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Poetics of Sunnism: Arabic Literary Networks in the Crusades-Era Mediterranean. Dr Nathaniel Miller

Poetry constitutes the bulk of the Arabic literary sources from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, neglected in both the historical study of the Crusades as falling outside of the strict remit of historiographic sources, and in Arabic literary studies because this later period is “post-classical.” The poetry of the period, however, offers an insight into the ambivalent attitudes towards Crusaders, for literary texts offer a range of voices excluded from official chronicles. Rather than a unitary Islamic worldview, such texts reveal competing and intersecting cultural, political, and economic networks. An important resource for elucidating these networks is the 17-volume poetry anthology Kharīdat al-qaṣr wa-jarīdat al-ʿaṣr (Pearl of the palace and record of the age), by ʿImād al-Dīn al-Iṣfahānī (d. 1201). Al-Iṣfahānī, a secretary and biographer of Saladin, was well placed to reflect upon both the Crusades and the state of the Islamic world of his time.

As the work of a prominent political figure actively involved in shaping a Sunni political ideology, the Kharīda represents both a universalizing vision of the Arabo-Islamic world, as well as a soft power vehicle for marginalizing competing discourses. Al-Iṣfahānī intended the Kharīda as a comprehensive repository of the sixth Islamic century’s (1106 to 1204 CE) poets, in emulation of earlier Arabic anthologies devoted to previous centuries, and like its antecedents it is organized geographically, with sections on Persia, Iraq, the Levant, Egypt, and a section combining Spain and the Maghreb. Al-Iṣfahānī also includes biographical information about the poets, including their movements between cultural centers, their relationships with political figures, and their literary influences and affiliations. He uses his anthology as a platform to showcase the piety of Sunni rulers, whose raison d’être lay as much in the destruction of the Ismāʿīlī Shiite Fatimid dynasty of Egypt as in opposition to the Christian Crusaders; he includes generous selections not only from the poetry composed by and for the caliphs in Baghdad, but also poetry associated with Saladin’s family, the Ayyubids, champions of the Sunni caliphate. At the same time, he comments on, redacts, and selectively reproduces the work of poets associated with the Fatimids, for instance, or Muslim Sicilian poets who praised the Christian Normans. He also drew extensively on circulating manuscript collections, such as that of the Christian-praising Sicilian ʿUthmān ibn Bishrūn, without discriminating ideologically. The Kharīda thus reveals, even as it attempts to contain, the socio-cultural networks through which poets operated and developed their literary practices, networks which could spread according to their own logic, across sectarian and religious boundaries.

My study aims to map out both the cultural world of the Mediterranean and Near East that ʿImād al-Dīn inhabited, and that which he was striving to represent as normatively Islamic. The vast majority of poets that he selects are, like him, bureaucratic functionaries and Islamic religious scholars. Their poetry is ultimately a reflection of a kind of professional consciousness. Religious scholars of the period are broadly thought, under the influence of the Crusades, to have encouraged a “Sunni revival” emphasizing the sacred status of Jerusalem, participation in jihad, and hostility towards religious minorities and heterodox and Shiite Islamic sects. In his other works, Imad al-Din participates in this trend, but his anthology shows a willingness to include, for example, love poetry describing Christian women, homoerotic poetry, and poetry by Shiites. The Poetics of Sunnism thus argues that, in tandem with increasing doctrinal rigidity, a professional cadre of scholars and bureaucrats was, paradoxically, simultaneously developing a stance of affective—as opposed to purely doctrinal—Sunnism that endured into the early modern, and in some ways, the modern period.