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.

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Famous Historical Muslims of Hellenic/Greek Origin

Islamic civilization currently encompasses every major culture, ethnicity, race, and language on the planet. The pages of Islamic history are filled with the emergence of many different ethno-linguistic groups, from regions as far apart as West Africa and Central Asia, as important political and cultural forces, which greatly impacted the direction of Islamic civilization. Unfortunately, despite this reality, Muslim history has often been presented as a series of accomplishments revolving around Arabs, Persians, and Turks, to the exclusion of all other groups. The rich histories of hundreds of Muslim ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups have too often been overlooked or overshadowed by this mistaken approach towards Muslim history which has identified Muslim history with a very specific cultural and geographic context.

One particular group of Muslims that has played an important role within Islamic civilization as scholars, administrators and warriors have been Hellenes/Greeks. While the many contributions of Greek Christians to medieval and early modern Islamic/Islamicate/Middle Eastern civilization have been highlighted, especially in the context of intellectual exchange and the transmission of philosophical/medical knowledge, the history of Greek Muslims is all but unknown to most people. Greek, in the context of this post, is not meant in any ethno-nationalistic sense, but is intended to signify individuals or groups who belonged to lands and cultures where Hellenic languages and civilization predominated, whether 9th-century Sicily, 13th-century Anatolia, or the 19th-century Aegean. A variety of processes—ranging from enslavement and conquest to voluntary conversion and political opportunism—contributed to the integration of many Greeks into Islamic civilization from the seventh century to the present.

The following are only a handful of some of the most famous names of countless Greek Muslims who played an important role throughout Islamic history. As one will notice, a large number of the names come from the Ottoman period. This is largely due to the fact that there are far more historically-documented cases of Muslims of Greek descent during the period of Ottoman rule in western Anatolia and south-eastern Europe (areas where Greek speakers were concentrated most heavily) than there are for earlier periods of Islamic history. Significantly, many of the Greek Muslim men and women listed below who played an important role within this empire were a product of the devşirme system, which was one of the key aspects of the Ottoman imperial system during the pre-modern period. From the fifteenth century onwards, there was a major effort on the part of the Ottomans to lessen their reliance upon traditional military and political elites and concentrate power instead in the hands of those who had passed through the devşirme system. At a later date, I plan on providing some more concrete thoughts on the devşirme system, slavery and society in the pre-modern Islamic world. For now, however, I have attached a list of further reading below (feel free to recommend additional works) for those serious about learning more about the interrelationship between slavery, social mobility and socio-political developments in Islamic history. Continue reading