1258: Al-Musta’sim, the last Abbasid Caliph

5 comments February 20th, 2009 Headsman

For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*

Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.

Al-Musta’sim Billah held power in the sunset days of a once-mighty empire,

a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appro­priated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)

Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.

He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.

A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”

Genghis Khan‘s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.

On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.

According to The Cambridge History of Iran (volume 5), this was likely a later interpolation of a story that 13th century intellectual Nasir al-Din Tusi recorded:

[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”

It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.

However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.

What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.

None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.

… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.

* Later historian Ibn Tabataba, cited in The Middle East Remembered.

** Christians were spared the rapine, as Khan had a Coptic wife.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iraq,Milestones,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Trampled,Wartime Executions

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1711: Ifranj Ahmad, Janissary

Add comment June 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1711, a Janissary captain in Ottoman Egypt was beheaded in Cairo as the “Great Insurrection” gave way to the last gasp of Mamluk power in Egypt.

Mamluks (or Mameluks) — enslaved soldiers who had evolved into a military caste — had ruled Egypt from 1250 until absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. Now nominally under the power of the sultan, Mamluks remained as beys (district governors) and were drawn into a labyrinthine political environment that boiled down to a contest for rent collection from the lucrative country.

The relative power in Egypt of the Ottoman viceroy (wali) vis-a-vis Mamluk beys in shifting alliances waxed and waned through the 17th century, but the position of wali was always fundamentally undermined by his short-term appointment and the presence of imperial troops who did not answer to him and therefore became independent players Cairo. The most prominent of these were the Janissaries — elite troops whose original servile composition somewhat mirrored the Mamluks’ own and who had established themselves as the wealthiest (and most arrogant, and most resented) regiment by making profitable commercial partnership with the Cairo artisans.

Read all about the Qasimi and Faqari founding myths (and possible realities).

As we lay our scene in the early 18th century, the Ottoman walis have been thoroughly eclipsed; politically, Mamluk Egypt is independent in all but name. The Mamluks are themselves grouped into two great factions, the Qasimi and the Faqari.*

Each faction was composed of the personal mamluks of the leader, retainers who attached themselves to the leader, bedouin tribes, men of the garrison regiments [that is, the Janissaries and other Ottoman military corps], and private armies composed of free-born Ottoman mercenaries. (From the introduction to this translation of Al-Damurdashi’s Chronicle)

An accelerating cycle of revolts and disturbances culminated in the “Great Insurrection,” (or “Great Sedition”) several years of friction climaxing in three months of armed conflict in early 1711 — “to all intents and purposes, a civil war among the elite” over dividing up spoils, as Afaf Lutfi Sayyid-Marsot puts it.

Ifranj (or Ifrandj, or Afranj) Ahmad — “Ahmad the European,” a distinctive name since the Janissaries were mostly locally born by this point — was a lower officer, but a predecessor in his position had mounted a temporarily successful revolt against the Janissary brass in the 1690’s, and Ahmad (as events would prove) commanded the loyalty of his regiment. A dispute over an attempt to remove him helped precipitate the open fighting in 1711.

Ifranj Ahmad was just an excuse … The main reason was the resentment of the other regiments, primarily the ‘Azab [“armourers” — (distantly) second only to the Janissaries among the military corps], at the privileged position and the profits the Janissaries were enjoying. … Siding with Ifranj Ahmad were the majority of the Janissaries, the pasha [the wali], … the Faqari governor of Upper Egypt who brought with him reinforcements of … bedouins, some elements of the other regiments, and most of the Faqari beys and their Mamluk households. On the other side were almost all the ‘Azab and the other regiments, 600 Janissary defectors, the Qasimiyya beys, and Qaytas Bey, a Faqari grandee who had quarrelled with … the Faqari leader, and had joined the Qasimiyya. (Egyptian Society Under Ottoman Rule)

In short, the Faqari and Qasimi factions, backed respectively by the Janissaries and the ‘Azab.

As one can readily infer from Ifranj Ahmad’s presence in these pages, the Qasimi had the better of the fight; Ahmad was nabbed trying to flee and summarily beheaded, a fate shared with several other Faqari leaders.** Here’s the account from Al-Damurdashi, an ‘Azab officer at the time:

Afranj Ahmad and his colleague had fled through the Mahjar Gate, but as they passed by the guard post … [and] captured and were [being dragged] to the ‘Azab barracks, but one of the [captors] brought [Ahmad] to the ground with a blow on his jugular vein. He then cut off his head, took it to the ‘Azab barracks and received a reward from the senior officers.

Although Istanbul would continue trying to exert its influence, this day’s denouement marked the end of real Ottoman authority on the Nile — the Turks had their hands full fighting the Russians at this moment, anyway — and inaugurated a long sunset of Mamluk power until Napoleon’s quixotic Egyptian adventure overturned it for good.

* There are many different transliterations of both these names — Faqari, Faqariya, Faqariyya … Qasimi, Qasimiya, Qasimiyya

** It was so far from an extermination, however, that the Faqari turned the tables on the Qasimi twenty years later, and the Qasimi thereupon faded from influence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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