Medieval Damascus: Was there no garbage problem ever?

Insides of a medieval German latrine

Reading two articles on Medium, one about rat kings and another about an early car named by its creator Horsey Horseless and which featured “a life-size replica of a horse head, down to the shoulders, and attaching it to the front of a carriage“, I got into thinking. I have to add here that I am no specialist in this field.

More specifically, together these articles made me wonder what did Medieval Damascenes do with their garbage and how did they avoid to have recurrent garbage crises? Obviously, they did not have to worry about plastic piles but the garbage they did have to worry about was still of a rather smelly nature. As the exhibit from the Frankfurt historical museum shows, there was a lot of other waste as well.

One main source of stinky garbage were domesticated animals used as mounts, for transportation, or in food and dairy production. At least for the nineteenth century, Jonah Berger observes in the article on the horse-car that “manure […] at the time was threatening to suffocate many major cities.” I reckon that the horse population of Damascus was somewhat smaller compared to that of nineteenth-century European metropoles but still. The Mamluks who had a strong presence in the city and, according to contemporary observers numbered in the low thousands, relied on horses in their claims to rule and warrior prowess.

According to Aḥmad Ibn Ṭawq other domesticated animals such as chickens, cows, donkeys, and mules were also bred and kept within city limits. Some stable lads of the governor allegedly even bred pigs in 887/1482 to sell them to the local Venetian colony – to some outrage amongst the population. And the governors had apparently more exotic tastes in animals. Ibn Tulun mentions that their menagerie was only dissolved by the seventh Ottoman governor, Lutfi Pasha. He “killed off the wild beasts kept at the Dār al-Saʿāda: panthers, peacocks, cranes, gazells, but keeping the pigs; it is said that he felt affection for the horses” (Iʿlām al-warā bi-man waliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq al-shām al-kubrā, 259).

Another animal present in the city but not really domesticated were the large numbers of wild or semi-wild dogs. These probably provided one answer to the garbage question, if my observations from present-day Cairo are any indication. In the evening hours, in particular, you can see those half-starved creatures rummaging through the left-overs of street markets or through the garbage bags waiting to be taken away. Vegetable left-overs would certainly also be given to domesticated herbivores (or omnivores).

Concerning human waste, the river would certainly have played a part in its removal, and most houses at the time appear to have featured at least communally used latrines or dumps such as the one depicted above. Judging by current Lebanese custom, most other garbage might have been burned.

One curious case happened in Damascus in 923, when in the context of the construction of the new Ottoman Salīmiyya Mosque an old graveyard had to give way to the construction. The graves were emptied in the dark of the night, “fearing an outrage (kalām) from the people,” as Ibn Ṭūlūn tells it. Due to the clandestine nature of this business, we do not know where they left the remains of the corpses (Mufākahat al-khillān fī ḥawādith al-zamān, vol. 2, 72).

We do know, however, that reuse of building materials was common. I will not dwell on that aspect here but rather direct the interested reader towards this article by Iman Abdulfattah on the reuse of materials in sultan Qalāwūn’s complex in Cairo.

Coming back to the large mounts and pack animals, Camel waste is inflammable and was always used by Bedouins to make fires (see Bethany Walker’s article in MSR for the use of dung pies) . The same cannot be said for the leavings of cows, sheep, or donkeys. They might have been used as fertilizers but I have not yet come across a single instance indicating how it was transported to the fields or orchards that needed fertilizing. It might have been a task for those people who commonly appear as ʿammāl, ḥammāl, or ḥammār, day laborers, porters, or donkey drivers. Tasks as well as those undertaking them were usually beneath the interests of chroniclers or scholars in general.

Nonetheless, why there is not mention of a garbage crisis in all these works. Middle Eastern cities were large by contemporary standards. The population of Cairo is frequently given at around half a million before the Black Death diminished its size considerably. It seems reasonable that this time period, starting in the mid-thirteenth century, is most promising for further research into this matter. With a heightened awareness for public safety among authors as well as public servants, we might be able to trace it at least through its consequences in the decline of public health.

From all we know this treatment did not in general apply to paper products, however. Paper disposal was common but it was in no way similar to waste disposal. The Qubbat al-Khazna in the Damascene Umayyad Mosque was, as much as the better-known Genizah synagogue in Cairo, used for the disposal of paper (and parchment, papyrus – writing surfaces in general). Yet, the disposal seems to have had an almost ritual character. People were certainly ridding themselves off these papers but they were not throwing them away haphazardly. Rather, they stored them, theoretically for perpetuity, in a safe place where those papers were supposed to be safe from dirt and other dangers.

Konrad Hirschler has suggested in several presentations that these practices actually allowed for recycling or even upcycling of such papers (careful, this opens a video of his talk at SMS, Beirut 2017). In other cases, such upcycling was exercised by inheritors of documents, who used the paper in their own book production, thus inserting the documentary information into other, literary, academic, or devotional discourses. Again, this indicates an aversion against turning paper – or writing on paper – into garbage and instead a grasp for its perpetuity.

The only exceptions I can see are rare cases of book burning. Yet, they follow the same logic of perpetuity as well. Only, the burning serves to deny a text or book that existence, irreversibly breaking up the material object into its smallest parts. Those books are denied even the status of garbage.

Teaching ḥadīth: Ibn Ṭūlūn and the Thulāthiyyāt genre

This week I return to Garret Davidson’s dissertation on post-canonical ḥadīth transmission. Davidson offers a wonderful overview of the genres involved in establishing elevated, i.e. short, chains of transmission and the status that these brought for people who had access to them. While these genres could amount to very different scopes and sizes, it is safe to say that in this context small-scale hadith collections occupied a central position. These often would include the most elevated and thus sought-after chains a well-aged transmitter had to offer to the following generations, and at minimal time to be afforded. This impetus became pervasive in other fields of knowledge as well, at least for a lay audience.

Here, I will not give a summary of Davidson’s classification, however. I reckon for that we will have to wait for the reviews once the book is published. But, continuing where I left off in an earlier post, I will connect his general findings to the specific case of Ibn Ṭūlūn. In this post, the Thulāthiyyāt genre of ḥadīth will be at the center.

The term Thulāthiyyāt denotes originally the shortest traditions found in al-Bukhārī’s canonical ḥadīth work al-Ṣaḥīḥ (and to a smaller degree in other canonical compilations), which link al-Bukhārī to the Prophet by only three intermediaries. Starting in the 12th century, they were frequently compiled separately, again putting emphasis on elevated chains of transmission between the author of a compilation and al-Bukhārī:

By compiling a selection of only the collection’s shortest three-link chains of transmission scholars created a conduit that served to connect them to the Prophet through some of the shortest possible and most venerated chains of transmission (Davidson, 261).

The brevity of these compilations was their greatest strength, since they enabled transmission “in a matter of minutes making it a time efficient way for scholars to hear hadith from the most revered collection of the canon through some of the shortest chains of transmission available” and from large numbers of transmitters (ibid.). This would remain a popular mode of transmission until the 20th century.

Our old friend Ibn Ṭūlūn himself authored only one work of this genre, titled al-ʿUqūd al-luʾluʾiyyāt fī al-aḥādīth al-thulāthiyyāt (The arrangement / the half-score of pearls of traditions with only three links between al-Bukhārī and the Prophet), which does not seem to have survived.

Yet, in at least two of his biographical dictionaries, the genre appears frequently in the context of recitation sessions, attesting to the high status of elevated chains Davidson describes. The two titles Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī and Thulāthiyyāt al-Ṣaḥīḥ are used interchangeably. Whereas in al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya fī tarājim mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions it as part of his education, in the second work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr, he himself is the host or at least the authority in those sessions where the text is read.

I have not yet finished my reading of the former work. It is bulky with some 940 biographies covering mostly the 6th through 10th centuries. And so far, I have come across only one mention of the work. Yet, in unison with the other biographical work, it epitomizes the place the Thulāthiyyāt is granted in biographies. Moreover, in this case I would argue that the recitation was actually part of the author’s education and not purely for the sake of elevated chains of transmission.

The Thulāthiyyāt is mentioned in the biography of one Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Sulaymān (885-916), with whom Ibn Ṭūlūn studied (Istanbul, Süleymaniye Library,  MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, fols. 20a-22b). As in the following cases, the text is mentioned in conjunction with al-Musalsal bi-l-awaliyya. As Davidson explains it, it “means literally the hadith of serial first transmission, because it became common for it to be the first hadith an authority would transmit to a student coming to hear hadith from him” (Davidson, 125).

The reading of both texts took place when Ibn Ṭūlūn had already reached maturity. According to his own calculations, he must have been in his late twenties at the time. Moreover, in this instance, he received a qualified license to teach these texts:

I recited before him al-Musalsal bi-l-awaliyya with his conditions (sharṭ), then the Thulāthiyyāt al-ṣaḥīḥ, then I heard in his articulation al-Silsil bi-sūrat al-ṣaff, then al-Ḥadīth min riwāyat Abī Ḥanīfa. Then I extrapolated all of it before him in [several] sessions, the last of which fell on Sunday noon, 27.04.908 in the ḥanafī miḥrab of the [Umayyad Mosque]. He wrote me an ijāza for teaching in his own handwriting.

The joint mention of both texts occurs repeatedly in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s accounts of biographical trajectories of other ḥadīth transmitters. Whereas this makes sense for the Musalsal (since it is defined by being the first one transmitted), the elevated status of the Thulāthiyyāt is emphasized by being a close second. As the quote shows, they are followed by several more ḥadīth works.

This is strong evidence for a teaching context. Even more so since Ibn Ṭūlūn continues to list five more works he studied with Ibrāhīm, receiving another ijāza for giving fatwas on 09.04.911. That indicates a longterm commitment on both sides to this teacher-student relationship (rather taraddud than mulāzama, I guess). The session also coincided with his appointment as imām of the Yūnusiyya Khānqāh in the quarter of Sharaf al-Aʿlā (on 08.04.908).

Turning to the second work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr, here Ibn Ṭūlūn emphasizes his role as a teacher and authority. This is little surprising since contextual evidence suggests he authored the work during the very last years of his life. It is much smaller in scope than al-Ghuraf with some 160 biographies and a much more decisively local selection of biographees.

In at least 15 biographees, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions the Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī / al-Ṣaḥīḥ, exclusively when he was the transmitter. In this case, Davidson’s argument that most hadith transmission should not be considered an educational  but a devotional endeavor seems to hold true. Only in one case, an ijāza for teaching is issued and then only after repeated auditions.

This impression is substantiated when we look at the sites of the sessions. The only institution featured in the sample where Ibn Ṭūlūn had a post, is the Ottoman Salīmiyya Mosque (four entries for Ṣafar 942; one for 05.05.949). Admittedly, it is the one site mentioned most often but none of his other teaching posts are at all mentioned. Instead, the second-most important site is the garden of his cousin Burhān al-Dīn Ibn Qindīl (three entries for 13.05.940).

Another case in point is that the account of these recitations is usually immediately followed by a list of which of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works these people heard from him. Since the majority of those recitations took place in villages around Damascus, most importantly a shrine for Abraham in Barza (maqām Khalīl), and since those works were usually hadith compilations, this suggests that also the Thulāthiyyāt were recited in a devotional context.

Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashī: part 3

Black History Month continues with my third instalment on Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashī. This time, the biography following below comes from Ibn Ayyūb.

  • Ibn Ayyūb, Sharaf al-Dīn Mūsā. Kitāb al-rawḍ al-ʿāṭir fīmā tayassiru min akhbār ahl al-qarn al-sābiʿ ilā khitām al-qarn al-ʿāshir. Staatsbibliothek Berlin, MS Wetzstein II 289 (you can read it here).

Last week, we looked at how his successor Ibn al-ʿImād inserted a new episode which, to my understanding, plays heavily on Mubārak’s African origin. Ibn Ayyūb’s biography does not feature it. Yet, it is the most unconventional characterization of Mubārak. Let’s jump right in and I’ll point out why I think that afterwards. Words in red are written in red ink in the manuscript as well:

Mubārak b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Qābūnī al-Shāfiʿī, the shaykh, the pious, he recited the Ghāyat al-ikhtiṣār in Shāfiʿī law (fiqh). The shaykh al-islām Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn built for him a zāwiya in Qābūn, to which he came frequently. He made him a student and increasingly convinced him of his viewpoints (ṣāra taḥta naẓrih).

Then, the unruly youth (ʿutūrat al-shabāb) rallied to shaykh Mubārak and they began to waylay transports of alcohol, which came from Ṣayyidnāya, and they stopped them and destroyed the vessels. This was reported to the governor of Damascus ʿĪsā Pasha, and he apprehended some of the unruly youth and put them in prison at Bāb al-Barīd. Then, Shaykh Mubārak came down to plead for them, and [the governor] captured him and beat him and put him in the prison. Then the shaykh al-islām Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn sent to intercede for him and freed him, and the unruly youth stayed in prison, and their comrades were incited and they attempted repeatedly to [open] he gate of the prison and broke it open and got out the inmates.

That was reported to the governor and he sent against them his Mamluks. They killed about seventy of them at the Bāb al-Barīd and the amber market and the Umayyad Mosque. The rest fled and I have seen in the book al-Tamattuʿ bi-l-Iqrān by Ibn Ṭūlūn no similar [account about] (mā mithāluh) on Mubārak ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Qābūnī.

[But] our shaykh Ibn al-Mibrad mentions him in his Riyād and speaks: ‘Shaykh Mubārak appeared in the year 897 and to him flocked followers (murīdūn). 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 more than once. And he destroyed their taverns, and they wanted to kill him but could not.’ And his account is famous. End.’

I spoke: ‘the mentioned shaykh Mubārak was a pious man and one of God’s friends […], he was strong, incredibly brave, and very tall (ʿaẓīm al-khalqa), of black [skin color], and had complete knowledge of songs and their principles (ʿilm) and knowledge of the hunt and shooting and he was strong (lahu yad ṭūlā) in firing the crossbow (or musket; bunduq) and in swimming and other things.

His son, the shaykh Muḥammad told me about his father shaykh Mubārak that he went for the hunt with his followers in direction of the lake (baḥra) in the Marj and one crossbow broke into two halves. He put the half into the center of the bow (qūs) and shot with it a bird and brought it to the ground. Then he used the [other] half and brought down another bird […]. Swimming, he would come up from the water with fish in his toes and fish in his fingers and in his mouth a bigger fish. And under every arm pit (absaṭ) he [carried] a fish.

He carried out the dhikr in the zāwiyas of Ibn Dāwud and Saʿd bin ʿIbada in al-Mnīḥa and in the mosque (jāmiʿ) which is in the Sulaymānī quarter, and in his zāwiya in Qābūn.

He has a speech impediment. Ibn Ṭūlūn spoke: the truth is that they are making the dhikr until their augustness restricts it to the Hamza and the Hāʾ, but they carelessly replace the Hāʾ with Ḥāʾ. So they are saying: ‘uḥ uḥ’.’

{Comment in the margins: He is the first who [mentions?; sh..n?] the language of shaykh al-Qābūnī}

Shaykh Mubārak died on Thursday, 1 Rabīʿ I 944 in Qābūn al-Taḥtānī and he was buried in the turba of al-Qābūn. His funeral drew a large crowd; present were the virtuous and some of the notables of the city (aʿyān al-balad). Parts (athār) of his zāwiya remain until today.

And apropos his son, our ṣāḥib shaykh Muḥammad…[and then the last half page is about Muḥammad]

The first noticeable thing is certainly the greater length of the account, even if we leave aside the half page dedicated to Mubārak’s son Muḥammad. This should not concern us too much, however. Ibn Ayyūb probably knew the son and perhaps also the father personally, and it is a common feature in Arabic biographical literature that such relationships would be highlighted in a biographical work. They added to the author’s credentials as much as to those of the biographee.

But the real difference to the afore going biographies is the way in which Ibn Ayyūb characterizes Mubārak’s following. Here they are unruly youth, which eventually slip out of his control all together. They are blamed for the bloodshed. Them and Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn, who takes on a role not unlike that of Senator Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels. He lures Mubārak into a position where he can only lose. Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn is pulling the strings, it seems. As to why Mubārak is spoken free of all responsibility, it is not entirely clear to me. I prefer to believe that Ibn Ayyūb had an interest in portraying him in an infallible light. But it is possible that he did not want to attribute the perhaps most successful campaign against the vices to a lowly former slave but instead emphasized the impact the local notable Ibn Qāḍī ʿAjlūn had on the matter.

There are other puzzles in that biography. The most important one, in my opinion, is that the central events appear to have been transposed into an Ottoman environment, even though they actually happened about two decades before the Ottomans occupied Damascus. The major antagonist of Mubārak was defintely not ʿĪsā Pasha. ʿĪsā Pasha was most certainly the eighth Ottoman governor of Damascus who ruled the city around around 1521 (the fourth year of Ottoman rule).

Also, when describing Mubārak’s posts, Ibn Ayyūb uses a decisively Ottoman topography: the Sulaymānī quarter was named after the mosque complex Sulaymān the Law Giver had built on the site of the old Mamluk palace on the shores of the Baradā river. What we can gain from that is that Mubārak’s struggle was still relevant for Damascenes in Ibn Ayyūb’s time. That can also be seen by his reference to the remains of Mubārak’s zāwiya. As I understand it, the fight against vices had not ended with the beginning of a new rule.

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.

New Publication in MSR: “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus: Al-amr bi-al-maʿrūf and the Sufi/Scholar Dichotomy in the Late Mamluk Period (1480s–1510s)”

In time for the New Year, the most recent issue of Mamluk Studies Review (vol. 20) has come out and it features my first contribution to this journal. In “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus” I have attempted to show three things.

The first point I am trying to make is that the distinction between ulama and Sufis is not really useful when trying to unearth Late Mamluk local and even imperial politics and alliances. Instead, I propose to follow the informal networks that transgress those groups and connect them as well to the Mamluk rulers on one side and the larger populace on the other.

Secondly, the discourse on justice subsumed under the phrase al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-naḥy ʿan al-munkar is identified as one banner under which proponents of these different status groups would rally. Moreover, I suggest that it offered a language to address one’s dissatisfaction with one’s own social-financial situation. Since it ties personal grievances to larger concerns about justice, I argue, the use of its terminology should be studied also from the perspective of social competition over the diminishing waqf resources towards the end of the Mamluk Era.

The third point I emphasize is the translocal nature of these politics. Following Albrecht Fuess, Dane Ephrat, and others, I bring the rather backwater town Beirut into the picture, showing how involvement in such places could feature in strategies of social-religious figures. The choice of place was thereby both dictated by the selected case study and a bow to my current place of residence.

These two arguments are presented on base of a case study that drawn scholars’ attention repeatedly since the second half of the 19th century. The Maghribi Sufi Ali Ibn Maymun has been described as a radical or a militant specimen of his status group by more established scholars.

To this discussion, the article adds the view point of one of his main opponents in Damascus, the shaykh al-islam and patron of Ibn Tawq, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi Ajlun. The article illustrates the similarities in the involvement of both figures in the fields of Sufism, jurisprudence, and the fight against the vices, as well as in the geographical areas of their activities. Both people were active in Damascus, where they declaimed wrongful practices, and on the Mediterranean coast, where they organized defenses against pirate attacks.