Mawlā (Arabic: مَوْلًى), plural mawālī (مَوَالِي), is a polysemous Arabic word, whose meaning varied in different periods and contexts. In the Quran and hadith it is used in two senses: Lord; and guardian, trustee, helper. In the pre-Islamic era the term originally applied to any form of tribal association. During the early Islamic era, this institution was adapted to incorporate new converts to Islam into the Arab-Muslim society and the word mawali gained currency as an appellation for non-Arab Muslims.
The word mawla is derived from the root w-l-y, meaning "to be close to", "to be friends with", or "to have power over". Mawla can have reciprocal meanings, depending on whether it is used in the active or passive voice: "master" or "slave/freedman", "patron" or "client", "uncle" or "nephew", or simply friend. Originally, mawāli were clients of an Arab tribe, but with the advent of Islam, the term came to refer to non-Arab Muslims and other client allies of the Muslim community.
The term originated in pre-Islamic society to refer to a politically-active class of slaves and freedmen, but it gained prominence during the Abbasid Caliphate (c. 661-750 CE/41–132 AH), as many non-Arabs mainly Persian subjects and later Turkic Abbasid slaves converted to Islam. The influx of non-Arab converts to Islam created a new difficulty in incorporating them into tribal Arab society. The solution appeared to be the creation of a contract, a wala', through which the non-Arab Muslims acquired an Arab patron (mawla). They continued to pay a similar tax that was required from the people of the book and were generally excluded from government and the military until the end of the Umayyad Caliphate. In Khorasan and Persia, the Arabs held most of the higher positions in the armed forces and in the upper echelons of government.
The Abbasid Revolution in 750 CE challenged the political and social privileges held so far by the Arabs. The key figure in this revolution was Abu Muslim Khorasani. He was a Persian, born in Isfahan and therefore had impeccable credentials of birth with the exploited Persian majority. The legacy of Umayyad excesses had created extreme bitterness among the local population. Unfair taxation had fostered dislike of the Arabs among the Persians. Under the Abbasid rulers of the 9th century, the non-Arab converts comprised an important part of the army. The institution of wala' as a requirement to enter Muslim society ceased to exist but acquired political significance with the formation of troops entirely composed of mainly-Turkic freedmen in the service of the caliph, a practice that persisted through the Ottoman period. Together, the rise to power of those ethnic groups restricted the power of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.
Abu Hanifa was the founder of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence within Sunni Islam and lived through the Abbasid Revolution. He famously stated in one of his dictums: “The belief of a newly converted Turk is the same as that of an Arab from Hejaz”. However, the Umayyads resented such reforms, and Abu Hanifa was jailed for his activism.
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