Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Blinding Emerald: Ibn Al-Rawandi's 'Kitab Al-Zumurrud.'

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Blinding Emerald: Ibn Al-Rawandi's 'Kitab Al-Zumurrud.'

Article excerpt


A CENTRAL ISSUE IN EARLY ISLAMIC THEOLOGICAL DISCUSSIONS is the question of who is to be counted as a believer (mumin). In asking this question medieval Muslim thinkers sought to define the essence of Islam and to delineate the borders of the Muslim community. Their views were sometimes formulated in positive terms, but quite often they addressed the issue in a roundabout way, seeking to define who is not a believer. In this context, Muslim writers pay relatively little attention to non-Muslims, who are seen as outright infidels, and concentrate on the study of those who are seen as heretics, that is to say, people who are supposedly Muslims, but who adhere to non-orthodox beliefs. The study of accusations of heresy can thus serve as an important tool in the attempt to understand the development of Muslim self-perception.

Not all heresies were seen as equally deviant. While some opinions, though fiercely disputed, were treated as wrong interpretations of Islam, others were viewed as definitely outside Islam.(2) The present study will focus on the case of one of the most notorious heretics, Ibn al-Rawandi. In Muslim consciousness Ibn al-Rawandi has become a byword for denial of the phenomenon of prophecy. But in the last few decades scholars have given attention to certain Muslim texts that seem not to share this harsh view. Josef van Ess, in particular, has offered a radical reinterpretation of this thinker, arguing that in Ibn al-Rawandi's eyes, as well as in the eyes of many of his contemporaries, his views concerning prophecy were still acceptable for a Muslim.(3)

Our knowledge of Islamic theology in the third century is admittedly still very deficient. It is mostly dependent on later sources, and as new sources become available, we must be prepared to rethink traditional views. Some ideas, about the legitimacy of which later Muslim orthodoxy had a definite opinion, were probably still open for debate in the third Islamic century.(4) Views that could be defined as heretical in the fifth century may well have been treated with more leniency in the third and early fourth. But prophecy in general, and the prophethood of Muhammad in particular, was not one of those open issues.(5) By the third century, belief in prophecy was not open for discussion; a person who denied that Muhammad was a prophet stood outside the pale of Islam. Ibn al-Rawandi's case, when properly understood, vividly demonstrates this fact.

The present study will deal with what is perhaps Ibn al-Rawandi's most notorious book, "The Book of the Emerald" (Kitab al-Zumurrud, henceforth, Zumurrud). Part I of this paper presents in brief the available data concerning Ibn al-Rawandi and the Zumurrud, and reviews the relevant scholarly opinions. Part II is a detailed analysis of one passage from the Zumurrud. Part III reviews the Muslim sources that are supposedly favorable to Ibn al-Rawandi, and discusses the connection between Ibn al-Rawandi's heresy and the form of the Zumurrud; and part IV is an attempt to summarize what we know about the Zumurrud and its contents.



If one were to write a biography of Ibn al-Rawandi that contained only the information on which there is consensus, it would be quite short.(6) Abu al-Husayn Ahmad b. Yahya b. Ishaq al-Rawandi was born in Marwarrudh about the year 815 A.D. He joined the Mutazila of Baghdad, and gained prominence among them. But when he approached the age of forty he became estranged from his fellow Mutazilites, and formed close alliances with non-Mutazilites, both Muslims (Shiis) and non-Muslims (Manichaeans, Jews and perhaps also Christians). He wrote against the Mutazila, and they reciprocated in kind.

Our sources contain much material beyond this short biography. But for every detail other than those mentioned above there are at least two contradictory versions. Some sources suggest that Ibn al-Rawandi may have died eround 860, others that he lived to the year 910. …

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