[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Asia]: Kamola on Picard, 'Sea of the Caliphs: The Mediterranean in the Medieval Islamic World'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Aug 28 15:21:45 MDT 2019

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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Wed, Aug 28, 2019 at 5:19 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Asia]: Kamola on Picard, 'Sea of the Caliphs: The
Mediterranean in the Medieval Islamic World'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

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

Reviewed by Stefan Kamola (Eastern Connecticut State University)
Published on H-Asia (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis

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

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_.

Citation: Stefan Kamola. Review of Picard, Christophe, _Sea of the
Caliphs: The Mediterranean in the Medieval Islamic World_. H-Asia,
H-Net Reviews. August, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53694

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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