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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Wisdom from Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Rida (d. 818): On the Perfection of the Intellect

‘Alī ibn Mūsa al-Riḑa (d. 818), a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his grandson al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, is recognized as the eighth Imam within the Twelver Shī‘ī tradition and is also highly revered within the Sunni tradition. The following is a translation of one of the many pieces of wisdom attributed to him. This specific passage is preserved within the Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl of the 10th-century scholar al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAli ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn Shuʿba al-Ḥarrānī (d. after 991 A.D.).

(Late 19th-century photo of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran) (more…)

Ahmad Sirhindī, Akbari Universalism and Islamic Orthodoxy in 16th/17th c. Mughal India

The historical experience of Islam and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent spans nearly fourteen centuries. Throughout its long existence, Islam in India was shaped by various Arab, Persian, Turkic, Mongol, and indigenous dynasties, all of which inevitably influenced the religion as practiced and understood by its adherents in the Indian environment. Although dynastic military power and political dominance certainly played a significant role in the consolidation of Islam in India and provided the context in which the institutions, literature, and architecture of Islam in South Asia developed, any attempt to identify a distinctly Indian Islam must take into consideration the social context and the role of Islamic scholars and mystics in the medieval and early modern period. Although each phase of Islamic history in South Asia is important in its own right, it is the Mughal period (1526–1858) that witnessed the maturation of the social, political, and religious institutions of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. As a non-specialist in the history of Islam in South Asia, this piece is an attempt to think about trends occurring during the Mughal period, specifically during the years 1570–1620, within the broader context of early modern Islamic history.

Specifically, this post seeks to highlight the role of Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1624), popularly known as Mujaddid-i Alf-i Thānī, the Renewer of the Second Millennium, as an oppositional ‘ālim (religious scholar) during the reigns of the Mughal emperors Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammad Jahāngīr (r. 1605–1627). I argue that the environment of religious universalism in Mughal India, a concept rooted in the relativity of religious truth and the sulḥ-i kul (universal peace), nurtured by Akbār, prompted Sirhindī (and other ‘ulamā’) to aggressively undertake a program of radical reform to reverse these trends. For Sirhindī, a universalist environment, in which un-Islamic beliefs and practices were tolerated beyond the boundaries laid down by the sharī‘ah (Islamic law), and a situation in which the status of Muslims as a dominant community was diluted by laws which challenged the supremacy of Islam, was unacceptable and posed a direct threat to the sanctity of Islam and the preservation of the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to actively opposing Akbar’s universalist policies and the public manifestation of Hinduism (as well as the spread of Sikhism), Sirhindī was also deeply concerned with the rising power and influence of Shī‘ī Muslims and Shī‘ism in general within the Mughal court. For Sirhindī, the decline of the sharī‘ah’s dominance and the prominence of heresy and unbelief were closely linked, and represented the dire predicament in which Islamic “orthodoxy” found itself in Mughal India. “Orthodoxy,” an extremely loaded and problematic term to be sure, refers here to Sunni orthodoxy, defined as the legal-theological notion that the beliefs, practices and institutions of Sunni Islam provided the only legitimate basis for the social, religious, and political order and needed to be upheld by those in positions of authority. It is utilized here in order to refer specifically to those Sunni ‘ulamā’, such as Sirhindī, who believed that adherence to the sharī‘ah constituted the basic pillar of social and political legitimacy. In this context, it is important to remember that all schools of Islamic thought understood themselves, in some sense, as being the most Islamically authentic and orthodox form of the faith. This post is thus an exploration of this process of the definition, construction and defense of orthodoxy on the part of one Sunni scholar in late 16th and 17th-century Mughal India who viewed the integrity of the sharī‘ah (the very cornerstone of the legitimate order as far as he was concerned) being seriously threatened by the universalist atmosphere in the Mughal realm.

It is worth exploring this broader environment of universalism during the reigns of Akbar and Jahāngīr by highlighting the role of Shī‘ī Muslims in Mughal political, religious, and social life and by assessing Sirhindī’s reaction to this phenomenon. As such, I will be interpreting Sirhindīs stance vis-à-vis Shī‘ism within the larger context of his critique of the general religious atmosphere in late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century Mughal India. I argue that Sirhindī’s anti- Shī‘ī writings should not be understood as a mere reproduction of Sunnī polemics against Shī‘ism from the Nile to Oxus region, in the same vein as Ibn Taymiyyah’s Minhāj al-Sunnah or Ibn Ḥajar al-Haythamī’s al-Ṣawā‘iq al-Muḥriqah, but rather as one manifestation of his broader program of opposition to Akbarī universalism and an affirmation of (Sunni) orthodoxy within a distinctly Mughal Indian universalist environment.[1] In this post, I will not include an in-depth analysis or translation of the text itself, but rather will seek to explore the broader contextual framework within which I think Sirhindī’s Radd-i Rawāfiẓ (‘The Epistle on the Refutation of the Rejectionists/Shī‘a’) can best be understood.[2]

Al-Madrasa al-Yusufiyya in Granada: Knowledge and Power in 14th- & 15th-century al-Andalus

Following the conquest of most of al-Andalus by the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragón and Portugal during the thirteenth century, the Nasrid kingdom of Granada (1238–1492) was transformed from one post-Almohad Andalusī emirate among several into the last bastion of Islamic governance in Iberia. One of the many ways that the Nasrids sought to legitimize their rule was through a close alliance with the religious and educated classes, the ‘ulamā’ and the (Mālikī) fuqahā’. A significant number of the Andalusī refugees from places such as Cordoba, Sevilla, Murcia, Jaén, Valencia, and Xativa that settled in Granada (primarily in the Albayzīn district) following the Christian conquest of those cities belonged to these scholarly classes. Moreover, significant scholarly families (such as the Būnnāhī/Nubāhī and Banū Juzayy families) formed an important component of the local elites in both Granada and Málaga, the two most important cities in the Nasrid kingdom.


Notes on Identity in the Medieval Islamic World

The “medieval Islamic world” is a difficult concept to define. Traditionally, scholars have used the phrase dār al-Islām (literally the “Abode of Islam”) to denote the lands under Muslim rule or, alternatively, the lands in which Muslim institutions were maintained. In the dār al-Islām, we are told, borders were porous and freedom of movement was expected for all Muslims to such a degree that, in theory, one could travel from Iberia to the foothills of the Himalayas largely unimpeded. Most significantly, within the dār al-Islām, religious identity (Muslim vs. non-Muslim) was—in theory—a far more important defining marker than any concept of race, class or ethnicity. As such, in many ways the term dār al-Islām designates a cultural or religious unity (or an idealized notion of that unity) rather than a unified political entity. Dār al-Islām was usually defined in explicit contradistinction to the dār al-harb (literally “the abode of war”), denoting the region where non-Muslims ruled. According to various Islamic political theorists and jurists in the Middle Ages, it was the objective of Muslims to bring the dār al-harb within the sphere of dār al-Islām. The instrument through which this would be accomplished was either jihad (military expansion) or da‘wa (missionary activity).

This framework for understanding medieval Islamic history certainly mirrors the understanding of medieval Muslim historians, jurists, geographers and political thinkers. However, the reference to the medieval Islamic world through the (Islamic) juristic construction of “dār al-Islām,” while certainly important to understand, is unsatisfactory for the modern historian for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it fails to take into account that for the greater part of the medieval period many of the lands designated as “Islamic lands” were, in fact, populated by significant communities (or majorities, in some regions) of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others. The utilization of “dār al-Islām” generally ignores the presence, institutions, contributions and significance of these communities. Another reason for the inadequacy of the term is that it enforces the theoretical notion that religious identity was the supreme defining marker of the regions being discussed while ignoring the increasing important of sectarian, social, cultural and linguistic identity. While most certainly important as an idealized notion among Muslims, the notion of the “ummah” is not the most useful analytical category for a historian seeking to understand the diversity of the medieval world. In any case, this remains an open question for me and the utilization of the phrase “medieval Islamic world” is not necessarily more satisfactory than the traditional framework nor do I view the term “Islamicate” as a particularly significant improvement.