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Final Report Summary - TRAKIMI (Travelling knowledge in medieval Islam: the Ash‘arites of al-Andalus and North Africa)

Muslim intellectual history is a history of movement. Many pre-modern scholars crossed wide distances to seek knowledge, whenever the political situation allowed for it. As a result, ideas and texts travelled between the Maghreb, Central Asia and even beyond. The research undertaken within TRAKIMI focused on a specific case in the history of the transmission of knowledge in medieval Islamic societies: it explored how the literature and doctrines of a specific school of dialectic theology (kalam)—the so-called Ash’arite school—were disseminated to the western lands of Islam, that is the historical unit formed by the countries of the Maghreb and parts of the Iberian Peninsula.
Ash’arism was the most influential school of dialectical theology in medieval Sunnism, that is the majoritarian community in Islam. The school emerged at the beginning of the tenth century in Baghdad, the political and intellectual centre of the Abbasid caliphate. From there, it was disseminated over a wide territory: in the eastern lands of the caliphate, the region of Khurasan became one of its major intellectual centres. At the beginning of the eleventh century, scholars brought its teaching to the Islamic west. Ash’arism was first taught in the North African city Kairouan and gradually reached al-Andalus. How did the scholars in the Islamic west receive the doctrines and the rationalistic approach of Ash’arism? Were there any official attempts to promote, or on the contrary, to limit the influence of Ash’arism, whenever rulers and religio-political ideologies changed? And did there emerge a distinct, specifically western form of Ash’arism?
In order to answer these questions, TRAKIMI analysed different types of primary sources: it explored commentaries written by scholars from the Islamic west upon texts introduced from the east. This specific literary genre was widely used in medieval times. Commentaries were often the outcome of study circles and therefore reflect how texts were explained and critically examined. Ideally, they offer a window to scholarly discussions in the past, its debates and controversies.
Ash’arite theologians in the Islamic west produced not only works that immediately reacted to texts produced in the Islamic east. They also created their own scholarly literature that deserves to be studied. TRAKIMI therefore attempted to shed some light on the intellectual production of theologians in the west and on texts that have been studied only rudimentarily.
The literature produced in the Islamic west—both commentaries and independent works—are a rich source for the circulation of books in medieval Islam. As early as in the Middle Ages, scholars cited the works of others, sometimes even with high precision. These citations are extremely valuable for modern scholars and help them to reconstruct the body of literature that was read in a specific historical and regional context. This is also the case with the Ash’arite literature produced in the Islamic west. Sometimes the sources can even help us to partly reconstruct texts that are nowadays lost.
Many of the sources relevant to the questions addressed by TRAKIMI remain completely understudied. Often they are even not accessible in printed editions and have only survived in manuscripts form. A significant part of TRAKIMI therefore consisted in uncovering such texts in manuscript repositories and in conducting archival research in North African libraries or even in European collections of Arabic manuscripts. A close study of one of these manuscripts had an important result: the manuscript could be identified as a unique copy of one of the earliest surviving texts produced by the western Ash’arite tradition.
Another case study conducted under the TRAKIMI project focused on a popular work produced in Almohad times. The Almohads were a berber dynasty that ruled more than 100 years over the entire Maghreb and al-Andalus, namely between the first half of the 12th and the second half of the 13th century. The Almohads promoted a very specific doctrine—comprising elements that remind Shiite concepts, a strict conception of monotheism and a strong rejection of anthropomorphism. Whoever refused to profess their creed could be declared an infidel. Almohad and Ash’arite doctrines had several points of agreement, but others were diametrically opposed. What positions took the Ash’arites at Almohad times? Did they attempt to “Almohadise” their doctrines to a certain degree? The case study conducted within TRAKIMI suggests that such attempts were not necessarily made, and that Ash’arites even continued to formulate positions that were in disagreement with the Almohad creed.
After the end of the Almohad rule, the former state was divided into four dynasties. TRAKIMI has payed specific attention to the teaching of Ash’arism under the Hafsid Dynasty, that ruled a territory covering the modern state of Tunisia and the west of Algeria. This period has long been considered as a time of intellectual decline. Only recent scholarly works have questioned this narrative. How developed Ash’arism in the Islamic west? The first results of TRAKIMI show that the Ash’arites in this region came under a strong influence of Avicennan philosophy. As is the case with the Islamic east, western Islamic theologians increasingly engaged with methods and concepts borrowed from Hellenising philosophy. The sources leave no doubt that the transmission of books and ideas continued and contributed to a vibrant intellectual climate.
The results of the TRAKIMI project will contribute to a forthcoming monograph on the history of Ash’arism in the Islamic west.

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