Religious Scholars and the Umayyads: Piety-Minded Supporters of the Marwanid Caliphate

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 Religious Scholars And The Umayyads
  • Book Author:
Steven Judd
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About the book – Religious Scholars and the Umayyads

Religious Scholars and the Umayyads analyzes legal and theological developments during the Marwānid period (64/684–132/750), focusing on religious scholars who supported the Umayyads. Their scholarly network extended across several generations and significantly influenced the development of the Islamic faith. Umayyad īs, who represented the intersection of religious authority and imperial power, were particularly important.

This book challenges the long-standing paradigm that the emerging Muslim faith was shaped by religious dissenters who were hostile to the Umayyads. A prosopographical analysis of Umayyad-era scholars demonstrates that piety and opposition were not necessarily synonymous. Reputable scholars served as īs, tutors and advisors to Umayyad caliphs and governors. Their religious credentials were untarnished by their association with the Umayyads and they appear prominently in later adīth collections and fiqh works.

This historiographical study demonstrates that excessive reliance on al- Ṭabarī’s chronicle has distorted the image of the Umayyads. Alternatively, biographical sources produced by later adīth scholars reveal a rich tradition of Umayyad-era religious scholarship that undermines al-Ṭabarī’s assumptions. Offering a better understanding of early Islamic religious development, this book is a valuable resource for students and researchers in the fields of Islamic history, Islamic legal studies, and Arabic historiography.

Steven C. Judd is Professor of Middle East History at Southern Connecticut State University, USA. He has written extensively on the Umayyad period, focusing on

history, historiography, theology, and legal studies.

Umayyad scholars in modern studies

The Umayyad era, particularly its Marwānid period (64/684–132/750), is crucial for understanding the emergence of Islamic legal and theological thought.

During these decades the Muslim empire evolved from a rapidly expanding polity whose rulers relied on ad-hoc solutions into a more mature, bureaucratic regime. After ‘Abd al-Malik’s success against the Zubayrids in 72/692, the empire’s center of gravity shifted permanently from Arabia to the north, making old urban centers like Damascus and new ones like Kufa and Basra the focal points for administrative, intellectual, and religious development.

 The tribal arrangements of Arabian life were increasingly ill-suited for the complexities of the growing empire, which by now comprised more non-Arabs than Arabs.

The urge to systematize and bureaucratize that characterized much of ‘Abd al- Malik’s reign (r. 65/685–86/705) extended to intellectual and religious issues as well. It is no coincidence that ‘Alids, Kharijites, and other sectarian movements became threats during the Marwānid period.

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They, like their Marwānid enemies, sought tidy, uniform approaches to questions of doctrine and law. This tendency toward the articulation of more consistent doctrines, albeit competing ones, reflects the natural development of the faith itself.

As the faith matured and zeal gave way to reflection, greater consistency and coherence became more desirable. Arguably, Islam as we know it today, including both its agreed doctrines and its deepest schisms, is the fruit of the labors of Marwānid-era thinkers addressing Marwānid-era questions and conflicts.

Unfortunately, it remains extremely difficult to gain a clear picture of how these early debates played out. The lack of reliable contemporary sources, combined with the well-studied tendency of later authors to project more recent solutions back to the formative period of Islam, makes a coherent image of the Marwānid era elusive at best. One gets the clear impression that certain aspects of Islamic thought were coalescing and that particular theological and legal topics, such as human free-will and caliphal authority, were the focus of significant, increasingly sophisticated, debate.

 However, the evidence is scarce enough to make it difficult to gain many insights into the process by which legal and theological doctrines and practices were formed. Who contributed to the debate? How was consensus forged? What catalysts put particular topics on the agenda?

The shortcomings of our sources and the lack of contemporary evidence have not, however, prevented scholarly speculation about the nature of the Marwānid religious and intellectual landscape. Unfortunately, as the discussion below will elucidate, modern conclusions about the Marwānid period have largely perpetuated often unfounded myths about the period that were part of the grand historical narrative produced by later ‘Abbāsid-era scholars, particularly al- Ṭabarī (d. 310/923). Despite the healthy skepticism expressed by some historians about al-Ṭabarī’s veracity and about the reliability of the sources he cited, significant aspects of his interpretation of the Marwānid period continue to be accepted without scrutiny.

 I have examined some of al-Ṭabarī’s biases elsewhere and will consider the consequences of excessive, often uncritical reliance on al-Ṭabarī in more detail in Chapter 2.1

Modern scholarship, based largely on al-Ṭabarī, has produced an enduring representation of the scholarly landscape of the Marwānid period. While details and nuances vary depending on individual scholars’ specific interests, the overall image remains roughly the same. At the core of the conventional understanding of the era is the assumption that, with few exceptions, caliphs exercised little positive religious influence on doctrine, law or ritual practice.

When evidence suggests that the Umayyad leaders did try to wield doctrinal influence, their contributions are largely dismissed as cynical efforts to manipulate the faithful and to facilitate a tighter grasp on the reins of imperial power.

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Meanwhile, modern studies, based largely on ‘Abbāsid-era sources, perpetuate the presumption that reputable, pious scholars avoided associations with the ruling elite. In this narrative construction, the scholarly community, such as it was, stood apart from the largely secular, cynical Umayyad rulers. Consequently, the Marwānid period appears to be a void in the development of Islamic thought.

The few scholars who did produce substantial, influential works operated without the protection and patronage of pious leaders. The roots of more impressive scholarly traditions that would become the foundation of the Islamic polity are left to sprout almost instantaneously in the aftermath of the ‘Abbāsid revolution. An examination of the dominant paradigms for discussing scholarly activity in the Umayyad period will underscore how pervasive these assumptions remain.

More than a century ago, Ignaz Goldziher offered an appraisal of the Umayyads that has remained paradigmatic until today. In his seminal Muhammedanische Studien, he depicted the Umayyads as indifferent toward religion and asserted that scholars began preserving adīth to preserve the faith in the face of the threat from Umayyad impiety.2 He acknowledged that the

Umayyads also collected adīth to justify their positions, but his emphasis was on the alleged forgery of prophetic material by Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) and other Umayyad supporters.3 Two decades later, in his Vorlesungen über den Islam, Goldziher succinctly presented his understanding of the relationship between the Umayyads and their ‘Abbāsid successors:

[T]he upheaval which placed the ‘Abbāsids upon the caliphal throne was no mere political revolution. More than a change of dynasties, it also meant a profound transformation in religious respects. A theocratic regime, with an ecclesiastical policy, supplanted the Umayyads, whom pietistic circles had condemned for worldliness and who, in their desert palaces and in their capital city of Damascus, had cultivated the ancient Arab ideals and traditions.4

Put simply, the ‘Abbāsids were religious; the Umayyads were not. While Goldziher did not explicitly group religious scholars into a single broad, dissenting category, it is clear that he saw religious scholars and the Umayyads in opposition to each other.

Like Goldziher, his contemporary, Julius Wellhausen, considered the Umayyads to be a secular regime. He saw legal scholars and Qur’ān reciters (qurrā’) as religious opponents of a godless tyranny. It was they who sought to create a righteous theocracy and hoped to do so by defeating the Umayyads.5

For Wellhausen, it was the legal scholars, whom he did not name, who cultivated Islamic law and the Kharijites who sparked the first theological discourse.6 Like Goldziher, Wellhausen assumed that the Umayyads were godless rulers whose main concern with religious matters was to prevent pious dissent from boiling over into outright rebellion.

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In his monumental Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson coined the term “piety-minded opposition” to describe the relationship between religious scholars and the Marwānid regime.7 The term provided a label for a longstanding paradigm, but Hodgson also offered a more comprehensive explication of the presumed relationship between the Umayyads and religious scholars.

 Hodgson posited that religious scholars began the process of preserving both prophetic adīth and sīra as a means to preserve the tenets of the true faith from the destructive influence of the secular Marwānid leaders.

He asserted that the piety- minded, whom he sometimes labels simply as “Muslims” (implying that their political opponents were not Muslims), “maintained a sense of historical identity which was coloured by opposition to the dynasty in the name of Islam.”8 Accordingly, scholarly endeavors become inherently subversive, if not openly revolutionary.

 For Hodgson, it is within this diverse opposition to Marwānid rule that Islamic legal and theological thought emerges.

The Umayyad caliphs themselves, Hodgson presumes, were not active participants in the articulation of religious doctrine. In fact, “the unwillingness or inability of the Marwānids to take the lead here intensified the feeling of discontent with them as rulers.”9 Hence, it is not the obsessive piety of the

opponents, but the impiety or indifference of the rulers that created the rift

between the religious community and their secular rulers. The only times the Umayyad caliphs engaged in the scholarly discourse over doctrinal and legal questions were when radical theories threatened to spark dissent against the rulers themselves. In short, the Umayyads were concerned with crushing religious ideas they considered dangerous, not in articulating a comprehensive vision of the faith.

Hodgson collected a diverse array of groups with often disparate views under his piety-minded banner. The opposition included Kharijites, Shi‘ites, Zubayrids and Qadarites, as well as the ‘Abbāsids.10 This collection of “piety-minded” groups shared virtually no doctrinal views, except their disgust with the

Umayyads’ purported immorality. Indeed, without a shared enemy this odd assortment of movements could hardly be treated as a unified group; they would more likely have condemned each other. Yet, Hodgson gave the impression that the piety-minded, for all of their divisions, represented a unified bloc opposed to the Umayyad regime.

One striking feature of Hodgson’s narrative is his disregard for individual actors in the piety-minded movement. Rather than naming names, Hodgson spoke in broad terms of groups such as the Qur’ān reciters or qurrā’ (for whom a clear definition remains elusive

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