Al-Suyūṭī, a Polymath of the Mamlūk Period: Proceedings of the themed day of the First Conference of the School of Mamlūk Studies (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, June 23, 2014)

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 Al Suyuti A Polymath Of The Mamluk Period
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Antonella Ghersetti
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This volume is a collection of several of the papers presented during the first themed day of the First Conference of the School of Mamlūk Studies (held at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, from June 23 to June 25, 2014), devoted to Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505). The organizers of this First Conference—Marlis Saleh, Frédéric Bauden, and myself—thought it appropriate to devote the themed day of the conference to this Egyptian polymath who is probably the best representative of encyclopaedism, a genre that was practiced extensively in his time.

The wide gamut of disciplines he dealt with was the ideal nucleus around which to gather specialists in different fields who could con-tribute to a better knowledge of his intellectual profile and, more generally, to a deeper understanding of the cultural and academic life of the last period of the Mamlūk empire.

Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, the most productive author of the pre-modern Islamic world and no doubt “the most controversial figure of his time,”1 had a complex personality: arrogant, presumptuous, and polemic, he was involved in controversies of various kinds with his colleagues and with the political authorities of his time as well. His enemies were numerous, and a large number of his contemporaries displayed a remarkable and overt hostility against him.

The most caustic among them, al-Sakhāwī, did not refrain from contesting his eminence as a scholar and from denigrating him and accusing him of plagiarism. Yet these tense relations with his colleagues, his overt criticism of the politi-cal authorities and, generally speaking, his unpleasant character conflicted not only with the affection showed by his pupils but also with “the aura of godliness”2 that he enjoyed during his life; this makes his personality still more intriguing.

The most visible feature of his scholarly profile is perhaps his eclecticism; indeed, he was a multifaceted intellectual and, though he declared fiqh, ḥadīth, and grammar to be his preferred sciences, the titles of his bibliography range from law to theology, from linguistics to history, including medicine and geography.

 His wide-ranging scholarly output is no doubt a result of his belief that the level of scholarship had declined, even decayed. He felt that it was his mission to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the past, and knowledge in general, from widespread ignorance and from the decline in the learning standards of his time. But this belief did not cause him to retreat into the works of earlier scholars. He was first and foremost a man of the times. As such, he responded to his opponents—many of his works were written as a response to them, thus testifying to his deep involvement in debates and disputes of a political or scientific character.

He was also able to recognize public demand, both that of his colleagues, the ʿulamāʾ, and that of readers at large, and was ready to respond to it by producing rigorous but handy commentaries, treatises, or reference works.

Considered for a long time an author devoid of any originality and a “simple” compiler (an accusation which the bitter remarks of al-Sakhāwī played a part in), he was in fact an excellent teacher and a rigorous scholar. He had a meticu-lous and accurate working method, which manifested itself in the methodical and faithful citation of his sources and also resulted, as some essays in this volume demonstrate, in a careful and well thought out process of self-editing.

Six decades ago E.M. Sartain called for a reassessment of al-Suyūṭī’s production by specialists in the disciplines he dealt with, and for a more nuanced position on the issue of his lack of originality.3 In recent times and in a certain sense in response to her invitation, scholars have progressively changed their attitudes and started to appreciate al-Suyūṭī’s scrupulousness, honesty, and also originality. E.M. Sartain’s book, along with more recent contributions by Éric Geoffroy, Marlis Saleh, and Aaron Spevack are more than sufficient to introduce al-Suyūṭī’s life and bibliography;4 the themed day of the conference devoted to al-Suyūṭī was thus specially conceived to throw new light on specific aspects of his scholarly output, to stimulate a careful reassessment of his polymorphic, intriguing (perhaps provoking) intellectual profile, and to for-mulate a fresh appraisal of his scholarly achievements and his contribution to the intellectual life of the Mamlūk period.

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Readers will find in the present volume fresh insights into aspects already investigated, like his stance towards power, as well as original remarks and new insights into issues until now poorly investigated or overlooked in scholarly literature, like al-Suyūṭī’s contribution to the genre of ḥadīth commentary or erotica.

Commonly held opinions on al-Suyūṭī’s intellectual profile and working method are also questioned; some studies in this volume call for a more nuanced evaluation of al-Suyūṭī’s schol-arly production, including his methods of quoting previous works (or even his own works) and his original and personal approach to linguistic questions.

Last but not least, al-Suyūṭī’s impact on modern religious discourse is also represented in this volume, thus introducing new perspectives on the impact of historical heritage on contemporaneity.

Éric Geoffroy and Aaron Spevack’s essays delve into aspects of al-Suyūṭī’s thought that are, in different degrees, relevant to his reception and impact on modern and contemporary Islam and offer thought-provoking remarks on this. Geoffroy, taking al-Suyūṭī as the most prominent example of a trend of ninth/ fifteenth-century Muslim scholars, deals with the multifaceted concept of his Sufi affiliation, including his strong defense of taṣawwuf, and carefully investigates al-Suyūṭī’s approach to Sufism including the central and most chal-lenging question of whether al-Suyūṭī tasted mystical experiences.

Still on the topic of Sufism, Ta⁠ʾyīd al-ḥaqīqa al-ʿaliyya wa-tashyīd al-ṭarīqa al-Shādhiliyya constitutes the core of Spevack’s study. The backbone of this essay addresses the assumption that al-Suyūṭī’s intellectual profile challenges affiliations and definitions and further examines his “unique perspective” on many issues. Ta⁠ʾyīd al-ḥaqīqa, “a personal manifesto on Sufism,” is first put into the context of other works of al-Suyūṭī. Spevack then thoroughly investigates al-Suyūṭī’s controversial positions, notably the necessity of independent legal reasoning and the interconnections between Sufism and legal reasoning.

Spevack’s essay demonstrates al-Suyūṭī’s original stand in bridging the gap between Sufis’ and jurists’ fields of action, in order to reconcile traditionist tendencies with ratio-nal theology and logic.

Takao Ito and Judith Kindinger address al-Suyūṭī’s approach to legal matters involving practical aspects. Ito investigates al-Suyūṭī’s approach to problems of waqf (endowment), a matter until now not fully investigated. His essay, which takes into account al-Suyūṭī’s polemical attitude towards his colleagues and the relevant disputes concerning endowments, is based on al-Suyūṭī’s theo-retical positions and practical acquaintance with these matters, which derive from his positions as shaykh at a turba and a khānqāh and as a teacher of law.

Three groups of questions are examined through the lens of his collection of fatwās (entitled al-Ḥāwī lil-fatāwī): administration, beneficiary rights, and mis-cellaneous questions. Theory and practice are the two pillars of this careful investigation into al-Suyūṭī’s pragmatic approach to waqfs. Ito demonstrates that al-Suyūṭī, although consistent in his ideas, did not deny the complexity of reality; he achieved a good balance between theory and practice.

Kindinger’s study tackles the symbolic value of dress through the lens of a legal debate, notably the opposition between innovation (bidʿa) and customary practice (sunna). The use of the ṭaylasān aroused hot debates, as attested by al-Suyūṭī’s apologia, al-Aḥadīth al-ḥisān fī faḍl al-ṭaylasān, which Kindinger thoroughly scrutinized.

 Her investigation of the ṭaylasān explores its meanings as a marker of knowledge and a site for transcendence, but also as a garment that encroaches on gender boundaries and religious limitations. Kindinger dem-onstrates the value of clothing as a producer of communal identities; she thus emphasizes that the treatment of specific garments can become an arena to debate more sensitive matters.

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Al-Suyūṭī’s opinions on politics and history are at the core of the studies of Christian Mauder and Mustafa Banister. Mauder offers an in-depth analysis of some works concerning the relative positions of the sultan and the caliph: Mā rawāhu l-asāṭīn fī ʿadam al-majīʾ ilā l-salāṭīn, al-Risāla al-sulṭāniyya, and al-Aḥādīth al-munīfa fī faḍl al-salṭana al-sharīfa.

Mauder investigates the trea-tises’ attribution, their inter-relationship and the reasons driving their com-position, in order to gain a better insight into al-Suyūṭī’s political thought and into the relationship between his personal experiences with the rulers and his writings. Mauder’s careful reading of the three works shows that, by means of an attentive selection of ḥadīths, al-Suyūṭī critiques the rulers’ wrongdoings and gives voice to his difficult relationships with the Mamlūk rulers. Banister focuses on al-Suyūṭī’s views on history, and also hints at the existence of hot debates on the balance of power and the relationship between the sultan-ate and caliphate.

He thoroughly explored Ḥusn al-muḥāḍara and Ta⁠ʾrīkh al-khulafāʾ in order to investigate al-Suyūṭī’s position on the caliphate and the way he depicts its superiority. His perusal of the texts shows that al-Suyūṭī’s argument is based on the pivotal notion that ‘Abbasid caliphs of Cairo influ-enced the corporeal world and were thus essential to the functioning of the natural world.

The autobiographical grounds of such a powerful vision of the caliphate are also examined and identified not only with careerism and opportunism, but also in terms of the expression of the mood of the people of that time.

Through literary analysis, Christopher Bahl concentrates on the historical thought of al-Suyūṭī, thus emphasizing the significance of literary texts for historical research. The article, focused on Rafʿ shaʾ n al-Ḥubshān, delves into the tension between two perhaps divergent, but in practice combined, approaches to received texts: preservation and elaboration. By means of a thorough textual analysis dealing with the diverse techniques of compilation (e.g., segmentation, repetition, contrastive succession) operating in the trea-tise, Bahl presents some features of al-Suyūṭī’s working method.

Contrasting al-Suyūṭī’s work with those of his predecessors on the same subject, the investi-gation shows how al-Suyūṭī creates a true historicisation of the Abyssinians by means of a historically rooted, subaltern Abyssinian identity through his tech-niques of textual compilation. The following study by Stephen Burge, an in-depth exploration of the principle of compilation, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of al-Suyūṭī’s working method.

Al-Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān, at the core of Burge’s essay, engages with other works al-Suyūṭī incorporated into it and is compared with al-Taḥbīr fī ʿilm al-tafsīr, an earlier treatise on the same subject. This inquiry calls for a more nuanced evaluation of the accusations of plagiarism against al-Suyūṭī by his contemporaries and modern scholars. The meticulous comparison of some passages from the works highlights al-Suyūṭī’s method of reworking, rewriting, and revising his own (and others’) materials; it thus assesses the extent to which al-Suyūṭī reworked his first treatise in order to improve and deepen it.

This research, revolving around the process of self-editing, also follows the path of recent works that aim at investigating and elu-cidating the working methods of scholars of the pre-modern Muslim world.

Joel Blecher also chooses a textual approach to deal with a relatively over-looked topic: the practice of ḥadīth commentary. The genre of concise ḥadīth commentary is in fact taken as a case study of knowledge as a social practice, in the vein of Michael Chamberlain’s seminal work,5 thus taking into account the way authors work along with their audiences’ expectations and habits. The essay explores al-Suyūṭī’s approach to concise commentary in relation to his antecedents and models, like al-Zarkashī, and analyzes the way he preserves and curtails the tradition he inherited. Blecher comments on the techniques of the art of ḥadīth commentary during al-Suyūṭī’s time and offers insights into al-Suyūṭī’s contribution to it and his impact on the following generations as well.

He demonstrates that, by also practicing what is called “strategic omis-sions,” al-Suyūṭī sought a balance between practical value and exegetical suc-cinctness. The results of this investigation hint that al-Suyūṭī’s success was not determined by originality or the encyclopedic excess extensively practiced in his time, but by his balance of usefulness and conciseness conceived for an audience seeking “user-friendly” ḥadīth commentaries.

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A variety of al-Suyūṭī’s wide-ranging scholarly output are explored in the following essays, which examine fields of study not immediately associated to his renown as a scholar: linguistics and erotology. Francesco Grande’s essay focuses on al-Suyūṭī’s linguistic thought as expressed in his linguistic encyclo-pedia, al-Muzhir fī ʿulūm al-lugha wa-anwāʿihā.

Grande’s is a fortunate choice given that al-Suyūṭī declared himself especially fond of philology and gram-mar and that many of what he considered his most original works are in these fields. Concentrating on a case study of a morphological nature, Grande uses three conceptual elements (history, comparativism, and morphology) to dem-onstrate that al-Suyūṭī adopted a method of linguistic analysis similar to that of modern historical linguistics, thus Grande questions the generally held conviction that Arab grammarians have an ahistorical attitude.

Through the re-appraisal of al-Suyūṭī’s diachronic and comparative perspective on lan-guage his critical approach is thus better recognized.

The essays of Firanescu and Hämeen-Anttila, both revolving around al-Suyūṭī’s erotica books, nicely complement each other. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila surveys the somehow indefinite boundaries of the notion of “erotica” and gives an overview of the titles pertaining to this genre that al-Suyūṭī him-self lists in his autobiography.

An overall presentation of these works, including their mutual relationship and relative chronology, precedes the more detailed presentation of three titles (al-Wishāḥ fī fawāʾid al-nikāḥ, Nawāḍir al-ayk fī maʿrifat al-nayk, and Shaqāʾiq al-utrunj fī raqāʾiq al-ghunj) which are probably a series of short treatises originating from a larger work he drafted as a com-prehensive encyclopedia, but did not finalize. Questioning the reasons driving al-Suyūṭī to compose erotica, Hämeen-Anttila’s essay stresses that, although he was a polymath and a religious scholar, al-Suyūṭī wrote freely on erotic topics, without any censure of obscene contents.

The same absence of censure and freedom of approach is also evident in the following essay, by Daniela Rodica Firanescu, which focuses especially on Shaqāʾiq al-utrunj, described as an “example of transgression of the religious, ethical, and legal treatment of nikāḥ.” The work in fact privileges a “worldly” approach to sexuality instead of the usual, more traditional, treatments. Taking as a case study the treatment of erotic vocalization (ghunj) in all its varieties, Firanescu’s essay offers an in-depth study of the concept of marriage etiquette (adab al-nikāḥ).

The author’s sensitive understanding of the semantic implications of the texts constitutes a valuable tool for comprehending meanings and the intents of the work. Her contribution effectively investigates the way literary discourse creates models of ideal feminine behavior and demonstrates how such authoritative texts con-tribute to our understanding of the “culture of gender” in the Mamlūk period.

Our hope, as organizers of the First Conference of the School of Mamlūk Studies, and my personal hope as editor of this volume, is that the essays pub-lished herein constitute a meaningful contribution to a reassessment of the scholarly profile of this controversial but fascinating polymath and intellectual who uniquely interpreted and represented the cultural trends and political tensions of the last stage of the Mamlūk period.

As the local organizer of the First Conference of the School of Mamlūk Studies, I wish to thank all those who took part in what was the first of a— hopefully long—series of conferences; in particular I express my warmest gratitude to all the colleagues who accepted the invitation to animate the themed day on al-Suyūṭī. Their enthusiastic response made this first day a vivid, thought provoking, and stimulating opportunity for discussion and scientific enrichment, of which this volume will be a worthy testimony.

My appreciation is also due to those who sent their papers for publication and patiently answered my many queries concerning translations, transliterations, or bibliographical details.

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