New Publication in MSR: “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus: Al-amr bi-al-maʿrūf and the Sufi/Scholar Dichotomy in the Late Mamluk Period (1480s–1510s)”

In time for the New Year, the most recent issue of Mamluk Studies Review (vol. 20) has come out and it features my first contribution to this journal. In “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus” I have attempted to show three things.

The first point I am trying to make is that the distinction between ulama and Sufis is not really useful when trying to unearth Late Mamluk local and even imperial politics and alliances. Instead, I propose to follow the informal networks that transgress those groups and connect them as well to the Mamluk rulers on one side and the larger populace on the other.

Secondly, the discourse on justice subsumed under the phrase al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-naḥy ʿan al-munkar is identified as one banner under which proponents of these different status groups would rally. Moreover, I suggest that it offered a language to address one’s dissatisfaction with one’s own social-financial situation. Since it ties personal grievances to larger concerns about justice, I argue, the use of its terminology should be studied also from the perspective of social competition over the diminishing waqf resources towards the end of the Mamluk Era.

The third point I emphasize is the translocal nature of these politics. Following Albrecht Fuess, Dane Ephrat, and others, I bring the rather backwater town Beirut into the picture, showing how involvement in such places could feature in strategies of social-religious figures. The choice of place was thereby both dictated by the selected case study and a bow to my current place of residence.

These two arguments are presented on base of a case study that drawn scholars’ attention repeatedly since the second half of the 19th century. The Maghribi Sufi Ali Ibn Maymun has been described as a radical or a militant specimen of his status group by more established scholars.

To this discussion, the article adds the view point of one of his main opponents in Damascus, the shaykh al-islam and patron of Ibn Tawq, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi Ajlun. The article illustrates the similarities in the involvement of both figures in the fields of Sufism, jurisprudence, and the fight against the vices, as well as in the geographical areas of their activities. Both people were active in Damascus, where they declaimed wrongful practices, and on the Mediterranean coast, where they organized defenses against pirate attacks.

A recapitulation of this blog’s first year

I started this blog in mid 2016 but honestly, I started to take it more seriously as a writing practice and aide de memoire only in the last year. And I usually enjoyed it. The format is perfect to get you out of a writing slump since all the great hurdles that come with conceptualizing an article, let alone that book proposal at the back of my head, just fall away. That has hugely helped me with formulating and testing ideas for those endeavors.

Now the first year has come to an end and, apart from the last two or three months, I was able to publish at least one entry per month. And several for the new year have been written and scheduled to fill up the always busy January.

One thing that makes writing in this format fulfilling is obviously the quick affirmation. I am thankful that hypotheses includes simple analytics, and I get motivated by every spike or peak in the visitor numbers. Of course, writing alone does not bring people to this one blog.

Analytics of visits for 2017

As this snapshot shows, there has been a noticeable increase in visits in December (it just looks less because the image was created on the 18th. For this, I have to thank Fozia Bora, whose tweet about it was retweeted 33 times.

And I have stayed true to my word and started to publish new posts. In the enxt two weeks, another one on my recent experiences at the Egyptian National Library with some hints about getting access will follow.

DOT conference in Jena, Germany (September 18-22 2017)

Following the good experiences at our panel at the School of Mamluk Studies Conference in Beirut, Christopher Bahl and me have submitted another, larger panel on the transmission of manuscripts at the (unaptly named) Deutscher Orientalistentag in Jena this year.

Throughout Tuesday, 19 September, we are going to have a total of eleven papers on manuscript transmission, ranging from the 15th to the early 20th century. As the last time, this announcement begins with our CfP, before I elaborate on some of the themes we aim to elaborate on in that day. Again, this is a joint production of Christopher and me.

Reading the social world of medieval manuscripts: Cultural practices of transmission and their sociabilities

Scholarly practices in the premodern Islamicate world were geared towards a diverse set of transmissional frameworks and articulated through a variety of social encounters. Scholarship over the years has pointed out the centrality of everyday-life practices intended to preserve and transmit knowledge (Berkey, 1992; Chamberlain 1994). More recent studies have emphasised processes of textualisation and textual perusal (al-Musawi, 2008; Hirschler, 2012; El-Rouayheb, 2014). It is well established by now that written transmission did not only complement oral traditions but also transformed and competed with it (Blecher 2013, Burak 2015).

In this panel we will focus on the social contexts and preconditions of manuscript use and production, thus exploring connections between reading and writing practices and their specific sociabilities across the medieval and early modern Islamicate world. This will be conducted in two steps: firstly, we aim to differentiate between different modes of manuscript transmission. We generally distinguish between practices of reproduction and preservation. Under reproduction, on the one hand, we group teaching (including the creation of students’ copies), commercial copying, note-taking, and citation and discussion in other works (e.g. in/of biographical works or the sharḥ and mukhtaṣar genres). Preservation, on the other hand, is concerned with practices of book collection (libraries), book compilation (binding in majāmīʿ), restoration, and, arguably, indexing and catalogisation. Both had important implications for the synchronous circulation and the diachronic transmission of ideas, texts, and manuscripts. How were different genres circulated? What do manuscripts tell us about these contexts and the intended use or audiences?

Secondly, we ask how these modes were related to social contexts of transmission. How can we make use of readers’ notes, colophons, handwriting, or the format and layout of manuscripts to trace trajectories of texts within different social sites, such as book markets, mosques, madrasas, courts and their libraries as well as domestic settings? How did these sites relate to each other? Finally, how did the social and cultural significance of manuscripts and their use change across these sociabilities?

Since the day will consist of four sessions, each of those will highlight one theme. The first session emphasizes contexts of circulation, with presentations by Nir Shafir on early modern pamphleteers, Astrid Meier on court dealings with books, and Gülfem Alici, who focuses on Sufi manuals.

The second session moves the discussion towards preservation, namely in libraries. Stefan Knost investigates a waqf library in Aleppo. In combination with Christopher Bahl’s exploration of a royal library in Bijapur there should arise some interesting contrasts and points of comparison. Konrad Hirschler begins from the perspective of a donor in his presentation on a rather large-scale book endowment in 15th-century Damascus.

Hirschler’s vantage-point will be taken up again in the first afternoon session, which concentrates on scholar’s corpora and personal libraries during the Early Ottoman period (as understood from the “Arab Lands” perspective). Mustafa Altug Yayla will investigate modes of reproduction with regard to translations from Arabic into Ottoman Turkish in the 16th-century. Zacky Khairul Umam draws on al-Musawi to unearth the wide networks of 17th-century Hijazi scholars which rested to a high degree on the exchange of writings. Geographically, Torsten Wollina’s subject is located between those two. The talk concentrates on Damascene multiple-text manuscripts as a mode of publication, preservation, and possibly reproduction.

The final session addresses the transmission – and often remediation – of manuscripts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Print is obviously the elephant in the room here, and Kathryn Schwartz approaches it through investigating the impact of commissioners of print runs on autochthonous perceptions of written heritage. This offers itself for obvious comparisons with Simon Leese’s presentation on Arabic book production in Bhopal.

The day will be closed by an additional half-hour discussion to draw together the different approaches and perspectives that have been raised during the sessions.

Upcoming Panel at the School of Mamluk Studies Conference (Beirut, 11-13 May 2017)

The next annual SMS conference will come to Beirut in May. Together with Christopher Bahl (SOAS, London), I have organized a panel on “The Oral and the Written: Cultures of Transmission across the funūn“.

Participants include Ahmad Nazir Atassi (Louisisna Tech University), who will speak about the textual transmission of Ibn Saʿd’s biographical dictionary, and Mariam Shaibani (Universtiy of Chicago), whose talk will explore authorship and transmission in Islamic law. Her paper focuses on the magnum opus of ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 660/1262) and its transmission from his lifetime through the 14th century. Christopher Bahl will speak about the transregional transmission of grammar treasises (in particular, across the Indian Ocean basin). My own presentation addresses the surprisingly large-scale survival of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s minor works or transcripts (taʿlīqāt/taʿālīq), the reason for which has to be sought in his bibliographical and archival practices. It differs from the subjects of the other talks in as far as it is, first, a very local case of textual transmission, and, second, because most of the copying was actually done by the author himself.

Here is the abstract (by Christopher Bahl and myself):

The Oral and the Written: Cultures of Transmission across the funūn
organized by Christopher D. Bahl (London) and Torsten Wollina (Beirut)

Scholarly practices in the premodern Islamicate world were geared towards a diverse set of transmissional frameworks and articulated through a variety of social encounters. Scholarship over the years has pointed out the centrality of practices intended to preserve knowledge within everyday life during the Mamluk period (Berkey, 1992; Chamberlain 1994). More recent studies have emphasized writing, particularly the ways in which processes of textualisation played out in different spheres of social life (Hirschler, 2012) or acted as a medium of communication (Bauer, 2013) in the medieval Arab lands. It is well established by now that written transmission did not only complement oral traditions but also transformed and competed with them (Blecher 2013, Burak 2015). Texts were rarely used as simple ‘storage containers’, nor were they intended only for individual use. Rather, texts were embedded in preexisting oral contexts (Blecher 2013, Pfeifer 2015) and were often disseminated along similar networks as oral traditions.
We aim to explore how these developments brought about changes in the transmission of knowledge and the constitution of authority across different fields of scholarly inquiry (ʿilm / fann).  We understand transmission practices across these fields as particular scholarly forms of communication, which we trace through written artefacts from various genres, such as historiography, philology, and law, and their referential presence (e.g. intertextualities) in their circulation across and beyond the Mamluk realm.
Our guiding questions include: What is transmitted in these manuscripts, or what are their multiple textual constituents? How, i.e. through which academic encounters, patronage networks or financial transactions, were the manuscripts or their content transmitted;? And by whom were they circulated, in which social environment and with whose participation? These questions contribute to the broader issue of how and what scholars impart in the process of manuscript transmission in different times and localities.


  • Bauer, Thomas. “‘Ayna hādhā min al-Mutanabbī!’ Toward an Aesthetics of Mamluk Literature”. Mamlūk Studies Review 17 (2013), 5-22. Berkey, Jonathan. The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo. Princeton, 1992.
  • Blecher, Joel. “Ḥadīth Commentary in the Presence of Students, Patrons, and Rivals: Ibn Ḥajar and Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī in Mamluk Cairo”. Oriens 41 (2013): 261-87.
  • Burak, Guy. The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Chamberlain, Michael. Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-1350. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Hirschler, Konrad. The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands a Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.
  • Pfeifer, Helen. “Encounter After the Conquest: Scholarly Gatherings in 16th-Century Ottoman Damascus.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47/2 (2015): 219-239.

Recent Publications: Dyntran Blog and Ottoman Studies 2 (Bonn University Press)

In the course of the last month, two publications of mine came out. The first is my contribution to the blog of the research cluster “Dynamics of Transmission” (DYNTRAN), in which I trace the development of a family network in 15th-/16th-century Damascus and try to show the differences between ‘family’ and those ‘dynasties’ that emerge in the biographical dictionaries of the time.

Dyntran title page
Fig. 1: Dyntran logo

The second publication is an article in the conference proceedings The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century edited by Gül Şen and Stephan Conermann and published with Bonn University Press (see here for the conference program).

Cover: The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. Bonn University Press (V&R Unipress), Göttingen 2016.

        Fig. 2:

Cover, The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Stephan Conermann, Gül Şen. Bonn University Press (V&R Unipress), Göttingen 2016.

My contribution Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman Appropriation of a Mamluk Metropolis (922-924/1516-1518) presents a micro-historical study of changes, the Ottomans effected on the urban – and in particular sacred – landscape of Damascus immediately following the conquest. As I argue those indeed constituted paradigmatic changes which could not easily be undone (and were not) henceforth. I would add here that the methodical approach to the conquest is a strong indicator for the Mamluk Sultanate being the original destination of the Ottoman aggression in 1516, not just a spontaneous second choice behind the Safavids.