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Being a Sabian at Court in tenth-century Baghdad.

Thabit b. Qurra (d. 288/901), a Sabian of Harran, and his descendants remained in their ancestral religion for six generations. Why did they persist despite pressure to convert? This article argues that religious self-identification as a Sabian could be a distinct advantage in Baghdad's elite circles. It focuses on Thabit's great-grandson Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Hilal al-Sabi (d. 384/994) and his poetry as collected by al-Tha'alibi (d. 429/1038). Two members of the family who did convert are also considered by way of contrast.

Ever since the great patron of the sciences Muhammad b. Musa b. Shakir (d. 259/873), passing through Harran in northern Mesopotamia on his return from Byzantine lands, had plucked the young Thabit b. Qurra like a new Matthew from his money-changing table to work as a physician, astronomer, and translator in Baghdad, Thabit (d. 288/901) and his descendants had lived and labored in high circles in the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, holding posts as physicians to the caliph al-Mu'tadid (r. 279-289/892-902) and his successors. (1) Consistent with cosmopolitan attitudes among Baghdad's ruling elite, it does not seem to have bothered Thabit's patrons that he was a Sabian, adherent of a small cult that existed in some form prior to Islam but seems to have crystallized anew around the obscure Quranic term sabi'un as a star-worshipping religion (din) with a prophet and a book. (2) During al-Qahir's short-lived caliphate (320-322/932-934), Thabit's son Sinan (d. 331/943) was coerced into converting to Islam, (3) but this did little to weaken the family's commitment to the rituals and beliefs that associated them with the Sabian community: Sinan's sons Ibrahim b. Sinan (d. 335/946) and Thabit b. Sinan (d. 365/976) remained Sabian, and one of Sinan's daughters married a Sabian of another family. (4)

Their son, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Hilal b. Ibrahim b. Harun al-Sabi (b. 5 Ramadan 313/925; d. 12 Shawwal 384/994), great-grandson on his mother's side of Thabit b. Qurra and a renowned secretary and litterateur, repeatedly resisted conversion to Islam, politely but firmly. (5) In his anthology of tenth-century poetry Yatlmat al-dahr fi mahasin ahl al-'asr, Ibrahim's younger contemporary Abu Mansur al-Tha'alibi (d. 429/1038) writes of him:
It is said (yuhka) that the caliphs, kings, and viziers very much
wanted him to become Muslim (araduhu kathlran 'ala l-islam) and
surrounded him with every trick and splendid enticement, to the point
that 'Izz al-Dawla Bakhtiyar offered him the vizierate if he would
become Muslim (in aslama). But God Most High did not guide him to
Islam as he guided him to excellent speech. He was intimate and on
the best of terms with the Muslims, serving the greatest among them
most loftily, assisting them in the Ramadan fast, and memorizing the
Quran such that it was always at the tip of his tongue and the nib of
his pen. The proof of that is the selection from his writings that I
quoted in Kitab al-Iqtibas [The Book of Citation], in which he
excelled in all ways and which he adorned (halaha) with verse from
the Quran. (6)

Ibrahim al-Sabi and his intimacy with Muslims have been noted by those seeking either to reconstruct pre-Islamic Harranian Sabianism and disentangle it from other phenomena to which the name "Sabian" was applied, or to chronicle the decline and fall of the last pagan cult of Syria-Mesopotamia to succumb to the monotheist tide. (7) Building upon recent work on the significance attached to cultural and religious conversion and ambiguity in early Abbasid culture, (8) I propose here to explore how one elite Sabian--Ibrahim--maneuvered in his social role as an intimate of Muslims but adhering to a "pagan" cult with few adherents, in order to recover part of what it meant to remain Sabian in tenth-century Baghdad and how Sabian religious persistence was justified and appreciated in his case. The aim is not to uncover the "true" motives for conversion or non-conversion among Sabians (or Ibrahim in particular); (9) rather, explanations given by those who faced the decision to convert (such as Ibrahim), their peers, and their biographers will occupy the foreground. I will mainly restrict myself here to the image of Sabians and of himself that Ibrahim constructs in his writings, as selected and introduced by al-Tha'alibi in the chapter (bab) devoted to Ibrahim (I-IV below). In order to place Ibrahim's choice to continue being a Sabian in some relief, I will also briefly consider Ibrahim's grandfather and grandson who did convert, and their treatment in the Muslim biographical literature (v below).


Al-Tha'alibi's entry on Ibrahim, entitled Fi dhikri Abi Ishaq al-Sabi wa-mahasini kalamihi (On Abu Ishaq al-Sabi and Fine Examples of His Speech), opens with his name, including the two nisbas al-Sabi al-Harrani, and describes him as a renowned, eloquent man who served the powerful and whom the poets of Iraq praised. (10) It then treats his peculiar religious affiliation and others' attempts to convert him from it, the especial favor he found with the vizier al-Muhallabi, and his arrest (i'tiqal) upon the vizier's death. (11) After his release, Ibrahim kept rising and falling in favor, "until he was propelled in the days of 'Adud al-Dawla to the weightiest misfortune and greatest calamity," for the "rancor in his heart" got the better of him. (12) This refers to the subsequent story of how 'Adud al-Dawla ordered Ibrahim to write a history of the Buyids, al-Kitab al-taji; the calamity came when the amir heard that the disgruntled writer had called the whole project a pack of lies. The amir decided to have Ibrahim trampled by elephants (amara bi-an yulqa (13) tahta arjuli l-fiyalati), but three men--Nasr b. Harun, al-Mutahhar b. 'Abd Allah, and 'Abd al-'Aziz b. Yusuf--interceded on his behalf with such intensity that the amir relented. Ibrahim remained in prison until 'Adud al-Dawla's death and returned to favor under the patronage of the vizier Ibn 'Abbad, known as al-Sahib. (14) Al-Tha'alibi then quotes a passage he "found very refined" (istazraftuhu jiddan) from Ibrahim's letter to al-Sahib regarding a present that the latter had sent him. On the authority of a close companion of al-Sahib, al-Tha'alibi relates that the vizier considered Ibrahim to be among the top four writers of the age, a list that included the vizier himself. (15)

And with that introduction, he moves to anthologizing Ibrahim's writings, beginning with epistles and other prose writings (2: 293-303): selections from letters from Ibrahim, letters written by him for others, and writings on specific topics. Then follow al-Tha'alibi's selections of Ibrahim's poetry, the bulk of the chapter. The selections are divided into the following sections: erotic (ghazal, 303-7), "on wine and the like" (ft l-khamr wa-ma yudaf ilayhi, 308-11), epideictic (ft l-awsaf wa-l-tashbihat, 311-17), on Basra (317-18), on his mother and sons (318-21), vainglorious (fakhr, 321-23), panegyric (madh, 323-27), holiday and gift messages (ft l-tahdni wa-l-tahadi, 327-36), defamatory (hija', 336-41), on poetry (fi l-shi'r, 341-42), censorious ('itab, 342-44), on complaints and imprisonment (ft l-shakwa wa-l-habs, 345-51), and on wisdom (hikma, 352-53).

The last two sections of the entry consist primarily of full-length poems exchanged between Ibrahim and his friend Abu l-Hasan Muhammad b. al-Husayn al-Musawi, known as al-Sharif al-Radi (d. 406/1016), a prominent 'Alid descended from Musa b. Ja'far al-Kazim, the seventh Imam of the Twelver Shi'a. These poems are drawn from a collection of the two men's correspondence. (16) In the first section, Ma ukhrija min shi'rihi fi l-shayb wa-l-kibar wa-dhikr akhir amrihi (Selections from His Poetry on Gray Hair and Old Age and Mention of His Last Days, pp. 353-62), are four poems: Ibrahim's complaint about his own terminal illness (354-57), al-Radi's reply (357-59), Ibrahim's reply, "which may have been the last of his poetry" (wa-la'allahu akhir shi'rihi, 359-60), and al-Radi's reply to those final words (360-62). The final section, Dhikr wafat Abi Ishaq wa-ma rathahu bihi l-Musawi (Mention of the Death of Abu Ishaq [Ibrahim] and [al-Radi] al-Musawi's Elegy for Him, pp. 362-68), contains two poems: al-Radi's 83-line elegy for Ibrahim, who died in 384/994, and his poem on a visit to Ibrahim's grave (362-66 and 366-68 respectively). Al-Tha'alibi ends his entry with al-Radi's final line: "I know that weeping is no use / to you, and yet I stir these longings up." (17)


In addition to the passage quoted above, al-Tha'alibi offers several indications of Ibrahim's conformity to Muslim notions of piety. He relates that a certain Abu Mansur Sa'id b. Ahmad al-Baridi told him in Bukhara "that Abu Ishaq [Ibrahim] al-Sabi was one of the pietists (nussak) of the people of his religious practice (din), strict in his religious doctrine (diyana) and in protecting his religious way (madhhab) and guarding against that to which desire (hawa) called him." (18) This description, with the weight of a transmitted report, portrays Ibrahim's insistence upon remaining a Sabian as a virtue by using a term like "piety" (nusk), often applied by Muslims to pious Muslims (or, occasionally, non-Muslims) or by Christians to their saints. Furthermore, while din and diyana are neutral, the report construes Ibrahim's defense of the Sabian religion as part of his piety, thus making it analogous to defense of the din of the Believers. (19) Al-Tha'alibi's willingness to report these things shows the great success of the process of constructing and legitimating, in a Muslim context, a Sabian identity tied not only to Hermes but also to Abraham the hanif (who had once lived in Harran), a process that Kevin van Bladel has argued is behind several Arabic texts on Hermes. (20) It also shows how eager some Muslims were to accept this repackaged and touched-up Sabianism.

Ibrahim's pious image, appropriate for a Harranian hanif with his name ("Abraham father of Isaac"), is occasionally reflected in his own words, as selected by al-Tha'alibi. (21) Part of what lent him a pious air to Muslims no doubt was how he mimicked--or rather, displayed--Muslim pious characteristics throughout his letters and poems. Alongside the reflexive references to God that are typical of Muslim writing, he also made a point of describing himself as making requests of God, in one case even describing his posture. (22) His greeting cards on the occasion of the breaking of the fast celebration ('id al-fitr) are apt and display awareness of Muslim sensibilities about fasting, fast-breaking, the piety with which they were associated, and the reward the Muslim hoped to receive for his piety. (23) On one occasion he censured a Muslim for failing to live up to the piety that the fast entailed, becoming the judge of a Muslim's righteousness and effortlessly wielding the appropriate terms (zuim, ithm) with which to address the Muslim wrongdoer:
O you who abstained (sumta) from tasting food,
 if only you'd abstained from doing wrong!
Does fasting (sawm) help the wrongdoer
 whose innards are replete with sin? (24)

In times of need, Muslim-style piety is particularly salient in his self-description. In prison Ibrahim writes,
In fire of grief I was roasted and so became more pure,
   as unadulterated gold is purified through smelting.

This metallurgical image of purification through fire echoes Quranic descriptions of hell-fire, even if this is not exclusively a Muslim trope. (25) In another poem, Ibrahim's reference to the Quran is more transparent as he laments,
There is no helper for me in the cares
  I face, except for Him who knows and hears.

In this image of reverent isolation, he referred to God by two Quranic names (al-'alim al-sami') associated with offerings accepted and requests for protection fulfilled. (26)

In other words, in his self-presentation Ibrahim often made himself out to be just like the elite Muslims with whom he associated, especially when he sought favor or assistance. Not only did he exhibit a piety palatable to cosmopolitan elite Muslim men, but he also wrote poetry of the sort a Muslim gentleman of his day would write, in all the set genres, ranging from playful flirtation--"The bitter (murru) in what happened (marra) to me for your sake is sweet, and my suffering ('adhab) in the likes of loving you is agreeable ('adhb)" (27)--to bawdy description: of a brazier (madkhana) he writes, "Her insides distressed, her moaning rings out and the scent of perfume gusts between her openings (furujiha); / if it refreshes her soul by exiting her (khurujiha), then I bring relief for the soul in entering her (wulujiha)." (28) Hence the impression that he was, though in name still a Sabian, Muslim in most essential aspects. As Francois de Blois has summed up: "Though he resisted to the end the temptation of conversion, Ibrahim was in all other regards a typically Muslim man of letters whose elegant Arabic epistles and poems were greatly admired by his contemporaries." (29)

This impression fails to make sense, however, of how the famous Sabian was viewed by himself and his contemporaries, which was as anything but a Muslim. In al-Tha'alibi's description of Ibrahim's refusal to convert, above, we were told that God did not guide him to Islam--so he was not a Muslim--and that he was on intimate terms with Muslims, which is only a striking fact if he was not one of them.

Indeed, if we look closer at Ibrahim and at what al-Tha'alibi has told us, we see that the refined secretary was up to the delicate task of maintaining distinction while actively cultivating cultural assimilation. Even in his expressions of piety, he played with Muslim tropes. For instance, his line that ends with the words al-'alim al-sami' (the All-Knowing, All-Hearing) inverts the order of every verse in the Quran in which these epithets appear together. (30) To swap around the words of God--of which al-Tha'alibi has told us Ibrahim was well aware--to fit his poem's rhyme perhaps suggests (even if it hardly proves) a playfulness, rather than mere deference, in the Muslim-friendly persona he cultivated. In a similar way, one of his wisdom poems plays with another Quranic epithet for God:
The whole of man's a rotten corpse,
 his matter's wretched stuff. (31)
So why, oh why
 is the soul called high?
In him that (fact) is nothing but
 the gracious work of God. (32)

God is kind or gracious (latif), but the best of his creation, made up of body and soul, "is a rotten corpse." This first line plays on the standard wisdom theme of mortality and so invites the second line: why should the soul be considered noble if it is part of a mortal creature destined to become a foul-smelling cadaver in a grave? At this point, the poem appears to imply that the soul dies with the body, requiring the final line to clarify: the soul's nobility is not predicated on man's being anything other than a corpse, but rather comes from God's kind act of creation. He made the soul noble, and so, despite its earthly vessel, it is.

A parallel reading of the last line is possible--after all, it is not God who is described as latif but his handiwork, the soul. In philosophy latif is a technical term meaning "fine" or "subtle" (Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], opposite of "thick," ghaliz, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), used to describe physical bodies (e.g., air is "subtler" than water). In various ancient theories reviewed by Aristotle in his treatise De Anima, the soul is posited to be a "subtle body"--the Arabic translation of this treatise by Ishaq b. Hunayn (d. 289/91 Of.) renders this phrase using the term latif. (33) In light of this background it is quite natural to call the soul God's "subtle handiwork" (san'atu llahi l-latifa). This reading adds an additional layer of meaning: while man may be a "corpse," debased by his material substrate (hayula < [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), his God-given soul is immaterial (or nearly so) such that it may be noble, sublime (sharifa), despite its association with a corpse. One might even be tempted to read the first line of the poem in a similar light, taking sakhif in its technical philosophical sense of "light," "porous," or "soft" (Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], opposite of kathif) as it is used by the same Ishaq b. Hunayn in his translation of Aristotle's Physica. (34) Man's matter (i.e., body) is soft and porous, not hard like iron, which explains its propensity to decay: "The whole of man's a rotten corpse, his matter makes him soft." It is still the soul's "subtleness" that redeems.

The poem thus exploits philosophical theories about the soul's, and possibly the body's, materiality, along with the Quranic association of God's creation with his kindness. (35) The overall conceit is not particularly Quranic (resurrection, as in Christianity, includes the body) but rather resonates better with falsafa (especially the Neoplatonic tendency to prefer the immaterial to the material) and hikma and may derive from one of the many wisdom collections in circulation at the time. (36)

I do not mean to exaggerate the separation between Muslim (Quranic) culture and philosophy, or to suggest that a Muslim would never paraphrase a wisdom saying. There was a whole genre of wisdom poetry (hikma), which is al-Tha'alibi's heading for the section in which these lines appear. Rather, these examples show that a Sabian adib could freely use Quranic vocabulary for his own purposes. For if Sabianism was the preserved form of the religion that Abraham first received from God, then was not Quranic language, in its Abrahamic hanifiyya, Sabian as well? (37)

Ibrahim's assimilation was thus partial and controlled. He did not slip dangerously close to conversion with each new Quranic verse he memorized, with each Ramadan greeting card he penned. He was a gentleman, yes, but a Sabian gentleman.


Because Ibrahim did not become a Muslim, his assimilation to Muslim cultural norms in most things gave him the license to label himself as a believer, separate from those around him, with several marks of distinction. It is no coincidence that al-Tha'alibi chooses to tell of Ibrahim's refusal to eat fava beans in the presence of his patron, the vizier al-Muhallabi, for it makes sense of how one could be accepted as different and legitimate at the same time. On the authority of Abu Nasr Sahi b. al-Marzuban (d. before 429/1037), a major source for his anthology, al-Tha'alibi relates,
One day [Ibrahim] al-Sabi was present at al-Muhallabi's table, but
then declined to eat, on account of some fava beans (baqilla') which
were on [the table], since they are forbidden to Sabians
(muharramun 'ala l-sabi'a), along with (kayfa ma kana miri) fish,
pork, camel-meat, dove-hens, and locusts (jarad). Al-Muhallabi said
to him, "Don't be tedious (la tabrud), eat these fava beans with us."
But [Ibrahim] replied, "O vizier, I do not wish to disobey God in
anything I eat (fi ma'kulin)," which pleased [the vizier]. (38)

Ibrahim's refusal to eat al-Muhallabl's beans (or anything else on that table) initially irritates the vizier, but his displeasure melts into approval when he hears the explanation: that Ibrahim is avoiding disobedience toward God even at the risk of appearing rude to his powerful host. It seems that protected peoples (ahl al-dhimma) won the respect of Muslim rulers by taking their own religious rules seriously; elite Muslims were pleased to see those whose cults they and God permitted cleave to their cults. Just as Muslims could approve of Ibn al-Muqaffa''s Zoroastrian prayer on the night before he became a Muslim (to avoid being without religion for even one night); (39) as al-Mansur could appreciate his Christian physician's refusal of "three beautiful Byzantine (rumiyyat) slave-girls" on the grounds that his wife, though she was too old to accompany him to Baghdad, was the only wife he, as a Christian, was permitted; (40) and as al-Mutawakkil could punish the Nestorian Christian Hunayn b. Ishaq for violating Christian norms as articulated by the Nestorian katholikos (even though Hunayn's aniconic stance arguably brought him closer to the Muslim position on icons); (41) so, too, was al-Muhallabi impressed with Ibrahim's refusal to eat what Sabianism forbade (even though this distanced him from the Muslim position on permissible and forbidden foods).

This anecdote is the strongest evidence of Ibrahim's open religious difference, but his Sabian distinctiveness can be discerned at a number of points throughout al-Tha'alibi's chapter on him. The most prominent is a poem--quoted and analyzed by Kevin van Bladel--that considers how members of five different religious groups each regard the poet's beloved, seeing her through the lens of their own visions of divine beauty:
Each mortal, Muslim and confederate,
 has you as justest witness to his din.
When Muslims see you they believe in all
 the houris of the gardens of eternal ease.
When Christians see in you a young gazelle
 who lifts her full moon over bending branch,
they praise their trinity and call on you
 as proof, since you have bound up three in one.
And when the Jews see how your forehead shines,
 they'll tell their din's abjurer and denier:
"This is the lightning-flash that the Merciful One
 displayed to His praying prophet-confidant Moses."
The Magians see your face's light, and then,
 above, black hair like darkness motionless,
and in between this light and darkness stand
 the proofs they prep for every challenger;
You are their sun, how many bend to you
 in prayer when darkness falls and bow!
And Sabians see that you're alone in grace
 and so acknowledge One, Magnificent.
Like Venus luminous are you to them,
 propitious when with Jove and Mercury.
So by your hand they all can see the din,
 both he who strays and he who walks the path.
You made them righteous, but me you seduced and left
 to strive apart from them with a din corrupt. (42)

I will not rehearse van Bladel's sound arguments for this poem's premises, namely, that the different religions regard the same God but from different points of view, that Harranian Sabianism is a normal and legitimate religious position, that Sabians are dhimmis, that the Sabian religion is more strictly monotheistic than Christianity or Zoroastrianism while placing an emphasis upon the stars. (43) I will elaborate instead on the second point--that this poem emphatically asserts the distinctiveness and legitimacy of the Sabian religion.

In a way that might not have been expected, distinction here derives from an implicit proximity of Sabianism to Islam, expressed in the poem's emphasis on Sabian belief in the oneness of God. (44) Furthermore, while Jews and Magians are made to see the beloved as the deity (Jews say her forehead is God's forehead, she is the Magians' sun and darkness to which they pray) and Christians see her as comparable to the deity (she is a trinity like the holy trinity), only Sabians and Muslims compare her to manifestations of divine benevolence represented by a female entity associated with erotic pleasure (Venus, houri). This implies a shared Sabian-Muslim belief in God's transcendence, or at least his incomparability (laysa ka-mithlihi shay'). (45)

This common ground is what allows the Sabian confederate (mu'ahid, i.e., dhimmi) to preserve his separate identity. If the Sabian and the Muslim share the fundamentals of religion, then they, along with other true religions, are on (or straying from) essentially the same path. For Sabians to look to the planets for guidance (or even venerate them) as part of their din is no more erroneous than for Muslims to follow their din's prescriptions in hope of winning a place among the voluptuous women of paradise--in other words, not at all. It is this commensurability that allowed Ibrahim to set himself so strikingly apart at the vizier's dinner table. This is not confidence in numbers: Sabians were by all accounts a tiny minority. But a member of this minority living in tenth-century Baghdad could refuse the vizier's fava beans and playfully adapt the Arabic ghazal tradition in a poem that presupposed the truth and equivalence of his religion to Islam. (46)

Was this confidence a Sabian fantasy? Al-Tha'alibi did not seem to find the assumption of Sabian legitimacy invalid, or if he did, he kept it well hidden. The coexistence of all these religions appears here as the stable order of being. Moreover, al-Sharif al-Radi's elegy for Ibrahim suggests Muslim recognition of Sabian legitimacy, as, for instance, when he declaimed:
They said he obeyed and in death's bonds was led:
 the hands of fated death take hold of any halter.
It would have been hard, had his God not led him to his decree,
 for him to have been led [by anyone]. (47)

By saying that Ibrahim's God (ilahuhu) took him away, these lines at once affirm the commensurability of Sabianism and Islam and their difference; "his God" rather than simply "God" (allah) distances al-Sharif al-Radl from Ibrahim's religious experience, while the implication that Ibrahim's God is identical with him "who created you from clay, then decreed a term [for you]" has the opposite effect. (48) More pointedly, al-Sharif al-Radi stresses his friendship with Ibrahim despite the differences in their station:
By virtue we were bound together, since
 no bond (munasabatan) (49) was my nobility or birth.
Though you were not my family or my tribe,
 you hold my love the tightest of them all,
and though your origins were not so high,
 great auspices (judud) replaced strong ancestors (ajdad).
May I be cursed should I put off giving you protection (dhimma),
 secretly in absence or openly.
For loyalty is as you put it once;
 if still alive you wouldn't add a word.
Our rivalry (tanafus) (50) is not to be resumed
 again, nor will our era be re-lived. (51)

Al-Sharif al-Radi, the descendant of 'Alid imams, asserts his closeness to Ibrahim despite the latter's unquestionably lower station and status as a dhimmi. Their friendly competition (tanafus) puts them on the same level--immediately after open acknowledgment of difference. (52)

Al-Sharif al-Radi's promise to uphold the Sabian right to protection can be read as a response to Ibrahim's appeal, in the course of the poetic correspondence between the two: "Preserve in my sons my rights (adhimma)." (53) This request may allude in part to Ibrahim's dhimmi status and the rights of protection thus due to him, which his sons are to enjoy after his death. At stake in Ibrahim's request is not the possibility that his sons might slip across the boundary dividing Muslims and Sabians--whether by converting or by losing all recognizable signs of being Sabian--but that they might be pressured to convert or be otherwise deprived of their rights, in violation of their dhimma, as the caliph al-Qahir had coerced their great-grandfather Sinan b. Thabit b. Qurra.


If Sabianism in tenth-century Baghdad was a robust tradition that presented itself to Muslims as religiously distinct, what did this Sabian distinctiveness entail?

In the century and a half since D. A. Chwolsohn's groundbreaking work on Sabians and Sabianism, which collected the sources on Harranians and Sabians in Islamic society and sought to reconstruct the pagan Harranian religion, a number of scholars have weighed in on the question of just who these tenacious pagans were and what exactly they believed. (54) Van Bladel's critical review of these discussions concludes that on the basis of our sources little can be known about pre-Islamic Harranian paganism; at the same time he provides the foundation for investigating what the Sabian religion and identity became under Muslim rule. (55) He initiates his investigation by analyzing a number of texts, including the Arabic "Testament of Hermes to King Ammon" (which he argues postdates ca. 840-860), in which Hermes appears as a law-giving, book-bearing prophet whose laws, derived from various wisdom collections, bear strong resemblance in content to Quranic injunctions. This, van Bladel argues, strongly suggests authorship by a Sabian living among Muslims. (56)

Ibrahim's writings as selected by al-Tha'alibi are quite different from the "Testament of Hermes" in that they do not claim to be ancient texts with normative authority; and while both sets of texts might have been intended for consumption by Muslims, those by Ibrahim were intended to be consumed by Muslims on their own terms. Most importantly, they were more often meant to represent who Ibrahim was as a Sabian, not what Sabianism was.

Van Bladel argues that Ibrahim's ghazal on how various religions view the beloved suggests that Sabians like Ibrahim still considered the planets to be an important part of the Sabian religion, analogous to Jewish law, Magian dualism, Christian trinitarianism, and the Muslim's promised paradise. (57) I will argue here that Ibrahim's references to the planets are an integral component of his persona as a Sabian.

Ibrahim's family had long been in the twin business of astronomy and medicine. Although Ibn Abi Usaybi'a depicts Ibrahim's maternal great-grandfather Thabit b. Qurra as a physician, his writings, extant and otherwise, suggest that some of his most important work was as a mathematician and astronomer. (58) While Ibrahim's paternal side of the family is more obscure, both father and uncle were physicians for Buyid amirs. Ibrahim was brought up to succeed his forefathers, but his fame was won through his literary talents. In boasting that he is the ruler's companion and guide, he writes: "The sultan knows that I am his tongue / and his secretary: skilled, to the point, and granted success." (59)

References to the stars, the moon, and astral phenomena are very common in medieval Arabic poetry, so their appearance in Ibrahim's poetry is not surprising. (60) When considered alongside his more pointed references, however, these astral commonplaces suggest that Ibrahim, though more adib than hakim, used astral tropes to project an image of himself--with elite Muslim complicity in the form of al-Tha'alibi's choices--that associated him with astral expertise.

Moons and other heavenly bodies are sprinkled throughout al-Tha'alibi's chapter on Ibrahim. Full moons and the sky play across one line of ghazal; (61) one begins
I speak now having stripped her from her clothes
   embracing her like the moon on its fullest night. (62)

and another with "O moon! like the young gazelle in its glance." (63) In yet another he proclaims "the full moon is my guest, and his affairs are in my hands." (64) In an epideictic poem on a wax candle (sham'a), he speaks of
many a dark night of monthly moonlessness
 without a star to guide one's trek, nor moon. (65)

The Buyid amir Samsam al-Dawla (d. 388/998) is like a moon and like a sun; the Sasanian-named vizier Shapur b. Ardashir is "a shining full moon, since he disappeared as full moons disappear." (66) These compliments would have resonated with contemporary Arabic dream books, in which the moon and sun usually represented the vizier and caliph (or king), respectively. (67) The amir was indeed both like a moon (ostensibly second to the caliph) and like a sun (de facto ruler).

Other poems look to the stars. After a night of drinking,
The morning star came into sight,
 arising as the rooster crowed. (68)

Addressing al-Sharif al-Radi, Ibrahim makes reference to a star and compares him to the sky. (69) In his elegy al-Sharif al-Radi himself compares Ibrahim to a star or planet (kawkab) in three lines, each time repeating the opening "How hard it is for me" (a'ziz 'alayya); these lines lament that gatherings (majalis) no longer take place around Ibrahim, that he is in a place where the noble and the scoundrels are all the same, that the poet can no longer see "the glow of that brilliant star." (70)

These are standard terms of praise. It is possible that in Sabian hands, or when applied to a Sabian, astral metaphors took on added significance, (71) but tenth-century udaba' were in the habit of comparing each other and their patrons to stars as a cliche for greatness, with no special astrological connotations intended--much as little interest in actual heavenly bodies appears to be implied in the "stargazing" of Hollywood tourism.

More tellingly in the case of Ibrahim, al-Tha'alibi's chapter provides a number of more pointed indications linking Ibrahim with astrology. A great concentration of these references to astrology appear in his well-wishing holiday greetings addressed to Muslims. Ibrahim sent holiday greetings to al-Mutahhar b. 'Abd Allah (one of the three who prevented 'Adud al-Dawla from unleashing the elephants upon Ibrahim) wishing him well-auguring ascendants. (72) In a poem to Samsam al-Dawla, which opens with three lines of well-wishing, he writes: "May our lord's good fortunes (sa'adat) continue uninterrupted, forever, again and again." (73) In the next poem, sent to the same along with an astrolabe, the first line may be read as a pun on "bad luck" (nahasa) or "misfortune" (nahs) and "copper" (nuhas):
It weighs on me to give a gift of copper
   to one from whose palm flows pure gold!
But time has swept away my circumstance,
  and when it wrongs me you are my protector. (74)

Although the poem does not require the pun (since the copper--gold opposition works), the gifted astrolabe (an object closely associated with astrologers) invites it. (75) The instrument is made of copper, but it also aids in the assessment of one's fortune, good or bad. The gift and the implication that it is all he is in the position to give suggest astrology and its implements as a key component of his public persona.

Ibrahim's astral associations are even more emphasized in three poems addressed to 'Adud al-Dawla, each accompanying an astrological gift. In the first, three lines that "he wrote on the day of Mihrajan accompanying an astrolabe," (76) he presents himself as capable of giving a very special gift, which other courtiers cannot give:
The hopeful (banu l-amal) gave you gifts today and held
 festivities anew on Mihrajan, whose examiner you are.
But Ibrahim your slave, when he discerned
 your loftiness beyond all that pretends to be comparable,
was not content to give the earth to you,
 but gave the highest heaven and what it holds. (77)

Only the gift of the cosmos itself is worthy of such a transcendentally lofty patron, and only Ibrahim is in the position to give such a gift. In the second poem, two lines accompanying a zij (an astronomical book containing tables of solar, lunar, and planetary positions, as well as other lists like trigonometric tables, to allow for the calculation of past and future configurations), (78) Ibrahim accentuates the temporal aspect of astronomy:
To celebrate I gave a zij whose charts
  are like the measuring vessels by which the span of life exacts its
With them assess the spinning heavens (al-falak al-dawwar) and proceed
  as it proceeds, without a feared, awaited end (ajal). (79)

The heavens, like a clock, turn calmly and relentlessly, marking time in the silence of the night sky. As they turn, lives become ever shorter, but Ibrahim advises his patron to face time's passage with the cool forbearance of the cosmos, which neither fears nor awaits its own end (whether because the world is eternal or simply because it does not fear, Ibrahim does not say, though his wording may imply the former). The comparison is flattering to the ruler, who is invited to see himself in the mold of the revolving spheres, extramundane, overseeing God's creation, and coterminous with time itself (whether eternal or not).

His third gift for Adud al-Dawla, given on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is a treatise on geometry (risala handasiyya)--the mathematics used in astronomy--that he had compiled (min istikhrajihi). (80) In the accompanying poem of five lines, he addresses the amir as "king of the earth" (malik al-ard), thus incorporating a similar cosmic aggrandizement of his patron. He then returns to the first poem's theme of other courtiers' gifts, observing that "those with hopes" (dhawi l-amal) give gifts that "delight the eyes" (yaruqu l-'uyun) and are then locked up in treasuries (lines 1-3), but his gift is different for it is to be regarded and treasured by the mind:
But I have given learning most refined
  delightful to the minds (yaruqu l-'uqul) which probe its
  hidden meanings,
the finest of our gifts, which--if you should accept--none
but your heart's amphora (tamur) would store up. (81)

The occasion of Nowruz called for an astrologer to cast the new year's horoscope and here Ibrahim poses as a provider of relevant knowledge. (82) His gift, the treatise, can be stored in his patron's heart rather than his treasury, and benefits the mind, not just the eyes. The mathematical knowledge that it conveys, moreover, has esoteric components (bawatin), which are the mind's true delight; that is, the treatise--given its subject and the context in which al-Tha'alibi places it--is understood to provide access to mathematical, astronomical, or perhaps even astrological insights.

These three poems portray Ibrahim as a courtier who stands out among his peers on account of his access to knowledge of cosmological motion and its effect on earthly affairs, whereby he provides to his patrons the loftiness of the heavens to which Hermes-Idris was said to have risen and the foreknowledge that astrology, the noblest of the divinatory arts and "the queen of all knowledge," could bring to those who applied themselves to it. (83) As crucial and desirable as medicine, astrology was Ibrahim's distinctive selling point, the factor by which he outshone other eloquent secretaries.

His poem to al-Mutahhar b. 'Abd Allah, which refers to each of the wandering stars by name, contributes to our sense of astrology's importance in Ibrahim's image, while adding a further dimension:
Obtain your fate on your Best Day,
 seeking success by the luckiest ascendant;
rise like Saturn's rising, climbing high
 most nobly to the greatest heights;
pour forth as Jupiter pours forth with generosity
 when perched in his furthest mansion; (84)
be readier than Mars to pounce upon
 whatever haughty king (85) should be your foe;
ascend as the morning Sun ascends
 eclipsing black obscurity of night; (86)
imitate the deeds of Venus
 in your pleasing prime of life;
resemble with your flowing pen in hand
 the magisterial writer Mercury;
in aspect vie with the full Moon at dusk (87)
 and best him in resplendence and outdo.
Be safe from fate's setbacks and do not fear
 its adversities of the evening or the morning,
as one whose life-blood is safe against perdition,
 as long as the life-blood of the Calf-star guards him. (88)

With this list of comparisons, Ibrahim speaks with authority in the idiom of astrology. (89) He indulges in four synonyms for "to rise" as a star or planet might (tala'a, sa'ida, raqiya, i'tala), uses the technical term for zodiacal mansion (burj), and shows sensitivity to the planets' changing effects when their position relative to the zodiac changes. The planetary attributes as he describes them match the ones that normally appear in astrological treatises in the Greco-Roman tradition, as does the order of the planets. (90) His poem also constructs the planets as a set of exemplary persons whom his addressee would do well to imitate, in consonance with a cosmology that associated an "intellect" ('aql) with each planet. The last line seems to impute life, or perhaps even a soul, to a star, if that is what Ibrahim meant by muhja. (91) This would have resonated with contemporary Arabic philosophy, (92) and with the depiction of Sabian beliefs in Muslim sources.

Mercury's line may be of particular significance. Al-Mas'udi notes that Harranian Sabians equated Enoch (himself equated with the Quranic Idris) with Hermes (Hirmis) and that Hermes is another name for the planet Mercury ('Utarid). (93) This makes Ibrahim's line about Mercury a line about Hermes as well, the Sabian prophet. Mercury has a number of positive attributes, including intelligence, technical aptitude, and love of traveling. But Ibrahim chose to focus on a single aspect, calling him a "writer" or "secretary" (katib). This accords with the "good handwriting" that a ninth-century Arabic astrological treatise translated by or for the Banu Musa, patrons of Thabit b. Qurra, associates with Mercury. (94) It also happens to be Ibrahim's own profession. By wishing that his addressee write as well as Mercury, Ibrahim might be understood to be implying that, as a follower of the prophet Hermes (Mercury), Ibrahim himself could claim to be well positioned, by virtue of his din, to be the perfect secretary.

But if Sabianism--Hermes, the stars, and all that came with them--was a central part of Ibrahim's image among Muslims, he was not by trade an astrologer. On the occasion of the new year, he wrote a letter to "an astrologer friend," asking for a horoscope. (95) Why did he not cast it himself? The letter shows off his knowledge about astrology and refined understanding of its implications, but he avoids coming across as undertaking the observations and calculations himself. One gets the sense that he had given much thought to what others in his courtly circles might think of astrology and its religious permissibility and little to the mechanics of the process. If Ibrahim was accustomed to gifting astrolabes, zijat, and treatises on the relevant calculations, chances are that he did in fact practice astrology to some extent. Even if the letter was never sent and the new year's setting was a mere pretext for this little essay on divination's consistency with God's preordaining (sabiq qada' allah) and foreknowledge (mutaqaddim 'ilmihi), it is a testament to how Ibrahim wanted to be seen. (96) For his self-image, whether he practiced astrology himself may have been beside the point. With the proper training anyone could be an astrologer, but a Sabian could claim to have a special understanding of the stars by virtue of a divinely sanctioned prophetic tradition. (97) This, as it seems, would have been a good part of the Sabian brand.


I will now consider how the Muslim biographical tradition handled two members of Ibrahim's family who did convert to Islam. (98) The first is Ibrahim's grandfather, Sinan b. Thabit b. Qurra, a successful physician in the service of successive caliphs, who was coerced to convert to Islam by the caliph al-Qahir. Versions of this story are preserved by Ibn al-Nadim (d. 385/995) and Ibn al-Qifti (d. 646/1248); (99) Ibn Abi Usaybi'a (d. 668/1270) and Yaqut al-Rumi (d. 626/1229) quote Ibn al-Nadim essentially verbatim. Ibn al-Nadim's account of the conversion is brief and unsatisfying:
Al-Qahir bi-llah wished for [Sinan] to become a Muslim (aradahu 'ala
l-islam), so he fled (faharaba) and then became a Muslim; and he was
afraid of al-Qahir, so he proceeded to Khurasan; and he returned
(wa-'ada) and passed away in Baghdad a Muslim. (100)

This is the full entry under medicine; Ibn al-Nadim also includes a brief cross-reference under mathematicians (ashab al-ta'alim al-muhandisin) that mentions only that "he died a Muslim." (101) Clearly Sinan's conversion was important, but this version of the story is frustratingly vague. What made the caliph decide that he wanted his physician to become a Muslim when he did? Why did Sinan both flee and convert to Islam? Did he really convert after fleeing? Ibn al-Qifti clarifies a number of these points:
[Sinan] was al-Muqtadir's private physician. Then he served al-Qahir,
who would consult him and depend upon what he prescribed, for his
soul had faith in him and he trusted in him for treatment. Because
of al-Qahir's abundant satisfaction with him, [the caliph] wished him
to become a Muslim (aradahu 'ala l-islam), but [Sinan] repeatedly
refused. Then al-Qahir threatened him, and [Sinan] feared the severity
of [the caliph's] might, so he became a Muslim (fa-aslama). He
remained [in Baghdad] for a while, [but] then he realized that
whenever al-Qahir gave him an order it filled him with fear, so he
withdrew to Khurasan. He returned and passed away in Baghdad a Muslim
in the year 331. He had first come to prominence in the days of
al-Muqtadir, and his reputation grew to the point that he became
chief of the physicians. (102)

From this account it emerges that the very fact of Sinan's closeness to al-Qahir led the caliph, an impulsive and undiplomatic sovereign to judge from his brief and tumultuous reign, (103) to put pressure on his physician to convert. (104) The initial importuning parallels the appeals that Ibrahim faced from his Muslim patrons. Only Sinan's patron had the audacity to belie God's declaration that "there is no compulsion in religion." (105) Indeed, Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286) emphasizes "compulsion" (alseh) and "force" (qtira) in his one-line account of the same event. (106) Al-Qahir justified his actions by commissioning a fatwa that labeled Sabianism as infidelity (kufr). The resulting erosion of trust only worsened once Sinan converted, as we learn from Ibn al-Qifti. Coerced conversion was nothing to celebrate.

Was this the beginning of the end for Sabians? I do not believe so. As van Bladel points out, the fatwa was not carried out by subsequent caliphs, and Sinan's descendants continued to be honored at court. The affirmation of Sabian dhimmi status written on behalf of the caliph al-Ta'i' (r. 363-381/974-991) by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim himself, in his capacity as secretary, may be read as a sign that violations of Sabian protection were taking place or even increasing, as van Bladel seems to imply, but it may also be understood as part of the general phenomenon that protections and privileges of all communities (not only small minority groups like the Sabians) needed to be repeatedly affirmed in order to last. Through influential representatives like Ibrahim, the Sabians were still in a strong position to obtain this affirmation.

The conversion to Islam of Ibrahim's grandson Hilal b. al-Muhassin b. Ibrahim (d. 448/1056) was apparently voluntary, as we read in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi's (d. 463/1071) Tarikh Baghdad. (107) After giving Hilal's genealogy, al-Khatib adds "the secretary" (108) and names scholars with whom Hilal studied: Abu 'Ali al-Farisi, 'Ali al-Rummani, Abu Bakr Ahmad b. Muhammad b. al-Jarrah al-Khazzaz. Al-Khatib continues:
We have transmitted his words in writing (katabna 'anhu), for he was
extremely truthful (saduqan). His grandfather is Abu Ishaq [Ibrahim]
al-Sabi, author of the letters (sahibu l-rasa'il). [Hilal's] father
al-Muhassin was a Sabian, too. As for Abu l-Husayn [Hilal], he became
a Muslim (aslama) at last (bi-akharatin), heeding the advice of
(wa-sami'a min) the scholars concerning his state of infidelity
(hali kufrihi) because he was seeking cultural refinement
(adab). (109)

Purporting to quote this passage verbatim, Ibn Khallikan (d. 681/1282) rearranges it slightly and further emphasizes Hilal's Sabianism by noting that he was "following the same religion as [Hilal's] grandfather Ibrahim." Some manuscripts of Ibn Khallikan's text narrate that Hilal converted "at the end of his life" (fi akhiri 'umrihi) rather than "at last." In an abridgement of this passage, Yaqut also places Hilal's conversion "at the end of his life."(110) Al-Khatib indicates that he knew Hilal personally: "I asked him when he was born and he replied, Shawwal of 359 [August-September 970]."

Al-Khatib thus emphasizes Hilal's Sabian past, giving the impression that he spent most of his life in the Sabian religion of his forefathers. His conversion is mentioned as if in passing, then partially explained: as he sought to cultivate Arabic literature and refined manners, scholars, presumably including his teachers, had urged him to relinquish his ancestral religion, apparently (though this may be the narrator's choice) calling it kufr--which was not covered by protection. The term kufr echoes the anti-Sabian fatwa al-Qahir had commissioned; pronounced by Hilal's interlocutors, it would have been at least vaguely menacing. Still, these were not caliphs or magistrates but scholars: it seems more likely that repeated appeals from men whom he respected led Hilal to act, in a sense, of his own volition.


Al-Khatib's account does not address questions of historical causality that may interest the modern reader. Had the Sabian brand by the fifth/eleventh century begun to lose its appeal? Was Hilal simply a different man than his grandfather had been, less committed to the din of his forefathers, less tied to his coreligionists, brought up in an environment where Muslims were the overwhelming majority of the elite? (111) Instead, al-Khatib's interest is in the circumstances of conversion; the conversion itself comes across as almost inevitable. The subsequent biographical tradition would shift the focus away from social and scholarly circumstances to the motives and validity of Hilal's conversion--both guaranteed by the Prophet himself.

Later sources portray Hilal's conversion as genuine and entirely voluntary. The Hanbali jurist and historian Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1200) records a full-length conversion story in which Hilal is induced to embrace Islam by repeated visions of the Prophet Muhammad. (112) True to Hanbali style, the account, over two pages in the printed edition, is presented as Hilal's first-person account narrated to his grandson, "the secretary" Abu 'Ali Muhammad b. Sa'id Ibn Nabhan (d. 511/1118), who transmitted it orally to Muhammad b. Nasir (Abu 1-Fadl, d. 550/1155), who in turn transmitted it to Ibn al-Jawzi himself. (113)

In this story, Hilal recounts that in the winter of 399/1008f. (when he was about thirty-eight years old), the Prophet came to him in a dream; he instructed him to perform ablutions, led him in Muslim prayer, and said, "You're a smart man of attainment, and God wishes the best for you. Why do you leave Islam to one side, which has been furnished with signs and proofs, and remain instead in your [religion]? Come, take my hand." Hilal continues: "So I gave him my hand, and he said: Say: I have submitted (aslamtu) my face to God, and I bear witness that God is the One, the Samad, who has no consort or son, (114) and that you, Muhammad, are his Messenger to his slaves ('ibad), bringing arguments and guidance. So I said it." Hilal awakens with a shout, bringing his family to see what was the matter. Hilal recounts the dream, stunning his family, except his father, who acknowledges the validity of the dream but counsels against "suddenly moving from one religious law (shari'a) to another," advising him to take time to prepare. Then, "some time later," Hilal has a second vision, this time by the Tigris. The Prophet chastises him for not following through with his commitment, but Hilal objects that he believes what the Prophet told him to believe and has been performing the Muslim prayers as instructed. The Prophet replies, "I think some doubt has remained in you," and brings him to a mosque nearby where he cures a Khurasani's swollen belly, hands, and feet, confirming Hilal's faith. Then, in 403/1012f. (after his father's death), (115) the Prophet appears to him again at night, urging him to make his new faith public. Hilal wakes up, performs the Muslim prayer in public, narrates his dream to the vizier Fakhr al-Mulk (who came when he heard about the Sabian secretary's changed public behavior), and gracefully turns down a monetary reward for his conversion. Hilal ends his narrative with a dream "recounted to me" by "a woman I married after I became a Muslim," in which the Prophet, his Companions, and 'Ali b. Abi Talib assure her that Hilal is high in their and God's esteem (higher than she) and that their wedding is valid; she concludes, "And then I woke up, with all my doubt and uncertainty gone."

Whereas Hilal's contemporary al-Khatib explained Hilal's conversion as the result of gradually coming to heed Muslim scholars over a lifetime, Ibn al-Jawzi, writing around a century later, describes direct and repeated contact with the Prophet himself. Hilal becomes not only a Muslim but a truly excellent Muslim of unassailable good faith. Even his father, who died a Sabian, admits that Hilal has received a true vision. The narrative is clearly meant to address the suspicion that Hilal's conversion was not genuine but only calculated to bring him gain.

Was this whole story an invention, perhaps a concoction of his grandson Ibn Nabhan, intended to remove all doubt about the validity of Hilal's conversion and his descendants' legitimacy as high-ranking Muslims? Dream visions are certainly a stock motif of Arabic biographical literature, often as a device whereby authoritative knowledge can be passed from beyond the grave. (116) Perhaps it was a later elaboration based on a core story that Hilal told, a somewhat more modest account of why he became a Muslim. Or perhaps it was what it purported to be--Hilal's own tale, told to his grandson, passed on to an important scholar of Baghdad, and recorded by that scholar's student Ibn al-Jawzi. However that may be, it was received as a standard account of his conversion. In his entry on Hilal's son Ghars al-Ni'ma, al-Safadi (d. 764/1363) also turns his attention to the latter's ancestors:
[Ghars al-Ni'ma was] from a house famous for its power (ri'asa),
learning (fadl), preeminence (taqaddum), prestige (wajaha), writing
(kitaba), and eloquence (balagha); his grandfather al-Muhassin was
learned (fadil) and wrote in a fine calligraphy, while his father
Ibrahim is the one endowed with renowned learning (sahib al-fadl
al-mashhur) and preeminence in verse (nazm) and prose. He adhered
to the religion of the Sabians (wa-kana 'ala dini l-sabi'a). As for
[Ghars al-Ni'ma's] father... Hilal, he converted to Islam (aslama)
because of a dream vision (ru'ya) in which he saw the Prophet, God's
blessing and peace upon him. His conversion to Islam was proper
(hasuna islamuhu). (117)

As in the long version, so in this brief reference to the story, conversion by dream vision accorded well with the narrative elite Muslims (including Hilal after his conversion) might have wished to tell about the gradual process of conversion to Islam--that this famous Sabian family remained Sabian until one of them was given irrefutable evidence of the truth, whereupon he became a Muslim, by an emphatically proper conversion. (118) Where Sinan had converted out of compulsion and Ibrahim had resisted what powerful Muslims urged him to do, Hilal freely heeded the call to Islam.

If Hilal converted in 403h (as Ibn al-Jawzi would have it), he would have been over forty-one years old, perhaps explaining al-Khatib's expression "at last." Ghars al-Ni'ma was born only in 416/1025f., (119) when Hilal was over fifty-four years old. There is, then, a gap in the narrative as transmitted: did Hilal have no other children or wife before his conversion? If he did, did they convert, too? The narratives gloss over such questions although an anxiety about a previous wife or wives might explain Hilal's phrase "a woman I married after my conversion," and perhaps also that woman's "doubt and uncertainty."

Biographical information about Ibn Nabhan, one of the transmitters of Ibn al-Jawzi's conversion story, sheds some light on the matter. Hilal was Ibn Nabhan' s "maternal grandfather." (120) Since Ibn Nabhan was born about eight years after Hilal's conversion, (121) his mother (Hilal's daughter) had to have been born before it. (122) If she was raised a Sabian and did not convert (but married a Muslim), that might go some way toward explaining why Ibn Nabhan would be eager to transmit an apologetic report stressing the authenticity of his maternal grandfather's conversion. (123) As if the conversion story did not contain enough proof of divine impetus, Ibn Nabhan, as Ibn al-Jawzi reports, appended to the narrative his own comment that the Prophet had predicted that Hilal's child by his new Muslim wife would be a boy, whom he was to name Muhammad. (124) This Muhammad would earn the laqab Ghars al-Ni'ma, but his forefathers' legacy was still with him, for he was "known as Ibn al-Sabi." (125)


We may know little about the Sabian religion of Harran, but we can at least study the six generations of Sabians who gained prominence in ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-century Baghdad. The example of one Sabian secretary of Buyid Baghdad and his poetry as anthologized by a scholar of Nishapur would suggest that it was not a foregone conclusion that this family of Sabians would eventually convert to Islam. Theirs was a robust tradition that consolidated itself around a repackaging of its cultural heritage as a religion (din) in the Muslim sense: with a book and a prophet. (126) But with its links to Abraham's Harran and the prophet of wisdom to whom God had revealed the whole cosmos, the Sabian din had a distinct advantage in a cosmopolitan milieu where astrology and other foreign sciences were fashionable and their anticipated payoff immense. In such a context, the Sabian courtier might well be the envy of his Muslim counterpart, not the other way around. This dynamic means that cultural assimilation was not necessarily one step away from conversion. In 994, when an 'Alid poet spoke at Ibrahim's funeral, there was little reason to believe that Baghdad would ever be devoid of Sabians.

This is not to claim that all non-Muslims reacted this way to Islam. The family of Ibrahim al-Mawsili (d. 188/803f.), for example, as studied by Michael Cooperson, is quite a different case. The son of a dihqan of Fars who had moved to Kufa, this Persian Ibrahim was given by his family into the care of a Muslim family and raised as a Muslim. He thus slipped quietly into Islam's ranks, apparently with no conversion ever taking place. (127) Thabit b. Qurra's family followed a model of assimilation and cultural continuity related to but distinct from that of Ibrahim al-Mawsili. Like the latter's family, Thabit and his descendants brought with them a proud cultural tradition, but they remained non-Muslims much longer, and even once converted maintained a more explicit identification with that tradition (al-Sabi, Ibn al-Sabi).

It should be stressed that Muslims were complicit in the continuity and longevity of this religious and cultural tradition. It was only possible and advantageous to remain a Sabian openly because elite Muslim society had a place for the adherents of book-religions. This, in turn, had its own logic: to accept Hermes as a prophet meant welcoming him and his followers into the ranks of the righteous and taking an expansive view of Islamic universalism. Once Sabianism was accepted as a religion of the book, Sabians were to be judged according to the extent to which they measured up to their own laws, whatever those might be. If they chose to avoid the forbidden fava bean, this was not only to be tolerated, in the view of some powerful Muslims, but praised as well. It was understood by Muslims at court, often Mu'tazilis like Ibrahim's friend and patron Ibn 'Abbad al-Sahib, that Islam drew strength from the presence of cultivated members of the protected religions as proof of its catholic scope embracing all truth everywhere. To keep the company of Christians, Jews, and Sabians was to know the heirs of Quranic prophets. (128)

This symbiosis suggests that conversion to Islam could have serious repercussions for an individual's standing, not only in one's own community but also in the view of Muslims. According to the admittedly partial twelfth-century patriarch Michael the Syrian (d. 1199), it could lead not only to God's anger but also to a fall in the caliph's esteem. In Michael's telling, Ignatios bar Qiqi, an eleventh-century bishop of Tikrit, took a consort, which scandalized the people of Tikrit. The deacons gathered to persuade him to desist from his scandalous behavior, but the bishop was angered and struck one of them, whereupon they drove him from the city. He fled to Baghdad hoping to find a relative who was the caliph's secretary, but the man had died. Learning that residents of Tikrit (bnay Tagrit) had followed him to the Abbasid capital, he feared for his life and so took refuge with "the caliph, king of the Arabs (Tayyaye)." Hoping to protect himself and make it easier to take vengeance upon the people of Tikrit, Bar Qiqi converted to Islam, whereupon the caliph ceased to honor him. For as the caliph explained, in honoring Bar Qiqi previously he had been honoring his whole community; now that Bar Qiqi was a Muslim, he represented only himself, and why did Bar Qiqi deserve to be honored more than any of the caliph's Muslim courtiers? And with that, the former bishop was expelled from the caliph's presence. (129)

This is the converse of the vizier's pleasure at Ibrahim's refusal to eat fava beans: just as Bar Qiqi ceased to stand for his community, Ibrahim's refusal brought a whole community of God's protected peoples to the high table. In al-Tha'alibi's account, Ibrahim would not have faced ignominy had he converted; on the contrary, he would have been made Bakhtiyar's vizier. Yet the comparison to Michael the Syrian's polemical account is still apt, for it points to what Ibrahim would have lost had he converted--and why his grandson Hilal needed to proceed with such caution when he did convert.

In the fifth century a Zoroastrian asked a Christian convert from Zoroastrianism what the convert stood to gain by rejecting "our den (piety)." (130) Here a related question has been considered: what did a Sabian stand to gain by declining the din of his patrons? He certainly earned himself favor and celebrity in his own religious community; Ibrahim's intercession at court for the Sabians of Harran and its environs can hardly have gone unnoticed in Harran. (131) I have argued that it also brought him a special status at court, as a representative of his community and the access to divine truth that lay in its tradition of esteeming the stars.

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I would like to thank Peri Bearman and the reviewers (Kevin van Bladel and two anonymous reviewers) for their helpful comments and corrections. This paper was written with much input and advice from Michael Cooperson, who suggested numerous improvements and corrections to an earlier version, many more than it was possible to enumerate in the notes below. I am also grateful to Maria Mavroudi for her encouragement and suggestions.

(1.) IAU, 295. Birth, death, and regnal dates are drawn from [EI.sup.2] unless otherwise noted.

(2.) For Harranians, Sabians, and their prophet, see K. van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), chs. 3 and 5. For "religion" and premodern terms with some shared features (e.g., M.Pers. den, Syr. dehlta, Ar. din), see A. H. Becker, "Martyrdom, Religious Difference, and 'Fear' as a Category of Piety in the Sasanian Empire: The Case of the Martyrdom of Gregory and the Martyrdom of Yazdpaneh," Journal of Late Antiquity 2.2 (2009): 301-4, 325, 336.

(3.) See section v below.

(4.) His name was Hilal b. Ibrahim b. Harun. For further details about this Sabian family with references, see F. C. de Blois, [EI.sup.2], s.v. Sabi'.

(5.) Discussed by van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 105-8.

(6.) Tha'alibi, 2: 288 (much of the passage employs saj'). The reference is to al-Tha'alibi's al-Iqtibas min al-Qur'an al-karim, ed. I. M. al-Saffar and M. M. Bahjat, 2 vols. (al-Mansura: Dar al-Wafa', 1992), 1: 150, 216-17; 2: 86-102, 117, 119-21, 136-37. Al-Tha'alibi's intent in his Yatima was to gather together works by his underrep-resented "contemporaries" ('asriyyun), a category that stretched back about a century from his time. See E. K. Row-son and S. A. Bonebakker, A Computerized Listing of Biographical Data from the Yatimat al-dahr by al-Tha'alibi (Malibu, Calif.: Undena Publications, 1980), 7-8.

(7.) D. Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus (Petersburg: Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1856), 1: 588-604; de Blois, [EI.sup.2], s.v. Sabi'; van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 106. For an overview of the literature on Harranian Sabians and the motives for studying them, see van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, ch. 3, esp. 66-70.

(8.) M. Cooperson, "'Arabs' and 'Iranians': The Uses of Ethnicity in the Early Abbasid Period," in Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts: Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone, ed. B. Sadeghi et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 364-86. This approach to ethnic identity (often coupled with religious identity) draws upon studies of other times and places, for example, late antique "barbarians"; see W. Pohl, "Introduction," in Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800, ed. W. Pohl and H. Reimitz (Leiden: Brill, 1998). Peter Heather's article in that volume (pp. 95-111) studies members of minority ethnicities who clung to their identities despite their marginality. See also R. Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2004). For these and other references, see Cooperson, "'Arabs' and 'Iranians'," 364-68.

(9.) This would require a separate study that should probably focus on converts' (and non-converts') investment of time and energy in social ties and religious cultures (even if converts' own narratives stress doctrinal conviction or supernatural intervention) since these are crucial parameters in the theory of conversion put forth by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (Acts of Faith [Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2000], ch. 5) on the basis of historical data and first-hand observation of converts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. (I thank Kevin van Bladel for pointing me to Stark's work on this subject.) This would be consistent with Richard Bulliet's observation (Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979]), based on onomastic data, that conversion to Islam in the first four centuries of Islamic rule can plausibly be modeled as a gradual stochastic process analogous to the diffusion of information. See also M. Gervers and R. J. Bikhazi, eds., Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990), especially the chapters by Bulliet, M. Morony, and W. Z. Haddad; and R. W. Bulliet, "Conversion-Based Patronage and Onomastic Evidence," in Patronate and Patronage in Early and Classical Islam, ed. M. Bernards and J. Nawas (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 246-62.

(10.) Tha'alibi, 2: 287 (juz' 2, bab 3).

(11.) Ibid., 288-90.

(12.) Ibid., 290: ila an dufi'a fi ayyami 'Adudi l-Dawlati ila l-nakbati l-'uzma wa-l-tamati l-kubra idh kanat fi sadrihi hazazatun kabiratun.

(13.) My emendation of yulqa; Beirut ed. has yulqi.

(14.) Tha'alibi, 2: 291; de Blois, [EI.sup.2], s.v. Sabi? who, unlike al-Tha'alibi, gives dates: from 978 to 981 Ibrahim was writing "under house arrest" for 'Adud al-Dawla, who died in 983. On this episode and Ibrahim's historical work, see W. Madelung, "Abu Ishaq al-Sabi on the Alids of Tabaristan and Gilan," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 26 (1967): 17-21. On Ibn 'Abbad and the political history of this period more generally, see M. A. Pomerantz, "A Political Biography of al-Sahib Isma'il b. 'Abbad (d. 385/995)," JAOS 134.1 (2014): 1-23, where Ibrahim is mentioned on pp. 14 n. 85, 15 n. 92, 18.

(15.) Tha'alibi, 2: 292.

(16.) M. Y. Najm, ed., Rasa'il al-Sabi wa-l-Sharif al-Radi, al-Turath al-'arabi, vol. 6 (Kuwait: Da'irat al-Matbu'at wa-l-Nashr, 1961).

(17.) Tha'alibi, 2: 368: wa-a'lamu anna laysa l-buka'u bi-nafi'in (*) 'alayka wa-lakinni umanni l-amaniya.

(18.) Ibid., 288. Al-Tha'alibi quotes the same informant one other time (as one of two authorities for the report, mentioned above, that Ibrahim had dismissed his own pro-Buyid history as mendacious); see B. Orfali, "The Sources of al-Tha'alibi in Yatimat al-Dahr and Tatimmat al-Yatima," Middle Eastern Literatures 16.1 (2013): 30.

(19.) Cf. Q 2:132: Abraham and Jacob announcing to their sons that "God has chosen for you a din"; 2:217: the enemies of Muslims will fight the Muslims until "they make you turn from your din [...] and he among you who turns from his din and so dies an unbeliever" has lost everything in this world and the next. On the other hand, din can be used to describe Meccan religious practice (Q 3:24), but then it is not something worth defending. Nusk, or nusuk, is a positive trait in the Quran--for example, in sural al-An'am (6:161-62), where it is associated with Abraham: "Say: As for me, my Lord has guided me to a straight path, a right religion (dinan qiyaman), the community (milla) of Abraham, the hanif, who was no idolater. / Say: My prayer and my devotion (nusuki) and my living and my dying are for God, Lord of the Worlds" (Pickthall, modified).

(20.) Van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, [section]5.2.

(21.) An example is Ibrahim's repentant poem that al-Tha'alibi (2: 288) quotes immediately after calling Ibrahim pious.

(22.) For example, after the qadi l-qudat Abu Muhammad 'Ubaydallah b. Ahmad b. Ma'ruf (a Mu'tazili, d. Saturday, 21 Safar 381/9 May 991; see KhB, 10: 366-68, esp. 367.22; and, for the present context, Yaqut, 135 and n. 4) visited him in prison (Tha'alibi, 2: 348), he appealed to God (fa-da'awtu llaha ta'ala) and used a pious interjection (fa-huwa ayyadahu llahu). On another occasion (ibid., 292.6) he asked God to requite his addressee for his generosity (sa'altu llaha an yutila lahu l-baqa'a ka-tuli yadihi ft l-'ata'). In his new year's greetings to 'Adud al-Dawla (ibid., 293), he wrote, "I ask God Most High, supplicating in His presence, extending my hands toward Him" (as'alu llaha ta'ala mubtahilan ladayhi maddan yadayya ilayhi). It is not atypical for Arabophone non-Muslims to follow God's name with ta'ala; cf. the Arabic translations of Greek Patristics produced by the Chalcedonian-Christian deacon 'Abd Allah b. al-Fadl al-Antaki (fl. ca. 1051 C.E.).

(23.) Tha'alibi, 2: 327.

(24.) Ibid, 337: yd dha lladhi sama 'ani l-ta'mi * laytaka qad sumta 'ani l-zulmi / hal yanfa'u l-sawmu mra'an zdliman * ahshd'uhu mal'an mina l-ithmi.

(25.) Ibid., 347.12: salitu bi-nari l-hammi fa-zdadtu safwatan * ka-dha l-dhahabi l-ibrizi yasfu 'aid l-sabki. For the language of hellfire in the Quran, see, e.g., Q 4:30 (fa-sawfa nuslihi naran), 56; 56:94 (wa-tasliyatu jahim); 88:4 (tasla ndran hamiyatan). Ibrahim's "cares" (hamm) may echo the sorrowful faces on the day of the calamity in Q 88:1-3 (al-ghdshiya / wujuhun yawma'idhin khashi'a / 'amilatun nasiba) that are roasted in 88:4.

(26.) Ibid., 347.2: laysa li munjidun 'ala ma uqasi * min kurubl siwd l-'alimi l-sami'i. The two names are associated with God's assistance, for example, in Q 12:34.

(27.) Ibid., 304: murru ma marra bi min ajlika hulwun * wa-'adhabi fi mithli hubbika 'adhbu.

(28.) Ibid., 312: wa-makrubatu l-ahsha'i ya'lu zafiruha * wa-ta'sifu rihu l-tibi bayna furujiha / idha rawwahat 'an nafsiha bi-khurujiha * fa-li-1-nafsi minni rahatun fi wulujiha.

(29.) De Blois, [EI.sup.2], s.v. Sabi'.

(30.) Fifteen verses end in al-sami' al-'alim: Q 2:127, 137; 3:35; 5:76; 6:13, 115; 8:61; 10:65; 12:34; 21:4; 26:220; 29:5, 60; 41:36; 44:6.

(31.) The adjective sakhif (here translated "wretched stuff") may be applied to low-quality cloth and connotes baseness. All translations of terms are taken from Lisan al-'arab unless otherwise noted.

(32.) Tha'alibi, 2: 352: jumlatu l-insdni jifa * wa-hayulahu sakhifa / fa-li-madha layta shi'ri * qila li-l-nufsi sharifa / innama dhalika fihi * san'atu lldhi l-latifa. Jifa is a corpse, often a rotten one. It is tempting to construe dhalika as referring to the soul, but the gender of nafs (feminine in the previous line, even if the word can be masculine) would seem to rule that out.

(33.) Aristotle, De anima, [section]1.5, 409a-b: according to one theory, the soul is "some kind of subtle body" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], jism latif al-ajza' in translation: Aristutalis fi l-nafs, ed. 'A. R. Badawi [Cairo: Maktabat al-Nahda al-Misriyya, 1954], 22). Others ([section] 1.2, 405a-b) believed that the soul is made of the "most subtle-parted" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) element; here Ishaq b. Hunayn does not use the term latif but daqlqat al-ajza' (ed. Badawi, 10).

(34.) For example, Aristotle, Phys. [section]4.9, 216b22; Aristutalis, al-Tabi'a, ed. 'A. R. Badawi, 2 vols. (Cairo: al-Dar al-Qawmiyya li-1-Tiba'a wa-1-Nashr, 1964-65), 1: 385; cited by the "Glossarium Graeco-Arabicum" ( Aristotle discusses the various senses in which sakhif/[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can be understood, e.g., "porous" (216b30) and "light" (khafif, 216b33-217al); ed. Badawi, 1; 386.

(35.) God is described as latif (gracious, subtle) seven times in the Quran (6:103; 12:100; 22:63; 31:16; 33:34; 42:19; 67:14); in four (22:63; 31:16; 42:19; 67:14) this gracious subtlety is associated with God's acts of creation and providence, and in one (33:34), a verse addressed to the wives of the Prophet, God is called latif in association with the verses and wisdom of his revelation (ayat allah wa-l-hikma).

(36.) On the Platonic background of ambivalent attitudes toward the body, see J. M. Dillon, "Rejecting the Body, Refining the Body: Some Remarks on the Development of Platonist Asceticism," in Asceticism, ed. V. L. Wimbush and R. Valantasis (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 80-87.

(37.) Van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 65-66. The Syriac moniker given to them by Christians was hanputa "paganism"; for the evolving meanings of the cognates hanpa and hanif, see F. C. de Blois, "Nasrani ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and hanif ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]): Studies on the Religious Vocabulary of Christianity and of Islam," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 65.1 (2002): 16-25 (note the comparison of typical Christian and Muslim usage, p. 19); summarized by van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 190-91.

(38.) Tha'alibi, 2: 288-89; this story also appears in one manuscript of IKh (see 1: 392). The isnad ends with hearsay (haddathani Abu Nasr... qala: balaghani anna...), but its inclusion, in a chapter with few isnads, emphasizes al-Tha'alibi's trust in the story. On al-Tha'alibi's use of the isnad, see Orfali, "Sources," 9-11; for Ibn al-Marzuban as a source, p. 44. For the story, and a passage from Ibn Wahshiyya's al-Filaha al-nabatiyya on Hermes's prohibition of fava beans, see also van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 96 n. 144. I owe the translation of la tabrud to Michael Cooperson, who suggested that this Sabian dietary restriction may be related to the ban on (fava) beans that Aristotle ascribed to Pythagoras (on which, see C. Huffman, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy s.v. "Pythagoras" [2005; rev. 2014], [section]4.3,

(39.) M. Cooperson, "Ibn al-Muqaffa'," in Arabic Literary Culture, 500-925, ed. idem and Sh. M. Toorawa, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 311 (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005), 160.

(40.) IAU, 184-85. Similarly, when the physician, JurjiyDs, fell ill in 152/769f. (IAU, 185), he begged the caliph leave to return to his home town of Jundishapur to see his people and be buried among his forefathers. The caliph replies, "Jurjiyus, fear God and become a Muslim (aslim), and I guarantee paradise to you (wa-ana admanu laka l-janna)." But Jurjiyus refuses: "I will die in the religion of my forefathers, and wherever they are I wish to be." Al-Mansur is amused.

(41.) M. Cooperson, "Two Abbasid Trials: Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and Hunayn b. Ishaq," Al-Qantara 22.2 (2001), esp. 381-82.

(42.) Tha'alibi, 2: 307; my translation is based on van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 107-8. The text: kullu l-wara min muslimin wa-mu'ahidin * li-l-dini minhu fiki a'dalu shahidi / fa-idha ra'aki l-muslimuna tayaqqanu * hura l-jinani lada l-na'imi l-khalidi / wa-idha ra'a minki l-nasara zabyatan * ta'tu bi-badrin fawqa ghusnin ma'idi / athnaw 'ala tathlithihim wa-stashhadu * biki idh jama'ti thalathatan fi wahidi / wa-idha l-yahudu ra'aw jabinaki lumi'an * qalu li-dafi'i dinihim wa-l-jahidi / hadha sana l-rahmani hina abanahu * li-kalimihi Musa l-nabiyi l-'abidi / wa-tara l-majusu diya'a wajhiki fawqahu * muswaddu far'in ka-1-zalami l-rakidi / fa-taqumu bayna lalami dhaka wa-nuri dha * hujajun a'adduha li-kulli mu'anidi / asbahti shamsahumu fa-kam laki fihimu * min raki'in 'inda l-zalami wa-sajidi / wa-l-sabi'una yarawna annaki mufradun * fi l-husni iqraran li-fardin majidi / ka-l-Zuharati l-zahra'i anti ladayhimu * mas'udatun bi-l-Mushtari wa-l-'Utaridi / fa-'ala yadayki jami'uhum mustabsirun * fi l-dini min ghawi l-sabili wa-rashidi / aslahtihim wa-fatantini wa-taraktini * min baynihim as'a bi-dinin fasidi.

(43.) Van Bladel Arabic Hermes, 108.

(44.) Cf. Q 112:1-3: qul huwa llahu ahad, allahu l-samad, lam yalid wa-lam yulad.

(45.) Q 42:11; cf. 112:4: wa-lam yakum lahu kufuwan ahad.

(46.) For the sort of elite cosmopolitanism in which such attitudes might thrive, see J. Kraemer, Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), e.g., 13.

(47.) Tha'alibi, 2: 362.17 (11. 8-9 of elegy).

(48.) Q 6:2 (trans. Pickthall, modified).

(49.) Perhaps munasibuhu, as in Najm (Rasa'il [n. 16 above], 53); the meaning (and the rhythm) are the same.

(50.) Perhaps tanafuth, as in ibid., 54.

(51.) Tha'alibi, 2: 366.1-6 (11. 67-72 of elegy); Najm, Rasa'il, 53-54 (11. 66-71).

(52.) It is possible that we should read tanafuth ("whispering"), that is, mutual confiding, rather than al-Tha'alibi's tanafus, but the result is still to level the difference in status between them.

(53.) Tha'alibi, 2: 356.10.

(54.) Chwolsohn, Ssabier und der Ssabismus; M. Tardieu, "Sabiens coraniques et 'Sabiens' de Harran," Journal Asiatique 274 (1986): 1-44; for further references, see van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, ch. 3.

(55.) Van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, ch. 3.

(56.) Ibid., 211-19. The text is included in al-Mubashshir b. Fatik's Kitab Mukhtar al-hikam (written in 440/1048f.) among wisdom sayings attributed to Hermes; Ibn al-Qifti also transmits a version of the text.

(57.) Ibid., 108.

(58.) A. I. Sabra, "Thabit Ibn Qurra on Euclid's Parallels Postulate," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 31 (1968): 12-32; R. Morelon, "Tabit b. Qurra and Arab Astronomy in the 9th Century," Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 4 (1994): 111-39; Roshdi Rashed, ed" Thabit ibn Qurra (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009). Thabit recorded his own astronomical observations, as well as those of the Banu Musa, in one book (IAU, 299.21) and was the author of an astrological treatise "on the natures of the planets/stars and their influences" (IAU, 299.29-30).

(59.) Tha'alibi, 2: 321: wa-qad 'alima l-sultanu anni lisanuhu * wa-katibuhu l-kafi l-sadidu l-muwaffaqu.

(60.) Ibn Bassam (apud IKh, 3: 178) said of al-Tha'alibi that "his diwans have ascended in the East and the West as the star ascends in darkness" (tala'at dawawinuhu fi l-mashariqi wa-l-magharibi tulu'a l-najmi fi l-ghayahib).

(61.) Tha'alibi, 2: 305.9.

(62.) Ibid., 306.2: aqulu wa-qad jarradtuha min thiyabihu * wa-'anaqtuha ka-l-badri fi laylati l-tammi; Ibn Khallikan (1: 392) also records this poem.

(63.) Tha'alibi, 2: 306.11: ya qamaran ka-l-khashfi fi nazratihi.

(64.) Ibid., 306.17: wa-l-badru dayfi wa-amruhu bi-yadi.

(65.) Ibid., 315.8: wa-laylatin min mahaqi l-shahri mudjinatin * la l-najmu yahdi l-sara fiha wa-la l-qamaru.

(66.) Ibid., 330.18 (Samsam al-Dawla); 336.6 (Shapur: sahha anna l-wazira badrun munirun * idh tawara kama tawara l-buduru; the second tawara is a shortened form of tatawara).

(67.) As attested by the Greek Oneirocriticon of Achmet; see M. Mavroudi, A Byzantine Book on Dream Interpretation (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 208-22.

(68.) Ibid., 308.3: kawkabu l-isbahi laha * tali'an wa-l-diku saha.

(69.) Ibid., 356.2 and 4.

(70.) Ibid., 363.8-10 (11. 18-20 of elegy): lama'anu dhaka l-kawkibi l-waqqadi.

(71.) Al-Tha'alibi is not the only one to showcase Ibrahim's astral verses; al-Tanukhi (d. 384/994) cites several lines of ghazal by Ibrahim that play with the idea of the badr (Nishwar al-muhadara wa-akhbar al-mudhakara, ed. 'A. al-Shalji, 8 vols. [Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1971-73], 8: 232).

(72.) Tha'alibi, 2: 329.2-3: tawali'in awqatuhunna su'udu.

(73.) Ibid., 333.13: damat li-mawland sa'adatuhu [Damascus ed.; sa'adatuhu Beirut ed.] * mawsulatan [my correction; -un ed.] da'imatan [my correction; -un ed.] tatarra [= tatatarra].

(74.) Ibid., 334.3-4: ya'izzu 'alayya an ahdi nuhasan * ila man faydu rahatihi nudaru l wa-lakinna l-zamana jtaha hali * wa-anta 'alayhi li idh jara jaru. I owe my reading of the fourth hemistich to Michael Cooperson.

(75.) For the close cultural association of astrolabes and astrologers, see G. Saliba, "The Role of the Astrologer in Medieval Islamic Society," Bulletin d'ttudes Orientales 44 (1992): 50, 56, 61, 63, 65.

(76.) Tha'alibi, 2: 331.4; quote: wa-kataba fi yawmi mihrajan ma'a asturlab ahdahu ila 'Adud al-Dawla.

(77.) Ibid., 331.5-7: ahda [my correction; 'hdy ed.] ilayka banu l-amali wa-htafalu * fi Mihrajanin jadidin anta mublihi / lakinna 'abdaka Ibrahima hina ra'a * 'aluwa qadrika 'an shay'in yudanihi / lam yarda bi-l-ardi muhdatan ilayka fa-qad * ahda [my correction; 'hdy ed.] laka l-falaka l-a'la bi-ma fihi. The conceit of the second and third lines pivots around the consonant phrase lam yarda bi-l-ard.

(78.) F. C. de Blois et al., [EI.sup.2], s.v. Zidj.

(79.) Tha'alibi, 2: 331.9-10: ahdaytu muhlafilan zijan jadawiluhu * mithla l-makayili yastawfi biha l-'umru / faqis bihi l-falaka l-dawwara wa-jri kama * yajri bila ajalin yukhsha wa-yuntazaru.

(80.) Ibid., 331. Handasa and nujum often go hand in hand; for example, Ibn al-Qifti (IQ, 442) calls Muhammad b. Musa b. Shakir "abundantly gifted in geometry (handasa) and the stars (nujum)."

(81.) Ibid., 331.14-15: wa-lakinnani ahdaytu 'ilman muhadhdhaban * yaruqu l-'uqula l-bahithati bawatinahu / wa-khayru hadayana lladhi in qabiltahu * fa-laysa siwa tamuri qalbika khazinahu. The word tamur can mean a wine vessel or the wine (or blood or saffron) stored in it, but also "vizier" or, as seems intended here, "soul."

(82.) For this custom under 'Adud al-Dawla, see Saliba, "Role of the Astrologer," 60.

(83.) For Hermes' ascent, see van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, [section]5.1. For Theophilos of Edessa's application of the epithet [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("queen of all knowledge") to astrology, see M. Ullmann, Die Natur- und Geheim-wissenschaften im Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), 277; A. M. Roberts, "The Crossing Paths of Greek and Persian Knowledge in the 9th-Century Arabic 'Book of Degrees'," in Le vie del sapere in ambito siro-mesopotamico dal III al IX secolo, ed. C. Noce et al. (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 2013), 279 and n. I.

(84.) "Mansion" (burj) is one of the twelve equal sections of the zodiac.

(85.) Asyad is a word for "king" from the basic sense "the one who does not turn his head" (LA).

(86.) The Arabic plays with the word kasifa, which has the double meaning "to be eclipsed" or "to eclipse," so that as the second hemistich begins it sounds as though the sun is overcome by darkness, but by the end the reader knows that on the contrary, the sun's light has overcome darkness.

(87.) Lit. full moon of dusk (i.e., the full moon when it rises, which is always at dusk).

(88.) Tha'alibi, 2: 335: nali l-mana fi yawmika l-ajwadi * mustanjihan bi-l-tali'i l-as'adi / wa-rqa ka-marqa Zuhala * ila l-ma'ali ashrafa l-mas'adi / wa-fid ka-faydi l-Mushtari bi-1-nada * idha 'tala fi burjihi l-ab'adi /wa-zid 'ala l-Mirrikhi satwan bi-man * 'adaka mim dhi nakhwatin asyadi / wa-tlu' kama tatlu'u Shamsu l-duha * kasifatan li-l-hindisi l-aswadi / wa-khudh mini l-Zuharati af'alaha * fi 'ayshika l-muqtabali l-arghadi / wa-dahi bi-l-aqlami fi jaryiha * 'Uturida l-katiba dha l-su'dudi / wa-bahi bi-l-manzari Badra l-duja * wa-fdulhu [my correction; wa-afdilhu/afdaluhu ed.] fi bahjatihi wa-zdadi / wa-slam 'ala l-dahri wa-la takhsha min * makruhihi l-ra'ihi wa-l-mughtadi [correction M. Cooperson; wa-l-mu'tadi ed.] / dha muhjatin aminatin li-l-rada [Damascus ed.; li-l-ladi (sic) Beirut ed.] * mu ammanathu muhjatu l-farqadi. The two bright stars of Ursa Minor [beat] and [gamma] are known as the Two Calves (al-farqadan).

(89.) There are again resonances with Arabic dream books (dream interpretation and astrology were not unrelated divination practices), which identify the planets with members of the administration in ways that correspond fairly well to the qualities Ibrahim assigns to them; for example, Mercury is identified as the vizier's or king's secretary. See Mavroudi, Byzantine Book, 223-24.

(90.) See, for instance, the lists of traits in Ptolemy's Almagest; or in Abu Ma'shar, The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology, ed. and tr. Ch. Burnett et al. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), 61-67; or in Kitab al-Daraj (a.k.a. Ahkam al-daraj li-l-mawalid) translated by (or for) the Banu Musa (ninth century), Princeton, Garrett Islamic 501? (thirteenth century), 4a-7a (see Roberts, "Crossing Paths").

(91.) A line in al-Mutanabbi's poem at once praising and censuring Sayf al-Dawla (wa-harra qalbahu...) also displays concern for the safety and destruction of "life-blood" (muhja): wa-muhjatin muhjati min hammi sahibiha * adraktuha bi-jawadin zahruhu haramu. In his commentary (Diwan Abi Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, ed. F. Dieterici [Berlin, 1861], 483), al-Wahidi explains: "[al-Mutanabbi] is saying: Many a life-blood the aim of whose possessor [i.e., the person whose life-blood it is] is my life-blood, that is, my killing and destruction, his [that is, the life-blood's possessor's] life-blood have I overtaken upon a horse, one which whoever rides it is safe from being reached, such that it is as if his back were a sanctuary because of the safety of its rider." In al-Wahidi's understanding, then, al-Mutanabbi refers to enemies whose life-blood he overtook (i.e., whom he killed) even as they sought his. Likewise, muhja in the context of Ibrahim's poem may refer to one's living spirit, which can be put at risk of violent destruction or be kept safe. In his comment on the same line (Mu'jiz Ahmad, ed. 'A. M. Diyab, 4 vols. [Cairo, 1986-1988], 3: 254), Abu l-'Ala' al-Ma'arri seems to take muhja more figuratively, glossing it as nafs (soul).

(92.) E.g., al-Farabi, Ara' ahl al-madlna al-fadila, [section]14, ed. F. Dieterici, Alfarabi's Abhandlung der Musterstaat (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1895), 24.

(93.) Cited by van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 96.

(94.) Lahu judatu l-'aqli wa-husnu l-bali wa-sa'iru 1-sanS'i'i l-daqiqati wa-l-jalilati wa-judatu l-ra'yi wa-husnu l-khatti wa-l-hay'ati... wa-mahabbatu l-asfar (Kitab al-Daraj, Princeton, Garrett Islamic 501H, 6b). Among Mercury's attributes, Abu Ma'shar lists wa-l-shi'r wa-l-kitaba wa-l-dawawin (Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology, 5.26 = p. 66). Astrological manuscripts portray Mercury as a scribe (as Kevin van Bladel kindly told me).

(95.) Tha'alibi, 2: 294: sadiq [my correction; sdq ed.] lahu munajjim.

(96.) Ibid., 294-95.

(97.) Much as elite Christians in Baghdad (such as the Bukhtishu' family) benefited from the stereotype that Christians made good physicians. Part of the rationale behind a perceived link between Christianity and healing is suggested by the anecdote in which (the Sabian) Thabit b. Qurra cured a butcher who was thought dead; when the caliph got wind of it, he confronted Thabit (IAU, 296): Ya Thabit, ma hadhihi l-masihiyyatu llati balaghatna 'anka? (Thabit, what's this Christ-ing around I hear you've been up to?).

(98.) My discussion avails itself of, parallels, and builds upon that of van Bladel (Arabic Hermes, 104-9). Given the aims of the present essay, I place more emphasis on the various alternative representations of the episodes in question and the significance attached to them by each.

(99.) In his Tarlkh al-hukama' as epitomized by al-Zawzani in 647/1249.

(100.) IN, 2: 313 (Fl. 302). Ibn al-Nadim continues with Sinan's death date, 1 Dh7u l-Hijja 331 (6 August 943). Ibn Abi Usaybi'a (300-301) begins with: wa-kana fi khidmati l-Muqtadir bi-llah, wa-l-Qahir, wa-khadama aydan bi-sina'ati l-tibbi l-Radi bi-llah; wa-qala Ibn al-Nadim al-Baghdadi al-katib fi Kitab al-Fihrist: inna l-Qahir bi-llah arada Sinan b. Thabit b. Qurra 'ala l-islam, then follows Ibn al-Nadim verbatim from fa-haraba. Yaqut (1405, no. 575) has the same except for khafa l-Qahir (for khafa min al-Qahir) and thumma 'ada (for wa-'ada).

(101.) IN, 2: 229 (Fl. 272). The full entry reports that he was a Harranian, refers to his father's entry for his genealogy, notes that he was an excellent physician (tabiban muqaddaman), then offers the account of the conversion. The entry originally contained a booklist, but in Ayman Fu'ad Sayyid's edition (2: 313) it ends abruptly: wa-lahu min al-kutub: kitabu [blank space] (Fliigel [302] omits the final kitab). Sayyid appears to indicate that the lacuna is only part of a line.

(102.) IQ, 190-91.

(103.) D. Sourdel, Ep, s.v. al-Kahir bi'llah.

(104.) Perhaps al-Qahir was inspired by the report that al-Mansur "had in his retinue the astrologer Nawbakht the Zoroastrian, who converted to Islam upon his instigation" (al-Akhbari speaking to al-Qahir apud al-Mas'udi, tr. D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture [London: Routledge, 1998], 30).

(105.) Q 2:256. For the range of interpretations applied to this verse, see P. Crone, God's Rule: Government and Islam (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2004), 373-82, esp. 377-79. See also Y. Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), ch. 3 (I owe this reference to an anonymous JAOS reviewer).

(106.) Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon syriacum, ed. P. Bedjan (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1890), 176: l-hana Sinan alseh kalipah Qaher, wa-'breh men hanputa l-tawdita d-tayyaye ba-qtira; tr. E. A. W. Budge, The Chronography of Gregory Abu'l Faraj...(London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1932), 1: 159.

(107.) KhB, 14: 76, no. 7428. The entry on Hilal formed the basis for Ibn Khallikan (IKh, 6: 101-5, no. 785) and Yaqut (2783, no. 1211), who both additionally include long excerpts from a book of amusing anecdotes by Hilal's son Ghars al-Ni'ma.

(108.) Ibn Khallikan ("the Sabian Harranian secretary") and Yaqut ("the Sabian Harranian") add here that Hilal was "the grandson of Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Hilal al-Sabi" (Ibn Khallikan adding "author of the famous letters"; Yaqut adds "the famous one"). Yaqut then writes that "this Hilal was a learned litterateur and secretary, knowledgeable in Arabic and philology."

(109.) I take the parataxis fa-aslama...wa-sami'a to be expressing a similar semantic correlation (whether causality or contemporaneity) as the English hypotaxis by which I translate it.

(110.) Wa-kana sabi'an thumma aslama fi akhiri 'umrihi wa-hasuna islamuhu wa-kataba 'anhu l-Khatib al-Baghdudi wa-qala kana thiqatan saduqan. I follow van Bladel's translation of hasuna islamuhu as "his conversion was proper" (Arabic Hermes, 109 n. 192).

(111.) Bulliet, Conversion to Islam, 80-91; Morony, "Age of Conversions," in Conversion and Continuity, ed. Gervers and Bikhazi, 136-40. Stark and Finke (Acts of Faith, 118-24) might hypothesize that Hilal's investment in Muslim "religious capital" and Muslim "social capital" (scholarly and professional ties) began to outweigh the social capital he gained from ties to the Sabian community.

(112.) Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntazam fi tarikh al-muluk wa-l-umam, vols. 5-10 (Haydarabad: Matba'at Da'irat al-Ma'arif al-'Uthmaniyya, 1357-59h), 8: 177-79; cited and discussed by van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 108-9 and n. 192.

(113.) Ibn al-Jawzi, Muntazam, 8: 177. For the transmitters, see Dhahabi, 19: 255-57 (Abu Ali Ibn Nabhan) and 20: 265-71 (Abu 1-Fadl Muhammad b. Nasir). Ibn al-Jawzi (10: 162-63) contributed to the reputation of his teacher Muhammad b. Nasir as a highly reliable transmitter: cf. Dhahabi, 20: 267.

(114.) Cf. Q 112, referenced in nn. 44 and 45 above.

(115.) As van Bladel notes (Arabic Hermes, 108).

(116.) For example, Ibn al-Jawzi (Muntazam, 10: 163.15-17) reports Ibn al-Husri's account that when Muhammad b. Nasir died, Ibn al-Husri saw Ibn Nasir in a dream, asked how God had treated him, and learned that God had forgiven Ibn Nasir.

(117.) Khalil b. Aybak al-Safadi, Kitab al-Wafi bi-l-wafayat, ed. ?. Ritter et al., 30 vols. (repr., Beirut: al-Ma'had al-Almani li-1-Abhath al-Sharqiyya, 2008-10), 5: 168, no. 2200.

(118.) There is no particular reason to doubt that such dream visions were narrated in earnest, much as when the caliph al-Mutawakkil dreamt that Jesus asked him to forgive Hunayn b. Ishaq his crime of spitting on an icon; see Cooperson, "Two Abbasid Trials," 381.

(119.) Safadi, Wafi, 5: 168.14-15.

(120.) Ibn al-Jawzi, Muntazam, 8: 179; Dhahabi, 19: 256: jaddihi li-ummihi.

(121.) Al-Dhahabi's entry on Ibn Nabhan preserves the report (19: 256) that Ibn Nabhan gave conflicting testimony concerning his birth date, first stating that it was in 415 but when pressed by Ibn Nasir (the report's transmitter), admitting that the real date was 411--he had named the later date to avoid attracting the evil eye (presumably because his longevity would arouse envy). Ibn Nasir (apud Dhahabi, 19: 257) inclines toward 415.

(122.) This is likely even true had Ibn Nabhan been born in 415, for Hilal's daughter would have been no older than twelve if she was born at or after Hilal's conversion.

(123.) Although Ibn Nabhan's father's name is ambiguous as to religion (Sa'id b. Ibrahim b. Sa'id: Dhahabi, 19: 255), Nabhan was an old Arab tribe, which lends weight to the possibility that his ancestors were Muslims (or that Ibn Nabhan's family wished to give that impression).

(124.) Ibn al-Jawzi, Muntazam, 8: 179. For "the popularity of the five distinctively Muslim names" in this period, at least in Iran, see Bulliet, Conversion to Islam, 67-69.

(125.) Safadi, Wafi, 5: 168.9.

(126.) In this sense, elite Sabians were like elite Christians of Baghdad, who, even as they came to resemble Muslim gentlemen (and vice versa), considered it important and advantageous to remain within their own religious communities. See Ibn Abi Usaybi'a and Ibn al-Qifti on Hunayn, the Bukhtishu' family, and others; Cooperson, "Two Abbasid Trials," esp. p. 381. On Syriac-speaking Christians' substantive commitment to their own cultural, religious, and intellectual traditions, see J. Tannous, "Syria between Byzantium and Islam: Making Incommensurables Speak" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton Univ., 2010). For the possibly parallel case of elite Jewish culture, see R. Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), index s.vv. "Kalam," "Muslim culture, exposure to."

(127.) Cooperson, "'Arabs' and 'Iranians,'" 368-73.

(128.) The phrase "heirs of the prophets" is from M. Cooperson, Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Ma'mun (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

(129.) Michael the Syrian, Chronique, ed. and tr. J. B. Chabot, 4 vols. in 7 (Paris: E. Leroux, 1899-1910), 3: 134 (= 4: 558), see also 3: 137 (= 4: 560).

(130.) Discussed by Becker, "Martyrdom" (n. 2 above), 321-23, quote (including the gloss "piety") at 322 (den is discussed on p. 325).

(131.) Van Bladel, Arabic Hermes, 106.
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Date:Apr 1, 2017
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