Of what a biographer approves: The case of Akmal al-Din Ibn Muflih

This short post revolves around a short biography of Akmal al-Din Ibn Muflih, a somewhat elusive figure of early Ottoman Damascus. He was Ibn Tulun’s most visible student; that is, his handwriting is found in many of his teacher’s autographs. Yet, little substantial information can be found on him in the biographical literature. In this and several future posts, we will see that even the most basic facts of his career become uncertain once biographical accounts are compared. But first, this post introduces a rather late description which concentrates rather on Ibn Muflih’s contributions to the Arabic manuscript tradition.

The following account is taken from the Mukhtaṣar Ṭabaqāt al-Hanābila, a work published in print by Muhammad Jamil al-Shatti in Damascus in 1920. This work is only 186 pages long and still offers a—selective and localized—overview of the Hanbali tradition from its foundation to the 20th century. It consists of three “Generations” (ṭabaqāt), and each one of those was based on a different source text.

The first “Generation” which spans from Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal to Ala al-Din al-Mardawi (d. 1480) was abridged from al-ʿUlaymi’s earlier Ṭabaqāt work. The second “Generation” then begins with al-ʿUlaymi’s biography and ends right before its author’s biography. That part rests on Kamal al-Din al-Ghazzi’s continuation of al-ʿUlaymi’s work. The final part moves from al-Ghazzi’s biography to that of Muhammad Jamil’s own father, ʿUmar al-Shatti, who died 1918-19. It is partly developed from a rough draft of ʿUmar’s brother Murad (d. 1896).

The Muflih family appears frequently in the first two “Generations” as might be expected from any Damascene account of the Hanbali tradition. “Our” Akmal al-Din appears in the second part and receives almost a page and a half to himself (pp. 93-95). Now, not all the information given in this account necessarily cam from Muhammad Jamil’s early 20th-century view point but rather from al-Ghazzi’s late 18th-century perspective. This will become somewhat important in the following.

First of all, the account provides all the staples of a biography: the full name and pedigree as well as the moniker by which Akmal al-Din was known, “Qadi Akmal Ibn Muflih al-Ramini al-Maqdisi” (93). We learn when and where he was born and with whom he studied. Ibn Tulun is mentioned third in the list after Akmal’s father and Qutb al-Din Ibn Sultan. Basically, the following list is a Who’s Who of early Ottoman Damascene scholarly society in itself (including two members of the Ghazzi family). I am more interested in what follows:

“his handwriting was beautiful; he wrote in a number of books and majmuʿas; his penmanship is splendid and distinct; he was a versatile scribe and he put it in circular, oblong, square or other shapes. He wrote beautiful works:

1) a history from Adam to sultan Qāʾitbāy;

2) a qiṭʿa on the history of Damascus and what is important from it;

3) A book on the Ḥanbalī judges who were independent from the kings of Egypt;

4) a Risāla on the life dates of the prophets from Adam to our Prophet Muḥammad;

5) a Risāla on the period of the Caliphs after Muḥammad;

6) Risāla fī dhikr akhbār al-mulūk al-miṣriyya;

7) an abridgement of Abū Shāma’s history of the Zengids and Ayyubids; and much more such as Taʿlīqs, Fāʾidas, poems, adabiyyāt, and Tārīkhiyyāt […]|

al-Shaṭṭī, Muḥammad Jamīl Afandī. Mukhtaṣar Ṭabaqāt Al-ḥanābila. Damascus: Maṭbaʿat al-Taraqqī, 1920, 94.

Much of this information would admittedly also belong to the staples of a biography, notably the list of Ibn Muflih’s—arguably—most relevant works. But the focus on his activities in terms of calligraphy are far less common, at least in the level of detail applied. The same goes for the more ephemeral contributions in the form notes and fa’idas.

The question now is, to whom can we attribute this assessment. The description of Ibn Muflih’s layout choices to place his notes in frames of different shapes agrees very much with what I have seen of his manuscript engagements and particularly his own commonplace books. Therefore, it presupposes access to at least some of his manuscripts by the person who made that statement. And as there was a century between al-Ghazzi and al-Shatti, this would tell us something about the movement of Ibn Muflih’s manuscripts.

I do not have a conclusive answer to that question but can only provide some additional circumstantial evidence. al-Shatti shows in general a concern over calligraphic skills, particularly in the biographies of members of his own family. The very first biography of a Shatti introduces him as “shaykh ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Khaṭṭāṭ”, i.e. the calligrapher (152-53), and it contains a segment (“tadhyīl“) at the end which introduces all the other family members of some skill in this craft. Al-Shatti further emphasizes the calligraphic skills of his uncle Murad. And all those appear in the final “Generation”. Thus, it would make sense that he would recognize Ibn Muflih’s skills.

On the other hand, the account itself suggests that the statement itself was made by al-Ghazzi. Only after the cited passage we find the ominous phrase “intahā”, which suggests the end of a quote. It is followed by a direct statement of “the mukhtaṣir”, i.e. the one who abridges the work. I take this to mean Muḥammad Jamīl, who states that with Akmal the Muflih family vanished from the (biographical) sources even though they had been a great and renowned family whose members had, allegedly, turned their back on administering endowments and holding official positions. Muhammad Jamil wonders why then Akmal had taken up the judgeship.

In fact, the Muflih family had joined the competition over positions long before Akmal. However, as will be shown in future posts, Akmal’s judgeship was also debated in other terms in his biographies. Quite divergent judgeships and periods during which he held (if ever) a judgeship in Damascus.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Of what a biographer approves: The case of Akmal al-Din Ibn Muflih", in Damascus Anecdotes, January 19, 2020, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/1900.

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