ABŪ SAʿD B. SAHL TOSTARĪ, businessman and quasi-vizier in Fatimid Egypt, d. 439/1047. Sahl and two younger brothers emigrated from Ahvāz and founded one of the most prominent business firms in the Egyptian capital. The scope and high quality of their undertaking are shown in letters addressed to them from Ahvāz (11 Ṣafar 417/5 March 1026) and Qayrawān, Tunisia (Goitein, Letters, pp. 34-39, 73-79). The Egyptian Tostarīs remained in close contact with their homeland; a Jewish Persian court record from Ahvāz reveals that their sister Hannah made claims in that city in her own name and in those of her brothers (ed. D. S. Margoliouth, Jewish Quarterly Review 11, 1899, pp. 671-73; see also S. Shaked, “Judeo-Persian Notes,” Israel Oriental Studies 1, 1971, pp. 180-82).
Abū Saʿd and his brothers Abū Naṣr and Abū Manṣūr continued their father’s and uncles’ commercial and banking undertakings with great success, and the Cairo Geniza (on which see EI 2 II, pp. 987-89) has preserved many references, largely unpublished, to their mercantile and philanthropic activities (see partial summary in Mann, Texts I, pp. 371-85). Abū Saʿd and Abū Naṣr are mentioned by Muslim historians, particularly Ebn al-Ṣayrafī, Ebn Moyassar, Ebn al-Zobayr, Ebn al-Aṯīr, and Maqrīzī; Nāṣer-e Ḵosraw, visiting Cairo at the height of Abū Saʿd’s power and witnessing his downfall, provided vivid details about Abū Saʿd in his Safar-nāma (see translations and discussion in Fischel, Jews, pp. 68-89). These sources together provide a multifaceted, although incomplete, picture of the man and his fate.
While the other Tostarī brothers, following the Iranian tradition, dealt in fine textiles, Abū Saʿd specialized in jewels and gems. The three brothers served as trustees with whom courts and private persons deposited treasures. “Their honesty secured them a good name in every land, wherefore they became very prosperous” (Maqrīzī, Ketāb al-ḵeṭaṭ, Būlāq, 1270/1853-54, I, p. 424). A purveyor of gems to the caliph Ẓāher (411-27/1021-36), who was an avid collector, Abū Saʿd also provided him with a slave girl who became the mother of Mostanṣer. Abū Saʿd gave her as a gift, since Jews were then not engaged in the slave trade (see S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Berkeley and Los Angeles, I, 1967, pp. 130-47); and, like Christians, they were not permitted to keep a concubine. When Mostanṣer ascended the throne in 427/1036 as a boy of seven, the Sudanese dowager naturally showed her gratitude to Abū Saʿd. He never became vizier officially, but he is described as modabber al-dawla or viceroy on the occasion of the great armistice between the Fatimids and Byzantium (Ebn al-Zobayr, Ketāb al-ḏaḵāʾer, Kuwait, 1959, p. 74). But the official vizier Fallāḥī, “who had only the name, but not the power of his office” (Ebn Moyassar, Annales d’Egypte, ed. H. Masse, Cairo, 1919, p. 1), instigated against him the Turkish regiments, who felt the government neglected them in favor of the dowager’s fellow Sudanese. Abū Saʿd was murdered in Jomādā I, 439/October-November, 1047, and Abū Naṣr met a similar fate shortly after.
Abū Saʿd’s son Ḥasan, having embraced Islam, became vizier for a short time in 456/1064. The poetical introduction to his contract of betrothal, written ca. 421/1030, tells that God appeared to Sahl before he emigrated from Iran to Egypt and told him: “Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I shall make you a great people” (Genesis 46:3; Goitein, A Mediterranean Society III, 1979, pp. 135-36). The Tostarīs became great in Egypt, but their eclipse was equally great.
S. D. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, Princeton, 1974.
J. Mann, Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, Cincinnati, 1931.
W. J. Fischel, Jews in the Economic and Political Life of Medieval Islam, repr. New York, 1969.
(S. D. Goitein)
Originally Published: December 15, 1983
Last Updated: July 21, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 4, pp. 368-369