1014–1043: Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr on Christian Love for ʿAlī

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Author: Luke Yarbrough


Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Bahǧat al-maǧālis wa-uns al-muǧālis wa-šaḥḏ al-ḏāhin wa-l-hāǧis, ed. Muḥammad Mursī al-Ḫūlī, 2 vols (i.e. vols 1,1; 1,2; 2), Cairo: al-Dār al-Miṣriyya li-l-taʾlīf wa-l-tarǧama, 1967–70, vol. 1,2, p. 38. Translation adapted from: Luke Yarbrough, A Christian Shīʿī, and Other Curious Confreres. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr of Córdoba on Getting Along with Unbelievers, in: al-Masāq 30/3 (2018), pp. 284–303, here: p. 285, URL: https://doi.org/10.1080/09503110.2018.1522021.
لزيبا النصرانيّ وكان يتشيّع By Zībā the Christian, who was a Šīʿī:
عديٌّ وتيم لا أحاول ذكرَكم / بسُوءٍ ولكنّي محبّ لهاشمِ

وما تعتريني في عليّ ورهطِهِ / إذا ذكروا في الله لومة لائمِ

يقولون ما بال النصارى تحبهم / وأهلُ النهى من أعربٍ و أعاجمِ

فقلت لهم: إني لأحسب حبَّهم / سري في قلوب الخلق حتى البهائمِ

ʿAdī and Taym, I am not trying to speak ill of you, but I am a lover of Hāšim.

When it comes to ʿAlī and his clan and their religion, no reproacher’s reproach discomfits me.

People ask, “Why do even Christians love them, and wise Arabs and wise Persians?”

I say to them, “I believe that love of them pervades the hearts of all creation, even the animals.”

وله أيضاً And it was also he who said:
عليٌّ أميرُ المؤمنين خليفةٌ / وما لسواه في الخلافة مطمعُ

فلو كنت أبغي ملّة غير ملّتي / لما كنتُ إلا مسلماً أتشيّعُ

ʿAlī is Commander of the Believers, Caliph; no one else can aspire to the caliphate.

If I desired a community other than my own, I could only be a Muslim Šīʿī.

Author & Work

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463/1071) was a renowned Muslim scholar of fifth/eleventh century al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia. He lived through the dissolution of the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba, his hometown, and its replacement by a constellation of local rulers across the peninsula. Several of these rulers, the so-called “party-” or “faction-kings” (mulūk al-ṭawāʾif), were his patrons, especially Muǧāhid al-ʿĀmirī (r. 405–436/1014–1044 or 45), the ruler of Dénia (Dāniya). Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr seems to have been peripatetic, appearing also in the sources in València (Balansiya), Jàtiva (Šāṭiba), Lisbon (al-Ušbūna), Badajoz (Baṭalyaws), and Santarém (Šantarīn). Most of his life seems to have been spent in scholarly pursuits rather than official employment as, e.g., a secretary or judge.

Although he is best known as a jurist (faqīh) of the Mālikī school, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr also studied and composed works in a variety of other fields, including Prophetic tradition (ḥadīṯ) and biography (sīra), history, prosopography, Qurʾānic readings (qirāʾāt), commentary on poetry, and genealogy. The excerpt above is from his literary anthology, whose full title might be freely translated as “The Delight of the Learned Soirée, Making the Companion Gay and Pointing the Sagacious to What He Should Say” (Bahǧat al-maǧālis wa-uns al-muǧālis wa-šaḥḏ al-ḏāhin wa-l-hāǧis). Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr completed this work no later than 434/1042–1043, when it was mentioned in a pamphlet by Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064).[1] It consists of 124 brief, eclectic chapters, each on a distinct theme, such as “the messenger”, “greed and despair”, “insults and invective”, and “fleas, lice, and mosquitoes”. The author’s stated goal within each chapter is principally to furnish morally edifying and entertaining material, beginning with the Qurʾān and ḥadīṯ, then proceeding to other types of material, including poetry and putative excerpts from earlier scriptures. This material is drawn mainly from sources composed in the eastern Muslim lands. A secondary goal, however, is also to stimulate debate in learned assemblies (maǧālis, singular maǧlis) by providing both “the moral and its opposite” (al-maʿnā wa-ḍidduh). However, it is often unclear where the moral message ends and its opposite begins; thus the work prepares the stage for lively debates. The chapter from which the poems above are taken is titled “fraternizing with someone who is not of your religion” (bāb muʾāḫāt man laysa ʿalā dīnika). We may safely generalize that the attitude of medieval Muslim scholars was often to emphasize boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as the superiority of the former to the latter in all spheres of life.[2] This chapter, however, makes remarkable space for friendly relations between Muslims and adherents of other religions.

Content & Context

These two brief excerpts of poetry appear to have been composed about three centuries before the time of Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, far across the Mediterranean in northern Mesopotamia. The Christian poet appears in other sources as Zabīnā[3], and other citations of the same lines are attributed to an anonymous Christian.[4] The poet first addresses his words to specific clans within the Qurayš, the Prophet Muḥammad’s tribe. Taym and ʿAdī are, respectively, the clans of the first two caliphs of Islam: Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (r. 10‒12/632‒634) and ʿUmar b. al-Ḫaṭṭāb (r. 13‒23/634‒644). Hāšim is the Prophet’s own clan, and that of his cousin and son in law, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (r. 35-40/655-661). ʿAlī and his descendants, of course, are central, revered figures in Islam, and for Šīʿī Muslims in particular.

What makes this poem remarkable—both for medieval Muslims and for us—is that it conveys a Christian’s affection for ʿAlī, and indeed for the Prophet’s whole clan. The poet obliquely cites the Qurʾān by including the curious phrase “a reproacher’s reproach” (lawmat lāʾim). In the Qurʾān (Q 5:54), this phrase denotes the blame laid on virtuous people by their misguided critics. These virtuous people who do not fear “the reprocher’s reproach” are a somewhat mysterious group that God promises to bring in place of apostates; the verse says that they love and are loved by God, are submissive to believers but fierce against infidels, and struggle for God’s cause. So when the poet mentions that he himself does not fear the “reproacher’s reproach” of ʿAlī and his family, he is subtly interpreting the Qurʾān to include himself, a Christian, in this promised group. In the latter half of the first four lines, the poet acknowledges that others may think it strange for a Christian to love ʿAlī. But he asserts that to love him and his family is so natural that even the animals do it.

In the other, two-line excerpt, the poet voices a political message: only ʿAlī has a legitimate claim to lead the Muslim community as its caliph, whose official title was “Commander of the Believers” (amīr al-muʾminīn). What is more, the poet all but says that ʿAlī’s followers, the Šīʿa, are the best religious community (except, perhaps, for Christians). If the poet wanted to leave Christianity—though it is clear that he does not, because he uses the Arabic conditional particle law, which refers to a hypothetical, unreal condition—he would only do so to become, he says, a Šīʿī Muslim.

We should consider two relevant historical contexts for this poetry: that of its composition in second-/eighth-century northern Mesopotamia, and that of its quotation by Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr in al-Andalus. In terms of its original context, some suspicion may arise as to whether its composer was really a Christian. The strongly pro-Šīʿī message of the poetry and the use of the Qurʾān raise the possibility that it was in fact composed by a Muslim who wished to advertise for Šīʿīsm by making even non-Muslims and animals sing the praise of ʿAlī. Nevertheless, it is by no means impossible or even improbable that the composer was really a Christian. The region of northern Mesopotamia had a strong Christian presence in the early Islamic period, which endures, to a lesser degree, to the present day. As historians have shown, Christians in that region were involved in the local political and military struggles of the early Islamic period.[5] Naturally, some of these struggles—such as the first fitna, or civil war, between ʿAlī and an Umayyad opponent (ca. 656–661), and even the ʿAbbāsid revolution (ca. 750)—had a pronounced Muslim sectarian aspect. Therefore it is quite possible that local Christians could have expressed warm sympathy with the followers of ʿAlī, who positioned themselves as righteous alternatives to the sinful Umayyads, in their anti-Umayyad struggles.

The other important context is that of Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s al-Andalus. Here the relevance of Šīʿism is less salient. Although Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr himself quotes Šīʿī imams approvingly in “The Delight of the Learned Soirée,” Šīʿism was often regarded as suspect in the Sunnī-dominated lands of al-Andalus. It was the creed of a major geopolitical rival, the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. In Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s work, the Christian poet’s affection for ʿAlī seems, therefore, less about ʿAlī or his Šīʿī followers than about ʿAlī’s more basic identity as a Muslim. The warm Christian-Muslim feeling that the poetry expresses is perhaps more at home in Iberia of Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s day than it would become in the succeeding centuries. Post-Umayyad al-Andalus in the fifth/eleventh century was nothing if not a multipolar world of shifting alliances, some of which crossed religious boundaries. Rulers like Muǧāhid of Dāniya formed ties with Christians. The mother of his principal heir was a Christian; this son, himself named ʿAlī, was raised as a hostage in Christian courts, absorbing Latin culture along the way. Dāniya had good relations with its Christian seaside neighbour, Barcelona, and in general the bipolar, zero-sum world of the Reconquista still lay in the future.[6] Amicable personal relations between Muslims and Christians were, therefore, not beyond the pale in the elite social contexts to which Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr had access. The chapter on “fraternizing” leaves it ambiguous whether such relations are the moral model for Muslims to embrace, or its opposite, included in the chapter in order to stir cultured debate.

Contextualization, Analysis & Interpretation

These hymns of praise to ʿAlī by a Christian poet are a tiny and somewhat exceptional sliver of the Arabic literary tradition. Nevertheless, they can help us to think about three key aspects of pre-modern trans-Mediterranean history and inter-religious relations: (1) the trans-Mediterranean quality of the Arabic literary tradition; (2) the fuzziness of group boundaries in many periods; and (3) the role of morally ambiguous literary sources as sites for normative debate among medieval Muslims.

The vast Arabic literary tradition, with all of its aesthetic and normative authority, was an inherently trans-Mediterranean phenomenon. Our poems illustrate this: poetry composed in second-/eighth-century Iraq or Syria is here being reused in fifth-/eleventh-century al-Andalus, 4,000 km to the west, as fodder for normative debates. In fact, the majority of the citations in “The Delight of the Learned Soirée” came from sources composed in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the region from Iraq to Egypt. The works of the Baghdad belletrist al-Ǧāḥiẓ (d. 255/868–869) were a favourite model. This was not unusual in al-Andalus. For example, the fourth-/tenth-century belletrist Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih (d. 328/940) had also relied heavily on eastern sources in composing his own literary anthology, “The Unique Necklace” (al-ʿIqd al-farīd). Very few of Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s sources, by contrast, were from North Africa or al-Andalus. The literary models within which was working were also trans-Mediterranean. For example, his practice of including both “the moral and its opposite” was characteristic of eastern Arabic literary anthologies in the genre known as “merits and faults” (al-maḥāsin wa-l-masāwī), in which authors creatively catalogued both the good and bad aspects of a particular thing, such as a character trait. By the same token, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s work and the works of his western Muslim colleagues were read “back east.” The modern editor of “The Delight of the Learned Soirée” worked from the three manuscripts he was able to locate: two in Cairo and one in Istanbul. Therefore, when it comes to studying the Arabic-Islamic literary and normative traditions around the Mediterranean, it would be a mistake to restrict oneself to a single regional focus, for the authors of our sources did no such thing.

The poems also hint at the porousness and complexity of identity and group affiliation in the pre-modern Mediterranean. Most of our sources were written by men like Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr—highly educated standard-bearers of particular religious communities—who rarely let on that those communities’ boundaries were, in practice, fuzzy and contested. Our poems puncture the common but illusory notion of clearly bounded population groups with labels like “Christian” and “Muslim.” Specifically, they signal that one’s religious affiliation, political affiliation, and social ties did not always align. For example, we might reflexively assume that Muslims (or people of other religious affiliations) supported Muslim rulers and associated mainly with other Muslims, but in fact this was not always so. Here, the poet is avowedly a Christian, but he supports a Muslim political authority and seems to have strong ties to that authority’s other followers—Šīʿī Muslims—who themselves formed a religious community. Mediterranean history is full of examples of Muslims and Christians who lived under and supported—to one degree or another—political authorities whose religions were at odds with their own. Christians and Jews under Muslim rulers (so-called ḏimmī-s) from North Africa to Central Asia, like Jews and Muslims under Christian rulers from England to Byzantium, had ties and loyalties that might or might not align with their religious affiliations. This reality created possibilities for complex individual and communal identities, as well as for suspicion, distrust, and accusations of disloyalty (e.g., of spying on behalf of one’s foreign co-religionists). In Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s chapter on “fraternization,” it is frequently clear that social ties could cross the borders of religious communities. The question Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr raises for debate is whether or not this was a good thing.

Indeed, the re-use of these poems by a scholar like Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr draws our attention to literature as a site of normative contestation within Islam. Islam has often been characterized as a law-centered religion with rules, derived from the Qurʾān and ḥadīṯ, that govern Muslim life. But these poems illustrate that the Mālikī legal scholar Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, his sources, and his readers saw a role for poetry and literary anecdote in telling Muslims what it meant to live out their Islam, including their relations with non-Muslims. In particular, the “The Delight of the Learned Soirée” dwells on points of moral ambiguity. The chapter on “fraternizing” first discusses a ḥadīṯ in which the Prophet Muḥammad warns against greeting non-Muslims, only for Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr to then invest great effort in interpreting the ḥadīṯ in a way that thoroughly undermines that directive. Numerous other anecdotes in the chapter depict Muslims and non-Muslims consorting amicably; for instance, a Muslim poet consoles his distraught Christian friend, whose nephew has converted to Islam.[7] To be sure, these morally loaded examples are “ambiguous” only against a background in which distrust and hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims was common. Nevertheless, they show that other, more irenic normative examples were available to Muslims, specifically through the media of poetry and literary anecdote. Literature had—as Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr states explicitly—a moral authority of its own.

Editions & Translations

Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr: Kitāb ǧawāhir al-ʿulamāʾ, ed. ʿAwaḍ Wāṣif, Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Miṣr, 1907 (partial and abridged).

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr: Bahǧat al-maǧālis wa-uns al-muǧālis wa-šaḥḏ al-ḏāhin wa-l-hāǧis, ed. Muḥammad Mursī al-Ḫūlī, 2 vols (i.e. vols 1,1; 1,2; 2), Cairo: al-Dār al-Miṣriyya li-l-taʾlīf wa-l-tarǧama, 1967–1970.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr: Bahǧat al-maǧālis wa-uns al-muǧālis, ed. Maẓhar Ḥaǧǧī, 3 vols, Damascus: Wizārat al-Ṯaqāfa fī l-Ǧumhūriyya al-ʿArabiyya al-Sūriyya, 2005.

Cited & Additional Literature

Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Dāʾūd al-Iṣbahānī al-Ẓāhirī: al-Zahra, ed. Ibrāhīm al-Sāmurrāʾī, al-Zarqāʾ / Jordan: Maktabat al-Manār, 1985.

Abū Ḥayyān al-Andalusī: Tafsīr al-baḥr al-muḥīṭ, ed. ʿĀdil Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Mawǧūd and ʿAlī Muḥammad Muʿawwaḍ, 9 vols, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1993.

Ahmed, Shahab: What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, URL: https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvc77krt.

al-Bayhaqī: al-Maḥāsin wa-l-masāwī, ed. Muḥammad Abū l-Faḍl Ibrāhīm, Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1991.

Bruce, Travis: An Intercultural Dialogue Between the Muslim Taifa of Denia and the Christian County of Barcelona in the Eleventh Century, in Medieval Encounters 15 (2009), pp. 1–34, URL: https://doi.org/10.1163/138078508X286815.

Fierro, Maribel, with Julia Haremska, Adday Hernández López, and Estrella Samba Campos: Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Abū ʿUmar, in: Jorge Lirola Delgado et al. (eds), Biblioteca de al-Andalus [1]: De al-ʿAbbādīya a Ibn Abyaḍ, Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2012, pp. 574–585.

Friedmann, Yohanan, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam. Interreligious relations in the Muslim tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, URL: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511497568.

Haider, Najam: Shi‘i Islam. An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, URL: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139381710.

Lazarus-Yafeh, Hava, Mark R. Cohen, Sasson Somekh, and Sidney H. Griffith (eds): The Majlis. Interreligious Encounters in Medieval Islam, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999.

al-Maqqarī: Nafḥ al-ṭīb min ġuṣn al-Andalus al-raṭīb, ed. Iḥsān ʿAbbās, 8 vols, Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1968.

Montgomery, James E.: Would al-Jāḥiẓ Please Make Himself Known? Reflections on the Absent al-Jāḥiẓ, in Middle Eastern Literatures 16/1 (2013), pp. 76–87, URL: https://doi.org/10.1080/1475262X.2013.775857.

Pinilla, Rafel: Una obra andalusí de adab. La Bahŷat al-maŷālis de Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (s. XI JC), in Sharq al-Andalus 6 (1989), pp. 83–101, URL: http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/nd/ark:/59851/bmcs75t2.

Puerta Vílchez, José Miguel: Ibn Ḥazm, Abū Muḥammad: Obras, in: Jorge Lirola Delgado et al. (eds). Biblioteca de al-Andalus [3]: De Ibn al-Dabbāg a Ibn Kurz, Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2004, pp. 402–43.

al-Qāḍī, Wadād: Non-Muslims in the Muslim Conquest Army in Early Islam, in: Antoine Borrut and Fred Donner (eds), Christians and Others in the Umayyad State, Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2016, pp. 83–127, URL: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/lamine/lamine-1-christians-and-others-umayyad-state.

al-Qasṭallānī: al-Mawāhib al-laduniyya bi-l-minaḥ al-muḥammadiyya, ed. Ṣāliḥ Aḥmad al-Šāmī, 4 vols, Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1991.

al-Rāġib al-Iṣbahānī: Muḥāḍarāt al-udabāʾ wa-muḥāwarāt al-šuʿarāʾ wa-l-bulaġāʾ, no editor, 2 vols, Beirut: Dār Maktabat al-Ḥayāt, ca. 1986.

Robinson, Chase: Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest: The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, URL: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511497513.

Sperl, Stefan: Man’s ‘Hollow Core:’ Ethics and Aesthetics in Ḥadīth Literature and Classical Arabic adab, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70/3 (2007), pp. 459–86, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40378935.

Yarbrough, Luke: A Christian Shīʿī, and Other Curious Confreres. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr of Córdoba on Getting Along with Unbelievers, in al-Masāq 30/3 (2018), pp. 284–303, URL: https://doi.org/10.1080/09503110.2018.1522021.

Yarbrough, Luke: A Muslim Poet Consoles a Christian Friend Whose Nephew Has Converted to Islam, in: Nimrod Hurvitz, Christian C. Sahner, Uriel Simonsohn, and Luke Yarbrough (eds ), Conversion to Islam in the Premodern Age. A Sourcebook, Oakland: University of California Press, 2020, pp. 136–38, URL: https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1b742qw.28.

al-Zamaḫšarī: Rabīʿ al-abrār wa-nuṣūṣ al-aḫbār, ed. ʿAbd al-Amīr Muhannā, 5 vols, Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Aʿlamī li-l-Maṭbūʿāt, 1992.

Recommended Citation

Luke Yarbrough, "1014–1043: Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr on Christian Love for ʿAlī", in: Transmediterranean History. Commented Anthology of Primary Sources, ed. Daniel G. König, Theresa Jäckh, Eric Böhme, URL: https://wiki.uni-konstanz.de/transmed-en/index.php/1014–1043:_Ibn_ʿAbd_al-Barr_on_Christian_Love_for_ʿAlī. Last Revision: 28.07.2021, Access: 29.11.2022.


al-Andalus; allegiance; ambiguity; Christians; Christians under Muslim rule; friendship; Iraq; Islam; loyalty; morality; poetry, Shia; Šīʿa; taifas.

  1. Puerta Vílchez, Ibn Ḥazm.
  2. Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion.
  3. For poetry by a Christian “Zabīnā,” see al-Zamaḫšarī (d. 538/1144), Rabīʿ al-abrār wa-nuṣūṣ al-aḫbār, ed. ʿAbd al-Amīr Muhannā, 5 vols, Beirut: Muʾassasat al-aʿlamī li-l-maṭbūʿāt, 1992, vol. 1, p. 400; al-Rāġib al-Iṣbahānī (d. 502/1108 according to older, early 5th/11th cent. according to more recent scholarship), Muḥāḍarāt al-udabāʾ wa-muḥāwarāt al-šuʿarāʾ wa-l-bulaġāʾ, no editor, 2 vols, Beirut: Dār Maktabat al-Ḥayāt, ca. 1980, vol. 1, p. 312.
  4. The verse is elsewhere attested in Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Dāʾūd al-Iṣbahānī al-Ẓāhirī (d. 296/909), al-Zahra, ed. Ibrāhīm al-Sāmurrāʾī, al-Zarqāʾ / Jordan: Maktabat al-Manār, 1985, p. 518; al-Bayhaqī (fl. third–fourth/ninth–tenth cent.), al-Maḥāsin wa-l-masāwī, ed. Muḥammad Abū l-Faḍl Ibrāhīm, Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1991, p. 63; Abū Ḥayyān al-Andalusī (d. 745/1344), Tafsīr al-baḥr al-muḥīṭ, ed. ʿĀdil Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Mawǧūd and ʿAlī Muḥammad Muʿawwaḍ, 9 vols, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1993, vol. 6, p. 209; al-Qasṭallānī (d. 923/1517), al-Mawāhib al-laduniyya bi-l-minaḥ al-muḥammadiyya, ed. Ṣāliḥ Aḥmad al-Šāmī, 4 vols, Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1991, vol. 3, p. 366; al-Maqqarī (d. 1041/1632), Nafḥ al-ṭīb min ġuṣn al-Andalus al-raṭīb, ed. Iḥsān Abbas, 8 vols, Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1968, vol. 2, p. 377.
  5. Robinson, Empire and Elites, pp. 38, 148–49.
  6. Bruce, An Intercultural Dialogue.
  7. Yarbrough, A Muslim Poet.