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The Sons of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad and the Politics of Puppets: Where Did It All Start?
By Frédéric Bauden
Mamluk Studies Review, Vol.13:1 (2009)
Introduction: The period from al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s death (741/1341) until the emergence of the Circassian dynasty under al-Ẓāhir Barqūq (784/1382) witnessed the unbridled succession to the throne of Egypt and Syria of the scions of that sultan, who ruled for 31 years during his third reign. These eight sons, two grandsons, and two great-grandsons are generally characterized as puppets whom the amirs enthroned as they wished. Their youth is usually identified as the reason why these sultans could be deposed as easily as they were put on the throne; their lack of experience, or perhaps more exactly of proper training, may have led them to behave in inappropriate ways or to make decisions not in accordance with those expected from a ruler. The rationales which the modern historian can invoke to try to understand how and why this situation continued for such a long period of time, particularly after the very long and successful reign of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, are numerous and can involve politics, sociology, and economics. As in many cases in history, it is probably a combination of several factors that played an undeniable role. From a historical point of view, it remains very tempting to try to generalize the whole period in that way, but the result necessarily offers a simplistic view of the events.
In the eyes of a later Mamluk historian such as al-Qalqashandī (d. 821/1418), this succession of reigns looked like a mere coincidence, albeit strange in its regularity; this is what Muslim historians called gharāʾib al-ittifāq. On the basis of a comment made by al-Ṣūlī, who noticed that, from the beginning of Islam down to his time, every sixth holder of authority was dismissed, al-Qalqashandī completed the list provided by a predecessor (al-Ṣafadī) for the later periods, considering the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks. While al-Ṣafadī stopped his assessment with al-Manṣūr Qalāwūn, the first ruler of a new series of six, al-Qalqashandī went further up to the reign of Baybars al-Jāshankīr, then started a new series with al-Manṣūr Abū Bakr (al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s first successor) up to al-Muẓaffar Ḥājjī, then from al-Nāṣir Ḥasan up to al-Ṣāliḥ Ḥājjī, and finally ending with the last series for which the first ruler was, rather opportunely, the founder of the Circassian regime, al-Ẓāhir Barqūq. Al-Qalqashandī compiled this list during the reign of Barqūq’s successor, al-Nāṣir Faraj, the second ruler of this new series, and he concluded by saying: “God knows best who will be the sixth!” In this rather schematic presentation, the involved historians did not bother to twist the truth (several depositions intervened in between the pattern of every sixth ruler), but it shows that they felt a need to explain the phenomenon.
Modern scholarship, after having shown more interest in the reigns of great rulers, has finally felt it necessary to study the factors that could explain why and how al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s succession led to such a shift in power. Amalia Levanoni’s studies have analyzed the role that the innovations and modifications introduced in the Mamluk system by al-Nāṣir Muḥammad may have played in this respect. Recently, Jo Van Steenbergen focused his attention on the period that followed al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s death up to Barqūq’s accession to the sultanate. The work of both scholars has helped to further our understanding of the processes that were taking place during the entire period. The aim of this article is not to provide another analysis of the political role played by al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s successors; it is rather to explore al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s influence on his succession. In other words: did he prepare for his succession, and if so, in what manner? It is hoped that through the attempt to answer this question, some insight will be gained into the events that took place in the roughly forty years that followed his death before the rise of Barqūq.