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Christine D. Baker on Medieval Islamic Sectarianism

In the tenth century Middle East, a remarkable thing happened: two Shi’i states took over the greater part of the Muslim world. First, the Fatimids, who began as an underground Shi’i revolutionary movement and declared an independent caliphate in North Africa in 909; they would eventually establish the city of Cairo as their capital and rule until the late 12th century. Second, the Buyids, Shi’i Persian mercenaries from the mountainous hinterlands just south of the Caspian Sea, conquered Baghdad in 945 and took control over the Sunni ‘Abbasid caliph and his territories. They would retain power for a century and created a new model of rulership where secular military leaders controlled the state in tandem with the religious authority of the caliph.

This period—when the Fatimids and Buyids took over and, briefly, Shi’i leaders dominated the Muslim world—is often remembered as the ‘Shi’i century’ in the standard periodization of Islamic history. It’s presented as an anomaly: a period when, for a short time, Shiʿis grabbed the wheel of Islamic history but were quickly ousted. Following from this assumption, historians often call the period after the Shiʿi Century the Sunni Revival” because that was when Sunni control was restored. In our histories of this era, the story of the tenth century is still predominately told as a sectarian narrative, divorced from the overall history of the medieval Islamic world, which helps feed into the overall view of sectarian hostility in Islam.

But, in actuality, the ‘Shi’i century’ offers us an opportunity to reexamine medieval Muslim concepts of sectarianism. In Medieval Islamic Sectarianism, I examine the very complex claims to authority made by the Fatimids and Buyids. Neither of these dynasty based their claims to authority in their Shi’i identities, but in broader concepts of what would appeal to a wide variety of Muslims.

 Here, we’ll look at a couple of examples of how the Buyids made incredibly complex claims to authority, ones that combined Arab, Persian, Sunni, Shi’i, and Zoroastrian imagery and history. The complexities of Buyid claims are important because they tend to be remembered as hamhandedly claiming ancient Persian heritage and angering local Muslims by promoting Shi’i public ritual. But an examination of these arguments shows how the Buyids were much more nuanced in their claims to authority.

Buyid claims about their ethnic heritage:

The Buyids originated in the Daylam, the mountainous highlands of northern Iran. The people of the Daylam tended to be portrayed in medieval sources as ‘backwards’ and ‘warlike’. The Buyids tried to rewrite the reputations of the Daylamites. First, they sponsored a history claiming that the Daylamites were actually a long-lost Arab tribe from Oman: the Banu Dhabba. According to this history, the Banu Dhabba had lived in the Daylam from ancient times and intermarried with the local Persians, concluding that “today, there is no difference between them in language, characteristics, morals, or customs.”

Arabizing their ethnically Persian heritage might seem like a funny way for the Buyids to claim a royal Persian pedigree, but they did that too. The most famous of the Buyid amirs, ‘Adud al-Dawla, took the title Shahanshah (‘king of kings’), and claimed that he was a descendant of the ancient Persian king, Bahram Gur (d. 438). But this choice of Bahram Gur was strategic: it allowed the Buyids with another opportunity to blend Arab and Persian heritage. As a boy, Bahram Gur’s father, the Sassanid shah, sent him to be raised at the court of the Lakhmids, a local Arab ruler in southern Iraq. When Bahram Gur’s father died, his older brother (and the heir to the Sassanid throne) was assassinated and his royal power usurped. Bahram Gur, however, returned to his capital with an Arab army and retook the Sassanid throne. Claiming Bahram Gur as his ancestor allowed ‘Adud al-Dawla to position himself as a figure who brought together the Arab and Persian traditions.

Bahram Gur made an ideal choice of ancestor for ‘Adud al-Dawla because he was also quite a popular figure in tenth-century Baghdad. A famous medieval Islamic history, al-Tabari’s History of Prophets and Kings, related Bahram Gur’s life in extensive detail. According to al-Tabari, three nurses had raised (and breastfed) Bahram Gur while he was with the Arab Lakhmids: two Arabs, and one Persian. Later participation of both Arab and Persian women in raising Bahram Gur was considered a sign of both nations’ contribution to his greatness. When the Lakhmids helped Bahram Gur win back his throne, al-Tabari presented this aid as an act of unselfish assistance that was rewarded when Islamic forces won control over Persia. Bahram Gur was, thus, an important symbol of Persian-Arab cooperation.

Buyid Shi’ism:

The Buyids are often accused of causing riots in Baghdad due to their sponsorship of Shi’i rituals. But these claims only come from sources dating to at least a century after Buyid rule. For example, Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201), a Sunni religious scholar, wrote a comprehensive historical chronicle in the twelfth century that modern historians often cite for the history of Baghdad: The Complete History (Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh). In his history, Ibn al-Jawzi frequently claimed that there was rampant sectarian violence in tenth-century Baghdad. He reported that Sunni-Shi’i riots occurred in the years 949, 951, 959, 960, 962, and 964. He also claimed that the Shi’is of Baghdad vandalized Sunni mosques in the city.

Significantly, no tenth-century sources mention these issues, neither ones written by Sunni authors nor sources sponsored by the Buyids. Some of the tenth-century sources mentioned civil unrest in Baghdad, but they identified the source of the conflict as power clashes between the military, the Buyid amirs, and other local challengers for power, conflicts which did not fall along Sunni-Shi’i lines. None of the tenth-century Sunni accounts mentioned sectarian violence in Shi’i Buyid controlled Baghdad.

Several later sources also claimed that the Buyids sponsored public Shi’i rituals in Baghdad, which led to sectarian violence: Ibn al-Jawzi, mentioned above, Ibn al-Athir (d. 1233), and Ibn al-Kathir (d. 1373). All three sources related that the first Buyid amir in Baghdad ordered public commemorations of Shi’i religious holidays in 963 and 964. According to the thirteenth and fourteenth-century Sunni sources, the public practice of these new Shi’i rituals so incensed Baghdad’s Sunni community that they instituted counter-rituals in protest. The counter-rituals mentioned by the later sources would have been particularly antagonistic toward Shi’is but, strikingly, none of the tenth-century sources mention them—not the contemporary Sunni sources nor the Buyid-sponsored sources.

Neither public celebrations of Shi’i rituals nor Sunni counter-celebrations appear in the tenth-century histories of Buyid rule. Although it could be argued that tenth-century sources might avoid mentioning sectarian rioting, there would be no reason for Buyid-sponsored sources to avoid mentioning religious rituals sponsored by the Buyids. Buyid-sponsored religious rituals would have been one way that the Buyids claimed legitimacy. There may very well have been public Shi’i rituals in Baghdad during the tenth century, but their absence from the tenth-century sources suggests that these rituals were probably small, not sponsored by the Shi’i Buyid state, and not as significant as portrayed by the Sunni sources written after the fall of the Buyid dynasty.

Rather, tenth-century sources—even those written by Sunni religious scholars—presented a more complex image of the Buyids than simple opposition to them for their Shi’i identity. Overall, the tenth-century sources depicted Shi’i Buyid rule as a reprieve for the people of Baghdad from the chaos and civil war that had plagued the city. These sources did not portray opposition to the takeover of the Buyids in terms of Sunni opposition to Shi’i rule. While the Buyids were a Shi’i dynasty, the Buyid amirate was predominately a military-administrative position concerned with reestablishing enough stability over ‘Abbasid territories to collect tax revenues and minimize external threats. The Buyids did not attempt to control or police the religious activities of the Muslims of Baghdad.

Local tenth-century Sunni depictions of the Buyids do not even express opposition to Buyid rule. Two tenth-century Sunni accounts of life under the Buyids survive, written by Sunnis living in Baghdad. It is striking that neither of these two tenth-century Sunni authors living under Shi’i Buyid rule conveyed any distress about living under and working for a Shi’i administration. Instead, they were predominately concerned with popular religious movements led by Sufis, Islamic mystics, and the general decline of Baghdad as the capital of the Muslim world. Neither of these contemporary Sunni witnesses to Shi’i Buyid rule mentioned the Shi’i identity of the Buyid amirs or the public practice of Shi’i religious rituals. They also failed to mention any sectarian conflict or by the Shii orientation of the Buyid amirs. For these two tenth-century Sunni authors living under Shii Buyid rule, the most significant issue facing contemporary Baghdad was the overall deterioration of the city due to the weakening power of the Sunni Abbasid caliphs.

While this short piece has examined a few examples of the complexity of Buyid claims to authority, the Fatimids made equally nuanced claims. Exploring notions of Muslim sectarian identity formation in the medieval Islamic world helps reveal how the early Muslim community espoused a diversity of formulations of Islam that eventually, over centuries, narrowed into the sectarian identities that we can recognize today.

by Christine D. Baker