“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” Exhibit (Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University)

About two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” exhibit at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. It was a truly wonderful experience and the curator Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock should be congratulated on such a monumental achievement. As many observers have noted, this is the first major exhibition in the United States to closely consider the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to offer strong evidence of the central but little-recognized role Africa played in global medieval history. Among the materials on view are sculptures, jewelry, household and luxury objects, manuscripts and architectural remnants, all united by their connections to routes of exchange across the Sahara from the eighth to the 16th centuries. The exhibit includes an excellent collection of treasures and artifacts from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East & Europe from late antiquity to the 20th century. It showcases the immense importance of trans-Saharan Africa as a pivotal part of the medieval world, and embodies the heart of the interconnected universe that many scholars are increasingly referring to as the Global Middle Ages. Weaving together art, archaeology, cartography history and literature to tell the story of an economically-vibrant and culturally-diverse medieval Africa, the exhibit has received an overwhelmingly positive reception, with one reviewer stating that

“Caravans of Gold” creates new points of reference by not only reveling in the beauty of the objects but also introducing viewers to the idea of a vibrantly interconnected global culture, including the sophisticated social, political, cultural, and economic systems of West Africa. So much of Africa’s relationship to Europe has involved defamation, appropriation, and control. Narratives highlighting the agency of West African people in the medieval period allow for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich history, cultures, and contributions to the evolution of global trade and culture. “Caravans of Gold” is an important gesture in helping people understand that Africa has always been connected to the world and can share its story on its own terms.

Another reviewer observes that the exhibit

doesn’t aim for less than decentering the idea that the medieval epoch should only be envisioned through a European lens, which are typically stories of feudalism, war, chivalry, and the Bubonic plague. These European sagas are the ones I grew up with, saw dramatized on television, and valorized in film. Caravans of Gold also seeks to put Islam at this reconstructed world’s fulcrum and regard it as a force which impelled cultural advance, rather than to associate it with iconoclastic destruction of historical patrimony — stories we know too well. Even more, it subtly raises up the entire African continent, which becomes through this retelling, a force of profound socioeconomic change at the global level.

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The Last Almohads? Two Descendants of the Almohad Caliphs in 14th-c. Nasrid Granada

The Almohads (r. 1121–1269) were the first (and last) Muslim dynasty to politically unify the entirety of Islamic Spain and North Africa since the Umayyad conquest of the region in the 7th and 8th centuries.[1] The Almohads, whose name (al-Muwaḥḥidūn) literally means “those who affirm the unicity of God,” were a religio-political movement rooted in the theological and legal principles preached by Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), referred to by his followers as the Mahdi, to the Berber tribes of the High Atlas Mountains.[2]
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(Mosque of Ibn Tūmart , High Atlas Mountains)

The founder of the Almohad dynasty was ‘Abd al-Mu’min b. ‘Alī al-Kūmī (r. 1130–1163), an early and close follower of Ibn Tūmart, who proclaimed himself caliph (amīr al-mu’minīn) in 1130, went on to conquer large swathes of North Africa and Spain, destroying the Almoravid polity, and establishing the Almohad empire, which dominated the region until the early 13th century.

Almohad_Expansion

Following the decline of Almohad power during the early 7th/13th century, between roughly 617/1220 and 669/1270, four successor states emerged in the lands formerly ruled by this dynasty: the Marinids (r. 1244–1465) in Fez, the Nasrids (r. 1232–1492) in Granada, the Zayyanids (r. 1235–1556) in Tlemcen, and the Hafsids (r. 1229–1574) in Tunis.[3] Another successor kingdom, that of the Banū Hūd, also emerged and was based in Murcia but was short-lived. Although Almohad sovereign rule was finally ended by the Marinid conquest of Marrakech in 1269, with the Hafsids of Tunis and the Hintātah tribes of the High Atlas Mountains continuing to claim the mantle of Almohad ideology, there were a large number of descendants of ‘Abd al-Mu’min who remained in North Africa, including the children and grandchildren of former Almohad caliphs.

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27 Prominent Medieval Andalusi Women

The following biographies of medieval Andalusi women are drawn from the Kitāb al-Ṣilah of Ibn Bashkuwal (d. 1183), the Takmilat Kitāb al-Ṣilah by Ibn al-Abbar (d. 1260), and the Kitāb Ṣilat al-Ṣila by Ibn al-Zubayr (d. 1308). They include women from various classes of society and different regions of al-Andalus who participated in scholarship and learning between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. These biographical works and accounts provide important insight into the social and intellectual history of al-Andalus and allow modern scholars to better understand the role of Andalusi women in the transmission of knowledge during the Middle Ages.

 


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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.

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