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A Sixteenth-Century Fresco Painting of the Battle of La Higueruela (1431) in El Escorial

One of the most significant battles in fifteenth-century Iberia was undoubtedly the Battle of La Higueruela, fought in July 1431 between the forces of Juan II of Castile (r. 1406-1454), whose army was led by the Constable of Castile Álvaro de Luna (d. 1453), and the Nasrids, led by Sultan Muhammad IX (d. 1454). The battle was fought in the valley around Granada, known as the Vega, and ended in a victory for Castile, although without any territorial gains. One of the main consequences of the battle was the overthrow of Muhammad IX and the brief enthronement of Yusuf IV (d. 1432) who agreed to resume tribute payments to Castile. (more…)

Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747): A Short Overview of the Career of an 18th-Century Iranian Conqueror

Perhaps one of the most significant rulers of Iran in the post-Safavid period was Nāder Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747). Although most students of Islamic history are somewhat familiar with the Safavid rulers (1501-1722) or the later Qajar sovereigns (1785-1925), Nāder Shah and the Afsharid dynasty that he founded are usually less well known. In this short piece, I want to provide a very short outline of Nāder Shah’s career. I also wanted to shed some light on his coinage, which I personally find to be one of the most interesting aspects of his rule since it emphasizes the concept of universal sovereignty while excluding any explicitly sectarian (Sunni or Shi’ite) identification. In a future post, I will look in a bit more depth at his religious policies–which have remained largely misunderstood–and connect them with this concept of universal sovereignty.

Nāder Shāh, an Afsharid Turcoman, attempted to realize a grandiose imperial vision, modeled upon that of Tīmūr (r. 1370–1405), of a Turkic empire extending across the Iranian plateau. As part of his attempts to realize this broader objective he adopted a strategy of engaging with various modes of legitimacy—Sunni, Shi’i, Turkic, and Iranian—in conjunction with major military expansion. However, despite some important military and political successes, by the end of his reign his strained relations with the Iranian populace—as a result of his harsh fiscal policies and violent repression of dissent—erupted into major rebellions across his empire, which he attempted to quell with increasing brutality before he was assassinated in 1747.

Nāder Afshar, born around 1688, was born into the Qirqlū clan of the Afshār Turcoman tribe, which was one of the original Kizilbāsh oymāqs (tribal groupings) that had helped bring the Safavids to power in the early sixteenth century. Following the devolution of the Safavid polity, which culminated in the Afghan invasions and the occupation of Isfahan in 1722, Nāder became involved in the power struggles that took place around Mashhad in northeastern Iran.


Isma’il ibn Ali al-Razi (d. 1054) on Umar b. al-Khattab’s Honoring of al-Hasan b. Ali and al-Husayn b. Ali

The following tradition is taken from an eleventh-century work by the Persian Muslim scholar Ismā‘īl ibn ‘Alī ibn al-Ḥasan al-Rāzī (d. 445/1054) entitled Kitāb al-Muwāfaqa bayn Ahl al-Bayt wa-l Ṣaḥaba. Ismā‘īl ibn ‘Alī al-Rāzī was an eleventh-century scholar who had studied theology/hadith in Damascus (with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Naṣr al-Tamīmī), Baghdad (with Abī Ṭāher al-Mukhalaṣ), Mecca (with both Aḥmad ibn Ibrahīm ibn Firās and Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn ‘Umar ibn al-Naḥās), and Rayy (with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Fadalah). According to later scholars, he was inclined to the Mu’tazalite (rationalist) doctrine. He was also very well-versed (and wrote books on) Prophetic tradition (hadith), jurisprudence, and-according to the later Islamic scholar al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), he studied and taught Hanafi, Shafi’i, and Zaydi law.

This work was famously edited and commented upon by the famous Iranian Islamic scholar and exegete, Abū al-Qāsim al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144). This tradition reveals the status of Ahl al-Bayt within Islam and shows how deeply rooted it is within the religious tradition. Moreover, this particular narration is important because it sheds light on the policy of the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, with regard to the ‘atā’ (military stipend) and how it was based on the notion of sābiqa (precedence within Islam based on relatedness/closeness to the Prophet).  The translation is my own and is based on pp. 144–148 of the Mukhtaṣar Kitāb al-Muwāfaqa bayn Ahl al-Bayt wa-l Ṣaḥaba (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1999).  (more…)

Summer Reading List

These are some books I’m planning to read over the summer. I figured I’d share in case anyone else was looking for some summer reading. Please recommend additional titles if they come to mind.

1) Philippe Buc, Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

2) Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

3) Joseph A. Massad, Islam in Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

4) Asma Sayeed, Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 (paperback).

5) Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

6) Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

7) Stephen Cory, Reviving the Caliphate in Early Modern Morocco. New York, Ashgate, 2013.

8) S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015 (paperback).

9) Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

10) Robert Meister, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

11) James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

12) William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

13) A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

14) Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006.

15) Paul M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

16) Daniel Egster, Divine Sovereignty: The Origins of Modern State Power. Chicago: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.

17) Qadi al-Nu’man (trans. Devin Stewart), Disagreements of the Jurists: A Manual of Islamic Legal Theory. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

18) Anne Marie Wolf, Juan de Segovia and the Fight for Peace: Christians and Muslims in the Fifteenth Century. Southbend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

19) Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

20) Sarah Bowen Savant, The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory and Conversion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

21) Lenn Goodman, Islamic Humanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

22) Dominique Iogna-Prat, Order and Exclusion: Cluny and Christendom face Heresy, Judaism and Islam (1100-1150). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

23) Fatma Muge Gocek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

24) Natalie Zemon-Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslims between Worlds. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

25) Amy G. Remensnyder, La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

26) Ronald Grigor Suny, “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

27) Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: The Call from the East. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and the Rise of the Almohads

The following is another short excerpt that I have translated from the Buyūtāt Fās al-Kubrā by the fourteenth-century Andalusī historian Ismā‘īl ibn al-Aḥmar (d. 1407). I found this particular passage to be interesting because it reflects the manner in which the legend of the relationship between the Ash‘arite theologian and mystic Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and the founder of the Almohad movement, Muḥammad b. Tūmart (d. 1130) is developed. Ibn al-Aḥmar’s narrative, written in the fourteenth century, shows that nearly three centuries after the rise of the Almohads it continued to have resonance in the Islamic West. Two elements that I found particularly interesting was the link that is drawn between the Almoravids burning* of al-Ghazālī’s works and the latter’s invocation against them on one hand, and the conscious decision of al-Ghazālī, who probably never met Ibn Tūmart, to use his overzealous student as his agent in bringing about the destruction of the Almoravid polity. This is especially interesting in light of other historical accounts which suggest that it was none other than al-Ghazālī (and his student Abū Bakr al-Turtūshī) who played an important role in legitimizing the Almoravid state in the first place. Moreover, it was quite interesting to see such a prominent role given to the occult sciences in this text, with emphasis being placed on Ibn Tūmart’s receiving special instruction in this body of knowledge by al-Ghazālī.

*(For an important article on the politics of book-burning in al-Andalus, see

 (Coin of the Almohad caliph Abu Ya’qub Yusuf [r. 1163-1184]) (more…)

Muslim/Magyar Invasions, Liudprand of Cremona (d. 972) and Christendom in the 10th Century

In my previous post ( I sought to briefly outline the political and military aspects of the Magyar and Muslim incursions into Latin Christendom during the ninth and tenth centuries. In this piece, I want to look more closely at how one Latin writer, Liudprand of Cremona (d. 972), reflected upon these events. From the outset it should be asked: how were the fact the major, destructive raids by Muslims, Magyars and Vikings on Europe interpreted by Latin Christians during this period? Did they view the raids as a consequence of the internal divisions and disunity that had become characteristic of the former lands of the Carolingian Empire or as a manifestation of God’s wrath against the impiety of Christians in Italy and Francia?

Liudprand, the Bishop of Cremona, and one of the main contemporary sources for the raids of the Magyars and Muslims in Europe, provides a unique perspective on these questions. He presents the invasions of the Magyars and Muslims in a similar manner, as a consequence of the chaos and civil strife that had plagued Western Christendom since the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire. Liudprand also emphasizes that this lack of order has led many Christian lords (and commoners) to behave unjustly and act impiously. He views the Magyars and Muslims as divine punishment sent to chastise these Christians, and Christendom as a whole, for their sins. He blames both the “evil Christians” and “infidels” for the turmoil of his times, and throughout his narrative attempts to associate these two categories with one another in order to properly explain why these invasions have occurred. By narrating the history of these invasions, Liudprand not only provides a strong critique of the present reality, but also implicitly (at times, explicitly) asserts that only a powerful, just, and Christian sovereign, Emperor Otto I, would be able to defeat the invaders, regain divine favor, and restore unity and order to Latin Christendom. (more…)

The Expulsion of Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi (d. 1148) from Seville

One of the little-known historians of the late medieval Islamic West is undoubtedly Ismā‘īl ibn al-Aḥmar (d. 1407). He was a a member of the reigning Andalusī Nasrid dynasty in Granada who spent most of his life in Fez and the Marinid realm, due to his branch of the family’s loss of political influence following the rise to power of the Nasrid emir Yūsuf I (r. 1333–1354). He was an important scholar, court secretary, poet and historian in Fez and many of his works have survived, including the Buyūtāt Fās al-Kubrā (a short history of the various noble families and famous scholars of Fez), a section of which is translated below. At some point in the future, I will be writing a lot more on the fourteenth-century Islamic West and Ibn al-Aḥmar in particular, so for now let me turn to the specific passage presented below.

This short, translated passage is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. The figure of Abū Bakr ibn al-‘Arabī (d. 1148)–not to be confused with the later Muhyiddīn ibn ‘Arabī (d.1240)–who was a student of Abū Hāmid al-Ghazalī (d. 1111) and one of the most preeminent jurists of the Maliki school, was a very illustrious and important personality in the Islamic West, despite some of his more polarizing and controversial pro-Umayyad and anti-Alid views of early Islamic history. It is interesting how the text seeks to connect Ibn al-‘Arabī’s particular religio-historical perspective of the civil wars in early Islam with his tribal lineage’s traditional support for the Umayyads, both in the Levant and al-Andalus, suggesting that pro-Umayyad allegiance continued in some cases long after the fall of the dynasty in 1031. Among the most notable sections of the passage is the way that Ibn al-Ahmar seeks to convince his readers that the propagation of anti-Alid perspectives and crossing certain red lines surrounding the topic of the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī at Karbala was enough to lead to a major riot in Almohad Seville, probably the most significant political and cultural center in 12th-century al-Andalus. Moreover, it shows the ability of religious scholars, especially the newly-constituted class of Almohad ṭalaba, to mobilize the general populace by appealing to their pro-Alid religious sentiment. In fact, one could read Ibn al-Ahmar’s narrative as a reflection upon the attempts of the Almohads to supplant former Almoravid officials (represented by Ibn al-‘Arabi) and replace them with their own candidates (hence the reference to the ṭalaba).

This passage demonstrates that even in the fourteenth-century, two centuries after Ibn al-‘Arabī’s death, debate around Ibn al-‘Arabī—and particularly his most controversial work, al-‘Awāṣim min al-Qawāṣim—continued to rage fiercely, so much so that at one point a Marinid sultan even considered demolishing his tomb. However, as Ibn al-Ahmar argues, Ibn al-‘Arabī’s expulsion from Seville may have had as much to do with his supposedly ineffective administration and failure to gain the support of the populace as it did with a certain scholar’s utilization of key passages of al-‘Awāṣim min al-Qawāṣim to rile a mob up against him. It is important to recall that Ibn al-Ahmar’s narrative provides only one version of the events that transpired in 1147-1148 in Seville, with other narratives (written between 1148 and 1400) providing a (very) different view of events. In any case, I deemed this worth translating precisely because it adds a perspective on events that is largely unknown to most scholars and students of medieval al-Andalus and North Africa.

In general terms, this particular narrative of events could best be understood as the heightened pro-Alid sentiment of 14th-century Morocco being projected back in time to 12th-century Seville, with Ibn al-‘Arabī being cast as the antagonist within this narrative. While there is ample evidence that Ibn al-‘Arabī was opposed by a large number of Seville’s populace, had his house surrounded, books burnt and was forced to flee the city, it is less clear whether this was caused specifically by his anti-Alid and pro-Umayyad statements in the ‘Awāṣim min al-Qawāṣim. According to the Syrian historian al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), the opposition against Ibn al-‘Arabī was precipitated by certain, highly unpopular unilateral decisions taken by the qadi (specifically the decision to raise funds by confiscating animal skins), which his political opponents capitalized upon in order to turn the populace against him. It is most certainly possible that certain statements in the ‘Awāṣim min al-Qawāṣim played an important role in mobilizing the populace against him, but to my knowledge Ibn al-Ahmar is the only source to stress this explicitly. The value of the passage translated below largely lies in its providing some insight into Ibn al-‘Arabī’s legacy in a specific place (Marinid Fez) at a particular moment in time (late 14th century) rather than in providing accurate details about the series of events that led Ibn al-‘Arabī to leave his hometown of Seville for North Africa in the late 1140s.