A Sultan Becomes Caliph: Legal Knowledge and Late Mamlūk Political Thought

By Christian Mauder

This is part four in a series of four posts on legal culture at the late Mamlūk court.

The governing elite of what is known as the Mamlūk Sultanate is often depicted as decidedly uninterested in notions of Islamic political thought and good governance. Robert Irwin sums up this traditional view of the Mamlūk elite when he writes: “Historians have tended to present the politics of the Mamluk Sultanate […] as ideology free. Apart from a commitment to Islam and the jihad, the Mamluks seem curiously bereft of any form of idealism, role models, or political programs.”[1] Challenging this conventional wisdom, I demonstrate in my monograph In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021) that members of the court of the penultimate Mamlūk Sultan Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) not only discussed various ideological notions of how a Muslim ruler should execute his office, but also developed highly innovative reconceptualizations of the relationship between the sultanate and the caliphate, as two of the most central elements of Islamic political thought of their time. These reconceptualizations, which represented a fundamental shift in Mamlūk political thought and have no known parallels within Mamlūk history, were intended to prove that al-Ghawrī was at the same time the legitimate sultan of the Mamlūk polity and the rightful caliph of the community of believers.[2] In this post, I present one of the most sophisticated of these reconceptualizations and examine the roles that Islamic law played in it.

Contrary to the traditional image of the Mamlūk elite as “bereft of any form of idealism, role models, or political programs,” the accounts of the learned gatherings (majālis) convened by Sultan al-Ghawrī at the Cairo Citadel bear witness to lively debates about such diverse topics as political virtues and vices; exemplary Persian, Ghaznawid, and Mamlūk rulers of the past; the respective roles of revealed and sultanic law in a Muslim commonwealth; and the relationship between the caliphate and the sultanate.[3] At stake in the debates about the last-mentioned topic was al-Ghawrī’s status vis-à-vis the Abbasid caliphs of Cairo. Shortly after the Mongol occupation of Baghdad in 1258, a scion of the Abbasid family had been invested as caliph in Cairo. There, his symbolic authority was intended to buttress the legitimacy of the rulers of the young Mamlūk polity, whom he was to officially and publicly appoint as his deputies with general power.[4] About two and a half centuries later, in al-Ghawrī’s time, the Abbasid caliphate in Cairo had turned from an important political asset of the Mamlūk rulers into a liability. Throughout the Islamic world, rulers of the Almohad, Āq Qoyunlu, Aydinid, Hafsid, Marnid, Ottoman, Shaybanid, Timurid and other dynasties claimed caliphal titles, prerogatives, and status, ignoring the existence of the Abbasid caliphate in Cairo and arrogating to themselves the highest position within Sunnī political thought.[5] In Cairo, with a fully invested Abbasid caliph sitting quite literally next door, the Mamlūk rulers could not easily do the same. But how then should a Mamlūk sultan compete for transregional political supremacy with rival rulers who styled themselves as caliphs? In a world of self-made caliphs, claiming to be the deputy of an Abbasid caliph whose status was primarily based on distant memories of dynastic glory was not a particularly promising strategy for a Mamlūk sultan.

In this challenging situation, the members of the Mamlūk court did not opt for a mystical reinterpretation of the institution of the caliphate, as took place, for example, in the Ottoman lands.[6] Instead, they focused on the legal discourse about the caliphate as prominently represented by Abū l-Ḥasan al-Māwardī’s (d. 1058) Kitāb al-Aḥkām al-sulṭāniyya (The book of the regulations of governance) and developed further by Mamlūk-era scholars such as the courtly chancery official Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qalqashandī (d. 1418) in his Maʾāthir al-ināfa fī maʿālim al-khilāfa (Sublime exploits on the distinguishing marks of the caliphate).[7] According to this strand of legal thought, a candidate for the caliphate had to fulfill a largely fixed set of mandatory qualifications, which al-Qalqashandī as a scholar particularly close to the Mamlūk center of power listed as maleness, legal age, sanity, sight, hearing, speech, soundness of limbs, freedom, Islam, probity, bravery, sound judgment, and descent from the Prophet Muḥammad’s tribe of Quraysh. If no qualified person of Qurashī lineage was available, it was, according to al-Qalqashandī, legal to appoint as caliph a member of the Prophet’s wider kinship group, the Banū Kināna. If no Kinānī meeting the other criteria could be found, it was allowed to make any offspring of Abraham’s son Ishmael caliph. In the event that none of Ishmael’s descendants fulfilled all other mandatory conditions, one could legally invest any otherwise qualified Muslim.[8]

Members of al-Ghawrī’s court relied heavily on the tradition of legal scholarship represented by al-Māwardī and al-Qalqashandī to argue that Sultan al-Ghawrī was not the caliph’s deputy, but rather himself the rightful caliph and imām of the Muslim community. In one of the accounts of al-Ghawrī’s majālis, we find a passage that demonstrates how closely members of his court engaged with pertinent legal scholarship:

[And as for] the radiant sharīʿa of Muḥammad—blessing and peace be upon him—, it has been said: “The requirement[s] for the imām are that he be of sound mind, of legal age, a Muslim, free, male, a mujtahid, brave, of sound judgment, able, hearing, seeing, speaking, with sound limbs, and a Qurashī. If no Qurashī can be found who fulfills the requirements, then [the caliph can be] a Kinānī. If [no Kinānī fulfilling the requirements] can be found, then [the caliph can be] from among the descendants of Ishmael. If [no descendant of Ishmael fulfilling the requirements] can be found, then one of the Persians who fulfills the requirements or anyone [else] from among the descendants of Isaac is [to be] appointed.”

Praise and glory be to God! The Circassians originate from the sons of Isaac, and all of these requirements are present in the greatest sultan, the grand caliph, the support of the sultans of the provinces [of the world] who is deservedly the example of [all] rulers, the one who reveals the secrets of [the Qur’ānic verse] “We made you successors (khalāʾif) on Earth” [Q 10:14], the sultan of the seven climes in their entirety, the commander of the believers, the caliph of the Muslims, al-Malik al-Ashraf, the overlord of Egypt Abū l-Naṣr Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī.[9]

This passage indicates that members of al-Ghawrī’s court had detailed knowledge of the requirements that a caliph had to fulfill according to Muslim jurists, and that they were of the opinion that the sultan met these requirements. For most of the conditions, it was not difficult to argue that they applied to al-Ghawrī. The sultan was an adult Muslim male who was of sound body, mind, and senses. Although a military slave earlier in his live, he had been freed long before the text was written. He also had both battle and government experience, which could be understood as proof of his bravery and sound judgment. The condition that seems to have required the most argumentative effort in the view of the author of the passage was that of descent from the Prophet’s tribe of Quraysh. As a former Circassian military slave, al-Ghawrī was clearly neither a Qurashī nor a Kinānī, and not even a descendant of Ishmael, who was generally regarded as the progenitor of the Arabs.[10] Al-Ghawrī was, however, according to common genealogical knowledge a member of the group that was fourth-most entitled to the caliphate, and could thus be appointed if no otherwise qualified Qurashī, Kinānī, or member of Ishmael’s offspring was available. Unfortunately, the author of the passage offers no explanation of his opinion that no genealogically better qualified candidate for the caliphate was available. However, for an author writing in early 16th-century Egypt, the very idea that an ethnic Arab could be appointed to supreme rule might have appeared extremely far-fetched, given that the region had effectively been under non-Arab rule for centuries.

Unlike the situation in other parts of the Islamic world, where mystical reinterpretations of the caliphate shaped learned discourses, Islamic law was thus clearly an important framework within which attempts to cast al-Ghawrī’s caliphal role took place at the late Mamlūk court. Yet the role of Islamic law was not limited to this aspect. In arguing that al-Ghawrī was the caliph-imām described in the legal discourse, members of his court also had to ascertain that he fulfilled the traditional requirement of mujtahid status. Unfortunately, the known sources from al-Ghawrī’s court do not discuss in detail what it meant to be a mujtahid in their time, but it is clear that such a status must have entailed highly advanced skills in Islamic law, including its foundational sciences. It is telling that the author of the passage given above did not find it necessary to argue in detail that al-Ghawrī had such skills. Unlike his genealogical qualification for the caliphate, his legal competence appears to have been so obvious that it required no further comment. It is tempting to link this observation with the sultan’s active role in the legal debates, the transmission of knowledge about Islamic law, and the practices of legal riddling at his court, all explored in the three preceding blog posts in this series. According to this line of interpretation, many, if not all of the sultan’s activities in the field of legal learning served to substantiate and dramatize the claim that he had sufficient expertise in Islamic law to serve as the commander of the believers. The high level of attention that sources from the sultan’s court pay to these activities speaks in favor of this interpretation and underlines their significance for the legitimation of al-Ghawrī’s rule as sultan-caliph.

Taken together, the case of al-Ghawrī’s court demonstrates that during the time of transition from the late middle to the early modern period, the classical legal definitions of the caliphate as developed within the scholarly tradition of Islamic law still mattered to political elites and were perceived as useful and relevant in projects of political legitimation. Moreover, material from al-Ghawrī’s court shows how these classical legal definitions were reconceptualized to legitimate the rule of a sultan-caliph whose aspirations to universal command over the Muslim community were apparently based in part on his claims to possess advanced knowledge of Islamic law. Far from being free of ideology, the Mamlūk court thus presents itself as an arena of creative political thinking and innovative reinterpretation of Islamic legal norms.


[1] Robert Irwin, “The Political Thinking of the “Virtuous Ruler,” Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī,” Mamlūk Studies Review 12 (2008): 37.

[2] Christian Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 862–923.

[3] Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 795–862.

[4] The most substantial study of the transfer of the caliphate to Cairo is Stefan Heidemann, Das Aleppiner Kalifat (A.D. 1261): Vom Ende des Kalifates in Bagdad über Aleppo zu den Restaurationen in Kairo (Leiden: Brill, 1994). On the history of the Abbasids of Cairo, see Annemarie Schimmel, “Kalif und Kadi im spätmittelalterlichen Äygpten,” Die Welt des Islams 24 (1942): 1–128; Mustafa Banister, The Abbasid Caliphate of Cairo, 1261-1517: Out of the Shadows (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021).

[5] Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 891–92, 901–904; Thomas Walker Arnold, The Caliphate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 112-18; 135–38; Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (London: Penguin, 2016), 313–33, 337, 341-42.

[6] Hüseyin Yılmaz, Caliphate Redefined: The Mystical Turn in Ottoman Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018); Christopher Andrew Markiewicz, The Crisis of Kingship in Late Medieval Islam: Persian Emigres and the Making of Ottoman Kingship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), esp. 240–84. On cultural contacts between the Ottomans and al-Ghawrī’s court, see Christian Mauder, “Ottomanization before the Conquest? Mamluk-Ottoman Religious and Cultural Entanglements in the Courtly Salons of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī and Post-Conquest Gatherings,” in The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilad al-Sham in the Sixteenth Century II, eds. Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, forthcoming).

[7] On this tradition of thought about the caliphate in Mamlūk times, see Mona Hassan, Longing for the Caliphate: A Transregional History (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 108–41; Christian Mauder, “al-Suyūṭī’s Stance toward Worldly Power: A Reexamination Based on Unpublished and Understudied Sources,” in Al-Suyūṭī, a Polymath of the Mamlūk Period, ed. Antonella Ghersetti (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 81–97.

[8] Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Qalqashandī, Maʾāthir al-ināfa fī maʿālim al-khilāfa, ed. ʿAbd al-Sattār A. Farāj (Kuwait: Maṭbaʿat Ḥukūmat al-Kuwayt, 1964), 1:29–39.

[9] Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya fī ḥaqāʾiq asrār al-Qurʾāniyya, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 2680, 227–228.

[10] We know, however, of efforts to ascribe to al-Ghawrī a noble Arab genealogy; see Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 823–831.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Christian Mauder, A Sultan Becomes Caliph: Legal Knowledge and Late Mamlūk Political Thought, Islamic Law Blog (Oct. 28, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/10/28/a-sultan-becomes-caliph-legal-knowledge-and-late-mamluk-political-thought/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Christian Mauder, “A Sultan Becomes Caliph: Legal Knowledge and Late Mamlūk Political Thought,” Islamic Law Blog, October 28, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/10/28/a-sultan-becomes-caliph-legal-knowledge-and-late-mamluk-political-thought/)

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