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As one faces the shrine complex at Kudus from the main road, left of the famous minaret stands an ornamented doorway. Atop this are two inscriptions in different scripts: in the Latin script used for Indonesian, “Makam Kangjeng Sunan Kudus,” and in the Arabic script, “as-Sayyid Ja’far Sadiq.” The inscriptions refer to the same man, the saint after whom Kudus is named and whose grave one encounters upon walking through the doorway.

The variance in names signifies the man’s placement in two distinctive temporal orders that intersect on the grave and the body buried therein. As Sunan Kudus, he is one of the nine saintly figures seen as agents of Java’s transformation into Islamic space. This is the name through which he is a part of narratives such as the Babad Jaka Tingkir. Contrastingly, the name given in the Arabic script forefronts his genealogy. The honorific Sayyid marks him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. And the proper name, Ja’far al-Sadiq, takes us to a particular link within the sequencing of bodies connected to the Prophet. This is also the name of the sixth Shi’i Imam, who died in 765 and holds an important place in Muslim constructions of religious authority across the Shi’i-Sunni divide.

My suggestion that we should think of Islamic history as a web includes the contention that, in contrast with the more limited scope of the timeline model, this metaphor allows correlating between different categories of analytical objects. Reflection and manipulation of time inheres not just in spaces—revealed by connecting Kudus to Jerusalem or Demak to Mecca—but also in matters such as genealogies that link human bodies, yearly cycles of repetition, and forms that endure while their meanings keep changing.

Genealogies are especially important because the interconnection between bodies is keyed to the transmission of essences and ideas between the past, present, and future. Spacetimes and genealogies intermingle quite easily too since spatiotemporal coordinates are, in the last instance, imaginations projected from particular bodies. The only reason Kudus or another place is significant is because we are aware of words and acts (such as the manufacturing of buildings) issuing forth from human bodies at some point. Conversely, synchronic and diachronic connections between bodies that give rise to the notion of genealogy require placing bodies in time and space.

Genealogy as a mode of articulating time helps highlight distinctively and self-consciously Islamic narrative expressions as ligatures making up history as an entangled web. To illustrate that genealogical logic is itself internally diverse, below I describe three invocations of the principle: the foundation stone of the Masjid al-Aqsa in Kudus, a report on the genealogy of the Shi’i Imams as descendants of the Prophet, and an especially enigmatic genealogical text at the grave of the conqueror Tamerlane in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Foundation Stone at Kudus

Sayyid status has been a common form of social distinction in Muslim communities for centuries. However, it pays to look closely at the specifics of the cosmology that underlies the status as well as the distinctions it confers. The foundation stone of the Masjid al-Aqsa in Kudus is instructive for this purpose. Considered one of the earliest extant examples of Arabic epigraphy in Java, the stone inscription is mostly decipherable:

Beginning with the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. The al-Aqsa mosque and the town of al-Quds were built by a vicegerent (khalifa). This world is the time to complete acts that will, tomorrow, be rewarded in the eternal paradise, residing in the proximity of the Beneficent, His Spirit having descended (?). This blessed mosque, named Masjid al-Aqsa, was founded by God’s vicegerent on this earth in its appointed interval and the (eternal) divine Throne, the shaykh of Islam and Muslims, the ornament of scholars and authoritative interpreters, the scholar, the enactor, the perfect, the virtuous, marked by the divine Creator’s favor, the judge, Jaʿfar as-Sadiq, due to his desire for [seeing] God’s face and the reward to be had from His hand, abiding by the tradition of God’s Messenger, God’s prayers and greetings upon him. The date was 28th of the month of Rajab, year 956 [1549] from the Prophet’s Hijra, God’s prayers on our master Muhammad, his descendants, and all his companions (Kalus and Guillot, “La Jérusalem javanaise et sa mosquée al-Aqsa,” 32).

Three temporal orders pervade this text. Earthly time in its totality is designated an interregnum separate from God’s eternality. The Hijri calendar invoked at the end is a subenclosure within earthly time marked for its special character. Connections stretching from Muhammad to the founder of the mosque, one of his descendants, is a kind of corporeal understructure for the calendar. And the lifetime of an individual, remarkable for his virtue, knowledge, and authority, is a case of especially sanctified time.

Within the life, the year 956 AH is a punctuation since it marks when the space became colored with the saint’s act of constructing the mosque. Overall, then, the creation of the mosque is a religious initiatory act reenacting the establishment of Islam. The building represents a descendant of the Prophet who possesses the qualities associated with his illustrious ancestor.

Shi‘i Imams as Genealogical Heirs to the Prophet

Expanding our purview beyond Kudus, we can get a more particularized sense for what is understood as being conveyed within genealogies by looking at Shi’i traditions about the Imams. Since the status of the Imams is crucial for Shi’i thought, its justification was the most emphatic form of affirming the authority of Muhammad’s genealogical heirs. The significance of sayyids as a class can be presumed to rest on similar, but often weaker, cosmological and epistemological understandings.

Composed circa 900 CE, Muhammad b. al-Hasan as-Saffar’s work Basa’ir ad-darajat is one of the earliest collections to provide a systematic explanation for the Imams’ significance. The author was a direct disciple of the eleventh Imam and has been regarded as an important authority by Twelver Shi’is for more than a millennium. In a chapter concerned with the special nature of the Imams’ bodies, he provides the following tradition from Ja’far as-Sadiq, reporting based on a chain going back to his grandfather, the fourth Imam ‘Ali Zayn al-’Abidin (d. 713):

God sent Gabriel to paradise, from where he brought Him back a type of clay. And He sent the angel of death to the earth, who brought back a type of clay from there. He mixed the two clays and then divided [the result] into two. He made us from the better of the two parts and He made our partisans (shi’a) from our clay too. Whatever our partisans incline to in the vein of ugly acts is due to the mixture of the wicked [earthly] clay. Their destination is [still] paradise. [In contrast] whatever our enemies possess pertaining to piety, prayer, fasting, and good deeds, that is due to the mixing of our good [paradisiacal] clay. Their destination is [still] the fire [of hell] (Saffar, Basa’ir ad-darajat, 47–48 [hadith no. 10]).

This cosmological explanation presents genealogy as a matter going not to descent by birth, as we might assume, but to the constitution of bodies. The Imams’ bodies were formed of a special substance that became apparent in the world through their birth one after the other. Those who support them, their partisans (shi’a), are then kin for them on the principle that their bodies were also formed of the same substance. Kinship in this instance is a matter not of consanguinity but original constitution whose guarantee comes from how the bodies come to act during their careers in the world.

Further, those who oppose the Imams are condemned irrespective of any good acts they might perform. Their enmity toward the Imams reveals their prehistorical constitution, trapping them in predestination. However, if they were to accept the Imams, then their prehistory would be corrected automatically. In this situation the present and the future create different deep pasts before their own materialization.

In traditions presented in as-Saffar’s Basa’ir ad-darajat, the Imams’ authority rests equally on their special knowledge. Such knowledge is subdivided into three categories, as in this statement from Ja’far as-Sadiq given when someone asks him to explain the enigmatic term jafr:

He replied, “It [jafr] is a bull’s hide filled with knowledge.” So then he asked, “What is al-jami’a?” He said, “That is a written record, the length of seventy forearm measures, on parchment of size like the thighs of a two-humped camel. It contains all that people need; there is no event needing a judgment that is not in it, to the point of [indemnity required for] a nail scratch.” He said to him, “What about the Book of Fatima?” He went quiet for a long time and then said, “You are discussing [such] things that some you need and others you do not. Fatima lived for seventy-five days after the [death of the] Messenger of God, peace be on him and his descendants. She was overcome with severe grief for her father. Gabriel came to her to relieve her sorrow for her father and to calm her soul. He brought news to her from her father—his location—and informed her of what would happen to her progeny after her. ‘Ali wrote all that down—that is the Book of Fatima” (Saffar, Basa’ir ad-darajat, 188 [hadith no. 6)].

The three concepts used to delineate the Imams’ knowledge here—jafr, jami’a, and Book of Fatima—differ based on their contents and implications. Jafr is indicated solely by its plentiful quantity, without an indication of what it consists of or provides. This is then a kind of secret or discretionary knowledge. Jami’a, in contrast, is similarly plentiful but is composed of what is needed to pass public judgment on matters pertaining to human behaviors and relations. Finally, the Book of Fatima is knowledge of the future, in both this world (since Fatima is informed about what would happen to her progeny) and life after death (Muhammad’s state and location). Between the three categories, the Imams’ multidimensional knowledge makes them masters of navigating the world in an extraordinary way.

Cosmological and epistemological explanations for the Imams’ status tell us that genealogy is never a simple matter of authority passing from one generation to the next. While the genealogical principle can be seen being deployed in many situations, the explanation for its efficacy can vary greatly between contexts. Genealogical distinction flows from the way the relevant bodies are constituted as well as what is transmitted through the chain that connects them.

As seen in the case of Imams and sayyids, one further implication pertains to gender. The ultimate root of sayyid status are Muhammad and Fatima, although ‘Ali, rather than the Prophet’s daughter, is the first Imam. The genealogy then continues with one Imam after the other, without including the nine other women who gave birth to the links in the chain (i.e., the mother of ‘Ali and all the Imams other than Hasan and Husayn).

From a social perspective, the absence of women, whose uninscribed presence makes the genealogy possible at all, highlights the “imagined” nature of lineage as a form of organizing time. Charts containing male names only that we can find throughout presentations of Islamic history based on timelines are androcentric ideological fabrications rather than obvious representations of social reproduction processes.

In the field of sayyid affiliation beyond the Imams, women do count as transmitters of religious authority rooted in the triumvirate of Muhammad, Fatima, and Ali. However, this usually happens only when they are descended from the imagined family rather than marrying into it. Sayyid women also act as a kind of boundary of the status since their marrying nonsayyid men is a matter discussed extensively in social as well as legal contexts. Although women’s names are often missing in formal genealogical tables in patrilineal situations, control over their bodies’ procreative potential is critical to the underlying system’s functioning.

The Genealogy of Tamerlane

I end this section by branching off to a genealogical context that connects to sayyid status in an unexpected way. This helps emphasize the importance of not taking genealogy on face value as a seemingly “natural” form of social distinction.

Among instances of proclaiming sayyid status to justify sociopolitical primacy, the case of the Central Asian conqueror Tamerlane (d. 1405) is especially curious for being inscribed on an elaborate sarcophagus commissioned by his successors. This artifact sits atop his grave in the crypt of his famous mausoleum, Gur-i Mir (The Prince’s Grave), in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Visiting the monument today, one sees the burial place being marked by a carved piece of valuable black jade on the ground level. The inscribed sarcophagus is located underground and cannot be seen except through special access. It contains the following text in Arabic:

No father is known for this illustrious man but only his mother Alanquwa; it is told that she was of a sincere and modest character; she was not a prostitute. She was made pregnant by a ray of light that entered over the top of the door and appeared to her [in the form] of a perfect mortal and it is said that he was one of the descendants of Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali b. Abi Talib [the first Imam] and it may be that her illustrious children verify [the reasons] invoked by their mother (Aigle, “The Transformation of a Myth of Origins, Genghis Khan and Timur,” 122–123).

As funerary statements go, this text is extraordinary in that it says little about the buried person (the illustrious man), defining him entirely in equivocal statements about his ancestors. Identified here as the mother, Alanquwa is a legendary figure from accounts of Mongol and Turkic ethnogenesis. She is not Tamerlane’s biological mother but a distant ancestress said to have conceived some of her children in extraordinary fashion.

Two echoes from the Quran pertaining to Mary, the mother of Jesus, are incorporated in the text: Alanquwa is defended from the charge of being a prostitute (Quran 19:20) and is said to have been impregnated through the intermediacy of a “perfect mortal” (19:17). In the Quranic story, the being who approaches Mary is an angel transformed into human shape. In this text, the being is a descendant of ‘Ali. His joining Alanquwa to produce children creates a new, braided sayyid-Mongol lineage in which Tamerlane appears as an especially potent link.

Importantly, the end of the statement burdens the ancestors of Alanquwa and the unnamed sayyids to come after Tamerlane: their working toward the justification of their heritage is meant to vindicate the claims made by the distant, great female ancestor. Between the missing physical father and the use of indefinite language (it is “told,” “said,” “may be”), Tamerlane stands on shaky genealogical ground even as he himself became the starting point of a vast web of lineages spawned through his many children. The genealogy carved onto his sarcophagus acknowledges doubt while also indexing his successors’ investment in writing themselves into both sayyid and Mongol time via his body and grave.

My brief treatments of the Shi’i Imams and Tamerlane show that genealogical claims are elaborate arguments for legitimation rather than simple appeals to the presumed natural flow of time from one generation to the next. In the web model of Islamic history, we could represent them as lines connecting individuals to each other, running across other ways of creating time. However, given the immense variability that is possible between justifications for genealogical claims, the lines must not be uniform. They should have varying textures and sizes.

Genealogy is only one type of authoritative temporal construction among others. Moreover, the internal differences of logic within genealogies challenge any possibility of a stable definition applicable across different contexts. The Ja’far as-Sadiq who is buried in Java is venerated for being a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. However, his other name, Sunan Kudus, is the true measure of his genealogy as inscribed into a local landscape and its monuments that came into being in the sixteenth century CE.

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