Ibn al-Nadim

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Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Ishāq al-Nadīm (Arabic ابو الفرج محمد بن إسحاق النديم), his patronymic, or nasab, is ibn Abī Ya’qūb Ishāq ibn Muḥammad ibn Ishāq al-Warrāq and he is more commonly, albeit erroneously, known as Ibn al-Nadim (d. 17 September 995 or 998 CE), was an Arab [1][2] Muslim scholar and bibliographer[3]

Al-Nadim was the tenth century bibliophile of Baghdad and compiler of the Arabic encyclopedic catalogue known as ‘Kitāb al-Fihrist’. This crucial source of medieval Islamic culture and scholarship, from his own and various ancient civilizations, preserves names of authors, books and accounts that are otherwise entirely lost. Al-Fihrist evidences Al-Nadim’s voracious thirst and curiosity for all forms of knowledge and learning, and captures a glimpse into an exciting sophisticated milieu of Baghdad’s intellectual elite. In the preface Al-Nadim describes his book as: A catalogue of the books of all peoples, Arab and foreign, existing in the language of the Arabs, as well as their scripts, dealing with various sciences, with accounts of those who composed them and the categories of their authors, together with their relationships, their times of birth, length of life, and times of death, the localities of their cities, their virtues and faults, from the beginning of the formation of science to this our own time (377 /987).[4][1]

Much known of al-Nadim is deduced from his epithets. ‘Al-Nadim’ (النَّدِيم), ‘the Court Companion’ and ‘al-Warrāq (الْوَرَّاق) ‘the copyist of manuscripts’. Probably born in Baghdadca. 320/932 he died there on Wednesday, 20th of Shaʿban A.H. 380. He was Arab perhaps of Persian origin.[1][2] From age six he would have attended a ‘madrasa’ and received a quality comprehensive education in Islamic studies, history, geography, comparative religion, the sciences, grammar, rhetoric and Qurʾanic commentary. Ibrahim al-Abyari, author of Turāth al-Insaniyah says al-Nadim studied with al-Hasan ibn Sawwar, a logician and translator of science books; Yunus al-Qass, translator of classical mathematical texts; and Abu al-Hasan Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Naqit, scholar in Greek science.[5] An inscription, in an early copy of al-Fihrist, probably by the historian al-Maqrizi, relates that al-Nadim was a pupil of the jurist Abu Sa’id al-Sirafi (d.978/9), the poet Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, and the historian Abu Abdullah al-Marzubani and others. Al-Maqrizi’s phrase ‘but no one quoted him’, would imply al-Nadim himself did not teach.[6] While attending lectures of some of the leading scholars of the tenth century, he served an apprenticeship in his father’s profession, the book trade. His father, a bookdealer and owner of a prosperous bookstore, commissioned al-Nadim to buy manuscripts from dealers. Al-Nadim, with the other calligrapher scribes employed, would then copy these for the customers. The bookshop, customarily on an upper floor, would have been a popular hangout for intellectuals.[7]

He probably visited the intellectual centers at Basra and Kufa in search of scholarly material. He may have visited Aleppo, a center of literature and culture under the rule of Sayf al-Dawla. In a library in Mosul he found a fragment of a book by Euclid and works of poetry. Al-Nadim may have served as ‘Court Companion’ to Nasir al-Dawla, a Hamdanid ruler of Mosul who promoted learning.[8] His family were highly educated and he, or his ancestor, may have been a ‘member of the Round Table of the prince’. The Buyid caliph ‘Adud al-Dawla (r. 356-367 H), was the great friend of a arts and sciences, loved poets and scholars, gave them salaries, and founded a significant library.[9] More probably service at the court of Mu’izz al-Dawla, and later his son Izz al-Dawlah’s, in Baghdad, earned him the title. He mentions meeting someone in Dar al-Rum in 988, about the period of the book’s compilation.[10] However it is probable that, here, ‘Dar al-Rum’ refers to the Greek Orthodox sector of Baghdad rather than Constantinople.[11]

Others among his wide circle of elites were Ali ibn Harun ibn al-Munajjim (d.963), of the Banu Munajjim and the Christian philosopher Ibn al-Khammar. He admired Abu Sulayman Sijistani, son of Ali bin Isa the “Good Vizier” of the Banu al-Jarrah, for his knowledge of philosophy, logic and the Greek, Persian and Indian sciences, especially Aristotle. The physician Ibn Abi Usaibia (d.1273), mentions al-Nadim thirteen times and calls him a writer, or perhaps a government secretary.[12] Al-Nadim’s Kunya ‘Abu al-Faraj’ indicates he was married with at least one son in Baghdad.

Ibn Hajar claimed al-Nadim was Shiʿah.[13] Al-Nadim uses the term specific people (الخاصة), for the Shiʿah, and the term general people (العامة) for non-Shiʿahs. He also uses the pejorative term Ḥashawīyya (الحشوية), meaning those who believe Allah can be confined to physical dimensions, for Sunnis and calls the Hanbali school Ahl al-Hadith(“People of the Hadith”) instead of Ahl al-Sunna (“People of the Tradition”). Al-Nadim uses the supplication of peace be upon him (عليه السلام), after the names of the Ahl al-Bayt(Descendants of Muhammad). He refers to Shia imam Ali ar-Rida, as ‘mawlana’ (مولانا) meaning master. He alleges that al-Waqidi concealed being a Shiʿah by taqiyya(dissimulation) and that most of the traditionalists were Zaydis. Ibn Hajar claimed al-Nadim was a member of the Muʿtazila sect – much of chapter five of al-Fihrist is devoted to discussion of this sect; described as People of Justice (أهل العدل). The Ash’arites being called al-Mujbira, harsh criticism of Sab’iyya doctrine and history, and an allusion to a certain Shafi’i scholar as a ‘secret Twelver’, suggest al-Nadim’s possible Twelver religious affiliation. Others among his circle were the theologian Al-Mufid, the da’i Ibn Hamdan, the author Khushkunanadh, and the Jacobite philosopher Yahya ibn ‘Adi (d. 363/973) who instructed Isa bin Ali and who was also a copyist and bookseller (p. t64, 8). The claim that al-Nadim was Isma’ili, on the grounds that he met an Isma’ili leader and attended a meeting, is not borne out.[7]

A compendium of the knowledge and literature of medieval Islam in the tenth century, informed in great part by earlier Hellenic and Roman cultures. It is a true record of civilisation providing much classical material transmitted through Muslim culture to the West world, it is a unique link between civilisations.[14]

In 987, Ibn al-Nadim began compiling the catalogue,al-Fihrist, as a useful reference index for customers and traders of books. Over a long period he noted thousands of authors, their biographical data, and works, gathered from his regular visits to private book collectors and libraries across the region – including,Mosul, and Damascus – and through active participation in the lively literary scene of Baghdad in the period.

The Fihrist indexes authors, together with biographical details and literary criticism. Al-Nadim’s interest ranges from religions, customs, sciences, and includes obscure facets of medieval Islamic history, works on superstition, magic, drama, poetry, satire and music from Persia, Babylonia, and Byzantium. The mundane, the bizarre, the prosaic, the profane sit side by side. Untied to a single collection or library, al-Nadim freely selected whatever he fancied and catalogued a rich culture of his time.[15] The primary ordering principle is chronology, which operates at four distinct levels: the internal order of lists of works within a single genre; the internal order of the chapter, orfann; the internal order of the maqala, that is, the order of the chapters orfanns within an individual maqala; and the order of the book as a whole, that is, the order of the maqalas within the Fihrist. An understanding of these four chronological principles helps to interpret the work and the ideas behind it. Using them, the investigator may retrieve information from the work that has eluded investigators to date and also gain insight into Ibn al-Nadim’s method of composition, ideology, and historical analyses.[16]

The Fihrist testifies to the great wealth of knowledge disseminated in the literature of the Islamic Golden Age, ranging in breadth, historically and geographically, from the modern to the ancient civilisations of Syria, Greece, India, Rome and Persia. Sadly little survives of the Persian books listed by Ibn al-Nadim. The Fihrist’s preface sets out its purpose as an index of all books written in Arabic, whether by Arabs or others. Biographies of poets (tabaqat) had existed so an index was not a new literary form. The Fihristwas published in 987; it exists in two manuscript traditions, or “editions”: the more complete edition contains ten “discourses” (maqalat). The first six of them are detailed bibliographies of books on Islamic subjects:

Chapter 1 Qur’an1.1 Language and Calligraphy
1.2 The Torah, the Gospel
1.3 The Qur’an
Chapter 2 Grammar2.1 Grammarians of al-Baṣrah
2.1 Grammarians of al-Kūfah
2.3 Grammarians of Both Schools
Chapter 3 Hadīth3.1 Historians and Genealogists
3.2 Official Government Authors
3.3 Court Companions, Singers, and Jesters
Chapter 4 Poetry4.1 Pre-Islāmic and Umayyad-Era Poets
4.2 ‘Abbāsid-Era Poets
Chapter 5 Theology & Dogma5.1 Muslim Sects; the Mu’tazilah
5.2 The Shī’ah, Imāmīyah, and Zaydīyah
5.3 The Mujbirah (Determinists) and al-Ḥashawīyah
5.4 The Khawārij
5.5 Ascetics
Chapter 6 Law6.1 Mālik ibn Anas
6.2 Abū Hanīfa
6.3 Al-Shāfi’i
6.4 Dā’ūd ibn ‘Alī
6.5 Legal Authorities (Shī’a and Ismā’īlīyah)
6.6 Jurists of Ḥadīth
6.7 Al-Ṭabarī
6.8 Jurists of Shurāt
Chapter 7 Philosophy and ‘Ancient Sciences’7.1 Philosophy; Greek philosophers, Al-Kindī et al.
7.2 Mathematics and Astronomy
7.3 Medicine; Greek and Islāmic
Chapter 8 Entertainment Literature8.1 Storytellers and Legends,
8.2 Exorcists, Jugglers, Conjurers and Magicians
8.3 Fables and Other Topics
Chapter 9 Religious Doctrines9.1 The Ṣābians, (Manichaeans, Dayṣānīyah, Khurramīyah, Marcionites, and Other Sects
9.2 Doctrines (Maqalat) of Hindus, Buddhists and the Chinese);
Chapter 10 Alchemy.
Al-Nadim asserts he himself has seen every work listed or relies upon creditable sources.

The shorter edition contains (besides the preface and the first section of the first discourse on the scripts and the different alphabets) only the last four discourses, in other words, the Arabic translations from Greek, Syriac and other languages, together with Arabic books composed on the model of these translations. Perhaps it was the first draft and the longer edition (which is the one that is generally printed) was an extension.

Ibn al-Nadim often mentions the size of a book and the number of pages, so that buyers would not be cheated by copyists passing off shorter versions. Compare the Stichometry of Nicephorus. He refers often to copies written by famous calligraphers, to bibliophiles and libraries, and speaks of a book auction and of the trade in books. In the opening section he deals with the alphabets of 14 peoples and their manner of writing and also with the writing-pen, paper and its different varieties. His discourses contain sections on the origins of philosophy, on the lives of Plato and Aristotle, the origin of One Thousand and One Nights, thoughts on the pyramids, his opinions on magic, sorcery, superstition, and alchemy etc. The chapter devoted to what the author rather dismissively calls “bed-time stories” and “fables” contains a large amount of Persian material.

In the chapter on anonymous works of assorted content there is a section on “Persian, Indian, Byzantine, and Arab books on sexual intercourse in the form of titillating stories”, but the Persian works are not separated from the others; the list includes a “Book of Bahrām-doḵt on intercourse.” This is followed by books of Persians, Indians, etc. on fortune telling, books of “all nations” on horsemanship and the arts of war, then on horse doctoring and on falconry, some of them specifically attributed to the Persians. Then we have books of wisdom and admonition by the Persians and others, including many examples of Persian andarz literature, e.g. various books attributed to Persian emperorsKhosrau I, Ardashir I, etc.

Gustav Flügel[n 1][17]

Old Paris MS – four chapters
MS Istanbul, copy transcribed by Aḥmad al-Miṣrī for de Slane’s use in Paris
Vienna MS – two copies
Leiden MS – several fragments
Bayard Dodge[n 2][18]

Beatty MS – MS no. 3315, Chester Beatty Library in Dublin; up to Chap. V, §.I, (account of al-Nashi al-Kabir). 119 f.f., handwriting in an old naskh script; belonged to historian Aḥmad ibn ‘Ali al-Maqrīzī.[n 3] The Beatty MS, a copy of the original, probably escaped destruction at Baghdad in 1258, having been taken to Damascus where in 1423 the historian Aḥmad ibn ‘Alī al-Maqrīzī acquired it. At the fall of Aḥmad Pāshā al-Jazzār (d.1804) it was in the library of the great mosque at ‘Akkā and the manuscript was probably divided when stolen from there, and later the first half was sold by the dealer Yahudah to the collector Chester Beatty for his library at Dublin.
MS 1934 – library adjacent to Süleymaniye Mosque Istanbul; “Suleymaniye G. Kütüphanesi kismi Shetit Ali Pasha 1934”; from Chap. V, §.2., an account of al-Wāsiṭī.
MS 1134 (no. 1134) & MS 1135 (no. 1135) – Koprülü Library, Istanbul.
Tonk MS – Sa‘īdīyah Library at Tonk, Rajastan it originally belonged to the Nabob.[n 4][21]
MS 4457 – Bibliothéque nationale Paris; Fonds Arabe, 1953; cat., p.342 (cf. 5889, fol. 128, vol. 130), No. 4457; first part; (AH 627/1229-30 CE); 237 folios.
MS 4458 -BNP; Fonds Arabe, 1953; cat., p.342 (cf. 5889, fol. 128, vol. 130), No. 4458.
Vienna MSS – Nos. 33 & 34.
Leiden MS (No. 20 in Flügel)
Ṭanjah MS -(Majallat Ma‘had al-Khuṭūṭ al-‘Arabīyah, published by the League of Arab States, Cairo, vo. I, pt 2, p. 179.)
Aḥmad Taymūr Pasha Appendix – Al-Fihrist, Egyptian edition, Cairo, Raḥmānīyah Press, 1929