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The Necklace of al-Shifā: Abbasid Borrowings in the Islamic West

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This paper explores the image of the Abbasid caliphate in the Islamic west from the Umayyad era until the rise of the Almoravids, the first major Maghribī dynasty to give their allegiance to the Abbasids. Despite the Umayyads’ studied refusal to acknowledge the Abbasids as true caliphs, many scholars have mentioned the introduction of courtly norms, poetic forms, and scientific knowledge from Iraq from the early ninth century CE onwards and the appearance of artefacts of supposed Abbasid provenance in Umayyad Cordoba. One of the most renowned of these was the necklace of al-Shifā, one of Abd al-Ramān II’s concubines, which Ibn ayyān describes as an Abbasid treasure lost during the great civil war between al-Amīn and al-Mamūn. One theory is that this real or symbolic acquisition of eastern items indicated the Abbasidisation of the Umayyad regime. This paper, however, argues that the borrowing that occurred was often rather haphazard and that while the east certainly could represent wealth, glamour and high culture, the Umayyads were still at pains to delegitimise the Abbasids as a dynasty and vaunt their own religio-political credentials. Moreover, the term Abbasidisation is too broad and subsumes a range of different processes of exchange taking place in Fusā, Medina, Baghdad and Cordoba itself, some conscious and some less so. A similar pattern appears in relation to Almoravid relations with the Abbasids: while the Almoravids recognised rather than rejected Abbasid sovereignty, they also did so to enhance their own domestic legitimacy in the Islamic west and the actual contacts they had with Baghdad were similarly serendipitous rather than planned. Both these examples encourage us to think more deeply about the nature of centre-periphery relations in medieval Islam, and give texture to our understanding of how contacts were made and sustained across the vast domains of the Dār al-Islām.

Affiliations: 1: University of Cambridge


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