The Role of Ethnicity in Muslim Caliphates

The Role of Ethnicity in Muslim Caliphates

On 3 March 1924, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate, putting an end to one of the most significant political-religious powers in history that had lasted for over 13 centuries in Muslim lands.

All Muslim sects and factions deemed the Caliph a particularly prestigious position that had complex doctrinal requirements, with origins among the most important eligibility rules.

However, the Caliphate's history has witnessed contradictions between principles and practice.

Sunni Islam: Caliphs Must Hail From Quraish Tribe

According to Ali ibn Muhammad Al-Mawardi's book "The Ordinances of Government", the mainstream Sunni Muslims believed a man had to boast certain qualities in order to be a caliph, the foremost of which he must hail from the tribe of Quraish.

The book cites verses of the "Hadith" -- accounts of the sayings, actions or habits of the Prophet (pbuh) that are used as complementary teachings on all aspects of life. According to these verses, Muhammad stressed on different occasions that families of Quraish were solely eligible to be caliphs. Some of the cited hadith is attributed to Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

Sources including the History of the Prophets and Kings, by Muhammad ibn Jarir Al-Tabari, mention that migrants took advantage of this condition to boost their bid for power during the Saqifah Bani Sa'idah meeting. The gathering took place with the attendance of the Ansar (the Helpers) -- Muslim converts who helped Muhammad and his followers when they arrived in Medina -- right after the Prophet's death to choose a succeeding caliph.

Throughout the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates, the Quraish origins as a fundamental requirement to be a caliph was never questioned; all those who ruled during the two epochs unequivocally hailed from the eminent tribe.

However, non-Arab ethnicities started to invade the ruling class upon the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in 749.

At the early stages of their calling, Abbasids relied on winning over Persians who posed a revolutionary force driven by indignation towards the ruling Arabs. Some of them later became the real string-pullers of the Abbasid Caliphate, including Abu Muslim Al-Khurasani and the Barmakids.

The death of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid in 808 and the eruption of a civil war between the followers of both of his sons -- Al-Amin and Al-Ma'mun -- posed a turning point in the power structure. The rift between the brothers was dealt with from an ethnic-national perspective; the overwhelming majority of Arabs supported Al-Amin because his mother, Zubaidah, was an Arab while most Persians backed Al-Ma'mun for his Persian mother, who was one of Al-Rashid's slaves.


Share TweetOnly members of the Quraish tribe were eligible to be caliphs, a rule maintained by the Arabs before Persians and Turks took the reins and made the caliph no more than an honorary position

Share TweetThe marriage of the daughter of the Caliph Al-Qa'im Bi-Amrillah in 1063 to Seljuk Sultan Tughril who sought to establish a new Turkish Arab dynasty was a turning point for Arab Sunnis

After Al-Ma'mun won the war, he befriended the Persians, making Merv the seat from which to rule Khurasan. He stayed there for a while before succumbing to pressure from Abbasids and returned to Baghdad, the capital of his ancestors.

After Al-Ma'mun passed away in 833, ethnicity was once against the catalyst, only this time favoring the Turks. The new caliph, Al-Mu'tasim Billah, was the son of a female Turkish slave. He built relations with Turkmens living in central Asia and used them to build an army. He also installed their leaders in high-profile positions.

By time, Turkish leaders rebelled against the Caliphate. In 861, they killed Caliph Al-Mutawakkil to appoint his son Al-Muntasir Billah as his successor.

Caliphs as Subordinates to Non-Arabs

Early in the first half of the 10th century, the fourth century in the Islamic calendar, a drastic change to the ruling ethnicity took place, when Abbasids became unprecedentedly weak and gave way to the Persian Buyid dynasty.

Abbasids and Buyids shared the throne, only for the latter to become the actual Sultans who eclipsed the caliph, which turned into no more than an honorary position.

In the 11th century, the fifth in the Islamic calendar, the Seljuk Empire emerged to replace the Buyid dynasty, while the Abbasid caliph remained unscathed in his Baghdad-based palace.

In 1063, for the first time in the history of Sunni Caliphates, Caliph Al-Qa'im Bi-Amrillah had no choice but to agree on marrying his daughter to Seljuk Sultan Tughril, who perhaps was seeking to establish a new dynasty of Turkish and Arab blood. He never realized such aspirations, however, having died without leaving an heir apparent.

In 1258, the Mongols entered Baghdad and killed Caliph Al-Musta'sim Billah. Several years later, Mamluk Sultan Baibars summoned one of the Abbasids in Cairo and appointed him a new caliph, naming him Al-Hakim Bi-Amrillah.

Baibars' move can be interpreted as a step to give legitimacy to the Mamluk rule, given that Sunni Mamluks could not make caliphs for their non-Arab origins, not to mention the fact that they were originally slaves of unknown parentage.

When the Mongols entered Baghdad.


Abbasid caliphs were barely any different from their ancestors: the Buyids and Seljuks. Their main role was basically to lead prayers and public congregations.

A notable change to the dialectic of the ruling race occurred in 1517, when Ottoman Sultan Selim I defeated Mamluks in the Battle of Ridaniya, forcing caliph Al-Mutawakkil III to step down and becoming the first ever caliph with Turkish origins.

His sons and grandsons inherited the caliph title until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Islamic Caliphate. Abdulmejid II was the last caliph of Islam.

Shiites: Imams Must Be Alawite

All Shia sects agreed that caliphs must be descendants of Ali bin Abi Talib. However, Zaidi Shiites believed Alawites who met the requirements of the caliph were eligible.

On the other hand, the Twelver Shiites restricted the caliph title to 12 people, the last of whom named The Mahdi who they believed would spread justice across the globe upon his appearance. As for the Ismaili Shiites, they believed only the descendants of Ismail ibn Jafar can be caliphs.

Persian Buyids were Shiite yet they never called for establishing a Caliphate, since The Mahdi who has yet to materialize is the caliph and imam, according to their beliefs.

There are a lot of doubts and suspicions surrounding the origins of the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate's founders. According to many Sunni history books -- including Albidaya wa'l-Nihaya by Ibn Kathir -- the founder of this state Abdullah Al-Mahdi Billah was not descended from the lineage of Ali bin Abi Talib as rumored at the time, but of Maimoon Al-Qadah who is believed to be of Persian origins.

Proving the origins of the Fatimids remains difficult because most of the history books that mention them were written in the context of fierce doctrinal and political competitions.

The third Shia state was the Safavid dynasty, which was founded in the early 16th century, the 10th in the Islamic calendar.

Unlike Ottomans, Safavids disallowed the caliph position due to the Twelver belief which forbids raising the Caliphate flag before the arrival of The Mahdi.

Nonetheless, Sufis were keen to keep their state a theocracy. They brought a number of Shiite scholars from Bahrin and Jabal Amel, south of Lebanon, and let them fill leading state positions. Al-Muhaqqiq Al-Karaki was one of the most prominent scholars the Sufis brought in.

Like the rest of the ruling Islamic dynasties, Sufis sought to prove they were descended from Quraish. They claimed they were descendants of Musa Al-Kadhim, the seventh of the twelve Shiite imams. However, their ethnicity remains a point of contention up till present time; they were most likely of Persian, Turkmen or Kurdish origins.

Khawarij: Ethnicity Does Not Matter

The Kharijites were the third pillar of political Islam for over 14 centuries. Khawarij usually refers to the groups that refused to comply with ruling authorities and did not believe in the promised Alawite savior.

Sheikh Bakir ibn Said Awasht in his book "Islamic Studies in Ibadi Origins" said that Khawarij was based on rejection of the Arab ethnicity condition. According to the Kharijites' criteria, any Muslim who can shoulder the responsibilities of a leader would be eligible to be a caliph regardless of his origins or color.

Going back in history of different Khawarij groups since they first appeared in the Battle of Siffin in 657 -- 37 in the Islamic calendar -- and until the end of the first Islamic century, it could be noticed that they relatively abided by these principles. Most of their leaders during that period were from Arab tribes that were not at all related to Quraish.

For instance, the Khawarij Prince during the Battle of Nahrawan was Abdallah ibn Wahb Al-Rasibi who hailed from the Yemeni Azd tribe. Qatari bin Al-Fujaah, one of the Khawarij prominent figures, belonged to Banu Tamim tribe. Nafi ibn Al-Azraq and Najda bin Amer were the founders of dissident separatist sects Azariqa and Najdia respectively; they both hailed from the tribe of Banu Hanifa.

Midway through the 18th century -- the second in the Islamic calendar -- Buyids, one of the most important Khawarij branches, demonstrated their commitment to their political principles which did not pertain to Arab origins. They chose Persian Abdul-Rahman ibn Rustom as the first imam for their state, which later dominated large swathes of the Maghreb.

Almost concurrently, similar developments took place in the state of Banu Midrar, south east of Morocco. Khair Al-Din Al-Zirikli said in his book "Al-Alam" that when this state was established, the Saffarids installed Isa ibn Yazid as their imam. He was black, of African origins it is believed.

Nevertheless, this experience was not successful like that of the Buyids. By time, flocks of Berbers flooded Sijilmasa. The white-skinned newcomers refused to be ruled by a black man, and thus rebelled and killed him in 771 -- 115 in the Islamic calendar -- after he stayed in power for 15 years.

Mohamed Yosri

A researcher who focuses on Islamic history as well as political and sectarian movements. He has published a number of studies and books and has been a regular Raseef22 contributor.


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