“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.

Ibn Tulun manuscripts in Leiden

Among other libraries, Leiden University hosts several autographs by Ibn Tulun (for an introduction of the Oriental MS collections, see here). The collection is quite extraordinary among those, since every Ibn Tulun text is bound individually, even though most of them are of modest size. Their page numbers range between single and low double-digits. Judging by my experience that would make them ideal candidates for publication in majmu’as (and I address that issue in an article submitted to the Journal of Islamic Manuscripts).

Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to consult the whole collection in person. So far, I had to rely on the catalogue made by Carlo von Landberg shortly after the acquisition in the 1880s and the Handlist of P. Vorhoove. In both, the Ibn Tulun manuscripts are clustered within a range of about twenty call numbers (132-146 in Landberg, 2503-2520 in the Handlist). While this could be attributed to their common author, it is also possible that this cluster was retained from the collection of the Cairene seller Amin al-Madani and ultimately from their original state in autograph majmu’as.

Be that as it may, Leiden has uploaded one of those manuscripts, MS Or. 2512, which contains the short text Tuḥfat al-ḥabīb fīmā warada fī al-kathīb. This is, in fact, the title as it is given in Ibn Tulun’s own work list, whereas the Leiden catalogue gives a slightly different title that is written on the first recto of the manuscript: Tuḥfat al-ḥabīb bi-akhbār al-kathīb.

This is apparently owed to the author’s phrasing that this text contains “mā akhbaranā shaykhunā al-muḥaddith…” and perhaps also to titling conventions at the time when this title was added (the hand is different and more modern than the author’s). Yet, both titles refer to the same work as Ibn Tulun mentions the “warada” title on the verso of fol. 1.

Initially, I was surprised that the writing already begins on the recto of fol. 1. For Ibn Tulun this is highly unusual, especially since the text appears to be a (very well preserved) fair copy. To elaborate, it contains no other handwriting than the author’s, and that is restricted to an even and regular text block of 23 lines per page. The margins seem wider than I have seen in other, more annotated Ibn Tulun manuscripts.

Getting back to my surprise, a quick check on the verso made sure that the text begins only here. Instead, the writing on the recto, albeit also in Ibn Tulun’s hand, seems to be an audition certificate, giving part of the isnad, some of the attendants and the date of the text’s recitation: 9.11.936/15.07.1530. ّIt also indicates that all attendants received a certificate for transmission (ijāzat riwāya) from the author.

The catalogue gives that date as the date of the text’s completion but I am uncertain whether that conclusion can be so easily made. I am not even sure whether we can assume that this specific manuscript was completed before that date. The clean state of it suggests rather that it might be a fair copy of the original, which would have been in existence by 936/1530.

The text itself is a collection of reports and sayings about Moses (al-kathīb) and his shrine (maqām/ziyāra) near the village Masjid al-Qadam, south of Damascus. The most interesting thing about it – for me – is that it appears in Ibn Tulun’s biographical dictionary Dhakhāʾir al-Qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr.

At least three of the biographees included in this work heard recitations of this work. One of those heard it recited at the “Ziyārat al-Kathīb close to the village Masjid al-Qadam” on the same day as the one given in the samāʿ. This Muḥammad b. Mūsā b. ʿAbduh al-Qubaybātī al-Ḥanbalī known as Ibn Qayṣar went on to write a mulakhkhiṣ of this work, giving a rare proof to Ibn Tulun’s reception through emulation.


Did Ibn Ṭūlūn read Ibn Iyās? A manuscript from Paris

One obvious course in establishing a scholar’s importance as well as his intellectual biography is the search for manuscript copies of his works. Whereas this step of my project is mostly finished, a recent attendance at a codicology workshop at the IFAO in Cairo did bring up this topic once more.

I am grateful to IFAO’s own Robin Seignobos who pointed me to MS Paris, BnF, Or. 3973, which contains a text on Nile tides ascribed to one Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Dimashqī al-Ḥanafī (fols. 170-189). He also made me aware of David Wasserstein’s article “Tradition manuscrite, authenticité, chronologie et développement de l’oeuvre littéraire d’Ibn Iyās” (Journal Asiatique 280 [1993]: 81-114) which provides a more detailed description of the manuscript and the text.

Finally, Robin speculates that this text, “Nuzhat al-khāṭir wa-bahjat al-nāẓir fī ziyādat al-nīl wa-nuquṣānuhu wa-muntahā ziyādatihi wa-awānihi“, was authored by Ibn Ṭūlūn.  If this is the case, this would be the second Ibn Ṭūlūn text in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The other one is a short prayer likewise included in a composite manuscript (MS ar. 1945, fols. 67b-68a) which references itself as “ṣalāt Ibn Ṭūlūn” (fol. 68a).

Yet, in both cases the question remains whether the author really was “our” Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn. Both manuscripts are later copies of an original according to their colophons. It is interesting that the given author name, in MS 3973, lacks the most distinct part of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s writerly identity, whereas in MS 1945 it is the only element of appellation.

Here, however, I will rather talk about the topic of the text on the Nile to substantiate Robin’s suggestion. Ibn Ṭūlūn wrote texts on Egypt (al-Ajwiba al-jalliyya ʿan al-asʾila al-miṣriyya, Ḥawar al-ʿuyūn fī tārīkh Aḥmad Ibn Ṭūlūn, ʿAjab al-dahr fī tadhyīl min malik Maṣr) and he wrote texts on recurring natural phenomena (e.g. in his Nukat al-tārīkhiyya, nos. 19, 22 or his works on animals or plants) but there is no evidence in his work list nor his autograph manuscripts that he ever combined both.

Moreover, as far as we know he never traveled to Egypt to see the Nile with his own two eyes. (In turn, this might help explain why his name is given as it is in a compilation that is clearly Egyptian. For an Egyptian audience, he was simply a Ḥanafī and Damascene.)

I should mention that the Nuzha is vocalized throughout. While this can be attributed to the manuscript being a later copy, it might point to a very different readership that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s autographs originally had.

That being said, the Nuzhat al-khāṭir shares some characteristics with Ibn Ṭūlūn’s known writings. But in some ways it stands out amongst them: The basmallah is followed by an exceptionally short Tamḥīd: “al-ḥamdu li-llāh”. Elsewhere, this section often covers several lines of texts. Instead, it is followed here by several lines of rhymed prose.

Then, the text starts in earnest after the ubiquitous “wa-baʿd”. In general, Ibn Ṭūlūn would almost instantly follow this with the title of the work and often an indicator towards its genre (most often “taʿlīq”). This element is missing in this text, which could discredit it immediately as a false ascription or possibly the work of another Damascene Ḥanafī scholar by the name of Muḥammad. However, the following introduction sounds very much like something that Ibn Ṭūlūn could have written:

فقد وقفت على كراريس مخرومة الاوائل متعلقة باخبار المبارك الاعلام جامعها و يمكن الوقوف على اسمه من ديباجة تاريخ له و سماه بدايع الزهور في وقايع الدهور وجدتها محتوية على لطائف و حوادث و غرائب و تواريخ في زيادة النيل و نقصانه
fa-qad waqaftu ʿalā karārīs makhrūma al-awāʾil mutaʿlliqa bi-akhbār al-mubārak lā aʿlam jāmiʿahā wa-yumkin al-wuqūf ʿalā ismihi min dībājat tārīkh lahu samāhu “Badāʾiʿ al-zuhūr fī waqāʾiʿ al-duhūr” wajadtuhā muḥtawiyyatan ʿalā laṭāʾif wa-ḥawādith wa-gharāʾib wa-tawārīkh fī ziyādat al-Nīl wa-nuqaṣṣānihi
I have come upon some incomplete quires attached to “Akhbār al-Mubārak”.*  I do not know whether the work is complete. It is possible to gather the ism (the author’s name or the work’s title?) from the poem on history (or date?). He called it “Badāʾiʿ al-zuhūr fī waqāʾiʿ al-duhūr”. I found it comprises subtleties, events, oddities, and dates of the Nile’s high and low tides. 
* I am not sure whether this is a title; the name Mubārak could relate to one of several traditionaries (e.g. ID: 14138, 3960, 14173, 14212, 14292, 14410, 14457, or 14081 in the onomasticon arabicum).

The name of the excerpted work will be well-known to most people familiar with the later Mamluk period. It is none other than the great chronicle of Abū al-Barakāt Muḥammad Ibn Iyās al-Jarkasī al-Ḥanafī (1448-1524), which is perhaps the most important Egyptian source on the Ottoman conquests.

According to Brinner’s article in the Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, his oeuvre remained relatively unimportant in his own time, which is supported by the state in which it was found by the author of the present treatise. If this indeed was the case, the work’s reception seems more probable in the first decades after his death than much later.

As far as I know, no connection between him and his Damascene counterpart Ibn Ṭūlūn has so far been known. Yet, Ibn Ṭūlūn would have been the person to acknowledge the value of an obscure fragment he found in the back of a manuscript.

The way the text is introduced further points to Ibn Ṭūlūn as the author: Instead of an author or abstract text, the author refers to a distinct manuscript, apparently a majmūʿa containing at least two texts. What follows, is in form and content quite similar to many of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works, namely commented excerpts of another author’s text, which he extracted and compiled around a specific topic.

The text is structured by source and thereby to a certain extent also by theme.  It begins with legends or sayings about the Nile and its springs that is followed by a description of its geography (one of the sources there is al-Masʿūdī). Then the text addresses the measurement of the nile floods (starting fol. 176b). A strict annalistic order begins only on fol. 181b and seems to be taken from a work by Ibn al-Jawzī. From there to the end, nile floods from 208 through 922 AH are described.

Unfortunately, I must admit that I do not know Ibn Iyās’ Badāʾiʿ well enough to say how much of this treatment of the Nile is taken from his work. Yet, to me it seems that such an argument would not be found in a chronicle of a basically political-social nature.

However, the structure is reminiscent of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s bio-topographical work on a cemetery in Damascus, Ghāyat al-bayān fī tarjamat al-shaykh Arslān. The biography as such is followed by a description of the cemetery and concluded with several biographies and events in which it played a role. Therefore, I would say that it is probable that this work on the Nile be added to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s established corpus.

That leaves the question why this text does not carry the characteristic description as a taʿlīq. One tentative answer could be that it was not written in a scholarly or educational context. That might also explain why it is not mentioned in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s work list.

Ibn Ṭūlūn’s Autograph Corpus: Online Catalogues

Making sense of a manuscript corpus as large as that of Ibn Ṭūlūn can be tiresome. In particular, since his autographs are today dispersed in libraries in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States, and the relevant institutions offer very diverse degrees of information about the manuscripts in their catalogues. Yet, these catalogues are obviously a central source in establishing any manuscript corpus.

Things get especially irksome when one wants to make sense of the collections of the Dār al-Kutub (for guidance to its collections, see this review) and the manuscript center of the Arab League (GAD) in Cairo. Access to microfilms at Dār al-Kutub is comparatively easy if rather slow (due to the limit of three items one may order each day); access to the physical manuscripts themselves, however, requires good connections and a lengthy stay. One might circumvent the Dār al-Kutub altogether by turning to the GAD, which offers an online catalogue to browse the selection even beforehand and allows to collect digital copies within the same day.

The GAD offers access to the (partial) holdings of several important manuscript collections of the Arab World. Yet, therein lies a danger as well as new possibilities. The catalogue was apparently created on the basis of the individual library catalogues but their holdings were not compared to each other. What I mean by that: Several collections hold microfilms of manuscripts belonging to another institution. In the GAD catalogue, the same material artifact may thus appear several times. In some cases, doublets might be visible through an allusion to the original collection in the “subject” section but often enough it is not.

How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books

This is, however, not a new problem. With the spread of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century, collectors and scholars alike made ample use of these technologies, and, among others, the Taymūriyya Library (today in Cairo) and the Arab Academy in Damascus supplemented their manuscript collections by acquiring microfilms from other institutions around the world.

These microfilms received their own call numbers, being treated somewhat similarly to manuscripts physically present in the respective collections. Even though this process is clearly important to the constitution of the corpora which ground our understanding of Arabic literature and book culture, to my knowledge no study has yet been dedicated to this important chapter in the transition from a living manuscript to a print culture (and hence to digitization). Yet, in the face of the ubiquity of the medium, we need a new “codicology” for  microfilms.

To conclude with just one basic example, the integrity of a text in a physical manuscript is partly assured by the use of catchwords on the verso page of each folio. The text is bound to the materiality of the two-sided leaf of paper. In contrast, microfilm images present a surface to the viewer, which usually covers the verso page together with the recto of the following leaf. In order to assure that the following image actually refers to the following double page in the physical manuscript, it would require a catchword on the recto page.

While this might seem a theoretical issue at first sight, the microfilm of the Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscript Majāmīʿ Taymūr 759 is only one case where the addition of such catchwords would be really necessary. For about the first half of the files I bought from Dār al-Kutub, the slides only seem to be in the opposite order (fol. 100 comes before fol. 99 before fol. 98 etc.). Yet, around the middle, the confusion increases even more and it is painstaking to find out which image belongs to which work. Finally, about half of the texts ascribed to this manuscript by the latest print catalogue is completely missing from the microfilm.


Tuluniana 2: Works on plants

A while back, I introduced a first cluster of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works (on animals). A second interesting cluster consists of his works which are concerned with plants. More than the earlier one, this is connected to a third cluster, which comprises works on food and food consumption. All these clusters draw heavily on ḥadīth as a source.

The cluster on plants includes 18 works.  Most of those deal with dangers or benefits of consuming certain parts or fruits of plants. These works could be situated either in the legal literature or in the realm of (Prophetic) medicine.

The dependence on ḥadīth and akhbār could also suggest their belonging to Sufi ādāb literature. Even for those works that do not survive, the latter is indicated in their title’s thematic phrase, which is usually introduced with either “li-/fī-mā warada fī” (on what is found about) or “ʿan-/fī-mā qīla fī” (on what is said about). The text of such a title is rarely more than a list of statements by earlier authorities (transmitted directly or in writing) on the subject.

Moreover, this nature of the works reiterates my earlier understanding of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s minor works as “seminar papers”:

One possible explanation would be that the writing of such works was indeed part of the education process. An aspiring scholar had to prove his knowledge of the tradition in thematic exams. On the other hand, those works could also attest – to a certain extent – to an entertainment value, and thus everyday relevance, of the science of ḥadīth.

This does not mean that Ibn Ṭūlūn penned these works at an early stage of his career. On the contrary, I would say that in their simplicity they betray his intimate knowledge with the scholarly literature of his times.

Therefore, I would argue that he wrote these works for the benefit of his own students. These seem to have been works to be studied early on since they made it easier to arrange the different source items around one subject (a different approach from that described recently by Maxim Romanov for his own classroom use of ḥadīth).

Perhaps this would also explain why animals, plants, or food were used—they were part of everyday life and therefore also an object of legal/moral questions. In any case, the format of the works does preclude their use (or value) as political (e.g. polemical) texts. Their repetitiveness bespeaks their use in educational and devotional settings.

Within the cluster on plants, two general groups can be distinguished. One is concerned with plants, including flowers, and the other with their fruit or produce. The latter is by far the larger group. The first group includes works:

  • Ibtisām al-thughūr ʿammā qīla fī nafʿ al-zuhūr (on the benefits of flowers/blossoms)
  • Tasliyyat al-ḥazīn fīmā qīla fī al-yāsmīn (collection of akhbār/ḥadīth on Jasmin)
  • ʿArf al-nadd fīmā qīla fī al-ward (collection on the rose)
  • Ḥadīqat al-azhār fī faḍl ghars al-ashjār (on the merits of planting trees)
  • Ṭard al-aḥzān fīmā qīla fī al-bān (collection on the moringe)
  • Ẓarāʾif al-naḥla li-mā warada fī al-nakhla (collection on the palm tree)

The second group also includes a number of “mā qīlā“- and “mā warada“-collections:

  • al-Iʿlān li-mā warada fī faḍl al-rummān (on merits of pomegranate)
  • al-Qawl al-murtajal fīmā warada fī al-safarjal (on quinces)
  • Haḍm al-ṭabīkh bi-mā warada fī al-baṭīkh (on melons)
  • Hidāyat al-nujabā ilā mā warada fī al-hindibā (on wild chicoree)
  • Tanwīr al-ghalas fīmā warada fī al-ʿadas (on lentils)
  • ʿArf al-bān fīmā warada fī al-bādhinjān (on aubergines)
  • Jalab al-inshirāḥ bi-faḍl al-tuffāḥ (on the merits of apples)
  • Juzʾ imtithāl li-amr bi-akhbār al-tamr (akhbār on dates)
  • Ṣaḥn al-ṣīn fī faḍl al-tīn (on the merits of figs)

There is, however, also one item which was organized in a different way. The first, Talkhīṣ buhgyat al-ṭalab wa-nihāyat al-arab fī al-munāẓara bayn al-tīn wa-l-ʿanab, seems to be a comparison of the properties of the fig and the grape. The title’s guiding phrase alludes to two works on which this comparison might have been based: Ibn al-ʿAdīm’s (d. 1262) Bughyat al-ṭalab fī tārīkh Ḥalab (Everything desirable about the History of Aleppo) and the encyclopedia Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab (translated both as “The Aim of the Intelligent in the Art of Letters” and as “The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition“) by the Egyptian scholar al-Nuwayrī (d. 1333). The term talkhīṣ indicates that Ibn Ṭūlūn simplified their discussion. Alas, the work has not survived, and therefore the hypothesis cannot be tested.

It should be noted here that, in contrast to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works on animals, much more of his cluster on plants has indeed survived. All of these manuscripts are today to be found in Egypt, either in Alexandria or the Dār al-Kutub in Cairo (see Conermann 2004).  The work on melons has survived even in two autographs in Cairo.

The one Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph multiple-text manuscript held in Alexandria betrays the close connection between the three clusters mentioned above. Among others (in total 14 titles), it contains Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works on the palm tree and on the benefits of flowers/blossoms, as well as four works on animals (Conermann 2004, 124). In addition, this manuscript begins with a teaching license (ijāza), indicating that these texts were not only taught and transmitted but together.