Sufism, Law & the Commentary Genre in Mamluk Egypt


A review of Subtle Innovation Within Networks of Convention: The Life, Thought, and Intellectual Legacy of Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī (d. 926/1520), by Matthew B. Ingalls.

Since the 19th century, the Mamluk period has been characterized by scholars both Arab and Western as a time of intellectual decadence and decline, awash in unoriginal scholarly tomes and baroque literary compositions. Anthologies, encyclopedias, manuals, dictionaries, and other compilatory texts were produced in great abundance, solidifying the period’s reputation for sifting and re-arranging the archive of Islamic literature without contributing anything new to it. Of all these genres, the scholarly commentary has probably been branded as most emblematic of this intellectually subordinate posture, due to its self-confinement to the margins of the canonical text.

The recent work of scholars such as Thomas Bauer, Everett Rowson, Li Guo, Frédéric Bauden, and many others has helped dramatically to reverse this assessment of the period, leading to a boom in scholarship on the very rich intellectual and literary scene under the Mamluks. Matthew Ingalls’s dissertation is an important contribution to this turn in historical scholarship, presenting a compelling study of a major Mamluk scholar, Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī, whose commentaries were widely read in the centuries after his death, and who represents a perfect example of an individual who navigated the complex networks of scholars, administrators, political leaders, devotional figures, laypeople, and students who populated the medieval metropolis that was 15th-century Cairo. Ingalls’s dissertation sheds considerable light on al-Anṣārī himself, and in so doing, it contains valuable revelations for several fields, including the study of late medieval Sufism, administration and elite politics in the Mamluk empire, and the social history of Islamic law.

The first chapter presents an intriguing tour through different methodological approaches to the study of commentary literature. Here, Ingalls engages with John Henderson’s work on commentarial assumptions and Roy Gibson’s typology of parallel text citations, in addition to the work of Brinkley Messick and Thomas Bauer. Situating his study within a comparative framework allows Ingalls to de-provincialize the approach to the Islamic commentary, arguing that in “almost all canonical traditions, the commentary genre would develop to become the intellectual elite’s preferred medium of communication” (pp. 7-8). As he puts it in a well-turned phrase, “if canon is the rusty anchor that binds successive societal ships within a larger canonical tradition, then commentary is the solder on this anchor that forestalls any search for a new mooring” (p. 29).

In Chapter 2, Ingalls presents an exhaustive biographical portrait of Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī using a wide range of sources, and without sacrificing clarity and lucidity of style. He tells the story of al-Anṣārī’s life on the basis of autobiographical records, hagiographies, critical biographies, and accounts of his activities in the copious annalistic chronicles. The result is a rich description of a Mamluk scholar’s life as well as a window on the world of higher education in 15th-16th-century Cairo, with its political intrigue and complicated maneuverings for coveted positions. The chapter also presents a fascinating picture of the relationship between a venerated scholar and the leader of an Islamic empire, which was on more equal terms than one might imagine. Al-Anṣārī was a celebrity in his own time, known as a leading intellectual, jurist, administrator, and pious figure, and this public profile enabled him to rebuff certain demands and extort favors from the Mamluk sultan Qāyit Bāy when it served his purposes. Ingalls’s treatment makes these personages come alive.

Chapter 3 (“A Sufism of the Law: Al-Anṣārī’s Thought and Method”) is an exploration of al-Anṣārī’s writings on Sufism, which “represent the starting point in assessing the author’s intellectual contributions to late-medieval Sunni thought” (p. 123). The main focus is al-Anṣārī’s Iḥkām al-dalāla ʿalā taḥrīr al-Risāla, a commentary on ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Qushayrī’s (d. 465/1072) seminal textbook of Sufi thought and practice, al-Risāla al-Qushayriyya fī ʿilm al-taṣawwuf. Ingalls’s primary interest is on the aspects of al-Anṣārī’s commentary that diverge from the foundational text and put forward new interpretations in subtle ways. This method is a departure from earlier approaches that mainly draw upon al-Anṣārī to explain vague passages in al-Qushayrī’s text. Ingalls is instead interested in the areas where al-Anṣārī’s “fifteenth-century voice is most evident” (p. 124), taking up questions of the author’s immediate audience, which was not exclusively a scholarly one.

This emphasis on historical context in the study of commentary culture is eminently sensible when we consider that nearly half a millennium separated al-Qushayrī from al-Anṣārī. The enormous differences in the two authors’ cultural settings lead Ingalls to ask: “How did al-Anṣārī adapt an eleventh-century Nīshāpūrī handbook in Sufism to his own fifteenth-century Egyptian context?” (p. 138). The answer has to do with al-Anṣārī’s strategies of subtly “recasting” in content, form, tone, and objective several aspects of al-Qushayrī’s text. Through copious examples and sensitive readings, Ingalls demonstrates that these strategies of recasting were emblematic of the accomodationist scholarly worldview of al-Anṣārī’s time, which was “characterized by the intellectual integration of Ashʿarism, late-Sunni ‘madhhabism,’ and Sharia-bound Sufism” (p. 160).

In Chapter 4, Ingalls takes up the legacy of Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī, exploring his influence within the context of 15th-16th-century Sunni thought, particularly in light of increased formalization in the study of Sufism in Mamluk Egypt, and the cross-fertilization between Sufism and Islamic law. Prior to this period, Sufism is mentioned in very few classifications of the sciences (taṣānīf al-ʿulūm), as it is only in the 15th century that the scholarly legitimacy of Sufism is firmly established. Another index of this legitimacy is found in fatwa collections, which begin to contain legal opinions sympathetic to Sufi perspectives on such issues as sainthood, the scriptural evidence for the Sufi states and stations of the masters, and the allegorical exegesis of the Qur’an. As Ingalls shows, al-Anṣārī’s fatwas mark a departure from the tone and content of earlier fatwas by scholars such as Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ (d. 1245).

In the conclusion to his dissertation, Ingalls returns to the question of originality introduced in its opening pages. Was al-Anṣārī creative? Is his relevance to modern scholarship to be found in his own innovative thinking or rather “in his embodying larger trends of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Sunni thought” (pp. 245)? Ingalls addresses this question by re-framing the idea of intellectual creativity within the context of sociological studies and network theory, drawing on the work of Stephan Fuchs and Randall Collins to argue that al-Ansari functioned as a “translator” between networks of different individuals and at the epicenter of an “amalgamated network” (p. 249). Creativity, in this position, amounted to rearranging and combining the ideas and assumptions drawn from these different networks (of specialists in both exoteric and esoteric sciences, as well as laypeople) and formulating a synthesis that would “bear a striking influence on the trajectory of Muslim intellectual history that was to follow in his wake” (p. 249).

The dissertation concludes with an appendix containing a critical edition of al-Anṣārī’s Thabat, a catalogue of his teachers and the works that he studied. From this appendix (which helpfully supplements the original text with a table that summarizes all of its contents), one gains a comprehensive view of the astounding erudition of a Mamluk scholar and the sprawling network of contacts he made. Al-Anṣārī’s Thabat will be of particular interest to scholars of pre-modern Islamic education and knowledge transmission.

The major strengths of this dissertation lie in its contributions to the study of post-formative Egyptian Sufism, and the all-important tradition of scholarly commentaries in the Islamic world. It also advances a methodological framework for the study of compilatory literature that will be of great interest to scholars working on the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

Elias Muhanna
Department of Comparative Literature
Brown University

Manuscript Sources

Chester Beatty Library
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Gazi Husrev-Beǧ Library
Al-Azhar Manuscript Library

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2011. 346 pp. Primary Advisor: Gerhard H. Böwering.


Image credit: Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī, Asnā l-Maṭālib, MS 435, f. 195a, Umm al-Qurā University, Mecca.

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