The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is holding its annual conference, one of the largest gatherings of scholars working on the history of the greater Middle East and North Africa region from Late Antiquity to the present, in the amazing city of New Orleans this November. Based on the conference program (available here or here), it looks like a particularly good year to attend, with excellent panels covering a wide range of topics and chronologies.
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.
The reign of Roger II (r. 1130-1154), who had began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130, has long fascinated everyone interested in Mediterranean history. It marks a particularly significant period for the consolidation of Norman rule in both Sicily and southern Italy. Roger II instituted a strong royal administration, overcame various challenges to his authority (in the form of rebellions) and inaugurated an expansionist foreign policy that resulted in the incorporation of substantial territories in North Africa into his realm (discussed further here).
In addition to overseeing the transformation of the Norman kingdom into a Mediterranean power that controlled Sicily, southern Italy and parts of modern-day Tunisia and Libya, Roger II’s reign is also distinguished by his patronage of a courtly culture colored as much by Arab-Islamic and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) influences as by Latin Christian culture. This is unsurprising, given the rich Islamic and Eastern Roman history of Sicily in the preceding centuries. Indeed, the island’s large population of Christians, Muslims and Jews was predominantly Greek and Arabic speaking during the early 12th century. This variety of cultural influences and convergence of diverse communities is indicated by the distinctive culture of the Norman kingdom, perhaps best embodied by the wonderful architecture patronized and constructed by Roger II and his successors during the 12th century.
(Muqarnas in the Palatine Chapel/Cappella Palatina in Palermo, constructed between 1132 and 1180. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bautisterias/24595747119/)
There have been a number of works in recent years that have highlighted the close diplomatic relations and cultural exchange between England and Morocco during the early modern period. Although the relationship between the two monarchies varied considerably between 1570 and 1800, including both periods of friendship (as in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Aḥmad al-Manṣūr) and tensions/hostility, there was nevertheless a maintenance of commercial links and diplomacy throughout the entire period. As a result of this political context, Islam and Muslims were interwoven into the broader cultural history of early modern England just as European Christians were an integral part of the story of early modern Morocco. Among the treasures that have survived from this period that attest to the evolving mutual perceptions and representation of these societies are portraits of five Moroccan ambassadors who were tasked with securing trade agreements or political-military alliances between the 16th and 18th centuries. They were:
‘Abd al-Wāḥid ben Mas‘ūd ben Muḥammad al-Nūrī
‘Abd al-Wāḥid ben Mas‘ūd was sent as the ambassador of Aḥmad al-Manṣūr of Morocco (r. 1578–1603) to Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558–1603) in 1600–1601. He was formally tasked with securing a trade agreement, but it appears that he was also involved in negotiating a possible military allegiance between Morocco and England against Catholic Spain. The painting was completed around 1600 by an unknown artist and is preserved in the University of Birmingham.
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. 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.
(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.
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. 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.
So, what exactly happened to these princes? Continue reading
This is the second part of a previous post on the subject (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15-important-muslim-women-in-history/), 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. Continue reading
The following is excerpted from the monumental biographical dictionary entitled Siyar A‘lām al-Nubalā’ by the fourteenth-century Damascene historian and hadith expert Shams al-Dīn Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1348). It provides some insight into the reign of Abū’Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf ibn Hūd al-Judhamī (r. 625–635/1228–1238), an Andalusi emir who eventually established his control over much of al-Andalus in the early 13th century following the weakening of the Almohads. It describes the great hope in al-Andalus that accompanied his rise to power and the impact that the crushing defeat he suffered at the hands of Alfonso IX of León (r. 1188–1230) at Mérida had upon undermining his legitimacy. It ends with a short note about the rise of the Nasrids in Granada and an anecdote about Ibn Hūd’s nephew, the mystical philosopher Badr al-Dīn ibn Hūd (d. 700/1300), who al-Dhahabī claims to have met in Damascus.
The historical experience of Islam and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent spans nearly fourteen centuries. Throughout its long existence, Islam in India was shaped by various Arab, Persian, Turkic, Mongol, and indigenous dynasties, all of which inevitably influenced the religion as practiced and understood by its adherents in the Indian environment. Although dynastic military power and political dominance certainly played a significant role in the consolidation of Islam in India and provided the context in which the institutions, literature, and architecture of Islam in South Asia developed, any attempt to identify a distinctly Indian Islam must take into consideration the social context and the role of Islamic scholars and mystics in the medieval and early modern period. Although each phase of Islamic history in South Asia is important in its own right, it is the Mughal period (1526–1858) that witnessed the maturation of the social, political, and religious institutions of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. As a non-specialist in the history of Islam in South Asia, this piece is an attempt to think about trends occurring during the Mughal period, specifically during the years 1570–1620, within the broader context of early modern Islamic history.
Specifically, this post seeks to highlight the role of Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1624), popularly known as Mujaddid-i Alf-i Thānī, the Renewer of the Second Millennium, as an oppositional ‘ālim (religious scholar) during the reigns of the Mughal emperors Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammad Jahāngīr (r. 1605–1627). I argue that the environment of religious universalism in Mughal India, a concept rooted in the relativity of religious truth and the sulḥ-i kul (universal peace), nurtured by Akbār, prompted Sirhindī (and other ‘ulamā’) to aggressively undertake a program of radical reform to reverse these trends. For Sirhindī, a universalist environment, in which un-Islamic beliefs and practices were tolerated beyond the boundaries laid down by the sharī‘ah (Islamic law), and a situation in which the status of Muslims as a dominant community was diluted by laws which challenged the supremacy of Islam, was unacceptable and posed a direct threat to the sanctity of Islam and the preservation of the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to actively opposing Akbar’s universalist policies and the public manifestation of Hinduism (as well as the spread of Sikhism), Sirhindī was also deeply concerned with the rising power and influence of Shī‘ī Muslims and Shī‘ism in general within the Mughal court. For Sirhindī, the decline of the sharī‘ah’s dominance and the prominence of heresy and unbelief were closely linked, and represented the dire predicament in which Islamic “orthodoxy” found itself in Mughal India. “Orthodoxy,” an extremely loaded and problematic term to be sure, refers here to Sunni orthodoxy, defined as the legal-theological notion that the beliefs, practices and institutions of Sunni Islam provided the only legitimate basis for the social, religious, and political order and needed to be upheld by those in positions of authority. It is utilized here in order to refer specifically to those Sunni ‘ulamā’, such as Sirhindī, who believed that adherence to the sharī‘ah constituted the basic pillar of social and political legitimacy. In this context, it is important to remember that all schools of Islamic thought understood themselves, in some sense, as being the most Islamically authentic and orthodox form of the faith. This post is thus an exploration of this process of the definition, construction and defense of orthodoxy on the part of one Sunni scholar in late 16th and 17th-century Mughal India who viewed the integrity of the sharī‘ah (the very cornerstone of the legitimate order as far as he was concerned) being seriously threatened by the universalist atmosphere in the Mughal realm.
It is worth exploring this broader environment of universalism during the reigns of Akbar and Jahāngīr by highlighting the role of Shī‘ī Muslims in Mughal political, religious, and social life and by assessing Sirhindī’s reaction to this phenomenon. As such, I will be interpreting Sirhindīs stance vis-à-vis Shī‘ism within the larger context of his critique of the general religious atmosphere in late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century Mughal India. I argue that Sirhindī’s anti- Shī‘ī writings should not be understood as a mere reproduction of Sunnī polemics against Shī‘ism from the Nile to Oxus region, in the same vein as Ibn Taymiyyah’s Minhāj al-Sunnah or Ibn Ḥajar al-Haythamī’s al-Ṣawā‘iq al-Muḥriqah, but rather as one manifestation of his broader program of opposition to Akbarī universalism and an affirmation of (Sunni) orthodoxy within a distinctly Mughal Indian universalist environment. In this post, I will not include an in-depth analysis or translation of the text itself, but rather will seek to explore the broader contextual framework within which I think Sirhindī’s Radd-i Rawāfiẓ (‘The Epistle on the Refutation of the Rejectionists/Shī‘a’) can best be understood.
Following the conquest of most of al-Andalus by the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragón and Portugal during the thirteenth century, the Nasrid kingdom of Granada (1238–1492) was transformed from one post-Almohad Andalusī emirate among several into the last bastion of Islamic governance in Iberia. One of the many ways that the Nasrids sought to legitimize their rule was through a close alliance with the religious and educated classes, the ‘ulamā’ and the (Mālikī) fuqahā’. A significant number of the Andalusī refugees from places such as Cordoba, Sevilla, Murcia, Jaén, Valencia, and Xativa that settled in Granada (primarily in the Albayzīn district) following the Christian conquest of those cities belonged to these scholarly classes. Moreover, significant scholarly families (such as the Banū Juzayy) formed an important component of the local elites in both Granada and Málaga, the two most important cities in the Nasrid kingdom.
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