Lynn Jones

title.none: Al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship (Lynn Jones)

identifier.other: baj9928.0210.011 02.10.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lynn Jones, University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Al-Azmeh, Aziz. Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Politics. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. Pp. v, 296. 24.50. ISBN: 1-860-64609-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.10.11

Al-Azmeh, Aziz. Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Politics. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. Pp. v, 296. 24.50. ISBN: 1-860-64609-3.

Reviewed by:

Lynn Jones
University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities

In this impressive and useful work, Aziz Al-Azmeh tracks the development of the visual and textual expression of kingship in the medieval Muslim world. The book is divided into two parts. Part One, "Sublime Analogies, Pagan and Monotheistic," addresses the "repertoire of conceptions and regal forms" bequeathed to the emergent Muslim world by the Classical and Late Antique cultures (xvi). Chapter One, confusingly titled "Introduction," presents the author's view of the enuciative nature of power. Power is given expression through direct action that involves both kings and subjects, as in ceremonial. It is also expressed through linguistic and conceptual modes, most prominently in the "casting of worldly power in terms of powers divine"(4). Al-Azmeh lays out for the reader the shared heritage of Late Antique cultures stretching from modern day Italy across India to Southeast Asia. Chapter Two, "Kings and Gods," examines the shared expressions of power through regalia, which serve to express the possession of power.

Chapter Three, "Kings in the World," discusses sacralised kingship: kings as agents, or to use the author's term, "vicars" of the divine. The cosmic context of kingship in Buddhism and in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman religions is presented and their effects on the conceptions of royal power and the sacred in Christian and Muslim practice are demonstrated. The Muslim royal typologies that resulted were represented in ceremonial and visual arts, including the presentation of acts of foundation as re-foundations. With this definition of kingship came the claim to oecumenical rule and the classification of those who did not recognize such universal claims as heretics or barbarians. The final section of the chapter examines parallel notions of Buddhist kingship, focusing on the king as the embodiment of dhamma. Here too Al-Azmeh finds kings regarded as divinely appointed rulers of the world, with a cycle of succession that winds from "king to Bodhisatta King (Buddha) back to king again" (55).

Chapter Four, "An Interregnum: The Early Muslim Polity," brings the reader to the genesis of Muslim rule and the creation of an Arab-Muslim economic zone, united by politics and religion. Al-Azmeh emphasizes that most historic documents relating events of the seventh century were "later elaborations created over many generations in the light of conditions prevailing in polities the Arabs set up from Iraq to Syria" (63). A wide selection of influences was available to the Umayyad caliphate, including Byzantine, Sasanid Persian, and Jewish. The paradigms favored by the Umayyads differed from those adopted and transformed by the Abbasids, which were further transformed for use by the Fatimids, the Ayyubids and Mamluks. Al-Azmeh emphasizes the length of this transformative process and stresses that it is not possible to link the Koran and the hadith to the conception and expression of Muslim rulership in the early Muslim period. Instead, he argues that Muslim kings, faced with a need to give expression to their rule, "sought to inscribe themselves into a universal history of world-empire," as expressed in royal iconography, titles and genealogical claims (67). During this time the uniqueness of the caliph, evident in the restriction of insignia, dress and colors for caliphal use, was the principal element in what al-Azmeh terms "the collective indices of kingship." He then turns to the use of "verbal enunciations" to characterize and celebrate royal status. Epithets, similes and metaphors are explored, with particular attention given to those adopted by the Umayyads. He demonstrates the polyvalent nature of the concept of the Umayyad caliphate, noting that "its terms are Arabic, its conceptual senses are those of the Late Antiquity," and lays out the development of the coterminous characterization of the caliph as "God's Caliph" (75). He then traces the increasing "royalisation" of the Prophet, the developing conception of the caliph as the Prophet's successor and the coterminous development of royal absolutism, in which Judeo-Muslim concepts of divinity are realized in the caliph.

With Chapter Five, "Writing Power," the reader reaches Part Two, "Muslim Polities" which examines the development of specifically Muslim expressions of "imperial power in relation to divinity" (xvi). Al-Azmeh first turns to the analysis of the textual enunciations of power. He examines the establishment and perpetuation of literary traditions in the form of topoi, motifs and genealogies. Sasanid Persian and Greek influence on the development of texts of political wisdom is discussed, but the author stresses that "direct, unmediated and unilateral borrowing" is often exaggerated by modern scholars (85). He finds no evidence of a written political theory of kingship or of the state in the early Muslim period. Instead, he argues that specifically Muslim conception of politics are expressed in the genre of historical or pseudo-historical narrative texts^×the state is personified in the actions of a king, and history is therefore not that of a state but of a particular royal line. In these texts the accretion of passages from diverse sources and the lack of any distinct authorial voice combine to confirm and perpetuate concepts of rulership. Al-Azmeh shows how preexisting non-Muslim characterizations of good rulership are "renamed and recast [in these texts] as prophetic or Koranic and inserted in a distinctive genealogy that is specifically Muslim" (99). He then turns to the context within which this literary phenomena occurred: the emergence of the ulama (the Muslim priestly class) in the tenth century, the development of Sunnism and the production of historical narratives ascribed to Sunni divines, and the crystallization of Twelver Shiism. The development of particular literary genres reflecting the power of the ulama is discussed, as is the increasing re-attribution in ulama literature of non-Muslim textual anecdotes to Muslim sources.

Chapter Six, "The Absolutist Imperative," examines medieval Muslim social thought and its effect on Muslim concepts of kingship. Al-Azmeh underscores the medieval pessimistic view of the human state, that social order results in "diversity, inequality, unevenness and conflict" (117). Kingship is necessary for the restoration of order, which can only be imposed by force. The king, as head of the political body, creates an unnatural social order that can only be sustained by constant maintenance, "the constant manifestation of absolute power, the constant reminder of the unilateral activity of the king and passivity of his subjects" (121). The maintenance of order, and the keeping of balance between the unequal components of society is the function of justice. The visual expression of absolute kingship is given systematic expression in the Abbasid dynasty through the standardization of ceremonial. Other prerogatives were adapted from Sasanid and/or Byzantine use, and all were codified despite the fact that the Abbasid caliphs were rarely seen in public. Distance from the king was further emphasized in court rituals, the conveyance of advice, appointment of court officials and formulas of address. The supremacy of the Abbasid caliph was such that even when his actual power was eclipsed by rival kings, these rivals nonetheless ceremonially identified themselves as vassals of the caliphate.

Chapter Seven, "Absolutism Sublime," examines the connection between absolutism and Muslim religious representations. Muslim rulers were not the objects of cults, and while ceremonial and other kingly prerogatives contained religious elements they were not religious. Objects associated with kings were accorded sacred status. Tombs of Abbasid caliphs came to be perceived as sacred and inviolable; caliphal clothes and blood were believed capable of healing. Al-Azmeh then explores the differing conceptions of caliph (khalifa) and king (malik). While both share the same attributes, are ascribed the same properties and exercise the same powers, the caliph is subservient only to the prophets, while the king is subordinate to the caliph. Distinctions between the two are defined through eschatological and juristic conceptions; the terms were also used in polemical texts, such as Sunni and Shii narratives. This raises questions of legitimacy, which Al-Azmeh notes was a legal category and not a religious or moral one: a legitimate caliph was "one which obeys certain legal conditions" (166). The author examines the legal discourses on the regulation of the caliphate by the eleventh-century author Mawardi and his associates, and suggests that they assume theories of authority but do not provide such theories^×a point of disagreement with scholarship that suggests such texts served to reconcile the theory of the caliphate with its practice. He argues that these texts, as works compiled by practicing jurists, were concerned with "regulating the affairs of the world of social, political and administrative practices" (169). Al-Azmeh next investigates the effect of the ulama upon Muslim rulership. He takes particular note of the devolution of the caliphate through the development of the siyasa shariyya, the genre of sharist politics. These include the nearly interchangeable definitions of imam and sultan and the transference of formerly caliphal functions and prerogatives to the office of the sultan. Chapter Eight, "Political Soteriology," traces the continuation of Late Antique tropes of power via messianic and quasi-messianic movements, including the Fatimids, Ismailism, Sufi messianism and Twelver Shiism. These supported "notions of an ultimate order presided over by a pre-designated deliverer"imam, mahdi, or a combination of the two" (190-91). The ideologies of each is considered in turn, along with the reception of each of these ideologies by the others.

The title indicates that this book was not written solely for scholars of medieval Muslim cultures; certainly there is much here to reward all medievalists interested in the transmission, reception and adaptation of royal ideology. However, those with limited exposure to the medieval Muslim world must first overcome unnecessary impediments. Specialized terms are often left unexplained upon their introduction. The word baya, indicating ratification ceremonies of caliphal accession, is not defined until its third appearance in the book (192). Although dhamma is discussed at length (59-61), it is never precisely defined and is omitted from the index. Other difficulties with terminology occur in the discussions of works of art. The iconography of Pegasus is confusingly characterized as "an abstract form" (71), and the word icon is used to describe everything except Byzantine religious paintings. Any author addressing such an immense geographic and chronological scope must beware the use of sweeping generalities; to his credit Al-Azmeh does so only occasionally. In Chapter Four he asserts that Muslims "adopted a thorough going iconoclasm, apparently in tandem with that of Byzantium, and derogated the importance of the pictorial enunciation of power" (71). This is a problematic statement, made more so by the lack of any note referring readers to supporting or opposing arguments.

Other difficulties may be traced to the publisher, as the volume under review is a paperback edition of the hardback originally published in 1997. While I applaud the availability of a less expensive edition it is a great shame that the bibliography was not updated. Readers should be informed of recent studies examining the fluid nature of royal iconography and ideology in the medieval Mediterranean. Less understandable is the omission of important earlier works. The omission of illustrations is lamentable; at the very least the reader should be provided with references to volumes that contain discussions and illustrations of the images mentioned in the text. Finally, there is no excuse for the shambles that is the Index. Not one reference to the Preface is correct -- all apparently reflect the pagination of the Preface in the 1997 edition. Cross-references are indicated where there are none (dhamma, for example, which is listed under "charisma"), and some terms are omitted entirely (dhamma again). Some personal entries are supplied with general classifications (Abbasid caliph, Twelfth Imam, pope) and some are not -- the Byzantine emperor Leo III, for example, is resolutely snubbed ("Leo the Isaurian"). The reader would be greatly helped if Index entries for authors, rulers and the like were standardized and included the appropriate dates.