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A title created early in Islamic history and adopted by a series of Muslim polities to the present day, amir al-mu’minin means “Commander of the Faithful.” Early medieval Muslim historians report that the term was used in reference to those in positions of command over Muslim forces during the initial period of conquest, both during and after the life of the Prophet. According to separate anecdotes reported by al-Tabari (Ta’rikh, 1:2748) and al-Ya`qubi (Ta’rikh, 2:171-172), among others, the second of the Rashidun caliphs, `Umar ibn al-Khattab, adopted it as a title. Neither passage explicitly supports the assertion (Gibb, 196o) that the adoption of the title was connected to the Qu’ranic injunction (4.58, 62) to obey not only God and the Prophet, but “those among you who are charged with authority (al-amr)” as well.

Under Umayyad rule, beginning with Mu’awiyah, the title appears to have taken on increasing ideological weight; along with Hijr-i dates and the Basmalah (“in the name of God” invocation), the title was used on coins minted by the Islamic state. Early Arab-Sassanian coins bear the legend “Mu’awiyah, Commander of the Faithful” in Pahlavi script, although a change to the use of Arabic on coins appears to have occurred by the end of the seventh century. On at least two occasions in the later part of that century, the title was claimed by rivals to the Umayyad caliphate: `Abd Allah ibn Zubayr in the second civil war and a Khariji leader, `Abd Allah ibn Qatari ibn al-Fuja’ah, over the years 688-699.

The anecdote concerning `Umar ibn al-Khattab suggests that from early on the title was used more commonly than its complex companion term, khalifah. Like khalifah, it did not refer to a clearly delineated set of powers or the possession of absolute authority; in this sense, then, its meaning evolved as the scope and nature of the caliphal office were defined and debated by Muslim political and religious writers over the course of Islamic history. Generally speaking, amir al-mu’minin referred to the temporal powers of the sovereign, whereas khalifah connoted “deputyship,” either to the Prophet or to God. A third term, imam, often used for caliphs or caliphal aspirants, connoted religious authority.

In the Sunni Islamic world, the adoption of the title implied the claim either to the caliphate, as during the Umayyad and ‛Abbāsid dynasties, or to autonomous political authority over a region of the Islamic world, as used by the Umayyad rulers of Spain, beginning with `Abd al-Rahman III in 928. Its use by the Fatimid state, a Shi’i dynasty with Isma`ili roots, was a rival claim to the universal sovereignty of the caliphate. In Yemen, in the early tenth century, the founder of the Zaydi Imamate, which was only overthrown in 1962, laid claim to the title as well. The use of the title by the various branches of Shiism generally reflects their respective conceptions of authority; the Twelvers, for example, apply it exclusively to `Ali ibn AN Talib.

The use either of titles bearing the component amir al-mu’minin (as in the sultanate dynasties of the Seljuks and Ghaznavids and others such as the Ayyubids in Syria and Rasulids of Yemen) or of a new title, for example, amir al-muslimin, adopted by the Almoravid (alMurabitun) state in the western Maghrib in the early twelfth century, implied primarily a symbolic recognition of ‛Abbāsid sovereignty. The Almohad (al-Muwahhidun) ruler, `Abd al-Mu’min, successor to the founder of the dynasty, Ibn Tumart, assumed the title around 1132, thereby directly challenging the claim of the ‛Abbāsids (by that point a badly weakened dynasty) to the caliphate. The Al-mohad claim was then taken up by the Hafsid dynasty in the thirteenth century; in the following century, inMorocco, the Marinids pushed the Hafsids aside and assumed the title and its accompanying claim to authority for themselves. The two succeeding dynasties of Morocco, the Sa’dis and `Al-awis, refined a Marinid idea of combining caliphal-like authority, expressed in the use of amir al-mu’minin, with Sufi doctrines and the claim of descent from the Prophet. While the current Moroccan king, Hasan II, a member of the `Alawi dynasty, may draw some support from his assertion of a combined spiritual and temporal authority, his authoritarian regime relies to a great extent upon backing from the military and security services.

The use of amir al-mu’minin, quite unlike that of khalifah, appears to have waned in the Middle East following the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. The Ottoman rulers, even at the height of their power in the sixteenth century, do not appear, with several rare exceptions, to have laid formal claim to the title, a change that has been linked to later developments in the theory of the caliphate (Gibb, 1962, pp. 145-149). The title retained, however, a strong ideological resonance in West African Muslim communities. In the late seventeenth century, inMauritania, ethnic and religious tensions sparked the formation of a primarily Berber socioreligious movement under the leadership of Nasir al-Din. He announced himself to be both the imam and amir al-mu’minin, and bringing together messianic and militant reformist ideas, led his followers against local Arab tribal forces. The movement was effectively crushed by 1677, following the death of Nasir al-Din in 1674. Messianic and reformist ideas also fueled the more successful movement led by Usuman dan Fodio (17541817) in what is today northernNigeria. Drawing on his training as a Sunni `slim, and responding to what he perceived as the corrupt and irreligious ways of the rulers of the Gobir state, don Fodio announced a jihad against them in 1804-1805. Among his titles was that of amir al-mu’mtnin. Military victories led to the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate, which survived until its defeat by the British in 1903.


Berchem, Max van. “Titres califiens d’Occident.” joumal Asiatique 10.2 (1907): 245-335.

Crone, Patricia, and Martin Hinds. God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam.Cambridge, 1986.

Gibb, H. A. R. “Amir al-Mu’minin.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. I, p. 445.Leiden, 196o-.

Gibb, H. A. R. “Some Considerations on the Sunni Theory of the Caliphate.” In his Studies on the Civilization of Islam.Boston, 1962. Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies.Cambridge, 1988. Morony, Michael.Iraqafter the Muslim Conquest.Princeton, 1984.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/amir-al-muminin/

  • writerPosted On: October 9, 2012
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