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Monthly Archives: April 2015

Subhat al-Akhbar: Art and Genealogy in the Service of Ottoman Imperial Legitimacy

One of the most beautiful historical treasures of the 17th-century Ottoman empire is a work known as the Subḥat al-Akhbār. It is a work in Ottoman Turkish delineating the genealogy of the Ottoman Sultans, from Adam, the first human being and prophet, to Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687). As Professor Shahzad Bashir has noted: “genealogy was a major component of political ideology among Islamic dynasties, and this text comes in a long line of similar works produced throughout the medieval period.” It is a particularly interesting historical document for two reasons: 1) it provides significant insight into Ottoman political legitimation and self-representation; and 2) it demonstrates the importance of figural representation in Ottoman art well into the late seventeenth century. sultan Mehmed IV) (more…)

Fa’iz al-Ghusein (1883-1968): An Arab Eye-Witness to the Armenian Genocide

When it comes to the Armenian Genocide, there is no shortage of documents and sources written in multiple languages ranging from Ottoman Turkish, Russian, French, German, English, Armenian and Greek, that shed light on this historical fact. Despite the fact that most of the most atrocious massacres during the genocide took place in Arabic-speaking Syria, the Arabic sources have been largely ignored in discussions of the genocide. As early as the Hamidian massacres (1894–1896) and the Adana massacre (1909), Arabs—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—were concerned with the increasingly repressive direction that the Ottoman Empire was heading towards. In 1909, the Shaykh of al-Azhar Salīm al-Bishrī (d. 1916) even issued an edict condemning the violence against Armenian Christians in Adana as racially-motivated and in violation of the principles of Islam (for my translation of this document, see: . In this post, I want to highlight another document of major importance for understanding the Armenian genocide from the perspective of Arabic sources: Fā’iz al-Ghusein’s “Martyred Armenia”. (For an excellent overview on the importance of Arabic sources for the history of the Armenian genocide, see: (more…)

The Tomb of Ferdinand III (d. 1252) in Seville: Emblem of Convivencia or Symbol of Reconquista?

Perhaps one of the most interesting surviving monuments from late medieval Iberia is the tomb of Ferdinand III (r. 1217–1252). This sovereign had a monumental career and is best remembered as the unifier of Castile and León and as the conqueror of most of al-Andalus, greatly expanding the Castilian kingdom by annexing the vast majority of the lands of southern Iberia, including the major Muslim cities of Badajoz (1228), Cordoba (1236), Murcia (1243), Jaén (1246) and Seville (1248) among others. He was also responsible for establishing the treaty of vassalage with the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, a political reality that would be sustained for the next 250 years. (more…)

North Africa in Late Antiquity: Challenges to Roman/Byzantine Imperial Control


For much of its history, North Africa has fallen under the control of various empires and foreign power. However, as many of these conquerors eventually found out, North Africa was a region that was both unwieldy in its dimensions and unwieldy to control. The region’ disconnected, fragmented regional perspectives and administrative structures resulted from and produced a fissiparous process of cumulative and reinforced fragmentation, whether looking at matters from the littoral or from the interior. In this post, I want to look at North Africa in Late Antiquity (ca. 200–600) and how the region’s geography, politics, and society made it nearly impossible for central authorities (usually Romans or Byzantines) to fully control the region.



North Africa, a region roughly defined as all territory west of Egypt and east of the Atlantic, was perhaps one of the most important regions of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. However, in discussing late…

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Condemnation of the Adana Massacre (1909) by Shaykh al-Azhar Salim al-Bishri (d. 1916)

In April 1909, there was a major wave of massacres in the Cilician city of Adana (modern-day southern Turkey), in which over 20,000 Armenians were murdered and thousands of homes destroyed. Although these attacks on Armenian communities in Anatolia had intensified nearly a decade earlier during the Hamidian massacres between 1894 and 1896, in which between 90,000 and 300,000 Armenians, civilians and nationalist dissidents alike, were killed by Ottoman forces and mobs, the massacres of 1909 would foreshadow the even more heinous genocidal massacres of 1915–1918.

In response to the massacres, the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar (the leading religious institution of Sunni Muslims in the world) Salim al-Bishri (who held the position from 1909 to 1916) issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the perpetrators of the massacre and all those religious authorities in the Ottoman Empire who had incited or endorsed the massacre (for more on Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, read Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam [2009], pp. 199-230). I have provided a rough translation of the text below for the benefit of anyone wishing to understand these massacres from a perspective not usually considered. As the situation for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East becomes increasingly dire, it is important now more than ever to reflect upon these horrific events that occurred a century ago in the region.


We have come across, through the local newspapers, saddening news and despicable reports about Muslims in some of the Anatolian provinces of the Ottoman realms. These include reports that they have transgressed against the Christians by attacking and brutally murdering them. We were shocked by such reports and hoped that they would prove to be false because Islam, as a general principle, absolutely forbids acts of unjustified aggression and forbids oppression, bloodshed and harming others, irrespective of whether they be Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

O Muslims living in those lands and elsewhere, be aware of transgressing the bounds established by God Almighty in his Shariah (Divine Law), and spare the blood that God has deemed impermissible to spill and do not transgress against anyone for verily God despises those who transgress. [As the Qur’an says]: “God does not forbid you from befriending those who do not fight you because of religion, and do not evict you from your homes. You may befriend/act kindly towards them and be equitable /just towards them. God loves the equitable” [Q. 60:8].

O Muslims, be faithful to your religion and beware of perpetrating acts forbidden by God in His Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet , and beware of disobeying God, which incites His anger and indignation. Verily, God has imposed on you responsibilities and ordained that you are obligated to grant certain rights to those to whom you are contractually bound and those who have entrusted their safety to you and those who live amongst you from among the Jews and the Christians (ahl al-dhimma). These include that you act righteously towards them as they have acted righteously towards you, protect them from what you protect yourselves and your kin from, to strengthen them with your strength and power, and to protect their homes, monasteries, and churches in the same manner that you protect your mosques and places of worship. And, by God, whoever transgresses against their womenfolk, murders them and oppresses them has truly violated the covenant established by God Almighty and violated their divinely-ordained obligations.

O Muslims, do not allow racism to overcome you nor permit racial loyalties to become the sole influence upon your souls, for these are emotions and concepts from the Age of Ignorance that Islam has sought to eradicate. Indeed, you have the best exemplar in the conduct of the Prophet of God and his noble Companions. If you had not been swayed by the speeches of the ignorant and allowed them to overcome you and permitting your base tendencies to dominate you, then the tolerance, magnanimity and leniency of Islam would have guided you, making you peaceful and kept you away from the path of oppressively shedding the blood of others.

You should know that if the reports about your conduct have any basis in truth then you have truly angered your Lord, and have not satisfied your Prophet nor conformed to the Shariah. Your Muslim brethren have been compelled to turn against you for the sake of their religion, which absolutely deplores these heinous acts (if they are confirmed), which have violated all that is sacred and forbidden. Moreover, you have permitted the tongues of individuals ignorant of your faith to pronounce deplorable words against all Muslims.

So, heed the following words of your Prophet which pertains to your condition. Verily, the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) stated: “Whoever murders an individual with whom the Muslims are bound by covenant shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise, even though its fragrance reaches a distance of 40 years.” He also said: “Anyone who defames a protected person (dhimmi) shall be lashed on the Day of Resurrection with whips of fire.”

May God bless the individual who heeds this advice. May God grant success to all the Muslims to enact the precepts of their noble religion. May God guide them to the straight path. There is no might nor power except in God.

Selim al-Bishri, Shaykh of al-Azhar

(Credit to for uploading this document online)

Mavia’s Revolt: An Arab Warrior Queen and the Roman Desert Frontier during the Late Fourth Century

This short piece follows from my previous post about the Limes Arabicus in Late Antiquity ( and seeks to revisit the sources for Mavia’s revolt in order to explore the various dimensions of the Arab-Roman relationship in the Limes Arabicus during the fourth century. Although the existing textual sources are quite limited in what they can tell us, they can still shed light on several aspects of the role of the Arab tribal confederations on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

Limes Arabicus and Saracen Foederati: The Roman-Byzantine Desert Frontier in Late Antiquity

The question of the Roman-Byzantine desert frontier in Late Antiquity has attracted the attention of various scholars in the past several decades. This frontier, known as the Limes Arabicus, spanned more than 1,300 kilometers from northern Syria to southern Palestine and the edges of the Arabian Peninsula. Recent research and excavations have done much to augment scholarly knowledge of this frontier, which served as the south-eastern defense of the Roman Empire for over six centuries, until it was eventually overrun by the Arab Muslim conquerors in the 630s. This frontier consisted not only—nor even primarily—of fortifications and watchtowers, but also of major nomadic tribal confederations, allied to Rome, which patrolled the desert and ensured the security of the eastern provinces by exercising control over nomadic movements both within and, to a certain degree, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Although much attention in recent years has been devoted to the Ghassānids, which served as a major tribal confederation allied to Rome well into the seventh century, the fourth century has been relatively less discussed.[1] Those scholars, including Irfan Shahid, Greg Fisher and Glen Bowerstock, who have devoted their scholarship to understanding this period have indicated its importance and have sought to underscore that the fourth century witnessed both the rise of major Arab tribal confederations along the desert frontier and the establishment of Roman foedus agreements, or alliances, with them. (more…)