The jurisprudential corpus and the history of Ibadism in medieval Libya: additions and difficulties / استغلال المدوّنة الفقهيّة الإباضيّة في دراسة تاريخ ليبيا الوسيط بين الإضافات والصعوبات: كتاب اللقط نموذجا

Houcine KHLIFI (University of Sousse, Tunisia)


This study questions the relations between fiqh and history through the lense of Kitāb al-Luqaṭ by al-Šammāḫī. According to al-Warǧilānī, the imam Abū l-Ḫaṭṭāb established the first Ibāḍī emirate near Tripoli (in Ṣayyād) in 140/757. Later, in the 5th/11th century, the institution of the ʿazzāba not only framed the society of the Nafusa Mountains, but also meant the development of a local maḏhab, independent from its eastern roots. This “juristocracy” or sulṭat al-fuqahāʾ offers a case study to reflect on the dialectics between fiqh and history. — Many researchers have already discussed this issue (among them Sauvadet, Cahen, Ghrab, al-Qādirī Būtšīš or Fatḥa, to quote only a few). — What is the [Ifrīqiyan/Libyan] Ibāḍī fiqh? What does it bring to the debate? The present contribution relies on the Kitāb al-Luqaṭ by al-Šammāḫī (unedited mss) as a promising corpus.

I. Theoretical problems

The word fiqh means [deep] “understanding” and [critical] “knowledge”, where a nāzila will design a juridic issue that comprises a question (the exposé) and its answer (the ruling). The field produces ḥukm. The word tārīḫ refers to an art (fann) that looks at [past] events, explaining their circumstances and causes. If the former is based on hypothesis, the latter uses reality: this contradiction could close the talk.

The jurisprudential corpus is not relevant for the historian.

Sauvaget and Cahen (1997) dismissed fiqh as a historical source. What are the general objections? First, it is hypothetical. Second, some fatwas are not contextualized. Third, the jurists have a reformist agenda (iṣlāḥī) and their discourse is programmatic and normative, but not always successful (performative). Fourth, when history mobilizes all sorts of documents, fiqh resorts to prescriptive texts.

The jurisprudential corpus is a new source for the historian.

Berque (1985) on the opposite exploited the Nawāzil of al-Māzūnī (d. 883/1478). Others (e.g. al-Qādirī Būtšīš) supported this method. They have proved fundamental for social and economic history which lacks materials. The same applies to the manāqib genre. Moreover, chronicles show the biases of their authors who often belong to the happy few. Where are the silent/silenced masses? Where are the minorities?

II. Kitāb al-Luqaṭ by Abī ʿImrān al-Šammāḫī: a source to study medieval Ibāḍī Libya

The manuscript.

Al-Šammāḫī’s family (his father) settled around 756/1355 in the city of Yefren, in the eastern part of the Nefusa Mountains. His brother’s grandson, Abū l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad al-Šammāḫī, authored the famous Kitāb al-Siyar. He is remembered for a kind of riḥla fī ṭalab al-ʿilm in the whole area to improve his learning. He gathered on this occasion the practice of the local mašāyiḫ. He died in 807 or 808/between 1404 and 1406.

There are two extant copies.

1) Djerba (MS al-Bārūniyya 138): 265 x 165, 267 ff., 23 l., ḫaṭṭ maġribī, 1182/1769 by ʿAlī b. Yūsuf al-Muṣʿabī. 

2) Muscat (MS Maktabat Aḥmad al-Ḫalīl AK 005): n.d., 315 ff., 24 l., nasḫī, no date, by Abū ʿĀmir al-Šammāḫī.

Kitāb al-Luqaṭ for the historian

The event.

The fiqh corpus seldom offers datations because it focuses on the ḥukm. However there is the mention (through collected narratives) of the attempt to assasinate the imam ʿAbd al-Wahhāb b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Rustum. Interestingly, al-Šammāḫī doesn’t ascribe the plot to the Nukkār but to the Furs. The Nukkār had their base in Yefren at that time. Even the execution of plan diverges.

Some economic features of the Nefusa Mountains.

What should be done without data to evaluate the productive activities? From Kitāb al-Luqaṭ (and its equivalents) one can retrieve elements to depict the economic life, the kinds of agricultural organizations, the managing of lands. The corpus allows to [partially] reconstruct the commercial and financial system of a region crossed by exchanges.

The estate.

Al-Šammāḫī describes in details the various types of land property: faddānbustānǧinān and dimna. All are relatively small but they differ according to their functions. A faddān covers ca 8.5 ha, mostly in the Kitāb al-Luqaṭ as a private property (but not always, for it can be collective of waqf). A bustān is smaller (a portion of a faddān) and dedicated to tree crops (arboriculture). A ǧinān is mostly a vegetable garden for domestic consumption. A dimna is attached to a faddān and a small surface cultivated near the dwellings. No mention however is made of iqṭāʿ (litt. what is “detached” from the public domain), be it tamlīk (appropriation), istiġlāl(exploitation) or ʿaskarī (military). This implies that the phenomenon did not exist in the Nafusa mountains during the late medieval period. Another remark pertains to the location: the faddān was found in the deep bādiya, whereas its counterparts must have been closer to urban settlements. Last, the recurrence/distribution of specific terms indicates a much larger private property (82%) than collective (13%). (see infra)

Agrarian associations.

They developed quite early in the Middle Ages and can be classified into four categories: šarikat al-muzāraʿa(cultivation); šarikat al-muġārasa (plantation); šarikat al-musāqāt (irrigation); šarikat al-qaṭīʿ (breeding). They result from a series of constraints: environmental — mainly a dry climate —, economic — the scarcity of seeds and stock, social — the fear from famine and bandits.

For muzāraʿa and muġārasa, the gains are divided between the associates (the owner and the worker) in accordance with their participation, a common practice due to low production and productivity. The rules are not so clear for musāqātand qaṭīʿ. On top of that, it is not always possible to distinguish between theory and reality in the nawāzil.

Money and trade.

Was there a dār al-sikka in the Nafusa Mountains? Al-Šammāḫī talks about ḍarb al-danānīr. If there was such a local currency, we have no other information from the Kitāb al-Luqaṭ. The author gives details about debt and pawn. Most pledged assets are lands (two thirds), then slaves (one fifth).

Sellings are also a topic with their conditions, especially what concerns contract/forward sales. The latest the payment is made, the higher the price is. More broadly, associations like qirāḍ were known, but also the most widespread commercial techniques (e.g. the wikāla, the cheque [ṣakk], the bill of exchange [kambiyāla], etc.) and the measures (capacity, weight, length) utilized across Ifrīqiya. If nothing is said about the routes, at least some words summarize the main goods that prevail on the markets: slaves, gold and grains.

Some social features of the Nefusa Mountains.

Which groups compose the Nafusa societies? The sources contradict each others, reflecting interest conflicts and political strifes, if not antagonisms. Maybe al-Šammāḫī will be viewed as more objective when he divides the communities into three strata: al-ḫāṣṣaal-ʿāmma and al-wusṭā.

1. al-ḫāṣṣa

The “elite” means here the scholars (ʿulamāʾ), the mašāyiḫ and the rulers (ḥukkām). Kitāb al-Luqaṭ mentions 170 scholars, 4 of them being “White” (al-bīḍ or amlālin).

2. al-wusṭā

The nawāzil of al-Šammāḫī recall the great forgotten ones, a medium class identified with the umanāʾ (sg. amīn). This is specific to the present corpus, while other groups had received previsouly academic attention (the ʿazzāba apud al-Ǧaʿbīrī; the quḍāt and ḥukkām apud Ibn Ġāzī; the ʿulamāʾ apud Muḥammad Ḥasan). Characterized by their good morals, they serve the išhādiyya (witnesses) brought to the justice.

3. al-ʿāmma

As Muḥammad Ḥasan had already spotted, this class is composite. However it can be defined as opposed to the ḫāṣṣa, i.e. the rest of the population, those who have neither riches nor power (al-maḥrūma min al-ṯarwa wa-maʿdūmat al-nufūḏ). The poor are obliterated or stigmatized (“scums”) by the pens of the court. What is the added value of the Ibāḍī fiqh corpus to better understand the ʿāmma of the Nafusa Mountains? The gaze is cast from the rāʿī to the raʿiyya. Poverty is shown, through words (faqīrmiskīnmuflismuḥtāǧ, etc.) or defensive actions in case of famine or attacks. The question of “marginals” (muhammašīn) is also problematic because we cannot say for sure that the society really forbade what the fiqh held for outlawed (maḥẓūr).

The language.

The style of al-Šammāḫī in his Kitāb al-Luqaṭ is mainly simple and full of “mistakes”, denoting that the arabization of the whole area had remained superficial at that time.

Toponymy is abundant in the manuscript and some readings are still undecided (e.g. Tīnfīṭīn or Tīnbītīn? because of homography, see infra).

To finish on the Nafusa territory, if the delimitation does not cause too much trouble for East (Taġarmīn and Yefren) and West (Nālūt/Lālūt), North and South are more difficult to delineate in Kitāb al-Luqaṭ, with the expression min al-Mūrǧ (?) ilā l-Aḥwāḍ.


Resorting to fiqh corpora is a methodological necessity for the historians who want to escape the distorting prism of official chroniclers at the service of the political authority — what Gramsci would have called “organic intellectuals” (Translator’s note). This medieval Libyan survey was an illustration of its potentialities.

Citer ce billet
Sébastien Garnier (2024, 24 janvier). The jurisprudential corpus and the history of Ibadism in medieval Libya: additions and difficulties / استغلال المدوّنة الفقهيّة الإباضيّة في دراسة تاريخ ليبيا الوسيط بين الإضافات والصعوبات: كتاب اللقط نموذجا. LibMed. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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