ʿĀMEL, the holder of an administrative office in the pre-modern Islamic world. In earliest Islam, the Arabic term ʿāmel was one which denoted, at its most general, a provincial governor; hence it was correlative with such designations as amīr and walī. The basic sense of “agent, person involved in some activity” is clearly discernible here, and this general sense persisted in administrative usage well into ʿAbbasid times. But ʿāmel also came to acquire the more specific sense of “official charged with the collection of taxation,” whether the land tax in general (ḵarāǰ, this also designating what was stipulated as the tax liability, żamān, qabāla, of a province, district or town) or the poll tax (ǰezya) incumbent upon the Ḏemmīs or Protected Peoples. As is well-known, the usage of all these terms is shifting and imprecise in the early Islamic centuries.
Where the governor personally retained control of all the chief functions necessary for the defense and administration of a region, he was described as appointed ʿala ’l-ḥarb wa’l-ḵarāǰ “with military and fiscal responsibilities” (see R. Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, Cambridge, 1957, pp. 358-59). But after the financial side was separated from the military and general administrative duties and given to a different official—certainly by the 5th/11th century— ʿāmel had become the standard term for the official primarily charged with financial responsibilities; Māwardī, the 5th/11th century writer on constitutional theory, was probably already becoming out-of-date in using the term ʿāmel for both the office of the high-level ʿāmel or governorship of a province (the ʿemālat al-tafwīż) and the lower-level ʿāmel appointed by that governor for specific tax-collecting duties (the ʿemālat al-tanfīḏ; see al-Aḥkām al-solṭānīya, chap. XVIII).
When the Arabs entered Iran, they took over much of the Sasanian financial system, the Iranian officials remaining substantially in post in both Iran and Iraq. The traditional story of the establishment of the dīvān or financial department under the first four caliphs assigns a dominant role to Iranian functionaries, in particular to one Pīrūz and his son Zāḏān-Farroḵ in the reign of ʿOmar I; the arabization of the dīvāns in the time of ʿAbd-al-Malek (actually accomplished by an Iranian mawlā from Sīstān, Ṣāleḥ b. ʿAbdallāh) cannot seriously have diminished the part of Iranians in the day-to-day running of the financial departments, though it may have facilitated Arab supervision at the top (see M. Sprengling, “From Persian to Arabic,” AJSLL 56, 1939, pp. 175-224, 325-36; ʿA. Zarrīnkūb, in Camb. Hist. Iran IV, pp. 45-48).
Under the provincial dynasties which arose in the Iranian world from the 3rd/9th century onwards, the term ʿāmel certainly remained in usage for tax collector in general, but side by side with native Iranian terms like kārdār and bondār (the latter originally meaning “a trader who has sufficient resources to increase his capital by buying and selling,” according to Samʿānī [Hyderabad], II, pp. 335-36, but both terms are probably taken over from pre-Islamic usage, just as was that denoting another financial official, the ǰahbaḏ, literally “assayer, money changer”). We find ʿāmel used in a Samanid context (Naršaḵī, p. 15). Under the Ghaznavids, the financial aspect of the central administration was directed by the vizier himself, through the dīvāns of estīfāʾ (properly concerned with tax assessment and accounting procedures) and of ešrāf (properly concerned with the oversight of lesser financial officials and the disbursement of collected revenues), so that in the 5th-6th/11th-12th centuries one finds here mostawfī and mošref used as near synonyms of ʿāmel (see Bosworth, Ghaznavids, pp. 80f.). Under the Saljuqs, Neẓām-al-molk used the term ʿāmel as “tax collector” in his Sīāsat-nāma, where the ʿāmel is enjoined to behave reputably and courteously, to take only the amount of taxation stipulated, and not to demand this last before the harvest or the time when the cultivators are able to pay; we may infer that ʿommāl often behaved in a tyrannical and extortionate fashion (ed. M. Qazvīnī and M. Modarres Čahārdehī, Tehran, 1334 Š./1955, pp. 20f.; tr. H. Darke, London, 1960, pp. 23f.; for other examples of Saljuq usage of the term ʿāmel, see C. L. Klausner, The Seljuk Vezirate, a Study of Civil Administration 1055-1194, Cambridge, Mass., 1973, index). In the chancery documents of the Ḵᵛārazmšāhs, the term ʿāmel is frequent at the side of the parallel, but not quite identical one of motaṣarref “financial inspector;” see H. Horst, Die Staatsverwaltung der Grosselğūqen und Ḫōrazmšāhs (1038-1231), Wiesbaden, 1964, pp. 57-58 and passim.
With the Mongol invasions of Iran, other terms also appear for tax collector, such as moḥaṣṣel and taḥṣīldār, though the usage of ʿāmel persisted, e.g., in Safavid usage (see K. M. Röhrborn, Provinzen und Zentralgewalt Persiens im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1966, pp. 59, 61). It further passed to those neighboring regions influenced by Iranian culture and administrative practices: to the Ottomans and even to the Crimean Tatars, but above all to Muslim India, where it is found from Tughluqid to Mughal times (see W. H. Moreland, The Agrarian System of Moslem India, Cambridge, 1929, p. 270; Ibn Hasan, The Central Structure of the Mughal Empire, repr. Delhi, 1970, p. 205).
In modern Iran, ʿāmel has become obsolete as a fiscal term, but in contemporary agricultural usage it is used for a crop-sharing agreement (mozāraʿa) to denote the person who is given a piece of land for a specified period to cultivate on a crop-sharing basis, i.e., in something like the modern Arabic sense of “worker, laborer” (Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia, London, 1952, p. 423).
See also Spuler, Iran, pp. 338f., 462f.
M. Fuad Köprülü, “Âmil,” İA I, pp. 402-04.
The latter gives considerable coverage to the Iranian world in contrast to “ʿĀmil,” EI2, which concentrates on the Arab world.
(C. E. Bosworth)
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: August 1, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 9, pp. 930-931
C. E. Bosworth, “ʿĀMEL,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/9, pp. 930-931, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/amel-holder-of-administrative-oibce (accessed on 30 December 2012).