5 Jun 2012 5:00pm - 5:00pm King's College, Wine Room


Fred Astren (History/Jewish Studies, San Francisco State University)

Embedded within medieval literature of the Islamic world are historicized narratives that purport to rationalize and contextualize the place of minority and sectarian groups within the Islamic host culture. At first reading, these narratives suggest a fictionalizing of the past on the part of the minority group in order to explain its existence as a religious, ethnic, or other anomaly in Muslim society. A closer look reveals that these stories are often the result of a kind of cultural negotiation between the dominant culture and a sub-culture; between rulers and subject peoples, between Muslims and non-Muslims, and even between rabbis and “heretics.” The meaning and function of such narratives can be understood by examining the historical setting of both the narrative and the text in which it appears and by comparing the narrative to similar stories known from Islamic history and literature.
A prototype for this narrative strategy is observed in the biblical story of the Gibeonites in the Book of Joshua, wherein the non-monotheistic Gibeonites employ a ruse to secure recognition and protection from the conquering Israelites. In this paper, analysis of three medieval historical narratives demonstrates the complex interweaving of memory, history, and literary construction in the medieval Near East.

This type of narrative is exemplified in a story found in the tenth-century Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadīm, in which the polytheistic inhabitants of Ḥarrān in Syria are given advice from a renegade Muslim shaykh to represent themselves to the Caliph al-Ma’mūn (d. 833) as “Sabians,” a pre-Islamic “people of the book” mentioned in the Qur’ān. In this instance, the question is whether or not the religious anomaly might or might not be monotheistic. The stakes include nothing less than possible death or forced conversion.
In another example of this type of story, the purported eighth-century founder of medieval Karaite Judaism, Anan ben David, suffered incarceration for his heretical beliefs. While in prison, it is claimed that he shared a cell with a Muslim scholar who advised him to exploit the religious policies of the caliph so that his supporters would be recognized as a legitimate religious community. As a result, Anan was able to outwit his rabbinical opponents, thereby saving himself and securing a place for the Karaites in Muslim society. 

In both narratives, the topos of manipulating cultural capital in the form of knowledge of Islam received from a Muslim informer indicates literary reshaping and also reveals the polemical perspectives of competing minorities, Christian and Ḥarrānian, and rabbinic and Karaite, respectively. However, these binaries are insufficient for understanding the archaeology of the texts. Such narratives are best understood as negotiated projects produced by both normative (dominant) and anomalous (minority) groups through a long reflexive process. What is at stake are the rights and duties of the sub-groups. Read in this way, these stories offer narrativized permission for the dominant religion and culture to tolerate the presence of a religious anomaly whose existence challenges assumptions of collectivity, and correspondingly, might or might not be otherwise deemed unacceptable.

A third example comes from the accounts of individuals who claimed to be Khaybarī Jews and thereby demanded exemption from normal dhimmī taxes (payable specifically by Jews and Christians). They maintained that their taxes were to be calculated according to the settlement imposed on the Jews of Khaybar by the Prophet Muḥammad after their defeat by the Muslims in 629. The eleventh century Muslim scholar al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdadī is reported to have refuted Khaybarī claims, demonstrating that the mobilization of Muslim narrative on the part of Jews (from the biography of the Prophet Muḥammad) was defective. Significantly, the Cairo Geniza documents include eleventh-century petitions seeking such tax redress, demonstrating that narrative constructions of this type were not restricted to literature, but were actually used. 


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Part of the History and Anthropology seminar series.
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