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.