Genealogy in Medieval Muslim Societies

Zoltán Szombathy “Genealogy in Medieval Muslim Societies.” Studia Islamica, No. 95. (2002), pp. 5-35.

This article is a great analysis of why people recorded genealogies. Even though it spotlights a very specific group of people, the principles discussed can be applied universally.

Throughout the history of Arabic genealogy, all additions to the field have grown from previously published lines, with individuals making great leaps to tie their ancestry into already-established lines. This has lead to a folklore-based system, where genealogies are created out of heresy or family legends.

Genealogy expresses ones social status, making people have ‘selective amnesia’ in some aspects of their heritage, omitting undesirable ancestors, and latching on to any similarities that would tie ones self to prestigious ancestry. While any sort of forgery was frowned upon, people across socio-economic classes frequently attempted to prove their descendency from royalty.

Szombathy then traces the interest and use of genealogy in various Arab populations. In many cases, this lead to ethnic genealogy, where entire groups of persons claimed descendency from a specific noble family or persons from scripture. Of course, the amount of interest in genealogy varies greatly across cultures and people both in nomadic and urban settings. Increasing literacy is correlated with increased interest in genealogy, likely because it makes it easier for one to find, record, and share ones genealogical charts.

Throughout the article, he emphasizes that ones genealogy was a symbol of ones status, functioning within a web of other social factors. This applies to any form of genealogy. One must be aware of ones motivations in seeking out their ancestors, taking care that it does not color their findings as drastically as some of the cases Szombathy describes.

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