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Early Islam—Monotheism or Henotheism? A View from the Court

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This article employs sources produced by people who worked at the Abbasid court in order to expose a tension in early Islamic society between two systems of sacrility. An emerging monotheism was promoted by pious elders (mashāyikh) and ascetics (nussāk), which gave power and authority to one absolute deity, Allāh. The court, and most members of society, favored an older system, henotheism, which championed the sacrility of leadership archetypes, the king, sultan, saint, and master-teacher, while tolerating the emerging new sacredness of the One. The latter system enjoyed familiarity since ancient times in the Near East and vested nearly all leadership roles in society with a measure of sacred power and authority, hence adding to the stability of Abbasid hierarchy. Here, I examine three major practices at the court for generating sacrility, including praise hymns (madīh) in honor of great men, palace space-usage and architecture, as well as bacchic culture, which all privileged the caliph and his subordinates. The implications of symbol usage extend far beyond the court since underlings appropriated it in seeking rank and status by emulating their superiors.

Affiliations: 1: University of Texas at Austin


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