The real manuscripts of Dar al-Kutub

In December 2017, I attended a workshop on Arabic codicology at the French Archaeological Institute in Cairo (IFAO). It was taught by Elise Franssen and co-organized by Mathieu Eychenne and Abbas Zaouche.

In this context, we also paid a visit to the Dar al-Kutub, the Egyptian National Library, which holds one of the largest collections of Arabic manuscripts in the world. I also visited its department for manuscript on two more days during my stay. Noah Gardiner has written an exhaustive guide to research and especially the manuscript catalogues of the Dar al-Kutub.

It was my second visit to this institution, after I had spent a week there in November 2016. Before this first visit I had heard from friends and colleagues that with such little time it would not make sense to even try to get access to the physical manuscripts, and thus I restricted my research to the microfilm section, which is situated in a different part of the city (Bab al-Khalq).

To be sure, this visit paid other dividends but it made it apparent to me several questions that could not be answered without consulting the manuscripts themselves. And research at the Nile branch where the manuscripts are kept turned out to be much more pleasant than anticipated. The staff is in general very forthcoming and the head of the section is knowledgeable in manuscripts and himself an experienced editor (muḥaqqiq).

Some things should, however, be considered prior to one’s visit. These are not always congruent with the procedure at the Bab al-Khalq branch, and actually less strict. For instance, computers are allowed. The first thing you should prepare is a list of manuscripts you want to see with call numbers, titles and author names. Secondly, bring your passport or another kind of ID. You will have to leave it at the entrance.

You will need your institution to provide you with a letter of recommendation in Arabic. Best, if it already lists the manuscripts you aim to see. If your institution is not able to do that, one alternative option is to ask at the IFPO if they provide a letter.

The other thing you will need is time. There is the issue of finding and bringing the manuscripts. You can only have one on your desk so these intervals appear repeatedly. And on the first day you might be invited for a review of your letter of recommendation as well. The best time to arrive is around 10:00 a.m. Although the section opens at 9:00, the staff often arrives later than that.

With a closing time at 2:30 p.m., you might need at least a week if you are interested in the content of a longer work. Time is also required if you prefer to get images of the manuscript. In my experience, they will usually be made within the day but not long before closing time. And if you don’t want the full manuscript, calculate an extra day to get also those pages photographed that were missed on the first try (Do not make the mistake I made!).

Finally, the images are of a good quality albeit not of a resolution as high as those you get from, let’s say, Chester Beatty Library. But then you pay a pittance compared to that library. The only downside is the watermark that all images from Dar al-Kutub carry. Unfortunately, that leads to some annotations being not as legible as in the manuscript itself.

During my admittedly short stay, the other visitors could be counted on one hand. So if you need manuscripts from the Dar al-Kutub, the time to get them is now.

Did Ibn Ṭūlūn read Ibn Iyās? A manuscript from Paris

One obvious course in establishing a scholar’s importance as well as his intellectual biography is the search for manuscript copies of his works. Whereas this step of my project is mostly finished, a recent attendance at a codicology workshop at the IFAO in Cairo did bring up this topic once more.
I am grateful to IFAO’s own Robin Seignobos who pointed me to MS Paris, BnF, Or. 3973, which contains a text on Nile tides ascribed to one Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Dimashqī al-Ḥanafī (fols. 170-189). He also made me aware of David Wasserstein’s article “Tradition manuscrite, authenticité, chronologie et développement de l’oeuvre littéraire d’Ibn Iyās” (Journal Asiatique 280 [1993]: 81-114) which provides a more detailed description of the manuscript and the text.
Finally, Robin speculates that this text, “Nuzhat al-khāṭir wa-bahjat al-nāẓir fī ziyādat al-nīl wa-nuquṣānuhu wa-muntahā ziyādatihi wa-awānihi“, was authored by Ibn Ṭūlūn.  If this is the case, this would be the second Ibn Ṭūlūn text in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The other one is a short prayer likewise included in a composite manuscript (MS ar. 1945, fols. 67b-68a) which references itself as “ṣalāt Ibn Ṭūlūn” (fol. 68a).
Yet, in both cases the question remains whether the author really was “our” Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn. Both manuscripts are later copies of an original according to their colophons. It is interesting that the given author name, in MS 3973, lacks the most distinct part of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s writerly identity, whereas in MS 1945 it is the only element of appellation.
Here, however, I will rather talk about the topic of the text on the Nile to substantiate Robin’s suggestion. Ibn Ṭūlūn wrote texts on Egypt (al-Ajwiba al-jalliyya ʿan al-asʾila al-miṣriyya, Ḥawar al-ʿuyūn fī tārīkh Aḥmad Ibn Ṭūlūn, ʿAjab al-dahr fī tadhyīl min malik Maṣr) and he wrote texts on recurring natural phenomena (e.g. in his Nukat al-tārīkhiyya, nos. 19, 22 or his works on animals or plants) but there is no evidence in his work list nor his autograph manuscripts that he ever combined both.
Moreover, as far as we know he never traveled to Egypt to see the Nile with his own two eyes. (In turn, this might help explain why his name is given as it is in a compilation that is clearly Egyptian. For an Egyptian audience, he was simply a Ḥanafī and Damascene.)
I should mention that the Nuzha is vocalized throughout. While this can be attributed to the manuscript being a later copy, it might point to a very different readership that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s autographs originally had.
That being said, the Nuzhat al-khāṭir shares some characteristics with Ibn Ṭūlūn’s known writings. But in some ways it stands out amongst them: The basmallah is followed by an exceptionally short Tamḥīd: “al-ḥamdu li-llāh”. Elsewhere, this section often covers several lines of texts. Instead, it is followed here by several lines of rhymed prose.
Then, the text starts in earnest after the ubiquitous “wa-baʿd”. In general, Ibn Ṭūlūn would almost instantly follow this with the title of the work and often an indicator towards its genre (most often “taʿlīq”). This element is missing in this text, which could discredit it immediately as a false ascription or possibly the work of another Damascene Ḥanafī scholar by the name of Muḥammad. However, the following introduction sounds very much like something that Ibn Ṭūlūn could have written:
فقد وقفت على كراريس مخرومة الاوائل متعلقة باخبار المبارك الاعلام جامعها و يمكن الوقوف على اسمه من ديباجة تاريخ له و سماه بدايع الزهور في وقايع الدهور وجدتها محتوية على لطائف و حوادث و غرائب و تواريخ في زيادة النيل و نقصانه
fa-qad waqaftu ʿalā karārīs makhrūma al-awāʾil mutaʿlliqa bi-akhbār al-mubārak lā aʿlam jāmiʿahā wa-yumkin al-wuqūf ʿalā ismihi min dībājat tārīkh lahu samāhu “Badāʾiʿ al-zuhūr fī waqāʾiʿ al-duhūr” wajadtuhā muḥtawiyyatan ʿalā laṭāʾif wa-ḥawādith wa-gharāʾib wa-tawārīkh fī ziyādat al-Nīl wa-nuqaṣṣānihi
I have come upon some incomplete quires attached to “Akhbār al-Mubārak”.*  I do not know whether the work is complete. It is possible to gather the ism (the author’s name or the work’s title?) from the poem on history (or date?). He called it “Badāʾiʿ al-zuhūr fī waqāʾiʿ al-duhūr”. I found it comprises subtleties, events, oddities, and dates of the Nile’s high and low tides. 
* I am not sure whether this is a title; the name Mubārak could relate to one of several traditionaries (e.g. ID: 14138, 3960, 14173, 14212, 14292, 14410, 14457, or 14081 in the onomasticon arabicum).
The name of the excerpted work will be well-known to most people familiar with the later Mamluk period. It is none other than the great chronicle of Abū al-Barakāt Muḥammad Ibn Iyās al-Jarkasī al-Ḥanafī (1448-1524), which is perhaps the most important Egyptian source on the Ottoman conquests.
According to Brinner’s article in the Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, his oeuvre remained relatively unimportant in his own time, which is supported by the state in which it was found by the author of the present treatise. If this indeed was the case, the work’s reception seems more probable in the first decades after his death than much later.
As far as I know, no connection between him and his Damascene counterpart Ibn Ṭūlūn has so far been known. Yet, Ibn Ṭūlūn would have been the person to acknowledge the value of an obscure fragment he found in the back of a manuscript.
The way the text is introduced further points to Ibn Ṭūlūn as the author: Instead of an author or abstract text, the author refers to a distinct manuscript, apparently a majmūʿa containing at least two texts. What follows, is in form and content quite similar to many of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works, namely commented excerpts of another author’s text, which he extracted and compiled around a specific topic.
The text is structured by source and thereby to a certain extent also by theme.  It begins with legends or sayings about the Nile and its springs that is followed by a description of its geography (one of the sources there is al-Masʿūdī). Then the text addresses the measurement of the nile floods (starting fol. 176b). A strict annalistic order begins only on fol. 181b and seems to be taken from a work by Ibn al-Jawzī. From there to the end, nile floods from 208 through 922 AH are described.
Unfortunately, I must admit that I do not know Ibn Iyās’ Badāʾiʿ well enough to say how much of this treatment of the Nile is taken from his work. Yet, to me it seems that such an argument would not be found in a chronicle of a basically political-social nature.
However, the structure is reminiscent of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s bio-topographical work on a cemetery in Damascus, Ghāyat al-bayān fī tarjamat al-shaykh Arslān. The biography as such is followed by a description of the cemetery and concluded with several biographies and events in which it played a role. Therefore, I would say that it is probable that this work on the Nile be added to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s established corpus.
That leaves the question why this text does not carry the characteristic description as a taʿlīq. One tentative answer could be that it was not written in a scholarly or educational context. That might also explain why it is not mentioned in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s work list.

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.