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Rulers and Scholars in the Premodern Islamic World

Panel IV-08, sponsored byMiddle East Medievalists (MEM), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Different societies throughout history have witnessed diverse configurations of the relationship between rulers and intellectuals in both theory and practice. In premodern Muslim writings, this relationship was marked by ambivalence. Most advice (naṣīḥa) literature dedicated to caliphs and sultans urged the ruler to seek guidance from religious scholars ('ulamā'). On the other hand, biographical dictionaries (ṭabaqāt) often spoke highly of scholars who kept aloof from politics and government, owing to the underlying belief that the ruler’s court was filled with worldly temptations that could corrupt one’s faith and morals. Previous generations of Western scholars have largely taken their cue from ṭabaqāt literature and have regarded the figure of the apolitical religious scholar as the ideal in premodern Muslim societies. Some have even viewed this figure as characteristic of the separation of state and religion in early Islam. More recent scholarship has challenged this view and demonstrated that religious scholars did play a significant role in premodern Muslim royal courts, be it legitimizing the ruler’s position or admonishing the ruler to govern more justly. This panel builds on this body of scholarship by scrutinizing the specific mechanics and dynamics of how rulers and scholars interacted with each other in medieval and early modern Muslim societies, a topic which remains elusive partly because the 'ulamā' constituted a loosely defined class, at least up until the establishment of the ilmiye by the Ottomans. The papers in this panel address the various ways in which religious scholars were embedded in political networks as well as efforts to theorize ruler-scholar relations. The first paper discusses scholars and judges who were part of the shurṭa (military and criminal prefects) in medieval al-Andalus and contrasts this development to the eastern Islamic world where the institutional divide between the learned and military classes was starker. The second paper focuses on Sufi “army shaykhs” who accompanied Ottoman sultans on military campaigns as a way to challenge the prevailing view of Sufis as an apolitical group. The third paper examines a theoretical attempt by Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) to redefine the political sphere as a site of moral reform with which religious scholars can legitimately engage during a period when ruler-scholar relations had become increasingly tense. The fourth paper studies Ibn Rushd’s (d. 1198) criticisms of theologians as a misguided and factious class in Muslim society, qualities which render them harmful as advisors to political leaders.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Dr. Hayrettin Yücesoy -- Discussant
  • Kameliya Atanasova -- Presenter
  • Dr. Han Hsien Liew -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Mr. Mohammed Allehbi -- Presenter
  • Karen Taliaferro -- Presenter
  • Mr. Mohammed Allehbi
    Recently, historians of Islamic al-Andalus have discussed the prominent role that the ʿulamāʾ (scholarly classes) and the quḍāt (judiciary) played in military and political affairs. However, the close-knit relationship between the shurṭa (military and criminal prefects), and the ʿulamāʾ and also the judiciary in the Umayyad and Party King societies like Cordoba has never been thoroughly examined. Maribel Fierro and Mateusz Wilk discuss how the Umayyad rulers patronized the ʿulamāʾ and depended on their support to ensure the legitimacy of the former. On the other hand, the shurṭa were a critical instrument of Umayyad sovereignty acting as governors, criminal magistrates, police chiefs, and military commanders. Significantly, the ʿulamāʾ and the quḍāt served as both members and supporters of these military-administrative elites. Chronicles and biographical dictionaries attest to a considerable number of the chiefs of the shurṭa as being derived from the ʿulamāʾ and judiciary, and even being assisted in their legal judgments by jurisconsults. This social-legal development in Islamic al-Andalus was in stark contrast to the existing institutional and jurisdictional divide in Near Eastern criminal justice between the late eighth and eleventh centuries. The Abbasids and their successors, the Buyids and Fatimids, deliberately kept scholarly and judicial classes separate from military ones, resulting in the jurists and judges having little influence over the enforcement of criminal law. The contrasting natures of the Umayyad shurṭa of al-Andalus and its Abbasid equivalent, in regards to the participation of the scholars and judiciary, was not an inevitability. I argue that the unique political, social, and geographical conditions of al-Andalus played a transformative role in further distinguishing the evolution of the shurṭa, particularly in sovereignty, jurisdiction, and law from the criminal justice institutions of the Near East. Utilizing a wide range of sources such as chronicles, biographical dictionaries, and legal treatises allows for a more three-dimensional portrait of this social-legal trajectory. Umayyad and Party King-era authors, such as Ibn al-Faraḍī (d. 403/1013) and Ibn Sahl (d. 486/1093), are integral to my argument. My examination of this institution’s demographic and juridical history in premodern Islamic Cordoba serves as a case study for our understanding of the variety of developmental pathways Islamic society and criminal justice can take.
  • Kameliya Atanasova
    The relationship between Sufis and ruling elites can be best described as ‘complicated.’ A common trope one can find in Sufi writings is the author’s emphasis on maintaining a safe distance between oneself and the wealthy and influential patron, for fear that the relationship to the latter corrupts the morals of the former. A closer look at Islamic history nevertheless reveals that, whether as friends or foes, influential Sufis were rarely too far from the ruler’s court. As interpreters of the sovereign’s dreams, spiritual guides, or companions in battle, Sufi shaykhs enjoyed a close, and oftentimes fraught relationship to political power. This paper will focus on an aspect of this historical relationship between Sufis and rulers that is yet to receive scholarly attention: Ottoman ‘army shaykhs.’ ‘Army shaykhs’ (ordu şeyhleri) were Sufis who accompanied Ottoman rulers to the battlefield and appear to have been typically tasked with uplifting the morale of the troops. I will focus on two of the earliest recorded examples we have of such Sufi involvement in Ottoman military campaigns: Akşemseddin (d. 863/1459), the Sufi who advised Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and was instrumental in the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and Nureddinzade Müslihuddin (d. 981/1574), whose dream and advice guided Sultan Süleyman on his campaign to Szigetvar in 1566. I argue that the roles Sufis had in military campaigns – as gleaned from chronicles and biographical sources – both complicate scholarly categories of Sufism as apolitical and shed light on the uneasy nature of the Sufi-Sultan dynamics in the Ottoman historical context and beyond.
  • Dr. Han Hsien Liew
    The relationship between rulers and religious scholars became increasingly fraught during the late Abbasid period, especially between the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Seljuq power was at its peak. The Seljuq ruling authorities, for one, often encroached on religious matters which were theoretically the prerogative of the qāḍī. Furthermore, in light of the conflict between the Abbasid caliphs and the Seljuq sultans, both sides allied themselves with different groups of scholars to further their respective religio-political causes, only to dissolve the alliance when the political climate changed. Due to the tense relations between rulers and scholars, many religious scholars doubled down on the view that pious scholars should stay away from rulers and politics to avoid being intoxicated by power. In his Iḥyā' 'ulūm al-dīn, al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) harshly condemns scholars who associate with rulers and deploys a string of ḥadīths that deem such scholars to be destined for hellfire. Until recently, Western scholars have considered this skeptical stance as the defining characteristic of ruler-scholar relations in medieval Islam. This paper examines an intervention in this debate by the twelfth-century scholar-preacher Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201). It argues that, unlike his peers who adopt a cynical view of ruler-scholar relations, Ibn al-Jawzī envisions a greater role for scholars in the moral reform of rulers. For instance, in his revised abridgment of al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyā', entitled Minhāj al-qāṣidīn, he omits the ḥadīths that categorically condemn scholars who visit rulers, in effect softening al-Ghazālī’s unforgiving stance toward such scholars. In 'Aṭf al-'ulamā' 'alā al-umarā' wa-l-umarā' 'alā al-'ulamā', a political treatise devoted to the subject of ruler-scholar relations, he asserts that the general good to be gained from counseling rulers far outweighs the harms related to the moral temptations of the ruler’s court. Scholars who visit rulers with the sincere intention to counsel and reform them have the potential to benefit an entire society if they can successfully guide rulers to govern justly. Building on these claims, Ibn al-Jawzī takes his position one step further by suggesting that religious scholars should dictate the ruler’s use of his coercive and punitive powers in order to prevent arbitrary punishments from being meted out. By tracing Ibn al-Jawzī’s arguments and his theoretical engagements with those of other scholars, this paper sheds light on the various ways in which medieval Muslim scholars conceptualized the relationship between political and religious authorities during a time of intense socio-political tumult.
  • Karen Taliaferro
    Who counts as a scholar in classical Islamic sources? While the extent to which classical Islamic sources encouraged scholars to provide advice (naṣīḥah) versus remain aloof from politics remains a live question, the falsafa tradition (Hellenistic Islamic philosophy) adds a further layer of complexity to the relationship between political leader and scholar by questioning whether religious scholars could properly be relied upon in the first place. Although earlier philosophy, specifically that of Avicenna, had been integrated into the work of dialectical theologians (mutakallimūn), later falāsifa would heap scorn on the mutakallimūn for their work, which they saw as by its very nature inferior to philosophy. The Andalusian legal scholar, qāḍī, and faylasūf Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) contributed extensively to this debate. This paper examines two works (from a trilogy), the Decisive Treatise (Faṣl al-Maqāl) and the Book of the Exposition of the Methods of Proof (Kitāb al-Kashf ʿan Manāhij al-Adilla fī ʿAqāʾid al-Milla), both of which address the various ways through which people come to know truth, specifically religious truth. What is interesting for this panel’s purposes, however, is that although in the former treatise, Ibn Rushd states that the method of dialectic—and therefore implicitly the dialectical theology of the mutakallimūn—plays an essential role for the public in ascertaining the truths of God, in the Exposition, he explicitly dismisses the role of dialectical reasoning, referring only to the philosophers and ordinary people—and decidedly not the theologians—as the “healthy” classes; theologians, by contrast, are fundamentally harmful to Muslim society, because they teach their misguided interpretations of the divine law and claim to be representing the intention of the Lawgiver. The upshot of this diagnosis on Ibn Rushd’s part (and, it should be added, al-Farabi’s as well), is that classical Islamic philosophers may have seen real harm resulting from the practice of religious scholars advising political leaders, for the mutakallimūn did not properly understand true religion. That a figure who was at once a prolific philosopher and an active judge in Andalusian society should come to such a conclusion is all the more sobering.