Being a Sabian at Court in tenth-century Baghdad.

Author:Roberts, Alexandre M.
Position:Essay
 
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Thabit b. Qurra (d. 288/901), a Sabian of Harran, and his descendants remained in their ancestral religion for six generations. Why did they persist despite pressure to convert? This article argues that religious self-identification as a Sabian could be a distinct advantage in Baghdad's elite circles. It focuses on Thabit's great-grandson Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Hilal al-Sabi (d. 384/994) and his poetry as collected by al-Tha'alibi (d. 429/1038). Two members of the family who did convert are also considered by way of contrast.

Ever since the great patron of the sciences Muhammad b. Musa b. Shakir (d. 259/873), passing through Harran in northern Mesopotamia on his return from Byzantine lands, had plucked the young Thabit b. Qurra like a new Matthew from his money-changing table to work as a physician, astronomer, and translator in Baghdad, Thabit (d. 288/901) and his descendants had lived and labored in high circles in the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, holding posts as physicians to the caliph al-Mu'tadid (r. 279-289/892-902) and his successors. (1) Consistent with cosmopolitan attitudes among Baghdad's ruling elite, it does not seem to have bothered Thabit's patrons that he was a Sabian, adherent of a small cult that existed in some form prior to Islam but seems to have crystallized anew around the obscure Quranic term sabi'un as a star-worshipping religion (din) with a prophet and a book. (2) During al-Qahir's short-lived caliphate (320-322/932-934), Thabit's son Sinan (d. 331/943) was coerced into converting to Islam, (3) but this did little to weaken the family's commitment to the rituals and beliefs that associated them with the Sabian community: Sinan's sons Ibrahim b. Sinan (d. 335/946) and Thabit b. Sinan (d. 365/976) remained Sabian, and one of Sinan's daughters married a Sabian of another family. (4)

Their son, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Hilal b. Ibrahim b. Harun al-Sabi (b. 5 Ramadan 313/925; d. 12 Shawwal 384/994), great-grandson on his mother's side of Thabit b. Qurra and a renowned secretary and litterateur, repeatedly resisted conversion to Islam, politely but firmly. (5) In his anthology of tenth-century poetry Yatlmat al-dahr fi mahasin ahl al-'asr, Ibrahim's younger contemporary Abu Mansur al-Tha'alibi (d. 429/1038) writes of him:

It is said (yuhka) that the caliphs, kings, and viziers very much wanted him to become Muslim (araduhu kathlran 'ala l-islam) and surrounded him with every trick and splendid enticement, to the point that 'Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar offered him the vizierate if he would become Muslim (in aslama). But God Most High did not guide him to Islam as he guided him to excellent speech. He was intimate and on the best of terms with the Muslims, serving the greatest among them most loftily, assisting them in the Ramadan fast, and memorizing the Quran such that it was always at the tip of his tongue and the nib of his pen. The proof of that is the selection from his writings that I quoted in Kitab al-Iqtibas [The Book of Citation], in which he excelled in all ways and which he adorned (halaha) with verse from the Quran. (6) Ibrahim al-Sabi and his intimacy with Muslims have been noted by those seeking either to reconstruct pre-Islamic Harranian Sabianism and disentangle it from other phenomena to which the name "Sabian" was applied, or to chronicle the decline and fall of the last pagan cult of Syria-Mesopotamia to succumb to the monotheist tide. (7) Building upon recent work on the significance attached to cultural and religious conversion and ambiguity in early Abbasid culture, (8) I propose here to explore how one elite Sabian--Ibrahim--maneuvered in his social role as an intimate of Muslims but adhering to a "pagan" cult with few adherents, in order to recover part of what it meant to remain Sabian in tenth-century Baghdad and how Sabian religious persistence was justified and appreciated in his case. The aim is not to uncover the "true" motives for conversion or non-conversion among Sabians (or Ibrahim in particular); (9) rather, explanations given by those who faced the decision to convert (such as Ibrahim), their peers, and their biographers will occupy the foreground. I will mainly restrict myself here to the image of Sabians and of himself that Ibrahim constructs in his writings, as selected and introduced by al-Tha'alibi in the chapter (bab) devoted to Ibrahim (I-IV below). In order to place Ibrahim's choice to continue being a Sabian in some relief, I will also briefly consider Ibrahim's grandfather and grandson who did convert, and their treatment in the Muslim biographical literature (v below).

  1. AL-THA'ALIBI'S CHAPTER ON IBRAHIM AL-SABI

    Al-Tha'alibi's entry on Ibrahim, entitled Fi dhikri Abi Ishaq al-Sabi wa-mahasini kalamihi (On Abu Ishaq al-Sabi and Fine Examples of His Speech), opens with his name, including the two nisbas al-Sabi al-Harrani, and describes him as a renowned, eloquent man who served the powerful and whom the poets of Iraq praised. (10) It then treats his peculiar religious affiliation and others' attempts to convert him from it, the especial favor he found with the vizier al-Muhallabi, and his arrest (i'tiqal) upon the vizier's death. (11) After his release, Ibrahim kept rising and falling in favor, "until he was propelled in the days of 'Adud al-Dawla to the weightiest misfortune and greatest calamity," for the "rancor in his heart" got the better of him. (12) This refers to the subsequent story of how 'Adud al-Dawla ordered Ibrahim to write a history of the Buyids, al-Kitab al-taji; the calamity came when the amir heard that the disgruntled writer had called the whole project a pack of lies. The amir decided to have Ibrahim trampled by elephants (amara bi-an yulqa (13) tahta arjuli l-fiyalati), but three men--Nasr b. Harun, al-Mutahhar b. 'Abd Allah, and 'Abd al-'Aziz b. Yusuf--interceded on his behalf with such intensity that the amir relented. Ibrahim remained in prison until 'Adud al-Dawla's death and returned to favor under the patronage of the vizier Ibn 'Abbad, known as al-Sahib. (14) Al-Tha'alibi then quotes a passage he "found very refined" (istazraftuhu jiddan) from Ibrahim's letter to al-Sahib regarding a present that the latter had sent him. On the authority of a close companion of al-Sahib, al-Tha'alibi relates that the vizier considered Ibrahim to be among the top four writers of the age, a list that included the vizier himself. (15)

    And with that introduction, he moves to anthologizing Ibrahim's writings, beginning with epistles and other prose writings (2: 293-303): selections from letters from Ibrahim, letters written by him for others, and writings on specific topics. Then follow al-Tha'alibi's selections of Ibrahim's poetry, the bulk of the chapter. The selections are divided into the following sections: erotic (ghazal, 303-7), "on wine and the like" (ft l-khamr wa-ma yudaf ilayhi, 308-11), epideictic (ft l-awsaf wa-l-tashbihat, 311-17), on Basra (317-18), on his mother and sons (318-21), vainglorious (fakhr, 321-23), panegyric (madh, 323-27), holiday and gift messages (ft l-tahdni wa-l-tahadi, 327-36), defamatory (hija', 336-41), on poetry (fi l-shi'r, 341-42), censorious ('itab, 342-44), on complaints and imprisonment (ft l-shakwa wa-l-habs, 345-51), and on wisdom (hikma, 352-53).

    The last two sections of the entry consist primarily of full-length poems exchanged between Ibrahim and his friend Abu l-Hasan Muhammad b. al-Husayn al-Musawi, known as al-Sharif al-Radi (d. 406/1016), a prominent 'Alid descended from Musa b. Ja'far al-Kazim, the seventh Imam of the Twelver Shi'a. These poems are drawn from a collection of the two men's correspondence. (16) In the first section, Ma ukhrija min shi'rihi fi l-shayb wa-l-kibar wa-dhikr akhir amrihi (Selections from His Poetry on Gray Hair and Old Age and Mention of His Last Days, pp. 353-62), are four poems: Ibrahim's complaint about his own terminal illness (354-57), al-Radi's reply (357-59), Ibrahim's reply, "which may have been the last of his poetry" (wa-la'allahu akhir shi'rihi, 359-60), and al-Radi's reply to those final words (360-62). The final section, Dhikr wafat Abi Ishaq wa-ma rathahu bihi l-Musawi (Mention of the Death of Abu Ishaq [Ibrahim] and [al-Radi] al-Musawi's Elegy for Him, pp. 362-68), contains two poems: al-Radi's 83-line elegy for Ibrahim, who died in 384/994, and his poem on a visit to Ibrahim's grave (362-66 and 366-68 respectively). Al-Tha'alibi ends his entry with al-Radi's final line: "I know that weeping is no use / to you, and yet I stir these longings up." (17)

  2. ASSIMILATION

    In addition to the passage quoted above, al-Tha'alibi offers several indications of Ibrahim's conformity to Muslim notions of piety. He relates that a certain Abu Mansur Sa'id b. Ahmad al-Baridi told him in Bukhara "that Abu Ishaq [Ibrahim] al-Sabi was one of the pietists (nussak) of the people of his religious practice (din), strict in his religious doctrine (diyana) and in protecting his religious way (madhhab) and guarding against that to which desire (hawa) called him." (18) This description, with the weight of a transmitted report, portrays Ibrahim's insistence upon remaining a Sabian as a virtue by using a term like "piety" (nusk), often applied by Muslims to pious Muslims (or, occasionally, non-Muslims) or by Christians to their saints. Furthermore, while din and diyana are neutral, the report construes Ibrahim's defense of the Sabian religion as part of his piety, thus making it analogous to defense of the din of the Believers. (19) Al-Tha'alibi's willingness to report these things shows the great success of the process of constructing and legitimating, in a Muslim context, a Sabian identity tied not only to Hermes but also to Abraham the hanif (who had once lived in Harran), a process that Kevin van Bladel has argued is behind several Arabic texts on Hermes. (20) It also shows how eager some Muslims were to accept this repackaged and touched-up Sabianism.

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