Continental Bureaucratic Empire: The Culture Of Power And Governance Under The Abbasids

Continental Bureaucratic Empire: The Culture Of Power And Governance Under The Abbasids
It can be perplexing to take a view of the rapid rise of the Arabs, beginning with the theological foundations laid in the era of the Prophet (PBUH) in the 7th century, followed by the matchless extension of political and territorial limits under the Umayyads and the prolonged rule of Abbasids. The rise and fall of the Arabs in general, and of the Abbasids in particular, baffles general readers and historians alike. The bafflement surrounding the lightening ascent of Arabs into power is paralleled by the equally dramatic collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad under the crushing weight of the Mongol onslaught in the mid-13th century.

Inspired by such anomalies of history, this essay focuses on how and to what extent the administrative initiatives and practices of early Abbasid caliphs contributed to sustaining the Abbasid Caliphate until 1258 AD. However, with equal astonishment one notes that the centuries-long rule of the Abbasids, largely made possible by effective administration, militated to some extent against Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory of rise and fall of empires.

I employ the theoretical framework of the “State of Laws” and the “Continental Bureaucratic Empire” as proposed by historian Ilhan Niaz in his work The Culture of Power and Governance in Pakistan (1947-2008).


The theoretical study of the Abbasid State and administration

The Abbasid Caliphate was, by all accounts, a Continental Bureaucratic Empire. The arbitrary caliph sat at the apex of all power. He could and did pass on some civil authority to viziers, some judicial authority to Qadis (judges), and some military authority to a commander (Amir), but the caliph remained the ultimate arbiter of supreme authority. The entire state was thought to be the caliph's estate, and state servants were thought to be caliph's servants. The Caliph had exclusive proprietorship over all resources in the realm. Islam was used as an ideocratic complex to support arbitrary power and to create a transcendental and unquestionable image of the caliph. A complicated and effective priesthood supported by the state sat at the bottom as an ideological pillar to the caliphate.

Persian models were followed in imperial conduct and administrative tasks.
A distinguishing feature of Abbasid administration is its postal department. Initiated by the personal interest of Muawiyah during the Umayyad period, it had a trickling down effect on the administrations of successive Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs

Taking advantage of the antagonism to the ungodliness of the later Umayyads – as they would put it – the early caliphs of the Abbasids, notably Harun-al-Rashid, placed great emphasis on the religious character and dignity of the office of caliph. The caliph's office was defined as an imamate; however, theological hyper-adjectivity has been a common feature of Muslim empires.

Under the Abbasids the system of succession was as ill-defined and corrosive as in any other empire depicted as a Continental Bureaucratic Empire by Niaz. The reigning caliphs would often nominate their successors one of their sons who would be best qualified in their perspective. Harun-al-Rashid designated his oldest son al-Amin as his first successor, and his younger but shrewder son al-Mamun as his second successor. He partitioned the empire between the two, reserving for al-Mamun the realm of Khorasan. After his demise, a bitter struggle ensued which terminated in the assassination of al-Amin. Al-Mamun took over the Caliphate. This self-destructive bequeathment was not an exclusive of Harun to his sons, this was one of the terrible outcomes that recurrently befell the caliphate at the time of caliphal departure.

In power hierarchy, after caliph came the vizier, whose office was a Persian legacy. An alter ego of the caliph, the vizier would immensely grow in power as the caliphs increasingly indulged in the affairs of harem. In most of the cases the disobedience of the vizier was conceived as disobedience of the caliph. During Harun’s reign the Barmakid vizier was all powerful. His discretionary powers included appointing and deposing provincial governors and judges and passing on his own office according to the hereditary principle.

It was customary under the Abbasids for the viziers to expropriate the properties of governors who fell from grace, as it was commonplace for the governors to confiscate the estates of inferior officials. Private subjects, too, were not immune to the high-handed arbitrariness of the imperial apparatus. Loss of life and family as much accompanied the forfeiture of possessions as in any other Continental Bureaucratic Empire. Salaries and possessions of viziers, governors and other ruling elite during Abbasid Caliphate stand matchless in the Muslim history. State officials lived extravagantly. Counted in modern terms, the perks and privileges portioned to the Abbasid state officials are astonishingly unfathomable.

Under the Abbasids – particularly the early competent caliphs – the state paraphernalia became more complex. Greater order and effectiveness were brought into the state affairs. The system of taxation and administration of justice were ameliorated. Diwan (the bureau of taxes) and Bait-ul-Mal (the department of finance) remained the mainstay of the government.

State revenue came from sources such as Zakat, the only obligatory tax levied on Muslims. Muslims were exempted of poll tax. Tax-collectors scanned arable lands, herds and income-generating properties to be brought into the tax net. Private possessions such as gold and silver were left in the individual’s conscience whether to be declared or kept secret. All the revenue generated from tax collection from the believers was supposed to be spent for the welfare of the believers: the poor, orphans, strangers and the volunteers for holy war. Large chunks of public income came from tributes from foreign land, truce money and capitation tax from religious minorities.

Land taxes and tithes levied upon the merchandise of non-Muslims, which formed a greater portion of the state income, was to be spent on maintenance of troops, mosques, hydraulic infrastructure and road networks. Reports of state revenue that survived the onslaughts of anti-historical forces testify to the great prosperity of the reigns of early caliphs and depict a steady decline in the income of the state in each succeeding century.

According to the historical accounts, annual tax paid by al-Sawad (lower Iraq) in cash, exempting what was paid in kind, amounted to 27,800,00 dirhams. Similarly, Khorasan paid 28,000,000; Egypt 23,040,000; Syria-Palestine 14,724,000 and all the provinces of the empire paid 331,929,008 – excluding the taxes paid in kind. We are told when Harun died, the central treasury contained 900,000,000 dinars.

Along with the bureau of taxes, the Abbasid government had an audit or accounts office which was a legacy of al-Mahdi. It also had a board of correspondence or chancery office to handle official letters, political documents and imperial mandates and diplomas. A department for the inspection of grievances, a police department for maintenance of law and order in and around the palace, a postal service to attend to state correspondence, were few, amongst many of the Continental Bureaucratic features of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Cases of miscarriage of justice were appealed to the board for the inspection of grievances. Its origins are traced back to the Umayyad days when caliph Abd-al-Malik spared a special day to directly hear appeals and complaints of subjects. Most caliphs enthusiastically followed this tradition. The police department headed by a high-ranking official called Sahib al-Shurtah was responsible for royal security, and law and order in the center. Cities had their own special police forces, personnel of which also held military ranks, assigned with the duty of perpetuating law and order. Chief of municipal police (called Muhtasib) acted as inspector of markets and morals. It was under his legal power to ensure the usage of proper weights and measures in trade and that the defaulters were checked upon.

A distinguishing feature of Abbasid administration is its postal department. Initiated by the personal interest of Muawiyah during the Umayyad period, it had a trickling down effect on the administrations of successive Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. Initially purposed for conveyance of royal correspondence, the postal system went on to perform multiple other functions assigned to it. Historians ascribe the effectiveness and reorganization of the service to Harun through his Barmakid counsellor Yahya. In later years it accommodated private correspondence as well. All provincial capitals had their own postal systems connected to the imperial center dotted with routes and relays.

The itineraries set up at Baghdad as directory guides for travelers all around, later were used by early students for geographical and cartographical research. The furnished road network radiating from the imperial capital was a Persian legacy. The elaborate road network brought, Khorasan, Hamadhan, al-Rayy, Naysabur, Tus, Marw, Bukhara and the frontier towns Jaxartes and the borders of China, into the reach of Baghdad.

Espionage and maintenance of an elaborate spy system to keep the arbiter informed to preempt any potential danger to his power were well-maintained and entrenched in the whole realm, as was the case in other Continental Bureaucratic Empires. The post-master general, along with looking after imperial correspondence, was required to supervise the espionage system. All provinces had their own spy systems which would either report to the central post-master or the caliph himself. Merchants, peddlers and travelers acted as detectives. In one case, the caliph was informed of a governor who had, returning from pilgrimage, brought a beautiful girl with whom he kept himself busy. The governor was swiftly removed after confirmation. Given the arbitrariness involved in the bureaucratic set-up of the espionage system, sometimes it was taken advantage of to have opponents removed and obliterated.

Swift dispensation of justice has always been religiously emphasised in the Muslim empires; in the Abbasid Caliphate this duty was given to the Qazi (chief judge) who used to be an authority on Fiqh and religious texts and prescriptions of law. A chief judge had to be able-bodied and a Muslim by religion; his duties comprised deciding cases, providing guardianship to the orphans and mentally disturbed people. He had to punish violators of religious and civic laws. He had to dispense justice to the Muslims.

Non-Muslims were in matters of civil right and justice under the jurisdiction of their own ecclesiastical heads and magistrates. The dispensation of justice – resembling other Continental Bureaucratic Empires – was quite expeditious with great disregard for justice and fair play. Might being the right was the case in most of the incidents than right being the might. Arbitrary powers used to overwhelm the exigencies of law.

The military is what perpetuates and preserves the high-handed arbitrariness of Continental Bureaucratic Empires; other complex administrative hierarchies are only the intermediary supplies not the horse itself to ride on the battlefield. In the first century, the Abbasid Caliphate was contingent upon soldiery for its survival. The army was used to suppress revolts in Syria, Persia, Central Asia and wage war against the Byzantines.

The military inherited from early Arabs was not a standing army in the strict sense of the term. It did have a division of caliphal bodyguards who were the only regular troops to be regularly paid and serviced. Mercenary armies driven from the outskirts were mobilized in times of urgency. The regulars (Jund) who were on the active service were referred to as Murtaziqah (regularly paid). The rest, driven from peasant classes and townspeople, were known as volunteers. During the peak of the caliphate, average pay for foot soldiers was about 960 dirhams a year, notwithstanding the usual rations and allowances. The Iraq army was constituted of 125,000 soldiers. The cavalry received twice as much as the infantry. The army was armed with conventional medieval weapons. The Abbasids owed their rise more to the Persian weapons, warfare tactics and manpower than to the Arabs. The coercive military machine was largely composed of Khorasani troops.

The Abbasid division of administrative units and political classification varied across time. The chief provinces under the early caliphs of Baghdad were around twenty-five, which would keep rising and declining in number under successive regimes. Notwithstanding the relentless efforts of the center, centrifugal tendencies in far-flung domains were unavoidable consequence with difficult means of intercommunication. In distant lands, far from the sights of the caliph, the state officials tended to be exploitative in nature. Imperial arbitrariness disproportionately increased the farthest one moved from the seat of power. Governors owed their designation chiefly to the friendliness of the vizir, as the viziers were deposed by the center, so were the governors instated by him.



In the Continental Bureaucratic Empire of the Abbasid Caliphate, universal proprietorship was exercised over both mobile and immobile resources. The whole Abbasid territory was deemed to be the caliph’s personal estate. State servants were his personal servants. Aristocratic intelligentsia and priesthood were to aid and abet the arbitrary exercise of power of the arbiter.

Albeit the theoretical and practical minutiae of the empire did differ from rest of the Continental Bureaucratic Empires to some extent, essential features were nearly analogous. Nevertheless, given that empires being run on the Continental Bureaucratic State model was a historical reality around the world in those days, the Abbasid Caliphate under early caliphs functioned very effectively, setting the trajectory for the protracted and bumpy ride that the Caliphate was destined to take in the times to come. More important than foreign factors, internal decadence became a decisive factor in the fall of the empire.

Like many other similar empires when the foreign burglars (Mongols) burst open the gates of Baghdad to snatch away their share of imperial heritage, the ‘sick man’ was already on his deathbed.

The writer is an undergrad student at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. He tweets at @amin_salal