Vanity Post 2: The Changing Legacy of a Sufi Shaykh

This second installment revisits a piece I originally wrote in 2015 about narrative construction in Arabic chronicles from 15th- to 17th-century Damascus. It takes a micro-perspective to explore the construction of narratives focused on one series of events or ‘story’. As in the first instance, the PDF is attached at the end.

The piece was published as a book chapter in Stephan Conermann’s (ed.) Mamluk Historiography Revisited – narratological perspectives (Bonn University Press: 2018, pp. 211-234), which contains twelve chapters organized alphabetically by author’s last name. It came out of a conference by roughly the same title that took place at Bonn University in 2015 which had the praiseworthy goal of imbuing more theoretically informed approaches on research of the historiography both of and on the Mamluk Period.

To do just that, I revisited one of my favorite obscure historical figures who has featured on this blog several times before: Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashī is an intriguing figure who rose from slave status to a certain prominence in his own times, both as a leader of a rag-tag group of fuqarā and even as a negotiator with the Ottoman envoys upon their arrival to Damascus in 1516.{1}Fuqarā is often taken as a synonym for Sufis but I have since grown more weary of this interpretation for the Late Mamluk Period. It is only used in the plural whereas we find derivatives of ṣūfī in the singular. I find this detail significant, as fuqarā appear in the chronicles mostly in a context of communal protest or, as we will see shortly, violence. I have argued this point more eloquently in a recent article in Mamlūk Studies Review. In any case, Mubārak led one such group over a couple of years until one consequential serious of events.

“Changing the Legacy” deals with those events and how several authors shaped different narratives from them to, as I argue, make sense of them for divergent purposes. But just let me tell you first that Mubārak is interesting for other reasons, as well. And I am confident that some of you will agree with me, once you look at the further changes of his legacy to which I only allude in the book chapter because I ran out of space. You see this project led me down a medium-sized rabbit hole and initially incorporated biographical descriptions of Mubārak in addition to the chronographical (as in chronicles and similarly structured texts) accounts that I do analyze in it.

Those short biographies frequently move away from the events alluded to above and instead focus on other aspects of Mubārak’s life, occasionally disclosing meta-textual resonances and outright misplacements on part of the biographers (in one case, I am very certain they confused him with another Mubārak), sometimes even crossing over into a, say, mythological or hagiographical life story. In the chapter there was simply no space to address all that and do it justice. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to return to this subject in any substantial manner. In place of that, I have published my translations of those biographical accounts with some preliminary analysis in four posts on this very platform. If you are interested in Mubārak’s singing voice, his prowess in the hunt, and his impressive feats of strength, go on in this order: post 1, post 2, post 3, and post 4.

So what was the event I keep not talking about? Here is the shortest version:

In Damascus in Ramaḍān 899, the sufi shaykh Mubārak al-Qābūnī was imprisoned and beaten by the Mamluk authorities. After being rescued by some eminent jurists, his followers went to the prison on the next day to achieve the release of their companions who were still held there. The Mamluks attacked the crowd and pillaged the village of Qābūn. Economic life in Damascus came to a standstill for days, and the Mamluks apprehended everyone who looked like one of Mubārak’s sufis. This episode resulted in probably the highest death toll suffered by the city on any single day during sultan Qāʾitbāy’s later reign. In the aftermath, the local authorities feared a full-scale uprising of Bedouins, peasants and brigands […].

Changing Legacy, 211.

The chapter analyzes four accounts by three different authors: Ibn Ṭawq’s journal, Ibn al-Ḥimṣī’s chronicle, and two works by Ibn Ṭūlūn. The reason why he receives more attention is that between his two accounts there seems to be an influential shift in how the Mubārak episode is treated. Ibn Ṭūlūn’s later version would be copied by two later biographers word-by-word and incorporated into their biographies of Mubārak. This becomes visible in the graph I made on the development of the transmission on his life and feats (see figure 1).

Connections between accounts on Mubārak al-Qābūnī. On the left, the biographical tradition and influences between them; on the right the chronographical tradition; the highlighted area shows where both converge.

The analysis is not concerned so much with establishing ‘what really happened’ but rather with the method of narrativizing the episode and and the possible motivation and context why the authors narrativized it in their respective way. It starts from the contention that:

Historical works were literary and public texts, and authors used narrative techniques to meet (or surprise) the expectations of their respective audience(s). Material was added, rejected, reshuffled, or merely rephrased from one account to the next; events were emphasised, summarised or omitted; leading in some cases to dramatically changed meaning of a story itself.

Changing Legacy, 211-212.

The accounts vary in length, detail, and were written with divergent temporal distance. All but one of the accounts had, for instance, the gift of hindsight and therefore knew more about the mid- to long-term consequences of those events. This aspect is important to consider when thinking about these different versions of the same events.

Gerard Genette’s monograph Paratexts is currently very much in fashion in our area of book history but in “Changing Legacy” I found his earlier work Narrative Discourse: an essay in method (New York: 1980) more useful and accessible. In particular, I take inspiration from his distinction between historical time and narrative time.

First of all, Genette provides a valuable terminology. ‘Story’ encountered above refers to the series of events (I have changed that to both ‘episode’ and ‘historical sequence’), which our authors turn into ‘narratives’ (or ‘accounts’ as I use it). Both are made up of ‘events’ (or ‘historical incidents’) each of which can be fleshed out to different degrees, omitted, or even subsumed under another event. The attention a ‘narrative’ devotes to an individual event is subject to different factors and essentially up to the author and their motivations. The same is true for their respective treatments of an episode altogether, especially if it is only part of a chronicle that aims at telling a much larger story.

This might appear like mere nitpicking on the surface but I have to say, it made me look at these accounts in new ways. It made me search for the distinct components of both the historical sequence and the accounts made of it. I did that by numbering them using letters and, indeed, we see how narratives sometimes move back and forth in historical times to convey a message that goes beyond the example at hand.

This post is already getting long again so I keep the remaining points more concise. I am using a triad of investigating the treatment of historical time in those accounts, looking at temporal order (to which I have just alluded), duration, and frequency. Duration refers to the space an account dedicates to a specific event in the historical sequence. In short, it can omit it, treat one or several events in a summary, or it can give it its own ‘scene’ with direct or indirect speech even. And yes, scenes appear in these accounts on 15t-century Damascus. Frequency is another mode by which the audience’s attention can be pointed to a specific aspect of a narrative. Another word for it is repetition, and it is common knowledge that your memory retains information better if it is repeated.

Through this framework, “Changing Legacy” analyzes these different records of the even with Mubārak at the center and offers interpretations as to what they wanted to say about it and in which contemporary discourses they inserted themselves by doing that. It also offers a brief outlook on the later development of literature on Mubārak.

And while I still enjoy the theoretic discussion it offers, you might not. The biggest fault of the paper I only realized very recently: I do not cite any women in the entire piece. This results in a very biased representation of the field. You might still enjoy reading through the translated accounts which are all compiled into one neat section of the book chapter.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Vanity Post 2: The Changing Legacy of a Sufi Shaykh", in Damascus Anecdotes, May 24, 2020,
  1. Wollina, Torsten. “Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman Appropriation of a Mamluk Metropolis (922-924/1516-1518).” In The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. 2016, 221-246, here: 225-226. []

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