Library of Arabic Literature Blog: A Connected World: Exploring the Early Middle Ages with Ibn Faḍlān

The following is a short blogpost that I wrote on the Library of Arabic Literature’s blog about my experiences using Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga to teach about travel in the medieval world. The following is a short excerpt, and the full blog can be read here:

Travel was a central feature of the medieval world. Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, survival, or profit, the act of travel involved the travelers in larger processes of interaction and exchange between cultures and contributed to the diffusion of ideas between Europe, Africa, and Asia. These travelers’ surviving writings and accounts illuminate the realities of the medieval world and provide windows into the travelers’ own worldviews, providing students with the tools to question assumptions about a “clash of civilizations” and the supposed uniformity of either Latin Christendom or the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.

For the Early Middle Ages, in particular, an emphasis on interconnectedness, mobility, and exchange undermines and problematizes antiquated notions of “the Dark Ages.” This endeavor to better understand medieval travelers and their world has been facilitated by the translation and publication of medieval texts over the past several years, which has contributed to the emergence of the field of the “Global Middle Ages.” One such text is Mission to the Volga by Ibn Faḍlān, translated by James E. Montgomery, which I have used in courses with my students at Stony Brook University over the past two years.

The Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375, produced by Abraham and Jehudà Cresques in late fourteenth-century Majorca, provides a vision of a highly connected medieval world characterized by ethnic, cultural, and political diversity woven together through a web of trade routes and mercantile networks. The full manuscript has been digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France:

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The Commemoration of the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680) in al-Andalus

Despite over three centuries of Umayyad political rule in al-Andalus, during which pro-Alid sentiments were discouraged and (at times) outlawed, with ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib and his descendants sometimes being ritually cursed from the pulpits of the mosques, the Family of the Prophet (the Ahl al-Bayt)—which includes ‘Alī and his sons al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn—remained an important focal point for popular religious devotion among Andalusi Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. Putting aside the various pro-Alid and even Shī‘ī-inspired political movements in early medieval al-Andalus (about which I will write at a later date), much of the scholarly culture in al-Andalus within the fields of history, hadith, theology, mysticism and Qur’anic interpretation shared much in common with the broader Sunni world in considering ‘Alī (and his sons) one of the preeminent personalities of Islam whose proximity to the Prophet Muhammad and whose service to the faith deemed him worthy of major respect. Although Umayyad attempts to fabricate traditions and hadith favoring their family while condemning (or, at least, marginalizing) the Alids met with some success, it seems clear that the vast majority of Sunni scholars in al-Andalus maintained a considerable degree of respect for the Ahl al-Bayt. There were, of course, exceptions to this, such as the famous tenth-century, pro-Umayyad litterateur Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi (d. 940) excluding the names of ‘Alī and al-Ḥasan from the name of legitimate caliphs, listing Mu‘āwiyah b. Abī Sufyān as the fourth caliph instead; interestingly, he was strongly condemned for his doing so by several contemporaries, including none other than Mundhir b. Sa’īd al-Ballūṭī (d. 966), the chief judge of Córdoba under ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 912–961). Continue reading

Sarim al-Din Ibrahim b. Duqmaq (d. 1406) on Yazid b. Mu’awiya (d. 683)

Ṣārim al-Dīn Ibrāhīm b. Muhammad b. Duqmāq was a prominent Mamluk historian who was originally a Mamluk soldier in Egypt before abandoning a career in the military in order to pursue the study of Hanafi jurisprudence, Arabic literature, and history. According to both his contemporaries and later scholars, such as the historian al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442), Ibn Duqmāq authored over 200 books on history and was a fair, careful historian who emphasizes the importance of the authenticity and veracity of facts rather than merely emulating the works of previous historians. The following is drawn from one of his most important works, al-Jawhar al-Thamīn, which deals with the political history of the Islamic world from the time of the Prophet Muhammad to the Circassian Mamluk period.


The reign of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya

Yazīd was granted the caliphate after his father, in Rajab 60 A.H. [April 680 A.D.]. He sent one of his representatives to Medina to secure the oath of allegiance from al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī (may God be pleased with them) and ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Umar, but they refused and fled the city by night. ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Abbās accompanied them. It was said that ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr was in Mecca at the time and that many people had given him the oath of allegiance. Al-Ḥusayn had received various letters from the people of Kufa, and he had sent to them Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl, who was given the oath of allegiance [on behalf of al-Ḥusayn] in secret. When his matter was discovered in Kufa, he was killed by ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyād. At the beginning of 61 A.H. [October 680 A.D.], al-Ḥusayn set out [from Mecca] in the direction of Kufa but was intercepted by the troops of Ibn Ziyād, who killed him along with seventy two members of his household, including his children, his brothers, his cousins, and his companions. They also took the female members of his family captive. ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyād sent them along with the decapitated heads of those killed to Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya, who was in Damascus. Yazīd sent the captives to Medina. The head of al-Ḥusayn was placed on a lance, and this was the first time such a thing had been done in the history of Islam

During his reign, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Zubayr led a rebellion in Mecca and in 63 A.H. [683 A.D.] the people of Medina was the Battle of al-Ḥarra, in which the people of Medina expelled and killed the [Umayyad] governor ‘Uthmān [ibn Muhammad ibn Abū Sufyān] and expelled the Umayyads from the city. As a result, Yazīd sent an army led by Muslim ibn ‘Uqba al-Murrī. This military force massacred most of the population of Medina, including a group of illustrious Companions [of the Prophet], among whom were ‘Abd Allāh ibn Zayd, Mu‘ādh ibn al-Ḥārith, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Handhala, Ma‘qal ibn Sinān al-Ashja‘ī, Ḥumayd ibn Abī Khaythama, Yazīd ibn ‘Abd Allāh, Ibrāhīm ibn Nu‘aym and others. The troops then proceeded to plunder the city for three days. Yazīd’s reign also witnessed the shedding of blood in the Holy Sanctuary of God in Mecca, with the Ka‘ba being assaulted with fire during the war with Ibn al-Zubayr. Yazīd was the first ruler who had singing girls and drinking companions in his court and would sit upon a throne. In 64 A.H. [683 A.D.], the Ka‘ba was assaulted with catapults until its walls collapsed, and it was eleven days later that Yazīd died.”

[Ibn Duqmāq, al-Jawhar al-Thamīn fī Siyar al-Mulūk wa al-Salāṭīn (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2007), pp. 67–69]


Shihab al-Din al-Alusi (d. 1854) on Yazid b. Mu’awiya

Belong to a notable Iraqi family in nineteenth-century Baghdad, Shihāb al-Dīn Mahmūd al-Alūsī was a prominent Sunni reformist who wrote many important treatises on theological doctrine, jurisprudence, and exegesis. Among his most well-known works is his 30-volume exegesis of the Qur’an, entitled Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, in which he lays out many of his distinct and unique interpretations of specific verses. He traveled widely in his own time, famously writing a travel account about his trip to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. The following is derived from his exegetical work of the Qur’an, specifically his commentary on the following verse of the Qur’an: “Would you then, if you were granted authority, cause corruption upon the earth and break your ties of kinship?  It is these who are cursed by God, who has rendered them deaf and blind.” (Q. 47: 22-23).


I am inclined to believe that this accursed man [Yazīd] was not a believer in the message of the Prophet. Indeed, everything that he did to the people of Mecca, the people of Medina, and to the blessed and purified Family of the Prophet in their lives and after they had died, in addition to other reprehensible acts that he committed, are not the weakest proofs regarding his lack of belief. He had once gone so far as to place a manuscript from the blessed scripture in some dirt! I do not think that these things were unknown to the righteous Muslims of his time, but they were so severely oppressed that they were unable to do anything except be patient and let God’s decree be fulfilled. And if we accept that this accursed individual was indeed a Muslim, then he was a Muslim who committed all the major sins that one can possibly commit. As a result, I believe that it is permissible to explicitly curse him and those like him by name (even though it is difficult to fathom another individual committing as many sins as he). It is absolutely clear that he never expressed any repentance for his actions and the possibility that he did repent is even slimmer than the possibility that he was a believer to begin with. The same is true of Ibn Sa‘d, Ibn Ziyād and others. May the curse of God Almighty be upon them all until the Day of Resurrection and as long as the eye weeps for Abū ‘Abd Allāh al-Ḥusayn. May the curse of God also be upon their supporters, upon their followers, and those who showed a tendency to associate with them.

[al-Alūsī, Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī fī Tafsīr al-Qur’an al-‘Aẓīm (Cairo, 1927),   Volume 26, p. 73].


Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) on Yazid b. Mu’awiya (d. 683)

Born in Cordoba in the late tenth century, Abū Muhammad ‘Alī b. Ḥazm was perhaps one of the greatest Andalusi scholars of all time. He was a polymath who excelled in various sciences, including jurisprudence, history, Aristotelian philosophy, ethics, logic, physics, Qur’anic exegesis, theology, comparative religion, poetry and literature. Overall, he produced about 400 works, only 40 or so which survive today. He was a major proponent of the Zahiri school of jurisprudence, which often set him apart from the dominant Maliki establishment in al-Andalus and led to his persecution on several occasions. The following is drawn from one of his many epistles on early Islamic history in which he provides a short biographical entry for each of the caliphs. Although generally holding pro-Umayyad historical views—due to his family’s prominence as members of the Umayyad court in Cordoba—it is notable that this passage on Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya (r. 680–683) emphasizes not only the atrocities committed by this ruler, but devotes special attention to the murder of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (d. 680), whose death is considered by Ibn Ḥazm to be one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the faith. Continue reading

Ali Hujviri (d. 1077) on al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680)

‘Alī Hujvīrī was one of the greatest Persian mystics that the Islamic world has ever seen. A prominent Sunni Hanafi scholar and descended from both al-Ḥasan b. ‘Alī (d. 678) and al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (d. 680), he commanded deep respect from both his contemporaries and later Muslim scholars. His magnum opus, Kashf al-Mahjūb, was among the first treatises on Islamic mysticism to be composed in Persian. His tomb in Lahore continues to be one of the most celebrate Sufi shrines in South Asia. The following section is drawn from his Kashf al-Mahjūb.


“And among the Ahl al-Bayt is the shining light of the Family of Muḥammad, the Lord of his Age (sayyid zamānihi), Abū ‘Abd Allāh al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, may God be pleased with them both. He was from among the truthful saints and the beacon for the oppressed everywhere. He was murdered in the deserts of Karbala. All those adhering to our path are agreed that he was absolutely righteous in his cause because he was pursuing truth as long as it was manifest. And when truth faded away he unsheathed his sword in its cause and did not desist until he offered his blessed soul as a sacrifice and was martyred in the way of God.”

(‘Alī Hujvīrī, Kashf al-Maḥjūb [Cairo, 2007], Vol. 1, p. 277])


Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505) on the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680)

Jalāl al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. Abī Bakr al-Suyūṭī lived in Mamluk Egypt and was one of the most prolific scholars in Islamic history. He was an expert in hadith, language, theology, mysticism, jurisprudence, exegesis and history in addition to an array of other topics. Due to his mastery of a vast number of sciences and his authorship of hundreds of books (he apparently wrote over 550!), he was known as Ibn al-Kutub (“son of books”). He is considered a major authority in the Shafi’i school and is even widely considered by many to be the mujaddid (the Renewer of the Faith) of his time. He held various important offices and appointments throughout his life, including that of mufti. His works remain widely cited today and his authority is especially recognized in the fields of Qur’anic sciences and history. His historical chronicle of the lives of the caliphs, Tārikh al-Khulafā’, provides a continuous narrative of the political history of the institution of the caliphate from the death of the Prophet to the late fifteenth century. The following translation is taken from this work, particularly the section of his description of Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya’s period of governance, and reflects a developed Sunni narrative of his caliphate. In contrast to many other Sunni historians, al-Suyūṭī emphasizes supernatural occurrences, especially in the context of the aftermath of Karbala, and reads the events in question through a lens that is informed by Sunni theology and hadith narrations. Among the later-day Sunni narratives of Karbala, al-Suyūṭī’s is by far the most comprehensive and detailed. Considering the degree of his authority in the Sunni tradition and as a historian of the medieval Islamic world, this is most certainly a narrative of Karbala that should strongly inform the modern reader’s understanding of the medieval Sunni perspective of both Yazīd and al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī. Continue reading

Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi’i (d. 820) on the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680)

As the eponymous founder of the Shafi’i school of law, Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfi‘ī is perhaps the most influential jurist in the entire history of the Islamic world. His work on legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh) was revolutionary and played a major role in the development of Sunni jurisprudence. Among his most important teachers was Mālik b. Anas (d. 795), the eponymous founder of the Maliki school who was himself a student of Ja‘far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq (d. 765), the sixth Shi‘i Imam. His love and attachment to the Family of the Prophet was well-known even in his own lifetime and is particularly evident in his poetry. He was accused by several of his contemporaries of being a Shi’ite, something that he flatly denied but without backing away from his devotion to the Family of the Prophet: “They say that I have become a Shi’ite. By God, I have not! I am neither a Shi’ite nor do I believe in its doctrine. But I have unhesitatingly taken as my supreme authority and my leader the best of Imams and the best of guides (i.e. ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib). If Shi’ism consists of the love of ‘Alī, then I am the staunchest Shi’ite on earth!” The following is another example of al-Shāfi‘ī’s commitment to the Ahl al-Bayt and their cause. It can easily be found within various editions of al-Shāfi‘ī’s collection of poetry. Continue reading

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 936) on Karbala

The eponymous founder of perhaps the most important school of Sunni theology, Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ash‘arī (d. 936) was one of the most influential scholars in medieval Islamic history. He was very well versed in Mu‘tazalite theology and philosophy, but abandoned that school of thought later in his life. His greatest contribution was the formulation of theological principles that would form the core of Sunni orthodoxy and his school of thought—Ash‘arism—was promoted by some of the most important scholars in the Sunni tradition, including Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1086), Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209) among others. The following section which focuses on the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (d. 680) is drawn from his main work entitled Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn which deals with various historical and theological questions. It reflects the acceptance by a major Sunni scholar in the early tenth century of the key elements of the basic “Karbala narrative” which would be elaborated upon in subsequent centuries by various scholars and historians from all schools of thought.


Al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī (may God be pleased with him) rebelled in defiance of the oppression of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya and was killed at Karbala. May God be pleased with him! His story is very well known. He was killed by ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d, who had been sent to fight [al-Ḥusayn] by ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyād. The head of al-Ḥusayn was carried to Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya, who—upon having the head between his hands—poked the lips—the same lips that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to kiss—with his staff. Al-Ḥusayn’s children, his daughters and the women of his household were also brought to Yazīd. Those from the Prophet’s family who were killed with al-Ḥusayn included his son ‘Alī al-Akbar and the sons of his brother al-Ḥasan: ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Ḥasan, al-Qāsim ibn al-Ḥasan and Abū Bakr ibn al-Ḥasan. From among his brothers were killed al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī, ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Alī, Ja‘far ibn ‘Alī, ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Alī, Abū Bakr ibn ‘Alī, Muhammad ibn ‘Alī (also known as Muhammad al-Asghar). From among the descendants of Ja‘far ibn Abī Ṭālib who were killed were Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ja‘far and ‘Awn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ja‘far. From the sons of ‘Aqīl ibn Abī Ṭālib who were killed were ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Aqīl, Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl who was killed in Kufa, ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn ‘Aqīl, Ja‘far ibn ‘Aqīl and ‘Abd Allāh ibn Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl. [al-Ash‘arī then includes three Arabic laments for al-Ḥusayn by three poets: Ibn Abī Ramh al-Khuzā‘ī, Manṣūr al-Nimirī, and Di‘bal al-Khuzā‘ī].

[al-Ash‘arī, Maqālat al-Islāmiyyīn (Beirut: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 2009), 1: 76–78]


Abu Hasan al-Tabari (d. 1110) on Yazid b. Mu’awiya (d. 683)

Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Tabarī, known as Al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī, was an important Iranian Shafi’i jurist and Ash’ari theologian who lived in the early Seljuk period. He was one of the most prominent students of Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), with whom he studied in Nishapur. He held the position of chief judge during the reign of Malik-Shah (r. 1072–1092) and was one of the most important professors at the Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad, the most prestigious learning institution in the Sunni Muslim world. In addition to being a prominent jurist and a senior theologian, he was also a master of prophetic traditions (hadith) and many of the most prominent muhaddithun of Baghdad studied under him. The following fatwa that he issued against Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya is preserved by Ibn Khallikān (d. 1282) in his Wafayāt al-A‘yān (Biographies of the Notables). Ibn Khallikan was himself a Shafi’i jurist and historian from Irbil in Mesopotamia. As a young man, he studied in Aleppo and Damascus and met the renowned historian and chronicler Ibn al-Athir (d. 1233). He served as chief judge (qādī al-qudāt) of the Shafi’i madhab in Damascus during the Mamluk period. His famous aforementioned work is a monumental biographical dictionary which contains invaluable information about hundreds of Muslim scholars, princes, and poets. It also preserves many important documents—fatwas, epistles, poems etc.—which would otherwise have been lost to the modern historian. The following fatwa, in which Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Tabarī, gives a short answer to a question about the permissibility of cursing Yazīd, is one such document. Continue reading