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American Mamlukes

July 10, 2007 No Comment
By Dr. M. Shahid Alam

It is a fact little known in the West, outside the circle of historians of Islamicate societies, that Islamicate states often employed soldiers and bureaucrats who were ‘slaves’ of the king or emperor.

Commonly, these ‘slaves’ were recruited as young boys: they were levied from the ranks of the ruler’s Christian subjects or bought as ’slaves’ from areas outside the Islamicate world. These ‘slaves’ were converted to Islam, tested, sorted by aptitude, and given an education that prepared them for employment in the service of the sovereign. The smartest ‘slaves’ could became generals or rise to the highest ranks in the civilian bureaucracy.

‘Slaves’ we call these members of the emperor’s household because they were the property of the emperor: in Arabic, mamlukes. But how appropriate is this description? Aside from the manner in which they were recruited, however, these mamlukes had little in common with the slaves who worked the plantations in the Americas. More appropriately, they were life-time employees in the service of the emperor. Ernest Gellner has drawn attention to the parallels between these ‘slaves’ and today’s wage workers.

These ‘slave’ soldiers were first employed by the Abbasids, but with time their use spread to other states. In Egypt, these ‘slaves’ captured power in 1250, but continued their reliance on other mamlukes. This institution was put to its best use by the Ottomans, the longest enduring empire in Islamic history.
How did the institution of mamlukes come to form the mainstay of several states in Islamic history?

Our explanation will strike most Westerners as improbable. The Islamicate rulers had hit upon the idea of employing ‘slaves’ as a solution to the difficulties of governance in egalitarian societies. This egalitarianism was the gift of ecology. The Bedouin who lived off the deserts of the Middle East could not be tied to a master or a piece of land; his camels and the vast deserts did not allow this. Over time, through migrations and conquests, the Bedouins imprinted their egalitarian ethos on the settled societies of the Middle East.

Once the Bedouins – and, later, horse nomads – created their own states or empires in the Middle East and Europe, the ruling dynasty found it difficult to retain the loyalty of the tribesmen in their army and administration. Challenges to the ruling dynasty were all too frequent since there were few barriers of hierarchy to restrain the ambitious members of their own or related tribes. Raised in an egalitarian ethos, ambitious and gifted tribesmen were easily persuaded that they had an equal right to kingship.

In time, some rulers learned to circumvent these challenges by replacing their tribesmen – their equals – with ‘slaves’ trained for service in the army and bureaucracy.  The slaves were hired when they were young; they were recruited from alien populations to ensure their status as outsiders, without a local constituency; they were trained in loyalty to the emperor; and the most talented ‘slaves’ had unlimited opportunities for advancement. In short, the mamluke  system ensured that the slaves had few resources or incentives to challenge their master. The state had solved its loyalty problem: it had manufactured a class of loyal, life-time ‘slave’ employees.

Is the mamluke system specific to the ecology of arid and semi-arid lands and the nomadic life they support? The evidence indicates that this system was a solution primarily to the problems of disloyalty that had their roots in an egalitarian ethos: its connections to the sources of this ethos in nomadic life are more tenuous. Arguably, then, whenever rulers confront an egalitarian society, giving rise to frequent challenges to their power from below, they will seek to circumvent these challenges by creating institutions that serve the same functions as the mamluke system.

Can we discern any parallels to this mamluke  system in the modern Western societies as they moved from the hierarchy of feudalism to more open, egalitarian societies created by the growing dominance of capitalist institutions? In the decentralized polities of feudal Europe, with power vested in the hands of thousands of large landowners, the primary problems of governance were keeping down the serfs and checking the ambition of rival landowners. However, as feudal Europe moved towards the formation of stronger states – facilitated by the greater use of gunpowder – and they needed larger standing armies, it became too risky to hire serfs to do the fighting. Serfs with training in guns could raise rebellions. They preferred to rely upon foreign mercenaries: they were more dependable because they were outsiders, and when disbanded they would return to their homes beyond the territory of the king.

Citizen armies appeared in Europe’s emerging nation states when techniques of the military drill were slowly perfected during the seventeenth century. The drill helped to mould the serfs into malleable tools, disciplined, obedient, and trained in loyalty to the king and the nation. Over time, as nationalist indoctrination was joined to the drill, the risks of rebellions from citizen armies diminished. They became the norm over much of Europe. Modern Europe acquired its ‘slave’ armies with help from the drill and nationalist ideologies.

When industrial capitalism produced democratizing forces in society, a variety of mechanisms came into play to minimize the risk of challenges from below as the vote was extended downwards. On the one hand, the ‘drill’ was refined and expanded: to its existing tools were added schooling, wage work and rising consumption. Schooling indoctrinated the electorate in the ‘benefits’ of citizenship. Wage work added threats of joblessness and privation. Addiction to consumerism blocked out the anger over inequities. It also kept the consumer toiling as hard or harder than before to pay for new consumer goods.

Neutralizing the newly empowered citizens was not enough: the representatives they voted into government would have to be neutered.  It is far easier to cover election expenses by taking money from those with deep pockets – the corporations and lobbies – than raising money from the voters. As election expenses rose, the discipline that corporations and lobbies exercised over the elected representatives deepened; they began to pick and put them into office.

Unlike the mamlukes, the senators and representatives in the US Congress are not captured as slaves from neighboring countries. In practice, however, their interests are so closely tied to those of their ‘owners’ – the corporations and lobbies – that they retain precious little interest in the concerns of the people who vote them into office. Indeed, when we examine the loyalty with which they render their services to their true ‘owners,’ the dead Ottoman emperors might well envy the system of representation that produces these American mamlukes.

Thus, two egalitarian systems – the Islamicate and American – had produced similar responses to the challenge of power from below: they instituted two close variants of the mamluke system.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2007). He may be contacted at Visit his website at: © M. Shahid Alam.

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