Gowaart Van Den Bossche is a Ph.D candidate at Ghent University. His research focuses on the cross-pollination of historiography and literature in the medieval Islamic world, specifically in the context of the late medieval Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and Syria. In evaluating historical sources he is interested in questions of authorial agency, the construction of historical narratives, and reception aesthetics.
Writing the biography to excel all others: Sultanic biography in the early Mamluk Period as Literary Performance of Social Status
During the early Mamluk Period a small corpus of sultanic biographies was written by two scions of the renowned Bānū cAbd al-Ẓāhir kuttāb dynasty: Muḥyī l-Dīn b. cAbd al-Ẓāhir (d. 1293) and his maternal nephew Shāfic b. cAlī (d. 1330). Three biographies by each writer survive dealing with the reigns of Baybars (d. 1277, two biographies), Qalāwūn (d. 1290, two biographies), al-Ashraf Khalīl (d. 1293) and al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (d. 1341). These texts have mostly only received historical-critical attention and have been mined for historical information and archival documents (correspondence, treaties, diplomas of investiture, etc.), or they have been interpreted as propagandistic constructions of legitimisation. The important literary level of these texts has received hardly any specific attention, despite their often being written in ornate rhymed prose and including many self-written poems. This paper proposes to look at these texts from the perspective of a competitive court culture that was in constant flux, in which kuttāb had to navigate the uncertain waters of political allegiances and had to (re)negotiate their own position vis-à-vis the sultan and other members of the ruling elite. This did not only result in biographies that legitimised political authority, but also generated the idea that such a biography should be a literary tour de force, embodying those ideals of adab that were deemed essential to the office of kātib. This paper thus thinks of adab as a means to perform and negotiate patronage and social status, and explores some of the many shades of late medieval adab in relation to historiography, secretarial writing, and panegyrics.