Introducing: Dunya bint Ismaʾil

Today we return to a work that has been a staple on this blog, Ibn Ṭūlūn’s al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya. In this and the following entries, I will introduce the few women that the author included in this biographical dictionary.

As other authors before him, he collected these biographies in a separate chapter (bāb al-nisāʾ) towards the end of the book. Unlike his immediate Egyptian predecessor al-Sakhāwī, Ibn Ṭūlūn does not pay much attention to women, however. The chapter consists of only three rather short biographies.

So why does Ibn Tulun mention so few of them? This question is even more relevant as Damascene women in particular were instrumental to the local transmission of hadith throughout the Mamluk Era if not the entire Middle Periods. This might be even more surprising as they had their greatest visibility only one generation prior, in al-Sakhawi’s work al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ. There are two possible explanations that come to mind immediately.

One is situated in the compositional idea of the work, that is the focus on Hanafis. The women most central to Damascene hadith transmission belonged to longstanding families involved in this tradition. Those families were, however, to a large extent, connected to the Hanbali rite. Did the madhhab affiliation result in relevant differences in the participation of women in knowledge transmission?

We should also consider the intended audience of the work. There are some indications that al-Ghuraf could have been composed for an Ottoman audience if not as a literary offering to a high-ranking officer, administrator or even the sultan himself. Therefore, Ibn Ṭūlūn cast a wide net of notable figures, mostly from the former Mamluk realms. The often local impact of women on the transmission of knowledge might not have been that suited for the goal he had in mind. 

The first entry in the very short chapter is on Dunya bt. Ismāʿīl and it will be given in the following both in English translation and in the Arabic original. Both follow MS Süleymaniye Library, Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, fol. 358b:

دنيا بنت اسماعيل
بن حسن بن علي بن بشارة الحنفية سمعت مجلسا السلمي وابن بالرية على ابي نصر(؟) بن
السيدوي بمسجد العامود بالمزة ورايت على كتاب العلم لابي خيثمه(؟) زهير انه مسموع
بمسجد يعرف بعمود الخلق داخل باب الصغير قلت ولعله المشهور في عصرنا بسيدي
عامود وقد جدده الامير الرجبي والله اعلم


Dunyā bt. Ismāʿīl b. Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Bashāra al-Ḥanafiyya: she attended the session (majlis) of al-Sulamī and of Ibn bi-l-Riyya before Abū Naṣr Ibn al-Saydawī in the ʿĀmūd mosque in al-Mizza [a suburb of Damascus]. In the Kitāb al-ʿilm by Abū Khaythamah(?) Zuhayr(?) I saw  that the reading [actually] took place in a mosque known as “pillar of creation” [which is] inside the Bāb al-ṣaghīr [one of the city gates of Damascus]. I say: perhaps it [is the one that is] known in our age as “Sīdī ʿĀmūd” which has been renovated/restored by the amīr Rajab—God knows best!

In this case, more than in the two to follow, the female biographee serves as kind of an apropos. Ibn Ṭūlūn does not relate much about her, her life or his reasons why he included her in his book. The entire “biography” moves along associations, leading from Dunyā’s participation in the oral/aural transmission of knowledge to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s own research based on written sources up to his own times and, thus, observations. 

One could say that the masjid ʿĀmūd is the real protagonist of the short text. It is the center of attention, at the very least. But in truth, the text equally revolves around Ibn Ṭūlūn, showcasing his erudition and abilities to bring together a (relatively) wide array of sources in his effort of localizing the mosque. This is even clearer in such a short entry than in longer ones, where his own voice might be kept in the background between quotes from distinguished authorities such as al-Ṣafadī, al-Dhahabī or Ibn ʿAsākir.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Introducing: Dunya bint Ismaʾil", in Damascus Anecdotes, June 2, 2019,

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