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Mamluk Studies: Language, Poetics, Politics

Panel XII-18, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • The increasing use of nonstandard Arabic has been considered as one of the most noticeable characteristics of what has been called by Ulrich Haarmann the 'literarization' of Mamluk historiography, that is, the increasing use in Mamluk chronicles of stylistic elements drawn from the literature of adab and popular literature. Up to date, however, there were not too many attempts at an overall survey of different trends of language use covering all major historians throughout the Mamluk period (1250-1517). Notwithstanding this, it has been suggested that usages of nonstandard Arabic are typical of historians related to the military institution, and untypical of historians who were religious scholars. Additionally, it has been noted that all chroniclers related to the military institution were Egyptian, whereas practically all Syrian chroniclers were religious scholars, thus, there were differences in language use and style between Syrian and Egyptian authors. This perspective, however, downplays the fact that some chroniclers who were religious scholars, including Syrians, employed nonstandard Arabic in their chronicles, and the fact that during the fifteenth century many Egyptian historians were religious scholars. The talk will offer an overall survey of language use in Mamluk historiography, and suggest that in order to better understand trends of language use in Mamluk historiography a differentiation should be made between sub-groups of historians who were religious scholars. It is argued that usages of nonstandard Arabic are typical of historians related to the military institution and non-Shāfiʻī religious scholars. On the other hand, Shāfiʻī religious scholars refrained from using nonstandard Arabic and standardized nonstandard usages in their quoted sources. The reason for that is that 'Arabness' and the Arabic language were important elements in the collective identity and ethos of the Shāfiʻīs. This last point will be shown by a survey of Mamluk literature on the merits of al-Shāfiʻī (manāqib al-Shāfiʻī) written by Shāfiʻī religious scholars who were also historians. The Shāfiʻī historians actively participated in the preservation of the Shāfiʻī ethos, thus, unsurprisingly, they made great efforts to avoid nonstandard usages of Arabic in their historiographical writings
  • Despite the recent scholarly focus on post-classical kalām, its development in the Mamlūk domains- an important region of the pre-modern Islamic world – has remained largely unchartered, leaving the mistaken impression that rational sciences, including kalām, were not well-integrated in these societies. This impression is further reinforced by the disproportionate focus on anti-kalām scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) and his student, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751/1350), compared to other scholars of this region. Furthermore, given that the overwhelming output concerning kalām was carried out as commentaries and glosses, which were considered as merely repetitive and derivative in nature in modern scholarship until the turn of this century, almost no effort has been made to document and analyze the contribution of Mamlūk scholars to the discipline of kalām. Beyond rectifying the impression that Mamlūk scholars were not active in the kalām debates, my paper focuses on the question of how kalām was conceptualized as a religious discipline in this period and region. By focusing on the commentaries and glosses on popular kalām treatises and creedal texts, I argue that practitioners of kalām viewed their intellectual endeavors firmly rooted in the Islamic sciences with its goal being establishment of religious convictions (‘aqīda). While reason was still seen as a major source of establishing religious convictions, the only time when it did not need aid of the revelation was in proving matters that existed outside the purview of scripture, such as existence of God, the Qur’an as His revelation and Muhammad as His prophet. Hence, it was seen as a discipline that served as the foundation of the Qur’an and the Sunna, which in turn served as the foundation for the rest of the religious convictions (‘aqīda). Resultantly, the question of what counts as ‘ilm, ma‘rifa and ẓann and how are they related to religious convictions became a topic of contention among the commentators. This paper will contextualize the developments in Mamlūk kalām within the wider history of increasing systemization of the discipline as religious science, as well as the challenges posed by the anti-kalām scholars in its immediate environment. Overall, the paper hopes to bring to light the scholarly tradition of kalām as practiced in the Mamlūk realms to problematize the simplistic narratives of decline of “rational sciences” and the victory of “traditionalism” and show how kalām produced in this time and region did not fit in these simplistic binaries.
  • The Problem of the Cradle Ulama between Knowledge and Authority in the Mamluk Period This study focuses on one of the problems in understanding and interpreting the social and intellectual structure during the Mamluk period, namely the cradle ulama (scholar). Cradle ulama refers to the situation in which a particular position in various educational institutions passes from father to son, brother, or nephew. The spread of higher education in Mamluk society through institutions and the scientific activities of ulama (scholars) in madrasas and similar positions supported by rich endowments, on the one hand, ensuring the continuity of scientific activities in Mamluk society, and on the other hand, led to various struggles for position among ulemas. In particular, the numerous examples in the sources in which children who grew up in a particular family of scholars took over their father's position at an early age have made it necessary to address this issue. The Mamluk historical and tabaqat works (a genre of Islamic biographical literature) are full of examples of the rivalries and struggles of the scholar to attain positions. When a particular office passed to the child of a prominent scholar, this sometimes posed a major problem for others who were waiting to be appointed to that office. Another notable issue among the anecdotes on this subject in the tabaqat works is the situation of scholars who held more than one position among the Mamluk scholars. Understanding the issue is further complicated by the fact that the scholar sometimes held more than a dozen positions in different educational institutions in various Mamluk cities. This study focuses on a much more specific topic, and through the rivalries and conflicts that arose in Mamluk intellectual circles due the examples of those who were appointed at a young age to the positions of their father, uncle, or brother, an attempt will be made to understand how social action and social order were established in Mamluk society.