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.
Continue reading →