Book Review: The other face of the Islamic Caliphates

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Friday 29 May 2015

The late Sulaiman Fayyad's republished 1999 history of caliphates remains a masterpiece

Author Sulaiman Fayyad (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Al-Wagh Al-Akher Lil-Khilafah Al-Islamiyya (The Other Face of the Islamic Caliphate) by Sulaiman Fayyad, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Family Library Series, 2014, pp.234.

Sulaiman Fayyad, who died in February 2015, was known as one of Egypt’s most prominent short story writers and novelists.

Fayyad belongs to the generation after Nobel Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz. His first short story collection, I am Thirsty, Girls, was published in 1959. Afterwards, he wrote a great number of novels and short story collections and received several prestigious literary awards. Many of his works were translated into foreign languages.

Unlike his literary works, Fayyad's intellectual and linguistic books did not gain equal fame. One of these is his book The Other Face of the Islamic Caliphate.

The first edition of The Other Face of the Islamic Caliphate was published in 1999 during the intensified battle between the Egyptian state and Islamist group Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya which took up arms to fight the Sadat and Mubarak regimes and carried out a number of terrorist attacks.

According to many experts, Fayyad's work on the caliphate remains one the most comprehensive studies published in this field, as well as the most accurate and condensed as it relies on dozens of references which were written by Islamic scholars and contemporary historians.

Fayyad benefited immensely from his Al-Azhar education, which enabled him to delve into the writings of the ancients, especially those who witnessed events from 656AD until 661AD, the time of the first civil war within a nascent Islamic state.

These events laid the foundations for the rule of absolutism in the form of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, or what Fayyad calls the “caliphates of oppression."

"Both were hereditary monarchies built on oppressing the peoples they conquered in the name of religion,” he writes.

Fayyad asserts that there is a team of contemporary intellectuals who argue that the “backwardness” experienced by some Muslim countries in modern history can be mainly attributed to the fall of the last Islamic caliphate, the Ottoman caliphate, the fourth caliphate after the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid, in the early twentieth century. 

But Fayyad argues that these empires did not produce flourishing civilisations as they claimed, instead created only material prosperity, with immense wealth flowing into the pockets of the caliphs, rulers, viziers and the affluent classes.

He states that Islamic history, whether in the Middle Ages or the modern age, proves that Islamic caliphate experiences failed, even according to Muslim historians. Those historians also mention the secession of Islamic countries from the caliphate and the forms of oppression practised by certain caliphs.

In the first chapter, Fayyad discusses the triumph of the Umayyad dynasty after the murder of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph after Prophet Mohamed’s death, describing it as the triumph of "hereditary and tyrannical" rule.

Unlike the first four caliphs who were chosen to rule according to criteria such as the approval of the Shura council or tribal affiliation, the Umayyad caliphate was founded as a  hereditary monarchy.

The Umayyads were followed by the Abbasid then the Fatimid dynasties resulting in centuries of hereditary rule.

Fierce battles between rival factions, which started after the murder of the third Caliph Uthman, continued until the Umayyad caliphate was established through bloody wars which lasted for almost ninety years. 

The creation of the Abbasid caliphate was also achieved through violence.

The Abbasids,  who considered themselves more deserving than others due to their kinship to the prophet, waged bloody battles to eradicate the Umayyad dynasty. Once in power, they ruled for 525 years.

While the second chapter deals with the various theories of the caliphate system among different Muslim sects, the third documents the bloody history of the ruling regimes under the title 'Oppression by Caliphs and Their Viziers' Murders'.

Fayyad cites, for instance, the murder of four Umayyad Caliphs in power struggles and palace coups, and the slaying of 14 Abbasid caliphs during Abbasid rule in similar circumstances.

MeanwhileViziers, Fayyad explained, remained relatively immune from acts of treachery as they held a high status under these regimes as they combined civil and military powers with the dependency of caliphs on their loyalty.

Despite their high status, Caliph Abu Al-Abbas As-Saffah (the Butcher) killed his viziers one after the other.

Moreover, contemporary historians documented that dozens of others viziers were killed under the commands of the caliphs by poisoning, imprisonment and torture.

The last three chapters complete the scene of the two longest ruling and the most influential caliphates in Islamic history during the Mediaeval period.

The first one deals with the economic and social situation during the "Oppression Caliphates."

According to historians living in the same period, luxury, filthy rich, palatial life, gold hoarding and foolishness were the prominent characteristics for both caliphates. Thus, corruption, injustice became rife, and poverty and destitution increased, as well as unrest, mutinies and internal wars.

Civil wars between Umayyads, the Shias and the Kharijites and other sects and denominations regulary broke out. During one of those recurrent wars, the Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya catapulted fireballs on the Holy Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's mosque in Medina.

During the Abbasid Caliphate, Egyptians revolted for ten years before the caliph himself led a huge army to crush their uprising.

Other revolts and insurgencies broke out in the Levant, Mosul, Northern Iraq and Africa, according to contemporary historians.

Both the Umayyad and the Abbasid caliphates persecuted their subjects, imposed exorbitant taxes. At the same time the caliphates' capitals witnessed extreme extravagance with the ruling class enjoying an endless flow of money from the lands and wealth of the vast empire.

This persecution was not restricted to the peoples of the empire but it was extended to oppositionist Islamic scholars. The caliphs, who viewed themselves to be God's shadow on earth, regularly interfered in jurisprudential and Sharia matters. The four great Islamic Imams (jurists) suffered imprisonment, humiliation and torture for opposing the caliphs' whims and insisted on abiding by the "true nature of Islam."

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