Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Cyprus and Its Legal and Historiographical Significance in Early Islamic History

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Cyprus and Its Legal and Historiographical Significance in Early Islamic History

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In the period from the Islamic conquests to the fourth/tenth century Cyprus presented an exceptional circumstance for both Muslim and Byzantine administrators, and the surviving historical record recalls the difficulty faced by both in considering how best to govern and manage this frontier territory. Unlike the traditional frontier territory from this time, Cyprus proves to be a region that reveals the more intricate political and social relationships between the Muslims and the Byzantines. Arabic administrative treatises contemplating this early period demonstrate that the case of Cyprus had minimal judicial precedent that could be applied to its classification and treatment; it therefore has become a rare example of a precedent-setting administrative decision from the late eighth century. Rather than being subjugated by the armies of the Islamic conquests and becoming an island governed by the Islamic state, Cyprus is reported to have remained only a tributary to the caliphs. (1) Unsurprisingly, Muslims had expectations of the Cypriots, including a regular payment for the cessation of hostilities, but the Arabic sources present Cyprus as having been a divided land that wavered in its support between the Byzantines and the Muslims. Both sides came to accept an economic and influence-sharing neutrality on the island, and yet surviving sources show both parties eager to gain ascendency over the other through their Cypriot proxy. The medieval historical tradition suggests that the roots of divisions stretch far beyond the modern challenges of Cypriot nationalism and statehood.

The historical reports depict the island and its inhabitants' status as having vacillated wildly in allegiance throughout this period, presenting great difficulty for the modern-day scholar attempting to reconstruct the history of the island at a vital crossroads. At the center of the challenges created by this region in the historiographical record are two major incidents that followed the arrival of Muslim influence on the island. The first of these purportedly occurred in the Umayyad period during the reign of al-Walid b. Yazid b. 'Abd al-Malik (r. 125-26/743-44), where suspicion of a certain portion of the population led the caliph to remove them from the island. The second occurred during the Abbasid age and the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 170-93/786-809), when the caliph's governor of the frontier cities is said to have raided the island as punishment for an unnamed transgression. This transgression under the Abbasids seems to have gone largely unnoted in much of the extant Muslim and non-Muslim historical sources. It seems to have created a difficult circumstance that needed to be coped with by the legal and secretarial classes of the day, however, and Kitab al-Amwal (The Book of Revenue) of Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam (d. 224/838) and, subsequently, Kitab Futuh al-buldan (The Book of the Conquest of Lands) of al-Baladhuri (d. ca. 278/892) preserve these difficulties. Through analysis of this second tense period, this study will discuss the issues concerning the management of early Islamic Cyprus from the perspective of the Muslims. Despite the silence of non-Muslim sources on issues with the island during the early Abbasid period, the manner in which this particular incident is recorded in the above texts suggests that it was an important event for Muslim jurists and administrators. Record of the event survives only thanks to the availability of correspondence between Harun al-Rashid's governor of the Syrian frontier territories, 'Abd al-Malik b. Salih (d. 196/811), and prominent jurists of the day, faced with the dilemma of how best to handle violations of a unique peace agreement. As such, it testifies to how continued source-critical analysis and comparison of traditions contained within the early Arabic historical tradition can provide input into identifying certain traditions that are more reliable than others. …

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