Analysis: The Case of the Christian Who Wanted to be Executed

By Dr. Maribel Fierro (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones CientíficasSpanish National Research Council)

This anecdote offers insight into the historical role of judges during a period of religious dissent in the Umayyad Caliphate, while the author’s narrative voice demonstrates past judicial approaches to rationality, humor, and violent penalization.

Aslam b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (d. 319/931), the judge who presided over this court case, served in 300/912–309/921 and 312/924–314/926. He belonged to a family of Umayyad clients (mawālī) who were instrumental in installing the Umayyad prince ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I (r. 138–172/756–788) as ruler in al-Andalus and later served in the Umayyad administration. Aslam’s brother, Hāshim b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, rose as a powerful vizier and military commander in service to the emir Muḥammad (r. 238–273/852-886), but later fell in disgrace and was executed by al-Mundhir (r. 273–275/886–888). Aslam was notorious for his severity in judgement and is thus contrasted with his more lenient successor, Aḥmad b. Baqī b. Makhlad. This divergence is illustrated in Aslam and Ahmad’s treatment of female claimants transgressing the norms of proper conduct in the courtroom. While Aslam flogged the claimant, Ahmad delivered only a verbal reprimand.

The year of Aslam’s dismissal from the judiciary in 314/926 coincided with the execution of the anti-Umayyad rebel, Sulaymān b. ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn, whose corpse was crucified at the Cordoban palace gate as a deterrent to any future would-be rebels. Sulaymān followed the path of his father, ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn (d. 306/918), a descendent of a convert who mustered a strong and prolonged rebellion against the emir Muḥammad (r. 238/852–273/886) from his fortress in Bobastro (in the mountains near Málaga). In rebelling against the Umayyad emir, ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn seems to also have acted—for some period—in allegiance with the Fāṭimid imam-caliph in North Africa, and to have hosted two Ismāʿīlī missionaries for a time. Ibn Ḥafṣūn is reported to have died a Christian, having returned to Christianity in the year 286/899 and built churches in Bobastro. Many nearby Christian communities actively supported ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn’s rebellion and were later punished by the emir for their resistance.

ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn is understood by Manuel Acién Almansa and other scholars to represent the descendants of the old Visigothic nobility who had managed to preserve territorial dominion after the Muslim conquest, but from the mid-third/ninth century acted to resist the increasing expansion of Cordoban Umayyad rule. Ibn Ḥafṣūn also apostatized, likely as a means to garner support from Christian communities in the region as well as those Christian activists associated with the Church who tried to challenge the tide of social and cultural Islamization and Arabization that drew many away from Christianity.

Such Christian activists spearheaded the movement of the Cordoban voluntary martyrs (lasting primarily between 235/850–245/859 but continuing as late as 289/902–297/910) in which Christian men and women rose to publicly insult the prophet Muḥammad and the Islamic religion and were sentenced to death for blasphemy. . . .

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