How important was Ibn Tulun’s uncle Yusuf?

The funding period of the research cluster Dyntran: Dynamics of Transmission draws to a close very soon. The exchanges in this cluster have proven influential on my research since its inception in 2015. The focus on the social and especially familial contexts of writing has become a core element of several recent publications.

As I am currently working on the chapter for the final edited volume in which I try to develop these ideas further, I have revisited Ibn Tulun’s own familial network. It is not as extensive as the one I discussed in my Dyntran Working Paper. In fact, it is rather small and the most prominent character is Ibn Tulun’s uncle Jamal al-Din Yusuf. Today’s post will present and discuss an unpublished biography of him.

For an assessment on the influence Yūsuf had on his nephew three major sources are at our disposal. Incidentally, they are all part of his nephew’s corpus:

  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. “al-Fulk al-mashḥūn fī aḥwāl Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn.” Edited by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al- Munajjid. Damascus: Maṭbaʿat at-Taraqqī, 1929.
  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. “al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya fī tarājim mutaʾakhkhirī al-Ḥanafiyya.” Istanbul, Süleymaniye Library, MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924 [I have worked more on this copy than on the autograph and I can say it is faithful.]
  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. Mufākahat Al-khillān Fī Ḥawādith Al-zamān : Tārīkh Miṣr Wa-l-Shām. Edited by Muḥammad Muṣṭafā. 2 vols. Cairo: al-Muʾassassa al-Miṣrīya al-ʿĀmma, 1964.

These sources complement each other very well in establishing Yūsuf as a scholar, showing his impact on his nephew’s life and career, and corroborating the chronology of both their lives. At the same time, they “reign in” each other as they probably catered to rather divergent audiences and were written with different motivations in mind. One further source on Yūsuf’s life is a short entry in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s biographical dictionary al-Riyyāḍ al-yāʾifa fī aʿyān al-miʾa al-ʿāshira which is quoted in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s al-Ghuraf.

While no writings by Yūsuf are attested, his ascent is in several respects more impressive than that of his nephew. Yūsuf appears to have been the first of his family to leave the family trading business and move into the judicial sector, eventually becoming “shaykh al-ḥanafiyya”. According to Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī, it was him who first adopted the Ḥanafī rite which would be so advantageous after the Ottoman conquest of Damascus. This is to say, it would be beneficial for both him and his nephew.

In the following, I will first present Yūsuf’s biography in al-Ghuraf, and then discuss some points of it, partly by using accounts from the Mufākaha to corroborate them. The biography is found on fols. 344a-345a in the above-mentioned manuscript:

Yūsuf b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. ʿAbd Allāh, Jamāl Ibn Ṭūlūn al-Ṣāliḥī al-Ḥanafī, my uncle, the brother of my father, the ʿallāma, the muftī of the Dār al-ʿAdl in Damascus, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū al-Maḥāsin. He was born around 860 in Ṣāliḥiyya in the Ḥikr Banī al-Qalānisī below the Ḥājibiyya Madrasa.

He recited the Quran, knew by heart al-Mukhtār and Alfiyyat Ibn Mālik. He heard [ḥadīth] from shaykh ʿUthmān Ibn al-Falīlī and others. He received ijāzas from Muḥammad Ibn al-Shiḥna, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Asyūṭī, Quṭb al-Dīn al-Ḥayḍarī, ʿUthman al-Daymī (?); al-Kamāl b. Abī Sharīf, ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Basāṭī, Muḥammad al-Gharāfī, Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Mashhadī, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Shāwī, Muḥammad b. Raslān, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Radāwī, Ibrāhīm al-Qalawānī and joined the samāʿ sessions of our shaykh, the muḥaddith Nāṣir al-Dīn Ibn Zurayq.

Our shaykh Abū al-Maḥāsin b. Ibn al-Mibrad said in al-Riyyāḍ al-yāʾifa fī aʿyān al-miʾa al-ʿāshira: he grew up well and he studied with me. Among other things he heard from me the Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim. He studied with me a long time ago. Then he adopted the ḥanafī school from shaykh ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn al-Ḥamrāwiyya and then from Zayn al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿAynī, who resigned for him for the muftī position at the Dār al-ʿAdl. [Yūsuf also] was a deputy judge for him in Ṣafad for a year [end of quote].

I said: his first position was the deputy judgeship for the judge Tāj al-Dīn Ibn ʿArabshāh on Monday, 14.06.885, then for those after him until al-Badrī and al-Furfūr. Then he left it and excelled and gave fatwas and taught in the Umayyad Mosque [/344b], the Māridāniyya, Murshidiyya, ʿAdhrāwiyya, Aqbāliyya, Yūnusiyya, Rukniyya [madrasas] and the Jadīd Mosque. At the end of his life, he was professor of/in al-Qiṣāʿayn during the [Ottoman period]. Ultimately he received the position of ḥanafī shaykh of Damascus.

No one knew more of “al-ḥisāb al-maftūḥ” and “al-farāʾiḍ” as he had learned them from Shams al-Dīn al-Shiblī al-Ḥanbalī, then from Shams al-Dīn al-Ḥujaynī(?) al-Ḥanafī, he attended both(!) and benefitted from both. He recited ʿarūḍ and maʿānī, bayān and badīʿ, kalām and uṣūl, manṭaq and most rational sciences on authority of Zayn al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿAynī and a group of Persians and Ottomans.

I read before him most of the Ṣaḥīḥ and prayed for before him alAjrūsiyya and al-Sirājiyya and Jāmiʿ al-Ḥalāṭī fī al-fiqh. I attended most of his study sessions in the mentioned madrasas. At the end of his life he spent one short and one long stay in Mecca and profited from groups of its people. He was well-known there. Afterwards he returned to Damascus and resided in Ṣāliḥiyya until his death on Sunday night, 04.01.937. I prayed for him in the Jadīd Mosque. He was buried in the mausoleum he had built beneath the Cave of Gabriel. He had a large funeral attended by the students. After him there remained no ḥanafī like him. […]

One thing that strikes me about the biography is the shift between pinpoint accuracy and—I would say—deliberate vagueness. This is epitomized, on the one hand, by Ibn Ṭūlūn’s rebuttal of Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s account of his uncle’s appointment as a judge, and, on the other, by the vagueness about some “Persians and Ottomans”. It is also visible in his references to “the end of his life”.

In some of these cases, the Mufākaha provides valuable additional evidence that either corroborates or clears up the chronology of Yūsuf’s life and career. For once, it agrees on the date of his first appointment as deputy judge (vol. 1: 22) and informs us that the intercession of his shaykh Zayn al-Dīn al-ʿAynī was crucial for the appointment. The entry further corroborates Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s statement that, at the same time, “Yūsuf deputized for [al-ʿAynī] as muftī at the Dār al-ʿAdl until he resigned for good.” The next appointment is mentioned only in 896 (vol. 1: 144).

The Mufākaha further sheds light on Yūsuf’s sojourns in Mecca as a mujāwir. Thus we can date his first journey to 921. He seems to have stayed in Mecca several years and only resurfaces in Damascus in 926. From the account, we can surmise that he had remained in Mecca at least until the end of 923 (vol. 1: 389; vol. 2: 4, 59, 76, 108). At the end of 926, Yūsuf set out for his second journey (vol. 2, 121). The first journey, in particular, proved influential for Ibn Ṭūlūn’s own career as his uncle established contacts to important Ottoman figures during this time which allegedly might have given him the chief judgeship of Damascus (vol. 2: 59, 76).

More importantly, the Mufākaha demonstrates the difficulties both Ibn Ṭūlūns encountered on their way up the social ladder. Before the Ottoman conquest, they were rather marginal figures in Damascus, overshadowed by richer, more influential Shāfiʿī and also Ḥanbalī figures. As the biography was written in an Ottoman context, those Mamluk Era perils might not have had any weight anymore.

In 895, Yūsuf was incarcerated in the citadel for a few days. All that is mentioned in the account is that the reason was a decree (vol. 1: 120). Was it a financial matter? Or one that involved misconduct in an office? Or could it be tied to personal ties? I do not want to speculate too much but Yūsuf had married his daughter to the naqīb al-jaysh Ibn Ṭālū and was himself married at one point to the later wife of the dīwān al-qalʿa, Tāj al-Dīn (vol. 1: 308; vol. 2: 11).

Control over endowments seems to have been another frequent source of grief. In 909, 912, and 916 Yūsuf was involved in cases of embezzlement of endowment property or profits (vol. 1: 274, 307, 346).

Finally, one last word about places at which his uncle taught: “he taught in the Umayyad Mosque [/344b], the Māridāniyya, Murshidiyya, ʿAdhrāwiyya, Aqbāliyya, Yūnusiyya, Rukniyya and the Jadīd Mosque”. Those dates can be identified by way of al-Fulk. There he gives dates for positions he himself assumed and even though his uncle’s involvement is not always explicitly mentioned, the similarities with this list are striking.

In conjunction, those bits and pieces do not only offer more information about Yūsuf but also about the concerns he and his nephew shared. Their relationship should be a defining factor of any biographical account of either of them.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "How important was Ibn Tulun’s uncle Yusuf?", in Damascus Anecdotes, January 13, 2019,

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