By Patrick Scharfe
Master’s Thesis, Ohio State University, 2010
Abstract: Decline paradigms have long dominated the modern historiography of the pre-modern Middle East. In particular, the alleged decadence of the Abbasid caliphate after its loss of military power in the middle of the 10th-century has been seen as an index of the “decline” of Islamic civilization generally. This judgment, however, has usually been taken without much actual reference to the later history of the Abbasids. A thorough examination of the primary sources of medieval Islamic history – Arabic chronicles – reveals a much more nuanced picture of the later Abbasid caliphate. While the caliphs lacked military power during the Buyid and Saljūq eras, they were not mere hostages of the secular powers in the eyes of the chroniclers. A close reading of each chronicler against his political background is necessary to understand this fully, however. The caliphs’ authority allowed them to bestow titles upon the rulers that they chose, and sultans were only legitimate when the caliphs had their names recited in the Friday prayer (khuṭba). The caliphs also exercised practical power, especially with the weakening of the Buyid amirate after 1000 C.E. With the caliph al-Qādir (d. 1030), the caliphs controlled judgeships, intervened in urban politics and led the struggle for religious orthodoxy. They were neither saved nor held hostage by the Saljūq sultan Tughril Beg who arrived in Baghdad in 1055. When the Saljūq sultanate fragmented in the 12th-century, the caliphs re-emerged as regional military leaders. Whereas previous caliphs had held authority but not military power, the caliph al-Muqtafī (d. 1160) united power and authority again through his victories in battle against the Saljūqs. Thus, the story of the later Abbasids is not a simple tale of decline.
Arabic chronicles are a crucial source for the study of the pre-modern Islamic world, and yet they are more than just depositories of facts, dates, and names. As Tayeb el-Hibri has shown, any understanding of these works should put them in context and understand their symbolism. El-Hibri’s Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography explains, among other things, how seemingly strange details of behavior or dreams were meant to communicate meaning to the readers of the chronicle of al-Ṭabarī, one of the most prominent early Muslim historians. Even a truly perceptive understanding of Arabic chronicles provides a necessarily limited view of a given era. George Makdisi, a historian of medieval Iraq, has written to this effect: “Chronicles are not mirrors of the age; for these one must turn to biographical works, diaries, notebooks and the poetry of the age.” Chronicles, he continues, are “notoriously partial to political history; they deal with dynasties and political men… mainly, matters of power.” As a rule, chroniclers were usually in the service of powerful patrons, most often as bureaucrats, so it was often a specific political dynasty that drew their greatest interest, admiration, and even criticism.