The Early Islamic Mawali Reconsidered


A review of The Early Islamic Mawali: A Window onto Processes of Identity Construction and Social Change, by Elizabeth Urban.

The subject of the mawali (s. mawla) has garnered intense interest among scholars of Islamic history. This Arabic term can be translated as client, patron, kinsman, ally, friend, convert, and non-Arab Muslim. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars have endeavored to formulate the quintessential definition of just who early Muslim chroniclers were referring to when they mentioned the mawali. Historians in recent decades, recognizing the complexities of this term, have moved beyond viewing the mawali through the anachronistic prism of nationalism, as was commonplace among the Orientalist scholars of previous generations. Yet essentialist paradigms continue to be constructed in discussions concerning the mawali in an effort to devise an all-encompassing definition for this Islamic legal category of individuals. Elizabeth Urban’s dissertation adds new depth to this scholarly debate by asking not just who the mawali were, but rather how contemporaneous peoples’ understanding of who the mawali were evolved across contexts, and what ideological weight this term carried for different people in changing social, political and religious circumstances from the time of the Prophet Muhammad to the early Abbasid caliphs.

Chapter One addresses how the term mawla/mawali is conceived in the Qur’an, focusing particular attention on the statement in verse 33:5: “If you do not know their fathers, they are your brothers in religion and your mawali.” Urban argues that the term mawla as it appears in the Qur’an is a “designation of the bonds of help, support, and succor that unite the Islamic umma as a truly functional faith community” (p. 12). However, a comprehensive analysis of all of the manifestations of the word mawla in the Qur’an, as well as words in it deriving from the Arabic root WLY, indicate that while the Qur’an affirms the place of rootless people within the Islamic community and emphasizes ties of mutual support (which Urban refers to as “WLY bonds”) uniting all believers, it also validates genealogy as an acceptable means for structuring ties among the members of the umma. Urban concludes that this nebulous definition of the term mawla laid the foundation for the future transformation of its meaning in the Umayyad period, when it came to connote a client, a freed slave, and a foreigner.

Chapter Two builds on this theme of transformation by analyzing the biography of the companion of the Prophet, Abu Bakra. In the Islamic tradition, Abu Bakra features prominently as a mawla of the Prophet. However, through a critical analysis of the Islamic conquest narratives, Urban reveals that Abu Bakra was in fact, not a mawla at all, but rather belonged to a different category of ex-slaves, known as taliq Allah (the one set loose by God). This phrase refers to slaves who joined the Muslim community as free citizens after escaping their owners, and became the communal responsibility of the Muslims to look after. It fell out of use shortly after the umma expanded outside the confines of Arabia. Urban contends that Abu Bakra’s mawla status in the sources is an anachronistic projection from a later period. For several biographical dictionaries and hadith sought to underline Abu Bakra’s humility by emphasizing his willing acceptance of his mawla status. They contrast this positive image of Abu Bakra with his half-brother Ziyad, the notorious Umayyad governor, who shamelessly fabricated a full Arab genealogy for himself, as this was a prerequisite for holding a position of power in the Umayyad caliphate throughout most of its history. Urban demonstrates that this formulaic contrast was representative of an anti-Umayyad trend among some authors (particularly the Basran milieu), who intended to malign the Umayyads by showing them to be an impious regime, too steeped in the old tribal valuation of bloodlines to recognize that true glory belongs to the pious, whatever one’s ancestry is. By so doing, she reveals another layer of complexity to the term mawla, in that besides being “multifaceted and malleable,” it was also “ideologically loaded” and was often wielded as a “polemical weapon” (p. 85) in the context of social and political controversy, thus making any attempt to define it objectively problematic.

Chapter Three analyzes the evolution of the term mawla in the context of the civil wars (fitan) and rebellions that plagued the late Rashidun and Umayyad caliphates. Urban adeptly demonstrates that the view of the mawali as comprising a monolithic, self-conscious group whose members shared a common sense of identity and purpose gained ground in direct relation to the unraveling of the Arabian tribal system that occurred in the decades following the murder of the caliph Uthman. For, in the First Civil War (656-661), the sources (with one exception) mention the mawali as individuals fully integrated into the Arab tribes on whose side they were fighting. However, with the Second Civil War (680-692), the mawali are clearly emerging in the eyes of their contemporaries as a self-conscious interest group. Especially with al-Mukhtar’s rebellion, the Arab tribal elites refer to “the mawali” as a collective representing chaos against a normative tribal social structure and set of values that was now in the process of caving.

With the complete breakdown of the tribal system marking the Marwanid period, and the rise of military factions in its stead, the mawali came to be cast in terms of the “insiders,” i.e., those military and bureaucratic clients serving the caliphate; and the “outsiders,” i.e., a separate faction composed of and representing the interests of non-Arabs (‘ajam), and opposed to the regime. Yet, in terms of how the mawali saw themselves, the evidence from this period indicates that those mawali who rebelled against the Marwanids did not identify themselves as non-Arabs per se, nor as part of a collective factional group, but rather sought to erase these old categorizations by forging a new type of identity based on religious brotherhood. Indeed, throughout this chapter, Urban debunks the notion that the terms mawali and ‘ajam were synonymous as some primary sources would lead us to believe, and rightfully criticizes the tendency among modern scholars to project their own conceptions of ethnicity onto the context of the early Islamic mawali, for which they are clearly anachronistic. Chapter Three thus provides an an excellent elaboration of Urban’s main theme that the term mawla/mawali meant different things to different people over time and space, and understanding how people defined this term can shed a great deal of light onto the discourse and biases of their particular context.

In Chapter Four, Urban brings gender, a topic which has received appallingly little treatment in modern scholarship on the mawali, into her analysis. Urban focuses on the significance of the umm walads (slave mothers who bore children for their masters) in Islamic history. The umm walads are generally recognized by modern historians as the female equivalent of the mawali. The chroniclers do not have much to say about the personalities of the Umayyad era umm walads. However, their role as mothers is highlighted, as it is their children who receive much more attention in the texts. Charting a similar process to the rise of importance of the mawali described in Chapter Three, Urban shows that the umm walads became increasingly relevant in Islamic political discourse with the breakdown of the Arab tribal system during the Umayyad period. This is attributable to the fact that the decreasing premium put on noble Arab lineage made it possible for sons of umm walads to attain positions of prominence and to acquire prestige, especially when they were able to prove themselves just as capable as their full-blooded Arab contemporaries in fighting and leadership roles. By the early Abbasid period, it had become standard for caliphs to be sons of umm walads, yet not without controversy, as the Abbasid caliphs and their rivals argued for the relative merits/demerits of the umm walads. Urban thus reveals in this chapter (in a similar fashion to the previous one) what different attitudes towards the umm walads and their progeny can tell us about dynamic social and political processes and controversies of Umayyad and early Abbasid history.

In her conclusion, Urban brings together all of her contextual evidence and analysis of the mawali to see if there is indeed some take-home lesson that can be derived from a comprehensive study of this complicated classification of individuals. She concludes that despite all of the various understandings and applications of the term mawali in different historical settings, there is a common thread in all the cases she has investigated. For the term mawali in the historical texts “almost always seems to say something about the incorporation of outsiders into the Islamic polity, whatever the contours of that polity may be. That is, it is a term used for navigating self and other, for traversing the gray area between belonging and not-belonging” (p. 177). Beyond this, Urban also argues against the long accepted (but by now thoroughly outdated!) view of the Umayyads as “Arab chauvinists,” by pointing out that the Umayyads clearly made efforts to incorporate non-Arabs into their power network, and that tensions between various social groupings in the Islamic world did not disappear with the Abbasids, despite the universalist message of their revolution, but rather simply took on new stripes after the Abbasids came to power.

Urban’s dissertation makes a significant contribution to the study of the mawali. Demonstrating expert source management, Urban shows how an open-minded approach to the mawali as a dynamic, fluid historical phenomenon reveals social contexts, ideological subtexts and nuances in early Islamic historiography that are not visible when modern historians unquestioningly recycle essentialist paradigms concerning the mawali from our predecessors. Similarly, Urban’s dissertation provides a necessary lesson for modern historians—we must be accurate in our readings of Arabic chronicles, lest we miss out on the intended meanings of the authors, or even worse, project our own biases into our translations of the texts.

Scott Savran
Department of History
Virginia Tech

Primary Sources

The Qur’an
Al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan
Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa-al-Muluk
Al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi
Ibn Sa‘d, Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 203 pp. Primary Advisor: Fred Donner.


Image: Detail of mosaics from the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Wikimedia Commons.

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