Let’s talk survival bias

How many manuscript copies were produced of any given texts? How many were circulating at any given time? When were they lost, discarded or destroyed?  How often are the works penned on their pages cited in other texts by the same or different authors? These questions lie at the very heart of our epistemology and are usually subsumed under the term ‘survival bias’.

Works that survive longer obviously have a greater chance at being read, recited, reproduced, acknowledged. And it is today commonly assumed that the number of manuscript copies of a given work tells us something about its impact in its own time and on the succeeding traditions in which it inscribed itself—or was meant to do.

Samer Akkach, in his Letters of a Sufi Scholar: The Correspondence of ʿAbd Al-Ghanī Al-Nābulusī (1641-1731) [Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010], gives an interesting statement that relates to the survival of Ibn Ṭūlūn manuscripts:

And by my life, this has been the habit of the people of our town, Dimashq al-Shām: they disregard the ʿulamāʾ and the people of virtue, and they antagonise, slander, and harm them. They abolish their sciences and perfections and allow their disrespectful fools and rejects to pester them. How many works of erudite men of knowledge, of men who grew up among them, have they disregarded and lost, neither respect-ing them nor taking note of their books and writings until they had all disappeared and perished?

And surely there was among them the best man of knowledge and the pride of all ḥadīth scholars, Ibn Ṭūlūn al-Ḥanafī, yet they disregarded him and lost his books and works, of which hardly any are now left; and those that are left are still in his own handwriting, since no-one cared to have them copied. And so they did to Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Ṣāliḥī: they lost his books and works, and they did the same to Raḍiyy al-Dīn al-Ghazzī… and to his son shaykh Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī and to his son shaykh Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the seal of the ḥadīth scholars (ḥuffāẓ). They disregarded them all and lost their numerous beneficial works […]. (23)

For more than a year now I have been pondering how we should understand al-Nābulusī’s rant. The context of this quote makes it clear that he situates himself and the resistance he faced within a long history of anti-intellectual sentiment in his hometown.

On the one hand, we could therefore take his complaints as a political statement which should serve to change public opinion for a more positive stance towards scholars. On the other hand, his assessment of the survival of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s corpus at least is corroborated by manuscript evidence: my own survey shows that more than three thirds of the roughly two-hundred surviving works remain only as autographs. But even so, this survey is a far shot from “hardly any are now left”. Thus, I would rather not credit this statement as a documentation of a historical reality.

What shall us concern here, however, is the other statement al-Nābulusī makes about Ibn Ṭūlūn’s written legacy: “no-one cared to have them copied”. What would that mean in the light of the introductory questions? Did Ibn Ṭūlūn become outdated in the century between his death and al-Nābulusī’s statement? Was al-Nābulusī even correct in this statement? And why, if so, did two-hundred works survive until today if no one cared to read and preserve them?

In “Women and Ḥadīth Transmission. Two Case Studies From Mamluk Damascus” [Studia Islamica 95 (2002): 71-94], Asma Sayeed writes that samāʿ recitation sessions that their “primary function … was to verify the accuracy of the text being read” and that “students would examine their own copies to ensure that these were identical to the text being read.” (80) Thus, an important author or ḥadīth transmitter could be identified through the number of copies made by their own students, if not later generations of students and copyists.

Ibn Ṭūlūn is credited with having taught uncountable numbers of students by his biographers. Nonetheless, apart from excerpts of some of his works, there is not much manuscript evidence of his samāʿ sessions. The overall survival of much of his corpus could be taken as an indicator that his general importance was still acknowledged but the more interesting question might be, what was actually lost by the time of al-Nabulusī.

Luckily, Ibn Ṭūlūn himself was not shy about recording such acts of transmission. His late biographical dictionary, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr is full of references to those, as I have alluded to with regard to his transmission of Thulāthiyyāt. He also documents the transmission of some of his own works that utilize or organize ḥadīth and akhbār. And it contains pertinent anecdotes such as his copying two texts by al-Ghazzālī and Ibn Sīnā both known as Risālat al-Ṭayr as well as the Muqaddimat ʿilm al-akhlāq by Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Mūsā al-Irdibīlī from a fellow scholar’s collection who had reached Damascus in 942 (fol. 29b).

Thus, if we compare the number of biographees hearing a certain work with the number of surviving manuscript copies, we could get a better idea of the survival of his works and thereby somewhat reliable numbers to assess the survival bias related to his corpus more generally.

Overall, samāʿ transmission of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s publications is mentioned in fourteen biographies and refers to only twelve different works (numbers in parentheses give the number of mentions):

  1. al-Aḥādīth al-murawiyya fī al-basātīn al-nayrabiyya (1)
  2. al-Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan ʿan Arbaʿīn shaykhan fī Arbaʿīn bāban min al-ʿilm al-sharīf (3)
  3. al-Arbaʿīn / Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan min Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan mufarida bi-l-taṣnīf (3)
  4. al-Tuḥfa al-laṭīfa fī al-masāʾil al-mutaʿayyin (ʿalā al-shāfiʿiyya) fīhā taqlīd Abī Ḥanīfa (2)
  5. Fatḥ al-ʿalīm fī al-musalsalāt bi-ḥarf al-mīm (2)
  6. Manḥ al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām al-Khalīl (1)
  7. Munyat al-aṭfāl wa-bughyat al-rijāl (1)
  8. Qudrat al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām (al-)Khalīl (7)
  9. Risāla fī al-fīl (1)
  10. Sharḥ al-ṣuḍūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakhkh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr (6)
  11. Tuḥfat al-ḥabīb fīmā warada fī al-kathīb (4)

Interestingly, the same works are usually transmitted at the same places. Out of the 22 cases where a place is mentioned,  Barza is intricately connected to #8 (all seven transmissions) and #2 (both transmissions), whereas #10 is transmitted in al-Tall four times, #11 twice at Masjid al-Qadam, and only the ḥadīth collection #2 was transmitted also in Ṣāliḥiyya and, more specifically, at the Salīmiyya Mosque.

One possible explanation for the concentrations might be that all biographees participated in the same samāʿ session. In contrast to the place, the time of transmission is not frequently provided by Ibn Ṭūlūn. Altogether, only three dates are mentioned: one transmission of #8 is dated 9.6.949, one for #11 took place on 9.11.936, and the only act of transmission for #7 fell on 19.1.943. Yet, without further circumstantial information, it is not possible to determine whether these dates relate to the other respective transmissions as well.

If Sayeed’s assessment is correct, this short survey would account for at least 29 copies of Ibn Ṭūlūn works being produced, let alone those by other attendants not included in the biographical dictionary. I am doubtful that works like Qudrat al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām al-KhalīlTuḥfat al-ḥabīb fīmā warada fī al-kathīb or even Sharḥ al-ṣuḍūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakhkh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr were actually copied by every listener, simply because they were first and foremost devotional texts. The first two describe faculties of shrines and that is where they were mostly recited.

In any case, the surviving manuscript evidence is poor for all the works mentioned. In this respect, al-Nābulusī seems to have been correct. For brevity’s sake, I’ll give the numbers of surviving manuscript copies with autograph manuscripts being enumerated separately and underlined in another list:

  1. al-Aḥādīth al-murawiyya fī al-basātīn al-nayrabiyya (0/0)
  2. al-Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan ʿan Arbaʿīn shaykhan fī Arbaʿīn bāban min al-ʿilm al-sharīf (0/0)
  3. al-Arbaʿīn / Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan min Arbaʿīn ḥadīthan mufarida bi-l-taṣnīf (0/1)
  4. al-Tuḥfa al-laṭīfa fī al-masāʾil al-mutaʿayyin (ʿalā al-shāfiʿiyya) fīhā taqlīd Abī Ḥanīfa (0/0)
  5. Fatḥ al-ʿalīm fī al-musalsalāt bi-ḥarf al-mīm (0/0)
  6. Manḥ al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām al-Khalīl (0/0)
  7. Munyat al-aṭfāl wa-bughyat al-rijāl (0/0)
  8. Qudrat al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām (al-)Khalīl (0/0)
  9. Risāla fī al-fīl (2/1)
  10. Sharḥ al-ṣuḍūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakhkh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr (2/0)
  11. Tuḥfat al-ḥabīb fīmā warada fī al-kathīb (1/1)

Furthermore, the two copies for titles #9 and #10 were produced only around 1900. That leaves us with one surviving copy out of 29 alleged copies made. Today, it is found in Bursa, Hüseyin Çelebi MS 854/1, fols. 1b-7b. And even that copy contains only excerpts of the work.

It will require further research to understand fully why especially those of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works disappeared that were embedded in the culture of oral/aural transmission, whereas his historiographical works fared much better in terms of preservation. Was just he sidelined in the succeeding traditions or does it bespeak greater historical shifts and changes in transmission and reading interests during the Ottoman period?

 

 

An ijāza for Ibn Mufliḥ

Akmal al-Dīn, a scion of the prominent Ḥanbalī Ibn Mufliḥ family, was mentioned here several times before and was probably the most visible of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s students in terms of engagement with his writings. Ibn Mufliḥ copied them, annotated and rubricated them, and also added material to some of them.

Among the evidence of their student-teacher relationship survives an ijāza Ibn Ṭūlūn penned for Ibn Mufliḥ after the latter’s discussion of some chains of transmission he had received from him (for the transcripts, see github). This document survives in the Istanbul manuscript MS Laleli 3747, fols. 192b-193a. Unfortunately, I have no further information about the other contents of this manuscript except that it did not contain any other writings by Ibn Ṭūlūn.

The two folios that I have seen carry a number of textual items. Two are directly concerned with acts of transmission. The ijāza proper documents a session on 9 Shawwāl 941 in the Umayyad Mosque and covers about one and a half pages. It is followed by a shorter ‘update’ of about three lines, which testifies to Ibn Mufliḥ’s discussion of an introductory work (muqaddima) on logic by one al-Sāghūjī about two years later (25 Rabīʿ II 943).

In addition, there are three items to be considered for the history of the document’s own transmission. On the originally empty recto of the first folio (192b) Ibn Mufliḥ added title information:

اجازة كاتبه اكمل 
من الامام محمد بن طولون 
رحمه الله نعم
تم
To its left, a different hand added a note stating the date of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s death (13[?] Jum. I 953) and the place of his grave (near the Cave of Abel on the slopes of the Qāsyūn). (I leave aside here a note in pencil that gives Ibn Ṭūlūn’s authoritative name and must be more recent). It is clear from the wording of the title that Ibn Mufliḥ added it after Ibn Ṭūlūn’s death and thus at least a decade after the transmission. Finally, below the end of the text a waqf stamp can be found testifying to the movement of the manuscript to Istanbul. I read the inscription as follows.
Library Stamp, Süleymaniyye Kütüphanesi, MS Laleli 3747, fol. 193a

هذا وقف سلطان الزمان / الغازي سلطان سليم خان / ابن السلطان مصطفى خان / غفى عنهما الرحمان / ١٢١٤

The two names mentioned here refer to Ottoman sultans of the 18th to early 19th centuries. The stipulator of this book endowment was Selīm III, known as a reformer and patron of the arts. As his father, the mentioned Muṣṭafā III, he was buried in the Laleli Mosque in Istanbul, which Muṣṭafā had constructed and where Selīm’s book endowment remained until its transfer to the Süleymaniyye Library. The date on the stamp indicates the addition to the endowment of this manuscript occurred in 1799.

The trajectory emerging from this information suggests that Ibn Mufliḥ acquired the ijāza at some point following the second iteration of transmission or, more probable, following Ibn Ṭūlūn’s death. Whether he took it with him to Istanbul or whether Selīm III bought the manuscript from Damascus cannot be ascertained without an analysis of the entire codex. The identification of the other scribe on fol. 192a might also help to pinpoint the transfer.

Back to the ijāza itself. It stands out among Ibn Ṭūlūn’s documents on transmission in that it starts out with panegyrics whose length is comparable to those of many of his writings. The Hamdallah covers three-and-a-half lines. It is separated from the following by a baʿd which leads into another seven-and-a-half lines of elaboration of Ibn Mufliḥ’s name and pedigree (as well as Ibn Ṭūlūn’s connections to members of that family).

Following this the presentation itself is lauded and finally we learn the subject of the session: the Ḥanbalī legal compendium (mukhtaṣar) of “the shaykh, the imām Abū al-Qāsim ʿUmar b. al-Ḥusayn al-Kharaqī” (d. 334 in Damascus; Onomasticon Arabicum, note ID: 12269). Until today, the importance of this work is overshadowed by that of Muwaffaq al-Dīn al-Maqdisī’s al-Mughnī ʿalā mukhtaṣar al-Kharaqī. Muwaffaq al-Dīn and his brother Abū ʿUmar, founder of the ʿUmariyya Madrasa, also have a part in the chain of transmission given by Ibn Ṭūlūn (fol. 192b).

The rest of the ijāza is concerned with the transmission through several chains (musalsal). One goes through Ḥanbalīs or, more specifically, through those residing in Ṣāliḥiyya or belonging to the Maqdisī family. Another goes through Shafiʿīs and Egyptians. And it obviously these chains which were the reason for documentation. This ijāza was one of riwāya, not teaching. Garrett Davidson describes this expansion of hadith transmission into other fields (Davidson 2014, 209):

The transmission of books through chains of transmission according to the protocols of hadith, has its roots in the idea that, like a hadith, it was only though a chain of transmission of trustworthy transmitters that the attribution of a text to an author could be reliably established. The chains of transmission it would be stated, “are the genealogies of books,” without a chain of transmission, to follow the analogy, a book was like a fatherless child cut off from sources of legitimacy.

This stands in stark contrast to the second, much shorter note following the ijāza proper. It seems to have been written much more hastily and is bare of visual aids to navigate the text—in the ijāza red ink is used to indicate new sections. Even the black ink is not as even. More importantly, this note documents only the subject, place and date of the act of transmission but omits information on its chain.

One possible reason is that this was session on a “muqaddima … fī ʿilm al-manṭaq” was in fact part of a more formal education for jurists. Therefore, its main concern was to record Ibn Mufliḥ’s successful exam on this text. The juxtaposition of both ijāzas could explain the terseness of this record, since all the necessary background information on Ibn Mufliḥ is given on fol. 192b. But the difference in what is recorded in both cases is striking.

Ijāzas or Samāʿāt?

Almost a year ago, I first wrote about Ibn Ṭūlūn’s teaching certificates (ijāzāt) and made a somewhat loose promise:

I could identify five teaching certificates (ijāza) in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s handwriting. The four I have seen are between two and five pages long and were all written between 922/1516 and 943/1536. I hope to present all of them here in the near future.

In the meantime, one more item has received an entry and in March 2018 I finally got my hands on the final one I had not seen yet (I have uploaded the file to github like the others). It is part of a Majmūʿa kept at the library of the Baladiyya of Alexandria which I have already mentioned in a recent entry (“A whole Majmūʿa copied? MS Majāmīʿ 315”).

The inclusion of this new item requires a modification to the above-quoted assessment: Are all of these really ijāzas or are samāʿāt among them? In short, yes there are and they have been misidentified in the catalogues. And I found out, go me!

More precisely, two items are samāʿāt: the one in the Alexandria manuscript (Baladiyya al-Iskandariyya, MS Alex. Fun. 183, fol. 104a) and the second one is actually the first one to have received an entry, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, MS Wetzstein I 134, fols. 30a-b. That means that out of three entries about ijāzas (this one included) only one was actually devoted to ijāzas.

But it makes sense to discuss here how ijāzas and samāʿāt differ from one another, even where such a small corpus is concerned. The length of the text seems to qualify as a criterium in the case of the item from Alexandria which is only half a page/nine lines long. However, it does not hold up in the other case from Berlin, whose 36 lines are equal to those of an ijāza Ibn Ṭūlūn granted to Akmal al-Dīn Ibn Mufliḥ in 943 (Süleymaniyye U Kütüphanesi, MS Laleli 3747, fols. 192a-193a). Yet, as I have explained in the entry on the Berlin manuscript, the text has a lot to say about the context of this act of transmission, which might account for the greater length. This has to be seen against the background that in this case Ibn Ṭūlūn received and did not transmit knowledge.

The second criterium, which is more solid, is the wording in introducing the respective item. The items from Alexandria and Berlin begin with a simple al-ḥamdu li-llāh on a separate line, whereas the other three items are introduced with bi-sm Allāh al-raḥmān al-raḥīm wa-huwa ḥasabī, also on a separate line, followed by the Hamdallah within the text body.

The third criterium is the terminology in the beginning of the text proper. In fact, I should have noticed already a year ago that the item in MS Wetzstein I 134 begins with the word samiʿa. But it took a second instance in the Alexandria manuscript for me to notice it. It might help to restore my credentials that both texts mention the issuing of ijāzas.

The other three items, however, show a different and more active engagement with works that are mentioned in the respective texts. They either recite (qaraʿa) or discuss (ʿaruḍa) them and receive a license for these endeavours. If we connect this to Garrett Davidson’s distinction between transmission for devotional purposes and and as part of structured education (on Davidson’s work, see entries here and here), a clear functional distinction between these samāʿāt and ijāzas emerges.

This distinction is supported by the diverging venues where these reading sessions took place. The ijāzas were issued exclusively in established institutions of learning: the Umayyad Mosque and the Ottoman Salīmiyya Mosque. Compare this to the sites of the Berlin and Alexandria items: the former records a recitation “in a garden (bustān) in Qaṣr al-Labbād, an area in the vicinity of Barza and Qābūn” (see Tuluniana 3: A teaching certificate) and the latter records recitations at the sultan’s maṣṭaba near Qābūn and the Shrine of Abraham (maqām al-khalīl) close to Barza.

The last place, in particular, was integrated in the sacred landscape of Damascus and Ibn Ṭūlūn himself devoted two treatises to it: Qudrat al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām Khalīl and Manḥ al-jalīl fīmā warada fī maqām al-Khalīl.

One aspect that I have not yet addressed is obviously the content of transmission. In both the cases from Berlin and from Alexandria, the content appears more devotional than part of a formal education. The subject of the Berlin samāʿ is “a work elaborating on the merits of Damascus (faḍāʾil)”. The other samāʿ mentions two of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s smaller works. One is the ḥadīth treatise Tuḥfat al-aḥbāb fī manṭaq al-ṭayr wa-l-dawābb, which incidentally begins on the verso of the same folio (fols. 104b-105b). The second work, Sharḥ al-ṣudūr fīmā ruwiya fī al-fakhkh wa-l-ʿuṣfūr, is likewise concerned with animals.

I was recently made aware that this text might even be a rendition of a classic tale. In any case, the contents are another clear indicator that these two documentations were concerned with transmission outside of formal education.

The history of MS Tarikh Taymur 631: vol. 1 of al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya

Still these Cairene manuscripts. Among others, they have one volume of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s biographical dictionary, al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya fī tarājim mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya. The British Library holds the second volume of the work. I have spoken about this work before here and here. Also, Guy Burak made use of an Istanbuli copy of it in his dissertation, “The Abū Ḥanīfah of his time? Islamic Law, Jurisprudential Authority and Empire in the Ottoman Domains (16th-17th Centuries)”. As can be seen from the collections where they are held nowadays, the different volumes of the Ghuraf were separated from each other at one point. The Cairo manuscript (MS Tarikh Taymur 631) contains the first part of this three-volume work on 386 pages, covering the introduction as well as biographies in alphabetical order until the letter ẓāʾ. The last biography is dedicated to Ẓuhayr b. Ḥasan al-Qurashī al-Makkī (745-819).

The London manuscript (MS Or. 3046) contains the other two volumes, the second entirely dedicated to names beginning with ʿayn, the final one containing names from mīm to yā and, in addition, entries for people known by their kunya or their laqab. It concludes with a short chapter on women, consisting of only three entries. The volume is about twice the size of the Cairo manuscript at 358 folios; yet, I counted 61 empty pages within this volume, indicating that the author never finished his original aim. These pages were not all counted in the catalogue, where only 320 folios are ascribed to the volume.

Both manuscripts give away some of their own trajectories. MS Or. 3046 entered the British Library from the British Museum, where it was part of Baron Alfred von Kremer‘s collection, who left an ownership mark dated 9 January 1886 (fol. 358b). According to the catalogue, this date refers to Kremer’s sale to the British Library and not to his own acquisition.

The Supplement to the catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the British Museum (pp. vi-vii) describes Kremer’s collection briefly, as containing almost 200 Arabic manuscripts most of which he acquired on several trips to Cairo and Damascus between 1849 and 1880.  Yet, Kremer does not even have an entry in the English wikipedia.

Apart from this note, there are no other ownership notes to be found, only annotations in the hand of Ibn Tulun’s student Akmal al-Din Ibn Muflih. These are more sparse than in other works. They include several marginal rubrications and explanations, e.g. on fol. 175b: “hādhā jadd Amīn al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUthmān al-Ṣāliḥī”. He also made an addition to the biography of Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. ʿUthmān al-Biqāʿī al-Dimashqī (fol. 125b), giving his date of death in 965 AH. The lack of further information on the manuscript’s history could partly be ascribed to a later framing of the first folio, which cut away or hid further potential owners’ or readers’ annotations.

fol. 1a of MS Tarikh Taymur 631

MS Tarikh Taymur 631’s first folio is also framed in a similar manner. And here it is visible that the framing affected at least one such statement, which states the manuscript’s belonging to Ibn Tulun’s original book endowment at the Umariyya Madrasa. The frame features a large stamp of Ahmad Taymur’s library.

Again, throughout the volume similar annotations by Ibn Muflih are interspersed, which is little surprising due to both being part of the same work. The main difference is another library stamp to be found on pages 39 and, twice, 387.

Stamp, MS Tarikh Taymur 631, p. 387

My first reading of its inscription was “hādhā min kutub ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muṣṭafā”. The first half seems to be something else, perhaps “kharāj” or “khodā”? The important thing, however, is that the name pops up in other Ibn Tulun autographs, and there we learn more about this book collector.

The Cairene MS 21201 b (for tafsīr) is a small collection of four Ibn Tulun autographs. They do not need to concern us now but what is more important is that it carries several annotations that testify to a prolonged engagement by one person with the manuscript. He first identifies the handwriting on the dust page (fol. 1a) as that of Ramadan al-Utayfī, a 17th-century chief judge of Damascus. He gives his name as Abd al-Salam and the date of his note as 4 Ramadan 1278 / 5 March 1862.

His whole name and familial background we learn from a collation note on fol. 17a, dated 1284 / 1867: “ʿAbd al-Salām b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muṣṭafā b. Maḥmūd [erased] al-Ḥanbalī”. In all likelihood, he was the son of the owner of MS Tarikh Taymur 631. While there is no evidence that Abd al-Salam also called MS Tarikh Taymur 631 his own, this connection would at least put it in a private Damascene library by the early 19th century.

This is not to say that henceforth this manuscript would remain private property until its transfer to Cairo. Chances are that it might have again been endowed but we simply cannot say for sure. And one more thing we cannot guess is when the two volumes became separated for the first time, and whether they were reunited at any point afterwards.

The internal documentation of both manuscripts sets in at different points in time and betrays very different trajectories. The Cairo manuscript seems to have left the Umariyya library to another (or several other) Damascene library and finally to the Taymuriyya in Egypt. The London manuscript, in contrast, appears to have been bought immediately by a European orientalist, who then sold it to a European National Library.

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.