A note on Nelly Hanna’s “In Praise of Books”

Only recently, I finished reading Nelly Hanna’s 2004 monograph “In Praise of Books”. Honestly, while the book raises some interesting questions, it has not aged all that well.

But first, what is it about? It is less about the books mentioned in the title and more about “A cultural History of Cairo’s Middle Class, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century” as the subtitle clarifies. In this context, Hanna argues that the written word became more important than it was before, and that it now began to reach well beyond the academe of the time, namely the ʿulamāʾ circles.

Yet, the book’s argument is kind of circular and it proves the emergence and then existence of a so-called middle class (before the term existed) during the Early Modern period by referring to texts that either catered to that class’ interests or were written by members of that class, and it equally relies on the hypothesis of the existence of such a class in order to argue for those same practices of textual reception. I might be nit-picking here but it kept bothering me that this conundrum is never being satisfactorily resolved.

I have several issues with how the book does that but one of the most pertinent, I guess, is that instead of challenging the modernization paradigm itself and replace it with something new, it just modifies the periodization of that paradigm. Arguing against the established notion of the beginning of — especially Egyptian — modern history with the introduction of book print in the 19th century (and somehow connected to the French expedition starting in 1798), she pushes the paradigm shift back towards the late middle ages, either the fifteenth or sixteenth century. This is not entirely clear.

Thus she finds important criteria by which earlier scholars of the subject discerned the nineteenth from earlier centuries already in her period of investigation. That is in itself an important find even where it is not done all too carefully. But what upsets me, is that she describes those phenomena as something that only emerges in the seventeenth centuries, aspects like book markets, silent reading practices, literature that was not purely concerned with legal, doctrinal, or devotional matters. The same goes for legal procedure and its use of written documents. This was not new to this period as I have shown on this blog before.

Those phenomena were not new in themselves but I would agree with Hanna that they appeared in a new constellation during her period of study. And new practices of book ownership are probably discernible as well. The transmission of books as units of knowledge had changed since Mamluk times, perhaps allowing a greater number of people to build lasting private libraries? Or perhaps privately owned libraries began to serve some functions that used to be fulfilled by endowed libraries in older times? There is probably more than one answer for this complex issue.

Finally, Hanna poses some justified demands towards other scholars of this period. What resonated with me in particular, is the urge to contextualize authors to better understand their positionality within their own society:

The whole domain of the class background of writers, thinkers, and intellectuals, in the Ottoman Empire in general and in the Arab[ic]-speaking lands ion particular, is waiting for further exploration. Literary production is often studied independent of its class, and few studies have gone into this issue at any length. (p. 117)

Yet, I would also argue that her own framework for describing society has not aged all that well. Her use of the term ʿulamāʾ as a class marker does not stand up to scrutiny. The term denotes a status group that in most times cut across classes and strata. Perhaps that was partly its function, to obscure the advantages a wealthy and well-connected background offered a student who would not have been able to compete with others on basis of academic merit alone?

The term also bespeaks the centrality of the search for knowledge (ṭalab al-ʿilm) as a societal duty and individual merit. And one could earn the honorary of ʿālim, one who knows, for rather small deeds as well (although, I guess, one still needed the right connections to be recorded as such in one of the biographical dictionaries). An ʿālim was not necessarily someone who was rewarded in the form of devotional or educational or administrative post, and the term does definitely not indicate in and of itself class membership of any kind.

The attempt to cast ‘ʿulamāʾ’ as a marker of social class is pervasive in older scholarship, as I have argued elsewhere. Yet, it seems to me that Hanna adopts in it a different way, one that is built upon a prejudice common in Egyptian National Historiography (and history textbooks) which somewhat follows colonialist approaches in casting the groups of the Egyptian Mamluks and the ʿulamāʾ as paragons of traditionalism, those who kept Egypt in “the Dark Ages” until Muhammad ʿAlī finally pulled the country into the light of modernity. (That whole paragraph should be read as carrying quotation marks.)

Anachronism is also apparent in Hanna’s distinction of what constitutes the literature of the ʿulamāʾ and what that of the middle class. Although she admits that the most common book among their possessions was the Dalāʾil al-Khayrāt, a prayer book, she coins it as a product of Sufism, and thus something the middle class could relate to. Otherwise, their literature is defined by its “non-religious” or even “secular” content. Yet, Sufis were considered ʿulamāʾ as well by the ʿulamāʾ and, arguably, by themselves as well (see the four posts on the Ḥabashī Sufi Mubārak, the linked post includes links to the other three).

And there I see a second big problem. One, what is religion and what not? And two, did the ʿulamāʾ only write about “religion”? And did they write only for themselves? I would propose to leave the first question as such aside. It is not helpful for understanding the literature of the era as almost no author would have framed their work as non-religious.

Much more helpful I find the distinction between serious and entertaining literature, which was, at times, seen critical by some. Those critics might regard that kind of literature an important part of controversial practices of “leisure and games” (laḥw wa-laʿab). But this was not an accusation that “the ʿulamāʾ” used to control “the middle class” but they frequently made use of it against each other. For instance, Najm al-Din al-Ghazzi complained that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s student and later judge Akmal al-Din Ibn Muflih “was shameless and loved buffoonery” or “met [others] at night for leisure and games”. He apparently indulged in these pastimes to such an extent that “people made up rhymes about him”.

So, my take from all of this is twofold. First, I would say that a lot of the phenomena described by Hanna already apply to earlier periods. Yes, we do have large numbers of 17th- and 18th-century manuscript copies that diverge from an academic canon than for earlier periods. That bespeaks to a considerable interest in such topics. But does it equally mean that this interest in itself was new?

Hanna’s insistence on the importance of affordable paper of good quality, for example, is original and insightful as current research continues prove. However, this was only the second (or, perhaps, third?) paper revolution which sparked writerly production in the entire region, and by itself supply is obviously not sufficient for any explanatory model. There needs to be demand as well.

I would instead pose that due to the new constellation during that period and, yes, partly due to the changes in manuscript circulation that occurred during the 19th century with the transfer of large numbers of those manuscripts to new contexts, namely national libraries, public libraries, and privately owned but publicly accessible libraries, more of those manuscripts survive and are accessible for readers and scholars. Even off-site enabled by the proliferation of catalogues in print and, recently, online.

The issue for earlier time periods is the survival, or at least integral survival, of manuscripts, which makes it more difficult to assess what was actually read, recited, or ordered to be copied. And that problem is more pertinent for those disciplines of knowledge production or genres of literary production which did not have an infrastructure in place that supported their preservation. Of those literary genres, we often have only the younger copies and not the older ones.

And that would actually speak for their circulation. Texts that were recited in public settings would not be bound but kept in the form of single quires, enough for a reading session. Only once those texts were also produced for reading in domestic settings and thus became part of private libraries we find surviving copies—exactly because they were used at lower frequencies and with less risk of damage or destruction. Or does that go too far?

Domesticity has proven a helpful category in research on the Ottoman and the Mughal court recently, and it might offer interesting new routes into the history of proto-middle classes as well. Especially, if we connect it with class and the underlying infrastructures of book culture.

And, finally, my second take: As far as I am qualified to speak about Ibn Tulun’s written corpus, a lot of Hanna’s “new” topics already appear in it. There is a strong impulse to convey the current colloquial language in several of his works. His biographer Ibn Ayyub even scolds him for it. His own language is not free from grammatical mistakes either. And, this is noteworthy, nonetheless, Ibn Ayyub also praises him for being an important grammarian. Yes, he made mistakes but he also advanced knowledge in general. But would he be considered middle class for those reasons? Or would he be excluded from such a categorization for being an ʿālim?

More importantly, it is clear from his works that his audience was far wider than academic circles. In fact, he emphasizes readings of those of his works that took place at devotional, not primarily educational sites. You can look up my post “Let’s talk survival bias” about this. In the same vain, the so-called “religious” topics can basically not be separated from the “non-religious” ones in practice. Hadith is interwoven with natural observations on plants or animals or food stuffs or table etiquette…, the list goes on.

As soon as one leaves the curriculum necessary to be fit for certain positions, knowledge becomes a much more fluid matter, one that transcends notions of a class structure. And this does not start with some obscure disciplines but rather already with the central field of ḥadīth transmission. And whether the reason for that was a “market demand” for education or entertainment or even edutainment, is one of Hanna’s questions that we also should explore for earlier periods than the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Torsten Wollina (October 21, 2018). A note on Nelly Hanna’s “In Praise of Books” Damascus Anecdotes. Retrieved July 16, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/ur64

2 Replies to “A note on Nelly Hanna’s “In Praise of Books””

  1. Hanna’s interests are in the Ottoman history of the Arab world (1500-1800) with a special focus on the economic, social and cultural aspects of this period. Her interest in this period started with a study of middle class housing in h and h century Cairo, undertaken both as an archival study based on court records and a study of the architecture of remaining houses. While researching this subject in archives, she became interested in the material she found on a h century merchant, who eventually became the subject of a book, which explored his life, his business ventures and his family. The research for this book entailed much reading on economic history. Her subsequent research broadened the geographical sphere which allowed her to study Egypt in the context of Mediterranean history and of world history.

    1. Thanks for the summary. Does that devalue what I had to say about the book and particularly how it fulfills what the title promises?

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