Author: Clifford Edmund Bosworth

Published: The New Edinburgh Islamic Surveys,

Year:  2004

ISBN:  0-7486-2137-7


Writing on thirteenth century India, Professor Khaliq Nizami makes two interesting observations when discussing the impact of the Mongol invasion on Muslim lands.  Having sacked Baghdad in 1258, the Mongols cast their eye on India.  This was an awkward moment for the newly emerging Delhi Sultans.  On the one hand there were ties of allegiance to the Khalifa, and on the other, demands of realpolitik – a predicament with modern resonances. 

The allegiance to the Khalifa took the form of a ‘manshur’ or mandate.  Nizami states that when this recognition was conferred on Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish, the  event was “celebrated with great éclat”. In fact Shamsuddin had the distant and politically weak Abbasid Khalifah Muntansir’s  name inscribed on the coins of the realm and pronounced from the pulpit “at least four years before the receipt of this manshur”.  Halagu’s destruction of Baghdad had a quick impact on Delhi.  There was an influx of refugee scholars and Nizami recounts with a hint of humour the tale of one Shaikh Badruddin, for whom “this tragic event drove his mind inwards and he took to mysticism”.

The Delhi Sultans had to grapple with the visit of Halagu’s emissaries in 1260.  The Court must have discussed the options and in the end settled to mount a spectacle: “more than two lac (one hundred thousand) footmen and fifty thousand horsemen lined the entire route from the town of Kilugarhi to the royal palace, while twenty rows of spectators and officials assembled there to welcome the Mongol emissaries.  The court chronicle would have us believe that all this was done to impress the Mongols with the glory and greatness of the Sultan, but the desire to please and placate the Mongol ruler was an equally strong reason for the welcome given to them”.  Elsewhere a different approach was found more expedient: when the Mongol Sali Nayin laid siege to Multan – with support from the Muslim ruler of Heart – the threat was bought off by a payment of one hundred thousand dinars! 

Professor Boswell’s manual of Islamic dynasties is an invaluable reference point to explore varied facets of Muslim rule, from issues such as that of the caliphal mandate described above, the basis for selecting successors – not always driven by family ties, the emergence of Muslim queens, the circumstances of dynastic ruptures and even less weighty matters such as the predilection for titles and honorifics.  Boswell’s updated work – reissued by the author after an interlude of almost forty years – sets out the chronologies of 200 Muslim ruling families stretching from Malaga to Mongolia, from the Ummayads of early Islam to the contemporary Sultan of Brunei, Sir Hassanal Bolkiah (who is a direct descendent of a dynasty founded in 1750).

Why would Muslim rulers seek approval from a central Khalifa, who more often than not was weaker  than themselves in terms of political and military dominance? Professor Nizami quotes the statement of Khalil bin Shahin al-Zahiri, born in Cairo in 1453 and author of a treatise on Egypt under Mamluk rule, “no king of the east or the west could hold the title of Sultan unless there was a covenant between him and the Khalifah”.   Nizami suggests that in the Indian context, it was a matter of prestige that gave one ruler “a better title against his rivals”.   Boswell’s compendium notes that the Alghlabid dynasty ruling in Algeria and Sicily in the Ninth Century “always remained theoretical vassals of the caliphs, retaining the caliphs’ names in the khutba or Friday sermon”.  At about the same time in Central India, he documents the receipt of a formal investiture by the Malwa Sultan from the Abbasid Khalifa al-Mustanjid, at the time in Cairo. A commonwealth with a shared religious culture facilitated the travel of scholars and transcontinental trade, but nevertheless this was posited alongside bitter territorial rivalries and military hostilities.

The notion that the Muslim world once ran like clockwork under the benevolence of a central caliphate that provided ‘global leadership’  has a romantic appeal that also leads to a simplistic focus on one key event – Mustafa Kamal’s  abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.  Within this perspective the reestablishment of a supreme autocrat becomes the main project of Islamic activism.  Equally romantic is the view that political thought in Islam has been in a ‘black hole’, lost in the diversions caused by the ‘Islamic parties’, Arab nationalism, the Khilafat movement in India.

 Boswell’s accounts show that from the Eight Century the political reality lies somewhere in the middle.  No doubt many rulers felt it necessary to pledge allegiance to the Khalifa of the day, motivated by a sense of religious duty and the need for popular legitimacy. There were times in Islamic history when khalifas competed for this allegiance – for example Boswell notes that “in rivalry with the Abbasids, the Fatimids had proclaimed themselves the true caliphs… and had assumed regnal titles ….for example al-Mahdi, al-Qaim and al-Zafir. The Spanish Ummayyad Abd Al Rahman III (ruled 912-961) “countered the pretentions of his enemies the Fatimids by himself adopting the titles of Caliph and Commander of the Faithful in place of the simple previous designation of amir”.    ”.  One Muslim ruler of Damascus,  Alptegin (ruled 978-9), continued to have the Friday khutba declared in the name of the ‘Abbasid caliph, while his successor Qassam, though not a loyal supporter of the Fatimids, accepted the suzerainty of the Fatimid al-‘Aziz and had the khutba pronounced in his name. The sense of nominal deference was often conveyed in the honorifics adopted. So a powerful Indian ruler would describe himself as ‘Nasir Amir al-Muminin’ (helper of the Commander of the Faithful). In West Africa the ‘Sokoto Caliphate’ reflects the decision of  Uthman dan Fadio (ruled 1804-1817) to declare himself ‘Amir al-Muminin’,  expressing independence from the Ottoman Khalifa of the day, Abdul Hamid I.

Boswell’s compendium is the perfect antidote to simplistic readings of Muslim history.

M. A. Sherif

January 2005

[1] “Processes of error, deviation, correction and convergence in Muslim political thought” by Dr Kalim Siddiqui,