Teaching and transmission in 16th-century Damascus

The importance of any scholar can be justified with either of three arguments: They wrote many and important works, furthering one or even several disciplines; they taught many students who went on to become themselves important scholars; or people more generally benefited from their dispensation of helpful information. Ideally, a scholar would combine all of the above, which should reflect in them being appointed to influential positions in educational institutions. However, as today, so in the 16th century politics played a role in appointment processes, and often enough the person skillful in those could overcome someone more knowledgeable in the discipline to be taught.

The Ḥanafī scholar Ibn Ṭūlūn recorded the posts in which he served throughout his life in his autobiblio-/-biography al-Fulk al-mashḥūn{1}.(He also recorded his numerous works to proof that he was the right man for those jobs.) Whereas most of those positions were situated at smaller and often even humble institutions, which would have been reflected in the size of payment they offered, he Ibn Ṭūlūn also held positions in two of the most important institutions in his native Ṣāliḥiyya: he was the Ḥanafī teacher in the ʿUmariyya Madrasa (start 931 AH) and the imām of the Salīmiyya Madrasa (start 924 AH).

Toru Miura has argued in his recent monograph that the ʿUmariyya reached a period of decline almost exactly in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s lifetime, with its endowments being embezzled and teaching coming to a halt{2}. How can this argument be reconciled with the fact that Ibn Ṭūlūn did receive much of his education and transmissions at this institution?

The ʿUmariyya is mentioned throughout Ibn Ṭūlūn’s corpus but two works in particular give an impression as to the state of the madrasa at the time. One is his autobiblio-/-biography al-Fulk al-mashḥūn, where he lists the positions he held in his lifetime, including those of recited of one seventh of the Qurʾān and later Ḥanafī professor at the ʿUmariyya{3}. The second work is his late biographical work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr{4}. For around forty biographees, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions what he taught or transmitted to them, translating into roughly 200 acts of transmission. In eighty of these, he gives information on place and date of transmission. Only five of those are explicitly placed in the ʿUmariyya Madrasa; the four dated ones took place in 942, 945, 951, and 953 AH respectively.

All those instances happened more than a decade after Ibn Ṭūlūn started to teach there. It is probably his Ḥanafī professorship to which he refers in the two instances where he only states that someone attended his teachings (dars,durūs). None of the attendants he names were Ḥanafīs themselves, however: one was a Shāfiʿī and the other most likely a Ḥanbalī. In the remaining two acts of transmission, specific works are mentioned: once the “Sharḥ al-shudhūr by al-Jamāl Ibn Hishām” transmitted to a Shāfiʿī and once “al-Risāla by Abū Zayd on the Ḥanbalī madhhab” transmitted to a Ḥanbalī.

The frequency of teachings at the ʿUmariyya seems conspicuously low, which would support Miura’s decline argument. Even more so if we compare it with Ibn Ṭūlūn’s mentions of teachings at the Salīmiyya. The Salīmiyya is named as a place of transmission in a full 18 cases. Moreover, at least one act of transmission per year is documented between 935 and 951 (with the exception of 945, 946, and 948). People of all four law schools attended Ibn Ṭūlūn’s teachings there. One reason for this higher frequency is certainly the subject of his sessions.

As the imām of the Salīmiyya, Ibn Ṭūlūn mostly read ḥadīth which attracted larger crowds than other academic subjects. As Garrett Davidson has argued, these sessions should not even be understood in terms of education but rather in terms of transmission as devotion. In eight instances Ibn Ṭūlūn presided over recitations of the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī and in five over that of the Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim. In three more cases, he transmitted the Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī, a collection of thirty ḥadīth, in one case one of his own Arbaʿūn collections (of forty ḥadīth), and in six more cases his sessions revolved around transmission itself in the form of diverse Musalsalāt (chains of transmission).

More than 100 of the mentioned acts of transmission lacking either place or date. As Ibn Ṭūlūn’s documentation of his activities at the Salīmiyya indicates, the subject of teaching or transmission does more or less correlate with a specific site of transmission. This is even more the case when more educational texts are concerned, as ḥadīth transmission could—and indeed did—take place in a variety of places. Following this correlation might thus reveal more acts of transmission at the ʿUmariyya.

Ibn Ṭūlūn recorded that on 24.3.953 he taught al-Muqaddima al-Ajurūmiyya and its commentary by shaykh Khālid al-Azharī in the Umayyad Mosque and the ʿUmariyya Madrasa. The two works are mentioned together two more times (both in the 940s) and I propose that these acts of transmission equally took place at those two sites. I have argued in a similar line for the transmission of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s own compositions before. In one case, the two works are mentioned with Khālid’s commentary on the Muqaddima al-Azhariyya, indicating that the two works and their respective commentaries were part of a set curriculum for education in grammar (although not all biographees attended it in full).

To move further into the realm of conjecture, Ibn Ṭūlūn’s teaching on grammar seems to have generally taken place at the two sites mentioned above. Therefore, the count of acts of transmission at the ʿUmariyya could further include all mentions of “muqaddimas” in grammar and Arabic, as well as his general statement that people “heard Arabic” from him. And the above-mentioned Sharḥ al-Shudhūr by al-Jamāl Ibn Hishām was itself a pedagogical work on Arabic.

Taking into account that Ibn Ṭūlūn commenced his position at the ʿUmariyya in the 930s, a full 29 acts of transmission can thus be placed at the ʿUmariyya (probably mostly in conjunction with the Umayyad Mosque). Fifteen of those can be dated (through circumstantial evidence) between 939 and 951 AH. Moreover, if we include these additional acts of transmission, it becomes clear that the teaching of grammar at the madrasa equally catered to adherents of all four law schools.

Miura’s argument cannot be disavowed completely by these numbers but they present a more nuanced image. In the 10th/16th century, the ʿUmariyya remained a site of knowledge transmission. In fact, Ibn Ṭūlūn can probably be considered amongst its most important professors. However, the data presented here indicates that the ʿUmariyya rather served as an institution of preliminary education in terms of jurisprudence. There is no evidence that Ibn Ṭūlūn regularly taught curricula beyond grammar. In conjunction with the conspicuous connection to the Umayyad Mosque, this implies that the madrasa had indeed lost much of its former status as an independent institution of legal education.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Teaching and transmission in 16th-century Damascus", in Damascus Anecdotes, November 17, 2019, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/1600.
  1. Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. al-Fulk al-mashḥūn fī aḥwāl Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn. Edited by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al- Munajjid. Damascus: Maṭbaʿat at-Taraqqī, 1929. []
  2. Miura, Toru. Dynamism in the Urban Society of Damascus. The Ṣāliḥiyya Quarter From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Centuries. Leiden: Brill, 2016, 100-102, 175 []
  3. Ibn Ṭūlūn. al-Fulk al-mashḥūn fī aḥwāl Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn. Edited by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al- Munajjid. Damascus: Maṭbaʿat at-Taraqqī, 1929, 22-24 []
  4. Ibn Ṭūlūn. “Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr.” Forschungs- und Landesbibliothek Gotha, MS Orient A 1779 []

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