The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunnī Scholasticism

ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak and the Formation of Sunni Identity in the Second Islamic Century

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Feryal Salem
Islamic History and Civilization
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , June
     166 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The study of Abdullah Ibn al Mubarak (118–181/736–797) is a prism into the development of a proto-Sunni Islamic identity. Feryal Salem helps navigate this development by connecting three nodes of the early Sunni tradition, that is, the development of Hadith literature, the performance of jihad, and publications of zuhd literature. The figure of Ibn al Mubarak, known for both jihad and piety, also marks the formative period of Muslim community in a changing late antique landscape of the 8th/2nd century. This work is an exercise in capturing the narrative memory of Ibn al Mubarak. In other words, the author’s goal is to cover the “ontological truth about how early Muslims themselves viewed Islamic scholars and their work” (8). Both the style and the structure of the book are straightforward. Its smooth transitions and crisp sentences make this a highly informative read, easily recommendable for a graduate seminar. There is valuable information about the lesser known aspects of ibn al Mubarak’s time and an impressive critique of revisionist approaches to Hadith.  These merits stand out even as  the author offers a relatively less critical appraisal of her own archive.

The introduction gives a thorough sketch of ibn al Mubarak’s life and patronage networks. Thereafter, the book devotes separate chapters to (1) ibn Al Mubarak’s position in the Hadith network, (2) his ideas on jihad, and (3) his ideas on zuhd. The second chapter closely investigates the process of hadith collection and its role in the crystallization of a proto-Sunni identity. It gives a detailed description of three types of work by ibn al Mubarak, that is, 1) those which are not extant but have been mentioned in other works, 2) unpublished manuscripts, and 3) published manuscripts. The main highlight of this chapter is the author’s mapping of the network of scholars associated with ibn al Mubarak, and the way they were connected with one another during the 2nd century. Ibn al Mubarak is significant because he witnessed the debate between advocates for the oral transmission of hadith and those who advocated for actively writing hadiths. Ibn al Mubarak belonged to the group insistent upon the writing of hadiths, traveling far and wide to collect them (35, 45). 

Some of his teachers include Ma’mar bin Rashid (born in Basra in 714 CE), who was the first transmitter of the Siyar and Maghazi literature (48). Sufyan al Thawri, another teacher, was also born in 714 CE and was based in Kufa. Sufyan al Thawri generously expressed his praise for ibn al Mubarak in many narrations about him. In return, ibn al Mubarak showered praise for his teacher (52-53). Other scholars who influenced ibn al Mubarak include Shuʿba b. al-Ḥajjāj (82–160/701–776), who is known to have collected hadith from the garrison towns of Kufa and Basr. These little details are valuable in chalking out the nodes of early hadith collectors. Others included ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Awzāʿī (88–157/707–773) from Damascus, Sufyān b. ʿUyayna (107–198/721–813), and ʿAbdallāh b. Lahiʿa (97–174/715–790), who was appointed as judge, from 771 to 780, by the Caliph Mansur. Ibn Lahiʿa was regarded as a controversial and weak transmitter. However, “despite this, Ibn al-Mubārak is reported to be one of the few transmitters of Ibn Lahiʿa’s ḥadīths whose transmission was reliable” (60). Surprisingly, the author deploys the extant nature of ibn Lahiʿa’s hadiths, found in ibn al Mubarak’s corpus, as evidence towards the transparency of classical texts; “had there similarly been an attempt to whitewash his biography, it would have also been reasonable for Ibn al-Mubārak’s connection to Ibn Lahiʿa to have been expunged from the classical texts” (61). Nevertheless, Salem successfully demonstrates that there existed ideologically similar, though geographically disparate, scholars who recognized one another. This process of inclusion and exclusion (by rejecting hadiths from theologically opposed scholars) demarcated  the Sunni school.

The third chapter offers an insight into how scholars of the 2nd/ 8th century viewed jihad on the frontiers. During the 2nd/ 8th century, there was a rising trend amongst scholars from the East to spend a considerable time on the western frontiers. How did this trend emerge prior to ibn al Mubarak, and what was the latter’s role as a “scholar fighter” (79)? Salem demonstrates through biographical dictionaries and Quranic verses that the idea of combat as a sign of piety predates the 2nd century. Hence, she refutes claims made by both Bonner and Sizgorich that the association of martial valor with piety only emerged in the 2nd/ 8th century possibly due to Christian ascetic influences (Thomas Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, University of Pennsylvania Press,  2010, 21; Michael Bonner, Aristocratic Violence and Holy War, American Oriental Society, 1996). Finally, the chapter includes an account of the main themes of Kitab al Jihad written by ibn al Mubarak (95-105).

The fourth chapter revolves around ibn al Mubarak’s Kitab al Zuhd which is the earliest record of the early Muslim community’s views on piety. Unlike the usual ascetic practices, ibn al Mubarak’s zuhd or piety was of a moderate nature, such that “one should live in the world without being worldly” (113). Even as ibn al Mubarak had access to Judeo-Christian resources on monasticism on the Syrian frontiers, his work demonstrates distinct tendencies towards wealth and piety. Hence Salem argues that Islamic piety was different from Christian asceticism, both in terms of the definition of zuhd and the resources employed, which included Quranic references and virtue ethics derived from the Prophetic model (136). In fact Islamic piety resisted external Christian influences (143). 

To conclude, this book has many merits. Firstly, the style and structure are straightforward. Secondly, the exhaustive details are logically organized, to the relief of any researcher. Thirdly, the work constantly keeps the reader abreast of the larger debates. Fourthly, every chapter is in response to a pressing question about the identity of the early Islamic community and its distinction from other late antique influences. Fifthly, the book is a must read for anyone looking for pointers for future research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

S. Beena Butool is a doctoral student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Feryal Salem, PhD (University of Chicago, 2013) is Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law at the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary.

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