Theology and Society in the Second and Third Centuries of the Hijra. Volume 3. A History of Religious Thought in Early Islam

Theology and Society in the Second and Third Centuries of the Hijra. Volume 3. A History of Religious Thought in Early Islam
  • Book Title:
 Theology And Society In The Second And Third Centuries
  • Book Author:
Josef Van Ess
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The Unification of Islamic Thought and the Flowering of Theology


With the foundation of Baghdad Islamic intellectual history reached a decisive turning point. This statement will sound banal to anyone looking at the development retrospectively; for the contemporaries, however, what was tak-ing place was too complex to be perceived consciously and described in these terms.

They recorded how carefully Manṣūr planned the external appearance of the city, how, maybe with reference to east Iranian models, he had it built perfectly circular, and how he parcelled it within the walls according to clear geometric principles, but also with a view to strict security.

They also noted that he, being superstitious like most rulers, had his court astrologer Nawbakht calculate the precise moment for laying the foundation stone. But they did not notice, or if they did, they did not transmit it, the revolutionary consequences this would have for social structures and how they would influence intellectual life and alter consciousness.

After all, the depth of the historic caesura had by no means been evident from the very first. The Abbasids had moved their residence several times al-ready. After Saffāḥ had proclaimed himself caliph in Kufa, he had first lived near Qaṣr Ibn Hubayra halfway between Kufa and the future Baghdad, and then moved into a newly established palace complex near Anbār.

Manṣūr had settled near Kufa, presumably in a town which, like Qaṣr Ibn Hubayra, had been built by the last Umayyad governor. As we know, the caliphs did not stay in Baghdad very long either; a century later they moved to Samarra, a good 125 km (75 miles) away. Baghdad, however, was not abandoned by its inhabitants and left to be washed away by the rains like the earlier centres, which histo-rians list as ‘Hāshimī dwellings’ (Hāshimiyya). On the contrary, the city grew quickly to become a metropolis, surviving the temporary absence of the court and civil servants…


Local Tradition. Madāʾin

Before it caught the caliph’s eye, Baghdad had been only a small village.1 The nearest larger place, nearer at least than Samarra would later be, and certain-ly nearer than Kufa, was Madāʾin, ancient Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Some of the Sasanids’ administrative and representative buildings had survived the first sack of the city.2 Ziyād turned the īwān Kisrā, the great audience hall, into a mosque; later the governors would live there.3 Unlike in Basra or Kufa, the ear-liest settlers were not the conquering troops but members of the Azd4 who, however, did not side with the Khārijites but with the Shīʿites: Kufa was bring-ing its influence to bear.

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When ʿAlī expelled ʿAbdallāh b. Saba ʾ from Kufa, the latter is said to have found refuge there.5 This was the reason why the Azraqites attacked the city in 68/687, inflicting significant losses on the Muslim popu-lation.6 It is likely, however, that the majority of the inhabitants were long-established members of other religions, who had little inclination to fight for the Muslims, and who were probably spared by the Khārijites as well.

They lived on the western bank of the Tigris, the Jews in Māḥōzā,7 the Christians in Kōkhē. Before the foundation of Baghdad, this was where the Jewish exilarch as well as the Nestorian catholicos8 resided; even the head of the Manichaeans returned here again.9 This is one of the reasons why the Arabic sources men-tion the city so infrequently. Muslims who settled there were unlikely to escape assimilation, while in Basra or Kufa they were among themselves.

The clearest example of this assimilation was the community surrounding the gnostic ʿAbdallāh b ʿAmr b. Ḥarb al-Kindī, who came from a non-Muslim family himself. He sought to establish the myth of the fall or decline of the soul within Islam. Souls, he said, are heavenly lights that were obscured to shad-ows (aẓilla) in punishment. In order to be granted salvation, they must first live in various physical forms. Those humans who do not prove themselves in…

Religious Policy under al-Manṣūr and al-Mahdī

We should not assume that Baghdad was influenced significantly by Madāʾin. Manṣūr had brought his people with him from elsewhere, the soldiers from Khorasan, perhaps some civil servants from Kufa. In the case of a few of them we even know where he settled them: deserving army leaders and his close associates received plots outside the walls of the ‘circular city’; soldiers could build their homes in the suburbs (arbāḍ).1

The city centre was mainly reserved for the palace district and official buildings; besides the caliph the people who lived there were mainly high officials and dignitaries. To the west were the markets of Karkh where Aramaic-speaking Christians had always lived; they were now joined by Muslims, in particular Shīʿites.2

 Consequently the intellectual life of the city took place on several levels which did not communicate with one another easily: at court, within the ‘circular city’, and also beyond the walls, where soon it would not be restricted to the villas of aristocrats and officials, but spread to the houses of the immigrant merchant class, who traditionally took an interest in religious matters. Eventually it would even take root among the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie and the working class.3

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 The court created opportunities for an exchange of ideas that had not existed previously. The caliph’s round table (nudamāʾ) brought together intellectuals from the most varied backgrounds; there had been religious debates from al-Mahdī’s time onwards, and increasingly under the Barmakids. People were more open to Hellenistic thought than previously; religion encountered logic and meta-physics. The city was as open and multi-faceted as it was lacking in history.

 ‘The good thing about Baghdad’, said Ibn al-Faqīh, ‘is that the authorities can be safe from some school leader gaining the ascendancy there, like the ʿAlids frequently overcome the Kufans with the aid of the Shīʿa. For in Baghdad the opponents of the Shīʿa live with the Shīʿa, opponents of the Muʿtazila live with the Muʿtazila, and opponents of the Khārijites with the Khārijites; each party keeps the other one in check and prevents it from appointing itself ruler.’4 Of…

The ‘Abbasid Shīʿa’

Gradually another idea moved to the foreground of the conflict with Ḥasanids and Shīʿites in general, an idea that al-Mahdī would make official doctrine: the precedence of ʿAbbās over the descendants of ʿAlī and Fāṭima. As the prophet’s uncle, ʿAbbās was his first heir, certainly with greater title than his cousin. This reasoning was not quite as technical as it might seem. After all, ʿAbbās had outlived the prophet by two decades, and he had not only been the heir but the person who was responsible for the family.

For this reason the Medinan jurist Saʿīd b. al-Musayyab is said to have judged him to have priority over Abū Bakr.1 But for the Abbasids the consequence was that they owed their legitimation not to an ʿAlid’s testament any more, but to the actual position of their own ancestor.2 The Shīʿites who had responded to the Kaysānite model with the sole claim of the wuld Fāṭima3 found no support; subsequently they would be compelled to change their entire inheritance law to comply with the priority of the daughter.4

The old formula according to which the community should agree on a candidate from the prophet’s family (al-riḍā min āl Muḥammad)5 had now cracked as well; ʿAbbās’ firm title left barely any room for a free ‘agree-ment’. The disadvantage of the new model was that in this way – similar to the Kāmiliyya6 – all of the first four ‘righteous’ caliphs were declared usurpers, and it was unlikely that the Sunnites would agree in the long run. This ultimately caused the theory to fail, and wither away into a heresiographical curiosity.

The heresiographers used the term ‘Abbasid Shīʿa’ in this context. Al-Manṣūr had indeed addressed the Khorasanians as his shīʿa.7 He was certainly aware of the new legitimation. While his correspondence with al-Nafs al-zakiyya, which contains the sentence that God did not give women equal status with uncles, is not entirely beyond doubt,8 Rizām b. Sābiq, the survivor of the ‘day of the Rāwandiyya’, appears to have used the same argument.9 So, too, did the man to whom the theory was usually ascribed, Abū Hurayra al-Rāwandī from Damascus (not from Khorasan?)10 who taught the abnāʾ al-dawla in Baghdad. He read a K. akhbār al-dawla with them; this was ca. 2,000 sheets thick, and Ibn al-Nadīm later saw a surviving fragment.11 It is the oldest work of this type that we know, the beginning of a genre of pro-Abbasid historiography that would spread considerably over the next two generations; frequently under the same title.

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 The books contained not only the record of successes of the past but probably – at least to begin with – mahdī prophecies.12 The text edited by Dūrī, whose subtitle Akhbār al-ʿAbbās wa-wuldihī paraphrases its contents, belongs in this series.13 Al-Haytham b. ʿAdī (d. 206/821 or 207/822) wrote on the subject14 as did Madāʾinī;15 later, and with greater distance, al-Jāḥiẓ did, too.16

We only know of Abū Hurayra’s work because he taught in the same mosque as Shaybānī, and the latter left because of constant disturbances. Shaybānī (132/749 –189/805) appears to have been quite young at the time; presumably the event took place in the 150s. Abū Hurayra is said to have worked for al-Manṣūr earlier.17

Under al-Mahdī poets took part in the propaganda here as well; one verse by Marwān b. Abī Ḥafṣa became famous.18 And of course hadiths were brought out in force. They were quite blunt, and were weeded out by indigenous experts later.19 Musayyab b. Zuhayr al-Ḍabbī (d. 175/792 or 176/793), the Baghdad chief of police, took the most straightforward route and transmitted the prophet’s word from Manṣūr personally, using the Abbasid chain: ‘ʿAbbās is my executor (waṣī) and my heir’.20 It was discovered that the mahdī prophecy had been ad-dressed by the prophet to ʿAbbās: ‘The mahdī will (come out of) your offspring and fill the earth with justice and fairness, just as it was filled with violence and injustice before’.21

The opposing side tried to discredit this by having this hadith (in an even more direct version) presented by the notorious falsi-fier and heretic Muṭīʿ b. Iyās. When al-Mahdī’s brother Jaʿfar heard this, he is said to have undone his trousers and said, pointing downwards: ‘If my brother Muḥammad is the mahdī, then this one is the qāʾim min āl Muḥammad!’22

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