This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
This interview also appears at the Library of Arabic Literature website:
Translator Luke Yarbrough.
Luke Yarbrough’s interests, he says, lie at the intersection of intellectual, political, and administrative histories in the pre-modern Middle East. Yarbrough, an assistant professor at St. Louis University, found all that and more in his editing and translation work for Uthman ibn Ibrahim al-Nabulusi’s The Sword of Ambition: Bureaucratic Rivalry in Medieval Egypt.
The text is wide-ranging, jumping from anti-Copt polemic to fragments of poetry by men the author admires to dumb-judge jokes. Here, Yarbrough and M. Lynx Qualey talk about the reasons to translate a work that could be characterized as “bigot lit,” how the book provides context for the author’s prejudices, and more.
Next week, the second part of the interview focuses on who should (and shouldn’t) read the book, how this book might reflect the humor memes of thirteenth-century Egypt, and the difficulties in translating the work into English.
Your introduction makes a compelling case for why this book should be translated, despite the possibility that it could be misused both by those who are virulently anti-Christian and those who are virulently anti-Muslim. But why you? How did you arrive at the decision to enter into a relationship with this text?
I thought translating The Sword of Ambition was important both for historical reasons and for contemporary ones. Notoriously, the Islamic world’s later Middle Ages, especially in the central Islamic lands, have been understood as a time when non-Muslims increasingly came under social and political pressures, increasingly became minorities. Historians are still scrambling to understand why that happened.
In the middle of those processes, we have a group of at least a half-dozen polemical works, mainly from Egypt between 1170 and 1380, to which The Sword of Ambition belongs. These are sociopolitical polemics against non-Muslims, who the authors think hold too much power or prestige in their society.
The texts are important historical sources for understanding why non-Muslims came under these pressures in that medieval period.
People often, and rightly, connect this darkening climate for non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East in the later medieval period to the Crusades or the Mongol invasions. But The Sword of Ambition reminds us that competition between Muslim and non-Muslim elites for jobs and prestige was another major cause of animosities.
Are we sure there weren’t more than a half dozen texts like this one?
No, we’re not sure at all. Most of them are not mentioned in other historical sources. This is surely significant, although one could interpret it in many different ways. I tend to think it follows from the fact that they were written for a narrow audience of ruling elites, and were too extreme in their tone to catch on for a wider reading public. Several of them survive in only one manuscript. One that draws on material from The Sword of Ambition and was written around 1310—the Radd ʿalā ahl al-dhimmah (Response to the dhimmis) by Ghāzī ibn al-Wāsiṭī—survives in one manuscript that Columbia University happens to own. Otherwise we wouldn’t know about it—no one else cites it, no one else mentions it.
But no, we don’t know at all that there weren’t a half-dozen more, or more than that, floating around.
And what were your contemporary reasons for wanting to translate this work?
We hear a lot about what’s going on in Iraq and Syria with the so-called Islamic State, and about their treatment of Yazidis and Christians and other minorities in that area. There’s this huge debate raging: Is what they’re doing Islamic? Does this have a foundation of some sort in Islamic law? If so, what?
This work is particularly interesting, in that regard, because it reflects what we now regard as a bigoted and intolerant perspective. But it takes us to the root of where that language comes from and how those discourses are established. The author doesn’t hide the fact that he’s writing from a position of great personal financial pressure. He doesn’t hide that he’s in the middle of rivalries with Coptic bureaucrats, and that those highly specific pressures and those stresses are what’s bringing him to write this very cutting invective.
But of course, once he writes it, then it becomes available to later authors to pick up and run with. And some do, in the century after this, and we have other polemics that use him without acknowledgment as a source.
In other words, when we talk about “bigot literature,” as you’ve put it, one might assume that these are ideas that are simply in the air, or assume that they go back as far as the identity of whatever majoritarian group is pushing them, in this case learned Muslim scholars and bureaucrats. But what this book shows us is that exclusionary ideas arise out of particular milieus and under particular stresses. The authors are not just inspired by the contents of the tradition, they’re aggressively shaping and pruning the tradition to suit their own needs.
How unique is this particular text?
In this small genre of polemical texts, or those that survive, this is the most variegated and the most literary among them. Many of the others read a lot more like legal treatises. They’re much more absorbed with the so-called dhimmi laws that have attempted to regulate non-Muslim life in nominally Islamic societies. But they don’t range as far into poetry and into humor. This is a bit livelier and faster-moving of a text.
Why did he go in this direction, rather than focus on legal scholarship?
If you talk to people who study the legal status of non-Muslims in Islamic societies, the text that’s now considered the legal fountainhead of rules that are supposed to pertain to non-Muslims is a book by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, who died in 1350, called Aḥkām ahl al-dhimmah, or The Rules Pertaining to Subject Non-Muslims.
In that book, the author includes a section on employing non-Muslims, and he, like Ibn al-Nabulusi, thinks they’re not supposed to be employed in the government. But rather than go into great juristic detail about why and what the relevant laws are, he instead reproduces the very same series of historical anecdotes that we find in The Sword of Ambition. So authors of this time period, for whatever reason, thought it would be more effective to convince their audiences that employing non-Muslims was a bad idea by using historical anecdote, by using poetry, and by using humor, rather than by having recourse to the very dry, clinical language of Islamic law.
And Ibn al-Nabulusi’s various strategies—short sections, varied content, clickbait headlines—make The Sword of Ambition feel like a more popular or populist text.
It’s an open question how much Ibn al-Nabulusi imagined that The Sword of Ambition might circulate more widely. We know that it did make its way up to what’s today Algeria, and to Tunis, and to Istanbul. So it did eventually get around. But my own suspicion is, because of the very embarrassing personal section at the end, that he really was writing it in the moment for the Ayyubid sultan, or perhaps a high official who could speak or act for the sultan.
The ending really is remarkable in its bald, fallen-from-privilege honesty about his financial circumstances. It feels very private, and yet this also circulated publicly. He wasn’t embarrassed by it?
The fascinating thing about that autobiographical groveling, self-ingratiating ending is that it’s only found in one of the manuscripts. It happens to be the manuscript that, in other ways, seems to be closest to the authorial moment of the book. It’s the same manuscript that also uniquely preserves pious blessings on the Ayyubid sultans, and of course the Ayyubid dynasty comes to an end about eight years after this book was written. There are three other known witnesses, but the two other main ones completely drop that autobiographical bit. We don’t know how that came to be.
My working theory is that, several years or decades later, the author came along and produced another redaction of the work. And that second redaction omitted the pitiful personal bit at the end about how poor he is, and how much he needs a job, and how his family are nagging him for money and he can’t give it to him.
So I think he was embarrassed, and that could be taken as evidence that he did in fact intend the original composition for the sultan’s eyes only, or at least for high officials’ eyes only. It’s less of an “open letter” and more of a personal appeal to people who he felt might be able to help him out.
When he made that redaction, if that’s what happened, was there any chance he was also responding to criticism? You mentioned that, from one manuscript to another, his views on apostasy were lightened up a little bit. Could someone have pointed out to him that this part was over the top, and he needed to dial that back a little?
Absolutely. Or it could’ve been his own realization that he had gone too far, coming back to it years after the fact. In that section, he argues that any converts to Islam who are suspected of being insincere should be treated as though they’re apostates, which, according to a very strict and rigorist view, means that they could potentially be executed. The original version gives a very broad mandate for a witch hunt against those who are suspected of converting to Islam insincerely.
Those other manuscript versions, which I think are later, tack a little bit on this, adding “Unless converts are sincere,” which is of course most of them. The later redactions really dial back the rhetoric.
To what extent do you think Ibn al-Nabulusi planned this out before writing?
He claims that he planned it. In the introduction, he writes that he established the work on a very firm structure that he’d laid out. And then, at the end of the work, he complains about how much time he’s had to spend doing this, and the effort and the toil of writing it. So he pretends as though he has. I’m not entirely sure. It is certainly possible that the contents of the work are a placeholder, if you will, and that it is really about presenting a book that he has written to the sultan, the overall message of which is: Hey! Pay attention to me, give me a job, and here’s some reasonably respectable literary material that I’ve slapped together that may, if you bother to read it, convince you to do that.
As evidence for this, one could point out that much of the sections on ideal secretaries and the great poetry and prose that they’ve produced is copied from just a few sources, as far as I can tell, although he doesn’t always name the sources. And it’s not always copied very carefully. So one could argue, on that basis, that he is just reaching in haphazard fashion for the sharpest rhetorical weapons that are to hand.
He certainly uses pathos, wild exaggeration, and a somewhat sneering humor to demonize those he doesn’t like. How fair is the characterization of “bigot literature”?
We can read Ibn al-Nabulusi as a consummate grouch. We can think about him as participating in very old genres such as invective, and the Latin genre of libel, writing scathing critiques of rivals, whether individually or as groups.
He doesn’t like country bumpkins. He seems to have resentment against qadis, against Muslim judges of certain kinds, yet I think that something that shouldn’t be lost in there is that it’s not straight, flat invective or attack. An alternative way we can read The Sword of Ambition is as a humanizing of that impulse to critique one’s rivals and competitors, to point out the unsavory things about them. Because interspersed with claims to interpret the Qur’an in a very exclusionary fashion, we have poetry celebrating wine-drinking. Poetry celebrating being drawn to attractive youth of both sexes, which of course is endemic in the Arabic literary tradition. So there’s a lot of contradiction here. He’s also a more complex character than this one polemical work would suggest. The same author also wrote the most extensive tax register that we have from the entire medieval Islamic world.
After writing this book, he did in fact get a job, and he was shipped off to the Fayyum oasis, south of Cairo, and was an administrator there. There, in his tax register, we see him as an omnicompetent administrator, as in fact he claimed to be in this book.
The book feels full of contradictions: Christians are inept, and yet Christians are wealthy. Christians can’t spell anything correctly, and yet they are ruling with the pen. And, in the section on secretaries, a poem urges us to tolerance: “who is the man whose every trait deserves approval?”
He’s very conflicted in a way, and he’s cobbling together whatever is on hand that he thinks will serve his purposes. It’s worth noting that he’s also avoiding a lot of material within the Arabic or Islamic literary tradition that’s available to him that would cut the other way. Just to give you one example: He quotes a letter ascribed to the Umayyad caliph, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, who ruled 717–720, and this letter says: Fire all of the Christians and Jews in your administration.
But that letter is found in a book by Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, a mid-ninth century author. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s son wrote one of the most important early histories of Egypt, and he has a section in that work on “The Merits of Egypt,” which contains a number of prophetic hadith praising the Copts—not only about how the Copts are related by marriage to a number of different prophets, but also about how the Prophet Muḥammad supposedly instructed his followers to take care of the Copts, and told them that the Copts will be their supports in their religion, because the Copts will do all the administrative work so that they can focus on worshiping God.
Ibn al-Nabulusi draws on that very same historical work, but overlooks the sections that speak positively about the Copts. There is material in his own tradition to write a very different work about Christians, and specifically Copts, as well as Jews. He’s very carefully editing it out as he goes.
You remark in the footnotes that there are times where Ibn al-Nabulusi re-ascribes ill deeds committed by Muslims to Copts. Could that have been, well, by accident?
No, I think that he is writing in the full fury of his passion, and that he’s bending and shaping his material however he can to serve his overall rhetorical purpose, including attributing misdeeds to Copts that were, in the sources he’s using, committed by Muslims.
But it’s not always he who performs this switch. Sometimes it’s his sources. For instance, there’s a long episode in the book about Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who’s a mid-ninth-century caliph in Iraq. The episode is about a conspiracy that was hatched by one of al-Mutawakkil’s Christian officials to discredit all of the caliph’s Muslim officials. But when you dig very deep in the source base, you find that this whole story is taken, verbatim, from an account that in fact implicated one of al-Mutawakkil’s Muslim officials, and is the story of one of the Muslim officials’ downfall. But somewhere along the line—and it was not Ibn al-Nabulusi who did this—this Muslim official got pulled out of the story and a Christian called Salamah ibn Saʿīd got stuck into it. It becomes a story of Christian conspiracy and conniving, when its source didn’t have anything to do with non-Muslims at all.
With that sort of fact-swapping in mind, to what extent is it possible to read this as history? Do we have enough surrounding materials to know what might be true to its time and what gets too badly distorted by Ibn al-Nabulusi’s personal lens of bigotry?
Possibly, with a great deal of care. One has to take it one discrete report at a time. The book does contain a great deal of historical material that’s found almost nowhere else, certainly nowhere else in translation. But it’s a big drift of disparate things that have been blown together, and it’s impossible to make one blanket statement about the work’s value as a historical source.
It’s easiest to use as a source for the author’s own life and the period in which he was writing, but I think the historians of earlier periods will also find it valuable.
The second part of this interview is coming next week. Meantime, more interviews from the Library of Arabic Literature series can be found at www.libraryofarabicliterature.org/blog/.
Click HERE to read more