition on the rulers. Pre-Islamic Persian cultural and literary traditions also contributed the notion of a king of kings (Pers., shahanshah ), which was easily worked into Islamic ideology.

Turko-Mongol Ideals

These developments were also shaped by Turko-Mongol ideas of kingship, which arrived with nomadic tribes from the central and east Asian steppe in the eleventh century. For Turkic and Mongol nomads, a ruler (Turk., bey, beg; Turk. and Mongolian, khan ) was a charismatic military leader who exercised a highly personal style of rule. Often merely a first among equals, he was directly responsible to his own followers and was expected to settle their disputes, lead them militarily, and reward them for their loyalty through the distribution of spoils and wealth. Although nomadic khans were often members of noble families, their positions depended not only on their lineage but also on their own merits.

The more successful khans believed that their charisma had a divine origin, which was often identified with the spirit or spirits of the Enduring Sky, or God (Mongolian, Tenggeri; Turk., Tanri ). Such divine favor was expressed through a special good fortune (Mongolian, su; Turk., kut; Pers., bakht or farr ), which was bestowed on particular rulers by Divine Will and which was demonstrated through military victories. Divinely favored rulers were thought to possess special religious or shamanistic powers. An emphasis on nomadic law (Turk., töre, türe; Mongolian, yasagh (yasa ); Ar. to Ottoman Turk., kanun ) also formed part of nomadic ideals of rulership, since a nomadic khan was expected to uphold the law. These ideas first entered the Islamic world when the Sunni Muslim confederation of Seljuk Turks conquered Khorasan and the Iranian plateau under the charismatic military leader Tughril Beg (d. 1063), who reached Baghdad in 1055 and established the Great Seljuk dynasty (10551157) under the benevolent eye of a powerless Abbasid caliph. (Nizam al-Mulk and al-Ghazali both wrote under Seljuk rule.)

Genghis (Chinggis) Khan

The most nomadic famous recipient of divine favor was the Mongol Temüchin, or Genghis (Chinggis) Khan (d. 1227). Genghis Khan rose from a noble but impoverished background to absolute rule and was thought to possess the power bestowed by God in the form of a divine mandate, which later passed to his descendants. According to the divine mandate, God had granted universal rule to the Chinggisids, who were charged with implementing that rule on earth through territorial conquest. The divine mandate passed to all Chinggisids, male and female, although only men reigned openly; women ruled primarily as regents for their sons. The position of Great Khan was usually limited to the sons of a chief wife, but within this restriction such factors as primogeniture, ultimogeniture, the preference of the current ruler, and the approval of the Genghisid family and the Mongol nobility all could play a role. As a result of this new and powerful model of kingship, the death of the Abbasid caliph al-Musta'sim at Mongol hands in Baghdad in 1258 therefore spelled for many a sea-change in understandings of rule. Despite the hasty revival of an Abbasid caliphate in Cairo (12611517), not all Muslims recognized it as legitimate. At first, Muslim kings and their advisors focused on the military defense of the Islamic world against the pagan Mongol invaders. When the religious scholar Ibn Jama'ah (d. 1333) wrote an advice work in the early thirteenth century, he elaborated in great detail on the king's responsibility for defending the community.

But soon Mongol sovereigns themselves began to convert to Islam and employ Islamic models of kingship. Among these new Muslims were the khans of the Golden Horde in southern Russia and central Asia (12411480) and their Ilkhanid cousins in Iran (12581335). Their conversions led to important changes in the development of Islamic monarchies, since Muslim Mongols ruled both as divinely chosen descendants of Genghis Khan and as Muslim sovereigns, advised by Islamic scholars. Theories of rule in this era drew not only on the well-established Persian Islamic models but also on Greek philosophical thought, which was embodied by the work of authors such as al-Razi (d. 1256), al-Tusi (d. 1274), and Kashifi (fl. 14941495). These ideas envisioned a society divided into four distinct classes: men of the sword, men of the pen, merchants, and cultivators. In this model the ruler functioned as an enlightened philosopher king, whose task was to maintain each class in its proper place through the just application of Islamic law.

Post-Mongol Period

After the political disintegration of Mongol rule in the fourteenth century, new Muslim Turkic monarchies arose and modeled themselves on the Muslim Mongol example. At first they struggled with the dominant Mongol ideology and styled themselves guardians of the Chinggisid heritage by marrying Chinggisid princesses, using Chinggisid puppets, and upholding Mongol law. Later, Turkic dynasties began to replace Genghis Khan with their own noble ancestors and promoted both their own tribal law codes and their own versions of Mongol-style divine favor. Simultaneously they ruled as Muslim military leaders and made use of the well-established themes of justice and order. Among these was the warlord Timur (Tamerlane, d. 1405), who began as a Genghis Khan imitator but also relied on Islamic models of kingship. Timur's own dynasty ultimately grew to rival that of Genghis Khan and reached a conclusion in the career of Babur (d. 1530), founder of the Mughal Empire in northern India (15261858). Babur epitomized the Muslim sovereign but also prided himself on his impeccable lineage: his paternal descent was from Timur, and his maternal descent from Genghis Khan.

A long-term problem for Muslim monarchs of nomadic origin was their tribal laws, which posed a potential challenge to Islamic law (Ar., shari'a ). Under the longest-lived Islamic dynasty, the Ottomans (12811923), tribal laws coexisted uneasily with Islamic law until Muslim thinkers under Sultan Kanuni Süleyman (Süleyman "the Lawgiver," r. 15201566) reconciled the two into a single coherent legal system (Ar. to Ottoman Turk., kanun ), which became identified with the Ottoman state in general and the person of Süleyman in particular. Under the Ottomans the Persian and Greek concepts of the ruler as the upholder of justice and order were also linked both to the nomadic idea of the ruler as a lawgiver and to Islamic law itself.

Safavids and Successors

In a more radical development of Turko-Mongol norms, especially the notion of divine favor, the Safavid monarchy in Iran (15011736) assumed that the ruler possessed a direct personal connection to God, which allowed him to implement God's will in his kingdom through law. Although the Safavids were eventually succeeded by the tribal dynasties of the Afsharids (17361796) under Nadir Shah (d. 1746) in the east, and the Zands (17511794) in the west, these successors were seen by some as monarchies of warlords, lacking legitimate claims to rule and devoid of the religious aura that had surrounded the Safavids. Indeed, Zand rulers were never addressed as king (Pers., shah ), and maintained a Safavid puppet until 1773. Subsequently the Turkic tribal Qajar monarchy (17951925) eliminated both the Zands and the Afsharids and went on to control Iran as independent kings. Although perfunctorily religious, the Qajars lacked the religious charisma of the Safavids and ruled by drawing on their heroic Turkic history, their former support of the Safavid state, and the Iranian cultural tradition of the king of kings.

Modern Monarchies

In the nineteenth century the Ottoman sultans began to investigate European-style parliamentary monarchies, but this model was not fully established until the abolishment of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and the creation of the modern republic of Turkey, which replaced the monarch with an elected president and a parliament. Similar in focus were the khedival dynasty of Egypt (18051952) and the Hashimite dynasty of Iraq (19211958), which also developed into parliamentary monarchies and which were likewise replaced by republican governments.

One particular challenge for twentieth-century monarchies was the concept of secularism, which in some cases removed the religious ideology used by earlier kings to legitimate their rule but left nothing in its place. A noted secular monarchy was the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran (19251979), which succeeded the Qajars. The Pahlavis downplayed Islamic ideas in favor of their own pre-Islamic Persian heritage, which combined with their oppressive rule to provoke their overthrow in favor of an Islamic Republic in 19781979.

In the early twenty-first century, monarchies in majority countries with an Islamic majority tend to rely on some evocation of religious legitimacy. The al-Saud family of Saudi Arabia and the Hashimite monarchy of Jordan, for example, practice official state versions of Islam and rule with either secular or Islamic law. However, some modern monarchies have been challenged by Islamist resistance groups, which have proposed alternate visions of society in which sovereignty belongs to God alone.

See also Empire and Imperialism: Middle East ; Law, Islamic ; Monarchy: Overview .



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Anne F. Broadbridge

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Islamic Monarchy

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Islamic Monarchy