Symbiotic Relations: Ulama and the Mamluk Sultans

Symbiotic Relations: Ulama and the Mamluk Sultans

By Yaacov Lev

Mamluk Studies Review, Vol.13:1 (2009)

Introduction: The ulama played a vital role in the political and social life of the Mamluk state. Ira Marvin Lapidus, for example, makes the following observation about the urban society of the Mamluk period:

In Mamlūk cities no central agency for coordination or administration of the affairs of the whole existed. There were no municipalities, nor communes, nor state bureaucracies for urban affairs. Rather the cohesion of the city depended not on any particular institutions but on patterns of social activity and organization which served to create a more broadly based community, and this community was built around the religious elites.

The “religious elites” referred to above are identified by Lapidus as ulama who, in his words, “were that part of the Muslim community learned in the literature, laws, and doctrines of Islam. They were judges, jurists, prayer-leaders, scholars, teachers, readers of Koran, reciters of traditions, Sufis, functionaries of mosques, and so on.” The whole aim of the somewhat awkward phrase “that part of the Muslim community learned in” is to avoid the term “class” when referring to the ulama. Lapidus is very explicit about his perception of the ulama: “the ʿulamāʾ were not a distinct class, but a category of persons overlapping other classes and social divisions, permeating the whole of society.”  I would argue that the ulama must be perceived as a class and not as a category. What distinguished ulama from other classes was their religious learning but, like other classes, they were divided according to wealth, status, and occupation. If we speak about merchants, administrators or the military in term of classes the same must be applied to the ulama.

Another approach has been adopted by Carl F. Petry, who perceives the social structure of Cairo, and by extension that of the Mamluk state, as based on a threefold division: the ruling military caste, “a civilian administrative elite, the majority of whom were designated ʿulamāʾ,” and the masses. The term “civilian elite” is broader than ulama and also contains notables who were not necessarily ulama.  Petry’s administrative elite, or “le milieu des administrateurs civils,” is at the heart of Bernadette Martel-Thoumian’s study of the Mamluk administration of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The professional administrators as typified by the kātib are extensively discussed by Martel-Thoumian, who makes the following observation: “Nous avons parlé de milieu civil par opposition aux milieux militaires et religieux. Ce sont donc essentiellement les personnages ayant fait carrière dans lʼadministration qui sont lʼobjet de cette étude, même sʼil est arrivé à certains dʼentre eux dʼexercer des fonctions classées, par les recueils de chancellerie, comme militaіres ou religieuses.” However, a neat distinction between ulama and people employed in the administration (kuttāb) is rather difficult to make.

With respect to the Mamluk political system, Petry poses three pertinent questions: were civilians able to exert influence on the rulers, and secondly, “did the ʿulamāʾ serve primarily as mediators between the Mamlūks and the general population . . . ?” Petry goes on by asking “does the concept of mediation fail to do justice to the complexities of civilian elite status during this period?”  The notion that the ulama acted as mediators between the Mamluk rulers and the population has gained wide acceptance among scholars.  However, in her study of Zangid- Ayyubid Syria, Daniella Talmon-Heller takes a step beyond the notion of ulama as mediators. She writes: “Rulers cooperated closely with ʿulamāʾ, bolstering their role as guardians of the religious law, and as propagators of Islamic norms in wider social circles.”  I would like to go even farther by arguing that the relations between rulers and ulama were symbiotic.

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