Muslim Refugees in Medieval Malta (ca. 1463)? Mobility, Migration and the Muslim-Christian Frontier in the Mediterranean World

The following is an excerpt from my recent contribution to the Medieval Studies Research Blog, hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. It looks at an instance of economic migration from North Africa to Malta during the mid-15th century.

Cantino World Map, 1502.

As a modest contribution to a larger scholarly discussion about migration in the medieval world, this piece seeks to draw attention to one particular author, the Muslim traveler Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl (1440-1514), whose writings constitute a valuable source for the history of a late medieval Mediterranean world defined by mobility and migration. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ, a scholar and merchant, was born into a family of administrators and statesmen in Malatya, in eastern Anatolia. He traveled across Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Islamic Spain during the 15th century, and meticulously documented his experiences and observations in his monumental four volume work titled “The Joyous Garden: A Catalogue of the Events and Biographies of the Age” (al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim), written around 1483. The pleasant and cheerful title of the work, however, does not reflect its contents, which depicts a complex world that was defined by mass violence, political turmoil and social injustice, as well as by religious coexistence, trade and intellectual exchange. ‘Abd al-Bāsit also provides important evidence for migration that was shaped by economic and political necessity. Perhaps the most important example of this can be seen in two particular anecdotes about a small wave of migration from North Africa to the island of Malta:

“On Wednesday 4 Jumādā II 867/February 24 1463, news spread that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 60 in total, set sail on the Mediterranean and made for the Christian [lit: Frankish] island of Malta, in order to place themselves under their protection and power. They did this because they sought refuge from the oppression and injustice of the military commander Abū Naṣr [b. Jā’ al-Khayr], the governor of Tripoli appointed by the [Hafsid] ruler of Tunis [Abū ‘Amr] ‘Uthmān [r. 1435-1488], who seemed unconcerned and untroubled by this. Verily, there is no power or strength except by God![5]


“On Thursday 19 Ramadan 867/June 7 1463, we were informed that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 15 in total, sailed for the island of Malta in small boats, along with their families, children and elders in order to settle there under the protection and power of the Christians of the abode of war, in order to flee from the oppression and injustice of the governor of Tripoli. There came news from Malta that the Christians were welcoming, permitting them to settle and granting them land. The [Maltese] stipulated that [the migrants] would pay them as a land tax about one-third or slightly less, as they had been accustomed to paying to the governor of Tripoli, while being protected from injustice and secure in their lives and property. Verily, we are from God and unto him we will return!”[6]

Grazioso Benincasa, Portolan Chart, 1470.

Continue reading

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) Continue reading

Reflections on “Speaking without Knowledge” (17:36)

One of the most important Qur’anic injunctions (and one which is usually flaunted and ignored by many Muslims today) is the following: “And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge” or (alternatively translated) “Do not follow or accept that of which you have no knowledge” (17.36)

وَلا تَقْـفُ ما لَـيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْـمٌ

According to the great Qur’an commentator, Qatada (d. 735), the essential meaning of this verse is: “Do not say, `I have seen’, when you did not see anything, or `I have heard’, when you did not hear anything, or `I know’, when you do not know, for God Almighty will hold you accountable for all that.”
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

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) on the Conditions and Permissibility of Praying behind “Heterodox” Muslims

Taqī al-Dīn Abūl ‘Abbās ibn Taymīyya (d. 1328), the Damascene theologian and Ḥanbalī jurist, is perhaps one of the most controversial intellectual figures in Islamic history. The following is his fatwa in which he explains his reasoning for the permissibility of “orthodox” (Sunni) Muslims to pray behind “heretical” (mainly Shi’i) Muslims. I ask everyone to think beyond modern paradigms where intra-sectarian tolerance is accepted (however reluctantly) and remember that this fatwa was issued at a time when it was the norm for both Sunni and Shi’i scholars to mutually excommunicate one another and consider the others to be infidels. The fatwa, in many ways, exhibits an important practicality (and one which displays the flexibility of Islamic jurisprudence in general) that I think is worth reflecting on. Continue reading