Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Abd al-Malik

I just read an interesting biography of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik by Chase Robinson, one of dozens of titles in a great new series from Oneworld Publications called Makers of the Muslim World. Abd al-Malik inherited a claim to the caliphate from his father Marwan, who had been elected at a gathering of Syrian tribal notables in 684 to succeed his second cousin twice removed Mu'awiya b. Yazid as heir to the Umayyad dynasty, which his second cousin Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan had founded 23 years earlier. Marwan died after only a few months, however, and so Abd al-Malik was the one who had to win control of the Muslim domains against other factions such as al-Mukhtar's proto-Shi'ite movement, the Azraqi Kharijites, and the widely recognized Abdullah Ibn Zubayr, based in Medina.

In 692, Abd al-Malik had finally emerged as the last man standing, thanks mainly to his general al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf, who subsequently became his governor in Iraq. During the remaining 13 years, Abd al-Malik remade what had been an empire governed mainly indirectly through ad hoc arrangements with notables in various regions to a centrally administered Arab and Muslim state. Under Abd al-Malik, the jizya tax was imposed on almost all non-Muslims, Arabic became the language of administration, and the first distinctively Islamic coinage was issued, except for some Zubayrid coins from the late 680's.

Abd al-Malik has come to play an important role in many revisionist theories of Islamic origins. It was he, for example, who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and made significant renovations to the Ka'aba in Mecca. He clearly claimed religious as well as secular authority: The Arabic khalifa means both deputy and successor, and Abd al-Malik and the Marwanids styled themselves not "caliph of God's messenger," but "caliph of God," putting their claims closer to the Catholic papacy than the caliphate as traditionally understood. (Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, in a book called God's Caliph, argued that Shi'ite beliefs about the imams are closer to the original understanding of the caliphate than Sunni attitudes.) Robinson suggests that the production of a standard version of the Qur'an was a project of Abd al-Malik only later projected back to Uthman. Some say he used this authority to elevate Muhammad's position and regularize many Islamic practices, perhaps even being the first to make is a religion separate from the other monotheistic faiths; my own belief is that he was simply the first to make it the ideology of a centralized government.

Regardless of how much he contributed to the Islamic faith, Abd al-Malik remains the one who put Muslim political power on solid institutional foundations. Robinson takes it as a testimony of his importance that he was succeeded by four of his sons, the last of whom died in 743, just seven years before the Umayyads would be swept to Spain by the Abbasid Revolution. Hopefully this highly accessible book will lead to more people learning about his fascinating role in history.


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