Into Ibn Tulun’s library

My project is mostly concerned with Ibn Tulun’s own body of work, his own corpus. This focus has partially emerged due to my fascination with his organization of knowledge and partly due to constraints exerted by the current state of cataloguing. It is rather easy to find the author of any given manuscript but much more time-consuming to identify former owners of a manuscript. Today, however, let us take a look at which other books Ibn Tulun called his own.

First of all, there is manuscript evidence for Ibn Tulun’s ownership of certain manuscripts. He left his ex libris on the title page. It is rather simple and, may I say, humble in comparison with that of other historical figures, and only consists of four words: “min kutub Ibn Ṭūlūn” (see image).

London, British Library, MS MS Add. 23293, fol. 1a

Through this, I have been able—with the help of, among others, Luke Yarborough and Konrad Hirschler—to identify a total of four manuscripts, the above-shown one in London and three in Damascus.

The image further shows a second kind of note which assigns the manuscript to Ibn Tulun’s endowment in the ʿUmariyya (at the top of the page). Similar statements are found in two more manuscripts: Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, MS Majāmīʿ 748 (fol. 1a), and one part (fols. 24-33a) of Princeton, Firestone Library, MS Garrett 1032H (fol. 24a). This serves to show how difficult it can be to piece together an historical library whose components have been dispersed in libraries throughout the world.

Another way of reconstructing Ibn Tulun’s library beyond his own corpus might be offered by narrative sources, with all their issues and faults. Shortly, Fozia Bora’s monograph on chronicles as archives will come out, and I would argue that Ibn Tulun used at least some of his biographical dictionaries with a similar intention in mind. Much like his contemporary Ahmad Ibn Tawq used his diary-chronicle al-Taʿliq as a repository for summaries of legal cases, financial transactions, or the exchange of books, Ibn Tulun made similar use of his, arguably, latest and least formal biographical dictionary, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr (Forschungs- und Landesbibliothek Gotha, MS Orient A 1779).

In many respects, the archival aspects of this work outweigh the narrative ones. Ibn Tulun recounts in detail who heard his presentations, especially from his own compositions, and for whom he penned or extrapolated replies to their questions. In conjunction, this work serves as a register of Ibn Tulun’s scholarly credentials in the face of his lack of other documentary proof. He had lost his collected ijazas during the Ottoman conquest, and I would argue the peculiar switches from biographees to lengthy explanations of unrelated topics were to serve as a surrogate for that. However, thereby it often becomes—in style and/or content—much more reminiscent of Ibn Tawq’s text than of other biographical dictionaries.

This is also visible in the biography of “ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbd al-Laṭīf b. Muḥammad al-Farāʿī al-Khurāsānī al-Ḥanafī” (fols. 35b-36b). Initially, the biography runs as can be expected. The biographee’s name, date and place of birth, and education appear in their usual order. The slight difference is that Ibn Tulun encountered Abd Allah only in 939 AH when “he and his father came to us in Ṣāliḥiyya”. Thus, it might be said that he repeats here what they told him about Abd Allah’s prior education.

The length of the biography is surprising as Ibn Tulun’s relationship with Abd Allah lasted less than a year; Abd Allah died on 03.11.939. But it was a turbulent year. Apparently, Abd Allah was so set on going on the pilgrimage in this very year that he sold his daughter’s and his sister’s golden bracelets to fund the journey. Their relationship would not survive this. Overall, however, Ibn Tulun seems to have had a rather good opinion of this “Easterner”.

The reason, as in so many other cases, seems to have been their shared love for books and knowledge. And the books are interesting for the subject of this post. Both seem to have exchanged and debated books, even though Ibn Tulun frames these discussions rather as a situation where Abd Allah poses questions and he answers them. Nonetheless, his interest in what the other had to offer shine through his discourse.

Firstly, in addition to the works Abd Allah recited before “the shaykhs of Damascus”, he also “brought with him a ḥashiyya (gloss) by Abū Wardī al-ʿAjamī”, on which he questioned Ibn Tulun. In response, Ibn Tulun lent him “a majmūʿ (compilation) which contains the ḥāshiyya by the mentioned sayyid [Abū Wardī al-ʿAjamī] and the ḥāshiyyat al-maṭūl by Mawlānā-zādeh al-Khiṭāʾī and the ḥāshiyyat al-talwīḥ by Bālī Bāshā titled al-Yalmīḥ wa-l-talwīḥ ḥāshiyyat al-Saʿd al-Taftāzānī ʿalā al-tawḍīḥ li-ṣadr al-sharīʿa“.

The second instance happened when Abd Allah “found in the book market Kitāb ʿanwān [by?] al-Sharaf Ismāʿīl Ibn al-Maqarrī al-Yamanī al-Shāfiʿī. Then he came to me amazed by it. It contains five funūn: 1) ʿilm al-ʿurūḍ; 2) ʿilm al-tārīkh; 3) ʿilm al-naḥw; 4) ʿilm al-qāfiyya (rhyme); 5) the remainder is on Shāfiʿī fiqh.” Then, Ibn Tulun informed him about al-Suyūṭī’s book al-Nafḥa al-Miskiyya wa-l-Nafḥa al-makkiya which addresses these points. Its first pages are on ʿilm al-ʿurūḍ as well, the second [part] is on ʿilm al-maʿānī, the third on ʿilm al-badīʿ, the fourth is a biography of the author and the [last part] is on ʿilm al-naḥw. “Then I informed him about the Kitāb al-shajara fī fiqh al-Shāfiʿiyya by Abū al-Ḥusayn Aḥmad … b. Abī al-Khanājir al-Shāfiʿī, a unique book that he called Fulk al-fiqh; it contains 700 quaestiones.”

The third case, however, is the most pertinent for the present purpose. After Abd Allah’s death and burial are described, Ibn Tulun laments that the deceased had buried a number of books from him which he never returned. These books seem to have been his own property and thus a part of his library. They are listed below:

  1. Sharḥ al-qaṣāʾid al-thamāniyya al-muftataḥa bi-qaṣīdat al-Saqrāṭī by the imām Abū al-Faraj ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ismāʿīl al-Shāfiʿī, known as Abū Shāma; those are without doubt in his own hand [i.e. autographs];
  2. more Qaṣīdas by the shaykh of this commentator, Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Sakhāwī “which were not the al-sabʿ al-muʿallaqāt but the al-sabʿ al-murafaqāt(?)”;
  3. Kitāb mutashābih al-Qurʾān wa-l-ḥadīth by Shams al-Dīn Ibn al-Labbān(?);
  4. Tashtīr al-burda by our shaykh Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. ʿAtaba al-Maqdisī who versified it in the year 887 [implicit is quoted];
  5. The tasbīʿ [of the prior work?] by shaykh Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Dimashqī who completed it during a period in Mecca, which ended in Dhū al-Ḥijja 881 [implicit is quoted];
  6. Kitāb al-iḥāṭa bi-tārīkh gharnāṭa (Granada) by Lisān al-Dīn Ibn al-Khaṭīb which al-Badr al-Bashtakī has summarized and named Markaz al-iḥāṭa bi-udabāʾ Gharnāṭa; I had read (or is it: bequeathed it? – waqaftu ʿalayhi) in his handwriting in two volumes, and the chief judge Quṭb al-Dīn al-Khansarī(?) had bought it. It carries the handwriting of Abū al-Faḍl Ibn Ḥajar;
  7. Kitāb al-ʿināya bi-maʿrifat aḥādīth al-hidāya by Muḥyī al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Qādir b. Muḥ. al-Qurashī al-Ḥanafī, author of the Ṭabaqāt al-Ḥanafiyya and of al-Durar al-nīfā on the refutation by Abū Nība against Abū Ḥanīfa;
  8. al-Taysīr fī al-tafsīr by Abū ʿAlī ʿĀn(?) b. Ibrāhīm al-Ghaznawī;
  9. Iʿrāb al-Quryān by Muntakhab al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Abī al-ʿIzz Rashīd al-Hamdānī;
  10. a Majmūʿ of versifications (manāẓīm) of chief judge al-Muḥibb Ibn Shiḥna al-Ḥalabī al-Ḥanafī. It [includes] an arjūza poem on rhetorics (al-maʿānī wa-l-bayān), named Ḥalliyyat al-lisān in 100 bayt, and an arjūza poem on logic which is equally beneficial; and an arjūza on the Prophet’s biography which he called Siyar al-ḥūr ilā al-quṣūr which covers the period from the Prophet’s birth to the days of his daughter’s son Ḥasan [Ibn Tulun then lists a few other authors of versified sīras: al-Dīrīnī, al-ʿArāfī, al-Biqāʿī].

If anything, this long list of books that Ibn Tulun allowed Abd Allah to borrow demonstrates that they were close. I have argued in a recently published book chapter that book loans relied on strong social bonds between the parties involved. It is certainly intriguing that Ibn Tulun was so generous in sharing his precious books with someone he could not have known for very long at the time.

Moreover, as he describes several items in the list above in codicological detail, some of those might be identified in their current collections: nos. 1 and 6 in the authors’ own hands (as were probably the more recent nos. 4 and 5), no. 6 because of Ibn Hajar’s manuscript notes, and no. 10 because of its unique composition—these descriptions can, as Konrad Hirschler has shown with regard to the library catalogue of the Ashrafiyya mausoleum, lead to the manuscripts described.

And in this, Ibn Tulun’s Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr does serve as an archive, in this case of the manuscripts that had left his own possession by the time of writing.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Into Ibn Tulun’s library", in Damascus Anecdotes, September 1, 2019,

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