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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Michael Kritovoulos 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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20 Influential Medieval/Early Modern Muslim Women

This is the second part of a previous post on the subject (, 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

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

The Royal Edict of Expulsion (1609) and the Last Andalusi Muslims (“Moriscos”) of Spain

Historical Background

Following the forcible conversion of the Andalusī Muslims of Granada in 1501 (which I have described elsewhere ), similar edicts of conversion were promulgated that forced the Muslims populations of Castile (1502), Navarre (1515) and the Crown of Aragón (1526) to convert to Christianity, thereby criminalizing Islam as a public religion in the Iberian peninsula for the first time in 800 years. The new population of New Christians, as they were called, were referred to (derogatorily) as Moriscos. The Spanish government as well as the Church and Inquisition threatened any who continued to adhere to Islam—in any shape or form—with the death penalty, which usually meant being burned at the stake.

Image(Panels showing the Conversion of the Muslims of Granada in 1501, Altar, Royal Chapel, Granada) Continue reading

Castilian “Reconquista,” Ottoman Expansion and the Christianization of al-Andalus

Since its initial conquest by Arab and Berber armies in 711–715, most of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) had been under Umayyad Muslim political control between 756 and 1031.[1] Following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, however, al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled portions of Iberia, had disintegrated into over two dozen emirates, known as taifas.[2]

This fragmentation and weakening of Muslim political authority facilitated the rise of the northern Christian powers of Portugal, Navarre, Castile, León, and Aragón. Attempts by local (Andalusi) and foreign (“Berber” Almoravid, Almohad and Marinid) dynasties to resist the southward expansion of these Christian kingdoms ultimately failed, and the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, ending in an overwhelming defeat for the Muslims at the hands of a Christian coalition, sealed the fate of most of al-Andalus.[3] Beginning in the eleventh century, Castile and Aragón in particular had capitalized on the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba and succeeded in conquering major Andalūsī cities such as Toledo in 1085, Zaragoza in 1118, Lisbon in 1147, Cuenca in 1177, Majorca and Badajoz in 1230, Cordoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Jaén in 1246, and Seville in 1248, Algeciras in 1344, Antequera in 1410 and Gibraltar in 1462.[4]

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Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747): A Short Overview of the Career of an 18th-Century Iranian Conqueror

Perhaps one of the most significant rulers of Iran in the post-Safavid period was Nāder Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747). Although most students of Islamic history are somewhat familiar with the Safavid rulers (1501-1722) or the later Qajar sovereigns (1785-1925), Nāder Shah and the Afsharid dynasty that he founded are usually less well known. In this short piece, I want to provide a very short outline of Nāder Shah’s career. I also wanted to shed some light on his coinage, which I personally find to be one of the most interesting aspects of his rule since it emphasizes the concept of universal sovereignty while excluding any explicitly sectarian (Sunni or Shi’ite) identification. In a future post, I will look in a bit more depth at his religious policies–which have remained largely misunderstood–and connect them with this concept of universal sovereignty.

Nāder Shāh, an Afsharid Turcoman, attempted to realize a grandiose imperial vision, modeled upon that of Tīmūr (r. 1370–1405), of a Turkic empire extending across the Iranian plateau. As part of his attempts to realize this broader objective he adopted a strategy of engaging with various modes of legitimacy—Sunni, Shi’i, Turkic, and Iranian—in conjunction with major military expansion. However, despite some important military and political successes, by the end of his reign his strained relations with the Iranian populace—as a result of his harsh fiscal policies and violent repression of dissent—erupted into major rebellions across his empire, which he attempted to quell with increasing brutality before he was assassinated in 1747.

Nāder Afshar, born around 1688, was born into the Qirqlū clan of the Afshār Turcoman tribe, which was one of the original Kizilbāsh oymāqs (tribal groupings) that had helped bring the Safavids to power in the early sixteenth century. Following the devolution of the Safavid polity, which culminated in the Afghan invasions and the occupation of Isfahan in 1722, Nāder became involved in the power struggles that took place around Mashhad in northeastern Iran.

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Subhat al-Akhbar: Art and Genealogy in the Service of Ottoman Imperial Legitimacy

One of the most beautiful historical treasures of the 17th-century Ottoman empire is a work known as the Subḥat al-Akhbār. It is a work in Ottoman Turkish delineating the genealogy of the Ottoman Sultans, from Adam, the first human being and prophet, to Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687). As Professor Shahzad Bashir has noted: “genealogy was a major component of political ideology among Islamic dynasties, and this text comes in a long line of similar works produced throughout the medieval period.” It is a particularly interesting historical document for two reasons: 1) it provides significant insight into Ottoman political legitimation and self-representation; and 2) it demonstrates the importance of figural representation in Ottoman art well into the late seventeenth century. sultan Mehmed IV) Continue reading

Fa’iz al-Ghusein (1883-1968): An Arab Eye-Witness to the Armenian Genocide

When it comes to the Armenian Genocide, there is no shortage of documents and sources written in multiple languages ranging from Ottoman Turkish, Russian, French, German, English, Armenian and Greek, that shed light on this historical fact. Despite the fact that most of the most atrocious massacres during the genocide took place in Arabic-speaking Syria, the Arabic sources have been largely ignored in discussions of the genocide. As early as the Hamidian massacres (1894–1896) and the Adana massacre (1909), Arabs—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—were concerned with the increasingly repressive direction that the Ottoman Empire was heading towards. In 1909, the Shaykh of al-Azhar Salīm al-Bishrī (d. 1916) even issued an edict condemning the violence against Armenian Christians in Adana as racially-motivated and in violation of the principles of Islam (for my translation of this document, see: . In this post, I want to highlight another document of major importance for understanding the Armenian genocide from the perspective of Arabic sources: Fā’iz al-Ghusein’s “Martyred Armenia”. (For an excellent overview on the importance of Arabic sources for the history of the Armenian genocide, see: Continue reading

Condemnation of the Adana Massacre (1909) by Shaykh al-Azhar Salim al-Bishri (d. 1916)

In April 1909, there was a major wave of massacres in the Cilician city of Adana (modern-day southern Turkey), in which over 20,000 Armenians were murdered and thousands of homes destroyed. Although these attacks on Armenian communities in Anatolia had intensified nearly a decade earlier during the Hamidian massacres between 1894 and 1896, in which between 90,000 and 300,000 Armenians, civilians and nationalist dissidents alike, were killed by Ottoman forces and mobs, the massacres of 1909 would foreshadow the even more heinous genocidal massacres of 1915–1918.

In response to the massacres, the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar (the leading religious institution of Sunni Muslims in the world) Salim al-Bishri (who held the position from 1909 to 1916) issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the perpetrators of the massacre and all those religious authorities in the Ottoman Empire who had incited or endorsed the massacre (for more on Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, read Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam [2009], pp. 199-230). I have provided a rough translation of the text below for the benefit of anyone wishing to understand these massacres from a perspective not usually considered. As the situation for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East becomes increasingly dire, it is important now more than ever to reflect upon these horrific events that occurred a century ago in the region.


We have come across, through the local newspapers, saddening news and despicable reports about Muslims in some of the Anatolian provinces of the Ottoman realms. These include reports that they have transgressed against the Christians by attacking and brutally murdering them. We were shocked by such reports and hoped that they would prove to be false because Islam, as a general principle, absolutely forbids acts of unjustified aggression and forbids oppression, bloodshed and harming others, irrespective of whether they be Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

O Muslims living in those lands and elsewhere, be aware of transgressing the bounds established by God Almighty in his Shariah (Divine Law), and spare the blood that God has deemed impermissible to spill and do not transgress against anyone for verily God despises those who transgress. [As the Qur’an says]: “God does not forbid you from befriending those who do not fight you because of religion, and do not evict you from your homes. You may befriend/act kindly towards them and be equitable /just towards them. God loves the equitable” [Q. 60:8].

O Muslims, be faithful to your religion and beware of perpetrating acts forbidden by God in His Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet , and beware of disobeying God, which incites His anger and indignation. Verily, God has imposed on you responsibilities and ordained that you are obligated to grant certain rights to those to whom you are contractually bound and those who have entrusted their safety to you and those who live amongst you from among the Jews and the Christians (ahl al-dhimma). These include that you act righteously towards them as they have acted righteously towards you, protect them from what you protect yourselves and your kin from, to strengthen them with your strength and power, and to protect their homes, monasteries, and churches in the same manner that you protect your mosques and places of worship. And, by God, whoever transgresses against their womenfolk, murders them and oppresses them has truly violated the covenant established by God Almighty and violated their divinely-ordained obligations.

O Muslims, do not allow racism to overcome you nor permit racial loyalties to become the sole influence upon your souls, for these are emotions and concepts from the Age of Ignorance that Islam has sought to eradicate. Indeed, you have the best exemplar in the conduct of the Prophet of God and his noble Companions. If you had not been swayed by the speeches of the ignorant and allowed them to overcome you and permitting your base tendencies to dominate you, then the tolerance, magnanimity and leniency of Islam would have guided you, making you peaceful and kept you away from the path of oppressively shedding the blood of others.

You should know that if the reports about your conduct have any basis in truth then you have truly angered your Lord, and have not satisfied your Prophet nor conformed to the Shariah. Your Muslim brethren have been compelled to turn against you for the sake of their religion, which absolutely deplores these heinous acts (if they are confirmed), which have violated all that is sacred and forbidden. Moreover, you have permitted the tongues of individuals ignorant of your faith to pronounce deplorable words against all Muslims.

So, heed the following words of your Prophet which pertains to your condition. Verily, the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) stated: “Whoever murders an individual with whom the Muslims are bound by covenant shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise, even though its fragrance reaches a distance of 40 years.” He also said: “Anyone who defames a protected person (dhimmi) shall be lashed on the Day of Resurrection with whips of fire.”

May God bless the individual who heeds this advice. May God grant success to all the Muslims to enact the precepts of their noble religion. May God guide them to the straight path. There is no might nor power except in God.

Selim al-Bishri, Shaykh of al-Azhar

(Credit to for uploading this document online)