The Sword of Ambition

Bureaucratic Rivalry in Medieval Egypt

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ʿUthmān ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nābulusī
Luke Yarbrough
Luke Yarbrough
Library of Arabic Literature
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     478 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since Michael Chamberlain’s 2002 seminal study, Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-1350 (Cambridge University Press)the question of rivalry among the learned urban classes in medieval Egypt and Syria has increasingly attracted the attention of scholars. So far, the competition for high and prestigious positions, however, seems to be restricted either to the military, or the “ulamā” classes—the Muslim elite. With The Sword of Ambition: Bureaucratic Rivalry in Medieval Egypt, we deal with another type of competition—one crossing religious borders, and putting into opposition Muslim and Christian Coptic bureaucrats. 

Tajrīd sayf al-himmah li-stikhrāj mā fī dhimmat al-dhimmah, better known as The Sword of Ambition, was authored by Ibn al-Nābulusī (d. 1262), a scholar-bureaucrat who fell out of favor with the Ayyubid sultan al-Kāmil, and suffered injustice and poverty at the hands of greedy and corrupt Coptic officials. Al-Nābulusī aims to denounce these Coptic officials to the next sultan, al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥthrough the writing of the Sword of Ambition (composed around 640 AH/1242 CE); a tract against the employment of non-Muslim officials within the Islamic state. In the four chapters of the book, Ibn al-Nābulusī presents the sultan with his most important—but also most diverse—arguments against the employment of dhimmīs, as well as these rural and “disreputable individuals.” Chapter 1, “On the Reprehensibility of Employing Dhimmīs for Muslim Jobs,” concentrates on testimonies from the past that involved not only the Prophet, but also other authorities, such as the Companions and caliphs. Chapter 2, “A Description of the Copts and Their Perfidies,” switches the focus to Egypt, and the employment of Copts as state secretaries. Chapter 3, “A Description of Secretaries and Their Art,” appears as a manifesto of the position of secretaries as well as an anthology of their best prose and poetry over time. Finally, chapter 4, “An Account of the Ignorant Men who have Unworthily Donned the Garment of the Secretaries,” is a sort of satire against the incompetents who held the position. Juggling with Qurʾanic exegesis, Prophetic ḥadīth, historical accounts, poetry, prose, and jokes, The Sword of Ambition appears as an eclectic text and is difficult to attribute to one specific genre. Furthermore, the evidences of mistakes, and incorrect attribution of quotes in both poetry and prose, suggests the work seeks to be entertaining, rather than scholarly.

Whereas Ibn al-Nābulusī’s The Sword of Ambition is already known and was partially translated beginning in the 1960s, it has only occasionally been used by scholars. It is now hoped that, thanks to this beautifully written translation and critical edition of the work by Luke Yarbrough, it will reach a broader audience. Indeed, if the work is primarily known in the context of anti-dhimmī polemics, its content goes well beyond that issue. Yarbrough’s introduction to the book, as well as his articles on the topics, suggest relevant lines for future inquiries. Two aspects are particularly worth highlighting. On the one hand, there is the question of the genre of the work. Yarbrough closely and convincingly links the work to the genre of the naṣīḥah or advice literature (xxv). Unfortunately, his argument could have used more contextualization, but was restricted due to editorial constraints (xxvii). In recent years, the genre of Advice literature has increasingly attracted scholarly attention. It has expanded to include less obvious types of work from later periods, and research has tended to further analyze the social reality surrounding the writing of such works. This is also the case with the second aspect worth highlighting: the timeline for the appearance of the genre. Yarbrough suggests a promising approach, linking this momentum to the “Sunni shift,” as well as the competitive culture that emerged among urban elites in Egypt and Syria during the 12th century. 

Finally, a last comment should be made concerning the quality and thoroughness of the edition, and the translation of the work. The last decade has seen an increase in the publication of truly critical editions and translations of Arabic works.The Sword of Ambition perfectly fits the expected standards confronting the various manuscripts kept. It is regrettable that editorial constraints set by the Library of Arabic Literature impose such far-reaching restrictions on the apparatus in the printed version (a full apparatus online is announced, but not yet available). Another deplorable omission is the complete absence of reference to the marginal and extra-textual notes. Nevertheless, the quality of the translation is to be praised, especially in its attempt to keep the different registers, and the glossary at the end of the volume is valuable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Malika Dekkiche is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Antwerp.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

ʿUthmān ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nābulusī (d. 660/1262), of Palestinian origin, was a leading Egyptian bureaucrat in the court of the Ayyubid sultans. In addition to his pivotal work, The Sword of Ambition, he wrote several works on Egyptian administration and government, including A Presentation of the Living, Eternal God's Work in Regulating the Fayyum, the most extensive tax record that survives from the medieval Middle East.

Luke Yarbrough is Assistant Professor in the History Department at Saint Louis University. His research is concerned with the history of the pre-modern Middle East and North Africa, including inter-communal relations, law and prescriptive discourses, Arabic historiography, the oral transmission of knowledge, and comparative history.



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