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Abbasid History Podcast

Jul 19, 2021

"This blessed cenotaph was made for the Imam (al-Shāfʿī)…by ʿUbayd the carpenter, known as Ibn Maʿālai, in the months of the year five hundred seventy-four. May God have mercy on him; may he [also] have mercy on
those who are merciful toward him, those who call for mercy upon him, and upon all who worked with him—the woodworkers and carvers—and all the believers."

Thus reads the inscription on the teak cenotaph at the grave of Imām al-Shafiʿī. For at least ten centuries, in a city replete with holy sites, the mausoleum of Imam al-Shafiʿī (d. AD 820) has been perhaps the most beloved and popular of Cairene shrines.

To discuss the mausoleum of Imām al-Shāfiʿī and the role of arts and crafts as a source in Islamic(ate) historiography is Dr. Stephennie Mulder.

Dr. Mulder is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the recipient of the Hamilton Book Award Grand Prize, the Syrian Studies Association Award, and Iran’s World Prize for Book of the Year for her book The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’s and the Architecture of Coexistence (Edinburgh, 2014). The book was also selected as an ALA Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title.



The mausoleum was originally built by Saladin in 1180CE before a renovation by his successor, al-Malik al-Kāmil only 30 years later in 1211. Not much of Saladin's original building survives. Why don't you first give a physical description of the site?


At first blush, one would assume Saladin's intentions in building this mausoleum was an assertion of Sunni triumph over two centuries of Fatimid Shia-Ismaili rule but you argue that the construction of the mausoleum was actually part of a bitter intra-Sunni factional infighting between the Shāfiʿī-Ashʿarites and the Ḥanbalis.


Typically students of Islamic history rely on written chronicles for a narrative of events. How can a study of buildings and crafts contribute to a critical reading of these sources?


Turning to the present, you work on the conservation of antiquities and cultural heritage sites endangered by war and illegal trafficking. Tell us more about your work in this field and a call to action for our listeners.


And finally before we end tell us where listeners can turn next to learn more about today's topic and what are other current projects that listeners can anticipate?

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