The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunni Scholasticism: ‘Abdallāh b. al-Mubārak and the Formation of Sunni Identity in the Second Islamic Century Feryal Salem Leiden: Brill, 2016. 174 pages.

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Suheil Laher



The book reviewed here is a welcome addition to the library of works seek- ing to construct a richer picture of the early Islamic landscape after the wane of radical revisionist theories of Islamic origins of Islam. Salem has presented a thoughtful study of the scholar-ascetic-warrior ‘Abdallāh ibn al-Mubārak (d. 181/797), and what the outlines of his life reveal about the proto-Sunnī milieu of the second Islamic century. Whereas early academic explorations of the development of Sunnī orthodoxy focused on theology and law, with Scott Lucas later highlighting the crucial role of ḥadīth, Salem has focused on the hitherto neglected dimension of ethics. The book is well laid out with an introduction, then a chapter outlining Ibn al-Mubārak’s life, followed by chapters analyzing his activities in the fields of ḥadīth, ji- hād, and zuhd respectively, wrapped up with a brief concluding chapter. Chapter 1 begins with a succinct overview of the ‘descriptive’ and ‘skeptical’ approaches among scholars of early Islamic history, followed by the relevant observation that interpretation of source material almost in- evitably reflects some of the assumptions of the scholar interpreting them. Salem makes the (unobjectionable) assertion that the contents of historical reports in early sources are indicative of attitudes and conceptions that ex- isted among Muslims at the time of authorship, regardless of whether they are historically genuine in all their details. She then presents a representa- tive selection of biographical details that paint Ibn al-Mubārak as a devout worshipper with high moral character, a scholar of ḥadīth and fiqh, yet also a wealthy and philanthropic trader and a brave man who spent much time guarding the frontiers. Nathan Hofer, in his review of the book, has cor- rectly pointed out that the historical sources Salem draws on span eight centuries, and criticizes her for failing to distinguish between material from different time periods. This criticism could have been avoided had Salem included an acknowledgment of this fact, along with a brief exposition of her assumptions about the nature of the sources and transmission into later biographies of materials not found in extant earlier chronicles. It is likely that excluding later biographical sources would not radically alter Salem’s central arguments—but the historiographically curious reader might won- der about some of the details, such as (for example) the genuineness of attribution of certain theological positions to Ibn al-Mubārak, given the highly-charged sectarian tensions that emerged in subsequent centuries, and the rather diverse early milieu that makes it difficult—as hadith master al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1348) observed—for adherents of later orthodoxy to find pure ideologues from that early period. Chapter 2 details Ibn al-Mubārak’s prowess in hadith. The sourc- es seem to be in agreement that he amassed a large number of hadiths, a feat that Salem traces to a combination of his wide travels in search of knowledge and his readiness to write down hadiths at a time when such re- cording was still controversial. (Chapter 3 brings up a third relevant factor: his interactions with other scholars while guarding the frontiers.) We are also given a useful overview of Ibn al-Mubārak’s works, both unpublished (including lost) and published. The absence of mention of one edited ver- sion of the Kitāb al-Zuhd (Sa‘īd al-Asmarī’s 824-page MA dissertation at Umm al-Qurā University from 2012) is understandable given it was not yet available at the time Salem finished her initial manuscript. This survey is followed by a sketch of Ibn al-Mubārak’s scholarly network, including both his major teachers and prominent students. Salem asserts that these net- works show the importance of both direct teacher-to-student transmission of knowledge, a mutual awareness among its members, and acknowledged (theological and ethical) criteria amongst them for legitimation of scholar- ly authority through acceptance in this network. Salem has made reference to Lucas’ important work on this, but does not reference William Graham’s essay on Traditionalism, a source that I think deserves mention regarding the continuity of the Islamic scholarly tradition. Chapter 2 also contains some important historiographical observa- tions. Salem finds that the biographical sources show an internal consis- tency and coherence that strongly suggest their overall reliability, and make it difficult to accept revisionist theories that dismiss them entirely as later inventions that were back-projected. For example, the critique of Ḥasan al-Baṣrī as a hadith narrator, in spite of the near-unanimous praise for his piety, suggests the hadith biographers were resistant to the natural tenden- cy to “aggrandize” popular persons. Salem also rightly observes that the in- formation from biographical dictionaries can undermine some of Schacht’s assumptions, but I would have liked to have seen more engagement with the academic debates (involving Schneider, Berg, Motzki and others) over whether the biographical dictionaries are actually independent sources of information. In Chapter 3, Salem argues that although the concept of martial valor as a form of piety was well known in the Late Antique Near East, it is a mistake to assume that post-expansion Muslims simply adopted it from the Christians they came in contact with. She cites Qur’ānic references to these concepts as well as numerous narrations in Ibn al-Mubārak’s Kitāb al-Jihād that chronologically mention battles in which the Prophet Muhammad was involved, as evidence that early pietist-martial men like Ibn al-Mubārak saw their activity as a continuation of indigenous Islamic teaching and practice regarding noble and ethical combat (granted of course that their understanding may have continued to evolve under other influences). For Islamic scholars to participate in guarding the frontiers, she adduces, was considered a superior form of piety than for them to live a luxurious city life. The existence of ‘religious scholars’ and ‘Qur’ānic reciters’ as a distinct class of people during this time ties in well with Salem’s assertions in the previous chapter about the transmission of religious knowledge. It might have been useful for her to cite here the work of Mustafa Shah and oth- ers who have discussed the early qurrā’ communities. A significant part of Chapter 3 discusses selected hadiths from the Kitab al-Jihād with regard to how Ibn al-Mubārak (and the community at that time) perceived jihād. In Chapter 4, Salem shows, through a comparative analysis of the early zuhd literature, that the virtuous ideal of zuhd was interpreted in diverse ways in the early community. Ibn al-Mubārak, in his own Kitāb al-Zuhd as well as in what biographical sources coherently tell us about his personal life, was a proponent of a “sober and moderate” form of zuhd as detachment of the heart from material things, along with an overarching attitude of piety, so that there is no contradiction between being wealthy and practic- ing zuhd. This stands in sharp contrast to more austere interpretations of zuhd (such as that of his contemporary, Mu‘āfā ibn Ibrāhīm) who advocat- ed a renunciation of the things of this world. While this latter group might well have been influenced by Christian ascetic practices, Salem credibly argues that a major sector of the community (typified by Ibn al-Mubārak) viewed zuhd as a broad ethical framework taken from the teachings of the Qur’ān and the Prophet Muhammad. This normative early zuhd literature, she proffers, formed the kernel of what later became Sufism, although later Sufism (and in particular the ṭarīqas) came to differ in sometimes signif- icant (and potentially problematic) ways from the earlier zuhd tradition. Hence, Salem makes a case for a “primitive” Sufism that represents a primal ethical core of Islam, in contrast to later Sufism that probably did syncreti- cally incorporate beliefs and practices from other (non-Islamic) religious traditions. Even though the book is geared towards bigger-picture arguments more than details, there could have been more precision in translation in some cases. I understand the pressures of completing a dissertation and the impossibility of perfection, and hence these critiques should not be taken to undermine the book’s worth. I found rather jarring the anachronism of translating ṣannafa/taṣnīf as “printing” (rather than the expected “author- ing” or “compilation”) when attributed to figures in the early centuries of Islam. A description of the famous Egyptian judge Ibn Lahī‘ah (d. 174/790) as muḍṭarib...yuktabu ḥadithuhū ʻalā al-iʻtibār (59), is correctly identified by Salem as a critique of his accuracy in hadith transmission, but is rather opaquely translated as “problematic....wrote hadiths for recognition.” I per- sonally would have preferred that titles like “al-Ḥāfiẓ”, “al-Imām”, and “al- ‘Alam” (at 10, for example) be translated, or at least placed before the actual name of the person in question, rather than risk non-specialists assuming these to be part of the name (though I understand that the book is directed towards specialists). Vocalizations of uncommon Arabic names are some- times inaccurate (e.g. “Sammāk” should be “Simāk”), but Salem has been exceptionally meticulous in marking in diacritics. She demonstrates a solid grasp of the overall framework of hadith-sciences and of the Arabic lan- guage, and so there are no imprecisions so egregious as to undermine her broad arguments and conclusions. Grammatical errors are extremely few. I understand that Salem’s more recent work focuses on later time pe- riods, but I would welcome further articles from her that leverage her ex- perience with the figure of Ibn al-Mubārak and her familiarity with the source materials. One possible area of further exploration for which the constraints of the dissertation did not allow but which would be useful, is some quantitative prosopographical data analysis. This could include stud- ies of the narrators of ḥadīths in Ibn al-Mubārak’s books as well as a thematic classification of all the narrations therein, which might show more clearly that the data she has cited in support of her assertions is indeed representative of the overall contents. Salem’s conclusion reads extremely well, and she has adeptly summa- rized her major findings and observations. In my estimation, the major contribution of her book has been to articulate a two-pronged centrality of ethics and morals in Sunnī orthodoxy: first, that the early zuhd genre of literature was the carrier of ethics before being subsumed later by the field of taṣawwuf; and second, that the living practice of morality and eth- ics by identified individuals in early society was central to the processes of legitimation, authority, and formation of orthodoxy (as shown by the importance of moral accreditation for being an acceptable transmitter of knowledge).

Suheil Laher
Dean of Academics and Senior Instructor
Fawakih Institute for Classical Arabic

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