The Origins and Development of the Office of the “Chief Sufi” in Egypt, 1173–1325

in Journal of Sufi Studies
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In 969/1173, Saladin endowed a khānqāh in Cairo for the use of foreign Sufis arriving in that city. This khānqāh, known as the Saʿīd al-Suʿadāʾ, also included a stipendiary position for a “Chief Sufi” (shaykh al-shuyūkh), who would direct the day-to-day operations of the khānqāh and guide the Sufis who lived there. However, virtually nothing is known about the origins and development of this elite position. In this article I reconstruct the roster of individuals who held the office of Chief Sufi in Egypt between 969/1173 and 724/1325, when the office of Chief Sufi was moved to a new khānqāh outside Cairo. I trace the origins of the office in Seljuk Baghdad and its subsequent development in Syria and Egypt. These findings show that the Chief Sufi was almost always from the East, typically Iraq or Khurasan. He was nominally a Sufi, but was known primarily for being a jurist, having trained in Shāfiʿi jurisprudence and Ashʿari theology. Perhaps most interestingly, the position was ineluctably tied to the politics of the Ayyubid and Mamluk states. The position was thus often unstable and the object of fierce competition among other elites.

The Origins and Development of the Office of the “Chief Sufi” in Egypt, 1173–1325

in Journal of Sufi Studies




R. Stephen Humphreys“The Politics of the Mamluk Sultanate: A Review Essay,” Mamluk Studies Review 9.1 (2005): 221–31 quotation on 225.


CornellRealm of the Saint67.


FernandesThe Evolution of a Sufi Institution23.


Louis Massignon“Cadis et naqībs baghdadiens,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 51 (1948): 106–15; the account of the “mashyakhat al-shuyūkh al-ṣūfiyya” is on 114. On the biography of Abū l-Qāsim Ibn al-Muslima also known as the raʾīs al-ruʾasāʾ see Ibn al-Jawzī al-Muntaẓam fī taʾrīkh al-mulūk wa-l-umam ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭāʾ and Muṣṭafā ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭāʾ 18 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya 1992) 16:41–3; Sibṭ Ibn al-Jawzī Mirʾāt al-zamān fī taʾrīkh al-aʿyān 2 vols. (Hyderabad: Dāʾrat al-Maʿārif al-ʿUthmāniyya 1951–2) 8:403–4; Ibn al-Athīr al-Kāmil fī l-taʾrīkh ed. Abū l-Fidā ʿAbd Allāh al-Qāḍī 11 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya 1987) scattered references between 8:271 (when he became the vizier) and 8:344 (where Ibn al-Athīr describes his gruesome death at the hands of the Fatimid-sympathizer al-Basāsīrī); and Claude Cahen “Ibn al-Muslima” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam New Edition (Leiden: E.J. Brill 1954–2004; hereafter EI2).


MassingonThe Passion of al-Ḥallāj2:152. A number of other scholars have described the office in Iraq Syria and Egypt in this way. While it may have been intended to function as a liaison as will be seen below at least in Egypt it did not work this way.


Erik S. OhlanderSufism in an Age of Transition: ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī and the Rise of the Islamic Mystical Brotherhoods (Leiden: Brill2008) 107–8.


Al-DhahabīTaʾrīkh al-islām37:56–7; and al-Ṣafadī al-Wāfī bi-l-wafayāt ed. Aḥmad al-Arnāʾūṭ and Tazkī Muṣṭafā 29 vols. (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ l-Turāth al-ʿArabī 2000) 9:52–3.


Ibn al-Jawzīal-Muntaẓam16:235.


Al-DhahabīTaʾrīkh al-islām32:259.


Ibn al-Jawzīal-Muntaẓam18:50; Ibn ʿAsākir Taʾrīkh madīnat Dimashq 8:361–2; Ibn al-Athīr al-Kāmil 9:344–5; Sibṭ Ibn al-Jawzī Mirʾāt al-zamān (Hyderabad) 8:188; Abū Shāma ʿUyūn al-rawḍatayn fī akhbār al-dawlatayn al-nūriyya wa-l-ṣalāḥiyya ed. Ibrāhīm Zaybaq 5 vols. (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla 1997) 2:178; al-Dhahabī Taʾrīkh al-islām 37:56–7; and al-Ṣafadī al-Wāfī 9:52–3.


Ibn al-Athīral-Kāmil10:129–30; al-Dhahabī Taʾrīkh al-islām 40:397–8; Abū l-Fidāʾ Mukhtaṣar fī akhbār al-bashar ed. Muḥammad Zaynhum ʿAzab and Yaḥyā Sayyid Ḥusayn 4 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif 1998–9) 3:88; Ohlander treats the whole family of Shaykh al-Shuyūkh in more detail in idem Sufism in an Age of Transition 107–12.


Al-DhahabīTaʾrīkh al-islām40:243. The khānqāh was founded in the early fifth/eleventh century by Abū l-Qāsim ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Sumaysāṭī (d. 453/1061). The building was originally the palace of the Umayyad governor of Egypt ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Marwān (d. 86/705) which then passed through a number of hands before al-Sumaysāṭī bought it and turned it into a hospice for Sufis; see al-Nuʿaymī al-Dāris 2:118–26 and Ibn Kathīr al-Bidāya 12:363.


Al-Mundhirīal-Takmila3:16; and al-Maqrīzī al-Khiṭaṭ 3:96–7.


Al-Maqrīzīal-Muqaffā6:420. Al-Mundhirī does not say that Ṣadr al-Dīn had a madrasa or khānqāh in Hamadhān but he does say that Ṣadr al-Dīn “heard [Hadith] from his father the Chief Sufi in Hamadhān” (idem al-Takmila 3:16). It may thus have been the father who founded the madrasa and khānqāh before coming to Damascus.


Abū Shāmaal-Dhayl ʿalā l-rawḍatayn125; and al-Maqrīzī al-Muqaffā 6:420.




Abū Shāmaal-Dhayl ʿalā l-rawḍatayn125. The Shrine of Ḥusyan (al-mashhad al-ḥusaynī) was built in 549/1154 after the head of al-Ḥusayn was brought to Egypt in 548/1153 from its previous home in Ashkelon (where it was housed in a shrine built by the Fatimid vizier al-Afḍal [d. 514/1121] the son of the famous Fatimid military vizier Badr al-Jamālī [d. 487/1094]); see especially al-Maqrīzī al-Khiṭaṭ 2:405–11 and Sayyid’s detailed notes therein. It was brought to Egypt out of fear that the Crusaders would destroy the shrine in Ashkelon; see Ayman Fuʾād Sayyid al-Dawlat al-fāṭimiyya fī Miṣr: tafsīr jadīd (The Fatimid State in Egypt: A New Interpretation) (Cairo: al-Dār al-Miṣriyya al-Lubnāniyya 1992) 624. Saladin created a teaching position at the shrine which led Lapidus to argue that the shrine became a madrasa (“Ayyubid Religious Policy” 283) but Leiser demonstrated that he merely appointed a teacher with a stipend to teach at the shrine (idem “The Restoration of Sunnism in Egypt” 259–62).


Abū Shāmaal-Rawḍatayn4:457. The sources are somewhat confused on this topic but it seems that after Saladin died in 589/1193 there was a major shake-up in manṣibs throughout the Ayyubid realm. Part of this shakeup resulted in Ṣadr al-Dīn being dismissed from his positions until al-ʿĀdil took complete control of the Ayyubid state in 596/1200. For the shakeup see Stephen Humphreys From Saladin to the Mongols: The Ayyubids of Damascus 1193–1260 (Albany: State University of New York Press 1977) 87–123; see also Leiser “The Restoration of Sunnism in Egypt” 249.


Abū Shāmaal-Dhayl ʿalā l-rawḍatayn168.


Ibn WāṣilMufarrij al-kurūb5:201. On the burial at the zāwiya see Sibṭ Ibn al-Jawzī Mirʾāt al-zamān (Hyderabad) 8:723.




Al-YūnīnīDhayl mirʾāt al-zamān2:215.


Al-YūnīnīDhayl mirʾāt al-zamān2:216.


Joseph Escowitz“The Establishment of Four Chief Judgeships in the Mamlūk Empire,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 102 (1982): 529–31; idem The Office of Qāḍī al-Quḍāt in Cairo under the Baḥrī Mamlūks (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag 1984) 20–8; Jorgen Nielsen “Sultan al-Ẓāhir Baybars and the Appointment of Four Chief Qāḍīs 663/1265” Studia Islamica 60 (1984): 167–76; Sherman Jackson “The Primacy of Domestic Politics: Ibn Bint al-Aʿazz and the Establishment of Four Chief Judgeships in Mamlūk Egypt” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115 (1995): 52–65; and Yossef Rapoport “Legal Diversity in the Age of Taqlīd: The Four Chief Qāḍīs under the Mamluks” Islamic Law and Society (2003): 210–28.




Al-DhahabīTaʾrīkh al-islām50:240.




Al-DhahabīTaʾrīkh al-islām50:241.


Ibn ʿAbd al-ẒāhirTashrīf al-ayyām232.


al-JazarīTaʾrīkh ḥawādith al-zamān1:403.


Al-DhahabīTaʾrīkh al-islām52:340.


Ibn al-FurātTaʾrīkh8:123–5. Ibn al-Furāt records the very valuable information that “it was customary that if a scholar became a vizier a rug would be spread out for him at the Saʿīd al-Suʿadāʾ khānqāh and he would be Chief Sufi there in partnership with the [actual] Chief Sufi.”


Al-NuwayrīNihāyat al-arab31:102; Ibn al-Furāt Taʾrīkh 8:39.


Al-NuwayrīNihāyat al-arab31:102.


Al-ʿAynīʿIqd al-jumān3:179.


Al-SubkīṬabaqāt8:173; Ibn Kathīr al-Bidāya 17:636.


Al-JazarīḤawādith al-zamān1:57; al-Nuwayrī Nihāyat al-arab 31:138–40; Ibn Kathīr al-Bidāya 17:635; Ibn al-Furāt Taʾrīkh 8:123–5; and al-Maqrīzī al-Sulūk 2:227–9. Th. Emil Homerin also treats this episode in From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint 42–4.


Ibn Kathīral-Bidāya17:664. Al-Subkī records an interesting anecdote about Taqī l-Dīn’s return to power. After losing his positions Taqī l-Dīn performed the pilgrimage and while in Muḥammad’s house in Medina sought the prophet’s intercession (istaghātha bi-l-nabī) swearing “that he would not return to his homeland until he was returned to his positions (manāṣibihi).” Sure enough before he returned to Cairo Taqī l-Dīn learned the news that the sultan had been killed along with his vizier (al-Subkī Ṭabaqāṭ 8:174).


al-DhahabīDhayl taʾrīkh al-islām122.


Ibn Kathīral-Bidāya18:108.


Al-Birzālīal-Muqtafī3:425; and Ibn Kathīr al-Bidāya 18:86.


Al-Birzālīal-Muqtafī3:425; al-Manṣūrī Zubdat al-fikra 413; al-ʿAynī for his part records this episode twice in ʿIqd al-jumān 5:67 (in 708) and 5:81 (in 709).


al-ʿAynīʿIqd al-jumān5:154.


Ibn Kathīral-Bidāya18:86.


Al-Birzālīal-Muqtafī4:372–3; al-Nuwayrī Nihāyat al-arab 32:237–9; al-Dawādārī Kanz al-durar wa-jāmiʿ al-durar ed. Hans Roemer (Cairo: al-Maʿhad al-Almānī li-l-Āthār 1960) 9:143–4; Ibn Kathīr al-Bidāya 18:56 75 88 and 97; al-ʿAsqalānī al-Durar al-kāmina 4:392; and al-Maqrīzī al-Muqaffā 1:460–4.




Ibn Kathīral-Bidāya18:319. Ibn Kathīr actually says he became Chief Sufi of Egypt and Syria. However this must be a conflation of two separate appointments. The first was as Chief Sufi in Egypt and the second after al-Qūnawī returned to Damascus was as Chief Sufi in Syria.






Al-ʿAsqalānīal-Durar al-kāmina3:25.


Al-Maqrīzīal-Khiṭaṭ4: 768–9; Fernandes The Evolution of a Sufi Institution 29–30.


al-JazarīTaʾrīkh ḥawādith al-zamān1:296; al-Dhahabī Taʾrīkh al-islām 52:251; al-Maqrīzī al-Muqaffā l-kabīr 6:365 and ibid. 7:526. The last entries here seem to be a mistake on al-Maqrīzī’s part; they both refer to the same person.


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