|Abu'l-Abbas al-Mu'tadid bi-llah Ahmad ibn Talha al-Muwaffaq|
|Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate|
|Gold dinar of al-Mu'tadid, AH 285 (AD 992/3)|
|Reign||October 892 – 5 April 902|
|Born||ca. 854 or ca. 861|
|Died||5 April 902
Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Talha al-Muwaffaq (854 or 861 – 5 April 902), better known by his regnal name al-Mu'tadid bi-llah (Arabic: المعتضد بالله, "Seeking Support in God") was the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad from 892 until his death in 902.
Al-Mu'tadid was the son of al-Muwaffaq, who was the regent and virtual ruler of the Abbasid state during the reign of his brother, Caliph al-Mu'tamid. As a prince, the future al-Mu'tadid served under his father in various military campaigns, most notably in the suppression of the Zanj Rebellion, in which he played a major role. When al-Muwaffaq died in June 891 al-Mu'tadid succeeded him as regent. He quickly sidelined his cousin and heir-apparent al-Mufawwad, and when al-Mu'tamid died in October 892, he succeeded to the throne. Like his father, al-Mu'tadid's power depended on his close relations with the army, dating back to the campaigns against the Zanj and reinforced in later expeditions which the Caliph led in person: al-Mu'tadid would prove to be the most militarily active of all Abbasid caliphs. Through his energy and ability, he succeeded in restoring to the Abbasid state some of the power and provinces it had lost during the turmoil of the previous decades, a process continued under his less able son and successor, al-Muktafi.
In a series of campaigns he recovered the Jazira, Thughur and Jibal, and effected a rapprochement with the Saffarids in the east and the Tulunids in the west that secured their—albeit largely nominal—recognition of caliphal suzerainty. These successes however came at the cost of gearing the economy almost exclusively towards maintenance of the army, which resulted in the expansion and rise to power of the central fiscal bureaucracy and contributed to the Caliph's lasting reputation for avarice. Al-Mu'tadid was also renowned for his cruelty when punishing criminals, and subsequent chroniclers record his extensive and ingenious use of torture. His reign also saw the permanent move of the capital back to Baghdad, where he engaged in major building activities.
Despite his successes, al-Mu'tadid's reign was ultimately too short to effect a lasting reversal of the Caliphate's fortunes, and the "Abbasid revival" that he spearheaded was too dependent on the presence of capable personalities at the helm of the state. His successors lacked his energy, and the factionalism within the government that had become apparent during the later years of his reign would debilitate the Abbasid state for decades to come.
Al-Mu'tadid was born Ahmad, the son of Talha, one of the sons of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861), and a Greek slave named Dirar. The exact date of his birth is unknown; as he is variously recorded as being thirty-eight or thirty-one years old at the time of his accession, he was born either in ca. 854 or ca. 861. In 861, al-Mutawakkil was murdered, beginning a period of internal turmoil, known as the "Anarchy at Samarra" from the site of the Caliphate's capital, which ended in 870 with the rise to the throne of Ahmad's uncle, al-Mu'tamid. Real power however had come to lie with the elite Turkish troops and with Ahmad's own father, Talha, who, as the Caliphate's main military commander, served as the chief intermediary between the caliphal government and the Turks. Assuming the honorific name al-Muwaffaq in the style of the caliphs, Talha soon became the effective ruler of the Caliphate, especially after a failed attempt by al-Mu'tamid to flee to Egypt in 882 led to his confinement in house arrest.
Caliphal authority in the provinces collapsed during the "Anarchy at Samarra", with the result that by the 870s the central government had lost effective control over most of the Caliphate outside Iraq itself. In the west, Egypt had fallen under the control of Ahmad ibn Tulun, who also disputed control of Syria with al-Muwaffaq, while Khurasan and most of the Islamic East had been taken over by the Saffarids, who replaced the Abbasids' loyal clients, the Tahirids. Most of the Arabian peninsula was likewise lost to local dynasts, while in Tabaristan a radical Zaydi Shi'a dynasty took power. Even in Iraq, the rebellion of the Zanj slaves threatened Baghdad itself, and the Qarmatians were a nascent threat. Al-Muwaffaq's regency was thus a continuous struggle to save the tottering Caliphate from collapse. His attempts to recover control of Egypt and Syria from the Tulunids failed, with Ibn Tulun even able to expand his territory and obtain his recognition as hereditary ruler, but he succeeded in preserving the core of the Caliphate in Iraq by repelling a Saffarid invasion aiming to capture Baghdad, and by subduing the Zanj after a long struggle.
It was against the Zanj that the future al-Mu'tadid—at this time usually referred to by his kunya of Abu'l-Abbas—would acquire his first military experience and establish the close ties with the army that would characterize his reign. Al-Muwaffaq gave his son a military training from an early age, and the young prince became "a keen horseman and took care to inspect both his troops and their mounts in person" (Hugh N. Kennedy).
Within a decade from the outbreak of the revolt in 869, the Zanj had seized most of lower Iraq, including the cities of Basra and Wasit, and expanded into Khuzistan as well. In 879 the death of the founder of the Saffarid state, Ya'qub al-Saffar, allowed the Abbasid government to fully concentrate its attention against the Zanj rebellion, and Abu'l-Abbas' appointment in December 879 to command against the rebels at the head of 10,000 troops marks the turning-point of the war. In the long and hard struggle that followed, which involved amphibious operations in the Mesopotamian Marshes, Abu'l-Abbas and his own military slaves (ghilman)—of which the long-serving Zirak al-Turki was the chief—played the major role: although the Abbasid armies eventually swelled with reinforcements, volunteers, and Zanj defectors, it was the few but elite ghilman who formed the army's backbone, filled its leadership positions and bore the brunt of the battle, often under the personal command of Abu'l-Abbas. After years of gradually tightening the noose around the Zanj, in August 883 the Abbasid troops stormed their capital of al-Mukhtara, putting an end to the rebellion. The detailed account of the war, written by a former Zanj rebel and preserved in the history of al-Tabari, stresses the role of al-Muwaffaq and Abu'l-Abbas as the heroes who, in defence of the embattled Muslim state, suppressed the rebellion; father and son used the successful campaign as a major legitimizing tool for their de facto usurpation of the Caliph's power.
Following the death of Ibn Tulun in May 884, the two caliphal generals Ishaq ibn Kundaj and Ibn Abu'l-Saj sought to take advantage of the situation and attacked the Tulunid domains in Syria, but their initial gains were rapidly reversed. In the spring of 885, Abu'l-Abbas was sent to take charge of the invasion. He soon succeeded in defeating the Tulunids and forcing them to retreat to Palestine, but after a quarrel with Ibn Kundaj and Ibn Abu'l-Saj, the latter abandoned the campaign and withdrew their forces. In the Battle of Tawahin on 6 April, Abu'l-Abbas confronted Ibn Tulun's son and heir, Khumarawayh, in person. The Abbasid prince was initially victorious, forcing Khumarawayh to flee, but was in turn defeated and fled the battlefield, while much of his army was taken prisoner. After this victory the Tulunids expanded their control over the Jazira and the borderlands (Thughur) with the Byzantine Empire. A peace agreement followed in 886, whereby al-Muwaffaq was forced to recognize Khumarawayh as hereditary governor over Egypt and Syria for 30 years, in exchange for an annual tribute. Over the next couple of years, Abu'l-Abbas was involved in his father's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to wrest control of Fars from Saffarid control.
During this period, the relations between Abu'l-Abbas and his father deteriorated, although the reason is unclear. Already in 884, Abu'l-Abbas' ghilman rioted in Baghdad against al-Muwaffaq's vizier, Sa'id ibn Makhlad, possibly over unpaid salaries. Eventually, in 889, Abu'l-Abbas was arrested and put in prison on his father's orders, where he remained despite the demonstrations of the ghilman loyal to him. He apparently remained under arrest until May 891, when al-Muwaffaq, already nearing his death, returned to Baghdad after two years he spent in Jibal. Al-Muwaffaq, suffering from gout, was already visibly nearing his end; the vizier Isma'il ibn Bulbul and the city commander of Baghdad, Abu'l-Saqr, called al-Mu'tamid and his sons, including the heir-apparent al-Mufawwad, into the city, hoping to exploit al-Muwaffaq's imminent death for their own purposes. Nevertheless, the popularity of Abu'l-Abbas with the soldiers and the common people was such that he was set free, his opponents' houses were ransacked by the mob, and the attempt to sideline him failed.
Thus, when al-Muwaffaq died in June 891, Abu'l-Abbas succeeded him immediately in his offices, with the title of al-Mu'tadid bi-llah and a position in the line of succession after the caliph and al-Mufawwad. Within a few months, in April 892, al-Mu'tadid had his cousin removed from the succession—and probably killed—so that when al-Mu'tamid died in October, possibly poisoned, he succeeded his uncle as Caliph.
Harold Bowen describes al-Mu'tadid at his accession as "in appearance upright and thin; and on his head was a white mole, which, since white moles were not admired, he used to dye black. His expression was haughty. In character he was brave—a story was told of his killing a lion with only a dagger. [...] he had inherited all his father's energy, and cultivated a reputation of prompt action." Like his father, al-Mu'tadid’s power rested on his close relations with the military, and it was military activities which consumed his interest, especially as he usually led his army in person. In his "tireless campaigning", according to M. Bonner, "[t]he role of 'ghazī caliph', invented by Harun al-Rashid and enhanced by al-Mu'tasim, now had its greatest performance".
Campaigns of reunification
From the start of his reign, the new Caliph set out to reverse the fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Although an active and enthusiastic campaigner, al-Mu'tadid was also "a skilful diplomat, always prepared to make compromises with those who were too powerful to defeat" (H. Kennedy). This policy became immediately evident in the conciliatory attitude the new Caliph adopted towards his most powerful vassal, the Tulunids: in spring 893, al-Mu'tadid recognized and reconfirmed Khumarawayh in his office as autonomous emir over Egypt and Syria, in exchange for an annual tribute of 300,000 dinars and 200,000 in arrears. Khumarawayh also agreed to hand back the two Jaziran provinces of Diyar Rabi'a and Diyar Mudar. In order to seal the pact, Khumarawayh offered his daughter, Qatr al-Nada ("Dew Drop") as bride to one of the Caliph's sons, but al-Mu'tadid chose to marry her himself. The Tulunid princess brought with her a million dinars as her dowry, a "wedding gift that was considered the most sumptuous in medieval Arab history" (Th. Bianquis). Her arrival in Baghdad was marked by the luxury of her retinue, which contrasted starkly with the impoverished caliphal court. According to a story, after a thorough search, al-Mu'tadid's chief eunuch could only find five ornate silver-and-gold candlesticks to decorate the palace, but the princess was accompanied by 150 servants each carrying such a candlestick, whereupon al-Mu'tadid is said to have remarked "come let us go and hide ourselves, lest we be seen in our poverty". In the event, the murder of Khumarawayh in 896 (his daughter died soon after her marriage) left the Tulunid state in the unsteady hands of Khumarawayh's under-age sons, allowing al-Mu'tadid to extend his control over the border emirates of the Thughur in 897, where, in the words of Michael Bonner, "[he] assumed, after a long hiatus, the old caliphal prerogative of commanding the annual summer expedition and arranging the defence against the Byzantine empire". To secure recognition, the new Tulunid ruler Harun ibn Khumarawayh (r. 896–904) was forced to further concessions, handing back all of Syria north of Homs, and increasing the annual tribute to 450,000 dinars. Over the next few years, increasing domestic turmoil in the remaining Tulunid domains, and the escalation of Qarmatian attacks, encouraged many Tulunid followers to defect to the resurgent Caliphate.
In the Jazira the new Caliph struggled against a variety of opponents: the Kharijite rebels, the autonomous Shaybani ruler of Amid and Diyar Bakr, Ahmad ibn Isa al-Shaybani, and the Taghlibi chief Hamdan ibn Hamdun. In 893, while the Kharijites were distracted by internal quarrels, al-Mu'tadid captured Mosul from the Shayban. Next, in 895 Hamdan ibn Hamdun was evicted from his strongholds, hunted down and captured. Finally, the Kharijite leader Harun ibn Abdallah himself was defeated and captured by Hamdan's son Husayn in 896. Harun was sent to Baghdad, where he was crucified. This exploit marked the beginning of an illustrious career for Husayn ibn Hamdan in the caliphal armies, and the gradual rise of the Hamdanid family to power in the Jazira. Ahmad al-Shaybani died in 898, and in the next year, al-Mu'tadid returned to the Jazira, ousted Ahmad's son Muhammad from Amid, and reunified the entire province under central government control by installing his son and heir, Ali al-Muktafi, as governor.
Al-Mu'tadid was unable, however, to restore effective caliphal control north of the Jazira in Transcaucasia, where Armenia and Azerbaijan remained in the hands of virtually independent local dynasties. Ibn Abu'l-Saj, who was the local caliphal governor, proclaimed himself independent in ca. 898, although soon he recognized again the Caliph's suzerainty during his conflicts with the Christian Armenian princes. When he died in 901, he was succeeded by his son Devdad, beginning the independent Sajid dynasty. In 900 Ibn Abu'l-Saj was even suspected of plotting to seize the Diyar Mudar with the co-operation of the notables of Tarsus, after which the vengeful Caliph ordered the latter arrested and the city's fleet burned.
In the Islamic East, the Caliph was forced to acknowledge the reality of the Saffarids' domination and established a modus vivendi with them, perhaps hoping, according to Hugh Kennedy, to harness them in a partnership analogous to that which the Tahirids had enjoyed in previous decades. Consequently, the Saffarids were recognized in their possession of Khurasan and eastern Persia as well as Fars, while the Abbasids were to exercise direct control over Jibal, Rayy and Isfahan. This policy gave the Caliph free hand to recover the territories of the Dulafids, a semi-independent dynasty centred on Isfahan and Nihavand. When the Dulafid Ahmad ibn Abd al-Aziz ibn Abi Dulaf died in 893, al-Mu'tadid moved swiftly to install his son al-Muktafi as governor in Rayy, Qazvin, Qum and Hamadan. The Dulafids were confined to the region of Karaj and Isfahan, before being deposed outright in 896. Nevertheless, Abbasid hold over these territories remained precarious, especially due to the proximity of the Zaydi emirate in Tabaristan, and in 897 Rayy was handed over to the Saffarids.
The Abbasid–Saffarid partnership in Iran was most clearly expressed against the activities of the general Rafi ibn Harthama, who had made his base in Rayy and posed a threat to both caliphal and Saffarid interests in the region. Al-Mu'tadid sent Ahmad ibn Abd al-Aziz to seize Rayy from Rafi, who fled and made common cause with the Zaydis of Tabaristan in an effort to seize Khurasan from the Saffarids. However, with Amr mobilizing the anti-Alid sentiments of the populace against him and the expected assistance from the Zaydis failing to materialize, Rafi was defeated and killed in Khwarazm in 896. Amr, now at the pinnacle of his power, sent the defeated rebel's head to Baghdad, and in 897 the Caliph transferred control of Rayy to him.
The partnership finally collapsed after Mu'tadid appointed the Saffarid ruler Amr ibn al-Layth in 898 as governor of Transoxiana, which was ruled by his rivals, the Samanids. Al-Mu'tamid deliberately encouraged Amr to confront the Samanids, only for Amr to be crushingly defeated and taken prisoner in 900. The Samanid ruler, Isma'il ibn Ahmad, sent him in chains to Baghdad, where he was executed in 902, after al-Mu'tadid's death. Al-Mu'tadid in turn conferred Amr's titles and governorships to Isma'il ibn Ahmad, and moved himself to regain Fars and Kirman, but the Saffarid remnant under Tahir proved sufficiently resilient to thwart the caliphal attempts at capturing these two provinces for several more years. It was not until 910 that the Abbasids managed to regain the coveted Fars province.
At the same time, the Caliphate faced a new threat, that of the Qarmatians. A radical Islamic sect founded in Kufa around 874, the Qarmatians were originally a sporadic and minor nuisance in the Sawad, but their power grew swiftly to alarming proportions after 897: under Abu Sa'id al-Jannabi, in 899 they seized Bahrein, and in the next year defeated a caliphal army under al-Abbas ibn Amr al-Ghanawi. Following al-Mu'tadid's death, the Qarmatians "were to prove the most dangerous enemies the Abbasids had faced since the time of the Zanj" (H. Kennedy). The same period also saw more anti-Abbasid regimes established on the periphery of the Islamic world: the Fatimids seized power in Ifriqiya, and another Zaydi dynasty was established in Yemen.
The Caliphate's recovery under al-Muwaffaq and al-Mu'tadid relied on a strong army, and the state was in need of ever more money to pay for the ghilman and the mercenaries who comprised it. According to Hugh Kennedy, based on a treasury document from the time of al-Mu'tadid's accession, "out the total expenditure of 7915 dinars per day, some 5121 are entirely military, 1943 in areas (like riding animals and stables) which served both military and non-military and only 851 in areas like the bureaucracy and the harem which can be described as truly civilian (though even in this case, the bureaucrats’ main purpose seems to have been to arrange the payment of the army). It seems reasonable to conclude that something over 80 per cent of recorded government expenditure was devoted to maintaining the army."
At the same time, the Caliphate' fiscal basis had shrunk dramatically after so many tax-paying provinces had been lost from the central government's control, either to autonomous dynasties or to semi-autonomous governors who held them by way of muqata'a, a form of tax farming in exchange for a fixed tribute, which they often failed to pay. To maximise their revenue from the territory remaining to them, the Abbasids increased the breadth and complexity of the central bureaucracy, dividing the provinces into smaller tax districts as well as increasing the number of the fiscal departments (diwans), allowing for a far closer oversight of both revenue collection and the activities of the officials themselves. The Caliph would often personally devote himself to the supervision of revenue, acquiring a reputation for "a spirit of economy, verging on avarice" (F. Malti-Douglas); he was said to "examine petty accounts that a commoner would scorn to consider" (H. Bowen). Fines and confiscations multiplied under his rule, with the resulting revenue, along with the income from the crown domain and even a portion of the provincial taxation, flowing to the caliphal privy purse (bayt mal al-khaṣṣa). The latter now acquired a leading role among the other fiscal departments, and it frequently held more money than the public treasury (bayt mal al-ʿamma) itself. By the end of al-Mu'tadid's reign, the once empty privy purse would contain ten million dinars. On the other hand, in 895 the Caliph changed the start of the tax year from the Persian New Year in March to 11 June—which became known as Nayrūz al-Mu'tadid, "al-Mu'tadid's New Year"—so that the land tax (kharāj) was now collected after the harvest instead of before, easing the farmers' burden.
The Caliph's policies strengthened the position of the civil bureaucracy, which now reached the apogee of its influence, and especially the vizier, whom even the army came to respect as the spokesman of the caliph. In terms of personnel, al-Mu'tadid's reign was marked by continuity among the senior leadership of the state. Ubayd Allah ibn Sulayman ibn Wahb remained vizier from the start of the reign until his death in 901, and was succeeded by his son, al-Qasim, who had from the start been deputizing during his father's absences from the capital. Badr, a veteran who had served under al-Muwaffaq and whose daughter married the Caliph's son, remained commander of the army. The fiscal departments, especially of the Sawad (Lower Iraq), were managed first by the Banu'l-Furat brothers Ahmad and Ali, and after 899 by the Banu'l-Jarrah under Muhammad ibn Dawud and his nephew, Ali ibn Isa. The original administrative team was so effective and harmonious that according to the 11th-century historian Hilal as-Sabi, it was said by subsequent generations that "there had never been such a quartet, Caliph, Vizier, Commander, and chief of the diwans, as al-Mu'tadid, Ubayd Allah, Badr and Ahmad ibn al-Furat".
On the other hand, the later reign "saw a growth of factionalism within this bureaucracy, observable also in the army and in urban civilian life" (M. Bonner). The rivalry between the two bureaucratic dynasties of the Banu'l-Furat and Banu'l-Jarrah, with their extensive networks of clients, began at this time. Although a strong caliph and vizier could restrain this rivalry, it would dominate the Abbasid government over the next decades, with the factions alternating in office while often fining and torturing their predecessors to extract money, a practice known as muṣadara. In addition, Qasim ibn Ubayd Allah was of an altogether different character than his father: soon after his appointment, he plotted to have al-Mu'tadid assassinated, and tried to involve Badr in his scheming. The general rejected his proposals with indignation, but Qasim was saved from discovery and execution by the Caliph's sudden death. The vizier tried to dominate al–Muktafi, moved swiftly to have Badr denounced and executed, and was involved in yet more intrigues against the Banu'l-Furat.
Al-Mu'tadid also completed the return of the capital from Samarra to Baghdad, which had already served as his father's main base of operations. The city's centre, however, was relocated on the eastern bank of the Tigris and further downstream of the original city, where it has remained to this day. As the 10th-century historian al-Mas'udi wrote, the Caliph's two main passions were "women and building" (al-nisaʿ waʿl-banaʿ), and accordingly he engaged in major building activities in the new capital: he restored and expanded the Great Mosque of al-Mansur which had fallen into disuse, enlarged the Hasani palace, built the new palaces of Thurayya ("Pleiades") and Firdus ("Paradise"), and began work on the Taj ("Crown") Palace, which was completed under al-Muktafi. He also took care to restore the city's irrigation network, cleaning up the silted-up Dujayl canal, paying for it with money from those landholders who stood to profit from it.
In the dispensation of justice, he was characterized by "severity bordering on sadism" (F. Malti-Douglas). While tolerant of error and not above displays of tenderness, when his wrath was aroused he resorted to torture in the most ingenious ways, and had special torture chambers constructed underneath his palace. Chroniclers like al-Mas'udi and the Mamluk historian al-Safadi describe in great detail the tortures inflicted by the Caliph on prisoners, as well as his practice of making an example of them by having them publicly displayed in Baghdad. At the same time, however, they tend to justify his severity as legitimate, in service of the interests of the state. As F. Malti-Douglas remarks, when al-Safadi compared al-Mu'tadid with the founder of the Abbasid state, calling him "al-Saffah the Second", this was not only to emphasize his restoration of the Caliphate's fortunes, but also a direct allusion to the meaning of al-Saffah's name, "the Blood-Shedder".
Death and legacy
Al-Mu'tadid died at the Hasani palace on 5 April 902, at the age of either 40 or 47. There were rumours that he had been poisoned, but it is more likely that the rigours of his campaigns, coupled with his dissipate life, severely weakened his health. During his final illness, he refused to follow the advice of his physicians, and even kicked one of them to death. Al-Mu'tadid was the first Abbasid caliph to be buried within the walls of Baghdad. Like his sons after him, he was buried in the former Tahirid palace in the western part of the city, which was now used by the caliphs as a secondary residence.
According to the Orientalist Karl Vilhelm Zetterstéen, al-Mu'tadid "had inherited his father's gifts as a ruler and was distinguished alike for his economy and his military ability", becoming "one of the greatest of the Abbasids in spite of his strictness and cruelty". Al-Mu'tadid's capable reign is credited with having arrested the Abbasid Caliphate's decline for a while, but his successes were too dependent on the presence of an energetic ruler at the helm, and ultimately his reign "was too short to reverse long-term trends and re-establish Abbasid power on a long-term basis" (H. Kennedy).
Al-Mu'tadid had taken care to prepare his son and successor, al-Muktafi, for his role by appointing him as governor in Rayy and the Jazira. Although al-Muktafi tried to follow his father's policies, he lacked his energy. The heavily militarized system of al-Muwaffaq and al-Mu'tadid required the Caliph to actively participate in campaigns, setting a personal example and allowing for the formation of ties of loyalty, reinforced by patronage, between the ruler and the soldiers. Al-Muktafi, on the other hand, did not "in his character and comportment [...], being a sedentary figure, instil much loyalty, let alone inspiration, in the soldiers" (M. Bonner). The Caliphate was still able to secure major successes over the next few years, including the reincorporation of the Tulunid domains in 904 and victories over the Qarmatians, but with al-Muktafi's death in 908, the so-called "Abbasid restoration" passed its high-water mark. Power was now wielded by the senior bureaucrats, who installed the weak and pliable al-Muqtadir on the throne. Over the next decades, the expenditure of both the court and the army increased, while maladministration and strife between military and bureaucratic factions intensified. By 932, when al-Muqtadir was assassinated, the Caliphate was effectively bankrupt, and power soon devolved on a series of military strongmen with the title of amir al-umara, culminating in the capture of Baghdad in 946 by the Buyids, who put an end to caliphal independence even in name. The caliphs remained as symbolic figureheads, but devoid of any military or political authority or independent financial resources.
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Al-Mu'tadidBorn: c. 860 Died: 902
|Sunni Islam titles|
|Caliph of Islam