297 – How do Caliphates emerge?

Posted on August 21, 2014 by


ISIS, an Islamist group, has declared the Caliphate on the border between Syria and northern Iraq, quickly expanding and even menacing Bagdhad. Pundits have conjured images of Islamic warriors on a worldwide jihad.[1] What is one to make of the claim?

It may be useful to look at the historical evidence of how the last – the Ottoman – Caliphate emerged[2] after the XIIth century, in Bithynia, at the edge of Turco-Muslim Anatolia, a region not too distant from where ISIS is operating.

Anatolia at the time was a borderland (uc) between the lands of Byzantium and the Islamic world. Focusing first on the “Islamic side,” an improbable mélange of presences and powers emerges. The Turco-Seljuk sultanate (and some of its princes), but also the Mongol Ilkhanate (Persia) and the Mamluk Sultanate were not too distant influences. Among the many tribes and peoples in the area, the Ottomans belonged to the Kayi branch of the originally nomadic Oguz confederacy, which had been pushed into the region by the Chingisid conquest in Central Asia. There were also begs (chieftains) of tribes, dervish and sufi orders, semin-nomads, agriculturalists, townspeople, traders, military adventurers, slaves etc. On the “other side” there was Byzantium at the time it was fragmenting and recomposing, and there were tevkur, local Christian chieftains.

A closer reading of the evidence fails to discern a historical narrative: a line of cause and effect that “explains” the emergence of the Ottoman Empire – a chronology of “kings and battles.” There is no self-contained ethnic group[3] under a sequence of leaders deliberately striving for dominance. Alliances were forged and broken across ethnic, religious, and even gender boundaries. Location and other incidental factors may have been critical. In short, ethnic fluidity prevailed. A major characteristic of the borderland was the inclusiveness, cooperation, and latitudinarism of many groups as they struggled with each other without strategic purpose.

There was in the region a gazi tradition or ethos: fervor for the expansion of the power of Islam (there was symmetric fervor on the other side). Being a gazi was never understood to involve indiscriminate warfare against infidels, and it could include warfare against co-religionists. Not only did this ideology vary in place and time, but it was a complex ideological construct, in which religious syncretism (in particular, conversions which went both ways), militancy, adventurism, idealism, and other elements like “warrior’s honor” but also pursuit of wealth and glory coexisted. “These different elements may have contradicted one another at times, and a successful leader would probably be the one who would find the most appropriate resolution to such conflicts…requiring complicated negotiations between different interests, some consensus on priorities” leading to some authoritative resolution.[4] Cooperation was not predicated on conversion, and many instances of cross-loyalties are recorded.

Conversion fused Islamic elements with pre-Islamic beliefs, be they Turkish (shamanism) or Christian. “For the self-confident proselytizer, the world was not divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’ but into ‘us’ and ‘those who are not yet us’ or ‘those who may someday be among us.” The Ottomans never abandoned this kind of religious latitudinarism: Istanbul beheld a majority of Orthodox Christians and Armenians, as well as Jews, until late in the XIXth century, when demography, not policy, changed the balance.[5]

The 200-year period of Ottoman emergence was characterized also by slow institutional syncretism and innovation, leading to a complex system of centralized institutions. Unigeniture – the prohibition of splitting the heritage among heirs,[6] secured the Sultan’s power against fissiparous forces of inter-generational transition. The establishment of a Janissary corps[7] secured the Sultan’s control over a standing army separate from the troops of vassals and begs, reduced to provincial fief-holders. The Sultan established a systematic and consistent administration and a legal system (kadis) independent of the mosque. Competitive fiscal moderation and stability of rule secured the acquiescence of the peasantry (whatever the subjects’ faith).

In short, the raise of the Ottomans was an emergent process, where many intrinsic factors contributed. No single cause was sufficient, and in any case, over a 200-year period, everything changed both in content and importance. Add critical contingencies, like the arrival of Timur, or factionalism and squabbles among pretenders in Byzantium. They challenged and strengthened the emerging state. In the end, however, there was nothing foreseeable in the rise of the Ottomans.

Tributary empires[8] (and Caliphates) would seem to require socio-cultural inclusiveness in respect of the conquered peoples and the slow[9] build-up of complex institutions sustaining core power over time and circumstances. Successful empires – both Rome and Istanbul – were examples in this respect. Both took over 200 years to emerge on the world scene, and both went through periods of challenge and tribulations (the Gallic Wars, the Timurid invasion) which eventually strengthened the power structure. One is reserved about inverse processes, where conquest precedes state formation and cultural exclusivism seems to be the foundation.

[1]           The term jihad is far from clearly defined. I’ve encountered meanings ranging from “incessant warfare to expand the abode of Islam” to “warfare to defend the abode of Islam” to “opportunistic warfare” to “personal struggle.” One needs not to go into this issue here.

[2]           I am using as reference the excellent work: Cemar KAFADAR (2008): Between two worlds. The construction of the Ottoman state. University of California. Berkeley. Not an easy read, for it puts so many received ideas about historiography and social processes on its head, it is a roller-coaster of a reading.

[3]           The very idea of an exclusive kinship group linked by blood has been queried by anthropologists. See e.g. Marshall SAHLINS (2013): What inship is… and is not. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. “Kinship, is mutuality of being: kinfolk are persons who participate intrinsically in each other’s existence; they are members of one another” and is thus a social construct, not a biological fact. Common genealogies are fabricated after the formation of the tribe and adjusted whenever new groups join in the common purpose.

[4]           Cemar KAFADAR (2008): Between two worlds. The construction of the Ottoman state. University of California. Berkeley; (pg. 81)

[5]           KAFADER contrasts the Spanish Reconquista with the contemporary creation of the Ottoman Empire. In Spain, both Moors and Jews were expelled, and strict orthodoxy was enforced by the Inquisition. Today, Spain is a wholly Catholic country.

[6]           Nomadism favors such divisions. Early on the Ottomans rejected this rule, and even went as far as codifying fratricide beginning with Mehmed II. This, however, implied a shorter or longer period of civil war until the new heir emerged.

[7]               Like their predecessors the Mameluks, the Ottomans recruited non-Muslim peasant children (who could be enslaved), raised them to become warriors or be moved to highest positions of government. Having lost all connections to their place of origins, they were faithful to the Sultan. This stance was strengthened by the belief that Islam was the “natural religion”: having once been exposed to it, return to darkness is unthinkable.

[8]           See e.g. Peter Fibiger BANG – C. A. BAYLY (2011): Tributary empires in global history.  Palgrave, MacMillan, Basingstoke.

[9]           While it is correct that nations fail for lack of appropriate institutions (see e.g. Daron ACEMOGLU – James A. ROBINSON (2013): Why nations fail. The origins of power, prosperity and poverty. Profile Books, London; one must warn against the export of ready-made “institutional kits.” Institutions succeed when they have become learned processes: only long periods of experience allow institutions to uphold the state.

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