Friends of the Emir: Non-Muslim State Officials in Premodern Islamic Thought

Publication Year



Luke Yarbrough, Ph.D. 2012.

runner-up for the 2020 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize

The caliphs and sultans who once ruled the Muslim world were often assisted by powerful Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and other non-Muslim state officials, whose employment occasioned energetic discussions among Muslim scholars and rulers. This book reveals those discussions for the first time in all their diversity, drawing on unexplored medieval sources in the realms of law, history, poetry, entertaining literature, administration, and polemic. It follows the discourse on non-Muslim officials from its beginnings in the Umayyad empire (661–750), through medieval Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Spain, to its apex in the Mamluk period (1250–1517). Far from being an intrinsic part of Islam, views about non-Muslim state officials were devised, transmitted, and elaborated at moments of intense competition between Muslim and non-Muslim learned elites. At other times, Muslim rulers employed non-Muslims without eliciting opposition. The particular shape of the Islamic discourse on this issue is comparable to analogous discourses in medieval Europe and China.

  • Proposes a new model for the development of exclusionary political views in Islamic history
  • Uncovers a wide range of sources from chronicles and law to belles lettres, polemic, and poetry
  • Offers a wide range of examples from across the premodern Islamic world: from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia
·Reviews & endorsements

‘A breakthrough for Middle East history … Few in the field are equipped to perform the meticulous research and incisive analysis on which this book rests. A must-read for anyone interested in Islamic law, the history of the Middle East and Muslims' relationships to non-Muslims.' Marina Rustow, Princeton University

‘This book reveals a spectacular mastery of very diverse medieval Arabic primary sources. It explores how and why Muslim rulers for centuries regularly employed non-Muslims in important government positions, despite the frequent disapproval of this practice by many Muslim scholars and men of letters. This is a first-class work of original scholarship.' Carole Hillenbrand, University of St Andrews, Scotland

‘This richly detailed study illuminates the cultural wars of Islam's past, offering a vivid picture of Islam's value as a symbol of rule in the competition for state offices among Muslims and non-Muslims. It provides indispensable perspective for reflection on the nature of both interreligious relations and state-society relations in Islam.' Paul L. Heck, Georgetown University

‘Luke B. Yarbrough has written a brilliant, revisionist, diachronic history of the often discussed opposition to the employment of non-Muslims in the pre-modern Islamic state. Upending the assumption that this antagonism was born, in the first instance, of juristic prescription and religious prejudice, Yarbrough effectively demonstrates, that it was not doctrinal discrimination, let alone religious hatred that gave rise to and perpetuated such a discourse. Rather, it was rivalry over the ‘ubiquitous pursuit of resources' that lay behind the cry, expressed in multiple genres of Arabic literature, to oust non-Muslims from their often prominent positions in Islamic government.' Mark R. Cohen, Princeton University

‘Friends of the Emir is a lucidly written history of pre-modern Muslim attitudes towards the employment of non-Muslims by Muslim rulers. Learned, broad, and nuanced in its approach, Yarbrough's study sees beyond the clichéd dichotomies between ‘historical realities' and ‘legal norms' to provide a historical account as definitive as it is original.' Sean Anthony, Ohio State University

Series Title
Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization
Cambridge University Press