Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashī, part 2

It is still Black History Month in the US. Last week, I introduced Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashī and presented the first (actually, chronologically the last) biography he received from a local Damascene author. Also, I want to point to this article which outlines some of the benefits of Black History Month.

Today, we continue with another one, which was written several decades before al-Ghazzī’s:

  • Ibn al-ʿImād, ʿAbd al-Ḥaiy Ibn Aḥmad. Shadharāt al-dhahab fī akhbār man dhahab. [Nachdr. d. Ausg. Kairo 1931-32] ed. 10 vols. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1982, vol. 8, pp. 259-260.

Ibn al-ʿImād’s work is structured not alphabetically by first name (ism) but chronologically by date of death. Mubārak’s entry can be found in the section for the year 944/1537-38.

As I stated in the preceding post, there will be some repetition between both biographies. This is not only explained by Mubārak’s life being the subject of both texts but also by their intertextual connections. Biographical dictionaries were perceived as a continuum, one scholar taking on where a member of an earlier generation had left off. al-Ghazzī used both this biography and the one treated in the upcoming post as sources to compose his own (you see, it makes sense to start from the end!).

The last thing I’d like to do before we delve into the source material is to point out which elements can be considered Ibn al-ʿImād’s own addition, not found in earlier biographies: the episode about the pilgrimage and his offer to sell himself as a slave to provide for his companions is not found anywhere before. I’ll return to it after the biography:

[In his year died] Mubārak b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥabashī al-Dimashqī al-Qābūnī, the shaykh, the pious, the educator (murabbī).

Ibn al-Mibrad spoke in his Riyāḍ: ‘the shaykh Mubārak appeared in the year 897 and to him flocked the rebellious (marīdūn). He took up the injunction of good and the forbidding of evil and the spilling of alcoholic spirits (khumūr), among other things. After he abolished that, he turned against the Turks, and the Turks turned against him.’

Ibn Ṭūlūn spoke: ‘The shaykh Mubārak recited the Ghāyat al-Ikhtiṣār before al-Taqī Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn, and he built him a zāwiya close to Qābūn al-Taḥtānī where he and his followers took residence. Said shaykh al-islām visited him frequently. [Mubārak] and his followers kept watch over the road for transports of alcohol, then they destroyed or spilled the vessels.

Then the rulers (ḥukkām) were informed and the governor captured some of the shaykh’s followers and imprisoned them at the Bāb al-Barīd. Shaykh Mubārak went down to plead for them. He was thrown into prison with them. But Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn interceded on his behalf and freed him.

Then the majority of shaykh Mubārak’s following assailed the prison and destroyed its gate and got out all their comrades, still in there. Then the governor was informed and he sent a unit of his Mamluks. Then they killed about seventy of them close to the Bāb al-Barīd and the Umayyad Mosque. Then shaykh Mubārak abandoned this and secluded himself in the zāwiyas, like that of the Shaykh Abū Bakr Ibn Dāwud on the slopes, and for a certain time […].

Shaykh Mubārak was of very dark, black [skin] and very tall (ʿaẓīm al-khalqa). He was determined, incredibly brave, and strong. He had complete knowledge of singing and the hunt and swimming. He used to dive into the current — when he appeared again, he held the fish in both the fingers of his hands and the toes of his feet.

It was transmitted that he and a group of his companions made the ḥājj. When they reached Mekka, they were out of provisions. The shaykh (then) told one of his companions: “Bind my hands and take me to the market, take my price and use it for the (good of) the rest of the group!” He did as told, and a Persian merchant purchased him, then freed him.

Ibn Ṭūlūn spoke: ‘Shaykh Mubārak had a speech impediment and the truth is that they are making the dhikr until their augustness restricts it to the Hamza and the Hāʾ – they carelessly replace the Hāʾ with Ḥāʾ. So they are saying: ‘Āḥ Āḥ’.’ [I really cannot say in which context they did that –TW]

And he died on Thursday, 1 Rabīʿ I 944, and he was buried in the turba of al-Qābūn al-Taḥtānī.

More or less the same information as in al-Ghazzī’s biography with some minor emphases on one point or other. What is interesting for me is that Ibn al-ʿImād does not, in contrast to al-Ghazzī, cite the works of Ibn Ṭūlūn but only him as a general authority.

Yet, as I said earlier, this biography is indeed different in that it introduces the bit about the pilgrimage. The author’s phrasing “it was transmitted” is instrumental in this. He does not ascribe it to a specific authority nor, as is the case with the other anecdotes, to a concrete work. And I speculate that this was done on purpose.

Let’s take a step back and look at one of the most important biographical dictionaries of Mamluk Egypt, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sakhāwī’s Al-Ḍawʾ Al-Lāmiʿ Li-ahl Al-qarn Al-tāsiʿ (12 vols., Cairo: 1936). There we find yet another short entry for a Mubārak al-Ḥabashī (vol. 6, p. 238):

Mubārak al-Ḥabashī: the freed slave of al-Taqī al-Fāsī. He died in Rabīʾ I 44 and was one of those who had traveled to the Persian lands (al-ʿajm) and returned rich from trade. He and was distinguished as the master (ṣāḥib) of the Hijāz.

However, this cannot be “our” Mubārak. Sakhāwī died in Medina in 1497 and it was probably there that he learned of this person who also came to the area (alḥijaz) a half-century before him.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that Ibn al-ʿImād had read this biography and, furthermore, used it in his biography of “our” Mubārak. Most of the elements of his Mecca anecdote are present, albeit in a veeery different context: The Persian element even features twice, if we assume that he could have misread al-Fāsī for al-Farsī; this Mubārak was a freed man, meaning that at one point he was a slave; trade plays a role, and to be honest Sakhāwī’s entry does not make it entirely clear whether the person becoming rich through trade is Mubārak or al-Fāsī.

We could assume that Ibn al-ʿImād made an honest mistake in reworking Sakhāwī’s entry. After all, the death dates of both Mubāraks refer to the year 44 – even though one century apart. But let’s look at it from a different perspective: Why would it make sense that Mubārak offered himself for purchase as a slave and seemingly everyone else involved went along with it? The only obvious explanation seems to be that he was black and therefore a suitable subject of slavery. Whereas this episode certainly shows Mubārak’s own altruism, it also betrays more general social mechanisms pertaining to his skin color. Not only was slavery very much alive in 16th century Mecca, it was also intricately connected to Africa in the minds of Ibn al-ʿImād, al-Ghazzī and their Arab contemporaries.

I do not know enough about the 16th-century Damascene equivalent of modern-day racism to make any conclusive remarks. I only want to point out that if we read our sources against the grain – for instance in Black History Month – we might get closer to the life worlds of those authors and the underlying assumptions that influenced their writing.

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