Murder in Damascus: The Consequences of Competition among Medieval Muslim Religious Elites
By R. Kevin Jaques
Mamluk Studies Review, Vol.18 (2014-15)
Introduction: On a warm Monday evening Najm al-Dīn ibn Ḥijjī and his 22-year-old wife, Khadījah, moved their bed into the walled garden of their rural Syrian estate. It was August 25th, 1427, the summer had been extremely hot and stormy, and the fall had been slow to arrive. Ibn Ḥijjī had recently moved his home from within the walls of Damascus to an estate about five kilometers to the west, in an orchard between the villages of al-Rubwah and al-Nayrab, on the foothills of Mount Qāsiyūn that rises to the west and north of Damascus. The 62-year-old scholar had been under great strain and for over three years his health had been in decline. But he had recently married Khadījah and it is likely he thought living outside the city would be healthier due to the clean air and cool breezes that wafted down through the narrow valleys to the west. They retired to bed sometime after 8:30 pm, following the maghrib prayer, and fell asleep under a bright full moon.
Sometime in the early morning hours, a group of men quietly opened a hole in the high stone wall that surrounded the garden. Two of the men, whom Khadījah later described as being “brown skinned and of medium height and the other [as] tall and fair skinned,” struck Ibn Ḥijjī a blow to the head, causing him to cry out in pain. His cry awoke Khadījah and she sat up thinking that “he had been bitten” by a snake or a scorpion. In the dim light she was startled to see the two men standing at the head of the bed. In a panic she bolted to the house, hiding in an interior room for several hours with a maid. She said that she “did not speak until the men left through the hole (in the garden wall) through which they had entered.” When she returned she found her husband dead. His throat had been cut and he was lying in a pool of his own blood. He had also suffered multiple stab wounds to his head and side.
Within hours news of the crime spread across Damascus and huge crowds gathered in the road outside the estate. The viceroy of Damascus arrived to extend his condolences to the widow after he learned that the corpse had been moved to the family crypt. The crowd, however, became so enraged that he was forced to flee to the citadel commanding the northwest walls of the city. Over the coming weeks the public continued to boil over the murder of Ibn Ḥijjī, creating a sensation across the Mamluk Sultanate, not because violent death was uncommon, or because a famous legal scholar and political figure was the victim, but because it was widely assumed that his rivals among the political and religious elite were responsible for his death.