Episodes in which the ʿUlamāʾ, according to Islamic Law, were Opposed to the Tax

By Mehdi Berriah

This is part two in a series of four posts on the financing of jihād during the Mamlūk period.

First Episode

The first episode took place in dhū-l-qaʿda 657/November 1259, after Quṭuz dismissed al-Manṣūr ʿAlī, the son of his former master, the first Mamlūk sultan al-Muʿizz Aybak (d. 655/1257), and proclaimed himself sultan. The ʿulamāʾ, amīrs and the sultan discussed the possibility of imposing a special tax to finance the war effort against the Mongols. For ʿIzz al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 660/1262), this measure could only be implemented under certain conditions:

“When the enemy attacks a [Muslim] territory, it is incumbent on everyone to fight it, and it is permissible to collect from people whatever can contribute to the jihād effort, on the condition that nothing remains in bayt al-māl and that you [Mamlūk amīrs] sell all your possessions, except for horses and weapons, so that you and the people are all equal. To take the property of the people while the soldiers keep their goods and ornaments, no [that is not lawful].” [1]

Fatwā of ʿIzz al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 660/1262)

Although in the context of the fatwā “the enemy attacks a Muslim territory” and “that nothing remains in bayt al-māl,” not all the conditions were met because the Mamlūk amīrs were still in possession of many goods not necessary for war. The fact that many versions of this account exist[2] is proof that firstly this fatwā was important.

The fatwā symbolizes the topos of the superiority of the men of the pen (the ʿulamāʾ class) over those of the sword (the Mamlūk rulers).[3] In addition, the existence and diffusion, on a large scale, of the many versions of this account reflect, undeniably, the aura and prestige of al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salām in his time.[4]

The fatwā of al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salām can be considered a form of “conditional cooperation”[5] with the Mamlūk regime. As Mohamad El-Merheb notes, this fatwā is also an implicit critique of the wealth taken by the Mamlūk amīrs and an invitation to surrender it to the bayt al-māl before contemplating the possibility of a new tax.[6]

Second Episode

In his biography of his former master al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), Ibn al-ʿAṭṭār transcribes some of the letters exchanged between al-Nawawī and Sultan Baybars (r. 658/1260-676/1277), often considered as the founder of the Mamlūk Sultanate. Al-Nawawī took the initiative to write to the sultan via the amīr Badr al-Dīn Baylabal al-Khazindār and protest against the imposition of a new tax on the population of Syria, explaining that, given the drought that affected the region at the time, it was excessive:

“May the salvation of God, His mercy and blessings be upon the beneficent lord, king of the amīrs, the moon of religion […]. We wish to convey to your great knowledge that, this year, the inhabitants of Syria are facing great difficulties and are in a situation of weakness because of the light rains, price inflation, lack of fodder and greenery, the death of their cattle and other things.” [7]

In an aggressive and threatening response, Baybars defended his right to impose additional taxes on the population to make them contribute to the jihād effort. Al-Nawawī responded as follows:

“It was mentioned in the response [of Baybars] that jihād is not exclusively the responsibility of the fighters, something we had not mentioned. However, jihād is a farḍ kifāya[8]; if the sultan decides, he has fighters who have income from bayt al-māl, the rest of the people take care of their interests, those of the sultan, the soldiers and the others, whether by carrying out tasks related to agriculture, handicrafts and other domains that people need. The sultan’s fighters conduct jihād in exchange for revenue and it is not lawful to impose a tax on people while there is no money in bayt al-māl, either in money, goods, land or the like. And those, the ʿulamāʾ of the Muslims in the sultan’s territories, all agree on this point, and besides bayt al-māl – thanks to God – is filled […].” [9]

Fatwā of al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277)

Ibn Shaddād reports that in 672/1273–1274, Baybars and al-Nawawī had a discussion in the dār al-ʿadl (the House of Justice) in Damascus about the imposition of a new tax. Having been informed of Abagha’s (son and successor of Hulagu) willingness to attack Syria, Baybars gathered several ʿulamāʾ to discuss financing the jihād effort. The ʿulamāʾ agreed that the inhabitants of Damascus and its environs should participate in funding the provision of equipment for the army. After being informed of the previous fatwā, al-Nawawī went to Baybars and told him that he was not allowed to tax the population while spending 20,000 dirhams on a Mamlūk and equipping him with a golden harness and saddle.[10] Baybars did not cancel the tax, but he did reduce the amount demanded.[11] In al-Nuwayrī al-Iskandarānī’s version, al-Nawawī’s remarks are more harsh and made Baybars furious, and the sultan exiled him from Damascus.[12] This account is to be compared with another, reported by Ibn Shaddād, which occurred in Rajab-Shaʿbān/February-March of 672/1274, in Egypt. Here, Baybars attempted to impose additional taxes on the population to finance the jihād effort before retracting them; however, he did not retract in the face of the opposition to the ʿulamāʾ but rather in response to complaints by the people and the amīrs, who were unable to pay the sum requested by the sultan.[13] Although al-Nawawī, who was in Syria at the time, is not mentioned explicitly in Ibn Shaddād’s account, we can suppose that he was, perhaps, one of these ʿulamāʾ.

Do these three accounts constitute three different episodes or a single one? The account of Ibn ʿAṭṭār deals with an epistolary exchange in which we know that al-Nawawī is in Damascus whereas Baybars was, probably, in Cairo. If Baybars was in Damascus at this time, we can think that al-Nawawī would have gone to meet him to discuss directly as he did in the episode related by Ibn Shaddād. The accounts of Ibn Shaddād and al-Nuwayrī seem to deal with the same meeting. Baybars’ anger and al-Nawawī’s exile support the idea that the second has already made remarks to the sultan (Ibn ʿAṭṭār’s episode) and that al-Nawawī’s new critiques infuriated Baybars who decided to exile. Later, Baybars would regret his decision to exile al-Nawawī. Like al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salām, the aim of these accounts is to make ʿulamāʾ’s influence evident and to present them as guarantors of the orthodoxy, slayers of injustice and actors of the fundamental Qur’ānic precept of commanding the good and forbidding the wrong (amr bi al-maʿrūf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar).[14]

The historicity of these three accounts of an exchange between Baybars and the ʿulamāʾ is problematic in certain respects. They deal with the same subject of new taxes imposed for financing jihād in quite different versions. However, the fact that we have, from three different authors, a discussion between Baybars and the ʿulamāʾ dealing with the issue of additional taxes shows that this issue was, undeniably, on the table at some point in Baybars’ reign and that some ʿulamāʾ protested against this decision of the sultan. Nevertheless, we do not know how the discussion went. In addition, it should be noted that these three accounts are all reported by ʿulamāʾ.

Although the ʿulamāʾ maintained a relationship with the Mamlūk rulers that can be described as “symbiotic”[15] or “interdependent,”[16] the ʿulamāʾ saw themselves as superior to the Mamlūk rulers because they were the guarantors of orthodoxy and adherence to the principles of the sharīʿa. The ʿulamāʾ wrote history according to this position, their own paradigm, and world vision: they were the sole owners of Islamic knowledge as heirs of the Prophets, according to a ḥādīth.[17] The ʿulamāʾ did not always hold the Mamlūk warriors in high regard who necessarily needed the ʿulamāʾ and whose support guaranteed the recognition and legitimacy of their power. Furthermore, the Mamluks did not always respect Islamic precepts and the ʿulamāʾ tried, as best they could, to reframe the Mamlūk authorities when their actions or decisions were not in conformity with Islamic law. Some ʿulamāʾ criticized them, indirectly, such as Ibn Taymiyya, even though he supported them entirely concerning the jihād.[18] In any case, the final decision regarding taxes or other political, social and economic matters rested with the sultan or the ’amīrs, a decision that could be made at the expense of the ʿulamāʾ and despite their strong influence in Mamlūk society and politics. In addition to the issue of imposing new taxes for the jihād effort, the authors of these three narratives highlight ʿulamāʾ’s protective role of sharīʿa and their countervailing power in the face of the ruler’s decisions. The picture of the superiority of the religious elite over the political power emerged from these accounts; the famous topos of the pen is stronger than the sword.

Third Episode

The third and final episode concerns a clash between amīr Salār and Majdī al-Dīn ʿĪsā b. al-Khashshāb, the nāʾib al-ḥisba, and the famous Shāfiʿī qāḍī-l-quḍāt Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd (d. 702/1302). In the middle of the year 699/early 1300, the Mamlūk authorities wished to use the fatwā issued by ʿIzz al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Salām and promulgated in Quṭuz’s time to justify the imposition of a tax of one dinar per person to finance the war effort against the Mongols. Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd, who was one of al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salām’s closest students, refused to ratify the fatwā, which, according to him, was being used deceptively. Indeed, al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salām had only authorized the levying of an additional tax on the condition that the amīrs sold everything that they did not require for the war. If the money in the bayt al-māl did not suffice to equip the army, the authorities would have been entitled to tax the population.[19]

Faced with the first advance of Tamerlane’s troops in 789/1387, Sultan Barqūq and the amīrs consulted the ʿulamāʾ, including Burhān al-Dīn al-Bulqīnī, on how to finance the jihād effort. Several options were considered, such as taking money from traders or half of waqf income.[20] As Jonathan Berkey remarked, the history of the waqf under the Mamlūks was “essentially a balancing act” that the Mamluk and ʿulamāʾ classes were obliged “to negotiate solutions suiting the shifting contingencies of the moment.”[21] Two similar episodes are reported during the reign of Qāytbāy in 872/1468 and 886/1491.[22]

All three episodes discussed in this post highlight the difficulties that the Mamlūks faced for funding their jihād effort. The Mamlūks were constrained to discuss and negotiate with the ʿulamāʾ on this delicate issue, taking into consideration the particular circumstances of the moment.


[1] Al-Dhahabī, Tārīkh al-Islām, ed. ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Salām al-Tadmurī (Beirut, 1990-2000), 48:45. All fatwā translations from their original Arabic are my own, unless otherwise noted.

[2] Al-ʿAynī reports a slightly different version. Al-ʿAynī, ʿIqd al-jumān fī tārīkh ahl al-zamān, ed. Muḥammad Muḥammad Amīn (Cairo, 2010), 1:219. See also Ibn Wāṣil, Mufarrij al-kurūb fī akhbār Banī Ayyūb, ed. trans. Mohamed Rahim, Die Chronik des ibn Wāṣil. Ğamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Wāṣil. Mufarriğ al-kurūb fī akhbār Banī Ayyūb. Kritische Edition des letzten Teils (646-1248-659/1261) mit Kommentar. Untergang des Ayyubiden und Benginn des Mamlukenherrschaft (Wiesbaden, 2010), 190; Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī, Ṭabaqāt al-shāfiʿiyya al-kubrā, ed. Maḥmūd Muḥammad al-Ṭannāḥī and Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Ḥaluw (Cairo, 1964), 8:215.

[3] Jean-Claude Garcin, “Le sultan et Pharaon (le politique et le religieux dans l’Égypte mamluke),” in Espaces, pouvoirs et idéologies de l’Égypte médiévale, ed. J.-C. Garcin (London: Routledge, 1987), part IX, 261-72.

[4] Tāǧ al-Dīn al-Subkī, Ṭabaqāt al-šāfiʿiyya al-kubrā, ed. Maḥmūd Muḥammad al-Ṭannāḥī et Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Ḥaluw (Cairo, 1964), 8:209-48.

[5] Yaacov Lev, “Symbiotic Relations: Ulama and the Mamluk Sultans,” Mamluk Studies Review 13, no. 1 (2009): 2, 21.

[6] Mohamad El-Merheb, “‘There is no just ruler at this time!’” Political Censure in Pre-Modern Islamic Juristic Discourses,” in Kritik am Herrscher in vormodernen monarchischen Gesellschaften – Criticizing the Ruler in Pre-Modern Monarchical Societies, eds. Karina Kellermann, Alheydis Plassmann, Christian Schwermann (Göttingen: Bonn University Press, 2019), 365-66.

[7] Ibn al-ʿAṭṭār, Tuḥfa al-ṭālibīn fī tarjamat al-imām Muḥī al-Dīn, ed. Mashhūr Ḥasan (Amman, 2007), 99.

[8] Eric Chaumont translates it as “sufficiency duty” (devoir de suffisance). Eric Chaumont, “Dār al-Islām et dār al-ḥarb: Quelques réflexions à propos de la géographie théologico-politique sunnite classique, en regard du Kitāb al-Muhaddab d’Abū Isḥāq al-Širāzī (m. 476/1083),” in Dār al-islām / dār al-ḥarb. Territories, People, Identities, eds. Giovanna Calasso and Guiliano Lancioni (Leyde: Brill, 2017), 149-58. Adnan Zulfiqar proposes a quite similar translation with “sufficiency obligation” and defines farḍ kifāya as “an obligation that requires a sufficient number of performers in order to be fulfilled.” Adnan Zulfiqar, “Collective Duties (farḍ kifāya) In Islamic Law: The Moral Community, State Authority And Ethical Speculation In The Premodern Period” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2018) available at https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/3212. See also Adnan Zulfiqar, “Collective Duties (farḍ kifāya) in Islamic Law,” Islamic Law Blog, October 8, 2020, https://islamiclaw.blog/2020/10/08/adnan-zulfiqar/#_ftnref5.

Farḍ kifāya is any collective obligation for members of the Muslim community. The fulfillment of this obligation by a group within the community is sufficient for it to be considered accomplished by all. Responsibility is not individual, unlike some acts that fall into the category of farḍ ʿayn such as prayer, zakāt and fasting.

[9] Ibn al-ʿAṭṭār, Tuḥfa al-ṭālibīn fī tarjamat al-imām Muḥī al-Dīn, ed. Mashhūr Ḥasan (Amman, 2007), 102.

[10] Ibn Shaddād, Tārīkh al-Malik al-Ẓāhir, ed. Aḥmad Ḥuṭayṭ (Beirut, 1983), 286.

[11] Ibid. 76.

[12] Al-Nuwayrī al-Iskandarānī, Kitāb al-ilmām bi-l-iʿlām fī-mā jarat bi-hi al-aḥkām wa-l-umūr al-maqḍiyya fī waqarat al-Iskandāriyya, ed. ʿAzīz Sūriyāl ʿAṭiyya (n.p. 1970), 4:81-82.

[13] Ibn Shaddād, Tārīkh al-Malik al-Ẓāhir, 76.

[14] Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Ann K. S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 139.

[15] Yaacov Lev “Symbiotic Relations: Ulama and the Mamluk Sultans,” Mamluk Studies Review 13, no. 1 (2009): 8, 19.

[16] Anne Broadbridge, “Academic Rivalry and the Patronage System in the Fifteenth Century Egypt: al-ʿAynī, al-Maqrīzī and Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī,” in Mamluk Studies Review 3 (1999): 85; Lutz Wiederhold, “Legal-Religious Elite, Temporal Authority, and the Caliphate in Mamluk Society: Conclusions Drawn from the Examination of a “Zahiri Revolt” in Damascus in 1386,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 31, no. 2 (1999): 225 ; Mathieu Eychenne Liens personnels, clientélisme et réseaux de pouvoir dans le sultanat mamelouk (milieu XIIIe-fin XIVe siècle) (Damascus-Beirut: Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013).

[17] Reported by Abī Dāwūd, available at https://sunnah.com/abudawud:3641.

[18] Mehdi Berriah, “The Mamluk Sultanate and the Mamluks seen by Ibn Taymiyya: between Praise and Criticism,” Arabian Humanities [online] 14 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.6491; Mehdi Berriah, “Mobility and Versatility of the ʿulamaʾ in the Mamluk Period: the Case of Ibn Taymiyya,” in Professional Mobility in Islamic Societies (700-1750): New Concepts and Approaches, eds. Mehdi Berriah and Mohamad El-Merheb (Leyde: Brill, 2021), 98-130.

[19] Al-Maqrīzī, Kitāb al-sulūk li-maʿrifat duwal al-mulūk, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭā (Beirut, 1997), 2:327.

[20] Ibid. 6:38.

[21] Jonathan P. Berkey, “Mamluk Religious Policy,” Mamluk Studies Review 13, no. 2 (2009): 17.

[22] Yaacov Lev, “Symbiotic Relations: Ulama and the Mamluk Sultans,” Mamluk Studies Review 13, no. 1 (2009): 23-24.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mehdi Berriah, Episodes in which the ʿUlamāʾ, according to Islamic Law, were Opposed to the Tax, Islamic Law Blog (Sept. 16, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/09/16/episodes-in-which-the-%ca%bfulama%ca%be-according-to-islamic-law-were-opposed-to-the-tax/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mehdi Berriah, “Episodes in which the ʿUlamāʾ, according to Islamic Law, were Opposed to the Tax,” Islamic Law Blog, September 16, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/09/16/episodes-in-which-the-%ca%bfulama%ca%be-according-to-islamic-law-were-opposed-to-the-tax/)

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