This novel weaves parallel love stories, political intrigue and machinations, nobility and treachery, spies and counterspies all against the backdrop of the historical events surrounding the war between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, sons of Harun al-Rashid, the most famous ‘Abbasid caliph. Behzad is a famous doctor with an agenda all his own who lives outside Baghdad and whose comings and goings are not easily traceable. He and Maymuna are both members of well-known Persian families persecuted by earlier Abbasid Caliphs and are deeply in love; but the son of al-Amin’s Hashemite vizier is also enamored with Maymuna and wants to marry her. Behzad’s and Maymuna’s love unfolds as part of the narrative of political intrigue that shows how the Persians helped al-Ma’mun, with inferior forces, to prevail and conquer Baghdad. A parallel love story develops between Buran, the niece of al-Ma’mun’s Persian vizier, and Salman, a “servant” of Behzad; but Buran’s family has promised to marry her to no less than the Caliph al-Ma’mun himself. How do all these lovers make out? Who wins and who perishes? The fast-paced action and suspense leave us guessing to the very end. At the nexus of all these relationships is al-Amin’s mysterious Chief Astrologer, whose true identity and loyalties remain unknown to al-Amin and his court. He not only presumes to divine the future but also wants to shape it. And he sets out to influence the outcome of all these love affairs; to shape the battle between the two brothers; and then to influence al-Ma’mun’s succession.
This historical novel is one of four novels by Jurji Zaidan whose story is set amid what the author imagined to be the military and political intrigues and conflicts between Persians and Arabs at the zenith of ‘Abbasid imperial power during the eighth and ninth centuries. The Caliph al-Mansur had relied on the critical support of Abu Muslim from Khurasan, to found the ‘Abbasid dynasty in 745 AD but had executed Abu Muslim after his accession. But not long thereafter the Barmaki family was to assume a position of unparalleled influence as Yahia the Barmaki was instrumental in helping Harun al-Rashid become caliph. His son, Ja‘far, was to become the caliph’s vizier. But Harun executed Ja‘far in 803 AD and within a day of Ja‘far’s death, he ordered the imprisonment of his father, brother and all his children and removed all other Barmakis from any authority or influence in the affairs of state.
The present novel opens very shortly before Harun al-Rashid’s death in 809 AD following the recounting of the events leading to Ja‘far’s execution and the fall of the Barmakis in the previous novel, The Caliph’s Sister -- Harun al-Rashid and the Fall of the Persians. The historical context is the war of succession between al-Rashid’s two sons – al-Amin and al-Ma’mun. Zubayda, Harun’s favorite Hashemite wife was the mother of al-Amin. Al-Ma’mun, the son of a Persian slave girl and al-Amin’s rival, had been raised by Ja‘far. Harun admired al-Ma’mun’s gifts and at the prodding of his Persian advisors and to Zubayda’s dismay decreed that his son al-Amin would succeed him first but that his heir apparent would be al-Ma’mun. Both sons swore to this agreement which was hung from the ceiling of the Ka’aba. After Ja‘far’s execution and the Barmaki’s demise, the Persians lay low, ever so vigilant to exploit any opportunity that might arise for them to reassert themselves and recapture their authority and return to run the affairs of state and more. Al-Fadl Ibn Sahl, a very ambitious Persian who was to become al-Ma’mun’s vizier, had been assigned by Ja‘far to raise al-Ma’mun. But after al-Rashid’s death, Al-Amin made his own sons his heirs and removed al-Ma’mun from the succession reneging on what he had sworn to his father. The Persians saw in this turn of events an opportunity to support al-Ma’mun and work towards removing al-Amin.
By the end of the 9th century the ‘Abbasids were unable to exercise any real religious or political authority. The territories they controlled fell apart, as independent states arose in regions previously under their rule, although they were always honored to the end of the ‘Abbasid caliphate as symbols of the unity of Sunni Islam. The war between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun was a turning point in this respect and led inexorably to the decline of ‘Abbasid control and the disintegration of the empire. After al-Ma’mun, temporal authority became fragmented and devolved to various regions including Khurasan, Syria, Egypt, the Maghreb, etc. who were all able to exercise directly their own authority in independent states while paying lip service to the sovereignty of the Caliph.
Professor Michael Cooperson translated this novel. He is Professor of Arabic language and literature, Near Eastern Languages and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles and a noted scholar and specialist of the cultural history of the early ‘Abbasid period. Professor Cooperson is a graduate of Harvard University and of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University in Cairo. His publications include Classical Arabic Biography (2000)and Al Ma’mun (2005). He has translated Abdelfattah Kilito’s L’Auteur et ses Doubles (The Author and His Doubles, 2001) and Khairy Shalaby’s Rihalat al-Turshagi al-Halwagi (The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets, 2010). He is co-author, with the RRAALL group, of Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic literary tradition (2001); and co-editor, with Shawkat Toorawa, of The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Arabic Literary Culture, 500-915 (2005).
In his Afterword, Professor Cooperson, a specialist of the ‘Abbasid period comments on the treatment of history in Zaidan’s novels in the light of new knowledge and interpretations of that period as viewed by modern historians. He also wrote a Study Guide for students.
Professor Cooperson writes: “Zaidan’s enormous influence does not of course mean that he got the history right. Arguably, he did not even try to get it right, at least not in his novels. History proper was the subject of a separate work, The History of Islamic Civilization. Therefore, one should not read The Caliph’s Heirs, or any other Zaidan novel, in the hope of discovering what really happened. But the novels do tell us something about what Zaidan and other historians of his day thought the past was like. Moreover, their power as novels, especially for readers who already know something about the periods he is writing about, has much to do with their manipulation of the scenes, events, and figures supplied by the Arabic sources. For that reason, it is worth looking briefly at what modern historians have to say about the period Zaidan writes about in this novel.”
The Study Guide for students deals with a number of questions about the author, the evolution of the Arabic novel, the historical context and the events of in the novel; it also includes a list of books for further reading. Questions include the following:
1. Who is a caliph?
2. Who is the caliph in this story?
3. Who are ‘the Caliph’s heirs’?
4. Who is the author of this book?
5. Why did Zaidan write this book?
6. What did Zaidan believe about the Caliph al-Rashid and his heirs?
7. Did Zaidan get the history right?
Other questions to keep in mind when reading The Caliph’s Heirs
1. Many readers of the novel would have known how the story turns out: that is, who won the battle between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun. But the novel still manages to create suspense. How?
2. Like the novels of Charles Dickens, The Caliph’s Heirs originally appeared in separate episodes printed in a newspaper. How does Zaidan keep the action moving forward across episodes? Can you find places where he slips up—that is, forgets to explain something, or has characters do something inconsistent?
3. Many of the characters in The Caliph’s Heirs are identified as Persians or as members of minority religions. How does Zaidan treat these characters? What about characters who are not identified as belonging to a religious or ethnic group?
4. Zaidan’s novels are based on the idea that a specific national group, the Arabs, have participated in something called Islamic civilization. Does this idea make sense? How does the novel support it? In what ways does it undermine it?
5. Like the press in many countries during Zaidan’s time, the Arabic press helped readers create an image of themselves as citizens; as members of national, ethnic, or religious groups; and as men and women with specific gender roles. In what ways might The Caliph’s Heirs have helped shape its readers?