A whole Majmūʿa copied? MS Majāmīʿ 315

In March, I returned to the Dār al-Kutub in Cairo and spent a whole week with their collection. Ibn Ṭūlūn’s name pops up very often in the different collections of the Dār al-Kutub. The earliest acquisitions are certainly found in the Taymūriyya Library, whereas the general collection seems to have made a bulk order of Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs only by the early 1930s.

Aḥmad Taymūr did not only acquire “originals”, however; he also created copies. One modern way of bridging the gap between both was photography, and Taymūr made ample use of it to create facsimiles of autographs. At literally the same time, he also hired copyists to ensure he had personal copies of Ibn Ṭūlūn texts. One of the most intriguing one is MS Majāmīʿ 315 because it is not a copy of one text but rather of an entire multiple-text manuscript.

Oddly enough, MS Majāmīʿ 315 does not have a call number referring to his own collection. Yet, it does carry his stamp on the first and last page, one time in red and another time in blue. It contains 533 pages of 22,7 x 17,2 cm, each filled with 15 lines of text. The writing is larger and spaces between lines – as well as the margins – are much more generous than in Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs. Together, this would account for the volume’s thickness.

Headings are written in red ink and larger script, being aligned centrally in the page. The paper is of good quality and of white color, the very prominent watermark reading “Gouvernement Egyptien 1915-1917”. The dating of the copy is made even more precise by a note below a contents statement on a separate leave: 1336/1917-18 (the copyist is not named). The leave is of brown color. On the top of it is stated that all works (rasāʾil) in this manuscript were originally authored by Ibn Ṭūlūn. The page’s center is occupied by the contents statement, which includes eleven entries:

  1. al-ʿUqūd al-durriyya fī al-umarāʾ al-miṣriyya
  2. Nafaḥāt al-zahr fī dhawq ahl al-ʿaṣr
  3. Al-taʿrīf li-fann al-taṣḥīf
  4. Araj al-nasamāt fī aʿmār al-makhlūqāt
  5. al-Mulḥa fīmā warada fī aṣl al-subḥa
  6. al-Naḥla li-mā warada fī al-nakhla
  7. Ibtisām al-thughūr ʿammā qīla fī nafʿ al-zuhūr
  8. Laqsh al-ḥanak fīmā warada fī al-samak
  9. Risāla fī al-fīl [incomplete at the beginning]
  10. Sharḥ al-ṣudūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakhkh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr
  11. Tuḥfat al-aḥbāb fī manṭaq al-ṭayr wa-l-dawābb

Taymūr had this copy made from a manuscript containing exclusively Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs. It is now, and might have been back then, part of the library of the Baladiyya of Alexandria. Stephan Conermann records it in his biographical article of Ibn Ṭūlūn as MS Alex. Fun. 183. According to Conermann, it does contain 14 textual units in total, including all of those mentioned above. Even though it might seem like unnecessary repetition, I will reproduce the list for MS Alex. Fun. 183 here:

  1. Ijāza
  2. al-Naḥla li-mā warada fī al-nakhla
  3. ʿUnwān al-rasāʾil li-maʿrifat al-awāʾil [includ.: al-Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan fī ḍamn ʿunwān al-rasāʾil fī maʿrifat al-awāʾil]
  4. Irtiyāḥ al-khawāṭir fī maʿrifat al-awākhir
  5. Risāla fī al-fīl
  6. Laqs al-ḥanak fīmā qīla fī al-samak
  7. Sharḥ al-ṣudūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakhkh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr
  8. Ibtisām al-thughūr fīmā qīla fī nafʿ al-zuhūr
  9. Tuḥfat al-aḥbāb fī manṭaq al-ṭayr wa-l-dawābb
  10. Araj al-nasamāt fī aʿmār al-makhlūqāt
  11. al-Mulḥā fīmā warada fī al-subḥa
  12. Nafaḥāt al-zahr fī dhawq ahl al-ʿaṣr
  13. al-Taʿrīf fī fann al-taṣḥif
  14. al-ʿUqūd al-durriyya fī al-ʿumarāʾ al-miṣriyya

Two things should become immediately apparent in a comparison between both contents statements. First, what was taken out? Taymūr apparently shed his own recreation of the manuscript from all works related to ḥadīth transmission (in bold), including the ijāza (although this entry probably refers to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s original contents statement, which was a preferred place for people to document their ijāzas from him). While the two works, ʿunwān al-rasāʾil and Irtiyāḥ al-khawāṭir, were also copied, they were put in separate manuscripts. This obviously sets the remaining works in a very different framework than the original one.

Other ḥadīth works are kept, this knowledge is not declared void. But the genres dedicated to documenting the transmission itself seems not to have had any value for Taymūr. Secondly, this coincides with a restructuring of the manuscript, putting the once final text on rulers of Egypt first. Also, the longest work, Nafaḥāt al-zahr fī dhawq ahl al-ʿaṣr, is moved up to second place. Other works, discussing certain wildlife themes, have been brought into a more systematic form, beginning now with the general makhlūqāt and only later addressing specific kinds of flora and fauna: the date palm, flowers, fish, birds, and mounts or pack animals (I am uncertain, however, whether Ibn Ṭūlūn really talks about elephants or rather the Quranic Sura by that name).

Even though the multiple-text manuscript is not reproduced exactly as it was, MS Majāmīʿ 315 is exemplary in that it selects and reshapes the contents of only this one source manuscript.



Biography of a Crustacian

Sometimes, I just wish I could follow all those leads that Ibn Ṭūlūn has dispersed amongst his many works… . Well, maybe in another project. I have pointed it out before that Early Modern Damascene biographers might secretly have been jokers or a little bit too fond of animal life. Wouldn’t it be enjoyable just to explore that in more detail? For those who plan to do so, definitely check out the Blog Colonizing Animals, and in particular its annotated Beastly Bibliography.

Ibn Ṭūlūn’s latest biographical dictionary, al-Dhakhāʾir al-Qaṣr, in particular often enough lets you forget that it is supposed to inform you about notable figures of the times. Instead, within many biographies it rather resembles George Stimpson’s 1946 Book about a Thousand Things, of which I bought a copy at some point. Ibn Ṭūlūn achieves this impression by taking a left-turn leading away from the respective subject of the biography and instead delving deep into his own vast knowledge.

If anyone else knows a work that does that to such a high and varied degree, please let me know, for in my opinion this stretches the limits of the genre quite far. Moreover, these excursuses are not restricted to obvious areas such as hadith, jurisprudence, poetry, or history. In fact, they are quite often about animals, yet without any obvious overlaps with the works he dedicated to such topics.

One of those instances occurs in the biography of one Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Qādir b. ʿAlī al-ʿŪshī al-Shāfiʿī. As Ibn Ṭūlūn elaborates, the nisba al-ʿŪshī refers to Maʿūsh, which I understand as the nowadays Lebanese village Majdal Maʿūsh. The biography covers roughly two pages in the Gotha manuscript of the work. Yet, only five lines are actually describing the man’s biography.

The remaining page and a half outline different subjects of exchange between him and Ibn Ṭūlūn. The largest section is what gives this blog entry its name: a written excursus on the crayfish or freshwater crab (saraṭān). From his description and based on what I could find about current populations in Syria, the translation ‘crab’ seems more fitting. An illustration can be found here (you probably have to scroll up one page).

The discourse moves constantly between what I regard as results of sound observations and weirder, sometimes outright cute things. It starts out with an attempt at defining the animal as a ‘water scorpion’, which goes also by the kunya ‘Abū al-Baḥr’. This was probably the more common name in practice. I recently learned that the vegetable Qalqās is known in Northern Lebanon as Abū Shujja, Shujja referring to a hairdo which resembles a pineapple. I reckon that 16th-century Damascenes also preferred to call the crab Abu al-Baḥr.

Then, Ibn Ṭūlūn alternates between descriptions of the crab’s habitat (both in water and on land, can still breathe when it leaves the water) and its anatomy:

“it carries [fakīn/fakayn?] and claws and very sharp talons, the points are hard on the top/backside; who sees it, sees an animal without a head or tail; its eyes are in its [kafy – shell?], its mouth is in its chest; its lower mandibles on both sides; it has eight legs and walks on one side.”

Ibn Ṭūlūn also mentions that the crab sheds its skin four times a year (molting), during which period it would somewhat change its behavior:

it occupies a stone (with) two entrances, one is way to the water and the other to the dry land; when it sheds its skin it blocks up the way to the water out of fear from the fish; it leaves the way to the dry land open so the air gets to it and dries out its dampness so its skin hardens; when it is hard again, it reopens the way to the water and seeks food.

And finally, Ibn Ṭūlūn comes to talk about the medicinal value of the crab. He says it later but in my opinion it needs to be stated immediately that he considers it forbidden to eat the crab, presumably because of its medicinal benefits. Nonetheless, he seems to have been somewhat isolated in this opinion, since, as he remarks, “I have seen that in al-Rabwa they are thrown into oil and the people stand closely packed to buy them”. This is the first mentioning of crab consumption from Damascus I have ever come across.

Consumption of the flesh, however, would probably deny people the other benefits this animal offered. Ibn Ṭūlūn claims the dead body of a crab could heal snake and scorpion poison, would function as an anaesthetic (“put the saraṭān on wounds when you remove an arrowhead”), could somehow serve as remedy against haemorrhoids. I must admit that I did not understand all of what he says in this regard. I will give my rendition of it anyway, even if it is flawed and appears at points incoherent:

when you hang its head on a human who cannot sleep, [then you burn it and he can sleep, or something is burning and it stops the burning? – idhā kāna al-qarr(?) muḥtaraqan fa-anna kāna muḥtaraqan nāma]; if it burns and he has hemorrhoids [or it is filled with hemorrhoids?] how did they sting!; it is also beneficial for those with tuberculosis (maslūlīn)

Anyway, the prescribed cure for… some illness to do with a burning pain seems to have been to suspend the head of a crab (an animal that was earlier described as having no head?) from one’s neck, I guess? I do not claim to understand it and at this point the writing in the manuscript is not entirely clear either. Let’s move on.

It does seem unlikely that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s description of the medicinal use of crab can be considered as a normative or prescriptive statement. It seems out of the ordinary, to say the least. Perhaps these things can be found in Ancient zoological works as well? Or is it proof of rather recent development which has to do with the opening-up of new channels of information flow after the Ottoman expansion into the Indian Ocean? I cannot say. But Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions at the very end of the entry the existence of saraṭānāt in “the Chinese Sea” (baḥr al-ṣīn) and also how the local physicians extract antimony from them so they appear white.

Now that we have established that the – always dead – crab could help as a remedy for humans, this was not the only way in which its dead body could be used. If you bury it, “this spot is secured from celestial damages”. If you suspend it from trees, “they bear much more fruit” than before. Finally, “if you hang one of its feet on a lucrative tree its fruits will never be befallen by any illness”. After hearing this long list of benefits, who would still want to eat this animal?

What is exceptional, is the total absence of references to other sources. Not only are the usual materials from hadith or historiography missing, and the prohibition of the crab’s consumption is not based on legal rulings but this whole discourse is entirely void of intertextual connections.

In any case, the freshwater crab seems to be much the subject of this biography than Muḥammad al-ʿŪshī, about whose habits we do not learn as much. In consequence, this really is the biography of a crustacean.


Teaching ḥadīth: Ibn Ṭūlūn and the Thulāthiyyāt genre

This week I return to Garret Davidson’s dissertation on post-canonical ḥadīth transmission. Davidson offers a wonderful overview of the genres involved in establishing elevated, i.e. short, chains of transmission and the status that these brought for people who had access to them. While these genres could amount to very different scopes and sizes, it is safe to say that in this context small-scale hadith collections occupied a central position. These often would include the most elevated and thus sought-after chains a well-aged transmitter had to offer to the following generations, and at minimal time to be afforded. This impetus became pervasive in other fields of knowledge as well, at least for a lay audience.

Here, I will not give a summary of Davidson’s classification, however. I reckon for that we will have to wait for the reviews once the book is published. But, continuing where I left off in an earlier post, I will connect his general findings to the specific case of Ibn Ṭūlūn. In this post, the Thulāthiyyāt genre of ḥadīth will be at the center.

The term Thulāthiyyāt denotes originally the shortest traditions found in al-Bukhārī’s canonical ḥadīth work al-Ṣaḥīḥ (and to a smaller degree in other canonical compilations), which link al-Bukhārī to the Prophet by only three intermediaries. Starting in the 12th century, they were frequently compiled separately, again putting emphasis on elevated chains of transmission between the author of a compilation and al-Bukhārī:

By compiling a selection of only the collection’s shortest three-link chains of transmission scholars created a conduit that served to connect them to the Prophet through some of the shortest possible and most venerated chains of transmission (Davidson, 261).

The brevity of these compilations was their greatest strength, since they enabled transmission “in a matter of minutes making it a time efficient way for scholars to hear hadith from the most revered collection of the canon through some of the shortest chains of transmission available” and from large numbers of transmitters (ibid.). This would remain a popular mode of transmission until the 20th century.

Our old friend Ibn Ṭūlūn himself authored only one work of this genre, titled al-ʿUqūd al-luʾluʾiyyāt fī al-aḥādīth al-thulāthiyyāt (The arrangement / the half-score of pearls of traditions with only three links between al-Bukhārī and the Prophet), which does not seem to have survived.

Yet, in at least two of his biographical dictionaries, the genre appears frequently in the context of recitation sessions, attesting to the high status of elevated chains Davidson describes. The two titles Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī and Thulāthiyyāt al-Ṣaḥīḥ are used interchangeably. Whereas in al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya fī tarājim mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions it as part of his education, in the second work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr, he himself is the host or at least the authority in those sessions where the text is read.

I have not yet finished my reading of the former work. It is bulky with some 940 biographies covering mostly the 6th through 10th centuries. And so far, I have come across only one mention of the work. Yet, in unison with the other biographical work, it epitomizes the place the Thulāthiyyāt is granted in biographies. Moreover, in this case I would argue that the recitation was actually part of the author’s education and not purely for the sake of elevated chains of transmission.

The Thulāthiyyāt is mentioned in the biography of one Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Sulaymān (885-916), with whom Ibn Ṭūlūn studied (Istanbul, Süleymaniye Library,  MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, fols. 20a-22b). As in the following cases, the text is mentioned in conjunction with al-Musalsal bi-l-awaliyya. As Davidson explains it, it “means literally the hadith of serial first transmission, because it became common for it to be the first hadith an authority would transmit to a student coming to hear hadith from him” (Davidson, 125).

The reading of both texts took place when Ibn Ṭūlūn had already reached maturity. According to his own calculations, he must have been in his late twenties at the time. Moreover, in this instance, he received a qualified license to teach these texts:

I recited before him al-Musalsal bi-l-awaliyya with his conditions (sharṭ), then the Thulāthiyyāt al-ṣaḥīḥ, then I heard in his articulation al-Silsil bi-sūrat al-ṣaff, then al-Ḥadīth min riwāyat Abī Ḥanīfa. Then I extrapolated all of it before him in [several] sessions, the last of which fell on Sunday noon, 27.04.908 in the ḥanafī miḥrab of the [Umayyad Mosque]. He wrote me an ijāza for teaching in his own handwriting.

The joint mention of both texts occurs repeatedly in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s accounts of biographical trajectories of other ḥadīth transmitters. Whereas this makes sense for the Musalsal (since it is defined by being the first one transmitted), the elevated status of the Thulāthiyyāt is emphasized by being a close second. As the quote shows, they are followed by several more ḥadīth works.

This is strong evidence for a teaching context. Even more so since Ibn Ṭūlūn continues to list five more works he studied with Ibrāhīm, receiving another ijāza for giving fatwas on 09.04.911. That indicates a longterm commitment on both sides to this teacher-student relationship (rather taraddud than mulāzama, I guess). The session also coincided with his appointment as imām of the Yūnusiyya Khānqāh in the quarter of Sharaf al-Aʿlā (on 08.04.908).

Turning to the second work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr, here Ibn Ṭūlūn emphasizes his role as a teacher and authority. This is little surprising since contextual evidence suggests he authored the work during the very last years of his life. It is much smaller in scope than al-Ghuraf with some 160 biographies and a much more decisively local selection of biographees.

In at least 15 biographees, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions the Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī / al-Ṣaḥīḥ, exclusively when he was the transmitter. In this case, Davidson’s argument that most hadith transmission should not be considered an educational  but a devotional endeavor seems to hold true. Only in one case, an ijāza for teaching is issued and then only after repeated auditions.

This impression is substantiated when we look at the sites of the sessions. The only institution featured in the sample where Ibn Ṭūlūn had a post, is the Ottoman Salīmiyya Mosque (four entries for Ṣafar 942; one for 05.05.949). Admittedly, it is the one site mentioned most often but none of his other teaching posts are at all mentioned. Instead, the second-most important site is the garden of his cousin Burhān al-Dīn Ibn Qindīl (three entries for 13.05.940).

Another case in point is that the account of these recitations is usually immediately followed by a list of which of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works these people heard from him. Since the majority of those recitations took place in villages around Damascus, most importantly a shrine for Abraham in Barza (maqām Khalīl), and since those works were usually hadith compilations, this suggests that also the Thulāthiyyāt were recited in a devotional context.

“Speed reading” of hadith

I have recently been reading Garrett Davidson’s exciting PhD thesis “Carrying on the Tradition: An Intellectual and Social History of Post-Canonical Hadith Transmission“. It attempts – very successfully – a reassessment of the methods, purposes, and underlying logic of hadith transmission once the canon was fixed with the compilation of the canonical six books.

It contains a plethora of points pertinent to Ibn Tulun’s oeuvre, and I will address some more in the future, such as how the devotional character of reciting hadith as well as chains of transmission relate to several of his compilations on animals, plants or food. Even though he is often characterized as a historian, hadith was like the mortar that held the edifice of his written corpus together.

The one point I want to address today is the phenomenon of speed reading (sard) which  preserved the appearance of oral transmission while trying to fit as much text into a restricted period of time (pp. 107-112). Davidson mentions several outstanding examples of that practice when readers went through the entirety of Bukhari’s or other canonical hadith compilations in only a few days.

Interestingly, Ibn Tulun also mentions most of the same feats in his biographical dictionary Dhakhāʾir al-Qaṣr fī Tarājim Nubalāʾ al-ʿAṣr. They appear in the biography of one Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. ʿAlī al-Nābulusī al-Qudsī, who was also known as al-Hijazi (MS Gotha, Orient A 1779, fols. 57a-b). While Garrett cites multiple sources like the Meccan historian al-Fāsī, Ibn Rajab, al-Kattani, or Ibn Hajar himself, Ibn Ṭūlūn combines all this information in this inconspicuous place.

Among those examples is that of Ibn Ḥajar’s “most famous act of speed transmission[…,] his having raced through al-Ṭabarānī’s al-Mu’jam al-saghir, a collection that consisted of more than one thousand five hundred hadith, in a single audition session between the noon and afternoon prayers” and Bukhari’s Sahih in ten sessions (pp. 109-110).  Or, in Ibn Tulun’s own words:

the fastest thing happened to Abū al-Faḍl Ibn Ḥajar on his Syrian journey when he recited the al-Muʿjam al-ṣaghīr by Abū al-Qasim al-Ṭabarānī in one session between the noon and afternoon prayer[ recitation]. This book is a volume which is organized in about 1.500 ḥadīth, because he published one unique ḥadīth for each of his 1.000 shaykhs. And he transmitted the Ṣaḥīḥ in the Khānqāh al-Baybarsiyya in 10 majālis of 4 hours each.

Otherwise, Ibn Tulun says about the biographee that he heard some of Bukhari’s Sahih with him but recited by a member of the al-Shuwaykī family. While this took place in the Takiyya Salimiyya, he also attended shortly Ibn Tulun’s sessions (durus) in the Umariyya madrasa just next door. He also attended the teachings of shaykh Sharaf al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī al-Ḥanbalī but fell out with him later. Almost half of the biography, however, is an account of feats in speed reading.

The practice seems to have been continued into Ibn Tulun’s own times. The biographee is doubtful that such fast readings could be done at all but Ibn Tulun (obviously) has examples at hand. He himself had seen in the thabat of the khatib Shihab al-Din al-Himsi that he had recited the whole Sahih al-Bukhari in six sessions in Ramadan 882. Ibn Tulun’s teacher had another example in Jamal al-Din al-Askari who went through the whole work in three and a half days at the end of Rabi II 880.

Ibn Tulun himself seems to have endorsed speed reading. The former’s cousin Zayn al-Din al-Askari recited the Sahih before Ibn Tulun in five days and Abu al-Abbas Ahmad b. Ahmad al-Sufi’s work named here only as al-Mu’taqad before him in three days, “the last of which was 15 Ayyār 1806 according to the Alexandrian and Roman (rumi) calendar, which is one of the longest days of the year”. So while Ibn Tulun did believe in the benefits of speed reading, he was also aware that certain extrinsic conditions could be favorable in doing such feats.

Finally, speed reading appears to have had a pervasive function in communal devotional contexts at the time. In 873 (1468-69), Damascenes suffered through a drought and, thus, a dearth in food prices. The price for wheat increased five-fold  to more than 2.000 dirham per sack (ghirara). Ibn Tulun’s near-contemporary Ali al-Busrawi describes in his chronicle that people were so desperate that they gave away their children and themselves resorted to eating “mayta” – carrion or corpses? – just to stay alive.

In reaction to their plight, people convened during the holy nights around Mid-Sha’ban praying for rain. Al-Busrawi also states that in the course of just two nights, they recited the complete Sahihs of both al-Bukhari and Muslim – twice each night! According to the account, those measures proved successful: the very next day, rainfalls began and simultaneously wheat prices plummeted by half.

Initially, I suspected the Sahih recitations (and some other aspects of the account) to be tropes. Yet, there are other explanations, one of them being speed reading. Nonetheless, if we compare this instance with the acclaimed feats mentioned before, the double recitations still seem out of the ordinary (or even the extraordinary). The only explanation I can imagine would be that in this context several reciters worked simultaneously, splitting up the two Sahihs between them. The auditory experience must have been incredible.

Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashi: Concluding Remarks

The month of February 2018, all my blog posts were concerned with Mubārak whom we by now all know. If you are like huh, please refer to the earlier posts here, here, and here.

In fact, this time I do not want to talk about Mubārak all that much anymore. Rather, I’d like to write some more things about Black History Month. I really do not understand those voices that ask “why do they get their own month“. That is, I do not understand it from an academic point of view. I do get their politics. But still, it is just a dumb reaction to someone offering you knowledge you had not possessed before. Without this yearly celebration which by now is takn up far beyond the borders of the US, I would have been unaware of this little fact:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Ahmet Ali Efendi, Ottoman Pilot of Nigerian Origin, World’s First Black Pilot, 1916 (Born in Izmir in 1883) <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BlackHistoryMonth?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BlackHistoryMonth</a> <a href=”https://t.co/gZcpkep99M”>pic.twitter.com/gZcpkep99M</a></p>&mdash; A Journey in History (@OttomanEmpire_H) <a href=”https://twitter.com/OttomanEmpire_H/status/959122910953836548?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>February 1, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Isn’t it intriguing seeing him all confident in the foreground with the Ottomans in their Tarbush hats peeping up behind him? The Ottoman air force has intrigued me somewhat about two years ago and my friend @tillgrallert was forthcoming and enthusiastic enough to search through the newspapers in his database. Ahmet Ali Effendi did not come up, unfortunately, and I do not know more than what the tweet says. But there is an interesting story there, I am so certain…

And now I do have to come back to Mubārak after all. What I discovered myself in this month is that, not only is his story entertaining and engaging (to me at least), but it also made me see the sources in a new light. Why would he be the one who offered himself up for purchase by a slaver, even if this anecdote might have been a fabrication? Why would it be believable that he did? I can only think of his skin color as an obvious explanation. Even while Mubārak himself was a bad ass, and accepted as such, this anecdote points to a normative perspective about Africans in 16th-century Damascus. It was completely plausible that one encountered them as slaves.

In turn that made me wonder about the peculiarities in the hagiographic parts of his biographies. Physical strength certainly reminds one of later WENA slavers’ opinions about Africans. The prowess in hunting, swimming or singing is certainly more difficult to get my head around but before this year’s February, I must admit I have not seriously thought about these questions. And how can we neglect them, when we work on multi-ethnic societies such as those of Mamluk or Ottoman Bilād al-Shām? While configurations were far from identical with modern-day racism, we know there were racial stereotypes and prejudices with their own literary genres to perpetuate them. Yet, as far as I am aware there has been more work done on how Arabs saw the Turks than about perceptions on Africans and African slaves in particular. Mostly, we focus only on the exceptional like the Prophet’s banner man Bilāl or… yes, also Mubārak.

This whole month is about finding those stories that official history leaves out but which allow us to tell much more engaging and exciting stories than “that old white man met another old white man and then they fought – on horses (or tanks or The Apprentice”. It is about finding new questions and looking behind the curtains of documents or personal accounts alike. Black History Month is one good opportunity to learn more and get excited, also about history more generally. So I’ll leave it with this following quote.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Happy <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BlackHistoryMonth?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BlackHistoryMonth</a>! <a href=”https://t.co/LkEuxLuilt”>pic.twitter.com/LkEuxLuilt</a></p>&mdash; Viola Davis (@violadavis) <a href=”https://twitter.com/violadavis/status/959197799186251776?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>February 1, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

**I would very much appreciate any suggestions for what to read on slavery, blackness, etc.**