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.

New Publication in MSR: “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus: Al-amr bi-al-maʿrūf and the Sufi/Scholar Dichotomy in the Late Mamluk Period (1480s–1510s)”

In time for the New Year, the most recent issue of Mamluk Studies Review (vol. 20) has come out and it features my first contribution to this journal. In “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus” I have attempted to show three things.

The first point I am trying to make is that the distinction between ulama and Sufis is not really useful when trying to unearth Late Mamluk local and even imperial politics and alliances. Instead, I propose to follow the informal networks that transgress those groups and connect them as well to the Mamluk rulers on one side and the larger populace on the other.

Secondly, the discourse on justice subsumed under the phrase al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-naḥy ʿan al-munkar is identified as one banner under which proponents of these different status groups would rally. Moreover, I suggest that it offered a language to address one’s dissatisfaction with one’s own social-financial situation. Since it ties personal grievances to larger concerns about justice, I argue, the use of its terminology should be studied also from the perspective of social competition over the diminishing waqf resources towards the end of the Mamluk Era.

The third point I emphasize is the translocal nature of these politics. Following Albrecht Fuess, Dane Ephrat, and others, I bring the rather backwater town Beirut into the picture, showing how involvement in such places could feature in strategies of social-religious figures. The choice of place was thereby both dictated by the selected case study and a bow to my current place of residence.

These two arguments are presented on base of a case study that drawn scholars’ attention repeatedly since the second half of the 19th century. The Maghribi Sufi Ali Ibn Maymun has been described as a radical or a militant specimen of his status group by more established scholars.

To this discussion, the article adds the view point of one of his main opponents in Damascus, the shaykh al-islam and patron of Ibn Tawq, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi Ajlun. The article illustrates the similarities in the involvement of both figures in the fields of Sufism, jurisprudence, and the fight against the vices, as well as in the geographical areas of their activities. Both people were active in Damascus, where they declaimed wrongful practices, and on the Mediterranean coast, where they organized defenses against pirate attacks.

A gunsmith in 15th-century Cairo

The Mamluks’ affinity to firearms, both handheld (muskets, rifles) and mounted (cannons) has been long debated in the field. Personally, I find Robert Irwin’s (2004) interpretation much more convincing than other studies, which presume a stubbornness on the Mamluks’ part against adopting this new kind of weapon.

As Irwin can indeed show, the Mamluks did see the potential of firearms of all sizes early on, as one would expect of professional soldiers. Yet, they also saw that they did not really suit their own established fighting style. 15th-century muskets were just not made to be used on horseback. Thus, the Mamluks would conscript other soldiers to carry them into battle or to man their cannons. One famous case are the ʿabīd, a regiment of African slaves raised by sultan Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī, but in the earlier campaigns on the Northern front, conscripts from among the rural and urban population of Syria seems to have played a more decisive role. They apparently kept these weapons – more often than not – after one war and would use them also against the Mamluks in internal strifes (Toru 2006).

Ibn Tulun showed himself astonished, in his chronicle, by the Ottoman display of firearms, in particular the wagons on or between which cannons were mounted (Wollina 2016). In his entries on the rebellious governor Jānbirdī al-Ghazālī’s siege of Aleppo in 926 AH, he even shows some advanced knowledge of different calibers of cannons and their ability to knock down gates or walls (Ibn Tulun: Iʿlām, 249). His interest in the technological aspects of firearms seems to go beyond their simple effect on event-based political history.

Still, it is somewhat surprising that Ibn Tulun brings up the same issue in his biographical dictionary al-Ghuraf al-ʿāliyya fī tarājim al-mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya. Perhaps, however, this may serve to demonstrate the fascination these weapons – the cannons in particular – held for him. The biography in question is on one Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad al-Ḥalabī al-Ḥanafī, who later moved to Egypt and gained as well the nisba al-Miṣrī. There, he built a makḥala for sultan Khushqadam (reg. 1461-1467) “which could propel a missile of one Damascene qinṭar, i.e. four Egyptian qinṭār, over more than two postal mīl”. Yet, the sultan deemed his price to high; so he went bankrupt. His contraption finally only served the chief judge al-Dayrī to shoot sparrows.

The following is a transcript of the full biography. While it is based on the Istanbul MS of the text (MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, f. 14b), which is a copy, I have compared it as well to its counterpart in the partial Dār al-Kutub MS (MS Taymūr Tārīkh 631, p. 21). The one difference I found is in the spelling of the name of “al-Ḥajar”. I must admit that neither interpretation I have given here fully convinces me, based on the script. I presume that the copyist was facing similar problems and did his best to transcribe the signs from the original.

ابراهيم بن احمد الحلبي ثم المصري الحنفي كان عنده فضيلة و لازم الحجر بن الحفم/الشحنة(؟) وهو الذي عمل المكحلة للسلطان خشقدم التي ترمي بقنطار دمشقي وهو اربع قناطر بالمصري الي بعد نحو ميلين سدس بريد ورمي عليها لكن لم ينصفه السلطان فانه قيل انه انفق عليها نحو اربعماية دينار فاعطاه السلطان نصفها وهذا البعد العظيم يستفاد من طول عنق المحكلة و كان قاضي القضاة السعد بن الديري اخذ ذلك من الزبرطانة وهي عصا طويلة جدا مجوفة يوضع فيها بندقة وتنفخ فيبعد مداها ويصاد بها العصافير ونحوها من الطير وتوفي في المحرم سنة سبعين وثمانماية ودفن بالقرافة.


  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. Iʿlām al-warā bi-man waliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq Aal-Shām al-kubrā. Edited by Muḥammad Aḥmad Duhmān. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1984.
  • Irwin, Robert. “Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Sultanate Reconsidered.” In The Mamluks in Egyptian and Syrian Politics and Society. Edited by Michael Winter and Amalia Levanoni. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden; Boston, MA: Brill, 2004, 117-139.
  • Toru, Miura. “Urban Society in Damascus As the Mamluk Era Was Ending.” Mamluk Studies Review 10, no. 1 (2006): 157-193.
  • Wollina, Torsten. “Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman Appropriation of a Mamluk Metropolis (922-924/1516-1518).” In The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. Göttingen: Bonn University Press 2016, 199-224.