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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.

 

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(Fatimid caliphate at its greatest extent)

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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.

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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.

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Important Assassinations in Medieval and Early Modern Islamic History: A Short List

This (very short) piece is inspired by an interesting article on Medievalists.net (http://www.medievalists.net/2015/07/05/top-10-medieval-assassinations/) that looked at various high-profile assassinations in Europe during the Middle Ages. As in European history, so too in Islamic history many high-profile leaders and political figures met their demise as a result of an assassin’s blade (or poison!). The following are just some of the most significant victims of assassination between roughly 640 and 1810:

[For the sake of brevity, I have decided to keep each entry short since much more details can easily be found in various articles and books about each figure. If anyone is interested in any particular individual or would like a source reference, leave a comment below and I’ll provide additional information] (more…)

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. (more…)