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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Beyond “Tolerance” and “Intolerance”: Deconstructing the Myth of the Islamic Golden Age


Like many other concepts that shape our understanding of medieval history, the idea of a “Muslim Golden Age” is a historiographical construct. It promotes the notion that, until at least the early thirteenth century, the Muslim world experienced an era of unprecedented stability, prosperity, and cultural production. More particularly, it emphasizes that the period between roughly 800 and 1200 (sometimes extended to 1700 in order to include the Ottomans and Mughals; the Safavids are usually ignored) can be considered to represent the pinnacle of human endeavor in the Muslim world. There are many problems with this perspective. (more…)

Shams al-Din al-Muqaddasi (d. 991) and the Hadith of the 73 Sects

An interesting alternative to the well-known and commonly-cited Prophetic tradition which proclaims that “My nation shall be divided into 73 sects, one of which shall be saved and the rest which shall perish in Hellfire” is provided in Shams al-Dīn Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad al-Muqaddasī’s Ahsan al-Taqāsīm fī Ma‘rifat al-Aqālīm, a major geographical work written around 985 A.D. which is a product of his extensive travels throughout the Islamic world in the tenth century. As an individual trained in the science of jurisprudence and well-connected with important circles of scholarship in the Levant and the Hijaz, it can reasonably be assumed that his narration of this alternative version was based on his own scholarly understanding of the tradition. The hadith which he cites is as follows: “My nation shall be divided into 73 sects, 72 of which shall be saved and only one which shall perish in Hellfire.”* (more…)

1200th Anniversary of Charlemagne’s Death

Today, January 28th 2014, marks exactly 1200 years since the death of Charlemagne, arguably the most important figure in European medieval history. There is no way to do justice to this monumental figure in a few words, but it is worth highlighting three of his major contributions to the history of medieval Europe (more…)

Federico García Lorca (d. 1936) on Granada

“The uninformed visitor, amidst the incredible variations in form, vista, light and fragrance, will experience the feeling that Granada is the capital of a kingdom with its own art and literature, and will encounter a curious mix of Jewish Granada and Muslim Granada, both apparently blended by Christianity but alive and incorruptible in their respective unknowing. The prodigious bulwark of the cathedral, the great Imperial and Roman seal of Charles V, have not effaced the little shop of the Jew who prays before a form cast from the silver of the seven-branched candelabrum, just as the tombs of the Catholic Monarchs have not prevented the crescent moon from appearing at times on the breast of Granada’s finest sons.”

El viajero poco avisado encontrará con la variación increíble de formas, de paisaje, de luz y de olor la sensación de que Granada es capital de un reino con arte y literatura propios, y hallará una curiosa mezcla de la Granada judía y la Granada morisca, aparentemente fundidas por el cristianismo, pero vivas e insobornables en su misma ignorancia.

La prodigiosa mole de la catedral, el gran sello imperial y romano de Carlos V, no evita la tiendecilla del judío que reza ante una imagen hecha con la plata del candelabro de los siete brazos, como los sepulcros de los Reyes Católicos no han evitado que la media luna salga a veces en el pecho de los más finos hijos de Granada.

–Federico García Lorca, “Semana Santa en Granada” (April 1936)


An Early Kharijite Critique of the Azariqa: Najda ibn Amir’s Letter to Ibn al-Azraq

The following is an important, yet little known, document. It is one of the earliest Kharijite critiques of the radical movement of the Azariqa. It was written by Najda ibn ‘Āmir (d. 692), the founder of the Najdiyya sect, to Nāfi‘ ibn al-Azraq (d. 696). It was written as early as 690 (although it only survives in a late ninth-century collection) and shows that the mass violence and intolerance of the Azariqa was strongly opposed by other Kharijites. Although the critique of ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ibāḍ (d. 705), the eponymous founder of the Ibāḍīyya, is well known, that of other Kharijite sects has received less attention. Hopefully this provides a more nuanced perspective of the early Kharijites, who have too often been conflated with the Azariqa (which represented only a single sect out of two dozen). For those unfamiliar, Ibn al-Azraq had declared all other Muslims who did not follow him to be disbelievers and believed that it was permissible to murder them and their children. They also believed that it was obligatory for them to completely dissociate themselves from the Muslim community and wage war against it. It was in light of these radical position that he was critiqued in the following letter:

“My knowledge of you [Ibn al-Azraq] is such that you were a merciful father to the orphan, a kind brother to the weak. Nobody could ever reproach you, in anyway, with respect to your commitment to God’s [teachings]; [as attested in the way you] forbade lending any form of assistance to an oppressor. That’s the model [I’ve known] you and your companions to follow. Do you not recall what you used to say: “If I didn’t know that the reward of the just Imam is equivalent to that received by all his flock, I would not have taken it upon myself to serve as the Imam of even two Muslim men [let alone more].”When you had your soul purchased in the service of your Lord, you sought to please Him, pursuing the true path at its core (aṣabta mina alḥaqqi faṣṣahu); and in the process, endured all the severity this entailed (rakibta murrahu). That’s when Satan devoted his energy exclusively to you, for no one, more than you and your companions, had ever exerted such a burden on Satan. He thus sought to win your affection and lure and beguile you to his ways, and that he did. So you strayed away from the right path (ghawayta), and declared those whom God excused in His Book for staying at home to be unbelievers, on account of their weakness. God said—and His Word is the Truth and His Promise is unconditional: “In those who are weak, or are afflicted with sickness, or in those who find not wherewith to contribute to the war, it shall be no crime if they stay at home; provided they behave themselves faithfully towards God and his apostle”

Then you deemed it lawful to kill the children [of those who disagreed with you] when the Messenger of God forbade it, and God said to that effect that “no burdened soul shall bear the burden of another” (Q., VII 164). He also spoke well about those who stayed at home, notwithstanding that he favored those who struggled/ fought over them. He thus considered them to be believers, and favored the mujāhidīn over them, [only] on account of their work [i.e., fighting]. You also deemed it lawful not to render a trust (amāna) to its owners, if they did not espouse your beliefs, when God commands that trusts are to be rendered to their rightful owners. So fear God and reflect on yourself, and fear the day “whereon a father shall not requite something for his son, neither shall a son requite something for his father” (Q., XXXI 33). God, may His name be exalted, is on the watch (bialmirṣād), His judgment is justice, His word is final (faṣl). With peace.”

[al-Mubarrad Muḥammad ibn Yazīd, al-Kāmil (Cairo, 1956), pp. 286–287]


Mawlid Poetry from the Morisco Period of al-Andalus

The following are three devotional poems commemorating the birth (mawlid) of the Prophet Muhammad from al-Andalus during the Morisco period (1500-1614). Since adherence to Islam was punishable by burning at the stake during this period of Spanish history, these poems are as much an example of resistance to the Inquistion and an assertion of Andalusi Muslim identity as they are indicative of the love of the Spanish Muslims for the Prophet Muhammad. The strange Spanish is a result of the direct transliteration from Aljamiado (a form of Spanish written in Arabic characters). (more…)

Intermarriage between the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions and the Ahl al-Bayt

After nearly a year and a half of research, I have completed a partial and tentative list of the various intermarriages which occurred between the Family of the Prophet Muhammad (Ahl al-Bayt) and his Companions during the first Islamic century. My methodology involved cross-checking various sources (mainly Sunni and Shi’i works of history, genealogy, hadith, biography) to ensure agreement between the various links and names which I have included. Most of the sources are in general agreement about the final chart which I have below. I have included a full list of sources below, for those wishing to learn more. Unfortunately, there are very few sources that have been translated into English for this topic, which is why I have undertaken the project in the first place. (more…)