The ‘Alids as the ‘Aristocracy of Islam’: The Descendants of the Prophet Muhammad as a Regional or Trans-Regional Elite?
Dr. Teresa Bernheimer (SOAS, University of London)
Feb. 2, 6:00 pm, Universität Hamburg, Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, AS-Saal, 20146 Hamburg
In his Framing the Early Middle Ages, Chris Wickam suggests six criteria of particular importance for defining the aristocracy in late antiquity and the early middle ages: “distinction of ancestry; landed wealth; position in an official hierarchy; imperial or royal favour (what the Germans call Königsnähe); recognition by other political leaders; and lifestyle” (Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 153). These criteria, though not exhaustive, define membership in a trans-regional elite in the Christian West; to what extent are they applicable to the Islamic context?
The ‘Alids, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and his cousin ‘Ali, have been called “a blood aristocracy without peer” (Richard Bulliet, The Patricians of Nishapur , p. 234). But how well do the above criteria describe this exceptional family, who occupied a privileged place among Muslims from the earliest period of Islam? While the ‘Alids came to be revered by virtually all parts of Muslim society, they were by no means a homogenous group: their role and status varied considerably not only over time, but also at any given time and from place to place. In this lecture, I will argue that the ‘Alids functioned as both regional and trans-regional elites, and themselves played an important role in shaping the narrative of their peerless-ness.
Dr. Teresa Bernheimer is Senior Lecturer in the Early History of the Middle East at SOAS, University of London. Educated at SOAS (BA) and Oxford (M.Phil, D.Phil), she held a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute, Oxford, and Visting Fellowship at the IIS, London, before joining SOAS in 2009. Her main area of research is early and medieval Islamic history in the eastern and central Islamic lands, and she has focused in particular on the origins and socio-historical development of religious and social elites. Using extensive primary sources in Arabic and Persian, as well as numismatics and art-historical material, her first book, The First Family of Islam: A Social History of the ‘Alid Family from the Eighth to the Eleventh Century (Edinburgh University Press 2013) examines the rise of the elite family of the ‘Alids, the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, as a religious and social phenomenon. She has written a number of articles on the rise of the descendants of the Prophet as an “Islamic aristocracy”, and co-edited the volumes Late Antiquity, Eastern Perspectives. Studies on the Persian World from the Sasanians to Early Islam (with Adam Silverstein, Gibb Memorial Series, Oxford 2012); Early Islamic History, Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies (with Tamima Bayhoum-Daou Routledge, London 2013); Studies in the Early History of Islam, in Honour of G. R. Hawting (with Andrew Rippin, BSOAS, vol. 78, issue 1, February 2015).