Monday, November 21, 2011

The Islamic Wall

From Debt, The First 5000 Years, David Graeber

Medieval Islam [..] enthusiastically embraced law, which was seen as a religious institution derived from the Prophet, but tended to view government, more often than not, as an unfortunate necessity, an institution that the truly pious would do better to avoid.

In part this was because of the peculiar nature of Islamic govern­ment. The Arab military leaders who, after Mohammed's death in 632 AD, conquered the Sassanian empire and established the Abbasid Caliphate, always continued to see themselves as people of the desert, and never felt entirely part of the urban civilizations they had come to rule. This discomfort was never quite overcome - on either side. It took the bulk of the population several centuries to convert to the conqueror's religion, and even when they did, they never seem to have really identified with their rulers. Government was seen as military power -- necessary, perhaps, defend the faith, but fundamentally exte­rior to society.

In part, too, it was because of the peculiar alliance between mer­chants and common folk that came to be aligned against them. After Caliph al-Ma'mum's abortive attempt to set up a theocracy in 832 AD, the government took a hands-off position on questions of religion. The various schools of Islamic law were free to create their own educational institutions and maintain their own separate system of religious justice. Crucially, it was the ulema, the legal scholars, who were the principal agents in the conversion of the bulk of the empire's population to Islam in Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa in those same years. But like the elders in charge of guilds, civic associations, commercial sodalities, and religious brotherhoods they did their best to keep the government, with its armies and ostentation, at arm's length.

"The best princes are those who visit religious teachers," one proverb put it, "the worst religious teachers are the those who allow themselves to be visited by princes."

This disjuncture had profound economic effects . It meant that the Caliphate, and later Muslim empires, could operate in many ways much like [old ones ..] We can, perhaps, speak of a kind of "military­ coinage-slavery" complex here-but it existed in a kind of bubble.

Wars of expansion, and trade with Europe and Africa, did produce a fairly constant flow of slaves, but in dramatic contrast to the ancient world, very few of them ended up laboring in farms or workshops. Most ended up as decoration in the houses of the rich, or, increasingly over time, as soldiers. Over the course of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 AD) in fact, the empire came to rely, for its military forces , almost exclusively on Mamluks, highly trained military slaves captured or purchased from the Turkish steppes.

The policy of employing slaves as soldiers was [..] unprecedented. In most times and places slaves are, for obvious reasons, the very last people to be allowed anywhere near weapons. Here it was systematic. But in a strange way, it also made perfect sense: if slaves are, by definition, people who have been severed from society, this was the logical consequence of the wall created between society and the Medieval Islamic state.

Religious teachers appear to have done everything they could to prop up the wall. One reason for the recourse to slave soldiers was their tendency to discourage the faithful from serving in the military (since it might mean fighting fellow believers) . The legal system that they created also ensured that it was effectively impossible for Muslims - or for that matter Christian or Jewish subjects of the Caliphate - to be reduced to slavery. Here al-Wahid seems to have been largely correct. Islamic law took aim at just about all the most notorious abuses of earlier, Axial Age societies. Slavery through kidnapping, judicial punishment, debt, and the exposure or sale of children, even through the voluntary sale of one's own person-all were forbidden, or rendered unenforceable.

In a way, one can see the establishment of Islamic courts as the ultimate triumph of the patriarchal rebellion that had begun so many thousands of years before: of the ethos of the desert or the steppe, real or imagined , even as the faithful did their best to keep the heavily armed descendants of actual nomads confined to their camps and pal­aces . It was made possible by a profound shift in class alliances. The great urban civilizations of the Middle East had always been dominat­ed by a de facto alliance between administrators and merchants, both of whom kept the rest of the population either in debt peonage or in constant peril of falling into it. In converting to Islam, the commercial classes, so long the arch-villains in the eyes of ordinary farmers and townsfolk, effectively agreed to change sides, abandon all their most hated practices, and become instead the leaders of a society that now defined itself against the state.