Alluf Abū ʿAmr Sahlān ben Abraham, Haḥaver

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Alluf Abū ʿAmr Sahlān ben Abraham, Haḥaver

Death: circa 1059
Nasir, Bani Sweif Governorate, Egypt
Immediate Family:

Son of Abraham ben Sahlān
Husband of Esther bat Yosef ben 'Amram haDayyan al-Sijilmasa
Father of Esther bat Sahlān ben Abraham

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About Alluf Abū ʿAmr Sahlān ben Abraham, Haḥaver

Abū ʿAmr Sahlān ben Abraham was a payṭan (liturgical poet) and head of the Iraqi congregation in Fustat from 1034 until 1049 or 1050. He succeeded to this post after the death of his father, Abraham ben Sahlān (1016–ca. 1032), and like his father he carried the rabbinic titles alluf from the geonim of Baghdad (probably from Hai Gaon of Pumbedita) and ḥaver from the Jerusalem yeshiva, reflecting the dual allegiance maintained by ambitious leaders adept at negotiating complex networks of patronage. Sahlān bore other lofty titles presumably granted him by the Iraq Exilarch Hezekiah. His fame extended as far as al-Andalus, or so it seems from the fact that Samuel ha-Nagid ibn Naghrella dedicated a poem to him.

Sahlān’s career as communal leader was marked by an acute competition for followers between the Babylonian and Palestinian yeshivot. He maintained good relations with the geonim in both places, collecting and sending donations from the Maghreb to the Babylonian yeshivot and from Fustat to the Palestinian yeshiva. He also cultivated ties at the Fatimid court: a letter of the Jerusalem gaon Solomon ben Judah al-Fāsī (1025–1051) mentions that Sahlān had petitioned the caliph and the vizier to have two ḥaverim of the Jerusalem yeshiva released from prison in 1030 following the Karaite excommunication affair of 1029. In late 1037 or 1038, Sahlān was the object of a malicious plot to overthrow his leadership of the Iraqi community, but he emerged unscathed due to the intercession of powerful patrons, including Hay Gaon and the Karaite (see Karaism) courtier Abū Naṣr Faḍl (Ḥesed) al-Tustarī. Between 1038 and 1042, Sahlān seems to have been among the Iraqis in Fustat who sided with the losing faction in Nathan ben Abraham’s putsch against the Palestinian gaon Solomon ben Judah. Nonetheless his alliance with the Palestinian yeshiva flourished after the academies of Baghdad closed around 1040.

Due to his affiliation with the Iraqi synagogue of Fustat, the Cairo Geniza has preserved less information about Sahlān than about other leaders. Most of the surviving letters concerning him are incoming correspondence that he addressed to Palestinian leaders, especially Solomon ben Judah and his son Abraham. Exceptions include a letter he wrote to Fustat (to his father perhaps while studying in Baghdad) discussing a commentary to a piyyuṭ of Eleazar Qallir, his own piyyuṭim (not all of which have yet been identified or studied), and segments of works that Moshe Gil has identified as in Sahlān’s handwriting, including a fragment of the epistle of Pirqoy ben Baboy. The ketubba for his marriage to Esther, the daughter of Joseph ben ʿAmram, the chief judge of Sijilmasa, the caravan entrepôt and gateway to the Sahara in southeastern Morocco, has also been preserved (dated September 1037).

Hay Gaon wrote to Sahlān to advise him on how to conduct himself toward his supporters and detractors, and promised to ask Ḥesed al-Tustarī to direct his patronage to him. The plan was successful: nine months later, Daniel ben Azariah wrote to Sahlān to congratulate him on his recent marriage and on the resolution of crisis in the Fustat Iraqi community, describing Ḥesed’s patronage as an outright deliverance of the Jews. Likewise, the pretender to the gaonate Nathan ben Abraham(1038–1042) knew of the importance of having the Karaite courtiers on one’s side and kept close track of Ḥesed al-Tustarī’s appointment as chief administrator to the military commander of Palestine, the manumitted Turkish captive Anūshtekīn al-Dizbirī (served 1023–ca. 1042, with interruptions). Nathan eventually won Ḥesed to his side of the battle for the gaonate, forcing the rightful gaon, Solomon ben Judah, to rely instead on the mediation of the vizier al-Jarjarāʾī, the administration’s most forceful check on the power of Umm al-Mustanṣir. The schism over the gaonate thus effectively pitted two factions of the Fatimid government against one another. When Solomon’s supporters petitioned al-Mustanṣir in 1040, they complained in a draft that al-Tustarī had “intimidated them with his prestige, his wealth, and his awe-inspiring demeanor,” and had deployed Fatimid policemen against them. (In the final draft of the petition, they omitted these complaints.)

Marina Rustow


Bareket, Elinoar. Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

———. The Jewish Leadership in Fustat in the First Half of the Eleventh Century (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1995) [Hebrew].

———. “Sahlān ben Abraham,” Tarbiz 52 (1983): 17–40 [Hebrew].

Gil, Moshe. A History of Palestine, 634–1099, trans. Ethel Broido (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society, 6 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967–93).

Citation Marina Rustow. " Sahlān ben Abraham." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 12 July 2012 <>

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