ʿALĪ B. ʿĪSĀ B. DĀʾŪD B. AL-JARRĀḤ (245-334/859-946), vizier during the reign of the caliph Moqtader (295-320/908-32). His family was of Persian origin resident in Iraq, and many of its members held posts in ʿAbbasid administration; ʿAlī himself entered the bureaucracy as a secretary when about twenty years old. In 286/899 he and his uncle Dāʾūd were appointed respectively head of the western and of the eastern departments of the finance ministry (dīwān al-dār). Conflict with the family of Ebn al-Forāt culminated in ʿAlī’s involvement in a plot to depose the young caliph Moqtader in favor of ʿAbdallāh b. al-Moʿtazz (295/908). Its failure resulted in ʿAlī’s banishment to Mecca, where he remained until the fall of Ebn al-Forāt in 299/912. The following year he was invited to succeed the vizier Ḵāqānī.
In his first vizierate (300-04/913-17) ʿAlī attempted to put the caliphal finances in order by increasing revenues and reducing court expenses, but he soon ran into strong opposition. His conclusion of a truce with the Qarmatians of Bahrain secured the release of ʿAbbasid soldiers taken prisoner, but laid him open to the accusation of treason. Later the costly military expeditions to Egypt (301/914) to fend off Fatimid incursions and to parts of Iraq against various rebels made it impossible to pay the Baghdad garrison, which mutinied. ʿAlī was dismissed and replaced by his rival Ebn al-Forāt, who imprisoned him.
When it again became necessary to choose a vizier, the caliph consulted ʿAlī b. ʿĪsā and appointed Ḥāmed b. ʿAbbās in 306/918; when the new vizier proved incompetent, the caliph attached ʿAlī to him as an adviser. For almost five years he again exerted power, but he was no more successful than before in reconciling the caliph’s entourage to the money-saving measures which he judged necessary to meet the cost of operations against Fatimid attacks and the revolt of the governor of Azerbaijan, Yūsof b. Abī Sāǰ. During this time the mystic Ḥallāǰ was tried and executed (309/922). It would appear that ʿAlī, who refused to join in Ḥallāǰ’s interrogation, felt a secret sympathy for him and was anxious to defend him, but could achieve nothing against the hostility of Ḥāmed, the titular vizier, and the others interested in the prosecution. In 311/923 Ḥāmed was replaced by Ebn al-Forāt, who again put ʿAlī on trial. He was tortured and made to pay a huge fine before being allowed to retire to Mecca, whence he was exiled to Yemen. A year later, however, he was recalled and appointed inspector of the finances of Egypt and Syria. In 314/927 he was appointed vizier for the second time.
ʿAlī’s second vizierate lasted only a year and was a failure. Finding himself unable to obtain from the caliph, or from the latter’s influential mother, adequate funds for action against the Qarmatians, who were threatening Baghdad, he was obliged to resign. Thereafter he did not again occupy any top-level office, but he continued to play an important role in governmental and administrative affairs. After the restoration of Moqtader (following his temporary deposition by the troops in 317/929), ʿAlī was put in charge of the investigation of complaints (maẓālem), and next became an adviser to the vizier Solaymān b. Ḥasan, who was his cousin. After a brief banishment to Dayr Qonnā on the lower Tigris, he was reemployed during the reign of Qāher (320-22/932-34), exiled again, and then recalled by the vizier Ebn Moqla, who needed his help in negotiations with the Hamdanid prince Ḥasan b. Abi’l-Hayǰāʾ. From 325/936 onward ʿAlī acted as an adviser to another vizier, his brother ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān, and later was reengaged by the caliph to investigate complaints. He died at the age of eighty-nine in Baghdad.
ʿAlī strove courageously to save the ʿAbbasid caliphate from the many dangers threatening it. Though unsuccessful, he earned a reputation for honesty which is approvingly echoed by the chroniclers and has led a modern orientalist to describe him as “the good vizier.” His technical expertise as a well trained, professional secretary was supplemented with a solid knowledge of Islamic culture, which he owed to two Shafeʿite teachers sympathetic to Muʿtazilism. This explains not only the nature of his piety, but also his hostility to the Hanbalites and his attitude to the caliphate. Unlike those Shiʿite secretaries who did not genuinely acknowledge the ʿAbbasid caliphate’s legitimacy and were only interested in enriching themselves at the state’s expense, he upheld the principle of a responsible caliphate employing honest and devoted officials. This was why he sided with Ebn al-Moʿtazz and attempted to have the caliph Qāher, whom he considered unsuitable, deposed by the qāżīs. At the same time he had contacts with prominent spokesmen of Sufism, which explain why he tried in vain to prevent the trial of Ḥallāǰ. He also protected literary writers and men of religion, though he later had to give up such patronage. As an administrator, he was concerned to maintain the empire’s prosperity and to make the fiscal system as honest as possible. To this end he abolished several abusive taxes and eliminated, or tried to eliminate, certain practices harmful to the public interest; in particular he tried to restrict the practice of tax-farming. To balance the budget, however, he was obliged to restrict expenditure on the court and to resort to borrowing from Jewish moneylenders. Such a policy had little chance of success with a situation so unstable and a caliph so fickle and inexperienced as the young Moqtader. Moreover the caliph could hardly give unreserved support to a man who had earlier taken sides against him. The contemporary circumstances, the laxity of the system, the spinelessness of the caliph, and also to some extent ʿAlī b. ʿĪsā’s own touchiness prevented any lasting accomplishments.
H. Bowen, The Life and Times of ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā, the Good Vizir, Cambridge and London, 1928.
D. Sourdel, Le vizirat ʿabbāside, Damascus, 1959/60.
See also L. Massignon, La passion de Hallaj, new ed., Paris, 1975, index.
The principal Arabic sources are: Ṭabarī, index; Ṣūlī, Ketāb al-awrāq, ed. Heyworth-Dunne, Cairo, 1354/1935-36; French tr. by M. Canard, Akhbār al-Raḍī biʾllāh wa’l-Muttaqī I, Algiers, 1946, index.
Margoliouth and Amedroz, Eclipse, index.
Helāl al-Ṣābeʾ, Ketāb al-wozarāʾ, index.
EI2 I, pp. 386-88.
Originally Published: December 15, 1985
Last Updated: August 1, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 850-851