The largest Ibn Tulun majmuʿa in Cairo (and everywhere else)

Rummaging through the catalogues of the Egyptian National Library (Dar al-Kutub), one finds a large number of entries for Ibn Tulun. And a large share of those do point to a manuscript from the collection of Ahmad Taymur: MS Majamiʿ Taymur 759 is said to contain a staggering 33 different texts. Even for Ibn Tulun’s MTMs this is far from ordinary.
In December 2017, I finally had a chance to see the physical Ibn Tulun autograph manuscripts at Dar al-Kutub. In this context, I’d like to thank Konrad Hirschler for letting me tag along, the organizers of a codicology workshop at the IFAO for the invitation to Cairo, and the friendly staff at the Manuscripts Section at Dar al-Kutub, especially the exceptionally helpful and friendly Hamdia Mohamed Mohamed ʿUmar.
MS 759 is real, I mean it is really there in Dar al-Kutub. That is not true for all of the Ibn Tulun multiple-text manuscripts that exist in the catalogue, as I have said before [link]. For example, the MSS Majamiʿ Taymur 373, 374 and Ḥadīth Taymur 546 only exist as microfilms. And once we look at the contents of those four manuscripts (see table), it becomes evident that it could be no other way. Those latter three manuscripts simply do not exist anymore in a physical form.
Distribution of works between manuscripts
As the table shows, there is ample overlap between MS 759 on one hand, and MSS 373, 374, and 546 on the other. And that is because the latter three manuscripts were destroyed at one point after they were photographed in the 1920s. “Destroyed” means here that the individual texts or sometimes quires were extracted from their original codicological context and recompiled into what is now MS 759.
None of these manuscripts was an original compilation by the author, so they do not contain a contents statement at the beginning. However, scrutinizing scholars (or bureaucrats) the creators of the microfilms were, each microfilm carries a date and a numbered list of works included in each of those “Damascene manuscripts”. Together they add up almost completely to the contents of MS 759.
Most probably, the newly formed majmuʿa was offered to the Taymur library at a later point. Whether the owner or librarian knew what exactly was on offer or whether the recompilation was intended to confuse them about exactly that is difficult to say.
In any case, the fragmentary titles from MS 373 (Jawāb al-suʾāl ʿan ḥukm al-dajjāl) and MS 546 (twice Risālat nāqisat al-awwal) might be in that state since they originally were first titles of a bound volume. Together with the contents statement, the first page of these works was lost or binned.
Taking this into account, we can finally make a guess as to which of Ibn Tulun’s works they might actually be. This is difficult if not impossible about the one which relates to hadith. The corpus is simply too large with over one hundred individual titles. It is also difficult since my copy of the text is bad and less than two pages of text remain, much of which is filled with isnad.
For the second text, already the index of the microfilm states “it appears that it deals with the legality of the rulers’ disposal of state revenues (amwāl bayt al-māl)”. The title that comes closest to this is Ibn Tulun’s Tawḍīḥ al-maqāl fī masʾalat al-waqf min bayt al-māl. No copy of this text is recorded.
In some catalogues this text is also titled Risāla fī al-fiqh al-shāfiʿī. While there are several references to al-Shāfiʿī on the first two extant pages, the creator of the microfilm seems to be more informed, since in the following much of the discussion revolves around several wakīls, that of the bayt al-māl, that of the sultan, and others.
Thus, while none of the four manuscripts discussed here can be considered an original compilation, at least it could be established that one more work from Ibn Tulun’s work list can be identified as having survived in part.

Digital Perspectives on hypotheses

Earlier this year, I attended the second instance of the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (#DHIB2017). It was the second of its kind in the Arab World and, thanks to the generous support by AMICAL it offered participation free of charge (also it included nice gimmicks such as a reusable water bottle which I have since lost, a high-quality tote bag, and a notebook with its own sticky tags and notes).

The DHIB featured, among other workshops, two sessions on markup languages: multimarkdown and TEI XML. Since I am still struggling to understand how to integrate either of those into my own research and publication process, I will not dwell on those – mostly failed – efforts here.

Now, I kind of forgot about this entry for some time and some of it might seem dated by now. Yet, as the first ever digital humanities internship at the Orient-Institut Beirut draws to a close, bringing us that much closer to a publication of our Arabic text editions in a workable html format (besides the classic print and open access PDFs derived from it), it might regain some of its earlier timeliness.

Instead of summarizing the DHIB, it might be a better idea to point out those blogs on hypotheses which are much further in their mastery of digital possibilities and thus offer advise to others who want to stride down this road.

The first one is foxglove which gives you an overview of French DH initiatives. It also introduces workflows for TEI related edition projects for Latin script texts.

In contrast, Freakonometrics is rather concerned with optical character recognition and machine-readability of texts (e.g. PDFs). In general, it is rather about text analysis than text enrichment but it also provides perspectives on the usefulness of markup languages.


Personally, I find the third one, Himanis, the most interesting. Himanis is short for “HIstorical MANuscript Indexing for user-controlled Search“. It speaks to me mostly because it brings together Digital Humanities perspectives and an understanding of books as objects. The notion of books as objects becomes especially important when thinking about their organization in book cases or shelves. How they deal with that in their TEI based edition of royal charters, they explain here.

Obviously, hypotheses has much more to offer which I will not address here at length. And for those who, like me, read French at a snail’s pace, there are also all-English sites. For instance, digilex covers the creation of a digital dictionary of spoken German with TEI and XSLT.

But one of my favorites is certainly The Recipes Project. They again start out from a distinct interest in manuscripts and old texts. In addition to sharing their insights about encoding these texts in a digital format, the blog also provides useful descriptions of manuscript collections, digitization, historical trajectories of books, teaching with manuscripts, and flabbergasting bits and pieces from the history of strawberries. Even though it deals exclusively with European texts, everyone should check it out.


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.

Ibn Ṭūlūn’s Autograph Corpus: Online Catalogues

Making sense of a manuscript corpus as large as that of Ibn Ṭūlūn can be tiresome. In particular, since his autographs are today dispersed in libraries in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States, and the relevant institutions offer very diverse degrees of information about the manuscripts in their catalogues. Yet, these catalogues are obviously a central source in establishing any manuscript corpus.

Things get especially irksome when one wants to make sense of the collections of the Dār al-Kutub (for guidance to its collections, see this review) and the manuscript center of the Arab League (GAD) in Cairo. Access to microfilms at Dār al-Kutub is comparatively easy if rather slow (due to the limit of three items one may order each day); access to the physical manuscripts themselves, however, requires good connections and a lengthy stay. One might circumvent the Dār al-Kutub altogether by turning to the GAD, which offers an online catalogue to browse the selection even beforehand and allows to collect digital copies within the same day.

The GAD offers access to the (partial) holdings of several important manuscript collections of the Arab World. Yet, therein lies a danger as well as new possibilities. The catalogue was apparently created on the basis of the individual library catalogues but their holdings were not compared to each other. What I mean by that: Several collections hold microfilms of manuscripts belonging to another institution. In the GAD catalogue, the same material artifact may thus appear several times. In some cases, doublets might be visible through an allusion to the original collection in the “subject” section but often enough it is not.

How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books

This is, however, not a new problem. With the spread of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century, collectors and scholars alike made ample use of these technologies, and, among others, the Taymūriyya Library (today in Cairo) and the Arab Academy in Damascus supplemented their manuscript collections by acquiring microfilms from other institutions around the world.

These microfilms received their own call numbers, being treated somewhat similarly to manuscripts physically present in the respective collections. Even though this process is clearly important to the constitution of the corpora which ground our understanding of Arabic literature and book culture, to my knowledge no study has yet been dedicated to this important chapter in the transition from a living manuscript to a print culture (and hence to digitization). Yet, in the face of the ubiquity of the medium, we need a new “codicology” for  microfilms.

To conclude with just one basic example, the integrity of a text in a physical manuscript is partly assured by the use of catchwords on the verso page of each folio. The text is bound to the materiality of the two-sided leaf of paper. In contrast, microfilm images present a surface to the viewer, which usually covers the verso page together with the recto of the following leaf. In order to assure that the following image actually refers to the following double page in the physical manuscript, it would require a catchword on the recto page.

While this might seem a theoretical issue at first sight, the microfilm of the Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscript Majāmīʿ Taymūr 759 is only one case where the addition of such catchwords would be really necessary. For about the first half of the files I bought from Dār al-Kutub, the slides only seem to be in the opposite order (fol. 100 comes before fol. 99 before fol. 98 etc.). Yet, around the middle, the confusion increases even more and it is painstaking to find out which image belongs to which work. Finally, about half of the texts ascribed to this manuscript by the latest print catalogue is completely missing from the microfilm.


Tulianana 3.b: A second ijāza

In the last post, I announced the upload of transcripts of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s ijāzas here. In the meantime, I have uploaded all the files on github. The second ijāza presented here is one of two found in MS Princeton, Firestone Library, Garrett 4098Y which can be accessed online.

This ijāza is item five in the manuscript and covers fols. 52b to 54a. It was issued for the recitation by the Shafiʿite Qurʾān reciter (muqrī) Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Jābir b. Ghānim al-Dimashqī al-Ḥarīrī, which took place in the Umayyad Mosque on 15 Ramaḍān 923/1 Oct. 1517. The subject of the session headed by Ibn Ṭūlūn was the 13th-century Arabic grammar work al-Muqaddima al-Ajurūmiyya.

As can be expected, the text then lists the chains of transmission of that work up to Ibn Ṭūlūn. This documentary character notwithstanding, the ijāza is illuminating as to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s education and the hierarchies he realized between his different teachers.

As has been indicated in the prior post, it also gives insight into the composition of the audience present at the event, which lay in the middle of the fasting period and only shortly before the holiest part of Ramaḍān, during which ḥadīth would be regularly recited.

For this document, I have added markup for personal and place names. Yet, the result is not optimal for people who do not work with an xml viewer or editor. It appears there are also some issues with the file’s presentation in some browsers. Perhaps markDown might prove a better way to host these files for audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with markup? Or an even simpler way would just be using standard formatting features to indicate certain entities: e.g. bold for personal names and underlining for place names?