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Umayyad Legacies (Islamic History and Civilization)

  • Book Title:
 Umayyad Legacies
  • Book Author:
Antoine Borrut, Paul M. Cobb
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In 750, armies of the revolutionary movement led by members of the ʿAbbāsid family pursued Marwān II, the last Umayyad caliph in the east, from his defeat on the river Zāb in Iraq to Egypt, whence Marwān had fled, and where he would eventually be killed. During the pursuit, the ʿAbbāsid armies paused in the old Umayyad capital of Damascus, where their commander, ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿAlī, took pains to consider, as the studies collected in this volume do, the heritage of Marwān’s fam- ily, the Umayyad dynasty.

Significantly, the ʿAbbāsids had few prob- lems with the practical symbols of Umayyad statecraft in Damascus. They left intact and unscathed the famous Khaḍrāʾ caliphal palace and (of course) the beautiful Umayyad mosque, as any visitor to the city today can tell you.

 Indeed, much of the staff of the Umayyad admin- istrative elite took up new jobs under new ʿAbbāsid masters. What the ʿAbbāsid conquerors directed their wrath toward were the symbols of Umayyad memory: the memorabilia, to use the term favored by students of historical memory. Most famously, ʿAbdallāh proceeded to the tombs of the Umayyad caliphs and destroyed them, opening up their graves and examining the state of the human remains within.

The ʿAbbāsids were selective in their destructive undertaking. Some tombs were ignored entirely. Others, like those of the caliph Hishām, they desecrated or destroyed, scattering the remains to the wind. The ʿAbbāsids then continued on to Egypt where they met up with Marwān in time for him to make his date with destiny.

This episode, with all its selectivity, creativity and baleful destruction, is the perfect analogy of the historian’s craft in general and of the study of the Umayyad legacy in particular the ʿAbbāsid tomb-raiders before them, students of the University, whether of the branch that ruled and was toppled in the Near East (661–750) or of the branch that survived to rule later and longer in Spain and Portugal, i.e., al-Andalus (756–1031), must also grapple with the scattered Umayyad remains that have been left to us.2 Sensitive students inevitably confront the question that frames all of the studies in the present volume: how do we know what we think we know about the Umayyads?3

To answer that question requires a brief consideration of the history of Umayyad historical memory, one that includes how the Umayyads wanted to be remembered and how later generations shaped that memory for us (what we may, again following historians of memory, call Umayyad memoria)

Umayyad memoria

Historians, of course, are inclined to seek refuge in literary texts to answer such questions. The writing of history in early Islamic times was closely bound up with issues of legitimacy (dynastic or otherwise),5 and so we would expect our textual sources to be logical sites for the relics of Umayyad memoria.

But, as any student of early Islam knows, the fact is that we have very few texts that tell us about the Umayyads that have not been transmitted through other texts in some way – as quotations, allusions, or paraphrases in texts of the post-Umayyad age.

All this in spite of (or perhaps because of ) the essential role that the Umayyad dynasty had in building what Alfred-Louis de Prémare called “the foundations of Islam.”6 This fragmentary reception of the Umayyads is the central hermeneutical problem for anyone interested in the

Umayyads, and it means that for direct access to Umayyad memoria, we have precious little textual information to use. One exception is the presence of narratives that are demonstrably Umayyad in origin that, having avoided later Islamic reshaping, have been preserved in eastern Christian sources.7

Another exception is Umayyad poetry, samples of which have been used to great effect since the time of Lammens as quasi-documents of Umayyad caliphal ideology.8

But the questions of how untrammeled Islamic narratives in Christian guise may be or how well Umayyad poetry survived the zeal of their ʿAbbāsid-era compilers are still open, and we remain peering at a picture of Umayyad self- representation that is muddied.

But if there are practically no unsullied texts concerned with Umayyad memory-making, we can at least briefly consider the sorts of texts that got written under the Umayyads from titles that have been cited in various works.

On the basis of such limited data at least, it seems that the Umayyads were not very keen to memorialize them- selves in prose texts (the case of poetry is, again, quite different). Out of the list of historically-oriented titles that are attributed to writers of the Umayyad period compiled by one modern scholar,9 only one, the Asnān al-khulafāʾ (which we might translate as “Annals of the Caliphs”) of Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 742) suggests anything like a work of dynastic memorialization.

Most likely, this was a king-list following the model of Syriac lists of the same era.10 The rest are titles suggesting works devoted to Prophetic biography, exegesis, genealogy, regional history, and sacred or sectarian history. It is, in fact, to the ʿAbbāsid era that we must look for works devoted to memorializing the Umayyads as a dynasty, the earliest apparently being a Kitāb sīrat Muʿāwiya wa-banī Umayya by ʿAwāna ibn al-Ḥakam (d. 765), or “On the Conduct of Muʿāwiya and the Umayyads.”

To these titles of lost works, which at least give some sense of his- torical writing in the first two centuries, we should add the body of so-called “semi-documents,” which occupy a sort of manzila bayn al-

manzilatayn. Neither strictly literary nor strictly documentary, these texts – such as the chancery letters of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd al-Kātib – are allegedly copies of state letters preserved as models of high style in literary contexts. Strong arguments have been adduced in favor of their authenticity and, if accepted, then these provide a very powerful source in themselves.11

Umayyads were interested in memorializing themselves, our most direct route to their self-image is not through literary sources, but through their material acts directed toward posterity: in art (such as frescoes, mosaics, and a few objets), architecture (in individual build- ings such as qusūr or whole cities like ʿAnjar or Fustāt), and true documents and inscriptions.

The expressive intent of Umayyad papyri,12 coins,13 and inscriptions14 has already been recently chronicled, and, like the “semi-documents” described above, provide a clear picture of Umayyad self-representation, particularly when used in tandem with Umayyad art and architecture.15

In build n planning cities like ike Qasr al-Ḥayr….

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