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Court of the Caliphs: The Rise and Fall of…

Court of the Caliphs: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty (original: 2004; edição: 2004)

de Hugh Kennedy

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281570,121 (3.54)5
From a rebellion planned in a remote desert town to the founding of Baghdad in AD 762, the rule of the Abbasid dynasty was looked back on as the golden era of the Islamic Conquest. The Caliphs formed the model for succeeding muslim regimes. From military conquests to patronizing poetry, building palaces, and the formal structure of the court - harems, viziers, eunuchs and the tales of the Arabian Nights - the Abbasid caliphate offered a historical ideal for later empires and their rulers to aspire to. Yet the true story of this fascinating empire has been forgotten outside the academic world. And it deserves to be rescued: it is an epic story in every sense, with larger-than-life rulers, exotic slave girls, inventive tortures, and enough court intrigue to frighten a Borgia.… (mais)
Título:Court of the Caliphs: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty
Autores:Hugh Kennedy
Informação:Weidenfeld & Nicholson history (2004), Hardcover
Coleções:Sua biblioteca

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When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty de Hugh Kennedy (2004)

Adicionado recentemente porniallsheekey, mfd101, Kanj, suzyrez, galoshin



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Interesting stories of court life during the Abbasid Caliphate. The book is poorly organized, jumping around chronologically and spitting events up between chapters. I enjoyed it but can't recommend it. ( )
  le.vert.galant | Jan 26, 2015 |
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World claims to introduce us to the history and flourishing culture of the "golden age of Islam." Overall, there aren't too many books on the market to compare to but the scope of the work is interesting and relatively unexplored by most scholars. Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to all of the expectations I had for it.

Hugh Kennedy admirably tries to tell the history of the Abbasids in as a story but fails to achieve the level of storytelling success that one might find in a book like Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. His biggest problem with his story format is that 1. it's inconsistent and 2. it switches without notice between storytelling and history lecture in an abrupt manner that doesn't flow well. I have a bit of a love hate relationship with his writing style. He seems to desperately want to share this history as a story but fails to do so in a consistently cohesive and logical way. It seems like he often presents the most dramatic/entertaining/shocking story first as if that IS what happened but, then all of the sudden cuts it off and tells you that's just one possibility and another source says x, y, z. I would have really preferred if he could have told the story that facts confirm and then add in the miscellaneous possibilities as to what else may have occurred. It was kind of like reading "this is what happened.... or is it?" over and over again.

I loved the stories he did tell, I hated hearing once again that it was only one of several possibilities. I think the stories he did tell were perhaps how he'd like to imagine history having occurred and that by telling that story he puts his opinion first in your mind while marginally acknowledging the other possibilities so he doesn't lose credibility. This way you're more likely to remember the more interesting story as opposed to the other possibilities which are presented as more dry facts or secondary considerations. Aside from that I really enjoyed most of the content and I loved reading about Harun Al-Rashid,The Harem, and Abbassid court culture.

Unfortunately, this particular look at court culture contains essentially no information about dancers as part of the court or general culture. There are some images in the middle of the book including one from Samarra depicting two dancing girls pouring wine. It is part of a small fragment of the murals which decorated the palace. Clearly dance was present in court culture but, despite even including an image there is no real information about dance in any form. It does talk quite a bit about poets and makes some mentions of Musicians though. We can make some guesses about the possible place of dance in court culture based on the information about musicians and possibly slaves but the author made no attempt to mention anything about dance.

Although the beginning has a lot of problems with the switching between storyteller and historian writing style the later chapters don't do this as much. Instead the majority switches to more dry history. The information is interesting but, harder to follow and keep interested in. However there are occasional small instances like this throughout the books.

Another issue I had with the book is that although the author of the book is supposed to be neutral to religion but several comments and assertions of the authors opinions seemed to be rather biased against Islam. This gives me reservations about how he perceives the historic events. Considering he presents certain versions of possible history as being his story arc is it because these are products of his bias or is it historically the most viable? I don't know.

My other issue with the book is the way that it's divided into chapters. Some books like Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium can take a more separate approach to a historical time period and work. this is because the scope of each chapter is very specific in what it covers. there is little to no overlap in other chapters and there is generally not much repeated. Kennedey's work however attempts to separate while weaving together in a story and it doesn't work well. It's a bit like reading a novel out of order randomly selecting which chapter you will read. It's a disjointed experience and you have to jump from one person to another and one topic to another constantly to re situate yourself in the context of what's happening. I wonder if he wouldn't have been better off using a bit more of a chronological progression throughout the book in which he could have incorporated each of the elements he tried to separate. It might have made it easier for the reader to compare military, architectural, and cultural differences between all the different caliphs while also moving forward in a logical and more story like progression.

I would still recommend this for people looking to learn more about the Abbasid Caliphs which is mostly what the book ends up talking about but most other questions about court culture or how people lived their daily lives go largely unanswered. Be aware that parts are going to quickly switch from a story to history in a split second and that jolting experience as a reader can be a problem with moving forward in the book. I do think there is a lot of good information and it is relatively accessible to the average reader (assuming you like reading history and are used to reading in that genre). It does help to examine the history and successions of the Abbasid Caliphs and tells some of the stories that make them seem more like human beings as opposed to just some distant historical figures. ( )
  CassandraStrand | Sep 17, 2014 |
A nice departure from the traditional, textbook-style history book. A good way to read up on an important period in Muslim and world history ... you remember it more because it's told like a story. Also very factually on top of its game. ( )
  robnotbob3304 | Jul 16, 2013 |
I like Kennedy's work. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Hugh Kennedy, in his light and entertaining read, “When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World”, sets out to provide a window into the courts and court life of the Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 935 CE). He succeeds in this goal, providing a colorful and entertaining history of the court culture, poetry, literature, and the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that can be traced to the Abbasid period. He recounts and analyzes the grandeur and power of the caliphs and the practical forces that constrained and even usurped their authority. He also provides interesting insight into the early hardening of the split between the Party of Ali (Shi’a) and the party of established Caliphal succession (Sunni).

The Abbasids and their supporters tried to strike a middle ground between those Faithful that believed the Caliphate should succeed to direct heirs of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and those who held more traditional Arab beliefs that the strongest and ablest leader available should take the helm without total regard to lineage. The established Umayyad Caliphate, which most Muslims did not recognize as rightful heirs of the Prophet, was increasingly seen as corrupt and disinterested in the plight of the umma, or Muslim community. The Umayyads consolidated their power in 661, the date of the assassination of Ali, and clung to it until 750, when the last Eastern Umayyad Caliph Marwan was hunted down and killed in battle. Many believers saw the revival of the family of the Prophet as the path to reestablishing true Islam and their own prosperity. Interestingly, however, the masterminds of this nascent coup chose not a direct descendant of Muhammad, but rather Muhammad ibn Ali, a descendant of the Prophet’s paternal uncle Abbas. Kennedy believes this choice was likely driven by a cynical desire to gain effective control of the new caliphate without having to compete with the prestige of the Alids. Yet Abbas was also a peculiar choice in that “there was no getting away from the fact that Abbas had never become a Muslim and would now be burning in hell.” Political pragmatism overcame dogmatism, however, and the Abbasid Caliphate was born.

Although the faithful now had a champion to rally around, the Umayyads remained formidable and were determined to snuff out this challenge as quickly as they could. The conspirators tapped the disenfranchised aristocrats of the Khurasan region, in the regions of modern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. The city of Merv formed the epicenter of the revolt, supplying large numbers of fierce fighters and a Persian culture that ultimately blended with and in many cases supplanted the Arab culture of the Umayyads. These armies unleashed a lightning campaign that rolled back the Umayyads, ultimately driving them out of the Middle East to later reemerge with a new dynasty in modern Spain.

The second Abbasid caliph Mansur (ascending to the caliphate after a short reign by his brother) consolidated his power by eliminating all threats to his authority, including the military leaders that had brilliantly defeated the Umayyads, and many of the heirs of Ali, whose corpses he morbidly kept preserved in a secret crypt. During his 21 year reign, Mansur established his capital in Baghdad, and put in place a large bureaucracy and a professional military dominated by Khurasani soldiers. What he created however, looked suspiciously to the average Muslim like the Umayyad dynasty that it had replaced.

Court culture thrived under the caliphs that succeeded Mansur, beginning with his son Mahdi. Although many of the court elite were Persian, Arabic was adopted as the language of the cultured. Wine tended to flow freely among the elite, something that the more pious found shocking. Poets, singers, philosophers and scientists were all actively patronized by the court’s inner circle. Ironically, while admiring poets and singers greatly, the Caliphs were typically careful to keep these morally challenged artists away from their impressionable children. Much ancient philosophy and science was translated from Greek into Arabic during this time, and many scientists adopted scientific methods to study problems of their day. The mathematical concepts of Euclid and Ptolemy were extended during this time, including through the discovery of algebra and the implementation of the Arabic numeral system we use today. There were also significant discoveries in the areas of optics, medicine, astronomy and chemistry. In this the Abbasids stands in stark contrast to their counterparts in the Byzantine empire and the Germanic kingdoms of western Europe. Kennedy notes that this respect for and aspiring to great literary and scientific achievements was lost in the widespread adoption of madrasas in the 11th century.

The author spends considerable time on the challenges of succession, particularly acute in a culture that did not believe in primogeniture. After a largely peaceful and orderly succession from Mansur to his son Mahdi, virtually all of the subsequent successions were filled with contention and intrigue, including a number of suspicious deaths. The wives and concubines of the caliphs jockeyed for favor in order to move their sons up in the succession. In addition, political cliques at the court often attached themselves to a particular potential heir, and their fortunes rose and fell with the fortunes of their candidate. As these contests often turned into zero sum games, with the losers and their supporters ending up without their heads, there was significant motivation for skullduggery. Particularly interesting is the rise and the fall of the Barmakid family, whose members acted as viziers to a series of Caliphs before suffering a quick and fatal reversal under Caliph Harun al Rashid. The Barmakids, through their trusted relationships with the Caliphs, generated huge fortunes and power. But they soon learned that despite all of their power their grasp on it was tenuous and ultimately subject to the whim of the Caliph. Another topic of interest is the fact that Greek slave girls were highly prized and were often the mothers of subsequent Caliphs, perhaps an indication of how strong the culture of patrilineal descent was and is in Muslim culture.

Also fascinating are the effective constraints on the power of the Caliph. Conventionally, the Caliph’s power was often limited by a fairly effective legal system and he was required to observe in many cases the same laws as his subjects (for example, with respect to private property rights). More interesting is the danger that many caliphs faced from the various military and political cliques that they relied on to manage their state. As noted before, the Abbasids were carried to power on the backs of Khurasani soldiers. These soldiers typically required significant cash payments at the time of each Caliphal succession in order to refrain from rioting, and the new Caliphs by and large made sure they received them. The implied threat being that the military could replace any Caliph if it chose to.

This relationship devolved into an explicit threat as a result of a battle over succession that degenerated into a civil war. Harun al Rashid’s first two sons Amin and Ma’mun, destroyed much of Baghdad, in many cases irreparably, in a battle over the succession. For example, intricate irrigation systems were destroyed which have never been replaced, causing many generations of misery thereafter. During the Caliphate of Ma’mun, his younger half-brother Muctasim began to accumulate a small army made up primarily of Turkic horse soldiers from the steppes of Asia. Upon the death of Ma’mun in 833, Muctasim used this private army to secure the Caliphate over Ma’mun’s son Abbas. While initially useful for Muctasim, these thugs came to dominate the subsequent Caliphs, eventually doing away with any pretense and simply murdering uncooperative Caliphs and choosing successors that they could intimidate and control. While the Khurasani soldiers for the most part came from the Persian aristocracy, these Turks were considered illiterate barbarians. As they fought amongst themselves for more and more power and wealth, they soon represented a burden that the tax base of the empire could not accommodate. Paranoia about political maneuverings by rivals at court forced them to remain in the capital, leaving the outer provinces prey to marauders and rival kingdoms such as the Byzantines. Ultimately, the kingdom splintered and then disintegrated, leaving the Caliph effectively without power or influence among the Muslim umma beginning in the 10th century.

The book also covers the hardening of some of the early differences among those Muslims who would ultimately be known as Shi’a and those that would be known as Sunni. The struggles of the Alids against the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates are only peripherally discussed in this work. However, interestingly, there is a brief discussion of the concept of createdness with respect to the Qur’an. It is a complex distinction, but it appears that the traditional Sunni view is that the Qur’an has existed since the beginning of time, and therefore, is inviolable and not subject to change by new revelations or new information and circumstances discovered by man. The doctrine of createdness, however, states that the Qur’an was created by God at a certain point in time, and thus was not eternal and could be interpreted or changed by new revelations or investigations. The latter philosophy appealed to those with an academic bent who appreciated and studied earlier Greek philosophers, but represented blasphemy to more traditional and pious Muslims. The doctrine of createdness, and it’s implications of allowing reason and revelation into the discussion of God’s word, apparently has had some influence over Shi’aism ever since. The Caliph Ma’mun adopted this philosophy in 813 and required its acceptance throughout the empire. During this time there were widespread disturbances as the faithful, particularly those in the Baghdad province, demonstrated their distaste. A Baghdad rebellion led by Ahmad ibn Nasr was put down and Ahmad beheaded. Ahmad eventually became a much-venerated Sunni martyr in later centuries. Also during this period, the Abbasids sought reconciliation with the family of Ali, thereby effectively denying the validity of the three “Rightly Guided Caliphs” that ruled Islam directly after Mohammed’s death. This policy was reversed upon the ascent of the Caliph Mutawakkil in 847. In a demonstration of the new policy, the new Caliph had the Karbala tomb of Ali’s martyred son Husayn destroyed. The remains of this tomb are a site of devotion for Shi’a’s even to this day.

In many ways, the Abbasid Caliphate is considered the Golden Age of Islam. However, it is unlikely that it was ever considered so by the proletariat. To them, the new dynasty looked and behaved much like the previous dynasty, and their existence continued to be one of heavy taxation periodically interrupted by war. But the period was unique in the introduction of much of Persian culture into more traditional Arabic culture, the influences of which are seen even today. Eventually, of course, the Caliphate was subsumed by the warlike Turks, who were initially recruited to assist the Caliphate, but as is many times inevitable with mercenaries, were eventually and inevitably drawn to take it over. The Turks’ lack of administrative skills and overwhelming greed eventually buckled the dynasty Abbasids and reduced it to little more than a figurehead until it was finally destroyed by the Mongols in 1258. Kennedy’s work provides invaluable insight into the rise and fall of this fantastic dynasty. ( )
3 vote sjstuckey | Aug 16, 2009 |
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[UK title] The Court of the Caliphs: the Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty
[US title] When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty
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From a rebellion planned in a remote desert town to the founding of Baghdad in AD 762, the rule of the Abbasid dynasty was looked back on as the golden era of the Islamic Conquest. The Caliphs formed the model for succeeding muslim regimes. From military conquests to patronizing poetry, building palaces, and the formal structure of the court - harems, viziers, eunuchs and the tales of the Arabian Nights - the Abbasid caliphate offered a historical ideal for later empires and their rulers to aspire to. Yet the true story of this fascinating empire has been forgotten outside the academic world. And it deserves to be rescued: it is an epic story in every sense, with larger-than-life rulers, exotic slave girls, inventive tortures, and enough court intrigue to frighten a Borgia.

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