Title

Traditions of Learning in Fāṭimid Ifrīqiya (296-362/909-973): Networks, Practices, and Institutions

Document Type

Article

Department

Middle Eastern Studies

Abstract

This thesis explores the practices, networks, and institutions of learning (ʿilm) in Fāṭimid Ifrīqiya with a focus on the practice of disputation (munāẓara) in its scholarly and courtly contexts — in the majālis — and the relationship between the learned elite of Ifrīqiya and the ruling Fāṭimid dynasty. It proposes a rereading of the narrative sources produced by the scholarly community of Qayrawān by using network analyses as well as the memory studies framework. Ranging from chronicles and biographical dictionaries to works of polemics and hagiography, these sources are products of specific historical contexts and agendas. Thus, rather than treating them as repositories of objective facts, the thesis assesses them in dialogue with the context of their production and with other competing narratives. Taking disputations (munāẓarāt) as a case study, two chapters of the thesis look at the culture of disputation and its proponents in Ifrīqiya, namely the scholarly community and the Fāṭimid caliphs and agents of their daʿwa, and the narratives of disputations within the context of the rise of the Fāṭimid empire and the geopolitical “game of thrones.” The disputations were chosen with a twofold aim: to draw attention to the shared culture of learning and knowledge production among diverse communities and the relationship between the state and the scholarly elite. As a whole the thesis argues for an increasing formalisation of educational practices and scholarly networks in the fourth/tenth century, which in turn reinforced sectarian boundaries, group identities and loyalties. Proceeding chronologically, the thesis is developed in parallel with the rise of the Fāṭimid Empire from the land of the Kutāma to Egypt. However, the aim is not to discuss Fāṭimid institutions of learning exclusively, but to show how these institutions operated in the wider political, intellectual, and sectarian contexts. Focusing on both formal and informal institutions and networks this study highlights what has been called the “minimal consensus,” which enabled the Fāṭimids to extend their rule far beyond their small community of believers and the narrow peninsula of al-Mahdiyya. The central contention of the thesis is to draw attention to the shared culture of learning and the cohesion of the society in spite of the narrow perspective of the sources which tend to reflect the concerns of one group, or the other. In this respect, the thesis breaks away from the established tradition in Fāṭimid studies, which focuses on the narratives of the dynasty. It also challenges mainstream treatment of medieval traditions of learning, which has tended to marginalise the Fāṭimids.

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