Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashi: Concluding Remarks

The month of February 2018, all my blog posts were concerned with Mubārak whom we by now all know. If you are like huh, please refer to the earlier posts here, here, and here.

In fact, this time I do not want to talk about Mubārak all that much anymore. Rather, I’d like to write some more things about Black History Month. I really do not understand those voices that ask “why do they get their own month“. That is, I do not understand it from an academic point of view. I do get their politics. But still, it is just a dumb reaction to someone offering you knowledge you had not possessed before. Without this yearly celebration which by now is takn up far beyond the borders of the US, I would have been unaware of this little fact:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Ahmet Ali Efendi, Ottoman Pilot of Nigerian Origin, World’s First Black Pilot, 1916 (Born in Izmir in 1883) <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BlackHistoryMonth</a> <a href=””></a></p>&mdash; A Journey in History (@OttomanEmpire_H) <a href=””>February 1, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src=”” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Isn’t it intriguing seeing him all confident in the foreground with the Ottomans in their Tarbush hats peeping up behind him? The Ottoman air force has intrigued me somewhat about two years ago and my friend @tillgrallert was forthcoming and enthusiastic enough to search through the newspapers in his database. Ahmet Ali Effendi did not come up, unfortunately, and I do not know more than what the tweet says. But there is an interesting story there, I am so certain…

And now I do have to come back to Mubārak after all. What I discovered myself in this month is that, not only is his story entertaining and engaging (to me at least), but it also made me see the sources in a new light. Why would he be the one who offered himself up for purchase by a slaver, even if this anecdote might have been a fabrication? Why would it be believable that he did? I can only think of his skin color as an obvious explanation. Even while Mubārak himself was a bad ass, and accepted as such, this anecdote points to a normative perspective about Africans in 16th-century Damascus. It was completely plausible that one encountered them as slaves.

In turn that made me wonder about the peculiarities in the hagiographic parts of his biographies. Physical strength certainly reminds one of later WENA slavers’ opinions about Africans. The prowess in hunting, swimming or singing is certainly more difficult to get my head around but before this year’s February, I must admit I have not seriously thought about these questions. And how can we neglect them, when we work on multi-ethnic societies such as those of Mamluk or Ottoman Bilād al-Shām? While configurations were far from identical with modern-day racism, we know there were racial stereotypes and prejudices with their own literary genres to perpetuate them. Yet, as far as I am aware there has been more work done on how Arabs saw the Turks than about perceptions on Africans and African slaves in particular. Mostly, we focus only on the exceptional like the Prophet’s banner man Bilāl or… yes, also Mubārak.

This whole month is about finding those stories that official history leaves out but which allow us to tell much more engaging and exciting stories than “that old white man met another old white man and then they fought – on horses (or tanks or The Apprentice”. It is about finding new questions and looking behind the curtains of documents or personal accounts alike. Black History Month is one good opportunity to learn more and get excited, also about history more generally. So I’ll leave it with this following quote.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Happy <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BlackHistoryMonth</a>! <a href=””></a></p>&mdash; Viola Davis (@violadavis) <a href=””>February 1, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src=”” charset=”utf-8″></script>

**I would very much appreciate any suggestions for what to read on slavery, blackness, etc.**

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.

On terminology: A sufi polemic against the “mutafaqqihūn” of Damascus

Reading Ignaz Goldziher’s summary (1874) of a sufi’s lament over the corruption of Syrian Islamdom under the Mamluks, I was struck by the sufi’s choice in terminology.

The Maghribī born ʿAlī b. Maymūn attacks current practices of the jurists and sufis of Syria (and Damascus, in particular) but in the title of his work Bayyān ghurbat al-islām bi-wāsiṭa ṣinfai al-mutafaqqiha wa-l-mutafaqqira min ahl Miṣr wa-l-Shām wa-mā yalīhimā min bilād al-aʽjām he does not use the common terms faqīh and ṣūfī. Rather, he refers to them as mutafaqqihūn and mutafaqqirūn. This grammatical form opens up a wide semantic field.

A quick search on shamila shows that these terms are overall uncommon. They only appear ever so often throughout the different Arabic disciplines. Ibn Maymūn seems an exception in using them throughout his work. So what does that mean? Does he use them in a polemic, perhaps even propagandistic way? The use of the form tafaʿʿala is peculiar in itself. Whereas faqīh commonly refers to an accomplished jurist, this form indicates a more abstract notion, describing those people who follow the way or approach of fiqh (jurisprudence) to gain understanding of God, whereas the mutafaqqirūn, in contrast to the accomplished fuqarāʾ, only aspire to gain the same knowledge by a different path (but have not achieved it yet). These might respond to the distinction of two categories of knowledge (ʿilm al-ẓāhir / ʿilm al-bāṭin), Ibn Maymūn uses in an earlier work (Goldziher 1874, p. 301). The grammatical form can further be interpreted as meaning ‘those who pretend to be jurists / sufis’. In the light of the general argument of the work, this seems most plausible.

This notion of the state of Syrian scholarship and sufism becomes clearer in the course of Ibn Maymūn’s argument, which, after starts out with plead for a reconciliation of both approaches, proceeds to outline all the faults of Syrians in both areas. The individual points addressed by Ibn Maymūn (and summarized by Goldziher) are all intriguing on their own account. They offer insight into a number of contemporaneous practices, the Maghribī sufi regarded as wrong and dangerous.

Yet, they seem to only illustrate what he outlines already in the title of the work: His choice in terminology already diminishes the status of both Syrian sufis and jurists a priori, casting them down from full fledged representatives of their respective status groups to mere aspirants to the knowledge, these approaches offer.