Standing for God: early Muslim ambassadors against prostration

There’s a recurring theme in early Arabic literature that foreigners prostrate themselves toward kings, but Muslims only prostrate themselves to God. In the ninth and tenth centuries, when the Abbasid caliphs developed a more complex courtly ceremonial, Muslims of high status would kiss the caliph’s feet or even the ground before him, but this was perceived as a different matter from prostration (sujūd), which was strictly reserved for God. I argued this case at a recent conference, and – although I’ve not finished collecting the evidence – I’m fairly confident that it’s right.

The early Muslims’ abhorrence for secular prostration gave rise to some wonderful stories, all featuring historical characters, but not necessarily true depictions of what happened. One famous story, repeated across several classic works of hadith and history, is set during Muḥammad’s lifetime. His followers were so persecuted that, traditionally, some of them sought asylum in Abyssinia, ruled by the Negus. When the emigrant Ja‘far bin Abī Ṭālib met the Negus, he was asked why he did not prostrate himself; Ja‘far explained that Muslims only prostrate themselves to God.

The idea that prostration is something foreign and un-Islamic also features in the Futūḥ Miṣr by Ibn ‘Abd al-Ḥakam (d. 871). He describes how a prominent Muslim politician fell from grace in early Islamic Spain. The conqueror of Spain, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, had a son called ‘Abd al-‘Azīz who went on to become a leading figure in post-conquest politics. To cement his power base in the region, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz married a Visigothic princess, whose ambition was his undoing:

“She went in to him [one day] and said to him, ‘Why don’t I see the people of your kingdom magnifying you and prostrating before you like the people of my father’s kingdom magnified him and prostrated before him?’ He didn’t know what to say to her, so he ordered for a door [to be built]; he installed it in part of his castle, and he made it short. He held audience, and whenever a visitor came in to him through the door, his head was bowed because the door was so short. …When she saw that, she said to ‘Abd al-‘Azīz: ‘Now your reign is mighty.’ However, the people heard that he had installed the door for this [reason], and some of the people alleged that she had turned him Christian.”

— Ibn ‘Abd al-Ḥakam (ed. Charles Torrey), The History of the Conquests of Egypt, North Africa, and Spain (Yale University Press 1922), 211–2. My translation.

Prostration was for non-Muslims; ‘Abd al-‘Azīz’s trick was scandalous. It was for this reason, says Ibn ‘Abd al-Ḥakam, that the tribes got together and killed him. The story appears in later Arabic chronicles, and even found its way into the Christian Chronicle of 1344, originally composed in Portuguese but also translated into Catalan (ed. Catalán and de Andrés, 162–3). Of course, a popular story isn’t necessarily a true story, and I think it’s reasonable to assume this one never happened. It is, in fact, contradicted by another, in the eleventh-century chronicle al-Akhbār al-Majmū‘ah (ed. Alcántara, 20). Here, the princess bullied ‘Abd al-‘Azīz into wearing a crown in private, and when the tribes discovered this, they said – again – that he must have gone Christian, and killed him.

But there’s a more important consideration: if ‘Abd al-‘Azīz was killed for trying to establish his own power base in Spain – as both medieval and modern scholars have argued – then it’s natural for story-tellers to spin him as a devious wannabe king, imposing a Christian idea of kingship on the good Muslim conquerors. One aspect of foreign kingship was prostration, so that was one of the accusations levelled against him.

The idea that prostration is a foreign practice, to be avoided, colours one Arabic account of a Muslim embassy to a foreign country. The Muqtabis of Ibn Ḥayyān (d. 1076) describes an embassy sent by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, amīr of Andalusia (r. 822–52), to the Byzantine emperor Theophilus (r. 829–42). The ambassador was Yaḥyā al-Ghazāl, a wily poet. On reaching the door to the emperor’s presence, al-Ghazāl saw that it was too short, and realised that it was meant to force him to bow as he entered.

See how the literary commonplace, or topos, of the short door travels between anecdotes!

Undeterred, he sat on his arse, legs outstretched, and dragged himself through; then he stood upright, avoiding even a hint of prostration (ed. Bermejo, 161v–162r). The story was so entertaining that it was also told about al-Ghazāl’s supposed embassy to the Vikings, by Ibn Diḥyah al-Kalbī (d. 1235). Again, we shouldn’t take the story at face value: the point is that Muslims do not prostrate themselves to kings, and ambassadors should ideally find some way to avoid the practice.

 

If we were very sceptical, we might ask whether such stories only tell us what early Muslims wanted to believe, and not what they actually did. It’s one thing for literary characters to refuse to prostrate themselves, or to overthrow the people who force them to; it’s quite another for noblemen at home and ambassadors abroad to defy their hosts so visually and visibly.

As it happens, we have good evidence that early Muslim ambassadors did refuse to prostrate themselves to foreign kings. The evidence is from outside the Arabic historical tradition, from two consecutive editions of Chinese royal annals: the Old Book of Tang (945) and the New Book of Tang (1060). The one is clearly based on the other. They describe an embassy in 713 or shortly thereafter, in which the Muslim ambassadors refused to prostrate themselves (bài) to the emperor Xuánzōng because, in their culture, that should be reserved for God.

I was able to find translations of both passages, but these were by different translators, published in different places. There were major differences in how the translators had chosen to render words and phrases, which obscured the clear similarities between the original passages. Besides, I wanted to parse the texts for myself, to better understand their meaning. I do not read Chinese, so I had to run each character through a dictionary, consult the available translations and commentaries and use my best judgement. This is actually the process I use whenever I read sources that come with a translation, but it was much harder for Chinese than for languages I have some training in. If there are any specialists in medieval Chinese reading this, please know that I will happily accept any advice for improvements.

Written Chinese does not routinely distinguish between singular and plural, so I have favoured the plural throughout: “ambassadors”, “belts” “officials”. These stories could well be talking about one individual ambassador.

 

Old Book of Tang (Jiù Tángshū §198)

開元初,遣使來朝,進馬及寶鈿帶等方物。其使謁見,唯平立不拜,憲司欲糾之,中書令張說奏曰:「大食殊俗,慕義遠來,不可置罪。」上特許之。尋又遣使朝獻,自云在本國惟拜天神,雖見王亦無致拜之法,所司屢詰責之,其使遂請依漢法致拜。

“In the beginning of the Kāiyuán period (713-42), they sent ambassadors to the court with horses, bejewelled filigree belts, and other such regional goods. These ambassadors who came to pay respect stood peaceably, but did not prostrate themselves (bài). The legal officials wanted to investigate them, but the chief of the secretariat, Zhāng Yuè, explained to the emperor: ‘The Arabs (dàshí) have their own customs, and it would not be right to punish them for wanting to follow their foreign regulations.’ The emperor granted them special permission – when they sent ambassadors to the court to present [gifts] – to say that in their country they only prostrated themselves to God (Tiānshén), but they did not carry out prostration to the king under their law. But the officials interrogated them about their responsibility over and over until the ambassadors asked to comply with Chinese law and perform the prostration.”

My translation, aided by another, from which however mine departs considerably: Lin Ying and Yu Yusen, “The Arab Empire in Chinese Sources from the 8th Century to the 10th Century”, in Arabia, Greece and Byzantium: Cultural Contacts in Ancient and Medieval Times, vol. 2 (Riyadh 2012), [311–20,] 318.

 

New Book of Tang (Xīn Tángshū §221b)

開元初,復遣使獻馬、鈿帶,謁見不拜,有司將劾之。中書令張說謂殊俗慕義,不可置於罪。玄宗赦之。使者又來,辭曰:「國人止拜天,見王無拜也。」有司切責,乃拜。十四年,遣使蘇黎滿獻方物,拜果毅 […] 。

“In the beginning of the Kāiyuán period again they sent ambassadors to present a gift of horses and filigree belts. During the visit, they did not prostrate themselves. There were officials who wanted to indict them, but the chief of the secretariat, Zhāng Yuè, said they had their own customs and it would not be right to punish them for wanting to follow their regulations. Xuánzōng forgave them. When the ambassadors came again, they said: ‘The people of our country only prostrate themselves to God (Tiān); not to the king as well.’ But some officials insisted on their responsibility, so [in the end] they did prostrate themselves.”

My translation, aided by Mason, “The Mohammedans of China,” 66-69; apud Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 252. See also  the summary of this passage in Emil Bretschneider (tr.), On the Knowledge Possessed by the Ancient Chinese on the Arabs (London 1871), 8.

 

In the past few decades, academic historians of early Islam have paid more attention to the non-Arabic sources, hoping to synthesise them with the Arabic historical tradition. We should bear in mind that the Arabic scholars – like all medieval scholars – presented visions of the past that were entertaining or edifying; half-remembered or downright fabricated; shaped and reshaped by narrative forces that we can’t always trace. Non-Arabic sources can serve as a counterweight to the Arabic tradition, compensating for its weaknesses. Sometimes, the non-Arabic sources tell us something radically different; but sometimes, they confirm a particular detail in such a way that we can cut through centuries of literary overgrowth.

Early Muslims liked to tell stories about heroes who refused to prostrate themselves and villains who wanted them to. Whatever the stories’ factuality, they were told for a reason: prostration really did matter, and early Muslim ambassadors probably did try to avoid it when possible.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

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