Tuluniana 2: Works on plants

A while back, I introduced a first cluster of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works (on animals). A second interesting cluster consists of his works which are concerned with plants. More than the earlier one, this is connected to a third cluster, which comprises works on food and food consumption. All these clusters draw heavily on ḥadīth as a source.

The cluster on plants includes 18 works.  Most of those deal with dangers or benefits of consuming certain parts or fruits of plants. These works could be situated either in the legal literature or in the realm of (Prophetic) medicine.

The dependence on ḥadīth and akhbār could also suggest their belonging to Sufi ādāb literature. Even for those works that do not survive, the latter is indicated in their title’s thematic phrase, which is usually introduced with either “li-/fī-mā warada fī” (on what is found about) or “ʿan-/fī-mā qīla fī” (on what is said about). The text of such a title is rarely more than a list of statements by earlier authorities (transmitted directly or in writing) on the subject.

Moreover, this nature of the works reiterates my earlier understanding of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s minor works as “seminar papers”:

One possible explanation would be that the writing of such works was indeed part of the education process. An aspiring scholar had to prove his knowledge of the tradition in thematic exams. On the other hand, those works could also attest – to a certain extent – to an entertainment value, and thus everyday relevance, of the science of ḥadīth.

This does not mean that Ibn Ṭūlūn penned these works at an early stage of his career. On the contrary, I would say that in their simplicity they betray his intimate knowledge with the scholarly literature of his times.

Therefore, I would argue that he wrote these works for the benefit of his own students. These seem to have been works to be studied early on since they made it easier to arrange the different source items around one subject (a different approach from that described recently by Maxim Romanov for his own classroom use of ḥadīth).

Perhaps this would also explain why animals, plants, or food were used—they were part of everyday life and therefore also an object of legal/moral questions. In any case, the format of the works does preclude their use (or value) as political (e.g. polemical) texts. Their repetitiveness bespeaks their use in educational and devotional settings.

Within the cluster on plants, two general groups can be distinguished. One is concerned with plants, including flowers, and the other with their fruit or produce. The latter is by far the larger group. The first group includes works:

  • Ibtisām al-thughūr ʿammā qīla fī nafʿ al-zuhūr (on the benefits of flowers/blossoms)
  • Tasliyyat al-ḥazīn fīmā qīla fī al-yāsmīn (collection of akhbār/ḥadīth on Jasmin)
  • ʿArf al-nadd fīmā qīla fī al-ward (collection on the rose)
  • Ḥadīqat al-azhār fī faḍl ghars al-ashjār (on the merits of planting trees)
  • Ṭard al-aḥzān fīmā qīla fī al-bān (collection on the moringe)
  • Ẓarāʾif al-naḥla li-mā warada fī al-nakhla (collection on the palm tree)

The second group also includes a number of “mā qīlā“- and “mā warada“-collections:

  • al-Iʿlān li-mā warada fī faḍl al-rummān (on merits of pomegranate)
  • al-Qawl al-murtajal fīmā warada fī al-safarjal (on quinces)
  • Haḍm al-ṭabīkh bi-mā warada fī al-baṭīkh (on melons)
  • Hidāyat al-nujabā ilā mā warada fī al-hindibā (on wild chicoree)
  • Tanwīr al-ghalas fīmā warada fī al-ʿadas (on lentils)
  • ʿArf al-bān fīmā warada fī al-bādhinjān (on aubergines)
  • Jalab al-inshirāḥ bi-faḍl al-tuffāḥ (on the merits of apples)
  • Juzʾ imtithāl li-amr bi-akhbār al-tamr (akhbār on dates)
  • Ṣaḥn al-ṣīn fī faḍl al-tīn (on the merits of figs)

There is, however, also one item which was organized in a different way. The first, Talkhīṣ buhgyat al-ṭalab wa-nihāyat al-arab fī al-munāẓara bayn al-tīn wa-l-ʿanab, seems to be a comparison of the properties of the fig and the grape. The title’s guiding phrase alludes to two works on which this comparison might have been based: Ibn al-ʿAdīm’s (d. 1262) Bughyat al-ṭalab fī tārīkh Ḥalab (Everything desirable about the History of Aleppo) and the encyclopedia Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab (translated both as “The Aim of the Intelligent in the Art of Letters” and as “The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition“) by the Egyptian scholar al-Nuwayrī (d. 1333). The term talkhīṣ indicates that Ibn Ṭūlūn simplified their discussion. Alas, the work has not survived, and therefore the hypothesis cannot be tested.

It should be noted here that, in contrast to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works on animals, much more of his cluster on plants has indeed survived. All of these manuscripts are today to be found in Egypt, either in Alexandria or the Dār al-Kutub in Cairo (see Conermann 2004).  The work on melons has survived even in two autographs in Cairo.

The one Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph multiple-text manuscript held in Alexandria betrays the close connection between the three clusters mentioned above. Among others (in total 14 titles), it contains Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works on the palm tree and on the benefits of flowers/blossoms, as well as four works on animals (Conermann 2004, 124). In addition, this manuscript begins with a teaching license (ijāza), indicating that these texts were not only taught and transmitted but together.


A gunsmith in 15th-century Cairo

The Mamluks’ affinity to firearms, both handheld (muskets, rifles) and mounted (cannons) has been long debated in the field. Personally, I find Robert Irwin’s (2004) interpretation much more convincing than other studies, which presume a stubbornness on the Mamluks’ part against adopting this new kind of weapon.

As Irwin can indeed show, the Mamluks did see the potential of firearms of all sizes early on, as one would expect of professional soldiers. Yet, they also saw that they did not really suit their own established fighting style. 15th-century muskets were just not made to be used on horseback. Thus, the Mamluks would conscript other soldiers to carry them into battle or to man their cannons. One famous case are the ʿabīd, a regiment of African slaves raised by sultan Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī, but in the earlier campaigns on the Northern front, conscripts from among the rural and urban population of Syria seems to have played a more decisive role. They apparently kept these weapons – more often than not – after one war and would use them also against the Mamluks in internal strifes (Toru 2006).

Ibn Tulun showed himself astonished, in his chronicle, by the Ottoman display of firearms, in particular the wagons on or between which cannons were mounted (Wollina 2016). In his entries on the rebellious governor Jānbirdī al-Ghazālī’s siege of Aleppo in 926 AH, he even shows some advanced knowledge of different calibers of cannons and their ability to knock down gates or walls (Ibn Tulun: Iʿlām, 249). His interest in the technological aspects of firearms seems to go beyond their simple effect on event-based political history.

Still, it is somewhat surprising that Ibn Tulun brings up the same issue in his biographical dictionary al-Ghuraf al-ʿāliyya fī tarājim al-mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya. Perhaps, however, this may serve to demonstrate the fascination these weapons – the cannons in particular – held for him. The biography in question is on one Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad al-Ḥalabī al-Ḥanafī, who later moved to Egypt and gained as well the nisba al-Miṣrī. There, he built a makḥala for sultan Khushqadam (reg. 1461-1467) “which could propel a missile of one Damascene qinṭar, i.e. four Egyptian qinṭār, over more than two postal mīl”. Yet, the sultan deemed his price to high; so he went bankrupt. His contraption finally only served the chief judge al-Dayrī to shoot sparrows.

The following is a transcript of the full biography. While it is based on the Istanbul MS of the text (MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, f. 14b), which is a copy, I have compared it as well to its counterpart in the partial Dār al-Kutub MS (MS Taymūr Tārīkh 631, p. 21). The one difference I found is in the spelling of the name of “al-Ḥajar”. I must admit that neither interpretation I have given here fully convinces me, based on the script. I presume that the copyist was facing similar problems and did his best to transcribe the signs from the original.

ابراهيم بن احمد الحلبي ثم المصري الحنفي كان عنده فضيلة و لازم الحجر بن الحفم/الشحنة(؟) وهو الذي عمل المكحلة للسلطان خشقدم التي ترمي بقنطار دمشقي وهو اربع قناطر بالمطري الي بعد نحو ميلين سدس بريد ورمي عليها لكن لم ينصفه السلطان فانه قيل انه انفق عليها نحو اربعماية دينار فاعطاه السلطان نصفها وهذا البعد العظيم يستفاد من طول عنق المحكلة و كان قاضي القضاة السعد بن الديري اخذ ذلك من الزبرطانة وهي عصا طويلة جدا مجوفة يوضع فيها بندقة وتنفخ فيبعد مداها ويصاد بها العصافير ونحوها من الطير وتوفي في المحرم سنة سبعين وثمانماية ودفن بالقرافة.


  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. Iʿlām al-warā bi-man waliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq Aal-Shām al-kubrā. Edited by Muḥammad Aḥmad Duhmān. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1984.
  • Irwin, Robert. “Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Sultanate Reconsidered.” In The Mamluks in Egyptian and Syrian Politics and Society. Edited by Michael Winter and Amalia Levanoni. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden; Boston, MA: Brill, 2004, 117-139.
  • Toru, Miura. “Urban Society in Damascus As the Mamluk Era Was Ending.” Mamluk Studies Review 10, no. 1 (2006): 157-193.
  • Wollina, Torsten. “Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman Appropriation of a Mamluk Metropolis (922-924/1516-1518).” In The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. Göttingen: Bonn University Press 2016, 199-224.
  • Tuluniana 1: Animals

    Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn (d. 1546), one of the protagonists of this blog, was quite a prolific writer, according to the work list he provided himself in his autobiography al-Fulk al-mashḥūn fī aḥwāl Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn. Judging by the given titles, his complete oeuvre encompasses well above 700 works. Many of those remain only in manuscript–or are regarded as lost.

    In the future, I will address groups of these works in thematic clusters. Some of them are based on my own distinctions; for instance the role of women in ḥadīth transmission is not always elaborated upon in separate works (although some biographical dictionaries have their separate chapter / bāb al-nisāʾ); the grouping rather follows categories important to current scholarship.

    Another aspect is the distinctions made by the author himself in the titles of his work. As in the case of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works on animals, not many of the works themselves have survived. We know of them through his own book list or those provided in biographies of him, or from cross references in other of his works. Thus, their inclusion in a certain group rests on the presumption that the title actually reflects the topic they deal with. While this is an uncertain method, I would argue that it is one that might have been applied in contemporary libraries and book lists, as well.

    I have not always distinguished clearly between both criteria. This blurriness rests on the divergent access to works. Where access to their texts is possible, I have included works that treat a certain topic, even if the title does not give it away. In my opinion, this improves the lists’ value to researchers interested in a topic, especially where extensive use of manuscripts is necessary.

    Two recurring themes struck me in particular: animals and plants (also in the context of food, which will both be topics of future posts). Of course, the literary treatment of both topics is well attested in Arabic literature since Abbasid times (in particular, al-Dīnawarī comes to mind). Ibn Ṭūlūn seems to have addressed both topics mostly on the basis of Prophetic traditions and later reports (akhbār).

    The recent environmental turn in history and the rise of new subjects such as human-animal relations have recently directed our attention to the non-human actors in history. In Islamic Studies, Sara Tlili’s 2009 dissertation “From an ant’s perspective: The status and nature of animals in the Qur’an” and Alan Mikhail’s monograph “Nature and empire in Ottoman Egypt: an environmental history” (2011) have taken up these tendencies from different perspectives. They could also build on a framework – ‘endemic’ to the field –, one that has been established by seminal studies of Herbert Eisenstein and others.

    Among Ibn Ṭūlūn’s corpus, 18 works indicate their treatment of animals in their title. Some of them are dedicated to one animal, others to the comparison of two or several animals; yet others deal with the treatment of animals. However, as far as I can see, nothing has survived of these works except their titles. Animals are also discussed in some other works. I have excluded his chronicle Mufākahat al-khillān and other historical works where animals appear simply to serve a narrative that is essentially about human actors, from this list.

    There are four works on different birds:

    • Sharḥ al-ṣudūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr (how to trap animals with snares?)
    • Irshād al-barara ilā mā warada fī al-ṭayra (on female birds?)
    • Ghāyat al-iḥtirām fīmā warada fī al-ḥammām (collection of akhbār on doves)
    • Rafʿ al-Lithām ʿan aḥkām al-ḥammām (opinions on the dove?)
    • al-Tazmīk li-akhbār al-dīk (collection of akhbār on the rooster)

    On quadrupeds, including mounts and pack animals, he wrote another three works:

    • Ifādat al-ṣawāb fī ḍarb al-dawāb (on the proper occasions when to beat a pack animal?)
    • Ṭahārat al-dhayl fīmā warada fī al-khayl (collection of akhbār on the horse)
    • Al-ightinām li-raʿy al-aghnām (opinions on the sheep)

    Two works are concerned with the distinction of categories of animals; one distinguishes between birds and quadrupeds (literally pack animals), another between birds, wild beasts and domestic animals:

    • Tuḥfat al-aḥbāb fī manṭaq al-ṭayr wa-l-dawāb (the distinction between birds and pack animals)
    • Al-nujūm al-zāhirāt fī al-riwāya ʿan al-wuḥūsh wa-l-ṭuyūr wa-l-bahāʾim wa-l-ḥasharāt wa-l-sawākin wa-l-jamādāt (collection of ḥadīth on wild beasts, birds, domestic animals)

    Other quadruped animals were, at the time, treated separately. Among those which received their own treatises, dogs and mice were treated as a nuisance or even vermin, whereas cats certainly stood apart:

    • Ikhbār al-aṣḥāb bi-akhbār al-kilāb (collection of akhbār on dogs)
    • Iʿlām al-jār bi-mā warada fī al-fār (collection of akhbār on mice)
    • Aẓhār al-sirr fī faḍl al-hirr (on the graciousness / superiority / beneficial qualities of the cat)

    The remaining four works concern animals that today are regarded insects. Apart from the bee, the ones discussed would fall under the category of ‘vermin’, as well:

    • Al-Nakhla li-mā warada fī al-naḥla (collection of akhbār on the bee)
    • Ṭarāʾif al-nakhla fī laṭāʾif al-naḥla (collection of witty anecdotes / pleasant stories on the bee)
    • Ṭard al-taghthīth fī aḥwāl al-barāghīth (on the flee)
    • Iṣlāḥ al-fasād fīmā warada fī al-jarād (collection of akhbār on locusts)

    I could identify one other work – which has survived – that treats several animals in the context of “the beauties of the world”. The treatise Laṭāʼif al-minnah fī muntazahāt al-jannah is part of MS Garrett 1011H (Princeton, Firestone Library) and collects akhbār on a number of animals, including several birds (nightingale, raven, blackbird, sparrow), the gazelle, as well as dogs and wild cats. Throughout the respective chapter, the treatment of the animals is indicated by remarks in the margins (their names are given). Yet, between the long isnāds, this work has preciously little to say about the animals themselves. It is concerned more with displaying the author’s extensive knowledge on akhbār and ḥadīth in general.

    So how should we understand these works on animals? They were certainly no comprehensive attempt at zoography or zoology. Judging from their titles, they were completely immersed within the study of Prophetic traditions. I have no final answer. One possible explanation would be that the writing of such works was indeed part of the education process. An aspiring scholar had to prove his knowledge of the tradition in thematic exams. On the other hand, those works could also attest – to a certain extent – to an entertainment value, and thus everyday relevance, of the science of ḥadīth. While this interpretation can never be completely be distinguished from the serious academic side of the discipline (and its larger implications about the world). This certainly differed from animal to animal, but certainly not every subject could claim a legal or religious relevance?

    Documentary evidence – evidence on documents?

    One of the still oft-repeated truisms about Muslim societies before the Ottoman / Early Modern period is that they left no archives of documents behind, precisely because status was negotiated in ways different from, and more informal than, those in contemporaneous Europe. Konrad Hirschler’s discoveries of reused documents in codices are only one example.

    Yehoshua Frenkel’s interpretation of Mamluk society as one of a thoroughly contractual nature (Frenkel 2009, p. 150) seems to be closer to the point. In my early readings of Ibn Ṭawq’s Taʿlīq, I often stumbled over the technical language he uses in lengthy elaborations on legal cases that he attended in his function as a notary. Their frequency and the space he dedicates to descriptions of even everyday contracts and other legal transactions, clearly betray the role, written and notarized documents played in his time.

    The following is an excerpt from that work (vol. 2, pp. 847-848), in which he lists the documents and attestations he had to provide in a dispute other claims to waqf property. After the death of Fāṭima, one of his female relatives, members of several strands of the extended family rushed in to claim their shares of the benefits that formerly went to her and to her mother, who is only known as al-Khātūn (‘the lady’) before her:

    I gave the waqfiyya (kitāb waqf) of [the endowment in] Maʿlūlā and the agreement (muṣādaqa) between me and the Banū Nabhān and the wikāla that contains my wikāla, all of it in a white cotton bag, to shaykh Abū al-Faḍl because of the allotment of [the inheritance of] Bint al-Khātūn.

    [I added to this:] the proof of my kinship with the endower (thubūt nasabī li-l-wāqif), the proof that Fāṭima [bt. al-khātūn] and my mother had died before her mother, the allotment (ḥiṣṣa) of Bint al-Khātūn; she had a share until her death that her mother had transferred to her in the legal way (bi-l-ṭarīq al-sharʿī), and eleven Fatwas by Egyptians:

    1. Shaykh Zakariyyā al-Shāfiʿī
    2. Al-Khaṭīb al-wazīrī al-mālikī
    3. shaykh Burhān al-Dīn b. Abī Sharīf al-Shāfiʿī
    4. The ḥanbalī Qāḍī of Cairo
    5. Ibn al-Shiḥna al-Ḥanafī
    6. Shaykh Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ḥanafī
    7. Ibn al-Taqī al-Mālikī
    8. Ibn al-Dayrī al-Ḥanafī
    9. Al-Shīshnī (?) al-Ḥanbalī
    10. The Ḥanbalī Qāḍī of Damascus (shām)
    11. Qāḍī Kamāl al-Dīn ibn al-Nāsikh al-Mālikī

    On the agreement (muṣādaqa) [I added] 5 [fatwas, testimonies?] by:

    1. Shaykh Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ḥanafī
    2. Ibn al-Taqī al-Mālikī
    3. The ḥanbalī Qāḍī of Cairo
    4. Shaykh Zakariyyā al-Shāfiʿī
    5. Shaykh Tāj al-Dīn al-Shāfiʿī
    6. Ibn al-Ḥamrā al-Ḥanafī
    7. Al-ʿAskarī al-Ḥanbalī

    Furthermore, [I added] fatwas in my handwriting on the division into tenths (ʿushr), without writing anything on them, rough drafts in my handwriting on temporary rent (ujrat al-miyal), and fatwas in the handwriting of shaykh Burhān al-Dīn b. Abī Sharīf al-Shāfiʿī, which collect what he had written for me, [gap in the text].

    All of that was put in the basket in which are the letters/books (kutub).

    The camel and the stable

    The first entry…
    One idea for starting this blog came from my recent discovery of one of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s students: ʿUmar Sulṭān or Ibn Sulṭān. He received a biography in Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s work al-Kawākib al-Sāʾira, which to a large degree makes him seem an ordinary and decent scholar. Apparently, his private library was of some value and he allowed other readers generous access to it:

    He was beneficial to his regular visitors for they could read his books at his [place] and could borrow them. He dictated a number of books. At the end he endowed them.

    However, al-Ghazzī also mentions – I am not sure whether he does so critically or sniggering – that ʿUmar was made fun of by many of his contemporaries because of his appearance:

    He was tall, had long limbs, wore loose dress and a large beautiful turban. The unemployed or idle (baṭṭālūn) he summoned to study gave him the nickname “the camel”, sometimes even “the camel of the miḥmal”, and he withdrew from the people.

    Things got even worse, once ʿUmar decided to lease a village in the Bekaa valley. Among all the villages he selected for himself the one called al-Iṣṭabl (the stable) and thus gave his ridiculers yet more ammunition. While he was there to count the revenue, they lost no opportunity to play the game.

    His envious contemporaries would ask then: “Where is the camel?” And they would answer: “In the stable.”