Friday, August 15, 2014

A00041 - Ibn al-Nadim, Author of Kitab al-Fihrist (The Index)

Ibn al-Nadim
Ibn al-Nadim (Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'hāq al-Nadim) (c. 936 - September 17, 995).  Shi‘a of Baghdad and the author of an Index of Arabic books.   The work, which exists in a shorter recension (a shorter critical revision), is intended to be an index of all books written in Arabic either by Arabs or non-Arabs.

Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'hāq al-Nadim, whose father was known as al-Warrāq, was a Shi'ite Muslim scholar and bibliographer. Some scholars regard him as a Persian but this is not certain. He is famous as the author of the Kitāb al-Fihrist (The Index). His choice of the rather rare Persian word pehrest (fehrestfehres/fahrasat) for the title of a handbook on Islamic literature is noteworthy in this regard.

Very little is actually known about his life. He was a bookseller, a calligrapher who copied manuscripts for sale, as his father was before him. He lived in Baghdad and sometimes he mentions a sojourn in Mosul. Of his teachers, he mentions al-Sirafi (died 978-9), 'Ali bin Harun bin al-Munazhzhim (died 963) and the philosopher Abu Sulayman al-Mantiqi. He belonged to the circle of a son of 'Ali bin 'Isa, the "Good Vizier" of the Banu al-Jarrah, whom he praises for his profound knowledge of logic and the sciences of the Greeks, Persians and Indians. Ibn al-Nadim also met in his house the Christian philosopher Ibn al-Khammar. With these men, none of whom was an orthodox Sunni, he shared an admiration for philosophy and especially for Aristotle, and the Greek and Hindu sciences of antiquity (before Islam). He admired their breadth of outlook and their air of toleration.

It did not escape his biographers that he was a Shi'ite (Ibn Hajar, l.c.); he uses khassi instead of Shi'ite, 'ammi instead of Sunnite, al-hashwiyya for the Sunnis, Ahl al-Hadith ("People of the Hadith") instead of Ahl al-Sunna ("People of the Tradition"). He inserts the eulogy for prophets (consisting of the words alaihi al-salam, "peace be with him") after the names of the Shi'i Imams and the Ahl al-Bayt (the descendants of Muhammad). He calls the Imam al-Rida mawlana. He asserts that al-Waqidi was a Shi'ite but concealed this fact by taqiyya. He claims most of the (orthodox) 'traditionists' for the Zaydiyya. He speaks of the Mu'tazila as Ahl al-'Adl ("People of the justice"), calls the Ash'arites al-mujbira. That he belonged to the Twelver Shi'a is shown by his distaste for the doctrines of the Sab'iyya and by his criticisms in dealing with their history. He remarks that a certain Shafi'i scholar was secretly a Twelver Shi'ite. He mentions Shi'as among his acquaintances, e.g., Ibn al-Mu'allim, the da'i Ibn Hamdan and the author Khushkunanadh. To the same circle belonged the Jacobite Yahya ibn 'Adi (d. 973) who instructed 'Isa bin 'Ali in philosophy and who was, like Ibn al-Nadim, a copyist and bookseller.

His great book, the Fehrest or Fihrist, gives ample testimony to the knowledge of pre-Islamic Persia and its literature in classical Islamic civilization, but unfortunately only a minute sample of the numerous Persian books listed by Ebn al-Nadīm is extant. According to the Fehrest's brief preface, it is meant to be an index of all books written in Arabic, whether by Persians, Arabs or others. There existed already books (tabaqat) dealing with the biographies of poets. The Fehrest was published in 938.  It exists in two manuscript traditions, or "editions": the more complete edition contains ten "discourses" (maqalat). The first six of them are detailed bibliographies of books on Islamic subjects:

1. the Holy Scriptures of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, with emphasis on the Qur'an and hadith;

2. works on grammar and philology;

3. history, biography, genealogy and the like;

4. poetry;

5. dialectical theology (kalam);

6. law (fiqh) and hadith.

The last four discourses deal with secular subjects:

7. philosophy and the 'secular sciences';

8. legends, fables, magic, conjuring, etc.;

9. the doctrines (maqalat) of the non-monotheistic creeds (Manicheans, Hindus, Buddhists and Chinese);

10. alchemy.

Ibn al-Nadim gives the titles only of those books which he had seen himself or whose existence was vouchsafed by a trustworthy person.

The shorter edition contains (besides the preface and the first section of the first discourse on the scripts and the different alphabets) only the last four discourses, in other words, the Arabic translations from Greek, Syriac and other languages, together with Arabic books composed on the model of these translations.

Ibn al-Nadim often mentions the size of a book and the number of pages, so that buyers would not be cheated by copyists passing off shorter versions. Compare the Stichometry of Nicephorus. He refers often to copies written by famous calligraphers, to bibliophiles and libraries, and speaks of a book auction and of the trade in books. In the opening section he deals with the alphabets of 14 peoples and their manner of writing and also with the writing-pen, paper and its different varieties. His discourses contain sections on the origins of philosophy, on the lives of Plato and Aristotle, the origin of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, thoughts on the pyramids, his opinions on magic, sorcery, superstition, and alchemy etc. The chapter devoted to what the author rather dismissively calls "bed-time stories" and "fables" contains a large amount of Persian material. In the chapter on anonymous works of assorted content there is a section on "Persian, Indian, Byzantine, and Arab books on sexual intercourse in the form of titillating stories", but the Persian works are not separated from the others. The list includes a "Book of Bahrām-doḵt on intercourse." This is followed by books of Persians, Indians, etc. on fortune telling, books of "all nations" on horsemanship and the arts of war, then on horse doctoring and on falconry, some of them specifically attributed to the Persians. Then we have books of wisdom and admonition by the Persians and others, including many examples of Persian andarz literature, e.g. various books attributed to Persian emperors such as Khosrau I and Ardashir I.

As a bookseller, Ibn al-Nadim became known for his celebrated bookshop.  The bookshop was said to be on an upper story of a large building where buyers came to examine manuscripts, enjoy refreshments and exchange ideas.  

The Fihrist is the greatest work of Ibn al-Nadim.  Fihrist literally means "a table of contents" or "an index". The Fihrist is an index of all books written in Arabic by Arabs or non-Arabs.  Ibn al-Nadim began to make this catalogue of authors and the names of their compositions for use in his father's bookstore.  As he grew older, he became interested in the many subjects he read about in books, or which he learned about from friends and chance acquaintances.  So, instead of being merely the catalogue for a book shop, Ibn al-Nadim's Fihrist became an encyclopedia of medieval Islamic culture. 

The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim listed more than sixty thousand titles on an unlimited range of subjects.  The first section of the first chapter of the Fihrist was devoted to various styles of writing, including Chinese, qualities of paper, and "excellencies of penmanship" and "excellencies of the book". After this was a whole range of topics including language and calligraphy; Christian and Jewish scriptures; the Qu'ran and commentaries; linguistic works; histories and genealogies; official government works; court accounts; pre-Islamic and Islamic poetry; works by various schools of Muslim thought; biographies of numerous men of learning; Greek and Islamic philosophy; mathematics; astronomy; Greek and Islamic medicine; literature; popular fiction; travel (India, China and Indochina); magic, and miscellaneous subjects and fables.

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