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Sectarianism and Violence in 11th-c. North Africa: The Anti-Isma’ili Massacre of 1016

In Summer 407 AH/1016 AD, a massive pogrom targeting Isma’ili Shi’i Muslims erupted in Ifrīqiyah, a province of the Fatimid caliphate ruled by the Zirid dynasty and consisting of the territories of modern-day Tunisia, western Libya and eastern Algeria. Following their move to Egypt in the late 10th century, the Fatimid caliphs had appointed the Zirids, a dynasty of Sanhaja Berbers, as their governors and deputies in North Africa. Despite occasional outbreaks of violence, for much of the 10th century, there had been a delicate, albeit uneasy, coexistence between the various Muslim communities in Ifrīqiyah (Isma’ili Shi’is, Hanafis, Malikis, and Ibadis). The pogrom of 1016 was therefore a cataclysmic event that shattered this heterogeneous society.



(Fatimid caliphate at its greatest extent)


An Andalusi Mudéjar in 14th-c. Constantinople: The Travels of Ibn al-Sabbah

The following is a short translation of a short section of ‘Abd Allāh b. al-Sabbāḥ’s Nisbah al-Akhbār wa Taẓkirat al-Akhyār. Very little is known about the author apart from the fact that he was an Andalusī Muslim from Sharq al-Andalus, i.e the territory in eastern Iberia under the dominion of the Crown of Aragón. He was born at some point in the mid to late fourteenth century into a family of Mudéjars, a community of Muslims living under non-Muslim rule. At a young age, Ibn al-Sabbāḥ set out on his long journey to the East. His travels took him across Iberia to Nasrid Granada, Marinid Morocco, Hafsid Tunis, Mamluk Egypt, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Yemen, Syria, the Ottoman and Byzantine domains, as well as parts of Central Asia and Iran. He apparently returned to the Islamic West (although there remains a difference of opinion as to whether he returned to al-Andalus itself) early in the fifteenth century and wrote his travelogue shortly thereafter.

The text is unique because it provides historians with a detailed travel account by a 14th/15th-century Mudéjar from the Crown of Aragón and, thus, provides some insight into how an individual from this community perceived the various developments, institutions and personalities throughout the Islamic world. It also represents a perspective of the broader Islamic world by an Andalusī Muslim, who often sought to stress the relative military might of other Islamic dynasties vis-à-vis the Christian West in order to contrast it with the relative weakness of the dynasties in the Islamic West and the rather precarious position of Muslims in al-Andalus. Due to the nature of medieval travel accounts, it is of course impossible to verify with any certainty the specific details or claims made by Ibn al-Sabbāḥ in the text, but it nevertheless has important value in illuminating the worldview of a late medieval Mudéjar.

The section I have translated below deals with Ibn al-Sabbāḥ’s travels in Byzantine and Ottoman lands in the late fourteenth century, where (according to his account) he spent four years of his life. The reader will note how the text abounds with basic factual errors, myths and inaccuracies, underscoring the author’s lack of knowledge regarding the specific political history of that region. An illustrative example is his emphasis on the marriage alliance between the Kantakouzenos emperors and the Ottoman house. Ibn al-Sabbāḥ points out that the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347–1354) married his sister Theodora Kantakouzene (d. after 1381) to the Ottoman sultan Orhan (r. 1326–1362); in fact Theodora was John’s daughter (although the confusion may stem from the fact that her brother also became emperor shortly thereafter). Moreover, Ibn al-Sabbāḥ does not realize that Theodora was not the mother of Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389). Rather, the latter was the son of Nilüfer Hatun (d. 1383), the daughter of a prominent Byzantine commander but not related to the Kantakouzenos family . Ibn al-Sabbāḥ’s knowledge of Byzantine imperial history is also lacking as he erroneously claims that the current ruling dynasty was descended from Heraclius (r. 610–641). The same lack of knowledge underpins his strange claim that the Ottoman royal family was descended from the Abbasids, a statement perhaps derived from a local legend in one of the many lands that he visited throughout his travels. At times, he even makes basic mistakes about early Islamic history, wrongly placing the first Arab siege of Constantinople (674) during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik b, Marwān.

As with many travel accounts, its usefulness to the historian is in its author’s specific interactions in the lands they visited. As such, the account about Ibn al-Sabbāḥ’s visit to the Hagia Sophia and his admiration for the relics and icon in that basilica demonstrate the genuine curiosity of this Andalusī traveler for the new lands that he visited. It is through this specific anecdote that the reader also discovers that Ibn al-Sabbāḥ was fluent in Catalan and (apparently) understood some Italian, thus giving us additional insight into interpersonal interactions in the Mediterranean world of the 14th and 15th centuries.


Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani’s Biography of Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406)

The following is my own translation of the biography of the renowned Andalusī-North African historian ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) which was written by Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (d. 856/1449) in the early 15th century. Ibn Ḥajar was a leading 15th-century Shāfi’ī scholar who authored dozens of works about Islamic law, theology, history, and biography. In addition, he was an important official of state in Mamluk Egypt, holding the post of Chief Justice (qādī) several times. This biography of Ibn Khaldūn, whom he met when he was a young man, is drawn from Raf‘ al-Iṣr ‘an Qudāt Miṣr, his biographical work about the various individuals appointed to the office of judge in medieval Egypt.

Decidedly hostile, the account reflects Ibn Ḥajar’s strong opinions about Ibn Khaldūn, whose polarizing personality and actions had earned him many enemies in North Africa and Egypt, including many of Ibn Ḥajar’s own teachers. Far from being recognized as an outstanding scholar and brilliant intellectual, Ibn Ḥajar’s account illustrates that Ibn Khaldūn was not particularly highly esteemed by certain portions of the scholarly establishment. Despite the polemical nature of the text, it is an important source since it does serve as an important counterbalance to more favorable and panegyrical biographical narratives of Ibn Khaldūn provided by his students, such as Taqī al-Dīn al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442), or his own autobiography. It gives historians some important insight into Ibn Khaldūn’s legacy among a particular group of leading scholars (al-Bishbīshī, Ibn Ḥajar, al-Sakhawī and their students/colleagues) in 15th-century Egypt.  Moreover, the text also alllows scholars to better appreciate the manner in which hostility and prejudice towards particular individuals could be transmitted from teacher to student, which is abundantly clear in the particular case of Ibn Ḥajar, whose views on Ibn Khaldūn would heavily shape the manner in which his own student, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Sakhāwī (d. 902/1497). The final section of the biography, in which Ibn Ḥajar, rather bizarrely, accuses Ibn Khaldūn of legitimizing Fatimid genealogical claims as part of a broader scheme to delegitimize the Family of the Prophet reflects most clearly Ibn Ḥajar’s deep-seated hostility towards Ibn Khaldūn. While keeping in mind the particular socio-political, personal and intellectual context that informed Ibn Ḥajar’s opinions, his biography of the historian remains among the most important contemporary sources for Ibn Khaldūn’s life.


Michael Kritovolous of Imbros (d. 1470) on the Fall of Constantinople (1453)

The Ottoman Turks were originally based in western Anatolia and had risen to prominence as a frontier principality on the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire during the thirteenth and fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Ottoman sultanate had conquered much of Anatolia, Greece, Thrace, and the Slavic-speaking regions south of the Danube; in effect, they had replaced the Byzantine Empire as the dominant power in the Balkans and the Aegean. The culmination of Ottoman expansion in southeastern Europe was the conquest of Constantinople on May 29th 1453, which was accomplished after a fifty-four-day siege by Sultan Mehmed II (r.1451–1481), known as “the Conqueror” following his capture of the Byzantine capital.


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Bibliography of Translated Texts from Medieval/Early Modern Iberia and North Africa

This post is a non-exhaustive list of texts and documents from medieval/early modern Iberia and North Africa (covering roughly the period 500-1700) that have been translated into English. The list will be updated regularly with additional titles and is intended to serve as a resource for those interested in learning more about medieval Iberia but who may lack the necessary languages to access the original sources. Please let me know if you have any recommendations to add to the list. (more…)

‘Ayn al-Qudat Hamadhani: Intellectual, Mystic and Martyr

One of the many overlooked figures of the pre-modern Islamic tradition is Abū al-Ma’ālī ‘Abd Allāh b. Abī Bakr (d. 525/1131), better known as ‘Ayn al-Quḍāt Ḥamadhānī. Born in Hamadhan in Seljuk Iran around 490/1098 to a family of prominent Shāfi’ī scholars, by the age of 20 he had mastered Arabic, Persian, jurisprudence, ḥadīth, Qur’ān, poetry, kalām (dialectical theology), philosophy and various strands of mystical thought. A student of Aḥmad al-Ghazālī (d. 520/1126), the brother of the great theologian Abū Hāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī), he became an eminent scholar and mystic in his own right, composing various works in both Persian and Arabic, the most important of which were Tamhīdāt and the Zubdat al-Haqāʾiq fī Kashf al-Khalāʾiq. Much of his mystical philosophy was focused on the concept of divine love.


20 Influential Medieval/Early Modern Muslim Women

This is the second part of a previous post on the subject (, which sought to highlight the important role of women in the influencing the political, social, intellectual and military developments in the Islamic world during the medieval and early modern era. This post, like the previous one, is an attempt to introduce readers to the names of a few women who made their mark in Islamic (and world) history while providing a few sources for those interested in learning more about each.  (more…)