Identity and Commentary in the Sufi Tradition

The Life of Ibn al-Mubārak

Feryal Salem, The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunnī Scholasticism: ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak and the formation of Sunnī Identity in the Second Islamic Century, Brill, 2016, 165 pp., $120 (hardback and eBook)
Feryal Salem, The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunnī Scholasticism: ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak and the formation of Sunnī Identity in the Second Islamic Century, Brill, 2016, 165 pp., $120 (hardback and eBook)
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One of the more difficult tasks facing historians of early Sufism is to disentangle its development as an identifiable social movement from the dense thicket of other interrelated and competing movements tied to the authoritative legacy of the prophet Muhammad. But this difficulty is not simply a matter of historical distance; it is primarily (although not wholly) a matter of the source material. While we do possess some texts by early Sufis, most extant sources for the history of Sufism post-date its emergence in ninth-century Iraq by at least a century. These later accounts, primarily originating in the eleventh-century Islamic East, contain a wealth of information about Sufism and early Sufis. The texts purport to record the unbroken chains of charismatic and doctrinal transmission that tie the formative Sufi masters, link-by-link and person-by-person, back to the prophet Muhammad and his revered companions, picking up along the way many figures of the past known for their piety, scrupulousness, and adherence to the Qur’an and the prophetic example (sunna). Sufi historians inserted individuals like al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728), Bishr al-Ḥāfi (d. 227/841-2), and Dhū l-Nūn the Egyptian (d. ca. 245/859-60) into their collective past, despite the fact that none of them were actually Sufis. This historiographical practice should not come as a surprise; legitimization through retroactive reclamation and attribution was by no means uncommon among early groups of Muslims vying for an authoritative claim on the prophet’s legacy.

During this fecund period of Islamic history when competing theological, political, and legal movements were beginning to coalesce, Muslim historians and biographers drew on the collective memory of the growing community to construct multiple histories linking their particular vision of the present to the authoritative prophetic past. Indeed, Fred Donner has shown that the development of a specifically Islamic historiography was inextricably bound up with exercises in competitive legitimation. The importance that early Muslims placed on genealogy, memory, and the exemplary model of Muhammad and his successors meant that later systematizers of these variegated movements had a massive archive of names, dates, and places with which to create multiple and competing accounts of the past. It is therefore not at all unusual or surprising to find the same individual popping up in different accounts, in drastically different guises, and even saying the same things attributed to other individuals. The aforementioned al-Ḥasan of Basra is a typical example. Ultimately, then, these accounts of a mythical past (and here I am thinking of Bruce Lincoln’s distinction between myth, legend, and history), narrated through trope-filled biographies, reveal a great deal more about each collectivity’s self-conceptualization of the present than they necessarily do about the pious men and women to whom they refer. Historians of these movements must therefore exercise great caution in evaluating and using the prosopographical collections known in English as biographical dictionaries.

These issues of collective memory, social competition, textual representation, and legitimation lie at the heart of the historiography of early Islam. While many scholars now believe the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina to be authentic products of the first/seventh century, nearly all the other information we possess about Muhammad, the context of the Qur’an, and the first generations of Muslims come from the third/ninth century and later, when different sectarian, legal, theological, and political groups had begun to form and develop distinct identities. These groups produced texts and traditions that record critical information from earlier centuries, but it is clear that this information was refracted through the ideological lenses of each particular collectivity and for varying ends. Surveying the extant sources, a pattern emerges: the ideological fight to control the narrative and meaning of Muhammad’s prophetic career and legacy began to take shape in short treatises and letters that only survive within much later, more comprehensive works reflecting multiple and contradictory conceptions of that legacy. This situation is the result of the admixture of oral and written modes of knowledge production and transmission, the concomitant processes of revisions and edits to those materials by transmitter and student alike, and the florescence of a full-blown writing culture in Abbasid Baghdad, phenomena that Gregor Schoeler has described in great detail. Thus, while there is good cause to believe that late recensions of earlier texts are plausibly accurate, historians must still sift through the data very carefully, as they all bear the unmistakable stamp of subsequent eras when Sunni, Shiʿi, Sufi and other identities had begun to coalesce, even if not in their final forms.

Historians of early Islam have developed ever more sophisticated methodologies for dealing with these issues. The skepticism regarding the reliability of statements attributed to Muhammad and his companions among early Orientalists like Ignác Goldziher, Joseph Schacht, and G.H.A. Juynboll gave way to an even more radical skepticism in the 1970s regarding all the historical sources from the early period (e.g. John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook). That radical skepticism precipitated, in turn, substantive shifts in approach and method in the other direction. What we might call the credibility turn is built atop path-breaking methodological innovations in the study of the Qur’an and its manuscript traditions (e.g. Angelika Neuwirth and François Déroche, respectively), early Arabic papyri (e.g. Nabia Abbott), hadith literature (e.g. Scott Lucas and Jonathan Brown), and legal methodology (e.g. Ahmed el-Shamsy), to name only a few. These innovations have considerably advanced our understanding not only of early Islam, but the ensuing formation of coherent Shiʿi and Sunni identities as well. Unfortunately, aside from some notable exceptions, the same theoretical and methodological rigor and innovation obtains to a far lesser extent for the social history of early Sufism and the biographical sources that constitute our primary sources for its study.

One of the most important figures in this regard, contributing to the formation of anachronistically styled “proto-Sunni” and “proto-Sufi” identities, was ʿAbdallāh Ibn al-Mubārak (118-181 AH / 736-797 CE). A frustratingly enigmatic character, Ibn al-Mubārak was a merchant from Merv (in contemporary Turkmenistan) who used his wealth to travel the Islamic world seeking and disseminating knowledge, collecting and transmitting a large number of hadith before ending up on the Byzantine frontier, where he died returning from a raid. There are several collections of hadith that bear his name, the most famous of which are the Kitāb al-jihād (Book of Jihad) and the Kitāb al-zuhd (Book of Renunciation). But beyond these skeletal bio-bibliographical details there is little else one can say about the man with any certainty. This uncertainty is exacerbated by later Muslim biographers who, writing from within highly variegated social and political contexts, claimed him as their own in diverse ways: he was a hadith expert; he was a proponent of “orthodox” theology; he was a pious warrior; he was a Sufi; he was a Hanafi jurist; he was a Maliki jurist; and so on. The problem of course is that most of these labels had not yet emerged as coherent identities during his lifetime; they are back-projections that later generations deployed to link their collectivities to earlier generations and ultimately to the prophet Muhammad. Ibn al-Mubārak’s biography and scholarship thus bring all the aforementioned challenges about collective memory, representation, and legitimation to the foreground in stark ways.

Feryal Salem engages directly with these issues in her new study of Ibn al-Mubārak’s life and work, The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunnī Scholasticism, which contains a wealth of detail about Ibn al-Mubārak, his teachers, students, and texts. The book is comprised of four chapters devoted to his biography, his role in the transmission of hadith, his career as a mujāhid (pious warrior), and his approach to zuhd (renunciation or, as Salem prefers in this context, piety). Salem makes several interrelated arguments rooted in her analysis of Ibn al-Mubārak’s collections of hadith and the relevant biographical literature. First, it was Ibn al-Mubārak’s extensive travel, scholarly networks, and early adoption of writing that resulted in the large number of hadith attributed to his circle. Second, Ibn al-Mubārak’s students constitute a critical link between early hadith collectors and the generation of Sunni scholars that developed the field of hadith criticism. Third, it was a transmitter’s reputation for piety among “the masses” that allowed him or her access to that network of scholars who determined and shaped the nascent Sunni tradition. That is, Ibn al-Mubārak’s widespread reputation for piety, stemming from his status as a mujāhid, suggests that moral conduct and character, and not merely a good memory, were key elements in the hadith critics’ determination of reliability. And finally, the textual parallels between his Kitāb al-zuhd, itself rooted in Qur’anic and prophetic modes of piety, and later Sufi literature suggest the former to be a kind of proto-Sufi text, revealing the genuinely Islamic roots of Sufism.

There is much in Salem’s description, analysis, and conclusions to commend and comment on. I will leave it to others to work out the implications of her arguments about, for example, the nature of militant devotion on the Byzantine frontier and the formation of a cogent Sunni identity. But to my mind her discussion of Ibn al-Mubārak’s relationship to Sufism and her reconstruction of his biography are the most interesting, albeit sketchy, portions of the book and it is on these that I will focus. In short, Salem argues that Sufism developed directly from the earlier zuhd traditions embodied by Ibn al-Mubārak. To make that case she draws a sharp distinction between taṣawwuf, the pious core of Sufism that developed organically from the texts and practices of Muslim renunciants, and ṭarīqas, the mystical accretions to Sufism that developed heterogeneously in contact with other religious traditions. For Salem, then, “the distinction between ṭarīqas and taṣawwuf is key to understanding Sufism as a discipline of Islamic piety.” The former is a problematic (to its critics) elaboration of mystical and often non-Islamic doctrine and praxis while the latter is an authentically Islamic practice “grounded in scriptural evidence.” Unfortunately, Salem only lays out this provocative argument in a few short pages at the end of her book, readily admitting that this ought to be the subject of more rigorous study in the future.

While not explicit, Salem’s account of Ibn al-Mubārak’s relationship to Sufism is based on two arguments she makes in previous chapters: that the medieval biographies of Ibn al-Mubārak accurately represent his life and piety, even if not in exact detail, and that there are significant textual parallels between Ibn al-Mubārak’s kitāb alzuhd and later Sufi literature. There is certainly no doubt that Sufi systematizers mined earlier renunciant literature for persons, ideas, and sayings that would flesh out and fill the chronological and geographical gaps that separate the Sufis from Muhammad. But they did not only draw from that literature; many of them, like ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 937/1021), also drew heavily from local Khurasanian movements like the Malāmatīya, a tradition of piety quite distinct from but no less Islamic than that of the renunciants. It was once fairly commonplace for scholars of Sufism to narrate a more or less linear development from asceticism to mysticism, zuhd to taṣawwuf, the former a prerequisite for the latter, culminating in the classical Sufi tradition. However, recent scholarship by Ahmet Karamustafa and Nile Green has shown that this narrative is conceptually simplistic and historically inaccurate. Sufism developed from a number of different trends while non-Sufi forms of piety continued to develop separately. Furthermore, the emergence of ṭarīqas was a much later development than Salem implies here. Thus, while her discussion of the semantic nuances of zuhd during the second/eighth century are quite penetrating and illuminating, her narrative of the development of Sufism is seriously out of date. In fact, and quite surprisingly, she cites none of the scholarship that has proliferated on this precise subject in the past few years.

As for the biographical component of Salem’s argument, her clearest methodological statements on the subject are two-fold and rather contradictory. She begins with Donner’s well known categorization of the “descriptive” and “skeptical” approaches to early Islamic texts, locating her own work between the two and noting that any hermeneutic attempting to distinguish the false from the true in these difficult sources will “ultimately reflect the epistemological approach of the historian himself or herself.” True enough. In terms of her biography of Ibn al-Mubārak, however, Salem does tend heavily toward the descriptive approach, reporting the prosopographical representations of Ibn al-Mubārak without adjudicating their historicity. Thus, the first chapter of the book is a composite sketch of Ibn al-Mubārak’s biography based upon “the classical sources” (more on which in a moment).

Salem’s second methodological approach has to do with the texts attributed to Ibn al-Mubārak, namely the Kitāb al-jihād and Kitāb al-zuhd, which are not authored works but rather collections of hadith organized chronologically (Kitāb al-jihād) and topically (Kitāb al-zuhd). In her study of these texts, Salem is primarily concerned with reconstructing the second/eighth century milieu in which they originated by examining the chain of transmission (isnād) and text (matn) of the hadith found therein. Her methodology here derives from the work of scholars like Harald Motzki who have argued that the consistent patterning of chains of transmission with similar content reveals the faithful transmission of certain ideas, and can be used—along with the historian’s careful and balanced judgment—to determine a terminus ante quem for said ideas and texts. While not explicit, Salem develops these insights to make the case that these two texts accurately represent the second/eighth century milieu of Muslim scholarship and the central role Ibn al-Mubārak played in shaping the development of Sunni Islam and, more specifically, the form of piety she ties to the development of Sufism.

The combination of these two methodologies produces a number of thought-provoking results and insights regarding Ibn al-Mubārak’s status in the collective memory of subsequent Muslim communities. Most significantly, she is able to demonstrate quite convincingly the development of a uniquely Islamic piety and ethical conduct that played a formative role in the development of Sunni Islam. But her approach is ultimately inconsistent and problematic in two substantive ways, revealed in her statement that Ibn al-Mubārak “is an important figure who not only personified the developing Sunnī milieu of his time but was also a significant force in shaping early Islamic history and identity. The latter is demonstrated by the overwhelming number of references to him in primary sources which evoke his example.” That is, Salem claims that while anecdotes about Ibn al-Mubārak in the biographical sources are not necessarily true, their consistency suggests a coherent, and therefore accurate, transmission of Ibn al-Mubārak’s reputation and status from the second/eighth century. In other words, since “the classical sources” are nearly unanimous in their praise for and representation of Ibn al-Mubārak as a reliable transmitter of hadith and pious proto-Sunni exemplar, and since the chains of transmission associated with Ibn al-Mubārak track coherently with the contents of his hadith collections, we can trust that the biographical representations are basically reliable reflections of an earlier historical reality. However, there are two different methodological principles being conflated here that must be disentangled: issues of biographical representation and legitimation are certainly connected to but ultimately different from issues of reliability and historicity in the transmission of hadith.

At the heart of this tangle is Salem’s critical reading of Ibn al-Mubārak’s hadith collections combined with an uncritical approach to biographical information culled from “the classical sources,” the scope and content of which she does not define. It is nevertheless obvious that she uses the designation to refer to the massive prosopographical archive of Arabic biographical dictionaries in toto. Salem mines the Kitāb al-ṭabaqāt al-kabīr by Ibn Saʿd (d. 230/845) and the Shadharāt al-dhahab fī akhbār man dhahab by Ibn al-ʿImād (d. 1089/1679), and every other dictionary of relevance in between, regardless of genre, not only to write her biography but to check and verify the image of the man which emerges from his hadith collections. Salem’s “classical sources” thus span over 800 years and include dictionaries devoted to (re)constructing the histories of hadith experts, renunciants, Sufis, Hanafis, Malikis, Hanbalis, etc., in addition to universal dictionaries like the Wafayāt al-aʿyān by Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282). Given everything we now know about the form, content, and purposes of biographical dictionaries, the indiscriminate use of all of them simultaneously to write a biography, let alone to subsume them all under the umbrella term “the classical sources” is simply untenable. To cite only one example, Roberta Denaro (whose work Salem does not include here) has shown in great and exacting detail how and why Ibn al-Mubārak’s biography grew and changed drastically over time and across geography. For Salem to cite an eleventh-century dictionary devoted to scholars connected to Baghdad, a fourteenth-century dictionary devoted to ḥadīth experts, and a seventeenth-century universal dictionary in the space of only a few pages without regard to time, place, or intent is jarring to say the least. In fact, it is only possible to do so by eliding those differences altogether. Thus, while Salem is scrupulously precise in her discussion of Ibn al-Mubārak’s teachers, students, and associates—providing names, places, and dates for each—she never includes the dates or ideological projects of the biographers whom she cites regularly. The effect is to render the entire heterogeneous and contradictory corpus of biographical dictionaries into one homogenous and coherent corpus of “classical sources.” For all the critical attention Salem pays to the historiographical debates swirling around reconstructing the first two centuries of Islam, and the development of hadith transmission in particular, she simply takes the subsequent eight centuries of historiography as an unproblematic, undifferentiated whole.

The problems with this approach are clear in the juxtaposition of the earliest biography of Ibn al-Mubārak and one of the latest. While Ibn Saʿd’s ninth-century account takes up a mere six lines of Arabic text, Ibn al-ʿImād’s seventeenth-century biography is 48 lines of Arabic text, chock full of anecdotes and all kinds of precise biographical detail. To put it bluntly, Ibn Saʿd’s representation of Ibn al-Mubārak is almost unrecognizable compared to that of Ibn al-ʿImād, who, incidentally, is not making this stuff up; he meticulously quotes and cites earlier biographers, each of whom also cite earlier authorities. These authors were not duplicitous forgers, but rather collectors of all the oral and written reports known to them, an ever-expanding corpus of details­­ that accreted to Ibn al-Mubārak’s life to serve the interests of those doing the relating and collecting. Surely we must account for these rough modes of transmission among the biographers of Ibn al-Mubārak and not treat them all as a unified whole. I want to stress that these criticisms should not detract from Salem’s study, which, as I noted above, is often quite illuminating. Rather, I simply wish to highlight the historiographical problems inherent in using these biographical sources without careful and precise attention paid to the context and political/social/theological projects of each author. Despite the growing number of studies devoted to precisely these issues, however, the problem remains endemic in many sub-fields of Islamic studies, and the study of Sufism in particular. Too many historians continue to use the corpus of biographical dictionaries as a kind of coherently monolithic collection of names, dates, places, sayings, texts, and practices, rather than the contradictory archive of competing representations they actually are. To make any progress at all toward untangling these representations of earlier social movements, let alone articulating clearly the processes involved in the shaping of collective identities in the second/eighth – third/ninth centuries and beyond, historians must pay closer attention to the innovative methodologies and insights developed by those who study the prosopographical traditions that constitute our primary source for the social history of Islamic scholarship.

Nathan Hofer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri and the author of The Popularisation of Sufism in Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt, 1173-1325 (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a history of the biographical and hagiographical traditions of medieval Arabophone Sufism.