Cyprus and its legal and historiographical significance in early Islamic history.

Author:Lynch, Ryan J.


In the period from the Islamic conquests to the fourth/tenth century Cyprus presented an exceptional circumstance for both Muslim and Byzantine administrators, and the surviving historical record recalls the difficulty faced by both in considering how best to govern and manage this frontier territory. Unlike the traditional frontier territory from this time, Cyprus proves to be a region that reveals the more intricate political and social relationships between the Muslims and the Byzantines. Arabic administrative treatises contemplating this early period demonstrate that the case of Cyprus had minimal judicial precedent that could be applied to its classification and treatment; it therefore has become a rare example of a precedent-setting administrative decision from the late eighth century. Rather than being subjugated by the armies of the Islamic conquests and becoming an island governed by the Islamic state, Cyprus is reported to have remained only a tributary to the caliphs. (1) Unsurprisingly, Muslims had expectations of the Cypriots, including a regular payment for the cessation of hostilities, but the Arabic sources present Cyprus as having been a divided land that wavered in its support between the Byzantines and the Muslims. Both sides came to accept an economic and influence-sharing neutrality on the island, and yet surviving sources show both parties eager to gain ascendency over the other through their Cypriot proxy. The medieval historical tradition suggests that the roots of divisions stretch far beyond the modern challenges of Cypriot nationalism and statehood.

The historical reports depict the island and its inhabitants' status as having vacillated wildly in allegiance throughout this period, presenting great difficulty for the modern-day scholar attempting to reconstruct the history of the island at a vital crossroads. At the center of the challenges created by this region in the historiographical record are two major incidents that followed the arrival of Muslim influence on the island. The first of these purportedly occurred in the Umayyad period during the reign of al-Walid b. Yazid b. 'Abd al-Malik (r. 125-26/743-44), where suspicion of a certain portion of the population led the caliph to remove them from the island. The second occurred during the Abbasid age and the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 170-93/786-809), when the caliph's governor of the frontier cities is said to have raided the island as punishment for an unnamed transgression. This transgression under the Abbasids seems to have gone largely unnoted in much of the extant Muslim and non-Muslim historical sources. It seems to have created a difficult circumstance that needed to be coped with by the legal and secretarial classes of the day, however, and Kitab al-Amwal (The Book of Revenue) of Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam (d. 224/838) and, subsequently, Kitab Futuh al-buldan (The Book of the Conquest of Lands) of al-Baladhuri (d. ca. 278/892) preserve these difficulties. Through analysis of this second tense period, this study will discuss the issues concerning the management of early Islamic Cyprus from the perspective of the Muslims. Despite the silence of non-Muslim sources on issues with the island during the early Abbasid period, the manner in which this particular incident is recorded in the above texts suggests that it was an important event for Muslim jurists and administrators. Record of the event survives only thanks to the availability of correspondence between Harun al-Rashid's governor of the Syrian frontier territories, 'Abd al-Malik b. Salih (d. 196/811), and prominent jurists of the day, faced with the dilemma of how best to handle violations of a unique peace agreement. As such, it testifies to how continued source-critical analysis and comparison of traditions contained within the early Arabic historical tradition can provide input into identifying certain traditions that are more reliable than others.


An inevitable caution that must be wielded by any scholar relying on the surviving Arabic sources for a reconstruction of the earliest centuries of Islam is that, while these sources may well have their traditions originating with informants contemporary to the events they describe, there are very few written Arabic sources that we can securely date to the seventh and eighth centuries; even then, these sources often provide us with only a small, regional glimpse at the political and social realities of the early Islamic world. (2) Much of this surviving Arabic material postdates the events described by a significant time period, with the earliest histories--often narrative in nature--not surviving from before the early- to mid-ninth century. These sources can also often conflict with and contradict the evidence provided by one another, as a discussion of the narrative of the conquest of Cyprus will demonstrate. For both Muslim and non-Muslim sources, what often does survive are the grander universal histories that offer only little coverage of local issues, while also including thematic or dramatic flourishes.

The present study wishes to augment the dialogue on Cyprus contributed to by a number of Byzantinists. Robert Browning defined his limitations in discussing Cyprus in the early medieval period as a clear focus on the Greek and other Byzantine sources. (3) This limitation of modern studies has often restricted Byzantinists interested in the early Islamic history of the island to Futuh al-buldan. (4) This is due not only to its integral nature as one of the earliest surviving sources from the Islamic tradition, but also to its availability in an English translation. (5) This limitation has meant, however, that an insightful early Arabic informant relied on by the ninth-century historian al-Baladhuri for a substantial portion of his section on Cyprus has rarely been invoked in this discussion. Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam--cited overtly by al-Baladhuri as the source of eight of his sixteen individual traditions in his chapter on the island--was a traditionist and jurist who had a keen interest in philology. His surviving work, Kitab al-Amwal, contains al-Baladhuri's reports on eighth-century Cypriot history. Even though some have identified al-Baladhuri's reliance on Abu 'Ubayd's material for this chapter, comparative work between the two texts does not appear to have been done, despite questions over the authenticity of materials contained within. (6)

The troublesome events that occurred between the Cypriots and the Muslims during the eighth century rarely interest the non-Muslim sources and are therefore ignored by many modern reconstructions of the island's history during this period. The few non-Muslim sources that do mention conflict (whether regular raiding or otherwise) completely fail to mention the legal debate that Cyprus's status and apparent transgressions caused during the reign of Harun al-Rashid. There are several possibilities for why this may be the case: the Muslim tradition may be confusing or simply fabricating the events in question; the non-Muslim sources may have had no interest in including these accounts within their own traditions; or the non-Muslim sources did not have access to the material in question for their own compilations.

Of these possibilities, a combination of the latter two seems most likely, especially when one recognizes that the entire Arabic historical tradition covering the eighth century does not universally record these events as having transpired. Even the monumental universal history of al-Tabari (d. 310/923), Ta'rikh al-rusul wa-l-muluk (The History of the Prophets and Kings), (7) as well as other important early Arabic historical texts fail to mention the debate surrounding the island's status that is so carefully preserved by Abu 'Ubayd. The debate itself fits well within the thematic context and focus of Abii 'Ubayd's Kitab al-Amwal--a compilation of legal opinions of considerable variety, to which Abu 'Ubayd provides commentary and interpretation of the precedent contained within--while it was not of such close relevance to other authors, both contemporary to him and later. Since it was a judicial text primarily concerned with the rules and precedents governing taxation, revenue, and the possession of territory, Cyprus and its treatment within the greater Islamic legal context provided an important model that may have been relevant for future generations of jurists and administrators. Moreover, Abu 'Ubayd's access to the source material that contained the debate, which was not available to others, also seems an essential reason for the inclusion of this Cypriot material within his text.

As will be discussed below, the form the legal debate takes over how to handle the Cypriots during the reign of Harun al-Rashid is unusual when compared to much of what is found in Kitab al-Amwal--it is found entirely within a series of letters communicated between famed jurists of the period and a governor of the frontier territories. Abu 'Ubayd states that he "found their letters [to the governor]" in "his register (diwan)," very likely the formal state register for the region ruled by the governor. He probably learned of this debate and gained access to the letters in question between 192-210 (807-25), while serving as the judge of Tarsus, a town in the southern coastal region of Anatolia that would have been in the same administrative fund ruled over by Harun's governor, 'Abd al-Malik b. Salih. With the extraordinary circumstances of Cyprus during the first two Muslim centuries becoming precedent-setting issues themselves, (8) he conceivably chose to include this debate because of its relevance for other territories that would be allowed to pay tribute rather than submit to full governance under the Islamic state. It is possible that yet another raid under Harun in 806 GE. (9)--just preceding Abu 'Ubayd's...

To continue reading