A horrific crime—at an ominous time

The criminal underworld of medieval Damascus is certainly not my field of expertise. But as for the contemporary audience of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s chronicle Mufākahat al-Khillān, these stories also draw the attention of current readers. This short post relates one such instance from Damascus at the end of the Mamluk period.

The year is 917/1511 and it is the first day of the bayram, which signals the end of the fasting period in Ramaḍān. A man named ʿUthmān b. Dūdū but better known as Ibn Saqṭ or Ibn Saqaṭ (son of either dew or of trash, which might indicate his occupation as a ragman?) left his house to attend prayers at the local mosque. His wife stayed at home as she was feeling frail.{1}
As soon as ʿUthmān had left the house, however, a “man from the slopes [of the Qāsyūn mountain]” seized the chance and broke into the house. He robbed the house and took “the bracelets from her arms and the ear rings from her ears”, after beating the woman severely. When ʿUthmān returned he found his wife beaten to death. She was buried in the Qalandariyya cemetery.
Meanwhile, the authorities or, as Ibn Ṭūlūn chooses to call them here, “some of the oppressors”, reacted in the usual way, forcing the quarter (maḥalla) to pay a heavy fine for the murder (darāhim kathīra). Even in this short passage, there is a lot to unravel about contemporaneous practices and institutions surrounding murder. There is even more to say about both the sociological and psychological consequences of the crime. I can only begin to scratch the surface of the world, or underworld, which we glimpse through these few lines of text.
The most striking aspect for me is certainly the timing of the robbery. It is well-known that night time was every criminal’s hour to strike. People would be asleep and they would not be seen by neighborhood watches or other patrols. But there is no indication that this was the case here. Rather, the “man from the slopes [of the Qāsyūn mountain]” seems to have chosen a daylight prayer time on one of the most holiest days of the year to commit his heist.
This sheds an interesting light on the societal reach of devotional practices at the time. After all, the culprit did prioritize his criminal activity over his attendance of the obligatory prayer. His seemingly vague description as a “man from the slopes [of the Qāsyūn mountain]” raises questions as well. Did that pertain to a specific social group who lived above the suburb of Ṣāliḥiyya as such? Was Ibn Ṭūlūn shy to specify the respective group any further? Or did he simply lack more precise information?

The passage also gives clues as to the social status of the victims. The woman carried her money on her body. The bracelets and ear rings would have been made of silver if not gold. However, the couple did probably not belong to the highest echelons of Damascene society. Otherwise, they might have entertained guests themselves for the bayram.

Instead, they seem to have attended the festivities at the local mosque. Were it not for her frail state at the time, ʿUthmān’s wife would most probably have accompanied him there. That she was the intended victim of the attack further indicates that her murderer must have had some knowledge of their routines before he struck. He waited for ʿUthmān to leave the house and might have known beforehand that the woman was in a frail state, her resistance easy to overcome.

Finally, let us reconsider Ibn Ṭūlūn’s retelling of the reaction by the authorities. On the surface, it might appear as if his primary interest following the murder was in the negative consequences it had for the population of the quarter at large. They had to pay “many dirhams”. However, I would say there is a second layer of meaning here. This emerges both from the choice of words (“the oppressors”) and the positioning of this coda to the account. It follows immediately after ʿUthmān’s discovery of his wife’s corpse. He finds her dead, and then “the oppressors” arrive to demand a fine.

In my opinion, Ibn Ṭūlūn’s terse prose achieves two goals in one strike: on the one hand, he tells a sociological story about the injustice of the criminal justice system{2}. ʿUthmān’s residential quarter is fined even though the murder clearly was no resident there; he was “from the slopes [of the Qāsyūn mountain]”.

On the other hand, Ibn Ṭūlūn also tells a psychological story. ʿUthmān who only had left his house for the obligatory prayer returns to find his wife murdered. And, adding insult to injury, is now confronted with his own guilt in leaving her alone as well as with the question of how to come up with his allotted share of the fine, all the while the criminal had robbed his household of some of the most valuable items which would have helped to pay said share. The term “oppressor” would, in fact, apply to the moral conduct of the authorities both in a sociological and a psychological vein.

Those who are interested in diving deeper into this exciting facet of late Mamluk society, might want to to turn to, among others, Carl Petry’s numerous studies on the subject, some of which I have listed below:

  • Carl Petry.The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society: Narratives from Cairo and Damascus under the Mamluks. Chicago, 2012.
  • Carl Petry. “The Politics of Insult: The Mamluk Sultanate’s Response to Criminal Affronts.” Mamlūk Studies Review 15 (2011): 87-115.
  • Jaques, R. Kevin. “Murder in Damascus: The Consequences of Competition Among Medieval Muslim Religious Elites.” Mamlūk Studies Review 18 (2015): 149-185.
Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "A horrific crime—at an ominous time", in Damascus Anecdotes, October 27, 2019, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/1598.

  1. The entire episode is found here: 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, vol. 1: 363. []
  2. Admittedly, this distinction is influenced by Zeynep Tufekci’s great article on the storytelling style of Game of Thrones: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-real-reason-fans-hate-the-last-season-of-game-of-thrones/ []

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