Early Islamic History Reimagined: the Biography of Umar ibn Abd a1-Aziz in Ibn Asdkir's Tarikh madinat Dimashq.


The publication of an anthology dedicated to exploring the relevance of Abu 1-Qasim Ali b. al-tlasan Ibn Asakir (d. 571/1176) to the study of early Islamic Syria opened up new avenues for the analysis of medieval texts, especially biographical dictionaries. (1) The compiler and his work, including his Tarikh madinat Dimashq (hereafter TMD), have accordingly been the subject of a number of important recent studies. (2) The TMD's daunting length alone has ensured that while many scholars of medieval Syria recognize the value of the biographical work itself, there is much that remains to be learned about individual portions of that text, as well as the many historiographical or political questions it raises. Below I offer a focused reading of one biography, Ibn Asakir's portrait of the Umayyad caliph Umar b. Abd al-AzIz (Umar II, r. 99-101/717-720). This study is divided into three parts. Part one addresses Ibn 'Asakir's historiographical and political milieu. Part two is a brief analysis of the accession of Umar II, in which that caliph emerges as a pivotal piece of Ibn Asakir's argument for uninterrupted Sunni caliphal legitimacy. That theme is elaborated more fully in part three, which is a close reading of (Umar II's entire TMD biography.


Umar II in Biographical Tradition

Ibn Asakir was not the first person to devote considerable attention to the life of Umar II. From the third through the sixth century A.H., a number of accounts of varying lengths were compiled about that caliph's ascetic life and political career, by inter alia Ibn Abd al-tlakam (d. 214/871), Ibn Sad (d. 230/845), al-Baladhuri (d. 279/892), al-Tabari (d. 310/923), al-Malla (d. 570/1174), and Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201). (3) The historiographical context within which Ibn Asalir worked is complicated by the fact that although he was meticulous about citing his own teachers, he often reproduced material common to well-known older works without direct attribution to them. (4) Fortunately, Umar II is one of few early figures to have received his own self-contained biography (sira) rather early on, so other comprehensive biographies are available for comparison with Ibn Asakir's text. (5) Two of the more substantive texts available for comparison are the biographies by Ibn Sad and by Ibn Abd al-ljakam; in addition, Ibn al-Jawzi's Sirat wa-rnantigib Umar b. Abd al-zrz is also useful in terms of content, though less so in terms of structure, as it is more a hagio-graphical portrayal of the caliph than a technical biography. (6) Ibn Asakir's patron, the Zangid Mir al-Din, was particularly invested in the biography of Umar II; he commissioned a work by his trusted advisor in Mawil, Abu Hafs Umar b. Muhammad al-Khidr al-Malla, that was meant to bring together previous sources including those of Ibn Abd al-Hakam and Ibn al-Jawzi. Nur al-Din died two years before al-Malre, however, and while a draft of the work is extant, it was never completed. (7) In large part, al-Malla' seems to have reproduced Ibn al-Jawzi's text.

Although he had a considerable historiographical tradition from which to draw, Ibn Asakir's biography of Umar II is distinct from those of his predecessors in two major ways. (8) First, while preserving traditions about Umar IT with which he had to contend, Ibn Asakir strategically arranged his biography to emphasize or de-emphasize certain aspects of Umar II's life in light of his own political and theological agenda, including the caliph's youth, accession, and reputation as a mahdi. (9) Second, while it is a commonplace in medieval Islamic historiography for competing claimants to different types of authority to hearken back to foundational figures as sources of legitimation, Ibn Asakir's legitimizing historiography appears to be bi-directional. (10) Namely, where earlier biographers depicted Umar II as the fifth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (rashidun), bolstering his reputation through an association with earlier authorities, in Ibn Asakir's account problematic aspects of the early civil wars and fitna-ridden rashidun period are also elided through their association with the famously pious Umar II. (11) The context for these unique aspects in Ibn Asakir's representation of Umar II was the demanding environment in which TMD was completed, where dual pressure from Crusader and Shiite opponents shaped his articulation of a Sunni political genealogy whose legitimacy hinged on Umar II's unique persona.

Ibn AsaKir's choice of Umar II as a figure central to his vision of Sunni legitimacy was a highly strategic one. Unlike the first Umar, who was uniformly seen by Shiites as having orchestrated the usurpation of Ali's right to rule after the Prophet's death and repeating the offense when he himself became caliph, the relatively reverent attitude of Umar II toward the family of the Prophet made him a more potent vehicle for late medieval Sunni propaganda. There are numerous attestations of the favorable reputation Umar II had among Shiites, not least of all because of his reported prohibition against cursing Ali at congregational prayers. (12) After Umar II's death, Ali's daughter Fatima was said to have lamented, "if he had remained among us, we would have no need for anyone else after him." (13) Thus, Umar II is portrayed by Ibn Asakir as a uniting figure; after one narrative in which the caliph declares his respect for the Prophet's family we find, for instance, a telling parable: a man living during Umar II's reign expresses wonder at seeing a herd of sheep milling about unmolested by a number of foxes in their midst and is told that under the guidance of a good enough shepherd, even enemies can live peacefully. (14) In Ibn Asakir's rendering, Umar II emerges as a pivotal model of good leadership, occasionally superior to even the first four caliphs, mitigating the unseemliness of the early caliphate's association with fitna by portraying the rashidan and the Umayyads as a morally coherent unit through links (political, biological, and moral) to the second Umar, who was relatively unimpeachable.

Urnar II: The Most "Rescuable" Umayya (15)

Umar II was regularly portrayed in medieval sources as the best of the Umayyads, though this was not saying much. (16) Indeed, one of the most intriguing dynamics in early Islamic historiography concerns the problematic nature of the Umayyad dynasty. (17) The resulting anti-Umayyad sentiment in a variety of literary genres is palpable, though not absolute, and Umar II is a well-known exception to negative portrayals of Umayyads in Abbasid-era sources (though not the only one). (18) As a scholar committed to the Sunni vision of an unbroken, legitimate caliphal succession from Abu Bala down to his own time, Ebn Asakir needed to demonstrate that the Umayyads as a whole were lawful (if flawed) heads of the community. For this reason, a brief look at a range of his Umayyad caliphal biographies in TMD is instructive. The biography of Umar II is one of the most substantive entries, comprising 150 pages; (19) Ibn Asakir's treatment of other Umayyad caliphs is generally neither as full nor as overtly flattering. The only other Umayyad biography of comparable length is that of Muawiya, at over 160 pages. (20) The rest vary in length from six to about sixty pages each. (21)

Muawiya's simultaneously notorious and critical role as the founder of the Umayyad dynasty accounts for the sizeable nature of his biography in TMD. While it is apparent that his investment in the Umayyad caliphs as a group was somewhat uneven, previous research into Ibn Asakir's other biographies has persuasively shown that he was concerned with rehabilitating the problematic reputations of key Umayyads. Thus, for example, a higher than average amount of energy was devoted to his treatment of Yazid ibn Muawiya, while much less was spent on al-Walid b. Abd al-Malik. Lindsay has argued that Yazid I's reputation, marred by his weakness for women and alcohol, not to mention his scandalous role in the death of Muharnmad's grandson Husayn, was neutralized by Ibn 'As-aides nuanced portrayal of him as a decent transmitter of twelfth, a relatively pious person deserving of the caliphate, and as being somewhat distanced from the events at Karbala. (22) Al-Walid b. Abd al-Malik, on the other hand, is depicted in a less obviously manipulated manner by Ibn AsAkir. His biography comprises twenty-three pages, many of which are dedicated to genealogical data; it contains a handful of favorable reports on his devotion to reading the Quran and completing its recitation during Ramaclan, (23) and numerous unflattering ones on his spoiled youth, inability to learn grammar, and general unpopularity among opposing political factions. (24) In general, Ibn Asakir's treatment of al-Walid is relatively lackluster and seems half-hearted in comparison to his more proactive rehabilitation of Yazid I. Yazid I was the more polarizing figure, and it stands to reason that the degree to which Ibn Asakir exercised his authorial hand was proportional to the amount of historical finessing he felt compelled to do. (25) It is also reasonable to conclude that if he felt compelled to rehabilitate more problematic figures such as Muawiya and Yazid I, he was also likely to want to capitalize as much as possible on the positive reputation of the least problematic one, namely, Umar II.

Recent scholarship has elucidated various aspects of the brief reign of Umar II, with a focus on his image in Christian and Muslim sources in the early Middle Ages. To those after him, he was "an exemplar of the Muslim virtues of piety, equity and humility." (26) The biological descendant of Umar b. al-Khattab, he was occasionally construed as a mahdi. (27) According to tradition, his asceticism, clemency, and piety elevated him in the minds of medieval authors, Christian and Muslim alike. A series of fiscal policies and edicts were attributed to him, spanning a range...

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