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.