asabiyyah ii – clannishness and the abbasid caliphate

in my previous post on asabiyyah, i (boldly!) said: “the arab states repeatedly fell apart, not because they ran out of asabiyyah, but because those in charge didn’t manage to hold together their state in the face of all the different asabiyyahs of the various clans/tribes within their states.”

pseudoerasmus disagreed with me: “The Abbasid Caliphate, which endured in Baghdad from 750 to 1258, started out big in the 8th century but by the time it fell to the Mongols it had basically been reduced to the Tigris & Euphrates valley. That’s because foreign dynasties came to gradually pick away at the periphery of the empire. I’m not saying there weren’t internal divisions that might have weakened the Abbasid hold on power. But there’s no evidence these divisions were tribal.”

well, ok. i admit that i probably overstated my case a bit there. the clannishness of the populations of arab states isn’t the only reason those states fall apart, but it *is* a huge one, imho. but, then, i do tend to look at everything through clannishness-colored glasses. (~_^)

the point i was trying to make, though, was that i disagree with ibn khaldun’s analysis of asabiyyah (which t.greer outlined in excellent fashion in this comment!). i’m of the opinion that al-farabi had it more right: asabiyyah is clannishness and, while clannishness can and does draw clans and tribes together, it is also very much a divisive force which pulls apart arabized societies. asabiyyah is the “me and my cousin against the world” attitude. and, most importantly of course, i think that the behavioral traits that are related to asabiyyah are genetic in origin, and, therefore, it will be very difficult to get the arabized world to behave differently anytime soon.

anyway…so, by way of a few examples, i thought i’d outline some of the clannish elements of the abbasid caliphate that i think worked against it. this is far from a complete list — it’s just a few of the things i can think of off the top of my head. to be completely honest with you, i need to do a lot more reading on the medieval caliphates/medieval arab world. oh. before i get to my little exploration, i want to mention one other thing. pseudo also said:

“[I]n the actual outcomes of territorial consolidation and fragmentation in the Middle East and North Africa, I don’t see much difference between that region and Europe or any other region for that matter. — *in the premodern period*. Which region in Eurasia was not subject to repeated cycles of imperial consolidation and fragmentation?”

well, quite. but europe and other regions of the world were also clannish in the premodern period. europe didn’t move out of that phase until the end of the middle ages. so maybe it’s not fair of me to compare the medieval arab world with the modern european one (although i do the same for medieval europe all the time); however, i do think that clannishness was, and is, particularly difficult for the arabs/arabized world since these populations practice father’s brother’s daughters (fbd) marriage — they’ve burdened themselves with a social structure and a set of innate behavioral traits that makes building and maintaining bigger alliances very difficult. (they didn’t mean to, of course — it just worked out that way.) in fact, i bet that matters have gotten progressively worse over the past thousand years or so in the middle east/maghreb/afghanistan/pakistan since these populations were arabized and started practicing fbd marriage (and due to the actual introduction of arab peoples to these regions who have probably been practicing fbd marriage since the second century a.d.?). having said all that, pseudo is also quite right in saying that trying to hold an empire together is difficult in most circumstances for any population, and was especially so in the past for populations which had more primitive technologies and transport systems, etc., etc. the one set of factors does not rule out the other, though, i don’t think.

right. clannishness and the abbasid caliphate.

well, first of all, the abbasid caliphate was founded in 750 a.d. by an extended family/subclan — the abbasids — which replaced a rival subclan. it really doesn’t get much more clannish than that. (~_^) both the abbasids and the umayyads before them were subclans of mohammed’s clan, the banu hashim, these subclans being, in turn, part of the larger quarysh tribe. before i continue about the abbasids, here’s a bit about the umayyad caliphate from A History of the Arab People [pg. 30]:

“The growth of the Muslim communities in the eastern cities and provinces created tensions. Personal ambitions, local grievances and party conflicts expressed themselves in more than one idiom, ethnic, tribal and religious, and from this distance it is hard to say how the lines of division were drawn.

“There was, first of all, among converts to Islam, and the Iranians in particular, resentment against the fiscal and other privileges given to those of Arab origin, and this grew as the memory of the first conquests became weaker. Some of the converts attached themselves to Arab tribal leaders as ‘clients’ (*mawali*), but this did not erase the line between them and the Arabs.

Tension also expressed themselves in terms of tribal differences and opposition. The armies coming from Arabia brought tribal loyalties with them, and in the new circumstances these could grow stronger. In the cities and other places of migration, groups claiming a common ancestor came together in closer quarters than in the Arabian steppe; powerful leaders claiming nobility of descent could attract new followers. The existence of a unified political structure enabled leaders and tribes to link up with each other over wide areas and at times gave them common interests. The struggle for control of the central government could make use of tribal names and the loyalties they expressed. One branch of the Umayyads was linked by marriage with the Banu Kalb, who had already settled in Syria before the conquest; in the struggle for the succession after the death of Mu’awiya’s son, a non-Umayyad claimant was supported by another groups of tribes. At moments some common interst could given substance to the idea of an origin shared by all tribes claiming to come from central Arabia or from the south. (Their names, Qays and Yemen, were to linger as symbols of local conflict in some parts of Syria until the present century….)”

so the rapid urbanization of the arabs as they moved into the middle east actually exacerbated their clannishness/tribalism.

anyway — back to the abbasids. the abbasids thought that they ought to be in charge since their ancestors were more closely related to mohammed — the founder of their subclan was a paternal uncle of mohammed. the founder of the umayyad subclan was just some guy that was adopted into yet another subclan related to mohammed’s (who then went on to found his own subclan, the umayyads). the abbasids had a whole load of supporters who were not abbasids, of course, including plenty of non-muslims, but there was definitely an element of an inter-clannish spat here, as there was across the histories of all of the caliphates. for example, the founders of the fatimid caliphate in 909 a.d. claimed to be descendents of mohammed’s daughter fatimah — and, therefore, more worthy of being caliphs — so yeah…more family intrigue. from A History of the Arab Peoples [pg. 33]:

“In some ways ‘Abbasid rule did not differ much from that of the later Umayyads. From the beginning they found themselves involved in the inescapable problem of a new dynasty: how to turn the limited power derived from an uneasy coalition of separate interests into something more stable and lasting. They had won their throne through a combination of forces united only in opposition to the Umayyads, and the relationships of strength within the coalition now had to be defined. First of all the new caliph rid himself of those through whom he had come to power; Abu Muslim and others were killed. There were conflicts too within the family itself; at first members were appointed as governors, but some of them grew too powerful, and within a generation a new ruling elite of high officials had been created. Some were drawn from Iranian families with a tradition of service to the state and newly converted to Islam, others from members of the ruler’s household, some of them freed slaves.”

yup. gotta get rid of competing members of the family when you’re in a clannish society.

one of the first things the abbasids had to deal with was the alid revolt of 762-763 undertaken by a couple of brothers who, yes, claimed descent from fatimah and who thought/claimed (for various reasons) that they deserved to be in charge rather than the abbasids. so, this was more infighting between rival subclans of mohammed’s quarysh tribe. the abbasids defeated this particular branch of the family that was behind this revolt, but one of the brothers of the leaders of the revolt went on to found the idrisid dynasty of morocco, which was one of those dynasties constantly picking away at the edge of the abbasid empire, even though the idrisids always at least nominally swore allegiance to the caliphate. (one of the offshoots of the idrisid dynasty, btw, is the senussi dynasty of libya, which may or may not make a comeback one of these days.)

between 809 and 827, we’ve got the fourth fitna (civil war) over succession to the caliphate’s throne. the contenders were two half-brothers, the sons of the deceased caliph: al-amin and al-ma’mun. al-amin was caliph for a while until his brother desposed him. the caliph had named al-amin as his successor, but al-ma’mun was actually slightly older, so he was p*ssed off at not having become caliph. the thing was, al-amin’s mother, zubaidah, had been a cousin of the caliph and of the house of abbasid, while al-ma’mun’s mother was just some persian concubine.

about the aftermath of the fitna, wikipedia says:

“The long civil war shattered the social and political order of the early Abbasid state, and a new system began to emerge under al-Ma’mun, which would characterize the middle period of the Abbasid Caliphate. The most tangible change was in the elites who supported the new regime: the abnaʾ, the old Arab families and the members of the Abbasid dynasty itself lost their positions in the administrative and military machinery, and with them their influence and power. The provinces of the Caliphate were now grouped into larger units, often controlled by a hereditary dynasty, like the Tahirids in Khurasan or the Samanids in Transoxiana, usually of Iranian descent. At the same time, however, al-Ma’mun tried to lessen his dependence on the Iranian element of his empire, and counterbalanced them through the creation of two new military corps: Mu’tasim’s Turkish slaves, and the Arab tribal army of the Byzantine frontier, which was now grouped together and placed under the command of al-Ma’mun’s son al-Abbas. This system was further elaborated and acquired its definite characteristics in the reign of al-Mu’tasim, who created a tightly controlled, centralized state, and expanded his Turkish corps into an effective military force with which he waged campaigns against the Byzantines and internal rebellions alike. Its leaders came to political power as provincial governors, while the old Arab elites were sidelined.”

so the entire character of the caliphate changed — and many of the arab clans and tribes lost power — thanks to a clannish family feud. al-ma’mun probably favored non-arab groups — like the tahirids or samanids — for anti-clannishness reasons. this is a common practice in clannish societies around the world, especially the arabized world which suffers from particularly strong clannishness: to try to work around your rival clannish groups by allying yourself with some other groups. never works out, though. from A History of Islamic Societies [pgs. 103-104]:

“To win control of the Caliphate, he [al-ma’mun] had depended on the support of a Khurasanian lord, Tahir, who in return was made governor of Khurasan (820-22) and general of ‘Abbasid forces throughout the empire, with the promise that the offices would be inherited by his heirs. Despite the momentary usefulness of the arrangement, the concession of a hereditary governorship defeated the Caliphal objective of integrating provincial notables into the central government. Now the empire was to be governed by an alliance of the Caliph with the most important provincial lord.

“To offset the power of the Tahirids and regain direct control of the provinces, the Caliphs were eager to create new military forces. Thus, al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tasim (833-42) raised two types of forces. The first were *shakiriya*, intact units under the leadership of their local chiefs, from Transoxania, Armenia, and North Africa. Though the soldiers were not directly beholden to the Caliphs, they served as a counterweight to the Tahirids. The second type of force was Turkish slaves, called the unsullied *ghilman* (pl.), who were purchased individually, but grouped into regiments. For the sake of efficiency and morale, and a balance of power between the regiments, each lived in its own neighborhood, had its own mosque and markets, and was trained, supplied, and paid by its commander. Thus slave regiments also became self-contained units which gave their primary loyalty to their officers rather than to the Caliphs….

These new regiments strenghthened the hand of the Caliphs, but the Transoxanian and Turkish soldiers soon ran afoul of the Baghdadi populace and of the former Arab soldiers in the Baghdadi army, and bloody clashes ensued. Eventually, the Caliph al-Mu’tasim built a new capital, Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, to isolate the troops from the masses. While Baghdad remained the cultural and commercial capital of the region, from 836 to 870 Samarra was the military and administrative headquarters of the Caliphate. However, the new city only created further difficulties. The Caliphs, who had hoped to avoid clashes between the populace and the troops, instead became embroiled in rivalries among the various guard regiments. The officers took civilian bureaucrats into their patronage, won control of provincial governorships, and eventually attempted to control succession to the Caliphate itself. Regimental rivalries led to anarchy. Between 861 and 870 all the leading officers were killed, and the troops fell out of control and turned to banditry. The employment of slave armies further alienated the Caliphate from the populace it ruled. While the early ‘Abbasid empire had depended upon the military support of its own subjects, the late empire tried to dominate its peoples with foreign troops….”

clannish behaviors everywhere! even in “socially constructed” clans. (if you’ve got “genes for clannishness,” whatever they might be, you’re going to behave clannishly.)

in the late 800s, the abbasids had to deal with the breakaway hamdanid dynasty in northern iraq/syria (hmmm…familiar territory) which was founded by hamdan ibn hamdun who was p*ssed off when the caliph tried to give the governorship of mosul to some turkish guy. hamdan’s tribe — the banu taghlib who were originally from eastern arabia and who waited until quite late to convert from christianity to islam — rebelled. hamdan’s son, husayn, made peace with the caliph, though, and regained the governorship of the region for the family…buuuut, he did wind up eventually being beheaded for taking part in yet another revolt. a couple of husayn’s rather ruthless nephews managed to set up “semi-independent emirates” operating out of mosul and aleppo. although they, too, like the fatimids, swore allegience to the caliph, i view all this clannishness and literal tribal behaviors as further examples of the chipping away at the caliphate. oh — another dynasty, the uqalyids, took over in mosul in 990, and they were of the banu uqayl clan out of western arabia. so, more literal tribalism.

some of the other foreign dynasties that chipped away at the abbasid caliphate were not tribal arabs, but many of them were certainly very clannish themselves. the samanid dynasty of persia, for instance, was founded by saman khuda of the house of mihran, one of the seven parthian clans of the earlier sassanian empire. al-ma’mun appointed four of saman’s grandsons governors as a reward for the family’s loyalty to the caliph. clannish! the last of the samanids, isma’il muntasir (i.e the “victorious”), who was trying to restore his family’s then-dying glory, was killed by some arab guy, so unfortunately he wasn’t so victorious after all.

many of the other central asian dynasties that conquered areas previously, or maybe better intermittantly, held by the abbasid caliphate also read like hatfield versus mccoy stories: the buyids, the ghaznavids, the simjurids, even the seljuks. much of this rather extreme clannishess — like that of the samanids above — happened before these groups converted to islam or very shortly afterwards, so probably too soon for them to have adopted fbd marriage as part of any broader arabization process. this makes me guess that these populations in persia and afghanistan, etc., were probably practicing quite a bit of close cousin marriage before the arabs got there, just presumably not fbd marriage (if the anthropologists are right). don’t know. Further Research is RequiredTM.

but clannishness didn’t just chip away at the edges of the caliphate — internal clannishness, even though the caliphs had tried to eliminate the powers of the arab clans, worked against the caliphate. from A History of Islamic Societies [pg. 105]:

By the late ninth century…numerous small cliques attached to many leading officials had become polarized into two great factions, called the Banu Furat and the Banu Jarrah. Each of these factions was built around a wazir and his relatives and clients. The families also had a larger following based on social and ideological affiliations. The Banu Jarrah faction was composed mainly, though not exclusively, of Nestorian Christians or Christian converts, often educated in the monastery of Dayr Qunna in southern Iraq. By the middle of the ninth century, this faction had already grown powerful enough to influence state policy. In 852 al-Mutawakkil (847-61) was persuaded to assure Christians freedom of religion, freedom from military service, and the right to construct churches, and to give the Nestorian Catholicos full jurisdiction over all Christians…. The other major faction, the Banu Furat, were mainly Baghdadi Shi’a.

The chiefs of these factions eventually gained control of the whole government services…. A wazir and his faction would come to power by intrigues and by bribing the Caliph and other influential courtiers. Their main concern then would be to exploit their offices, earn back the bribes, and prepare for future hard times by various frauds, such as padded payrolls, false bookkeeping, illegal speculations, and taking bribes. The officials regarded their positions as a property which they bought, sold, and exploited for private gain.”

after the late 800s, the caliph was very often the caliph only in name (it varied depending on the individual caliph). governmental officials and their extended families and clients (patron-client systems are typical of clannish societies — think: sicily) ran the show within the core of the caliphate, and virtually independent familial dynasties typically ruled the peripheral regions.

what i find even more interesting than all this clan and tribal intrigue, though, is how clannish society within the caliphate actually was. this sort-of societal arrangement is always fraught with difficulties — from A History of Islamic Societies [pgs. 61-63]:

“Local government was organized for taxation. Surveys were taken in the villages to determine the amount of land under cultivation, the crops grown, and their expected yield, and the information was passed up to the central administration. The taxes for whole regions would be estimated, the sums divided up for each district, and the demand notes sent out describing the responsibilities of each subdivision. Each sub-unit received its bill and divided it among the smaller units. At the next stage, taxes were collected, local expenses deducted, and the balance passed upwards until the surplus eventually reached Baghdad….

“How was the state to know if crops were concealed? The state came to the villages with staffs and technical specialists such as surveyors to make land measurements, weighers and measurers to estimate the size of crops, and bankers and money changers to convert currencies or to give credits. It came with legal specialists, judges to adjudicate disputes, witnesses to transactions, registrars of deeds, and the like. Alongside the technicians, it came with specialists in violence, collectors, soldiers, police extortionists, stool pigeons, and thugs. Fear was no small part of the business of tax collection.

Yet, with all this, the potential for passive resistance and the problem of inadequate information could not be solved without the cooperation of local people. These included family patriarchs, village headmen (such as the *ra’is* in Iran, or the *shaykh al-balad* in Egypt), and village landowners, who controlled a large part of the village land and were much richer than the average peasant, but not so wealthy as the great estate or iqta’ holders….

“These notables played an important intermediary role in the taxation process. As the most powerful people connected with the villages, they handled negotiations, made a deal on behalf of the peasants, and paid the taxes. The arrangement suited everyone. The bureaucratic agents were never absolutely sure how much money they could raise, and wished to avoid the nuisance of dealing with individuals. The peasants did not have to confront the exorbitant demands of the tax collectors directly. The notables underestimated the taxes to the state, overestimated them to the peasants, and pocketed the difference. ‘Abbasid officials understood perfectly well the importance of these people, whom they called their *a’wan* (helpers)….”

clannish corruption. long-standing tradition in the middle east, then.

anyway…those are just some of the clannish elements of the abbasid caliphate that, imho, caused it to “collapse” — or nearly collapse — or get chipped away over time both on the edges and internally. i guess that there were plenty more such elements and that one could find similar examples from other arab states, too, both in the past and in the present.

new working theory, btw: that the populations of the middle east, maghreb, afghanistan/pakistan have become more and progressively clannish and dysfunctional (in terms of attempts to build western-style states in these places) since they’ve become more and more arabized (especially since they began practicing more and more fbd marriage) beginning at the earliest in the ca. early 600s. the actual migration of the (already at the time) very inbred, and therefore very clannish, arabs didn’t help, either.

previously: asabiyyah

(note: comments do not require an email. as-saffah, the first abbasid caliph.)



  1. It seems to me that assabaiyah encourages cohesion within a related network of clans – a tribe – when that tribe is directed against an external enemy, as in the Muslim conquests. When it comes to dividing the spoils of conquest, then assabiyah turns inwards as the clans struggle with each other. However it’s a superable problem as long as most of the subject population are not members of the clans. Over time though the old civilisation is destroyed and replaced with clan structures, as happened in the eastern and north African parts of the Roman Empire, and remaining cohesion is lost.


  2. Interesting how the attempt to use slave soldiers to by-pass clan disloyalty eventually backfired.


  3. Is there any kind of internal fragmentation or rivalry that HBDchick does not call clannish ? If a rivalry between two half-brothers is a “clannish family feud” then the entire political history of the Roman and Byzantine empires is a long series of “clannish family feuds”. Just look at how members of the Constantinian dynasty kept splitting up the Roman empire into manageable sizes to be ruled by tetrarchs of brothers, cousins or half-brothers, only to end up having to defeat and kill one another in battle as mutual suspicions blossomed. You might as well say the same about the succession conflict following the death of Alexander the Great, and the numerous dynasties founded by the Diadochi themselves were also subject to these “clannish feuds”.

    But why stick to the ancient or the mediaeval ? How about “les guerres des Frondes” in France in the 17th century ? (Look it up.) Half the leaders of the Fronde des nobles were relatives of the king, including an uncle of his.

    How about the War of the Castilian succession ? The rivalry was between factions surrounding related people. Or the much later Carlist Wars, for that matter ?

    Were any of the enemies unrelated in the Wars of the Roses ?

    And I still don’t understand how are the revolts by the Hamdanids, Uqalyids, Samanids, Buyids, Ghaznavids, Simjurids, Seljuks, etc. in any meaningful way different from vassal-satrap-provincial revolts in general ? For example, the Buyids might have been as clannish as they come, but how was their mini-empire built at the expense of the Abbasids different in any meaningful sense from, I don’t know, the revolt of the Netherlands against the Hapbsurgs ? Now, I’m being deliberately provocative with the example of the Netherlands. (I’m sure this is the first the time the Dutch Republic has been compared with the Buyids….) But the point is, empires fragment and the periphery is the first to fissure. Do you know how much more fragmented Germany was after the 30 years war than before ? Who says the Abbasids were particularly abnormal in their fragmentation ?


  4. @pseudoerasmus: Nope! Can’t allow Buyids=Dutch. Buyids a classic case of rough marchland warriors conquering the core. Dutch an example of a nation seeking independence. Yes, dynastic infighting was virtually universal in premodern states since all were under dynastic rule. But surely you won’t deny there were some distinctive features of Arab-Islamic-Middle Eastern polities?

    @hbdchick: A lot of the peoples mentioned were nomads or of recent nomad stock: especially the Arabs and then the various Turkic peoples (Ghaznavids, Simjurids, Seljuks etc). I tend to think of nomads as being particularly clannish. Isn’t nomadism linked to stronger asabiyya by Ibn Khaldun? Or is it just that nomads were better warriors?


  5. “Is there any kind of internal fragmentation or rivalry that HBDchick does not call clannish ?”

    Internal fragmentation and rivalry are simply a product of, or manifestations of, a range of behavioural traits common to peoples of the middle east and other regions of the world, which are best described as ‘clannish’. These behavioural traits happen to be more common in parts of the world with a recent history of consanguineous marriage. And least common in north-western Europe.


  6. I am not speaking of the present. I am speaking of the past, specifically in respect of cycles of fragmentation and reconsolidation of polities. HBDchick has made very strong assertions in respect of that.

    I repeat : who the hell says the Middle East and North Africa of the past were more subject to internal fragmentation than any other region of the world, including Northwest Europe ?

    Middle East & North Africa : at least 9 million km^2, which is roughly coterminous with the Abbasids at their height. We can easily eliminate half as desert.

    Western Europe is probably 4 million km^2.

    MENA had many fewer polities in about the same amount of space as Western Europe. Let’s not get into population density, which in the cities of Egypt and Mesopotamia dwarfed anything in Europe until about 1500.

    Again, who says MENA was more subject to internal fragmentation than any other region of the world ?


  7. Yes, clannish = separatist is rather wrong.
    Look at the map of european separatisms

    There is visible absent of separatism in Northern Eastern Europe.
    En vogue Russian Transdniestria / Crimea / Donbas “separatists” want union with Russia.
    The do not to be separate, only a part of the biggest state on Earth.
    They should be called rather unionists.

    And the separatist movements that exist (like polish Silesian) are folklore in comparison to Bavarian / not to mention Basque or Catalan separatists..

    There must be something that causes separatism, but it is something that divides Nortern Eastern Europeans from the rest of world.


  8. The Arab language and religion (ie Islam) were durable, but the Arab empire was highly transient. It began fragmenting after about a century (750s) and continued fragmenting until it was gone in mid 900s when Buyids (Iranian) and then later Seljuks (Turks) conquered Mesopotamia. There was never again a large Arab state anywhere. (They kept the caliph as a figurehead for a while longer.)

    So, Arabs were fantastically successful in language, religion and conquest, but absolutely useless in maintaining a long-lasting state. I say that hbdchick’s theory could well be (part of) the explanation. I say also that pseudoerasmus is wrong to claim that there’s nothing here to be explained.


  9. You’re obviously a very smart girl so I don’t understand how you are too broke to afford a computer with a working Shift key. Either that or you’re not actually as smart as I assumed since a smart person would realize adults like to read properly written writing. If it’s the former please let me know so I can send you the money to purchase a new computer.


  10. Actually it’s not correct that the Arabic language was enduring. The “Arabic language” is like Latin — an artificial classical standard that people learn at school. But the spoken dialects of the Arab world are as different as the Romance languages. Iraqis understand Egyptian because Egyptian movies are popular, but Egyptians can’t understand Iraqi very well. Nobody understands Maghrebi.

    the Arab empire was highly transient. It began fragmenting after about a century (750s) and continued fragmenting until it was gone in mid 900s when Buyids (Iranian) and then later Seljuks (Turks) conquered Mesopotamia. There was never again a large Arab state anywhere.

    What happened to Egypt ? or the Maghreb ?

    And so what if Damascus and Baghdad were ruled by non-Arabs ? How many European cities were ruled by non-natives ?


  11. I think you are all confused about something. States had long existed without being ethno-national states. For most of human history, people lived under states which had no specific ethnic identification. So whether Seljuk Turks took over Baghdad is a spurious basis for judging whether mediaeval Arabs evinced state capability.

    What made some Europeans different is that they came to desire an ethno-national state long before everybody else. But that does NOT mean states in the Middle East were more prone to fragmentation than anywhere else. It’s just that nobody in the ME ever thought of getting an ethnic state until the very late 19th century — and it first happened amongst Arab Christians.


  12. Pseaudoerasmus:

    I don’t agree at all that ethno-national states are fairly new, or that Europeans desired them before everyone else. (It is one kind of “Eurocentrism” I’m against.) But can’t defend my anti-modernism here and now. In any case it is a bit peripheral to the issue, since we agree on the obvious: the ME was a zone of empires not nation-states.

    But even in vast polyethnic empires, ethnicity matters. There’s usually a core ethnicity. The Arabs were the core ethnicity of their empire. They were soon displaced as a core or ruling ethnie in ME by new empires with new core ethnies.

    I wouldn’t claim that ME states in general were particularly prone to fragment. I only say that the Arab empire was one of the most expansive ever, yet curiously short-lived.


  13. “ethnie” ? you are revealing your ethnie with this spelling.

    actually I’m aware of the claim that the Chinese developed an ethnic national consciousness under the Tang, or even earlier, but I don’t see nationalist movements per se until the 19th century despite foreign rule, so I don’t really buy that claim.

    I think “core ethnicity” is a category we impose on past peoples. I would argue nobody in Baghdad in 900 even knew they were “Arabs”.


  14. One aspect of the Arab empire I think clannishness probably did affect was the practice of recruiting slave soldiers.

    Why do such a bizarre thing as buying and arming slaves and then relying on them as your army? Did any other ruling class come up with such a brainstorm of a plan, ever? What slave-owners ever gave weapons to their slaves?

    The Arab rulers did it because they had nobody else to rely on as soldiers. They couldn’t recruit the conquered peoples into an army — it would mean revolts. But nor could they trust their Arab co-ethnics — low trust being a hallmark of clannism. The Arab clans had no dearth of fighting ability, but the elite couldn’t or wouldn’t rely on them as soldiers. How totally different that was to eg the Romans.

    In the end, of course, the slave armies tended to take over.

    So, I’m finding hbdchick’s theory more and more persuasive in illuminating some of the oddities of the Arab empire.


  15. no haven’t read Gat, not have I chewed qat.

    I suppose it could bear that interpetation. But a better interpetation is that in an overwhelmingly agricultural society it was not possible to recruit a large soldiery without endangering food supplies. Which is why premodern battles were on average quite small affairs compared with modern ones. Which is also why Rome went from an army of property-owners (!) pre-Marius to a post-Marian army of the landless, eventually to imperial legions filled with Germans. The Byzantines also made heavy use of Frankish and Varangian mercenaries. the need for foreign mercenaries in Europe is one major reason kings had to seek financing from Italian merchant banks ! But the Muslims — not just Arabs, but all Muslim armies — relied hugely on slave armies, from the Atlantic to Bengal. I don’t know if this was the byproduct of the highly developed Arab slave trade or the demand for military slaves fed the trade. But when Suleiman the Mag invaded Hungary with reputedly 100,000 troops it was much a bigger strain on Hungary to field a much smaller force.


  16. this slave army thing isn’t just Arab it is a unique feature of nearly all premodern Muslim polities. there’s an excellent book written on the subject called Slave Soldiers of Islam by Daniel Pipes, it was his Harvard doctoral dissertation, and he put the book online, you can google it.


  17. pseudoerasmus: Nope! Can’t allow Buyids=Dutch. Buyids a classic case of rough marchland warriors conquering the core. Dutch an example of a nation seeking independence.

    You’ve missed the point of my admittedly outlandish example : from the Hapsburg point of view, as from as the Abbasid POV re the Buyids, the Dutch were provincial rebels who could not be controlled.

    and your marshland warriors are a clue to the fate of middle eastern polities : the ME was often the first destination of warrior groups out of the steppe or the desert. I mean, in 1000 where would you rather to loot, Baghdad and Delhi, or some bog on the Dniepr ?


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