The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunni Scholasticism: Abdallah B. Al-mubarak and the Formation Sunni Identity in the Second Islamic Century

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 The Emergence Of Early Sufi Piety
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Feryal Salem
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In ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak (118–181/736–797) we find a figure who was consid-ered by many a paragon in the fields of ḥadīth, zuhd, and jihād, as attested to by the large number of references to him in classical Islamic sources. His exper-tise and superior rank as a ḥadīth transmitter even earned him the title “com-mander of the faithful” among some later critics.1 He contributed to Islamic law during its early phases of development, performed jihād, composed poetry, and participated in theological discussions.

 In addition, Ibn al-Mubārak was a pioneer in writing on piety and was later regarded by many mystics to be one of the earliest Sufi figures.2 The biography of Ibn al-Mubārak, who lived during the formative period of Islamic thought, gives us insight into the evolution of zuhd, ḥadīth, and jihād; indeed his life and works distinctively illuminate the second/eighth-century dynamics of the nascent Sunnī tradition.

 Furthermore, Ibn al-Mubārak’s status as a fighter and pious figure of the Late Antique period reveals a great deal about the complex relationship between the early Muslim community and the religiously diverse setting they inhabited. Yet, despite the importance of the figure of ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak, to date no comprehensive and critical work has been composed on him in English.

Nor has there been a study that situates him within the larger context of Late Antiquity and exam-ines his interactions with the various perceptions of piety and martial valor prevalent in this period. The present study attempts to do these things.

ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak’s significance to Islamic history is based on several factors. First, Ibn al-Mubārakʼs life reveals the practical application of many aspects of Islamic practice that are often only, or principally, studied from a textual perspective. Many texts deal with zuhd, jihād, and ḥadīth on a theo-retical level; in the biography of Ibn al-Mubārak we find a behavioral model of a figure who put these ideals into action. He was a mujāhid, muḥaddith (traditionist), and zāhid and achieved prominence among the early Muslim community as a quintessential model in each of these fields.

As a result, he is an important figure who not only personifies the developing Sunnī milieu of his time but was also a significant force in shaping early Islamic history and identity. The latter is demonstrated by the overwhelming number of refer-ences to him in primary sources which evoke his example.

Second, ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak lived during the early formative period of Islamic history, a time in which the schools of law, the field of ḥadīth sciences, and conceptions of Islamic piety were still developing. In Ibn al-Mubārak’s life we see a living depiction of many aspects of this period and these depic-tions enable us to better understand the dynamics of the factors involved in shaping the later fields of ḥadīth and law.

A study of this pivotal figure, who participated in and contributed to this formative period of Islam, also sheds light on the formation of Sunnī identity, since ḥadīth and law were both profound elements of this identity.

Third, ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak was a prominent scholar who transmit-ted ḥadīth from the most important traditionists of his time. He traveled extensively to collect ḥadīths, and as a result contributed significantly to the corpus of ḥadīth collections that were later compiled. The paramount nature of ḥadīth in the life of this figure is also reflected in the fact that ḥadīth per-meates all of the fields he was involved with, particularly zuhd and jihād.

 His compilations on these topics are essentially books of ḥadīth, though not all prophetic ḥadīth.3 Furthermore, his Kitāb al-Zuhd and Kitāb al-Jihād are among the earliest works, if not the earliest works, of their genres.

Ibn al-Mubārak also played an important role as a mujāhid on the Arab-Byzantine frontiers. His compilation of the Kitāb al-Jihād is an important contribution to the genre of works on jihād and his prominence as a figure of piety and scholarship who also participated in jihād set a precedent that was followed by a significant number of scholars and aspiring scholars. Ibn al-Mubārak fought the Byzantines when Muslims were still a minority; a study on his life thus raises many questions on the dynamics of the relation-ship between the three monotheistic faiths during this transformative period.

This study of Ibn al-Mubārak’s life as a mujāhid in the frontier lands (thughūr) provides further information about the nature of Muslim martial pursuits in early Islamic history.

Finally, Ibn al-Mubārak is also a crucial figure in early Islamic piety. His Kitāb al-Zuhd is one of the first works in this genre; it was followed by many other kutub al-zuhd composed by other pious figures. His definition of zuhd as a broad spectrum of virtues taught by the Prophet and the early Muslim community laid the foundation on which many later Sufi figures further developed the Sufi tradition. His form of piety, which is often depicted as one that shunned worldliness without shunning the world itself, was a practice that he shared with many other ḥadīth transmitters.

Because piety was an important criterion in determining the uprightness of a transmitter (ʿadāla), a study of Ibn al-Mubārak’s piety facilitates a better understanding of the form of piety upheld by the networks of ḥadīth transmitters. He was praised in primary sources on ḥadīth reference texts and in books of Sufism, in fact the consensus among these sources indicates that his piety was praised by a wide range of his scholarly circle of peers.

 Since the muḥaddithūn of Islam’s formative period were the bedrock of the then developing Sunnī identity, a more profound understanding of the vision of piety espoused by these scholars is important because it inevitably influenced later conceptions of what types of devotional practices are considered essential to and within the bounds of Sunnī Islam.4

Biography of ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak

The Sources of Ibn al-Mubārak’s Biography

Contemporary scholars of Islam have brought to the forefront important con-cerns regarding the reliability of reports found in classical sources and the extent to which accurate narratives of the past can be constructed. A variety of approaches to this critical inquiry into early Islamic sources have shaped much of the discourse in recent literature that has emerged in western studies of Islam. Fred Donner presents a valuable chronology of the ways in which western historians of the past two centuries have dealt with what they viewed as conflicting reports and uncertainties about the reliability of the early source material.1

Donner convincingly argues that what he terms the “descriptive” and the “skeptical” approach each involve problematic elements in their meth-odology and these affect their ability to accurately assess historical accounts. The descriptive approach, according to Donner, was a significant divergence from the highly polemical depictions of Islamic history common in Europe-an scholarship prior to the nineteenth century. Donner argues that the works of scholars such as Philip K. Hitti,2 Edward Gibbon,3 William Muir,4 G. E. von Grunebaum,5 and many others from the nineteenth century onward relied upon the limited primary sources available at that time and assumed that these works depicted the early Islamic period accurately.

 In the second half of the twentieth century, with the surge of publications of Arabic texts, many of the unedited manuscripts became easily accessible in modern text formats and many variant reports of early historical narratives emerged.

 These new sources forced historians to revise their methods of uncritically relying on his-torical accounts of the early Islamic period.6

The second half of the twentieth century also witnessed the emergence of what Donner categorizes as the “skeptical approach.”7 This school of western scholarship on Islam surfaced out of the skepticism of one of the most influential orientalist scholars, Ignaz Goldziher, and later his intellectual disciple, Joseph Schacht. Goldziher was among the first to claim that ḥadīth literature was for the most part a fabrication of later Muslim figures who were intent on producing evidence to justify their own interests by using false chains of transmission to authenticate their claims.

His two-volume work, Muhammadenische Studien,8 laid the foundations upon which Schacht later argued that the fabrication of ḥadīth correlates to the development of Islamic schools of law in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. Schacht claimed that early Muslim legists created prophetic traditions in the form of ḥadīth to justify legal rulings based on regional schools.9

Muhammad Azami wrote a formidable refutation of Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, but his polemical tone throughout the text and, perhaps, the exceptionally specialized nature of the debate prevented this otherwise important work from reaching a broader audience among western academics.10

The “skeptical approach” gained momentum in the decades following Schacht’s scholarship with a number of scholars who promoted a radically alternate version of early Islamic history; this version essentially argues that Islam in its present form is the result of formulations that took place in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. John Wansborough argues that the Qurʾān was a text that took form later in an environment of sectarian division; he elaborates on this further in his earlier study, Sectarian Milieu.11

Patricia Crone distinguished herself by asserting that Islam began as a Jewish messianic movement which later fabricated an early Islamic history through back projection.12 It was even claimed that the Prophet Muḥammad was a later invention of this movement—part of its Arabization—and the Qurʾān was a redaction of Judeo-Christian texts that were later formulated into a text.

This attempt to attribute Judeo-Christian origins to Islam and its scripture is promoted by other contemporary scholars such as Gabriel Said Reynolds, Andrew Rippin, and Sidney Griffith.

The recent attempts to problematize the Muslim narrative of its own origins and claim its origins in some form to be in Christianity, either as a heresy or a later development is not new. Lammens, who preceded Schacht’s prominence, is regarded in many ways as a precursor to the skeptical trends that develop throughout the later twentieth century.

Donner writes regarding the approach of Lammens:

A precursor of such a radically skeptical position can be found in the works of the Jesuit scholar Henri Lammens who, around the beginning of the twentieth century, published a series of detailed studies on the background and rise of early Islam. These were marked by a (largely implicit) set of source critical assumptions …

Lammens’ work sometimes inspired admiration for its erudition (which is, at times, astonishing), but its thinly veiled hostility to Islam was offensive to Muslims and to fair-minded Western scholars alike, and found no real following; moreover, his methodological assumptions were challenged by some of his contemporaries, notably Theodore Noldeke and Carl Heinrich Becker. Becker faulted Lammens for accepting uncritically any accounts that were hostile to Fāṭima, suggesting that Lammens’ bias stemmed from his desire as a committed Christian, to discredit the whole family of the Prophet.13

We are reminded that the difficulties of accurately depicting religious history are not exclusive to its adherents whose narratives may be shaped by motives related to self-identitiy, but also apply to the adherents of other faith traditions who may project their own religious paradigms and biases in the process of defining themselves in relation to the other.

The skeptical approach has steadily lost its influence with the emergence of new scholarship that has proven much of their arguments untenable. The beginning of the twenty-first century has seen a new generation of western academics who challenge earlier assumptions, such as the mass fabrication of ḥadīths by later legal scholars and the second/eighth and third/ninth century invention of an image of early Islam. Scholars such as Harald Motzki and Scott Lucas have made significant contributions to the study of ḥadīth origins that challenge the view that the corpus of ḥadīths was a wholesale forgery with arbitrary chains of transmission (isnād, pl. asānīd) attributed to them.

 Ahmed El Shamsy and Umar Abd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf have also revis-ited many of the earlier assumptions about the early development of Islamic schools of law and offer exceedingly thorough legal histories.14 Walid Saleh15 has written on the Qurʾān while Jonathan Brown16 and Asma Afsaruddin17 have made important contributions to the study of the evolution of “ortho-doxy” in the Muslim world through the history of canonization and political leadership. These are only a few of the many recent works on the early period of Islam that have significantly transformed the field.

 Many of these scholars have turned their attention to primary Islamic texts and engage the valuable findings in the western study of Islam with the works of classical Islamic studies to arrive at more nuanced conclusions. This approach brings invalu-able perspectives that are cognizant of the problems of accepting historical reports at face value and still appreciative of the richness of the classical lit-erature on Islam and the usefulness of examining the historic scholarship of the many Muslim intellectuals who made painstaking efforts to discriminate between historical truths and falsehoods.

In composing a monograph on an early figure such as ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak, it is imperative to consider the question of what approach will be taken in utilizing information in the classical sources. I have highlighted some of the potential dangers of taking historical reports at face value as well as the weakness of an overly skeptical approach that often expunges a signif-icant portion of historical information only to replace it with questionable hypotheses that lack a sound methodological basis.

In addition, it is critical to recognize that virtually all hermeneutical approaches that either attempt to interpret or selectively choose what appears to be “factual” in historical texts ultimately reflect the epistemological approach of the historian himself or herself.

Though not impossible, it is exceedingly difficult to approach historical texts without imposing contemporary predispositions, suspicions, cognitive frameworks, and paradigms in some form. Indeed, source criticism can be a double-edged sword that reveals the biases of the present even as it attempts to expose the biases of the past.

Taking the above into consideration, I have adopted an approach that demonstrates how the classical sources portray aspects of the life of Ibn al-Mubārak, without either rejecting information that cannot be factually disproven or unequivocally accepting the veracity of all that is reported about this early figure.

Hence, in this chapter I provide a narrative of how the his-torical literature on Ibn al-Mubārak depicts his life without eliminating or selectively including the many aspects of these narratives that simply cannot be confirmed or proven inaccurate at present.

In chapter 2, on ḥadīth, I analyze the narrative of Ibn al-Mubārak’s life and works to address questions on the authenticity of historical reports in greater detail by comparing Ibn al-Mubārak’s biography to the portrayal of other figures, such as Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, as well as the reliability of the isnād system and networks of scholars to which ḥadīths are attributed in their transmission.

 In the remaining chapters, I high-light relevant entries from the classical texts and analyze them within the context of the circumstances of Ibn al-Mubārak’s era in an attempt to derive not only a general picture of this figure, but also some of the trends and devel-opments in the formative period of Sunnī Islam as reflected in his life.

Finally, it must be noted that even unverifiable historical narratives remain significant for the way in which the general corpus of these reports in the classical texts depict an ontological truth about how early Muslims themselves viewed Islamic scholars and their work.

This is yet another essential theme in this study of the life and times of Ibn al-Mubārak, which, when coupled with an examination of how the Sunnī scholastic tradition developed and defined itself demonstrates the sophistication of Sunnī theology and practice.

mī lineage.19 It is reported that his father was a mawlā to a merchant from Hamadhān and that he was eventually married to his master’s daughter after a well-known incident, described in classical sources, demonstrated Mubārak’s trustworthiness.

Ibn Khallikān and others report various versions of a narra-tive that relate that Ibn al-Mubārak’s father used to work in the orchard of his master; one day he was told to bring his master a sweet pomegranate. Ibn al-Mubārak’s father replied that he could not tell the difference between the sweet and the sour ones since he had never tasted them.

When questioned why he had never tasted them, he replied that he had never been given permission to and hence he had abstained from doing so. The master was impressed by the young man’s trustworthiness, and later asked him about one of his daughters who had received many marriage proposals; he said, “O Mubārak, whom do you think is worthy of marrying this girl?” He replied, “The people of ignorance (Jahiliyya) used to marry for lineage, the Jews for wealth, and the Christians for beauty, and this [Muslim] nation for [soundness] in religion.”

Being impressed once again by the sagacity of this answer, he married his daughter to Mubārak.20 While we cannot ascertain the veracity of this account, it is nevertheless im-portant as a depiction of Ibn al-Mubārak’s image in later biographical sources. This is also one of the only details available about Ibn al-Mubārak’s parents in the classical sources.

 There is a brief reference in the Tahdhīb al-tahdhīb, in the biography of Abū Tamīla, who says, “My father and Mubārak, the father of ʿAbdallāh, were both merchants and they used to give one dirham to whichev-er one of us memorized an ode (qaṣīda).”21 It is likely that if the account of his marrying his masterʼs daughter is true, then he probably began his scholarly his career after his marriage.

ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak was born in Marv and remained there for the early years of his life. Al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī cites Ibn al-Mubārak as saying, “I remember I was young and I wore black when Abū Muslim came out … Abū Muslim commanded everyone to wear black, the young and the old.”22 This reference appears to indicate that Ibn al-Mubārak lived through a unique historic juncture in which he witnessed the ʿAbbāsid revolt led by Abū Muslim in his region of Khurasān and the eventual demise of the Umayyad caliphate.

His early years are described as being carefree and far from the scholastic pursuits he engaged in later. Ibn ʿAsākir cites the following conversion narra-tive attributed to him:…..

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