The next thing in my stack of things to blog about is the 2019 International Medieval Congress; but I just did a conference report, and this is basically a good day, so rather than put that task into it – you can wait till next week for that – I’m going to jump slightly ahead, to something that I read and decided to blog about while on the holiday I went on straight after the IMC. The holiday itself will generate a few posts of photos, but we’ll get there in something more like due course. For the time being, all you need to know for this was that I went on holiday with some academic reading off our shelves that I was determined just to read for fun, without taking notes. The lucky selection was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (very interesting, but hard to track an argument through), the collected works of Liudprand of Cremona (always good, but I’d never read them all through before), and the translation by David James of the History of al-Andalus by Ibn al-Qūṭīyah.1 And it’s in the last of those, in the section on Emir ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II of Córdoba (ruled 822-852 CE) that I found the story below, which I’ll transcribe from James’s English.2 If you ever find yourself in one of those arguments where someone is maintaining that we’re just smarter now than people in the ‘dark ages’ could have been, it’s a good counter-example.
“One of the things told about ‘Abd al-Raḥmān: So many complaints were made against successive civil governors (wulāt al-madīna) of Cordova that he swore that he would never appoint another person from among the inhabitants of the capital. He searched for some one suitable among his clients who were inhabitants of the provinces. One, Muḥammad ibn Sālim was brought to his notice, who – it was said – had made the Pilgrimage, and was a clever but modest man. So he sent for him and appointed him.
“On the first day after his appointment, while riding to the palace, some one told him, ‘A dead body has been found in a straw basket in the al-Qaṣṣābīn [Street or Quarter of the Butchers]. ‘Let us be taken to it!’ he replied. Now, when it was before him, he ordered that the body be exposed on the quay (raṣīf), in case a passer-by might recognise the dead man. Then he ordered that the basket be brought to him, and upon seeing that it was a new one, said, ‘Let all in the straw trade (ḥaṣṣārūn) be brought to me – merchants and workers alike!’
“When they were before him, he took the leaders aside and said, ‘Are baskets and panniers all alike; or can you tell the work of individual makers apart?’ They said, ‘Yes, of course, you can tell them apart; and you can tell the work of those in the provinces from those of Cordova.’
“So he commanded that the basket be brought to them, and they told him, ‘This is the work of so-and-so, who is in the group waiting here.’ Muḥammad ordered that the man be brought to him, which was done. He showed him the basket and he said, ‘Yes this basket was bought from me yesterday by a servant (fatā) in royal uniform’; and he described him. Then the police and vendors said, ‘This is the description of one of the al-akhras, ‘the dumb ones’ [those who do not speak Arabic] who lives at Ruṣāfa!’ They went off to search for him. Some of the clothes of the murdered man were found in his possession.
“Now, when ‘Abd al-Raḥmān heard this, he ordered that Muḥammad be made a minister as well as civil governor; and when he entered the chamber of ministers (bayt al-wuzarā’) all paid attention to his opinion.”
So there you have it, a
tenthninth-century Islamic impromptu detective inspector! This said, of course there are some things worth drawing out. Firstly, this obviously wasn’t in any way usual: not only is the reward for cracking the case an indication that this was well above and beyond usual intellectual application to such things, but also the foreign slave soldier (for that’s what the ‘dumb ones’ usually were) obviously didn’t expect anyone to try following his trail, so I suspect on both of those counts that actual investigation of murders in Córdoba of this time was a bit above and beyond. On the other hand, there was a police force, and someone did report the crime to the magistrate-equivalent; it’s not a million miles from French police procedure even if there wasn’t much of a crime-scene investigation or establishment of motive. (I imagine there also wasn’t much of a trial…) But it’s still a forensic resolution of a hidden murder by a man in his second day in a job, and as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells it, they had the murderer identified even before they knew who the victim was. Beat that, Maigret!
It’s also worth asking why Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells the tale, of course. He was writing in the time of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s great-grandson of the same name, the one who would claim the caliphate, so some of it is surely the glorification of an ancestor of the current ruler. On the other hand, it’s also plainly a tale of his own streets, even if seventy years before he was born; the numerous local place-names that go unglossed (except by James, thankfully) expect a Cordoban audience who knew they were listening to a Cordoban author. But the message is also clear: appoint your subordinates from wherever good people can be found and reward the ones who deserve it, never mind existing power interests. For a writer at that point claiming descent from the displaced Visigothic kings of two centuries before, that might have been an important message to sneak through in such a genealogical compliment.3 But it isn’t as if the ruler himself was going to turn up to Ibn al-Qūṭīyah’s mosque to hear him teach (which is thought to be how this text was assembled4); the beneficiaries of this message were presumably those who might hope to be appointed, not the ones appointing. And even Muḥammad ibn Sālim was a client of the emir, though it doesn’t sound as if the emir himself knew that, and the audience for this story was in Córdoba while he was not. The most plausible role for the audience’s members might in fact be the anonymous people who made the link between the distant client and the emir by telling the latter about the former, and who presumably also profited from their contact’s sudden and lofty advancement. Oh, and we’re also presumably supposed to be unsurprised that non-Arabic-speaking foreigners are suspect and violent, they’ll murder you for the clothes on your back most of them so watch out, and so on. But for all that the story has messages in it and meanings that lurk below the text, the actual text is still really interesting as a picture from an age we might so easily characterise as incapable of producing it.
1. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350‒550 AD (Princeton NJ 2013); The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here; and Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).
3. On him and his social position see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 158-183, or eadem, “How the Royal House of Witiza Survived the Islamic Conquest of Spain” in Walter Pohl and Maximilian Diesenberger (eds), Integration und Herrschaft: ethnische Identitäten und soziale Organisation im Frühmittelalter, Denkschriften der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 301 (Wien 2002), pp. 233–246.