Tom Nieuwenhuis, Politics and Society in Early Modern Iraq: Mamluk Pashas, Tribal Shaykhs and Local Rule Between 1802 and 1831 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981).

This is a reasoned and illuminating analysis, by a young Dutch scholar, of Iraq in the three closing decades of the Mamluk era.

A clear picture of the structure of Mamluk power emerges here. At the core of the Mamluk government stood a group which, apart from the ruling pasha, consisted of his kinsmen and political friends. From these were drawn the chief administrative officers. The group formed the center of a broader social network which embraced the partners of these officers and of the ruling family (other high officials or religious dignitaries), inferior associates (money-dealers and big merchants), and numerous clients, including artisans and soldiers. The whole network risked grievous loss upon the fall of a ruling pasha by dint of its strong dependence upon his personal fate.

This was accentuated by a crucial structural aspect of Mamluk society: the interlacing of the spheres of economic wealth and political power. The accumulation of wealth was difficult without personal influence at the Mamluk court or involvement in particular power networks. Any change in the existing balance of political power, therefore, directly affected the distribution of landed, commercial and fiscal rights. Many of these rights tended in consequence to be temporary, which in turn hindered the development of a stable local aristocracy.

Moreover, because large economic interests were immediately at stake, political succession struggles tended to assume intensely violent forms. Violence added to the political instability which was inherent in the thin social base of the power of most of the Mamluk rulers. Through its encouragement of rival forces and its preference for weak pashas, traditional Ottoman provincial policy also promoted instability. The discontinuous or unsteady control by the Mamluks of important tribal confederations and the intrigues in Kurdistan by the neighboring and militarily stronger Kermanshah were additional destabilizing elements. All these factors tended to keep the economy and the state at “an undeveloped level.”

The author throws into sharp relief one other point: the mutual interests that tied the tribes to the Mamluk state. The high officials in Baghdad traded with the riverain sheikhs, and both groups had a common stake in orderly and secure transactions. There was also a significant exchange of goods between nomadic tribes and market towns. Moreover, just as the government drew strength from the support of a big sheikh, his endorsement by the state enhanced his tribal overlordship. These considerations lead the author to doubt that the relationship between the tribes and the Mamluk state was generally one of conflict.

Unfortunately there is not much in Nieuwenhuis’ study about the conditions of the peasants, artisans and other “little people” in the Mamluk era. This is due to the neglect of these classes by his sources rather than to his lack of interest in them.

For his data, Nieuwenhuis relied on published books, unpublished theses, and French consular and commercial correspondence. He has not consulted the British or Ottoman archives. It is doubtful that an examination of these archives will lead to a fundamentally different picture of Mamluk Iraq than the one he presents here.

Some of Nieuwenhuis’ observations have to be qualified or need clarification. For example, at one point he maintains that “the social position of the cultivators was not reduced to that of servitude.” This was true of most but not of all the tillers of the soil in the Mamluk period. One of the better informed of the British residents, C. J. Rich of the East India Company, observed, after touring Kurdistan in 1820-1821, that the conditions of the non-tribal peasants in that area “much resembles that of Negro slaves, in the West Indies.” At another point, Nieuwenhuis describes the reestablishment of direct Ottoman control in 1831 as “the unwelcome restoration of alien rule in Baghdad.” While it may be granted that large segments of the population of Baghdad favored the Mamluks over the Ottomans, it is doubtful that they regarded the Ottomans as “aliens.” On page 28, Nieuwenhuis identifies the muftis merely as “the leaders of both Moslem sects,” without indicating in the preceding or succeeding passages the sects to which he was referring. As there are more than two legal sects in Islam, he should have made clear that he had the Hanafis and Shafi‘is in mind.

There are also some misspellings of Arabic names or terms. The military and commercial tribe that had a monopoly on caravan protection was called “‘Uqayl” (pronounced “‘Ugayl”) and not “‘Aqil.” “Rifa‘i” and not “Rafa‘i,” “Jubur” and not “Jabur” are the correct patronyms. “Tahar” should read “tghar” (two tons).

But all these are minor points, and should not detract from what is a significant contribution to our knowledge of the history of Iraq.

How to cite this article:

Hanna Batatu "Nieuwenhuis, Politics and Society in Early Modern Iraq," Middle East Report 125/126 (July-September 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This