Authority, History, and Biography in 16th-century Bilād al-Shām

Authority, History, and Biography in 16th-century Bilād al-Shām

Torsten Wollina

The project examines the place of historiographical and biographical genres for practices of  establishing authority among 16th-century Syrian scholars. Among other aspects, it addresses issues of periodization, audience, as well as changes in the scholars’ social composition and the administrative-institutional context of their writerly production due to the Ottoman reorganization.

The Ottoman conquest of the former Mamluk realms of Egypt and Syria in 1516/17 is usually treated by scholars working on the region as a watershed moment, signifying the triumph of an early-modern “gunpowder empire” over a more loosely organized medieval state. While this dichotomy has been questioned in recent years, this project assesses the impact of the regime change on writerly production, guided by the questions: In how far did the Ottoman takeover stir perceptions of change by contemporary Syrians? How did local scholars adapt to the new (administrative) situation in their negotiation and articulation of authority? Which role did changing reading practices play in this process?

The historiographical literature of the period is in this respect not only used to provide essential circumstantial evidence, but as a subject of research in itself. In some ways, it is an obvious choice, since historiography is itself concerned with questions of periodization and interpretation of the past – and curiously much of it stopped after the Ottoman conquest. Although the tradition did not end as abruptly as in Ottoman Egypt, Syria likewise witnessed a dearth of annalistic historical writing in the century following the conquest. The role of historiography thus indeed changed between the two periods.

Yet, within the academic framework, historiography was regarded a field of secondary relevance, at best. Moreover, chronicles frequently fail to address mid- or long-term processes. Therefore, this project explores this genre in connection with works by the same author in other disciplines. In particular, it concentrates on the opus of the Damascene scholar Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn (d.1546). The multitude and range of his writings allow for a closer tracing of changes throughout the author’s lifetime, which spans the last four decades of the ancien régime and the first three under the Ottomans. His works cover the diverse fields of ḥadīth, genealogy, law, contemporary history, and, in particular, biography.

The biographical works by Ibn Ṭūlūn have not yet received the same attention as his main chronicle Mufākahat al-khillān. Nonetheless, single or collected works of biography constitute a considerable part of his overall oeuvre (about 30 titles) and include some of his largest works. They treat people from early Islamic times to his own days, and thus offer different historical perspectives, in which a reader could situate his present situation. Moreover, in his larger biographical compilations, Ibn Ṭūlūn also constructs his own pedigree as a scholar of rank (Burak 2015).

In 2016, the project examines how Ibn Ṭūlūn asserts his authority vis-a-vis Damascene and Ottoman scholars in his late biographical dictionary al-Ghurāf al-ʿāliyya fī tarājim al-mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya. Curiously, this is not only done
through the, well-established, creation of personal ties to esteemed figures of his own day, but also through the ostentatious referencing of older historiographical works. In contrast to a widespread practice of ‘borrowing’ or plagiarism, Ibn Ṭūlūn was scrupulous in naming his sources, thus enhancing his own prestige as a historian (and probably traditionary) by creating ties through books.  


Dr. Torsten Wollina (