Emirs or Tax Gatherers?

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From Ottoman perspectives, what we designate as “Emirs” were no more that tax gatherers, responsible for Tax Farms and farmers and designated by the Sultan by Firman (فرمان) to collect taxes on their behalf from peasants who were cultivating the land. They were allowed to have their own small armies (militias) to help them collecting the taxes by force when needed or to contribute in the Ottoman wars when requested. The authority granted to them grew their wealth to the extent of building powerful armies and engaging in some independence adventures that all failed.

From Lebanese perspective, those tax collectors were great Emirs who governed Mount Lebanon, established socio-economical institutions and contributed to the emergence of the modern Lebanese identity and the creation of “Great Lebanon” after World War 1. From Lebanese communities’ perspective, some of those Emirs were considered Great or traitors, depending on the roles they played in balancing the communities power.

Traditional Honorific Titles in Lebanon

In modern Lebanon, many families still retain the honorific noble titles of “Sheikh” (شيخ), “Muqaddam” (مقدم), “Emir” (أمير) & “Beik” (بيك). The Lebanese government formally recognizes their rights by including the honorific titles in the official Lebanese ID documents (with title preceding the first name; except for the Turkish “Beik” title which follows the first name). This practice of including the honorific titles in the ID cards started at the time of the “Mutasarrifate” (متصرفية). At these times, only powerful local feudal families were holding these honorific titles, which were originally granted to them by the Ottoman authorities or the “Emir of Mount Lebanon”.

Not all descendants of medieval noble families were able to retain their honorific titles. The survival of these titles within certain branches of the old noble families depended on their political connections, wealth & relative clout within their respective communities. Many families, who were originally of high noble stock, have lost their social stature over time (to a lower rank, or were stripped from all titles of nobility).

Others have moved the opposite way, from lower titles of nobility to higher stature, normally with the Ottoman central government or its representatives bestowing upon them honorific titles for services rendered, or upon appointment to official post.

“Emir” أمير (aka “Amir”; Plural: “Amirs”)

In Arabic, the literal meaning of the term “Amir” (أمير) is “Commander”; it is generally used in the following contexts:

·         Commander: In medieval Islamic context, “Emir” is the title used for a military commanding officer. This title is still in use for leaders of Muslim religious armed groups.

·         Governor: in the Arab world, historically the title of “Amir” (أمير) was given to the governor of a semi-autonomous district or province; these were mainly military governors.

·         Monarch: “Amir” is the official title used for the monarch of a sovereign emirate (i.e. principality) in the Arab world. In the UAE, the president & rulers of its constituent emirates use the term “Sheikh” (شيخ) instead.

·         Prince: “Emir” is also used as an honorific title to address a person who is descendant from a ruling dynasty, either ancient or modern.

During Ottoman times, the honorific title of “Emir” was used in Lebanon to denote the ruler of a “Sanjak” سنجق  (aka “Liwa” لواء). It was the Arabic term used to translate the Turkish title of “Bey” or “Beik”; i.e. The Arabic formal title will be “Amir” of the “Sanjak” rather than the Turkish title “Sanjak Beik” or “Sanjak Beg”.

Emir Fakhreddine II (r. 1590-1635 AD) was the first in Mount Lebanon to be appointed as “Sanjak Beg” (he was the governor of the Sanjaks of “Beirut” & “Sidon”; later, he was appointed to govern the Sanjak of “Safed” in North Palestine). The “Sanjak” was a sub-division of a larger Ottoman administrative province, called “Beglerbeglic” (ruled by a “Beylerbey”) or “Eyalet” إيالة  (later known as “Vilayet” ولاية, governed by a “Vali”والي).

The term “al-Amir al-Hakim” (meaning “the ruling Emir”) was the title used by the “Multazim” (ملتزم) of the taxes for whole of Mount Lebanon; the “Iltizam” (التزام) of which sometimes included districts from more than one “Sanjak”. These multazims came from the most prominent families in Mount Lebanon who were already holding the traditional title of “Amir”. The “Multazim” will be in advance the Tax required from his “Iltizam”; he will later collect the taxes from the local feudal lords (normally much higher than what he paid). The “Multazim” was not appointed for life; he had to renew his mandate every year. The authority to grant the mandate initially was with the “Sanjak Beg” of the respective district(s); later it was mainly the Ottoman “Vali” who appointed the “Multazim” for “Mount Lebanon” (Lebanese historians referred to the Multazim by the title of “Emir of Mount Lebanon”).

The Ottoman governors found it easier to directly rule big cities & delegate the “Iltizam” function of the mountainous areas to powerful local families. The “Emir of Mount Lebanon” was not free to interfere in the affairs of the other feudal lords in Mount Lebanon. Each lord (whether “Emir”, “Muqaddam” or “Sheikh”) was an independent governor of his sub-district. The relationship of the “Multazim” with them was more of “Primus inter pares” (i.e. “First among equals”), than that of an overlord & subordinate rulers.


Amongst the feudal families holding the traditional title of “Amir” In the 16th & 17th centuries AD, the families of “Maan” (معن) (Adjective:“Maanid”) & “Alameddine” (علم الدين) were the most prominent in Mount Lebanon, followed  by the families of  (تنوخ) “Tanukh” (aka “Buhtur”; adjectives: “Tanukhid” &“Buhturid”) & Arslan (أرسلان) (aka “Rislan”). By the year 1711 AD, the ruling branches of the “Maan”, “Alameddine” &“Tanukh” were mostly wiped out. After which, the “Shihab” (شهاب) family (aka “Chehab”) became the most prominent in Mount Lebanon; followed by the “Abillama” (أبي اللمع) family. In 1842 AD, the Shihab family lost its premium status in Mount Lebanon & was no longer influential.

 In modern Lebanon, few families still officially retain the honorific title of “Amir”. These include the families of "Shihab" & "Abillama"(both converted to Christianity in the 18th century) as well as the Druze family of “Arslan”.