History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 4)

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes a different military setup in the Middle East and North Africa that is different than the tribal system and bears little resemblance to anything in Europe, and that is the Mamluk system that developed in the Ottoman Empire.

9. The Mamluk System

But you have another completely different military setup than you find in the Middle East and North Africa, that bears little connection to the tribal system and little resemblance to anything you have in Europe prior to the 19th century, and this is the idea of a professional military made up of people who are socially marginal.

Socially marginal is a very important thought here because the aristocracy of Europe, the mainstay of the military use of force, are not at all socially marginal, they are the social elite. By socially marginal, the most dramatic demonstration of this in the Middle East and North Africa is to have a professional military force of people who are slaves. What could be more socially marginal?

Of course, we have a problem with English when we use the word “slave,” which has to cover a whole variety of non-free status situations that are not very closely similar to the plantation slavery of the New World. It’s a little hard to imagine that the dominant agricultural and commercial class of South Carolina in the 1830s would have thought, “you know, let’s give all the slaves guns and ask them to protect us” (laughter). They would have thought, “giving guns to slaves? That doesn’t make sense, because they are slaves and they will kill us.” And fear of being killed by the slaves was a very important element in New World slave society and occasionally it happened, not nearly as often as it happened the other way around where you found some reason to kill one’s slaves.

But in the Middle East and North Africa, training slaves to be soldiers not only became commonplace but it produced a military elite of extraordinary ability. What was distinctive about it, and one of the reasons why it doesn’t have a parallel in Europe until the 19th century, is that the military elite of this sort had a locus quite different from the geographically peripheral military force residing in tribes. This military force was directly associated with employment by the central government. It was often located in the capital city and trained directly under the administration of the central government.

The term used from early times onward for a warrior-slave was Mamluk. It is a word for “slave” in the sense that it is a Arabic passive participle which means “owned”, but it is not the word in Arabic that you would use for a house-slave or a slave you had who was working in your shop or something like that. It does not necessarily mean a white slave, because you had areas where you had mamluks who were people of sub-Saharan Africa.

So it isn’t a matter of color, it’s a matter of what the occupation of the slave is. The root of the word Mamluk or m-l-k is also the word for “king,” and some people would argue that it doesn’t mean “owned” it means “kinged”, meaning that he is the King’s man. But they’re still slaves; you can buy them and you can sell them.

When you bought slaves in Islamic dominions, you had a constraint that it is religiously prohibited for a Muslim to enslave another Muslim, so this guaranteed the social marginality of the people who became mamluks. They had to come from some place either within the domain or outside of the domain where they were non-Muslims. But if they were within the domain and they were non-Muslims belonging to the Christian or the Jewish or the Zoroastrian faiths, then they were dhimmis and they were protected; they paid a tax and were relieved of any obligation for military service.

So typically mamluks were purchased from outside the domain. We have very little written on the early conceptual notion of the mamluk, but there may have been the idea that if you have people who come from far away and are brought in through a commercial nexus and are trained to be soldiers, particularly if they are purchased in childhood and therefore do not have a deep socialization within some other society, they are not a danger because they don’t have roots extending into the local society.

In this way you can have powerful commanders who were of slave origin who were not a threat to the ruler because they were after all slaves.

10. The Mamluks in Egypt in the later Middle Ages

In the year 1250, the man who was ruling Egypt right after there had been a great victory by the Egyptians over French crusader troops who had landed at the mouth of the Nile River. That victory had been won by the mamluks who were the regiment, battalion, or whatever you called the military unit that was owned by the ruler who died. When he died, another member of the family living in Syria came to Egypt and said, “Okay, I am now going to be the ruler and the head of the military of the ruler will be my mamluks.” The Egyptian mamluks said, “that just doesn’t sound right. We drove off the Crusaders, we fought, we won, and now you’re replacing us with your mamluks.” So they killed him (laughter). Then having killed him, they thought, you know, this is going to happen again and again. Someone’s going to come from somewhere else from that ruling family, which extended throughout Egypt and Syria; they’re the descendants of Salah Hadin, the great monarch of the time of the Crusades. And so for a while, for about 10 years, they had the idea that maybe if our general marries the widow of the last Sultan that is legitimate enough. Or maybe if there’s a child, we can say that he is the ruler. In fact, there is one widow who was herself a slave by origin who played a very important role at the time. She married a number of people and she was thought to have conferred a certain legitimacy.

But by 1260, there was another victory won by those same Mamluks and this was against the Mongols in a battle in Syria. At the battle of Ain Jalut (the “spring of Goliath”) the Egyptian Mamluks won a victory over the remnants of the Mongol army that had been left behind as Genghis Khan went back to Mongolia. When they returned to Cairo, they simply dispensed with any connection with the earlier regime and said “we’re the rulers.” From 1260 on, the ruler of Egypt was more often than not a slave-general. And when the general becomes the sultan, then he buys more mamluks, and then they are his mamluks, and you start to have really an entire mamluk system, in which you have slaves who were the military elite, who monopolized military force, to the same degree that the European aristocracy did.

Now you still had tribes, and in the wars of those centuries, the Arab tribes are called upon to fight on one side or another, but the Arab tribes never have any lasting power. The power lies with the mamluks from 1260-1516.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes a parallel Mamluk system that develops in India.

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