Early Arabic Epistolography & the Buyid State

A review of Licit Magic and Divine Grace: The Life and Letters of al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ʿAbbād (d. 385/995), by Maurice A. Pomerantz.

As a study of the life and letter production of the Buyid vizier al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ʿAbbād, Maurice Pomerantz’s dissertation constitutes a major contribution not only to the field of political and cultural history of the Buyid period but also to the (heretofore much-neglected) broader field of epistolography. Ibn ʿAbbād’s extant collection of letters is an exceptional example of chancery production during the early Islamic period, and its considerable size (more than 400 letters preserved in manuscript copies) establishes the collection as a major source of insight into the author and his time. In this original dissertation, Pomerantz undertakes a critical examination of Ibn ʿAbbād’s life and letters, based primarily on the letters themselves.

The thesis comprises six chapters, a conclusion, and a bibliography. The first four chapters concentrate on Ibn ʿAbbād himself, the last two on his letters. In his introductory chapter (Chapter 1), Pomerantz identifies his field of study and outlines the general structure of his work, focusing on Ibn ʿAbbād’s primary roles as stateman, littérateur, and scholar. After discussing the nature of the letters themselves (including those of both sulṭānīyāt and ikhwānīyāt genres), Pomerantz then provides an overview of Ibn ʿAbbād’s extant corpus of letters.

The following three chapters (Chapters 2 through 4) concern three different aspects of Ibn ʿAbbād’s life and status in Buyid society—as vizier, scholar, patron, and social networker. Chapter 2 recounts Ibn ʿAbbād’s early life and progressive ascent to the highest position of vizier in Rayy, a position he retained until his death in 385/995. This chapter increases our knowledge of Ibn ʿAbbād’s life and training substantially and contributes significantly to the study of Buyid political and administrative history during the dynasty’s ascendancy. In fact, through the study of Ibn ʿAbbād’s professional advancement, Pomerantz constructs a foundation for broader study of the vizierate under the Buyids, particularly given Ibn ʿAbbād’s key role in dynastic affairs. With Chapter 3, Pomerantz transitions to more specific aspects of Ibn ʿAbbād’s life and career, centering on his role as a scholar with mastery of various fields of knowledge, such as dialectical theology, legal schools, lexicography, history, and poetry. Although the inventory of Ibn ʿAbbād’s scholarly contributions is now well-known (see e.g. Charles Pellat,  “Al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ʿAbbād,” in Julia Ashtiyani et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: ʿAbbasid Belles-Lettres, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 96-111), Pomerantz goes beyond mere descriptive analysis of such works; in fact, he shows how Ibn ʿAbbād used his polymathy — a quality not exceptional in itself — for religious and theological purposes. Ibn ʿAbbād’s active participation in the scholarly debates of his time was thus a means of spreading Muʿtazilī theology.

Chapter 4 focuses on Ibn ʿAbbād’s role as patron and social networker. Roy Mottahedeh’s study of the Buyid dynasty (Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) has demonstrated the importance of that society’s internal networks, at least at the level of the ruling elite, the amirs. Studying the case of Ibn ʿAbbād, Pomerantz provides a relevant case study for the second level, that of the vizier. The first part of the chapter is devoted to Ibn ʿAbbād’s patronage of poets, littérateurs, and scholars within his court, which combined his role as vizier and scholar. Pomerantz shows how the vizier acted as an active patron, favoring the productions of books and development of his libraries, thereby connecting himself to a long-attested Islamic tradition. The second part of the chapter then considers the networks Ibn ʿAbbād established with many groups to assess his own political position. Pomerantz focuses on three principal collectives constituting Ibn ʿAbbād’s network: Muʿtazilī, ʿAlid, and, to a lesser extent, the leading Shīʿī legal school — that is to say, the most influential groups of western Iran.

In the last two chapters of his dissertation, Pomerantz moves from the man to his production, concentrating specifically on the letters of Ibn ʿAbbād: these include both governmental letters, sulṭānīyāt (Chapter 5), and social letters, ikhwānīyāt (Chapter 6).  Investigating the former, Pomerantz seeks to show how Ibn ʿAbbād employed this particular medium in governance and how it helped him support the rule of those Buyid amirs he served. After presenting the several types of letters included in this category (proclamations, edicts, formal documents, correspondence), Pomerantz analyzes each in terms of the techniques of rhetoric and persuasion deployed by Ibn ʿAbbād. The inquiry reveals that the sulṭānīyāt as used by Ibn ʿAbbād display two distinct discourses to support the Buyids’ power and influence and to legitimate their rule. The first associates the dynasty with the right path of God’s law (sharʿī legitimacy), while the second defends Buyid rule in and of itself, independent of religious concerns, and on this basis justifies the ruler’s actions (siyāsah). If the study of the sulṭānīyāt illustrates Ibn ʿAbbād’s major role as Buyid agent and spokesman addressing a wide audience, the next and last chapter (on the ikhwānīyāt) brings us back to the person of Ibn ʿAbbād and his use of the letters in supporting his own rule through the formation of networks and ties of loyalty. Pomerantz begins the chapter by discussing the nature of the ikhwānīyāt, letters of friendship, before proceeding to define the concept of friendship in the particular case of the court. Relying on extracts taken from Ibn ʿAbbād’s collections, Pomerantz presents the different case of ikhwānīyāt encountered in the vizier’s correspondence and stresses that the central themes and tropes these display were based on the author’s needs and aims and the relationships he sought to cultivate.

In conclusion, Pomerantz discusses the importance of Ibn ʿAbbād’s letters as a direct witness to and source of the fourth/tenth century, illustrating the many changes that occurred within the Arab Islamic state and society.

Following Klaus Hachmeier’s work on al-Ṣābi’’s letters (Die Briefe Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-Ṣābi’s [st. 384/994 A.H./A.D.], Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2002; idem, “Private Letters, Official Correspondence: Buyid Inshāʾ as a Historical Source,” Journal of Islamic Studies 13, 2002, pp. 125-154), Pomerantz’s dissertation is a commendable resource for the field of early Islamic epistolography. Indeed, beyond the immediate focus of his own study, Pomerantz successfully demonstrates the importance of the letters to the study of Buyid political, social, and cultural history, and at the same time rebutting the common suspicion regarding the letters’ reliability or authenticity. While similar conclusions were reached by Adrian Gully with respect to the premodern period (The Culture of Letter-Writing in Pre-Modern Islamic Society, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), our knowledge of the early period was previously incomplete. Pomerantz’s study deserves praise for casting such considerable illumination on the subject.

Malika Dekkiche
Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Languages and Cultures (Near East and Islamic World)
Ghent University

Primary Sources

Ibn ʿAbbād’s collection of letters
Administrative literature and chancery manuals
Secretarial literature
Histories of Iraq and Iran
Poetry compilations

Dissertation information

University of Chicago. 2010. 219 pp. Primary Advisor: Wadad Kadi.


Image: Folio from Mahmud Amasi – Inşa-i Cedid – MS Eskişehir 621 ff. 13b-14a. Photograph by Matthew Melvin-Koushki.

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