sehepunkte 14 (2014), Nr. 9

Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Ashqar: al-Wizāra wa-l-wuzarāʾ fī Miṣr fī ʿaṣr al-ṣalāṭīn al-mamālīk

Studies on the history of individual offices and their holders have proven to be a particularly fruitful way to broaden our knowledge on the institutional and administrative development in the Mamluk period. [1] The office of the Vizier, which stands at the center of attention in the book under review, seems to be an especially rewarding subject for this kind of analysis, given its importance in the history of the Islamicate world and in light of our advanced knowledge on its development in other periods. [2]

Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Ashqar's al-Wizāra wa-l-wuzarāʾ fī Miṣr fī ʿaṣr al-ṣalāṭīn al-mamālīk ("The Vizierate and the Viziers in Egypt in the period of the Mamluk sultans") begins with various forewords and introductory statements by the series editor and the author (pp. 7-16). These are followed by the first chapter proper, which provides an overview of the establishment and the development of the Vizierate in the early Islamicate world (pp. 17-30). The second chapter is dedicated to the office in Egypt in pre-Mamluk history (pp. 31-46), while the third one discusses the marks (rusūm) and competences (ikhtiṣāṣāt) of the Vizier in the Mamluk period (pp. 47-68). The fourth chapter focusses on the decline (tadahwur) of the institution under the Mamluk Sultans (pp. 69-86). Chapter 5, by far the largest part of the book, contains a list of biographical notes on the Viziers of Mamluk Egypt (pp. 87-174). The book ends with a short epilogue (pp. 175-178) and a bibliography (pp. 179-189).

In his foreword, the author explains that one reason for his writing the book under review was that, while there existed a comprehensive study on the Mamluk Vizierate in French, i.e., Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Rāziq's "Le vizirat et les vizirs d'Ègypte au temps des Mamlūks" [3], no similar work was available in Arabic. He then goes on to explain that the Vizierate was nominally among the highest administrative offices of the Mamluk Sultanate, but nevertheless had so far received little scholarly attention. Thereafter, he outlines the structure of his study and provides a list of the main sources used in his study. The latter includes an impressive selection of famous chronicles, biographical dictionaries and chancery manuals from the Mamluk period available as manuscripts or in print. It is, however, somewhat perplexing to see that ʿAbd al-Rāziq's previously mentioned French article on the Mamluk Vizierate is listed among the most important primary sources of the book under review (p. 16).

The first chapter of the book introduces the reader to the genesis and the early history of the Vizierate. It begins with linguistics comments on the origins of the term "wazīr" and its original meaning. The formation of the word is understood as being explainable within the context of Arabic morphology. Thus, no attention is paid to the opinion sometimes voiced that it might in fact be a non-Arabic, i.e. Persian, loanword. The author then goes on to trace the history of the office from pre-Islamic times, when it was known among the Persians, the Israelites and the ancient Egyptians, through the time of the Prophet Muḥammad and the first Caliphs up to the Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods. The chapter ends with a discussion of the Vizierate within the political theory of the influential jurist Abū
l-Ḥasan al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058).

The second chapter continues the historical narration with sections on the Vizierate in Islamic Egypt beginning with the semi-independent rules of the Tulunids and Ikhshidids. Subsequently, the authors focuses on the Famitid and Ayyubid periods in Egyptian history, paying special attention to the growing importance of the Vizier in the course of Fatimid history and the outward signs of his powerful position. One misses, however, a discussion of the key role the office of the Vizierate played in the transition from Fatimid to Ayyubid rule, when the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty Salaḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (d. 589/1193) came to power in Egypt as Fatimid Vizier.

The description of the Vizierate in the Mamluk period begins in the third chapter. After a few remarks on the Vizier's position in the hierarchy of the Mamluk state, the author discusses the recruitment of the office holders from among local administrative and Mamluk circles and the necessary qualifications for the post. Special attention is paid to the religious identities of the Mamluk Viziers. Al-Ashqar states that, due to the fact that the Mamluks waged jihād against the Christian crusaders, Copts were selected for this important positions in much smaller numbers than in earlier, e.g., Fatimid, times. This monocausal explanation for Mamluk recruitment patterns seems to have feet of clay, given that also the pre-Mamluk rulers of Egypt stood in military conflict with nominally Christian powers. A much more nuanced analysis of the confessional identities of administrative functionaries and the general interreligious relations in the Mamluk period seems to be in order before any far-reaching conclusions on the position of government officials of Christian origin can be proffered. [4]

The author then returns to the subject of the Vizier's standing within the Mamluk government apparatus. As the highest-ranking financial officer, the Vizier sometimes held a position second only to the Mamluk Sultan himself and enjoined special ceremonial prerogatives if he had been recruited from among the ranks of the military. Based on information about the Vizier's attire (ziyy) and his titles (Sg. laqab) collected from the available sources, the outward signs of his rank are thereafter addressed. The remainder of the chapter sheds light on the Vizier's competences within the government apparatus, which varied greatly depending on the background and the personality of the officeholder, on the one hand, and the stance of the Sultan towards him, on the other.

The decline of the Vizierate during the Mamluk Sultanate is addressed in Chapter 4. The main reason for the negative development of the office is seen in the behavior of the later Mamluk Sultans, who eagerly concentrated all power in their own hands and were thus not willing to grant high-ranking officers independent spheres of influence. As a consequence, the Viziers' tenures of office became shorter and shorter, with many of them buying themselves into the Vizierate. The fact that many Christian converts to Islam gained access to the position is cited as additional proof of its demise. Moreover, light is shed on the changing relations between the Vizier, the Sultan and the latter's deputy as well as on shifts in the Vizier's competences. Al-Ashqar's relies in this chapter first and foremost on source material written by the historian Taqī l-Dīn al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442), who is known as a prominent advocate of ideas about a general demise in the late Mamluk period.

Chapter 5, by far the longest one in the book, consists of a list of 164 men who held the post of Vizier in Egypt during the Mamluk period, some of whom appear more than once in the list due to the fact that they were dismissed from office and then reinstated one or even several times. Without counting the tenures of these reinstated Viziers separately the number of entries in the list would drop to 107.

For all persons in the list, the following data are given (as far as available): complete name, date of death, dates of appointment and dismissal as Vizier, family relationship with other Viziers and bibliographical data of the most important sources on the respective person. The list proper is followed by a short quantitative analysis of the amassed data, focusing e.g. on the number of tenures of the officeholders, their time in office, the circumstances of their dismissal and periods of vacancy of the Vizierate. The presentation of the figures computed in this section could be greatly improved by using tables and graphs instead of the copious and confusing enumerations in the main text preferred by the author.

In his epilogue, the author summarizes the results of his study. Whereas the first two chapters are dealt with in only one sentence each, al-Ashqar gives special regard to his findings on the development of the Vizierate in the Mamluk period.

Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Ashqar's al-Wizāra wa-l-wuzarāʾ deserves attention as the first book-length study of the Vizierate in the Mamluk period. It is based on a detailed analysis of the most important available Arabic sources from the Mamluk period and demonstrates the author's familiarity with a selection of relevant secondary literature in both Arabic and European languages. Generally well structured and written in clear, comprehensible language, it makes for pleasant reading.

Nevertheless, the value of the book for the scholarly community appears limited for a number of reasons. The two short chapters on the pre-Mamluk periods remain superficial, lacking both detail and a critical analysis of the sources cited. The notion that the office of the Vizier already existed in pre-Islamic times, for instance, seems to be an unproven back projection of a later historical reality that the author copies unquestioned from medieval Muslim historiographical literature. [5]

The simplistic character of the first two chapters of the book might be due to the fact that the author pays no attention to some of the most fundamental previous studies on his topic. Key publications that have been available for decades, such as S.D. Goitein's "The origin of the vizierate and its true character" (in idem, Studies in Islamic history and institutions, Leiden 1968, pp. 168-91), A.K.S. Lambton's State and government in medieval Islam (Oxford 1981) and A.F. Sayyid's al-Dawla al-Fāṭimiyya fī Miṣr: Tafsīr jadīd (Beirut 1992), seem to be unknown to him. His only reference to D. Sourdel's monumental Le vizirat ʿabbāside de 479 à 936 (132 à 324 de l'hégire) (Damascus 1959-1960) is obviously wrong as it points to the third volume of this two-volume work (p. 28).

The scholarly quality of al-Ashqar's study improves significantly when he turns to the Vizierate in the Mamluk period, i.e., the main topic of his book. Here, his statements are based on a detailed reading of the relevant primary and secondary literature. However, the author's reliance on the all too well-known concept of a general demise of the Mamluk Sultanate in the course of its history limits the depth of his historical analysis. By postulating a relatively simple model of steady decline of the Vizierate in Mamluk times, al-Ashqar makes a more nuanced understanding of the development of the office impossible. Changes in the character of the Vizier's duties during Mamluk history are all together seen as signs of a universal demise and therefore cannot be interpreted as new answers to transforming economical, political and social realities. Thus, a chance has been missed here to arrive at a deeper understanding of institutional change within the Mamluk system of rule.

The central problem of the portions of the book dealing with the Mamluk period lies, however, in their relationship with Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Rāziq's earlier mentioned French article "Le vizirat et les vizirs d'Ègypte au temps des Mamlūks", published in 1980. The degree of overlap between ʿAbd al-Rāziq's article and the book under review is considerable and becomes almost complete in the case of the lists of Mamluk Viziers prepared by both authors. 163 out of the 164 Viziers catalogued by al-Ashqar can also be found in ʿAbd al-Rāziq's article, with the latter giving often more comprehensive bibliographical references. The only significant difference between al-Ashqar's list, which makes up almost half of the text pages of his entire book, and ʿAbd al-Rāziq's piece is that the former includes one Yusūf al-Badrī as Vizier no. 164. This man was installed as Vizier in Dū l-Qaʿda 923/December 1517 and ousted from his office one year later. On chronological grounds it is thus at best doubtful whether he should at all be regarded a Vizier of the Mamluk period.

It is not my intention here to accuse al-Ashqar of academic misconduct. He duly acknowledges his indebtedness to ʿAbd al-Rāziq's earlier French study in several instances. Yet, the fact that the two publications are in large portions almost identical in content raises serious questions regarding the scholarly value of al-Ashqar's book. This is especially the case as the author does not engage in a critical dialogue with the previous work by questioning, for example, its methodology, assumptions or results. Although absolutely nothing speaks against two authors focusing on the same subject, a simple reproduction - albeit in a different language - of earlier research results that are of interest only to specialists carries a high risk of being merely a waste of precious time, limited resources and scholarly energy.

Moreover, for the sake of completeness, two oversights should be mentioned that may cause some nuisance to the reader: Whereas the Arabic main text is remarkably free of typing errors (cf., however, e.g. pp. 163, 177), references to publications in European languages are sometimes so muddled and full of mistakes as to be unintelligible (cf. especially p. 189). Furthermore, the endnotes to the introduction seem to have got lost in the course of the production process of the book.

Given the relatively inferior quality of the first two chapters of al-Ashqar's al-Wizāra wa-l-wuzarāʾ and the large degree of overlap between its remainder and ʿAbd al-Rāziq's earlier article, most scholars who look for general information on the Mamluk Vizierate and know both French and Arabic will most probably decide to rely on ʿAbd al-Rāziq's French study, which is easily accessible online. Nevertheless, readers with a special interest in the subject of the book are well advised to take it into account, be it only for the rich collection of source material compiled by its author.


[1] Cf. e.g. ʿAbd al-Nabī, H.M.S.: al-Dawādār al-thānī fī Miṣr fī ʿasr al-mamālīk al-jarākisa, in Annales Islamologiques 40 (2006), 71-90; Escovitz, Jospeh H.: The office of qâdī al-quḍât in Cairo under the Baḥrī Mamlûks, Berlin 1984; Schimmel, Annemarie: Kalif und Kadi im spätmittelalterlichen Ägypten, in Die Welt des Islams 24 (1942), 1-128.

[2] For an overview of the existing literature on the Vizierate, see Zaman, Muhammad Qasim et al.: "Wazīr", in P.J. Bearman et al. (eds.): The encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition, vol. XI, Leiden 2002, 185-197.

[3] ʿAbd al-Rāziq, Aḥmad: "Le vizirat et les vizirs d'Ègypte au temps des Mamlūks", in Annales Islamologiques 16 (1980), 183-239. Note that the page numbers in references to this study given by al-Ashqar in various instances (pp. 8, 16, 172, 188) seem not to be correct.

[4] An important step forward in this direction is Tamer El-Leithy's (unfortunately) still unpublished Coptic culture and conversion in medieval Cairo, 1293-1524 A.D., unpublished PhD dissertation, Princeton University 2005.

[5] His source for this assumption is Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī's (d. 911/1505) historical work ḥusn al-muhāḍara fī akhbār Miṣr wa-l-Qāhira, Cairo 1881-1882.

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Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Ashqar: al-Wizāra wa-l-wuzarāʾ fī Miṣr fī ʿaṣr al-ṣalāṭīn al-mamālīk, Cairo: al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma lil-Kitāb 2011, 202 S., ISBN 978-977-421-872-2

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Christian Mauder
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