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Rulership and Justice

Islamic Period

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Examining Stereotypes

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“Oriental Despotism”

Delegation of administrative, judicial, and military responsibilities to subordinates was vital for the efficient and effective maintenance of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, and later the empires of the sultāns. This bureaucratic system created multiple political and social orders of khāss (the rulers) positioned above the lower classes (‘amm, the ruled). We have established that the sultāns attained their political authority through the conquest of territories belonging to the caliph-imām. Even though this military activity undercut the caliph-imām’s authority, many Muslims reasoned that the principles of governance that had guided the historic Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate remained unchanged so long as the sultāns provided for the “equitable maintenance” of the various social classes and guaranteed that each retained its “proper place” and received its “due portion of provision and honor.” Thus, the direct rule of sultāns became a justifiable alternative to the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate. For Sunnī Muslims of the medieval Islamic period, political stability was the overriding consideration in assessing the legitimacy of a ruling regime. Image #7 in the resource bank shows the sociopolitical hierarchy of medieval Islamic society.

From this general scheme, we can see the relative status of each class and the outlines of a complex network of military personnel, specialized state functionaries, prominent businessmen, and an influential aristocracy all participating, in various ways, in governance and social management. The diffusion of power across the classes of rulers placed limitations on the sultān’s absolute sovereignty and indicates that urban notables exercised some degree of autonomy and local authority in areas outside the jurisdiction of the imperial capital. The presumption of “oriental despotism,” an authoritarian system in which political power is concentrated exclusively in the hands of an unjust and tyrannical caliph-imām or sultān presents a distorted picture of the social realities of medieval Middle Eastern societies.

Supporting Links:

Cohen, Mark R. “The ‘Convivencia’ of Jews and Muslims in the High Middle Ages.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 20, 2010)

“Marouf the Cobbler and His Wife Fatimah” from Kitāb ’Alf Leila wa Leila (One Thousand and One Nights). Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 10, 2010).  Author’s Note: Mentions all the various classes of people living in medieval Islamic society.

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