Tāj al-Dīn Abū al-Naṣr ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Subkī (727/1327– 771/1370) was one of the most renowned and influential jurisprudents of the Mamlūk period. His career, however, in Damascus and in Cairo, was a troubled one and included a period of imprisonment on a charge of misappropriation of funds. Tāj al-Dīn wrote books in multiple genres: theology, jurisprudence, biographical dictionaries, and ḥadīth. His works are still considered to be authoritative by modern Muslim scholars. The Mu‘īd, however, is in a very different genre from al-Subkī’s other works.

We might describe this book as a cross between: Why Bad Things Happen to Good People and a self-help manual for Medieval Muslim men. Al-Subkī structures his manual according to a political and social hierarchy of tā’ifas, categories of people, each with its own assigned office or job (waẓīfa). Al-Subkī’s purported goals are to provide guidance to each tā’ifa (114 in total) on obtaining Divine favor and avoiding Divine punishment; and to offer advice on bearing the loss of Divine favor, despite one’s best efforts. He begins with the Caliph and Sultan and concludes with street beggars. Each tā’ifa has its own chapter or exemplar. The key to obtaining Divine Favor, in al-Subkī’s moral schema, is to do your job (waẓīfa) well, in your own station in life. But some tā’ifas, by virtue of their occupation or their very identity, appear to be in danger of divine punishment. The three tā’ifas below clearly fall into the latter category. All three are tā’ifas of enslaved people, male children and adults: the wardrobe pages (jamdārs), the cupbearers, and the eunuchs (ṭawāshiyya). Al-Subkī presumes that the people in these tā’ifas are in the service of Sulṭāns or amīrs (high ranking Mamluk officers) and he places them in the thirty-five chapters that he devotes to the political and military hierarchy of the Mamluk Empire.

The Mu‘īd is a moralizing, polemical, and often satirical text that draws on a range of genres. Above all, this text is a work of rhetoric; and al-Subkī, in pursuit of his rhetorical goals, is not above making use of unfounded and scandalous accusations. The Mu‘īd tells us a great deal about al-Subkī’s own biases and moral anxieties, as well as his critical view of his own times.  This text, however, should not be read, on its own, as a source for the study of historical enslaved people in the Medieval Middle East. Instead, the Mu‘īd should be cross-read with other sources such as: contemporary historical writings (biographical dictionaries and chronicles); legal handbooks, collections of fatwas (the responses of jurists to legal questions); and, most importantly, surviving documents and inscriptions. The Mu‘īd, however, does give us a window into the ways in which one Medieval Muslim scholar grappled with the troubling question of the moral agency of the enslaved, and with the equally troubling intersection of sex, gender and slavery.

Translated from the Arabic by Shaun Marmon. Tāj al-Dīn Abū al-Naṣr ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Subkī, Kitāb Mu‘īd an-Ni‘am wa-Mubīd an-Niqam, The Restorer of Favours and the Restrainer of Chastisements, edited by David W. Myhrman (London: Luzac, 1908), 50-51, 53-54, 54-56. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

I. The Twenty Second Example: al-Jamdār [The Page of the Wardrobe]

II. The Twenty Seventh Example: The Cupbearers

III. The Twenty-Eighth Example: The Ṭawāshiyya [the Eunuchs]

Discussion Questions

1. Who was al-Subkī’s audience?

2. In the texts above, is al-Subkī offering advice or social critique?

3. What do these three texts tell us about the ways in which al-Subkī understood (or struggled with) the moral agency of slaves?

4. How can we make use of  polemical texts like the Mu‘īd to explore representations of the troubling intersection of sex, gender and slavery?

Related Primary Sources


Children, Elite Slaves, Eunuchs, Labor, Religion, Sexual Slavery