Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Sultan v. Caliph

A Medieval Smackdown.
by Michael Isenberg.

More of the real-life history behind The Thread of Reason.

The Muslim world of the 11th century—when my novel The Thread of Reason takes place—was a divided world.

On the one side were the moderates: they patronized the sciences, treated Jews and Christians with tolerance, and were willing to wink at wine drinking and other occasional breaches of Muslim law, the shari’ah.

On the other side were the hardliners; they were skeptical of the sciences, attempted to persecute Jews and Christians, and sought strict enforcement of the shari’ah.

In the political realm, this conflict was mirrored by the conflict between caliph and sultan.

The caliph—from the Arabic calapha, meaning to follow or succeed—was the successor to Muhammad. Ruling from his palace in Baghdad, the caliph was (since 750 AD), a member of the Abbasid Dynasty, descended from Muhammad’s Uncle Abbas. The caliph was the supreme authority in the Muslim world, the “Commander of the Faithful”. The sultan was merely his strong right arm, carrying out his policies and enforcing the shari'ah.

At least that was the theory.

In practice, the sultan had the army, and was therefore the real power.

During the latter half of the eleventh century, the sultans were Turks, members of the Seljuq Dynasty. Their propaganda presented them as the defenders of the caliph and of orthodox Islam. And yet, in many ways, they weren’t very good Muslims. They drank wine and wore silk, both prohibited in the shari’ah. As I’ve written previously, they had Jewish officials working for them, and when one of these officials came into conflict with a Muslim, and the caliph's government attempted to retaliate by decreeing strict enforcement of the restrictions on Jews and Christians that are in the shari'ah, the sultan Malik-shah and his vizier (prime minister), Nizam al-Mulk, stood by their own man, took the Jews’ side, and made the caliph back off from the hated decree. Indeed, Malik-shah and Nizam al-Mulk were in constant conflict with the caliphs, whom they tried to control by ensuring the caliph’s vizier was one of their own guys. At the time The Thread of Reason takes place, this office was filled by one of Nizam al-Mulk's own sons-in-law. For all these reasons, scholars have recently come to refer to the notion that the sultans were the defenders of orthodoxy as “The Great Seljuq Myth.”

It was inevitable that such a conflict would come to a head. By the fall of 1092, Malik-shah was determined to have it out with the caliph.


Nizam al-Mulk apparently opposed the plan, and blamed it on Shiite troublemakers who had infiltrated the government. According to Nizam al-Mulk’s guide to government, The Book of Politics,

The most damaging and odious enemies to the religion of Muhammad are also the worst enemies of the Master of the World [i.e., the sultan].

These people who, today, have power in the government, and who make propaganda for the Shiite creed, belonging to this sect: they carry out their affairs in secret, they employ violence, they indulge in proselytism, and they talk the Master of the World into the idea of annihilating the Abbasid dynasty.

If I wanted to lift the lid that covers this pot, what evils would come out! [1]

Despite the opposition of his vizier, Malik-shah was determined to proceed. In October of that year, he traveled from his capital in Isfahan up to Baghdad, his third such visit. Along the way, Nizam al-Mulk was brutally assassinated, as I described in my previous post, “The Murder that Started it All.”

Free from the overbearing influence of his vizier, the sultan continued on to Baghdad. The historian ibn Khallikhan (d. 1282), tells us what happened next:

We shall here relate a singular circumstance: When [Malik-shah] entered Baghdad for the third time, the caliph had two sons, one of whom was [subsequently] the imam al-Mustazhir billah; the other, who bore the name of Abu 'l-Fadl Jaafar, was the son of the sultan's daughter. The caliph had solemnly designated as his successor the first named of these two, because he was the elder, but the sultan insisted that he should revoke the nomination, declare Abu 'l-Fadl heir to the caliphate, put him in possession of Baghdad and then remove himself to Basra. The caliph felt the greatest repugnance to execute what had been required of him; he used every effort to change the sultan's determination and, finding all his remonstrances fruitless, he asked and obtained a delay of ten days in order to make the necessary preparations for his departure. It is related that, during these days, he kept a rigourous fast and, when he did take food, he sat upon ashes and invoqued the assistance of the Almighty God against the sultan. That period of time had not yet elapsed when the sultan fell ill and died, and the caliph was thus delivered from his trouble. [2]

The death of the sultan Malik-shah, and the resulting deliverance of the caliph, was a victory for the forces of shari'ah over the forces of moderation, one from which the Muslim world would never recover. In another paragraph, ibn Khallikan fills in the details about the sultan's death, so convenient for the caliph:

He entered [Baghdad] for the third time in the beginning of the month of Shawwal, 485 (Nov.A. D. 1092), and set off immediately on a hunting party, in the direction of the Dujail. Having then killed an antelope and eaten of its flesh, he was taken ill and had to be bled; but, as enough of blood was not drawn from him, he returned to Baghdad very unwell and none of his officers were admitted into his presence. He entered the city on the 15th of Shawwal, 485 (18th Nov. A. D. 1092), and died the next day. He was born on the 9th of the first Jumada, 447 (6th August, A. D. 1055). Some say that his death was caused by a poisoned tooth-pick. His funeral was conducted in the most private manner; no prayer was said over the grave, no sittings of condolence were held, no hair was cut off the tails of horses, though such a thing was customary in the case of persons such as he. One would have thought he had been snatched away bodily from the world. His corpse was borne to Ispahan and interred in the great college appropriated to the Shafites and Hanefites. [3]

Even in an age where accidental death was common, it defies imagination that the death of Malik-shah, coming so closely on the heels of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, and right after he had told the caliph to get out of town, would be due to eating a bad antelope. For what I think really happened, see The Thread of Reason.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Subscribe to Islam: the Good, the Bad, and the Everyday

Photo credit(s): Wikipedia (Public Domain)

[1] Nizam al-Mulk (1018-1092), Siasset Namèh ou Traité de Gouvernement (The Book of Politics or Treatise on Government), Angers: Imprimerie Orientale de A. Burdin et Cie, (1893), trans. Charles Schefer, 243. The translation from the French is mine.
[2] Khallikan, Shams al-Dīn Abū Al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad Ibn Muḥammad ibn (1211-1282),
Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary [Wafayāt al-aʿyān wa-anbāʾ abnāʾ az-zamān (Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch)], Vol. III, Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland (1868), B. MacGuckin de Slane, tr., p. 445.
[3] Ibid, pp. 444-445.

No comments:

Post a Comment