Friday, April 26th, 2024 11:32 am

In this blog post, Johannes Makar reflects on al-Shābushtī’s The Book of Monasteries. His analysis explores Muslim-Christian interactions in medieval Middle Eastern monasteries, challenging conventional narratives and embracing minoritarian perspectives.

At the core of my PhD research lies the question of how minoritarian voices enrich—or complicate—mainstream studies of history. Did communities like the Copts inhabit isolated “worlds,” as the historian Albert Hourani once posited, or did they actively shape the Egyptian public sphere? In my dissertation, I explore how the histories of communities that are often labeled as “minorities” can enhance our understanding of the development of modern Arabic thought. I’ve found that religious differences, far from hindering social interaction, often generated dynamic exchanges among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, in ways central to the reformist projects of the Nahḍa period as well as to the history of the Middle East at large.

Set in the monasteries of the medieval Middle East, Hilary Kilpatrick’s recent translation and edition of al-Shābushtī’s The Book of Monasteries (Kitāb al-Diyārāt) sheds unique light on the social amalgamation of Muslims and Christians. Though dominant scholarship long viewed non-Muslims as mere social intermediaries (e.g. translators, tax collectors, scribes) or historical bystanders (e.g. converts), this image is at best incomplete. In The Book of Monasteries, the hermit sanctuaries feature as a popular destination for the political elites of the time, and notably one where Muslims and Christians together engaged in revelry and indulgence.

Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-Shābushtī (d. 338/998 or 389/999 CE), a Shiʿī Muslim, compiled The Book of Monasteries in the fourth/tenth century. Unlike the works of Thomas of Marga (fl. 837-850 CE), Abū al-Makārim (d. 1208 CE), or Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī (d. 1229 CE), al-Shābushtī’s anthology is not invested in religious edification, neither does it demonstrate an encyclopedic interest in the monastic sites. Rather, the work narrates stories of travelers and libertines who seek worldly pleasure within the confines of the monasteries. Among the figures to emerge is that of the “cupbearer” (al-sāqī), who not uncommonly signals sensual desire and the overflowing of wine. In a poem dedicated to the Samālū Monastery in Baghdad, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Malik al-Hāshimī expresses the following:

File:Monastery of Saint Matthew (Der Mar Mattai) overlooking the Nineveh Plains 01.jpg

Monastery of Saint Matthew (Der Mar Mattai) in northern Iraq, via Wikimedia Commons

“Cupbearer,” I said, “pour out the wine;

for a morning’s drink this is the time.”

Its heady vapors played with our brains,

Its fire was setting our cheeks ablaze,

Till I thought the carpet we sat on a ship

and the monastery’s walls were dancing around us. (13)

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St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt, via Wikimedia Commons

This somewhat prudish example illustrates a broader point that captured my attention: monasteries served broader social functions than only their roles as sanctuaries of prayer and asceticism. And as al-Shābushtī’s text reflects, monastic milieus hold special importance for the history of Islam, even from its earliest period. According to Islamic tradition, a Christian monk foretold the prophetic career of the young Muḥammad, and a later covenant between him and monks at St. Catherine’s in Sinai became a central reference for subsequent Christian–Muslim relations.

I was also interested to see that al-Shābushtī depicts Muslims not only as visitors but even financiers of Christian sites. In his account of the Monastery of al-Quṣayr, he writes that the son of Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn (r. 254/868–270/884)—the founder of the Tulunid Dynasty, whose celebrated mosque was built by a Christian architect—admired and financially supported the ecclesial art at the monastery:

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Map of the Tulunid Dynasty in the modern-day boundaries of the Arab world, via Wikimedia Commons

In the altar stands an icon of Mary with the image of Christ, peace be upon Him, on her lap, and people visit the place to look at it. Above it is a hall built by Abū l-Jaysh Khumārawayh ibn Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, with four arches on the sides. He used to visit this monastery often because he loved this icon, and he would sit drinking and looking at it. (391)

Similarly, the work offers glimpses into a patchwork of inter-Christian relations that transcend theological fault lines. In a remarkable passage, al-Shābushtī describes a hermitage owned by the Melkite monk ʿAbdūn within a monastery belonging to the Church of the East. He recounts that not only was the Melkite friar permitted to construct a monastic cell on its premises, but he even served as its superior, looking after the convent and its inmates (223; see also xviii-xxi).

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Coptic Monastery in Egypt, via Wikimedia Commons

But I did not find The Book of Monasteries only relevant to the politics of religion. Another area that piqued my interest was al-Shābushtī’s description of the natural environment. The Book of Monasteries immerses its readers with images of serenading birds, fragrant basil, and beautiful blossoms. These allusions, beyond idealizing the monastic settlements, prompt questions about the evolution of green spaces, medieval perspectives on nature, and the agricultural engineering capabilities of the monasteries. I was especially drawn to his description of the Flooding of the Nile. The Wafāʾ al-Nīl occupied a prominent place in the Coptic calendar, finding expression in the liturgical services and public celebrations like the Feast of the Martyr, which drew participants from diverse backgrounds. Al-Shābushtī narrates tales of the outings that took place around the Nahyā Monastery near Giza.

[Nahyā’s] monastery is most beautiful, pleasant, and agreeable, and flourishing with its monks and those dwelling there. It is an amazing sight when the Nile floods, for it is surrounded by water on all sides, and when the water recedes and its grounds are sown, they produce an amazing variety of blossoms and flowers. It is a famous place, a well-known destination for outings. A canal attracts all manner of waterfowl, so it is a good place for hunting. (405)

As The Book of Monasteries seldom evokes arid or desert-like conditions, it nuances yet another popular perception of the hermit life. 

Ultimately, as noted by Kilpatrick as well as Jack Tannous and others, there remain questions about the veracity of al-Shābushtī’s accounts. In this vein, it is important to acknowledge that while the work is set in monastic milieus, most, if not all, of the named poets and narrators are Muslim. Nevertheless, the anthology offers countless insights. Not least, it underscores the importance of exploring Middle Eastern history from the margin, foregrounding minoritarian communities and perspectives. Kilpatrick’s outstanding edition of The Book of Monasteries adds a critical collection of primary sources to the field’s quest for historical nuance.

Johannes Makar is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.