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.