The Decentralization of Society

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The Decentralization of Society



New Groups . When the Abbasid khilafah was founded in 750, it governed a strong, centralized state with the khalifah as an effective ruler, soon installed in the newly built capital of Baghdad. Gradually the centralized khilafah began to lose its effectiveness, and regional powers began to appear, leading to the decentralization of the khilafah and, in later years, to its fragmentation into autonomous units. By the middle of the tenth century the Arabs, who had been the dominant, ruling elite, began to recede in importance. Iranians, as well as Kurdish and Turkish military groups who had converted to Islam, began to wield morepower. The khalifahs lost their authority and effectiveness and became symbolic figureheads who lent the ummah a semblance of unity even as the centralized government continued to break up. The real rulers, military commanders who were recruited largely from Turkish tribes, assumed the title sultan. While these sultans carried out military campaigns, they left the civil administration to wazirs.

Civil Order . When the state was strong and its authority recognized, peace and security were the responsibility of officials appointed for this purpose. Each city had its own police force (shurta), which was recruited locally. Transgressors were thrown in jail for a term usually specified by a qadi (judge) or a governor. In addition to the police, each quarter of a town was administered by a trusted member of the notables (ayan), who worked as a liaison or intermediary between the ruler and his subjects, and a muhtasib (market inspector) was appointed to make sure that the marketplace functioned smoothly and that business there was conducted honestly. To assist the muhtasib, organizations that are similar to guilds were encouraged. These organizations, came to be known as sinf, and their chiefs functioned like government officials, making sure that guild members produced quality goods, charged fair prices, and paid their taxes to the government.

Urban Violence. After Baghdad was founded in 750, it soon surpassed other cities in the Muslim world. Its expansion


In his Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages Ira M. Lapidus described the occupations of the middle and lower classes of Damascus during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries:

Al-’amma proper, sometimes called al-’ammat al nas (common members of the nas [people]), as if to emphasize a degree of respectability, were the trading and working people of the cities. They were the shopkeepers, retailers and artisans, taxpayers, men known and accessible, the honest toilers. Some were of recognized social importance. Middle-class retailers were made responsible for fiscal and monetary measures taken by the regime. Skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, masons, and marble workers were awarded the prized Sultan’s robes of honor on the completion of important projects. Other commoners variously called ba’a, suqa, mutaayyishun, or mutasabbibun, who were food dealers, artisans, workers and peddlers, made up the remainder of this working population.

Yet included in the meaning of the word a Pamma was a still lower class of the population, in the eyes of the middle classes a morally and socially despised mass, possessing little or none of the Muslim attributes in family life, occupation, or religious behavior, and often holding heretical religious beliefs. Though the boundaries between the respectable and the disreputable masses were not clearly set, a virtual caste apart from the rest of the common people was an important element in urban social life.

Muslim literary sources from various periods describe a theoretical distinction between the respectable and disreputable on religious grounds. First among the disreputable were the usurers, or all those who profited from chicanery or transactions forbidden by Muslim law— brokers, criers, money changers, slave dealers, and people who sold forbidden objects. In a second category fell people of questionable morality—male or female prostitutes, wine sellers, cock fighters, professional mourners, dancers and other entertainers. Thirdly, people defiled by dead beasts or animal wastes were included among the impure. Barbers and surgeons were valued on other grounds, but butchers, tanners, donkey and dog han dlers, hunters, and waste scavengers were despised.

… the usurious trades of silver, gold, and silks were not highly regarded, and of course dealing in wine and pork and selling weapons to the enemy was strictly forbidden. The various cooking trades could be either good or evil. In general, bakers, furriers, carpenters, tailors and perfumers were among the finer tradesmen, while silk weavers, wooden clog makers, goldsmiths, porters, wood gatherers, and water pourers belonged to subordinate occupations. The socially rejected tradesmen were weighers, camel and donkey drivers, changers, falconers, cuppers, leather workers and tanners, geomancers, jugglers, and barbers.…

The menials shaded over into a second category of despised persons, thieves and common criminals, prostitutes, and gamblers. The menial and the criminal seem to have been closely related. For example, al-masfoa’iliyya, the nightwatchmen and torch bearers who cleaned the latrines, removed refuse from the streets, and carried off the bodies of dead animals served as police, guards, executioners, and public criers, and paraded people condemned to public disgrace whose shame may have consisted in part in being handled by such men. At the same time, al-masha’iliyya made use of their intimacy with nightlife to become involved in gambling, theft and dealing in hashish and wine.…

The slaves and servants of the Sultan and the emirs formed another group which did not share in the producing and trading activities of the city or in its normal family and district life. Standing outside the social structure of artisan, quarter and religious life was an undisciplined and turbulent mass of kitchen helpers, stable hands, dog handlers, falconers, and huntsmen. They, too, were often associated with criminals and with traders in wine and hashish.… Apart from the menials, criminals, and slaves there were the homeless and poverty stricken. The large towns attracted a floating population of immigrants. Many were wealthy, learned, or had come to make their fortune and soon found a place in society, but the towns also harbored rootless foreigners. These included transient merchants, pilgrims or traveling scholars, and sheikhs who had accommodations, friends and contacts, but poor peasants and Bedouins fleeing rural hardship fell into the nameless and faceless mass.

Source: Ira M. Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 82-84.

in size and population continued for centuries after, spreading into suburbs on both sides of the Tigris River. Within a hundred years, Baghdad was one of the largest cities in the world, perhaps second only to Xian, China. Some scholars have said that Baghdad in the ninth century was larger than Paris in the nineteenth. Urban Muslim society began to experience some of the same problems exhibited in modern, large urban cities, especially urban violence. During the ninth and tenth centuries, many members of the rural population gave up agriculture and moved to the cities, either to escape the taxes and the exactions of the landlords or to find employment in the various manufacturing concerns found in the city. Most often they became day laborers, swelling the ranks of the working class. Only occasionally employed and filled with resentment and frustration, they became fertile ground for recruitment into private militias and for membership in gangs that preyed on neighborhood shops and merchants. These gangs were known by names such as Zuaar (young thugs), Shuttar (delinquent youths), and Ayyarun (rascals).

These groups caused violence and insecurity in the streets, but at other times they restored peace and tranquility, especially when their cooperation was bought by the wealthy of the neighborhood or the city government. In later years, some of these groups gained a measure of respectability, especially those who dedicated themselves to uphold honorable ideals and defend common interests and values. Some of these groups did charitable work. Members of such groups wore distinctive uniforms and associated with the elite and the powerful. These organizations, known as futuwwa (to distinguish them from the earlier criminal elements), were in fact cultivated and encouraged by some khalifahs, especially Khalifah al-Nasir (ruled 1180–1225), who had hoped to regain influence and authority through the futuwwa organization that he headed.

Sufism . Another consequence of the urban sprawl of Baghdad and other Muslim cities was the rise of mysticism, or Sufism. Pious Muslims found that city life interfered with the performance of their religious duty. Some of them sought a more peaceful existence in which they could contemplate God’s creation and reflect on their place in the world. Other Muslims seemed to believe that religious scholars, especially those who dealt with Islamic law, were interpreting Islam too rigidly and formalistically. Eventually, these groups came to believe that the best religious life was an ascetic life that rejected luxury and material things. They began to wear coarse woolen garments (suf) and therefore came to be known as Sufis. People of this inclination began to congregate together in a corner of a masjid and took to repeating certain religious formulas over and over again. This practice of recitation became known as dhikr. Since the masjid was intended for prayer (which, aside from the Friday sermon, is performed in silence) and religious instruction, the practice of dhikr was noisy and distracting, and the Sufis were forced out of masjids, indeed out of town. After Sufism became accepted by mainstream Islam, and it became advantageous for rulers to bestow upon them, Sufis began to build retreats (called zawiya in Arabic, tekkah in Turkish and khanqah in Persian), where a Sufi master (called shaykti) and his devotees (murids) would reside and chant their dhikr undisturbed and without disrupting prayer or other masjid activities. Because zawiyas were erected along trade routes such as the ancient silk route toward China or Saharan routes to western Africa, they became convenient stopping points for caravans. Over the years the Sufis and merchants were largely responsible for spreading Islam to eastern and western Africa, and central, southern, and southeastern Asia. Indeed, Islam spread further and faster after the twelfth century through Sufism than during previous centuries through Muslim territorial expansion. Sufi groups often traveled from town to town to perform their dhikr for the public, especially during festivals. In some areas of the Islamic world, a guild might become associated with one Sufi master or another, reinforcing the “corporate” structure of Islamic society, especially during times when it was faced with external threats.

The Turks By 1055 the Turks were dominating the military and politics, effectively ruling vast territories while the khalifahs in Baghdad were subservient to them. What had begun as a trickle had become a full-fledged downpour, as hundreds of thousands of Turkomen had migrated first into Iran, then Iraq and the rest of southwest Asia. Their greatest impact was in Anatolia. Following their victory over the Byzantine army in 1071 at the Battle of Malazgirt (Manzikert), the Turks continued to migrate westward and brought about the gradual Turkification and Islamization of the area. By 1290 they had brought into being the Ottoman Empire, which went on to become a major force in regional and world affairs, finally coming to an end in 1922.

Landholding and the Military . Led by a powerful family known as the Saljuks, the Turkish military relied for its primary income on iqta’ the system by which they were assigned the rights to collected taxes on a particular piece of property in lieu of salary. As the Turks in the military grew more and more numerous and powerful and gained effective control over larger and larger land areas, the power and the revenue of the central government decreased accordingly. In some cases a whole province might be assigned to a particularly important commander, and though these so-called tax farms were not granted as private property, they began to be passed on as inheritance, creating petty dynasties in the provinces. From the tenth century onward political fragmentation was rife.

Fragmentation . Another alarming concept introduced by the Turks was the idea that the state and its resources were the collective property of the ruling house. Thus, whenever a sultan died, members of his household competed for his office and engaged in armed conflict to replace him. Alliances and counteralliances were forged or broken depending on circumstances and perceived advantages. Agricultural resources were depleted as troops destroyed the irrigation infrastructure for military advantage and trampled fields of crops. Competing armies also disrupted trade routes and sporadically threatened the security of pilgrimage routes to Palestine, providing the pretext for Pope Urban II to call for the First Crusade in 1095. As commerce diminished, urban craft production declined. Such tragic consequences did not diminish the appetite of the military for additional taxes. With the land producing less and less, nomadism increased, and there was a noticeable decline in the population of cities and towns throughout the Near East. The decline in urban population was highlighted by the transformation of Baghdad from a cosmopolitan metropolis and the administrative center of an empire to an insignificant provincial capital.

External Threats . As the once united and powerful khilafah began to fragment into competing regional and autonomous states, its weakness invited outside invasion. By 1091 the Normans had completed their conquest of Sicily (where Muslim culture and Islamic religion continued to flourish for some time). A few years later Muslim society experienced its first serious external threat from the First Crusade.

The Crusades . Largely because Muslim rulers were unable to mount a unified opposition to this European invasion, the Crusaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, as well as other Crusader strongholds in the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean). Hoping to gain ground against their rivals, some petty Muslim rulers cooperated with the Crusaders. The success of the Crusades, however, was not long lasting, nor was the disorganization of the Muslims. By the second decade of the twelfth century, another group of Turks, the Zengids of northern Iraq, took the initiative to unify the realm. The Zengid ruler Mahmud employed a general of Kurdish origin who went on to defeat the Crusaders. In 1169 that leader, the well-known Salah al-Din (Saladin), established the Ayyubid dynasty, unifying Egypt and Syria in 1175 and retaking Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Salah al-Din went on to further success in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), led by Richard the Lionhearted.

The Reconquista . Another threat to Muslim unity occurred in the extreme western part of the Islamic lands, the Iberian peninsula, during the eleventh century: the Reconquista. Over the next few centuries Spanish Christian forces gradually won back territory from Muslim rulers, including Toledo, which fell in 1085. Despite intermittent setbacks, the Reconquista eventually overran all Muslim territory in Spain, finally conquering the last Muslim foothold, Granada, in 1492.

The Mongols . At the other geographic extreme, in Central Asia, the Muslims found themselves under attack by the Mongols. Grandsons of Genghis Khan extended their rule from China all the way to the Black Sea. Hulagu put an end to the Abbasid dynasty in 1258 when his huge army occupied and sacked Baghdad after laying waste to many other Muslim cities. The devastation of Baghdad put a final end to the Abbasid khilafah.

The Mamluks . The need to fight on many fronts required the Ayyubids to recruit more soldiers than were available in the Middle East. Once more they sought recruits in central Asia. Around 1240 they brought Qipchaq Turks to Egypt to be educated in Islam and trained in the art of warfare. Eventually, these troops became known as the Mamluks. In 1259 Mamluk commanders took power in Egypt. Muslim society was faced with a double threat: the Crusaders from the West and the Mongols from the East, who had taken Baghdad the previous year. The quick action of the Mamluks saved the day. Not only were they able to force the Crusaders to retreat from Cairo and then to evacuate Egypt altogether but they also gathered an army that hurriedly marched out to block the Mongol advance. The two armies met near ‘Ayn Jalut (Goliath’s Well) in northern Palestine, and the Mongols were defeated in 1262. The Mamluks remained a constant feature of the political

and military life in the region for several centuries, coming to constitute the military governing elite of society. They defeated the Mongols two more times near Hims in central Syria, and in 1291 they reconquered the last Crusader kingdom in Syria.

Social Responses . The various external threats to the Muslim empire endangered not only the physical well-being of Muslims but also their culture. The Crusades and the Reconquista were fought in the name of Christianity, and the Mongols were also fighting in the name of their ideals and way of life. Faced with such a threat and with essentially no central government to offer them protection, Muslim society adopted, as a defensive strategy, a mode of organization that is often described as corporate society, a society organized into small groups that share a common interest, such as a profession, a sectarian affiliation, or—as was increasingly the case among Muslims—their membership in mystical brotherhoods.

Cultural Divisions . After the Mamluks stopped their westward advance, the Mongols settled in Persia, where they established their own dynastic state, becoming known as Il-Khanids. Eventually the Middle East became divided into three large cultural zones: Persian in Iran, Turkish in Anatolia, and Arab in what remained of southwest Asia. In northern Africa, Arabo-Berber society continued to evolve separately, with occasional influences from the East. Thus, from the thirteenth century onward, there was no longer a unified Islamic land or a single Islamic society. Other than common beliefs and rituals related to Islam—and the fact they were ruled by various military groups—not much remained to unite the Islamic world. The military rulers were either nomads inexperienced in the art of government or foreigners. Thus, they relied on local expertise to run the affairs of government, and Arabic, Persian, and Turkish became firmly established as languages of administration and culture in their respective regions. Local notables took the role of mediators between the military elite (khassa) and the subject population (’ammo). These notables were drawn from merchants, landlords, and the learned classes Added to the ulama class at this time were the Sufi shaykhs who gained influence through Mamluk patronage and encouragement. Islamic society continued to be split along urban, rural, and nomadic lines, and the social classes remained divided according to their function. Peasants continued to make up the bulk of Muslim society.

Diversity . By the fourteenth century, Muslim society had become a vast multiethnic and multiracial composite linked by Islamic faith and practice and by commercial activity. Sufism and commerce helped Islam become truly universal. Islam claimed adherents in regions of the Eastern Hemisphere as far apart as West Africa and coastal China. Muslim merchants from India and Arabia spread the faith into Southeast Asia. In the twenty-first century, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, and there are large populations of Muslims in Malaysia and the Philippines as well. Between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, southwest Asia, the birthplace of Islam, became a Muslim melting pot, as Arabs were joined by Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Greeks, Visigoths, Berbers, Turks, and finally Mongols. Because Islam was spread by diverse groups and at different times, Islamic practices and beliefs, other than the core beliefs and dogma, became as complex as the ethnic makeup of the Islamic ummah.


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The Decentralization of Society

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The Decentralization of Society