Sectarianism and Violence in 11th-c. North Africa: The Anti-Ismaili Massacre of 1016

In Summer 407 AH/1016 AD, a wave of mass violence targeting Isma’ili Shi’i Muslims swept over 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 late 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 massacres of 1016 were therefore a cataclysmic set of events that shattered this heterogeneous society.

 

map-of-the-fatimid-caliphate

(Fatimid caliphate at its greatest extent)

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The Commemoration of the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680) in al-Andalus

Despite over three centuries of Umayyad political rule in al-Andalus, during which pro-Alid sentiments were discouraged and (at times) outlawed, with ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib and his descendants sometimes being ritually cursed from the pulpits of the mosques, the Family of the Prophet (the Ahl al-Bayt)—which includes ‘Alī and his sons al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn—remained an important focal point for popular religious devotion among Andalusi Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. Putting aside the various pro-Alid and even Shī‘ī-inspired political movements in early medieval al-Andalus (about which I will write at a later date), much of the scholarly culture in al-Andalus within the fields of history, hadith, theology, mysticism and Qur’anic interpretation shared much in common with the broader Sunni world in considering ‘Alī (and his sons) one of the preeminent personalities of Islam whose proximity to the Prophet Muhammad and whose service to the faith deemed him worthy of major respect. Although Umayyad attempts to fabricate traditions and hadith favoring their family while condemning (or, at least, marginalizing) the Alids met with some success, it seems clear that the vast majority of Sunni scholars in al-Andalus maintained a considerable degree of respect for the Ahl al-Bayt. There were, of course, exceptions to this, such as the famous tenth-century, pro-Umayyad litterateur Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi (d. 940) excluding the names of ‘Alī and al-Ḥasan from the name of legitimate caliphs, listing Mu‘āwiyah b. Abī Sufyān as the fourth caliph instead; interestingly, he was strongly condemned for his doing so by several contemporaries, including none other than Mundhir b. Sa’īd al-Ballūṭī (d. 966), the chief judge of Córdoba under ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 912–961). Continue reading

Ahmad Sirhindī, Akbari Universalism and Islamic Orthodoxy in 16th/17th c. Mughal India

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.[1] 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.[2]
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