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Evoking the Correct Context

Technical terminology was only fully understood if it had been properly contextualized. Difficulties of contextualization appear in connection with the ethnonym ‘al-Rum’, the language ‘al-Rumiyya’, and the corresponding adjectives ‘rumi/ rumiyya’. These terms generally applied to the ancient Roman and to the medieval Byzantine sphere^70 Drawing on the travel account of Ibrahim b. Ya'qub al-Isra’ili, al-Bakri (d. 487/1094) was confronted with another Roman/Byzantine ruler in the far north. Ibrahim b. Ya'qub had travelled to the eastern Frankish realm in the tenth century27i and had made the personal acquaintance of Otto I (Hutuh) in Magdeburg. Although he defines Otto I as a ‘ruler of the Romans/Byzantines’ (malik al-Rum),272 al-Bakri does not mention him in his chapter on Roman- Byzantine rulers273 and fails to explain why Otto should have ruled the Romans/ Byzantines. He did not understand that the eastern Frankish realm regarded itself as the successor to imperial Rome.

A similar problem of contextualization existed in connection with the ethnonym ‘al-Majus’, a term commonly used by Arabic-Islamic scholars to define the Vikings. The high mobility, different spheres of activity, and varying self-descriptions of the Vikings are reflected in medieval Arabic terminology which classifies them as Magians (al-Majus), Varangians (al-Warank), Rus (al-Rus), Normans (al-Arman), and even as Norman Magians (al-Majus al-Urdumaniyyun) according to context.274 Due to this terminological variety, earlier Arabic-Islamic scholars were uncertain about how to classify these groups.275 The fact that the Arabic term ‘al-Majus’ covers a wide semantic field caused further distortions. Al-Bakri, for example, used the terms ‘al-Majus’ and ‘al-Majusiyya’ for paganism in general, for Zoroastrianism, for religious cults practised in India, among the Alans, the pre-Christian Romans, the pre-Christian Franks, the Pechenegs, for the king of the Khazars before his conversion to monotheism, the people ‘al-Burjan’, the eponym of Crete, as well as the non-Muslim populations of Sudan and GhanaTh6 Arne Melvinger proposed that the Vikings were classified as ‘Majus’ not only because they were not yet Christianized, but also because they cremated their dead, a practice known from Zoroastrianism.277 It seems more convincing, however, that, because of their indiscriminate use of the term, Arabic-Islamic scholars erroneously ascribed practices to the Vikings which they had come to know in other contexts. Ibn Dihya (d. 633/1235), for example, reproduced well-established topoi of [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

‘pagan’ behaviour rather than empirical observations of Viking rituals when he stated that:

today they profess the faith of the Christians after leaving behind the cult of fire and the religion they followed. They converted to Christianity except for the people inhabiting a few of their islands that lie isolated in the midst of the sea, who still retain the old religion — the cult of fire, the marriage of mother and sister as well as other disgraceful acts.[9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Ibn Khaldun provides an example of a scholar who, due to lack of sufficient background knowledge, failed to reconstruct the correct historical context of an individual, in this case the Roman emperor Theodosius I. Arabic-Islamic historiography contains about a dozen different transcriptions of the emperor’s nameTh9 Notwithstanding, Ibn Khaldun was able to identify this ruler correctly as the father of Arcadius. He erred, however, when he tried to establish the name of Theodosius’ predecessor. Theodosius’ reign was preceded by the joint rule of Valens, Valentini- anus, and Gratian (375-78) and the joint rule of Valentinianus II and Gratian (378-83). Theodosius then entered the game in 379.28° Although he seems to have been aware that the simultaneous rule of several emperors was the norm in the second half of the fourth century,28i Ibn Khaldun explained:

It appears from what Orosius says that Tudushlsh is the same as Tawdasyus mentioned by Ibn al-Amid because they both agree on the fact that Arcadius (Arkadyus) is his son and because the length of each reign is similar. So maybe Valentinianus (Walitanush) who is mentioned by Orosius is Gratianus (Aghradyanus) mentioned by Ibn al-‘Amld.282

Another problem arose when Arabic-Islamic scholars failed to contextualize data in terms of chronology, thus creating the impression of writing about a contemporary situation, while in fact they were describing bygone realities. Ibn Rustah (d. after 300/913), for example, mentions the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, a political constellation characteristic of Britain in the seventh and eighth centuries, that is around one and a half centuries before Ibn Rustah wrote his geography. Notwithstanding, he did not hesitate to use the present tense, claiming that the ‘city of Britain’ (madinatBartiniya) is ‘a big city on the shore of the western ocean, and seven kings rule over it’.283 In the second half of the eleventh century, al-Bakri (d. 487/1094) partially copied a list of Frankish kings recorded by al-Mas'udi (d. 345/956) around one century earlier. Without identifying his source, al-Bakri reproduced the phrase in which al-Mas'udl assigned a certain king to his own lifetime verbatim, i.e. ‘now, in the year 332/943, their king is Louis, the son of Charles’^4 The Persian cosmographer al-Qazwini (d. 682/1283) drew much of what he knew about the Frankish realm and central Europe from the tenth-century travel account by Ibrahim b. Ya'qub al-Israili. Because it had become available to him in an eleventh-century version written by the Andalusian author al-'Udhri (d. 478/1085), al-Qazwini names al-'Udhri as his main source but fails to clarify that Ibrahim b. Ya'qub and al-'Udhri were informants who had lived more than two centuries earlier. In this way, al-Qazwini creates the impression of reproducing quasicontemporary information on the Frankish sphere. Only when he clarifies that the Franks have only recently occupied parts of the Syrian coast, he insinuates that he has been writing about the Frankish past.285 In these cases, the author himself may have been aware of describing bygone phenomena. However, in failing to communicate this information to his readers, he contributed to blurring their chronological conception of the Latin-Christian sphere.

  • [1] See Chapters 3.2. and 4. 271 Miquel, ‘L’Europe’ (1966), pp. 1048—64.
  • [2] 272 al-Bakri, al-masalik, ed van Leeuwen and Ferre, § 550, 552, pp. 334—5.
  • [3] 273 Ibid., § 485-515, pp. 306-19.
  • [4] 274 Melvinger, ‘al-Madjus’ (1986), p. 1118; Seippel, Rerum normannicarum fontes (1928),pp. 1-37. The term ‘al-Majus’ is used by all Arabic-Islamic authors cited in this collection of sources.
  • [5] However, the other names appear as well.
  • [6] An uncertainty expressed by al-Mas'udi, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 404, p. 193 (AR), 147 (FR).See Chapter 3.3.3.
  • [7] al-Bakri, al-masalik, ed. van Leeuwen and Ferre, § 5, p. 51; § 43, p. 66; § 72, p. 80; § 175, p.136; § 227, p. 170; § 241, p. 176; § 365, p. 248; § 401, p. 265; § 490, p. 308; § 567, p. 340; § 750,p. 445; § 752, pp. 446-7; § 759, p. 450; § 811, p. 482; § 1449, p. 868; § 1459, p. 873.
  • [8] Melvinger, ‘al-Madjus’ (1986), p. 1118.
  • [9] Ibn Dihya, al-mutrib, ed. Seippel, p. 15; Ibn Dihya, al-mutrib, ed. al-Ibyari et al., pp. 140—1:wa-hum al-yawm ala din al-nasraniyya wa-qad taraku ibadat al-nar, wa-dinahum alladhi kanualayhi, wa-raja u nasara illa ahl jazair munqatia lahum fi l-bahr hum ala dinihim al-awwal minibadat al-nar, wa-nikah al-umm wa-l-ukht wa-ghayr dhalik min asnaf al-shanar’; cf. Jacob, Berichte(1927), p. 38; Christys, ‘Vikings’ (2012), pp. 447—58.
  • [10] E.g. Tidusus al-akbar, Tiyadasis al-akbar, Tudusis al-akbar, Thawudusyus al-kabir, Thidus,Tadush, Tidasis al-akbar, Tadus al-kabir, Thadhusyus al-kabir, Thawdasyus, Tawdasyus or Tudushish,, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, p. 196; al-Tabari, tarikh, ed. Ibrahim, vol. 1, p. 608; al-Masudi,muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 747, pp. 48—9 (AR), p. 280 (FR); al-Biruni, al-athar, ed./trans. Sachau, pp.95, 97 (AR), pp. 105—6 (EN); al-Bakri, al-masalik, ed. van Leeuwen and Ferre, § 502, p. 313; Ibnal-Athir, al-kamil, ed. Tornberg, vol. 1, pp. 229, 236 (Leiden), pp. 323, 331 (Beirut); Rashid al-Din,Frankengeschichte, trans. Jahn, p. 67; Abu l-Fida, al-mukhtasar, ed. Zaynuhum cAzab et al., vol. 1,p. 87; Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 1, pp. 255—6.
  • [11] 28° Leppin, Theodosius (2003), pp. 35—44.
  • [12] Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 2, p. 254; see Chapter 4.2.3.
  • [13] Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 1, p. 256: ‘wa-yazhar min kalam Hurushiyushanna Tudushish huwa Tawdasyus alladhi dhakarahu Ibn al-Amid, li-annahuma muttafiqan fi annaibnahu Arkadish wa-mutaqariban fi l-mudda, fa-laalla Walitanush alladhi dhakarahu Hurushiyushhuwa Aghradyanus alladhi dhakarahu Ibn al-Amid’.
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