Why Did Muslim Empires Have Slave Soldiers?
The Arab / Middle Eastern and North African cultures even before accepting Islam have always been tribal in origin and families derived their political and social strength from their tribal culture. In fact most of the Eastern cultures were all like that till modern times where emergence of the mega cities caused gradual shift among many former tribal people towards a metropolitan lifestyle impacting their traditional culture. Having slave soldiers was beneficial for early Islamic empires like the Abbasid Caliphate, who were based in Iraq where local Arabs and natives had stronger affiliations with their own tribes rather than the Caliph. Having individuals from these tribes in to the influential positions in the armed forces and important political posts would provide strong motive for them to gain power for their own tribe eventually causing the royal family in power to be overthrown.
Due to this reason slaves were usually bought from among the people of Central Asia, the lands of Turks. In origin these Turkish people were nomadic warriors valued by Caliphs or Sultans for strengthening their rule militarily. Due to them being part of the army they were serving and being far away from their own land, in a foreign land, kept their loyalty firm with the Sultan. Even though the threat to Sultan’s authority was not over but minimized when it came to these slave soldiers.
How did Turkish Slaves Manage To Create ‘Slave Dynasty’ or Mamluk Sultanate?
In Islamic history we experienced something unprecedented, something called ‘Slave Dynasty’ unlike history of other religions and nations. Slave Dynasty is a unique Islamic legacy which even European Civilization has never experienced. What is a slave dynasty? These were dynasties in the Muslim world in which high ranking officials who were of slave origin, serving in the armies were able to sometimes over throw a weak Sultan or a governor and replaced themselves as new governors or Sultans. Prime examples of these historic dynasties are the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria and the Mamluk Sultanate of Delhi (Indo-Pak subcontinent). The term Mamluk is of Arabic origin meaning "owned" usually translated as warrior slaves in English. The Mamluks were mainly Turks of Central Asia who were sold as slaves in the service of many Sultans and due to the privilege that Islam gives to the slaves were able to reach high ranks within the army and then at times eventually themselves becoming Sultans. What further distinguished their upbringing from the remaining slaves, such as household slaves, in the Muslim world was that due to their military service were given best education in worldly and religious sciences including military training and were privileged in many instances than regular slaves such as also getting paid for their services to the government. The problem however was that if a strong Mamluk Army General succeeded in overthrowing a Sultan or a Governor of a Sultan, then nothing could disrupt him from becoming an authority, that would also eventually pave the way for him to becoming a Sultan, unless he was overthrown by another rival. If he did succeed then after him his descendants would rule unless they became weak enough to be overthrown by another Mamluk.
Why Ottoman Janissaries Never Succeeded like Mamluks in Becoming Sultans?
The Ottoman Turks emerged from the one of the many strong Turkman tribes that ruled the Anatolian region (modern Turkey). Initially the Ottoman tribe was able to defeat rival tribes and expand its authority over their lands with the help of their own tribal people. However, as their territory began to expand and in order to strengthen their rule, they too did not chose members of their own or other Turkman tribes to serve in the elite circle to avoid conflict of interest. They too chose slaves from outside yet in a different manner. They created an elite force called jannissaries or yeni ceri in Turkish. Even though the janissaries were like mamluks yet their recruitment process differed much from the latter. These were not Muslim nor grown up individuals, they were in fact very young Christian boys paid to the Ottoman Sultans as a tax by their subjects, Christian families living in the Balkan region. These families handed over at least one of their sons, as a form of a tax payment to the Islamic government. These boys were gathered and the best among them were selected to be raised and become elite force of the Sultan. They were forcibly converted to Islam at a young age, even though forced conversion is strictly prohibited in Islam. But what is also important to note is that, due to prospects of great career, many Christian parents voluntarily gave their children to the Ottoman for raising as Muslims. Since the boys were trained from a very young age to serve the Sultan, away from their own family, their loyalty to him was the greatest. There was no chance for them to switch loyalty to any other Turkish tribes either, because no members of these tribes were part of the Ottoman elite. A janissary could reach all the way to top and even become a Wazeer e A'laa (prime minister), second to the Sutlan or Caliph, but could never become a Sultan himself as this seat was restricted for an Ottoman descendant. Even if he managed to overthrow the Sultan yet the Turks will never accept a non-Turk Muslim to rule over them. This strategy overall played well for the Ottoman descendants to maintain their rule unchallenged by any rivals within the political and armed forces unlike their predecessor dynasties. However with time Janissaries indulged in corrupt practices and if the Sultan was a weak one then they controlled him, at times they even revolted and overthrew, and in some extreme cases even killed him, like Sultan Osman II (Reign. 1618 – 1622 CE) & Sultan Ibrahim (Reign. 1640 - 1648 CE), but because of the established system could never themselves become rulers.
When observing the success periods of historical civilizations and empires we learn that they flourished as a result of a strong leadership that provided all necessary resources for their development. It’s always under the patronage of the strong leadership that a civilization’s intellectual and learned class makes achievements that impact world’s history. Take the example of Greek Civilization, its intellectual activity, culture, arts and sciences primarily flourished under the patronage of its strong rulership. However, all historical civilizations have one thing in common: the empire’s strength lies at its beginning and reaches peak in the middle, then gradually decreases and eventually leads towards its downfall. The Abbasid Empire that existed from 8th – 13th century CE was no exception. It flourished under a strong leadership and left a mark on world’s history unlike other empires. Their historical mark was the great Translation Project in the contemporary world at Dar Al Hikmah (House of Wisdom), a major center of learning at Baghdad, the Abbasid capital that produced one of the greatest scientific revolutions of all times. It was the strong Abbasid leadership under the early Abbasid Caliphs that made the project a success story impacting the world for centuries to come. However, the Abbasids too faced common consequences like any other empire whose earlier rulers were strong in leadership and running state affairs but with time fell prey to worldly temptations became weaker which eventually lead towards their downfall.
Below we have discussed factors in the light of Islam that explain how strong leadership is indispensable for the light of knowledge to spread, without which the darkness of ignorance prevails. This is what Abbasids at Baghdad experienced and this is what the Islamic world is experiencing today.
Concept of the Sword & the Pen
A leader must be strong and forbearing. Being only strong will destroy those under them, being too much forbearing will provide room for others to exploit and disturb the rule. 14th century Islamic scholar, sociologist, historiographer Ibn Khaldun explains that in the beginning of any dynasty there comes the use of sword before the use of pen. The use of sword is necessary because the sword helps to establish the power of its rulership and strengthens it. Once rulership is established and there is harmony to a large extent then the use of sword becomes minimum and the use of pen increases. The use of pen indicates intellectual and scientific activity and the influence of the learned in the society. Hence, we notice that the foundation for the cradle of scientific revolution at Dar Al Hikmah was laid by strong and pious Caliphs namely Al Mansur (CE 754 – 775), Al Mahdi (775 -785 CE), Al Rashid (CE 786 – 809), Al Mamun (CE 813 – 833). They provided necessary resources and support for initiating the project and safe and sound environment that brought thinkers, men of knowledge from near and far to the capital. They personally supervised the collection of manuscripts from around the world, written in Greek, Latin, and Persian in the fields of medicine, alchemy, physics, mathematics, astrology and other disciplines. The rulers not only supported the project but also took part in discussions and debates among the intelligentsia which displayed their personal interest. However, the use of pen declines when the situation of the dynasty begins weakening and the use of sword comes in to action again to protect the dynasty from crumbling but then it either succeeds in reviving itself against its opposition and the results are determined by how strong the opposition is.
Early Abbasid Caliphs vs Later Ones
Baghdad was the center of the Abbasid Empire. It was here that the cradle of modern education and sciences originated and impacted the entire globe for many centuries to come including ours. For instance, algorithm, a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, used by almost every computerized system on earth originates from teachings of famous Mathematician Al Khwarizmi, an Islamic scholar at Dar Al Hikmah. When rulers are strong and just in rulership, pious in their lifestyle and character, then much good results from it. Its recorded that Al Rashid possessed a good deal of learning and simplicity because his age was close to that of his forebears who also possessed those qualities. The time between him and his grandfather, Al Mansur (son of As Saffah, the first Abbasid ruler), was not a long one. He was young when Al Mansur died. Al Mansur possessed a good deal of learning and religion before he became caliph and continued to practice those high standards even afterwards. These rulers enjoyed company of Islamic scholars, listened to their advice and advised them as well. Imam Malik, one of the greatest Imams of Islamic law, was inspired by Al Mansur to write the Muwatta, one of the most authentic collections of prophetic hadith. Al Mamun, son of Al Rashid, enjoyed the company and even prayed salaah (5 times prayers) together with chief Qadi (justice) Yahya bin Akhtamand. Yahya was also a famous hadith transmitter., also famous hadith transmitter.
Al Mansur's son, Al Mahdi, Al Rashid's father, inspired by Al Mansur’s personality, in his simplicity avoided use of the public treasury even to provide new clothes for his family. It is also recorded that earlier Caliphs displayed only light silver ornamentation on their belts, swords, bridles, and saddles, and that the first caliph to display golden apparel was Al Mutazz bin al Mutawakkil, the eighth caliph after Al Rashid. The decline of the Abbasids began when pomp, show and waste of wealth became the lifestyle of rulers as opposed to providing justice, practicing simplicity, enjoying company of the learned men and subjugating enemies. A major factor that assisted the Abbasids to make the project successful at Baghdad was the taxation policy. Due to the strong central government in Baghdad, its rulers were getting taxes from across the empire and had money to spend on translations and patronage of scholarship.
Another major factor that determined the strength of the empire was the readiness of the caliphs to face and defend against enemies. The early Caliphs were strong enough to crush rebellions within the empire and lead armies into enemy territory and defeat them. The later caliphs, however did not share the same traits. As Saffah defeated the Chinese in war, Al Mansur is renown for successfully crushing rebellions and Harun Al Rashid led military expeditions into Byzantine territory, close to Constantinople. While Al Mustazhar, the 12th century Abbasid Caliph was helpless when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. The renowned Islamic Scholar Al Harawi traveled from Damascus to Baghdad to see the Caliph and encouraged him to defend but he seemed powerless, the political power was under several Turkish Muslim dynasties. He was only a Caliph by name. Al Yaqubi, early 9th century geographer visited Baghdad and said “It is the center of the world. Its people have good manners, resplendent faces and open minds that they excelled all others in learning and understanding, in literature, in comprehension, in expertise and in crafts.” Comparing this with account of 13th century geographer Ibn Jubayr who visited Baghdad 35 years before Mongol invasion complained about the vanity of its people. “Strangers they despise,” he wrote, “and they show scorn and disdain to their inferiors, while the stories of the news of other men they belittle ... it is as if they are persuaded that God has no lands nor people save theirs.” Ibn Jubayr’s revelations are worth attention because as Mongol invasion was nearer, Caliph Al Mustasim was busy in hunting and entertainment rather than state affairs. It is recorded that he sent requests to Badruddin Lulu, ruler of Mosul, to provide singers and musical instruments while Hulagu Khan, the Mongol leader, was collecting canons and other weapons to destroy walls of Baghdad. The people in Baghdad were given to pleasures and entertainment like their rulers and the religious scholars were busy with sectarian matters. The people of Baghdad were strong and inspirational as long as the rulers were also courageous, pious and fair and their religious leaders courageous enough to rebuke the ruling class when required. When the rulers became engrossed in worldly pleasures, gave up the path of their predecessors then their affairs became corrupt and so was the state of the peoples and of the religious scholars under them. Hence after the destruction of Baghdad what Allah ﷻ has said became true: (Al Quran 17:16) And when We intend to destroy a nation, We command its affluent (elite class: rulers, scholars, influential) to obey Allah ﷻ but they defiantly disobey therein (become corrupt); so the word comes into effect upon it (the nation) and We destroy it utterly.
Islamic Inspiration behind the House of Wisdom
It was at the battle of Talas in 751 CE when the Abbasid army defeated the Chinese army of Tang Empire and captured several of its soldiers. These prisoners of war revealed the paper making technology which became the major precursor and proponent for the translation project at Baghdad. With the use of latest technology Dar Al Hikmah became a success story in the contemporary world, the first knowledge city which produced many scientists and scholars and each made major contributions in their field revolutionizing the world of knowledge. This reminds us of Battle of Badr, in the aftermath of which Prophet Muhammad ﷺ decided to set free some prisoners on the condition that they educate 10 children on reading and writing and once they become proficient, the instructor would be set free. It was several young children of Madinah that became writers and collectors of Prophetic hadith which significantly helped in the dissemination of Islamic knowledge after the Prophet’s passing away. What is more interesting to note that paper-technology, back then the primary instrument of dissemination of knowledge, like the internet is today, originated from China and it was Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who is reported to have advised “Seek knowledge even if it is in China”  highlighting efforts to acquire knowledge. And it was the Prophet ﷺ who once prophesied looking at his Persian companion Salman Al Farsi (r.a) and said “If Faith were at (the place of) Ath-Thuraiya (pleiades, the highest star), even then some men from these people (i.e. Salman's folk) would attain it.” An indication of the great number of Persian Islamic scholars and scientists in Islamic history, many of whom formed the chore of academics at Baghdad. It was at this that an Arab Scholar at Baghdad said “We Arabs have all the words but you Persians have all the ideas.” The “words” here imply the rich language of the Quran, the classical Arabic.
Current Crisis of Knowledge & the Information Age
At the beginning of any dynasty sword helps to establish power and strengthen the rule and the use of pen dominates after the success of sword. Currently most parts of the Muslim world are experiencing political conflicts for last several decades: infighting among themselves and fighting foreign occupations. This in addition to the poor economic state of several Muslim countries caused mainly by their corrupt political class which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by stronger countries. $1 trillion dollar of corrupt wealth is transferred from developing countries (like Pakistan, Nigeria) and stashed abroad every year into Western countries due to weak international laws, something that was recently decried by Pakistani PM Imran Khan in UN General Assembly. Due to these reasons we are seeing a consistent process of brain drain from Muslim world, flow into Western countries. Due to this we see many Muslim scientists and their achievements, if any, take place mainly in the West where lies centers of global learning. This is because economic and political order in the West is much more stable than the Muslim world. We recently heard some achievements made by Muslims in the West in medicine and technology fields: a Muslim doctor in US invents a ventilator that can serve up to 7 people when there was a shortage of ventilators during COVID-19, a Turkish doctor in Germany created the vaccine for COVID-19, a Pakistan origin electrical engineer in Texas developed a cancer cell detection method improving early cancer diagnosis, and a Muslim in Ireland was listed among top 1% of computer science technology in the world. This reminds us of Nasiruddin Tusi, one of the best Persian Islamic scientist, provided an observatory under the patronage of Halagu Khan, non-Muslim Mongol ruler, under whom he continued making achievements. While it is great to hear of some Muslims acquiring scientific achievements under non-Muslims, it’s also regrettable that unlike their predecessor, majority of them are dispersed throughout the world and not under one center like Dar Al Hikmah, where various talents came together. Unlike Nasiruddin many of them are not even well versed in religious knowledge, their worldview secular like non-Muslims or religion is only limited to their private sphere. Religious knowledge along with expertise in worldly sciences kept the Islamic scientists aware of the morals and ethics required in the usage of their learning, largely missing from today’s scientists. The Quran is God’s divine speech and like light of fire when applied towards worldly sciences lights them up, opening new venues of knowledge, and this is one of the meaning of: (Al Quran 24:35) Light upon Light! Allah guides whoever He wills to His Light. And Allah sets forth parables for humanity. For Allah has perfect knowledge of each and everything.
With brain drain of scientific knowledge, we also notice improper and incorrect use of religious knowledge which despite being readily available in the age of information the true understanding of which has become very less among Muslims. This has much to do with widespread ignorance of the Deen (Islam) and in reference to this the Prophet ﷺ predicted “among the signs of the Hour knowledge shall be raised up, ignorance shall be rampant.” And he also predicted the age of information and the lies and confusion that will accompany it: “Shortly before the Last Hour…. false witness will prevail, hiding the truth and widespread use of pen.” The "widespread use of pen" refers to the digital era with information on our fingertips while “false witness” and “hiding the truth” entails the disinformation that accompanies it. Ignorance of the Deen in the age of information will provide many sources of learning Islam but very less correct understanding of it as also foretold by the Prophet ﷺ: “There will come a time in which there will be many readers and few Fuqaha (people with proper understanding of deen); knowledge will be taken away and there will be a lot of Harj” They asked “What is Harj” He said “Killing among you (infighting, civil wars). Then after that there will come a time when the Quran is read by many men, but it will not go further than their collarbones. Then after that will come a time when the disbelieving hypocrite, who joins others with Allah ﷻ, will dispute with the believer, using the same argument as him (i.e. using the book of Allah and the Prophetic words).” – the “disbelieving hypocrite” are the online non-Muslims, ex-Muslims and pretending to be Muslims “experts” of Islam, skilled in arguments against the Muslims, employing primary sources (Quran and hadith) to defeat or at least confuse them in their faith. These people will appear at a time when there will be tons of readers (online) but very few people with understanding of their deen (fuqaha). Many will be tempted and accept new interpretations of Islam (“modern Islam” new "sufism" Quranists, rejecting hadith, sectarianism, Ahmadiyya etc.) and will fall prey to this confusion project. Such is clearly visible in the online world, and I have personally experienced this for many years now.
(Al Quran 94:5-6) Verily, with hardship comes ease - By 14th century the political authority of the Abbasids was replaced with the powerful Ottomans in the Islamic world and further scientific developments also took place under their authority. And so we expect that current pressing times will also replace the decadent rulership with stronger authorities who will bring a new age of development: (Al Quran 5:54) Allah will in time bring forth people whom He loves and who love Him
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