Analysis: The Case of the Christian Who Wanted to be Executed (10th-C. Andalusia)

Ibn Ḥārith al-Khushanī recorded the following case as a ḥikāya, an anonymous report: A Christian appeared before the judge Aslam b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, petitioning to be executed. The anecdote offers insight into the historical role of judges during a period of religious dissent in the Umayyad Caliphate, while the author's narrative voice demonstrates past judicial approaches to rationality, humor, and violent penalization. 

This text is part of Maribel Fierro, The Judges of al-Andalus, forthcoming.

The Case


Ibn Ḥārith al-Khushanī recorded the following case as a ḥikāya, an anonymous report: A Christian appeared before the judge Aslam b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, petitioning to be executed. But he was rebuked because he had committed no crime. The text explains that the Christian’s behaviour was motivated by his desire to die in imitation of Jesus, as an act of virtue (faḍīla), although—as our source points out—Jesus himself did not seek martyrdom. In response to the judge’s admonishment, the Christian explained that he would not in truth die. While his shibh, or likeness (i.e., a body that resembled his body), might perish, his real self would ascend to the heavens upon execution. The judge aimed to disprove this theory by ordering the Christian flogged. Thus, the judge illustrated that the Christian could indeed suffer pain and likewise would suffer death if a sword were to cut his neck.


Translation (from the Arabic Text)

Ibn Ḥārith said: I heard someone recounting that a Christian went [to the judge] asking to be put to death. Aslam reprimanded him asking him: “Woe unto you! Who provoked you to ask for your own death if you have committed no crime?” The stupidity and ignorance of the Christian led him to take upon himself a virtuous act (faḍīla) when nothing of the kind was attributed to Jesus, son of Mary – God bless Muḥammad and Jesus. The Christian told the judge: “You assume that if you execute me I would be the one killed.” The judge asked him: “Who else could be the one killed?” The Christian answered: “A likeness of me (shibhī) that was cast on a body is what you will execute, while my real self in that same hour will directly go to heaven.” Aslam then told him: “We lack sufficient information to have an opinion on the [outcome] that you argue for,[1] but you lack what it takes to make you realize that you are deceiving yourself. There is however a way to reveal what is right to us and to you.” The Christian asked the judge: “What could that be?” The judge Aslam summoned his court assistants (aʿwān) and told them: “Take the whip,” then ordered them to strip the Christian which they did, and then ordered them to beat him. When the Christian felt the flogging he became agitated and screamed. Aslam asked him: “On which back is the flogging taking place?” “On mine!” said the Christian. Aslam told him: “In the same way the sword will cut your neck, don’t be deluded into believing otherwise.”


The Historical Context

Aslam b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (d. 319/931), the judge who presided over this court case, served in 300/912–309/921 and 312/924–314/926.[2] He belonged to a family of Umayyad clients (mawālī) who were instrumental in installing the Umayyad prince ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I (r. 138–172/756–788) as ruler in al-Andalus and later served in the Umayyad administration.[3] Aslam’s brother, Hāshim b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, rose as a powerful vizier and military commander in service to the emir Muḥammad (r. 238–273/852-886), but later fell in disgrace and was executed by al-Mundhir (r. 273–275/886–888).[4] Aslam was notorious for his severity in judgement and is thus contrasted with his more lenient successor, Aḥmad b. Baqī b. Makhlad. This divergence is illustrated in Aslam and Ahmad’s treatment of female claimants transgressing the norms of proper conduct in the courtroom. While Aslam flogged the claimant, Ahmad delivered only a verbal reprimand.

The year of Aslam’s dismissal from the judiciary in 314/926 coincided with the execution of the anti-Umayyad rebel, Sulaymān b. ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn, whose corpse was crucified at the Cordoban palace gate as a deterrent to any future would-be rebels. Sulaymān followed the path of his father, ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn (d. 306/918), a descendent of a convert who mustered a strong and prolonged rebellion against the emir Muḥammad (r. 238/852–273/886) from his fortress in Bobastro (in the mountains near Málaga). In rebelling against the Umayyad emir, ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn seems to also have acted—for some period—in allegiance with the Fāṭimid imam-caliph in North Africa, and to have hosted two Ismāʿīlī missionaries for a time.[5] Ibn Ḥafṣūn is reported to have died a Christian, having returned to Christianity in the year 286/899 and built churches in Bobastro. Many nearby Christian communities actively supported ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn’s rebellion and were later punished by the emir for their resistance.

ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn is understood by Manuel Acién Almansa and other scholars to represent the descendants of the old Visigothic nobility who had managed to preserve territorial dominion after the Muslim conquest, but from the mid-third/ninth century acted to resist the increasing expansion of Cordoban Umayyad rule.[6] Ibn Ḥafṣūn also apostatized, likely as a means to garner support from Christian communities in the region as well as those Christian activists associated with the Church who tried to challenge the tide of social and cultural Islamization and Arabization that drew many away from Christianity.

Such Christian activists spearheaded the movement of the Cordoban voluntary martyrs (lasting primarily between 235/850–245/859 but continuing as late as 289/902–297/910[7]) in which Christian men and women rose to publicly insult the prophet Muḥammad and the Islamic religion and were sentenced to death for blasphemy. Christians with a Muslim father were sentenced with a graver charge of apostasy, since children of mixed marriages were legally Muslims even if they were raised as Christians by their female relatives. Most information about this movement derives from Christian sources, which document how Cordoban judges would futilely attempt to compel the blasphemers to recant before sentencing them to death at their insistence. Some of the Christian population opposed the martyr movement by pointing to the absence of religious persecution. This case offers a glimpse into a Muslim source recounting one instance related to the martyr movement.


Case Analysis and Conclusion

The anecdote is one among other stories told about the judge Aslam, recounting his acumen and love for jokes.[8] The lively narrative voice assumes a tone of condescendence to portray the stupidity and ignorance of the Christian in contrast to the rational judge. This tone may more generally reflect the disdain of Muslims towards the Christian activists who sought voluntary martyrdom in spite of their protected dhimma status.

However, the Christian of the story lacks an essential element of the Cordoban voluntary martyrs, i.e., he did not insult Islam. The martyr’s insistence that his true self would remain intact, even while his likeness would perish, arguably refer to the Qurʾānic description of Jesus’s death in Qurʾān 4:157, that, “Jesus himself did not die, but [it was] someone else who resembled him.”[9] That insistence also suggests his belief in the notion of ‘doubles’ as conceptualized by the Ismāʿīlīs who conceived of ‘doubles’ as a framework to understand the violent deaths of the Shīʿī Imāms. According to the Ismāʿīlī interpretation, Jesus did die on the cross, but it was only one of his natures or names that did so.[10] This notion helped reassure believers in the Shīʿī Imāms that their violent deaths affected not their divine attributes, but rather only their human shells (shibh).[11] J. Coope understood this specific case to mean that the Christian distinguished between his body from his spirit or soul,[12] a notion which falls well within the Christian doctrine. However, the case might also reflect the Ismāʿīlī doctrine on ‘doubles,’ which Ismāʿīlī missionaries in ʿUmar b. Ḥafṣūn’s entourage might have propagated among the Andalusi Christians.[13]

Ultimately, this judicial anecdote emphasizes the necessity of a ‘common sense’ approach to dispensing justice, given the probability that the claimants will act in folly. The narrative presents violent penalties as a tool employable at the judge’s discretion—utilized by Aslam in the case of the transgressing female claimant but eschewed by Aḥmad b. Baqī b. Makhlad who desisted from penalties involving violence (rafīq al-ʿuqūba).


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The Source of the Case

The source for this case is a biographical dictionary devoted to Cordoban judges who were active from the period of the Muslim conquest of al-Andalus, beginning in 92/711, to the rule of the Umayyad Cordoban caliph ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III (r. 300/912–350/961).

The author, Ibn Ḥārith al-Khushanī (d. 361/971), was born in Qayrawān [in present-day Tunisia], but left his homeland around 311/923–4 (or the year after) during the period of Fatimid rule. He settled in al-Andalus, where he composed many historical and legal works for the future caliph al-Ḥakam II (r. 350–366/961–976), who was a prince at the time.[14]


The Author’s Works

Al-Khushanī’s legal works include:

- Kitāb al-futyā, ed. M. al-Majdūb, M. Abū l-Ajfān and ʿU. Battīkh, al-Khushanī. Uṣūl al-futyā fil-fiqh ʿalā madhhab al-imām Mālik, Tunis: al-Dar al-ʿarabiyya li-l-kitāb, 1985. Reviews: M. Marín in Al-Qanṭara VII (1986), pp. 487–89.

- Kitāb fil-ittifāq wal-ikhtilāf li-Mālik b. Anas wa-aṣḥābih, still unpublished (there is a ms. in Qayrawan).

Al-Khushanī’s historical works include:

- Kitāb fī akhbār al-fuqahāʾ wal-muḥaddithīn, ed. M. L. Ávila and L. Molina, Madrid, 1992. Reviews: M. Fierro in Al-Qanṭara XIII (1992), pp. 607–9; P. Chalmeta in Anaquel de Estudios Arabes 4 (1993), pp. 203–6; M. ʿA. Makki in Anaquel de Estudios Arabes 5 (1994), pp. 139–66. Ed. Sālim Muṣṭafā al-Badrī, Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-ʿilmiyya, 1420/1999.

- Kitāb/Tarīkh al-quḍāt bi-Qurṭuba, ed. and transl. J. Ribera, Historia de los jueces de Córdoba, Madrid, 1914, with an introduction published in Disertaciones y Opúsculos I, pp. 385–416. Reviews: Revista del Centro de Estudios Históricos de Granada y su reino V (1915), p. 129; F. Gabrieli, “Qualche nota sulKitāb al-quḍātbi-Qurṭuba di al-Jušanī”, Al-Andalus VIII (1943), pp. 275–80. Ed. ʽIzzat al-ʽAṭṭār al-Ḥusaynī, Cairo: Mu’assasat al-Khanjī, 1373/1954 (with ʽUlamāʼ Ifrīqiya; it is based on the edition of J. Ribera). Reviews: E. Lévi-Provençal in Arabica I (1954), p. 357; MIDEO II (1955) p. 298. Ed. Ibr. al-Abyarī, 2nd ed., Cairo: Dār al-Kitāb al-Miṣrī/Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-Lubnānī, 1990 (al-Maktaba al-Andalusiyya, 6). Russian translation by K. Boĭko, Moscow, 1992.

- Ṭabaqāt ʿulamāʾ Ifrīqiya, ed. and transl. Ben Cheneb, Publ. de la Fac. des Lettres d’Alger LII, Alger, 1916, 1921; repr. Beirut: Dār al-kitāb al-lubnānī, [198–]. Ed. ʽIzzat al-ʽAṭṭār al-Ḥusaynī, Cairo: Mu’assasat al-Khanjī, 1373/1954 (with Kitāb al-quḍāt bi-Qurṭuba; it is based on the edition of M. Ben Cheneb). Ed. M. Zaynhum M. ʽAzab, Cairo: Madbulī, 1413/1993.


The text surveyed in this entry is located in Ibn Ḥārith al-Khushanī, Kitāb al-quḍāt bi-Qurṭuba, edited and translated J. Ribera, Historia de los jueces de Córdoba, Madrid, 1914, pp. 186–7 (Arabic text) and pp. 231–2 (Spanish translation), in the entry devoted to the judge Aslam b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz.


[1] Another possible translation is: “The person that should be brought to trial if we believe your words is not present.” I wish to thank Luis Molina for his assistance here.

[2]See Maribel Fierro, “Los cadíes de Córdoba de ʽAbd al-Raḥmān III (r. 300/912–350/961),” in R. El Hour (ed.), Cadíes y cadiazgo en el Occidente islámico medieval, Estudios Onomástico-Biográficos de al-Andalus. XVIII, CSIC, 2012, pp. 69–98.

[3]Miguel Jiménez Puertas, Linajes de poder en la Loja islámica: de los BanuJalid a los Alatares (siglos VIIIXV), Loja, 2009.

[4]Hāshim plays a central role in The Case of Ibn Antunyān.

[5]Virgilio Martínez Enamorado, “Fatimid ambassadors in Bobastro: Changing religious and political allegiances in the Islamic West”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 52/2 (2009), pp. 267–300.

[6]Manuel Acién Almansa, Entre el feudalismo y el Islam. ʽUmar ibn afṣūn en los historiadores, en las fuentes y en la historia, Jaén, 1994.

[7] There is an abundant bibliography on this movement. See for example K. B. Wolf, Christian martyrs in Muslim Spain, Cambridge University Press, 1988; J. A. Coope, The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Massive Conversion, Nebraska University Press, 1995. For the latter case see E. García Gómez and Évariste Lévi-Provençal, “Dulce, mártirmozárabe de comienzos del siglo X”, Al-Andalus XIX (1954), pp. 451–4.

[8] Maribel Fierro, “Joking judges: A view from the Medieval Islamic West,” Intisar A. Rabb and Abigail Krasner Balbale (eds), Justice and Leadership in Early Islamic Courts (6321250 AD), Harvard University Press, 2017, pp. 131-148.

[9] Todd Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qurʾan: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).

[10]Antonella Straface, “An Ismāʿīlī interpretation of šubbi halahum (Qur. IV, 157) in the Kitāb šağarat al-yaqīn,” Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 148, Authority, privacy and public order in Islam. Proceedings of the 22nd Congress of L’UnionEuropéenne des Arabisants et Islamisants, ed. B. Michalak-Pikulska and A. Pikulski, 2006, pp. 95-100.

[11]Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qurʿan, p. 80. The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ also accepted the death of the human nature of Jesus: pp. 85–9.

[12]Coope, The Martyrs of Córdoba, p. 52.

[13] The Ismāʿīlī connection is taken from Maribel Fierro, “Plants, Mary the Copt, Abraham, donkeys and knowledge: again on Batinism during the Umayyad caliphate in al-Andalus,” Differenz und Dynamikim Islam. Festschrift für Heinz Halm zum 70. Geburtstag /Difference and Dynamics in Islam. Festschrift for Heinz Halm on his 70th birthday, Würzburg, 2012, pp. 125–144, 142–143.

[14] For more information on Ibn Ḥārith al-Khushanī see EI2,V, 73–4 (Ch. Pellat); Sezgin, GAS, I, 363; J. Shaykha, “Abū ʽAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Ḥārith b. Asad al-Khushanī al-Ifrīqī al-Andalusī”, Cahiers de Tunisie 26/103-104 (1978), pp. 33–60; Biblioteca de al-Andalus, vol. 3: De Ibn al-Dabbāg a Ibn Kurz, ed. Jorge Lirola Delgado and José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2004, pp. 290–6, nº 548 [A. Zomeño]; Historia de los Autores y Transmisores de al-Andalus (= HATA): and Prosopografía de los Ulemas de al-Andalus (= PUA), ID 8774