Fifteenth Century Text Searching with Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī

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Other Maghribī scholarly textual practices on display: a page with marginalia from the grammatical text Awḍāḥ al-masālik fī sharḥ Alfiyyat Ibn Mālik, copied c. 1700; note the prominently sized words used in dividing the text and making more conventional forms of browsing/searching easier. (BnF, Département des manuscrits, Arabe 7323)
As anyone with even passing familiarity with Islamic history will probably be aware, Muslim scholars of the medieval and early modern periods produced a lot of texts, not a few of them of truly prodigious length. Many of these texts, across genres, included numerous citations of previous authors, of material from various hadith collections, even long passages or parts of entire books effectively ‘recycled,’ with or without attribution. The question naturally presents itself: how did these scholars manage with so many texts and such long texts? How did they find material, remember or record it, and then cite or otherwise reuse it? The enormity of such tasks is compounded by the fact that their textual worlds were entirely of the handwritten variety, not only predating digital texts and their relative ease of searching and copying, but also predating typographic print and things like comprehensives indices.

There is no single answer to the ‘how’ of pre-modern Muslim scholars (and others operating in similar circumstances both in the Islamicate world and beyond) and their textual activities. Methods of work varied from region to region, from period to period, and from scholar to scholar, dependent upon available infrastructure, scholarly goals, attitudes towards opinion and transmission, and so on. The story that I’ve translated here, of the text search and composition practice of one luminary of the late medieval into early modern Maghrib, Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-Wansharīsī (c. 1430-1508), is only one possible approach, and probably not a terribly common one- otherwise it likely would not have been recorded! Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī is best known for his massive compilation of fatwas, al-Mi’yār al-mu’rib wa al-jāmi’ al-mughrib, though he produced other works as well dealing with questions of Islamic law. Here is how the biographer Ibn ‘Askar in his Dawḥat al-nāshir describes al-Wansharīsī’s daily work:

More than one person I met related to me that all of his books were loose-leaf, not bound into volumes, and that he had an empty lot which he walked to every day, having loaded a donkey with the pages of books, selecting two or three pages from each book. When he entered his lot he stripped down to only a woolen qashāba which he bound with a leather belt, his head uncovered (and he was bald). He arranged the loose pages one-by-one into two rows, stuck his inkwell into his belt, and, with his pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, he would walk between the two rows, writing down transmitted material from each page. Then when he was finished procuring material relevant to the given topic, he would write down what he had thought and what had been made manifest to him in terms of rebuttal and acceptance. This was his practice.

Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 47-48

Two things are especially striking about this account: one, Ibn ‘Askar’s language stresses the sheer physicality of such work- the pages must be selected (presumably each volume had either a container or was bound with twine, akin to chancery practices in some places), then loaded onto the donkey, then taken to al-Wansharīsī’s plot of ground (perhaps enclosed- the word can also mean a courtyard but clearly it was some ways distant from his house), then unloaded and distributed in the two rows on the ground. Only then could the proper scholarly work begin- that is, after al-Wansharīsī switched to his ‘work clothes,’ wearing nothing but a basic garment, a qashāba (usually known as a djellaba in Morocco, and still a common outer garment in North Africa). The image is one of a manual laborer, divested of the clothing typical of an esteemed scholar. Where the modern scholar carries out text search with a few key strokes, we see al-Wansharīsī literally pacing the ground examining the pages he has dis-aggregated, gathering material, which he can then synthesize with his own thoughts and composition.

Yet there is something very familiar to us in the digital age about al-Wansharīsī’s methods. Instead of slowly reading through a given book, taking notes or otherwise relishing its contents, his purpose here is to find and use material, information, perhaps scanning the pages for keywords or indications of particular passages he has in mind or is looking for. Presumably- it is a bit unclear to me- he had some sort of selection process beforehand, perhaps based upon whatever subject or topic he was tackling that day. The pages are to no small degree decontextualized, they become repositories of information al-Wansharīsī needs, not simply for recopying or regurgitation but some kind of critical engagement. Al-Wansharīsī modified the usual technology of texts in his world by unbinding (or never binding at all, as the case may be) the books in his library, which allowed him to do a kind of early text search, walking up and down among the pages scanning for the material he needed. No doubt other scholars did the same, driven by exigencies of their disciplines and social contexts. The nature of the book changed, too, well before the transition from manuscript to print.

Indeed, it was the cumulative effect of scholarly practices like that of al-Wansharīsī, changing the nature of books and of textuality, which effectively laid the ground for technical change, from the quite subtle such as changes in textual layout, compilatory volume practices, and so forth, to social and cultural changes to how books were read and for what they were read, all the way up to the eventual spread and then dominance of typographic print and print capitalism. As was the case in the Latin-script world, changes in practices of reading and in the meaning of the book came well before Gutenberg’s printing press, laying the ground for the take-off of that technology and later transformations to book history and to the history of knowledge and information more broadly. Technology certainly can take on an almost autonomous role, after a certain point, but that role is never absolute, nor does the mere existence of a given technology mean it will be successful. Instead, technological change often becomes significant only after other transformations have taken place at other levels of human society.

In short, al-Wansharīsī’s curious scholarly practice simultaneously points us back to the very physical, often quite intense, labor that work with texts entailed in the pre-print world, scholarly activity making no small demands on the body as much as the mind, while also suggesting a continuity of interests and methods that unites to some degree the late medieval world with our own digital world. The scholar or his hired scribe had to do nearly all of the things that we can now ‘outsource’ to technologies and resources made possible by cheap and abundant (still mostly fossil fuel) energy sources, which meant much greater personal energy expenditure. Much of my current work involves manually- that is, with a keyboard!- transcribing Arabic-script manuscripts into a digital format, and while it is work and at times bodily straining (wrists and back primarily), no loading of donkeys is involved, nor must I pause periodically to re-cut a pen or shake an ink bottle. Yet the goal of much of my current work is to facilitate precisely the kind of text search al-Wansharīsī, and no doubt many of his contemporaries across the Islamicate world, engaged in, trying to make sense of an enormous textual heritage and draw new insights and texts out of it for one’s own time, and in that sense our worlds and practices can very much stand in meaningful dialogue with one another.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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