Making books as an archival practice

Usually, posts are published on Sundays. This is an exception because today (when this is published) is my birthday. And I thought this enough to change the rule for once (and it’s more of a guideline anyway). In this post, we return to one person who has fascinated me for a while now and who has been featured here before: the Damascene book collector ʿAbd al-Salām al-Shaṭṭī. However, this time we are not just interested in his connections to Ibn Ṭūlūn manuscripts but rather in how he engaged with manuscripts for the sake of archival practices.

Of course, this brings us back to one of my favorite academic books of 2019: in A Monument to Medieval Syrian Book Culture, Konrad Hirschler has convincingly shown how much our current knowledge of, in particular, ḥadīth culture does, in fact, rest on the major collection and compilation project of Yūsuf Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī (1437-1503). Scouring the manuscript, paper, and trinket markets of Damascus, he created the titular monument to practices already past in his lifetime, saving large numbers of certificates naming people attending ḥadīth sessions over several centuries.

Although Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s project is certainly exceptional in its sheer size, is not in its impulse or general direction, as we will see. This archival impulse was rather the cause for a considerable number of codices being created across a wide geographical and temporal range. Someone would bind pages or quires, carrying their and/or someone else’s handwriting, into a codex. This always came with consequences, however.

On the one hand, being bound between protective covers helped those pages—be they literary texts or relevant documents—survive a lot longer, not the least because they were now regarded books and handled accordingly. This also meant that they would end up in the book instead of the trinket market (where loose pages and quires were traded).

On the other hand, being bound into a (more or less) fixed codex changed how those pages or quires were handled. As Hirschler also shows, most of the texts in the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī corpus originally circulated not as books but as smaller items, sometimes bound, sometimes not. This allowed for carrying them around with ease as well as adding additional folios on the outside of a quire, adding space for e.g. more certifications of transmission.

One advantage offered by the compilation of texts into a codex, which was emphasized in volume 9 of Studies in Manuscript Cultures published by the Hamburg-based Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, is that the compiler had relatively great liberties in fashioning a certain image of themselves or of a certain subject or tradition. Although not every such multiple-text manuscript would technically qualify as an anthology, they often come close.

Most people who have heard of ʿAbd al-Salām al-Shaṭṭī before know him as the maternal grandfather of the biographer and prolific publisher of manuscript editions, Muḥammad Jamīl al-Shaṭṭī (d. 1959). Or they might know him as an avid collector of manuscripts, about thirty of which have been identified through his annotations. They might even know him for his small Dīwān, published in print by his grandson, or for his own 1864 print edition of the Awrād of ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulsī (see its last page below).

ʿAbd al-Salām al-Shaṭṭī (ed.), Awrād ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulsī, Damascus, 1864.

What, however, is much lesser known is that ʿAbd al-Salām did not only collect manuscripts but also compiled many of them in their current form and composition. In a certain way, he can be compared to Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī in that respect, although his project seems to have served much more limited aims, which I cannot claim to fully understand yet.

However, it seems clear to me that ʿAbd al-Salām’s compilations were not only guided by opportunity. As this is the subject of several articles currently awaiting publication, I cannot go into too much detail here about a number of specific manuscripts—among them two connected to Ibn Ṭūlūn. I have created a timeline of his acquisitions of manuscript parts, however, which I can share and which demonstrates that his collection activities spanned about a decade-and-a-half. Some of his manuscripts include parts from the beginning to the end of this temporal range.

Timeline of ʿAbd al-Salām’s dated ownership notes for parts of manuscripts identified as his property. Dates are given according to Ḥijra dates, which refer to the years 1856-1871.

ʿAbd al-Salām inscribed himself in a number of ways in his manuscripts, including reading notes, waqf-notes, title and content statements. However, those are often not dated, and their temporality will be the subject of a book chapter scheduled to be published later this year. This discussion will be restricted to ownership notes.

One example which shows all of this very nicely, is MS Muṣṭalaḥ Ḥadīth Taymūr 49 of the Egyptian National Library in Cairo. (As an aside, this manuscript shows that the ‘book drain’ was not exclusively a European or Western endeavor.)

ʿAbd al-Salām’s annotations on MS Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Muṣṭalaḥ Ḥadīth Taymūr 49, fol. 3a.

Let’s look at the beginning of the manuscript, where ʿAbd al-Salām’s annotations are concentrated. On the right, you can see the very end of once-owner Aḥmad Taymūr‘s table of contents for the manuscript. On the left, you see ʿAbd al-Salām’s title page. On the top of the page, there is a waqf note, and below it towards the outer edge is his ownership note. Also, most of the lower page is covered in his handwriting. The entries below the title statement (in broader strokes), he wrote a contents statement, each entry taking the shape of an inverted triangle. Un fortunately, the lowest entries are not really legible in the scan.

From that already emerges that this is a compiled manuscript, and ʿAbd al-Salām’s contents statement suggests that he compiled it in its present form. This impression is further supported by his frequently repeated annotations at the beginning of each text within the manuscript (see e.g. fol. 23a below, which displays another waqf and ownership note as well as a title statement for the following text).

ʿAbd al-Salām’s annotations on MS Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Muṣṭalaḥ Ḥadīth Taymūr 49, fol. 23a.

The whole manuscript is comprised of texts revolving around the certification of transmission, which were written by the authorities themselves. Nonetheless, the frequent presence of ʿAbd al-Salām’s handwriting signifies this manuscript very much as his own at the same time.

In fact, as the following table demonstrates, through the arrangement of these documentary texts, ʿAbd al-Salām created proof of the tradition of transmission in which he placed himself. By compiling these thabats and ijāzas into one volume, it served as an archive of his own credentials as an “Atharī”. To achieve that, he relied on archival practices comparable to those employed by Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī, although for a much more limited goal.

Author/TraditionaryWorkAuthor’s date of death
Maḥmūd al-Baylūniijāzāt1599
Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzīijāzāt1651
ʿAlī al-UjhūrīMuqaddima fī faḍl ʿāshūrāʾ1656
Ayyūb al-Khalwātīijāzāt; Risāla fī ʿilm al-ḥarf1661
Aḥmad al-ṢafadīTakhmīs al-qaṣīda al-muḍriyya1688
Abū al-Mawāhib al-ḤanbalīThabat1714
Muḥammad al-Kāmilī al-ShāfiʿīThabat1719
ʿAbd al-Qādir al-TaghlabīThabat1723
Yūsuf al-MiṣrīThabat1730
al-Nābulsīijāzāt; ijāzāt1731
Muḥammad al-Khalīlī al-ShāfiʿīThabat1734
Ismāʿīl al-ʿAjlūnīArbaʿūn ḥadīthan1749
Aḥmad al-ʿAṭṭārThabat1804
Ghanām al-ZubayrīArbaʿa ajwiba fī al-ʿaqāʾid1820
Marʿī al-MaqdisīRisāla fī al-talfīq1820
Muṣtafā al-Suyūṭī al-ḤanbalīThabat1827
al-Amīr al-ṣaghīr al-Miṣrīal-Risāla al-ʿāshūriyya1832
al-Kuzbarīijāzāt; Thabat1846
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kharbūtīijāzāt1850
Aḥmad al-BaghghālThabat1853
Ibrāhīm al-Bājūrīijāzāt1860
Jamāl al-Makkīijāzāt1870
Aḥmad al-Ḥalabīijāzāt1880
Aḥmad al-Ḥusaynīijāzāt1880
Dāwud al-Khālidīijāzāt1880
Ibrāhīm al-Saqqāʾijāzāt1880
Muṣṭafā al-Muballaṭijāzāt1880
Muḥammad al-Bannāʾijāzāt1896
anonym.Nubdha bi-hā muqaṭṭaʿāt wa-qaṣāʾid
ʿAbd al-Maʿaṭī al-Khalīlīijāzāt
ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Ḥanbalīijāzāt
Table of texts contained in MS Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Muṣṭalaḥ Ḥadīth Taymūr 49.

Although the multiple-text or composite manuscript is ubiquitous throughout time and space, we are still at the very beginning in taking them serious as an archival practice, guided by a certain archival logic. Especially, where we can identify a compiler, this should not simply be ruled out. After all, they invested time, and often money, in creating these books from smaller items. In a way, they resemble dīwāns or anthologies, and should be treated with a similar attention to intertextual connections between their individual parts.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Making books as an archival practice", in Damascus Anecdotes, September 8, 2020,

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