Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

Caliphal Finances

A five-year, European Research Council-funded project to provide for the first time a view ‘from below’ on Abbasid fiscal history through a study of papyrus documents in Greek, Coptic and Arabic written in Egypt.

The Finances of the Caliphate: Abbasid Fiscal Practice in Islamic Late Antiquity

Running from 2021-2026, this project will offer an ambitious new account of a landmark period in Islamic history. 


What is this research about?

The Abbasids were the second longest ruling dynasty in Islamic history (750-1258). The first centuries of their rise to power are of key importance for the history of Islam, as the earliest surviving literary texts written by Muslims (religious, legal and fiscal treatises, grammars and poetry) were composed at this time and in their capital, Baghdad. They have been the preferred sources for scholars working on this period. As a result, our current view of Abbasid state structures is a view from the top. State policies, however, were not decided by the caliphal centre and Baghdadi administrators alone.

Caliphal Finances will refocus scholarship on the totality of Abbasid administration. It will be the first large-scale research project on Abbasid administrative and fiscal history to make use primarily of documentary sources. Egyptian papyri are concerned with everyday arrangements for fiscal collection in secondary urban centres and villages of the Nile valley. Capitalising on this material, the project will study the organisation of tax collection, tax rates and categories of taxpayers.

The project team will trace how provincial revenues reached the caliph, incorporating information found in provincial chronicles with that in the papyri. Connections between administrators and local elites, religious and linguistic communities, their convergence on fiscal questions, their loyalty or resistance to the caliphate will all be assessed. In a field largely dominated by religious history, Caliphal Finances will renew our understanding of the dynamics of change in pre-modern state structures, with a focus on the complexity of local agency.

Main research questions

  • What are the different taxes and the tax rates visible in the documents of Abbasid Egypt?
  • Do they match what was prescribed in the Abbasid capital?
  • Are the different religious and linguistic communities visible in the organisation of fiscal practice?
  • How did changes to the fiscal system impact taxpayers and the economy of the region?
  • What was the contribution of taxpayers and local administrators to the shaping of fiscal practice?
  • What does fiscal practice in Egypt reveal about the organisation of state structures in the Abbasid empire?


Who is working on Caliphal Finances?

The project’s Principal Investigator (PI) is Dr Marie Legendre, Lecturer in Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh.

Marie will be working with two Postdoctoral Research Fellows: Noëmie Lucas (RF2; Abbasid fiscal history and historiography); and another to be appointed (RF1; Coptic Papyrology).

The team will also include a PhD student with a European Research Studentship.

Team members will work on six Work Packages as follows:

  • Work Package 1 Study of the published corpus of fiscal documents in Arabic, Coptic and Greek written in the Abbasid Period (PI and RF1)
  • Work Package 2 Edition of new fiscal documents in Arabic, Coptic and Greek written in the Abbasid Period (PI and RF1)
  • Work Package 3 Beyond jizya and kharaj: a nomenclature of all attested taxes in Abbasid Egypt, their weight for tax payers and their place in the fiscal collection (PI, RF1 and PhD)
  • Work Package 4 Making the link: fiscal practice and the literary corpus (RF2)
  • Work Package 5 A bigger picture: the system and working of tax collection in Abbasid Egypt and beyond (all team members)
  • Work Package 6 Writing a history of Abbasid fiscal practice in Islamic Late Antiquity (PI)

Find out more about Dr Marie Legendre


Are you interested in working on this project?

UPDATED MAY 2021 - We are currently advertising a PhD European Research Studentship to work on Caliphal Finances. This Studentship will cover the UK or International level of tuition fees for our PhD in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as an annual stipend. It is for an academically outstanding candidate who has previously studied Classical Arabic.

The application deadline for January 2022 entry is Monday 16th August 2021. 

Find out more about the PhD European Research Studentship on the University's webpages


How is the project funded?

Caliphal Finances is funded by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC; Grant agreement ID - 950414).

Timeframe: September 2021 - August 2026

ERC Starting Grants are designed to support excellent Principal Investigators at the career stage at which they are starting their own independent research team or programme. To be awarded a Grant, Principal Investigators must demonstrate the ground-breaking nature, ambition and feasibility of their scientific proposal.

Find out more about funding for Caliphal Finances on the ERC website


Caliphal Finances in Edinburgh

Caliphal Finances is based in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (IMES) and all researchers are part of the Late Antique, Islamic and Byzantine Studies Research Group at the University of Edinburgh.

Find out more about the Antique, Islamic and Byzantine Studies Research Group