- An Interview with Amira Bennison
Why do you use the phrase "a stormy sea" for the title of your chapter on the politics of the 'Abbasid caliphate?
The rise of the Islamic empire within a lifetime after the death of the prophet created many issues related to correct leadership and governance. These manifested themselves in constant renegotiations about what the caliphate was—who should hold it, and so on. Many groups resorted to armed opposition, creating the turbulence alluded to by the term "a stormy sea." Moreover, the empire became huge very quickly and incorporated many peoples of different languages and ethnicities who sometimes balked at the loss of their independence. There were many bids for local autonomy in the empire, as well as factions fighting each other at the 'Ab-basid court.
What was the institution of the caliphate, and how did it differ from a sultanate or a monarchy?
The term caliphate, khilafa in Arabic, comes from the Arabic verb "to deputize, succeed, or act as a viceroy." Early Muslims differed as to whether the caliph was the successor of Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community or a more monarchical figure, God's deputy on Earth. In either case, the caliph was seen as the religious, political, and military head of the Muslim community, the umma. At the outset, caliphs fulfilled these roles directly, but over time they delegated aspects of their role to others. One of the most intense struggles over caliphal authority occurred in the 9th century as religious scholars tried to diminish the caliph's right to define doctrine while the caliph al-Ma'mun and his successors attempted to reassert this very right. Even when the caliphs lost their active political and [End Page 23] religious roles, they remained important as nominal heads of the universal Muslim community. Although rival caliphs did emerge, there was a strong sense that there could only be one legitimate caliph in the Islamic world. In contrast, the sultanate was a temporal institution. Sultans defended the faith, but they were often military men who had no special pretensions to religious leadership. There could also be any number of sultans at one time.
What are some of the significant ways that the classical Islamic era differs from the stereotypes of Muslim culture that circulate today?
Today's stereotypes include the notion that Muslims have a predisposition to violence, that Islam does not tolerate other religions, and that it is opposed to scientific advances and "progress." What the classical Islamic era shows is that Muslim societies do not have to be any of these things by virtue of being Islamic. The Islamic empire expanded by means of conquest, which certainly involved violence. But once the empire was firmly established, the toleration of religious minorities was more normal. Moreover, a flourishing culture dedicated to the pursuit of profit, knowledge, and the arts developed in most major cities.
How were religious minorities, particularly Christians and Jews, treated by the 'Ab-basids?
Religious minorities were regarded as inferior to Muslims from a legal perspective. However, the so-called peoples of the book—Christians and Jews—were allowed to practice their faith and retain their customs and communal autonomy in return for obedience to Muslim rule and payment of a poll tax. There were rules about wearing different clothes from those worn by Muslims, not building churches and synagogues, and not publicly proclaiming their faith with bell-ringing, proselytizing, etc. However, these rules were often not enforced. Archaeological evidence shows the widespread preservation and construction of churches and synagogues at different times and places. And there were sporadic objections to the fact that one couldn't tell people of different faiths apart. In general, attitudes hardened as Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians became more of a minority through the conversion of many of their communities to Islam. But for centuries, Muslims constituted a ruling minority and treated other minorities with acceptance.
How did the 'Abbasids manage the logistics of the pilgrimage to Mecca, and what was the connection between trade and pilgrimage?
The connection between trade and pilgrimage originated...