Christophe Picard. Sea of the Caliphs: The Mediterranean in the Medieval Islamic World. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018. 416 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-66046-5.
Reviewed by Stefan Kamola (Eastern Connecticut State University)
Published on H-Asia (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis (Eastern Connecticut State University)
The typical story of classical Islamic political history is a story of conquered lands: Syria and Palestine, Iran, North Africa, Andalus. The typical story of the medieval Mediterranean is a story of the rise of Italian mercantile city-states: Genoa, Pisa, Venice. The typical story of Muslim maritime activity is the story of the Indian Ocean: the dhow, the monsoon, Belitung, the Persian Gulf. Christophe Picard upsets all these typical storylines with a vision of sustained and centrally coordinated Muslim maritime activity on the Mediterranean Sea between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. The significance of this study is suggested already by the fact that it received the present English translation within three years of its original French publication. The narrative strawman set up in the opening pages is Henri Pirenne, who in 1936 established the standard paradigm in which pre-tenth-century Muslim maritime activity on the Mediterranean could be dismissed as piratical, while that which occurred from the twelfth century on could be seen already in decline in the face of the rising Italian city-states. Such a paradigm leaves very little space indeed for organized, productive, state-sponsored Muslim naval activity on a body of water, the shores of which were largely Muslim-controlled. By discarding artificial periodization and carefully examining new and long-familiar sources, Picard creates space for an entirely different view.
Pirenne’s paradigm, and Picard’s challenge, rests in a shocking lack of narrative sources on naval activity among the Muslim societies that ringed the medieval Mediterranean. That a reassessment is possible now is due to the emergence of two major corpora of evidence: archaeological discoveries in the port cities of the Mediterranean, and the vast trove of documents of the Cairo Geniza. The former reveals sustained human activity right around the Mediterranean throughout the medieval period. The latter yields a famously rich, diachronic profile of one community’s activities. These allow Picard to reread the seemingly isolated discussions of the Mediterranean in more canonical textual sources, situating them on an expansive canvas of maritime activity.
The book is organized in two parts, each of which covers much the same geographical and chronological scope as the other. They differ in their approach, the first being primarily historiographical and the second a more traditional chronological survey of the period and region in question. Given the scope of the challenge to reframe the discussion of the Muslim Mediterranean, it comes as no surprise that the longer first part is dedicated to an archaeology of sources. Early Arabic writings do not much mention the Mediterranean, which was not the main zone of contestation before the tenth century. Only from that point does the Mediterranean appear in Islamic sources, and only through heavy filters that make it fit certain ideologies propagated primarily from Baghdad about caliphal central authority.
The first two chapters focus on the genres of geography and historical chronicles, which together created a standard narrative about the history of Islam, its place in the wider world, and the role of the caliph within that cosmology. Picard discusses the geographic writings of al-Idrisi, al-Masʿudi, and Ibn Khaldun to show how the Mediterranean came to be seen initially as a theater of competition in the expansion of Islam. Meanwhile, authors of historical chronicles created a narrative of conquest and of the caliphate that cast the foreign societies around the Mediterranean as regions to be conquered. In short, the Mediterranean was a political space, in sharp contrast to the peaceful commercial activity that the caliphate inherited on the Indian Ocean.
Chapter 3 focuses on major reforms made to the concept and practice of religiously sanctioned holy war, or jihad, during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809). As part of these reforms, the frontier with the Byzantine Empire from eastern Anatolia through northern Syria became inseparably associated with the caliph himself, so much so that Harun al-Rashid's appointment of his son al-Amin to govern that region marked him as the heir apparent to the throne. All of this sets the stage for sustained, state-sponsored maritime activity on the Mediterranean beginning in the tenth century, as competing caliphates sought to secure their legitimacy through the practice of jihad across the highly contested waters separating Islamic and Christian realms.
Chapters 5 through 7 shift our attention to that contest and to the west, as the Andalusian Umayyad and Egyptian Fatimid caliphs, as well as various North African emirates developed distinct maritime policies in the ninth and tenth centuries. Picard shows that these policies were a direct continuation of Abbasid precedent, as the Mediterranean became the final frontier of jihad. In Cordoba and in Cairo, the caliphs retained their personal investment in the exercise of jihad, as modeled for them by Harun al-Rashid. For example, the reign of the first Umayyad to claim the title of caliph in al-Andalus, ʿAbd al-Rahman III (921-61), traditionally marks a major, coordinated program of building along the extensive seaboard of his realm. Picard shows that this building activity was a continuation of sustained activity in earlier centuries. What changed was the new caliph’s celebration of such building activity as part of his ideology of legitimacy. Similar activity in Fatimid Egypt built on Umayyad and Abbasid efforts in that region and laid the groundwork for later Mamluk projects. The impact of Picard’s dissection of sources is immediately evident, as it breaks down periodic and dynastic barriers that often dominate scholarship on Islamic history, revealing a steady development driven by the merchants, sailors, and authors of the Islamic world.
In some ways, the 170-page part 1 is an outsized preface to the shorter (110-page) part 2, providing the intellectual background for the narrative laid out in the latter part of the book. The reader repeatedly encounters material in part 2 that has already been presented in part 1. The difference is that, while the chapters of part 1 trace the concept of the Mediterranean as it emerges from the works of individual authors, part 2 shuffles these works into a more traditional narrative history. By taking the Mediterranean as the organizing principle of the narrative, rather than the caliphal dynasties, this narrative convincingly integrates Abbasid, Andalusian Umayyad, and Fatimid materials into a single argument about Muslim uses of the sea. Chapters 8 through 12 walk through the periods of conquest, the unified Abbasid caliphate and its efforts to extend jihad through Aghlabid agents in North Africa, the rise of counter-caliphates and redirection of jihad energies between Islamic states, and the eventual shift towards a mercantile, rather than political approach to the Mediterranean once the idea of jihad had become less mobilizing. Throughout, Picard shows continuity where one might otherwise see disruption: the rise of Fatimid Cairo as the extension of ninth-century Abbasid efforts to fortify Egypt against Byzantine aggression, Andalusian Umayyad suppression of pre-caliphal maritime activity as part of an ideological program with Abbasid precedent, et cetera.
By the final chapters, Picard is able to show the Almoravid and particularly Almohad states as the culmination of Muslim maritime activity in the West—that is, at least until 1212 and the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. This emerges as the key turning point in the book, after which the disintegrating Almohad dynasty was unable to sustain its maritime power. By then, however, Muslim maritime activity, sustained despite the political fragmentation of the Muslim littoral, had transformed the Mediterranean into a mercantile space. Picard’s great bombshell conclusion draws a direct line between Arabic maritime commercial activity—initiated on the Indian Ocean, integrated into the Mediterranean Sea—and those of Capetian Paris and the European North. Before that could happen, though, the idea of the Mediterranean Sea among Muslim authors and dynasts had to shift away from being the “Sea of the Caliphs”—the sea of dynastic legitimacy expressed through jihad—and become a peaceful sea, open for commerce with non-Muslim states, as the Indian Ocean had been for centuries.
Such a global view of the Muslim Mediterranean was not where Christophe Picard cut his academic teeth. A glance at the bibliography reveals a long list of early works on Muslim Andalus, gradually leading into topics of overseas relations, maritime policy, and the question of piracy. Such firm anchorage in the lands and societies of Andalus perhaps preconditions Picard to place that region at the climax of his narrative. However, it also enriches the study with a wealth of Spanish-language sources that most scholars of classical Islamic history do not have time, expertise, and/or inkling to exploit. The resulting book has much to recommend it. Since a copy of uncorrected page proofs was provided for this review, it can only be hoped that the few typographical errors have been caught and the whole has been supplemented with a suitable index. Such quibbles aside, scholars of classical Islamic history at all levels will benefit greatly from the broad horizons and carefully navigated course of the Sea of the Caliphs.
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Stefan Kamola. Review of Picard, Christophe, Sea of the Caliphs: The Mediterranean in the Medieval Islamic World.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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