A surname of a celebrated Coptic dynasty from Asyut in the eleventh and twelfth centuries under the later Fatimids and early Ayyubids. Three successive members of that dynasty stand out.
The founder, Abu al-Malih, became secretary and general intendent of the diwan under the vizierate of Badr al-Jamali in the reign of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir (1035-1094). He was a popular administrator and was eulogized by the poets of his age. He was able to retain his Coptic faith side by side with his official position in the Islamic state until his death some time toward the end of the eleventh century.
The second in the line was al-Malih’s son, al-Muhadhdhab Abu al-Malih Zakariyya, who succeeded his father in the important position of secretary of the diwan during the waning of Fatimid rule in the Shiite caliphate of al-‘Adid (1160-1171). During this critical period of transition from Fatimid to Ayyubid rule in Egypt the Sunnite Shirkuh occupied the vizierate of the Shi‘ite caliphate, bringing in his retinue his own nephew of later renown, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin).
His anomalous position was precipitated by the greater peril of an invasion of Egypt by the crusader King Amalric of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem about 1167. One of the immediate results of the crusade was the kindling of antagonism toward all Christians, the Copts included. A new wave of persecutions fanned by Shirkuh against the Copts and their administration of the state threatened al-Muhadhdhab, who escaped by embracing Islam; he thereby kept his position until his death, probably in the year 1182.
Whether al-Muhadhdhab apostasized to Islam in good faith or merely feigned conversion to save himself, the family appeared to remain within the new fold, and his son again inherited his position of secretary of the diwan and was even promoted later to the secretaryship of all the diwans of the government machinery during the reigns of both Saladin (1169-1192) and al-‘Aziz (1193-1198) of the Ayyubid dynasty.
The third in the line was the most renowned of the family. Al- MAQRIZI, the fifteenth-century Arab historian, quotes his full name as al-As‘ad ibn Muhadhdhab ibn Zakariyya ibn Mina Sharaf al-Din Abu al-Makarim ibn Sa‘id ibn Abi al-Malih ibn Mammati. His fame was not based merely on his lofty position in the administration of the country as head of all the diwans but also on his literary accomplishments in Arabic and his productivity as a writer and as a poet who left his mark on that age.
The sources have recorded at least twenty-three works under the name of al-As‘ad, though most of them have been lost. His poetic skill was put to use in the versification of the Life of Saladin and the classic Kalilah wa- Dimnah. Al-Qadi al-Fadil Abd al-Rahim al-Baysani, a towering personality of that age and the supreme judge of the sultanate, described him as the “nightingale of assemblies” on account of his eloquence and the sweetness of his style.
After the death of al-Qadi al-Fadil, al-As‘ad’s colleague and rival Safi al-Din ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Ali ibn Shukr, head of the Diwan al- Jaysh, was elevated to the vizierate with disastrous consequences to Ibn Mammati. Ibn Shukr conspired against him at the sultan’s court, bringing about the confiscation of all his property and stripping him of his position in the state. In these untoward circumstances, al- As‘ad decided to flee to Aleppo, where he found refuge at the court of al-Zahir (1186-1216), a son of Saladin. There he remained until his death in exile and obscurity in 1209 at the age of sixty-two. He was interred in Damascus, according to Ibn Khallikan, at the cemetery of Bab al-Hakam by the roadside near the mausoleum of al-Shaykh ‘Ali al-Harawi.
- Atiya, A. S., ed. Kitab Qawanin al-Dawawin, pp. 32-40. Cairo, 1943.
AZIZ S. ATIYA