The Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun: Family or Dynasty?

[DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 19, December 2016]

by Torsten WOLLINA

In this contribution, I will present two additions to the conceptualization of ‘family’ in the context of premodern Islamicate societies. Firstly, I propose that we should understand ‘family’ as a symbolic resource in knowledge transmission, which could have as much impact as teacher-student relations. ‘Family’ offered a different network of latent potentialities that could be activated – either unilaterally or mutually – under specific conditions, whereas they might be neglected in other circumstances. This notion is inspired by Astrid Meier’s idea of families as “imagined communities”, membership of which was defined by invocation of descent from a common ancestor but which were nevertheless actively shaped towards different ends. The quality of specific kinship ties could thus be emphasized or obscured depending on circumstances (Meier 2001, pp. 4-5).

Secondly, it thus appears necessary to me to disentangle ‘family’ from other notions of relatedness and cohabitation such as ‘kin/kinship’, ‘dynasty’, or ‘household’, since the “very centrality of the family also makes it a slippery concept” (Doumani 2003, p. 2). Surely, ‘family’ is connected with these but it is not congruent to either of them. Yet, in most discussions, it serves as an umbrella term under which the other notions can be investigated more closely but remains in itself only a background noise in the discussion.

As a first step, I propose an analytical distinction between ‘family’ and ‘dynasty’. A dynasty is thus defined by its visibility in the sources. Julia Bray, for once, speaks of ‘power-dynasties’ (e.g. the Ayyubids or Ottomans) and ‘culture-dynasties’ (Bray 2011, p. 735), which I will call in the following ‘scholarly dynasties’. These scholarly dynasties comprised only those – mostly male – members of a “family” that rose to status within very specific milieus and thus were included in the biographical literature. Meier’s investigation into transmission of endowments within families demonstrates how a dynasty could be shaped by strategies of concentration or dispersion, thus either restricting or widening access to endowments and thereby the definition of family (Meier 2011, p. 21).

In contrast, a family constitutes a much larger assembly of familial relations established through procreation or marriage but also through various other means, including breast feeding. It is important to note that it is virtually impossible to reconstruct any family network in its totality, even where we have an abundance of source material at our hands. One such case will be presented in the following.

The Damascene Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun

The Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun were an important force in Late Mamluk/Early Ottoman Damascus between roughly the second half of the 15th and the first quarter of the 16th century (9th and early 10th centuries of the Hijra calendar). Their eponym had served as a deputy Qadi of ‘Ajlun under Taj al-Din al-Subki. This family of jurists seems to have arrived in Damascus in several waves during the early 1400s and gained influence and prominence in the sources during the two following generations, before they vanished from the biographical literature, in particular, soon after the Ottoman conquest (1516-17).

In terms of this sequence, the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun are a rather common case of a scholarly dynasty. Yet, they are somewhat exceptional in the extent and frequency, in which they appear in contemporary (and some later) sources. While no historiographical or biographical work from any Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun is known, both their dynasty and large segments of their family network can be reconstructed from works of other authors: chronicles (Ibn Tulun, Ibn al-Himsi, al-Busrawi), diaries (Ibn Tawq), and biographical works (al-Sakhawi, Ibn ‘Abd al-Hadi, Ibn Tulun, Ibn Ayyub, Ibn al-‘Imad, al-Ghazzi). Together, these sources inform us of a core kinship network of 25 individuals over four generations [Table 1, eponymous founder ‘Qadi ‘Ajlun’ is excluded], as well as a larger network of family ties, which crossed over into a number of other patronymic lineages in and beyond Damascus. Eleven identifiable individuals of the core network alone are women, all but one belonging to two latest generations.

Table 1: Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun family members with modified transliteration, ordered by generation, table created on; the dynasty’s ancestor Muhammad al-Zara’i is taken as generation #1 but is not mentioned since he never received his own biography

name generation born died
Abd al-Rahman al-Zara’i 2 0759 0837
al-Shihab Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 3 0861
al-Burhan Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 3 0791 0872
Wali al-Din Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 3 0805 0865
al-Zayn Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 4 0839 0878
al-Najm Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 4 0831 0876
al-Muhibb Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 4 0891
Umm al-Sitt Amina 4
Hataba 4 0891
Halima bint ‘Abdallah 4
Bint al-Shihab Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 4
Bint ‘Abdallah 4
‘Ala’ al-Din Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 4 0882
Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 4 0851 0928
al-Taj Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5 0891 0903
al-Najm Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun II 5 0874 0935
‘Uthman Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5 0888 0891
‘Umar Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5 0881
Suriya’i 5 0894
Fatima Bint al-Zayn 5
Bint al-Muhibb Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5
Asya 5
Amina 5
Abu al-Yumn Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5 0955
Abu al-Fadl Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5 0905
‘Abd al-Rahim Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun 5 0885

The interest in the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun as shown in the different genres obviously leads to different images of the family/dynasty. In short, I would argue that the biographical works were concerned with establishing the dynasty, whereas the chronicles and diary rather described the family. This being said, there are decisive variations in how each individual author – or, rather, work – approached their subject. Ibn Tawq, whose only surviving output in writing was his diary (ta‘liq), paid much more attention to ‘family matters’ than the three chroniclers.

Among the biographers, al-Sakhawi traces the dynasty furthest, over four generations, comprising nine individuals in total, for whom he also indicates horizontal relations. Yet, an account of the eponymic ancestor’s life can only be found in his son’s biography. Inclusion in a biographical dictionary was a form of symbolical capital that could be transmitted between generations. Here, however, it appears thew other way around: the son was important enough to say something about his father, as well.

The Damascene biographers saw their works as continuations of earlier biographical works; they added a fifth generation but omitted most of the earlier ones, with the exception of one or two individuals from generation four. They all focus on the branch emanating from Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun (851-928). This shift might be ascribed to Abu Bakr’s centrality in Late Mamluk Damascus, partly to the untimely death of his brothers al-Najm Muhammad (831-876) and al-Zayn ‘Abd al-Rahman (839-878) as well as his cousins ‘Ala’ al-Din (d. 882) and al-Muhibb Muhammad (d. 891).

At the same time, one should not dismiss the timing of these later works as a factor in their selection. Al-Sakhawi was a contemporary of several generations of the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun whereas for the later biographers Abu Bakr ranged among their oldest teachers, if at all. Yet, interestingly the remaining individuals are fairly stable between Ibn Ayyūb’s and al-Ghazzī’s works, and no new ones are added. This could be interpreted as a different mode of <em>concentration</em> which reconstituted the dynasty’s legacy, after its fall from power, in a decisive way.

Networks of family and emergence of dynasty

Yet, should we assume that this list gives us an idea of family? I would argue that this impression is false. As said before, a family is one kind of a network, and table 1 gives only a cutout, although admittedly it is one that is usually prioritized by contemporary biographical sources, as well. On the other hand, the chroniclers and diarists give a more differentiated impression of the Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun family.

The online tool Palladio allows to construct network visualizations from such tables, which quickly become so complex that they show nothing at all to the unexperienced eye. Palladio works well, however, for smaller sections of a network (for an introduction see here). In contrast to traditional genealogical trees, this visualization will allow in a second step to show the connections established with other lineages and between the different branches of the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun themselves.

Figure 1 illustrates connections established through paternity/maternity and already serves to demonstrate the limitedness of an approach to family through patronymic lineage alone. I have added red arrows to indicate the “official” lineage whereas violet arrows indicate where “outsiders” influence the lineage. (The unusual transliteration of names is a necessary evil of Palladio.)

Fig. 1: Genealogical tree of the Banu Qadi 'Ajlun; node size indicates centrality; red arrows trace the emergence of main branches; violet arrows show outside influence; thin black lines distinguish generations #1-5
Fig. 1: Genealogical tree of the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun; node size indicates centrality; red arrows trace the emergence of main branches; violet arrows show outside influence; thin black lines distinguish generations #1-5

As it becomes clear, several people whose membership of the Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun family could be contested (mostly women) emerge as central figures in the depicted network. Most important are perhaps Abu Bakr’s mother, al-Sitt al-Kabira (d. 901) and his Egyptian wife Sa‘adat bt. al-Maliji (d. 905) (in the graph Suadat). Both women were in their time essential to the constitution of the Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun family network and were seen by contemporary authors as part of this family/dynasty. The former survived her husband by far and retained some influence over her three sons, let alone her daughters. The latter seems to have constituted an upwards marriage match for the Damascene family. Although it was not possible to establish her nor her father’s identity, it is telling that she had been married to both of Abu Bakr’s brothers before, and he continued their marriage despite repeated fighting between them (Wollina 2014, pp. 70-75).

The importance of marriage politics for both the constitution of the family and the emergence of the dynasty becomes more obvious in figure 2 (although Palladio does not allow for different colors to signify various kinds of relations). First, it shows that the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun were entangled with a number of other families, including such important scholarly dynasties as the Banu Muflih, the Ikhna’is and, most importantly, the Husaynis. Second, in the fourth and fifth generations we see at work a strategy of concentration as well, with the already mentioned marriages to Sa‘adat bt. al-Maliji and the betrothals of several of Abu Bakr’s children as well as his nephew Abu al-Yumn to cousins.

Fig. 2: Marriage network of the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun; yellow lines: marriage outside the family; green lines: marriage inside the family; dark grey arrow: milk motherhood

The Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun dynasty – the branch of Wali al-Din and then Abu Bakr –emerged thus through the simultaneous creation of lasting links with already established dynasties and the intermarriage of direct cousins. Only Abu Bakr’s less known son ‘Abd al-Rahim evidently married outside the family, whereas both his other son Najm al-Din (al-Najm Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun II) and his daughters Amina and Suriya‘i (from a slave) would be wed to children of his deceased brothers.

These connections through marriage were particularly important for the transmission of property and positions. Al-Kamal al-Husayni would finally inherit all positions his father-in-law had held, as well as a large share of al-Muhibb’s and his wife’s property. At the same time, he enjoyed close relations to Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun and financially supported al-Najm II’s claim to become chief judge in 914. Al-Sakhawi and Ibn Tulun even describe him as Abu Bakr’s nephew. Through his mother, his wife, and his own conduct, al-Kamal al-Husayni seems to have been as much part of the Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun family as of the Husayni dynasty.

In turn, the diarist Ahmad Ibn Tawq also could claim membership through marriage and, even closer to his shaykh Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi ‘Ajlun, through his wife’s nursing of Abu Bakr’s daughter Amina (grey arrow). Thus, the short entry he received in the later biographical dictionaries could also be explained by his proximity to the dynasty. His only surviving work excels, after all, by the meticulous details it holds on the family affairs of the different members of the Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun, including al-Kamal al-Husayni.

Torsten Wollina (December 2016)

Primary Sources:

  • al-Buṣrawī, ʿAlāʾad-Dīn ʿAlī. Tārīkh Al-Buṣrawī. Ṣafaḥāt majhūla min tārīkh Dimashq fī ʿaṣr al-mamālīk (min sanat 871 H li-ġāyat 904 H). Edited by Akram Ḥusain al-ʿUlabī. Damascus: 1988.
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  • _____________. Mufākahat al-khillān fī ḥawādith al-zamān: Tārīkh Miṣr wa-l-Shām. Edited by Muḥammad Muṣṭafā. 2 vols. Cairo: 1964.
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  • Bray, Julia. “The Family in the Medieval Islamic World.” History Compass 9, no. 9 (2011): 731-742.
  • Beshara Doumani. “Introduction”. In Family History in the Middle East: Household, Property, and Gender. Edited by idem. Albany: 2003, 1-19.
  • Meier, Astrid, and Andreas Pflitsch. “‘Only Good Works Remain’. Waqf and the Memory of Families, Damascus in the 17th and 18th Centuries.” In Crisis and Memory in Islamic Societies. Proceedings of the Third Summer Academy of the Working Group Modernity and Islam Held at the Orient Institute of the German Oriental Society in Beirut. Edited by Angelika Neuwirth. Beirut: 2001.
  • Wollina, Torsten. Zwanzig Jahre Alltag: Lebens-, Welt- und Selbstbild im Journal des Aḥmad Ibn Tawq. Göttingen: 2014.

To quote this publication:

Wollina, Torsten, “The Banu Qadi ‘Ajlun: Family or Dynasty?”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 19, online edition, December 2016, available at:

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