Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo

The opening page from a 17th century Ottoman copy of the medieval Qur’an commentary of al-Baghawī (d. c. 1117), with owner marks visible in the right margin (University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 4)

We in the early twenty-first century (particularly, I imagine, anyone who happens to be reading this post) inhabit a world of pervasive textuality. From waking to bed we are deluged with words, on screens (mostly, probably), on paper pages of books, on forms, on signs, on packaging, in short- everywhere. If images, still and moving, are also pervasive and in some ways just as or even more dominant than text, still, printed text (even if mostly in digital form) is everywhere and unavoidable. As such we tend to not reflect very much on either the presence of so much text in our lives or on the modes of our engagement with it, texts are simply there. But of course our world of textuality is not simply a natural fact but is the result of cultural, social, and economic processes leading to certain technologies, skills, habits, and contexts. As such, thinking about the role of texts and their many contexts in past worlds, particularly those quite different (but not radically different) from our own is helpful for understanding both the past and our own present, and has occupied various thinkers for quite a long time now (going back really to Plato if not before). Towards that venerable goal of analysis today I’ve selected a particularly insightful little passage from the biography of an early modern North African scholar named Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maqrī (d. 1041/1631) which charts, inadvertently of course, many of the possible contours of texts and their contexts in the early modern Ottoman world. Here is the passage, translated, followed by my commentary:

When he entered Cairo before becoming well-known, he was present one day in the book market (sūq al-kutub) and he found a curious (gharīb) Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) which he opened and landed in [the discussion of] Sūrah al-Nūr, in which the exegete discussed a question of fiqh which he proceeded to speak about at length, and the subject of this biographical entry memorized the entire passage—and in a marvelous congruity not long after that, the ‘ulama of the land came together for supplication (da’wah) and he was present with them. Once they were settled into their session (majlis) a petitioner came with a slip of paper (biṭāqah) in his hand asking about the very issue that the subject of this biographical entry had memorized from that Qur’an commentary. It was passed to the first person among the people of the session, but he looked at it as if he were unable to call upon anything in his mind regarding it, so he passed it on to the next person, and so it was passed on and on, until it reached the subject of this entry. When he looked at it he called for an inkwell and wrote the answer as he had memorized it—and all those presents looked at it with amazement. When they had finished perusing [his answer], they asked, ‘Who said this?’ He replied to them, ‘So-and-son in the exegesis on Sūrah al-Nūr,’ and when the Qur’an commentary was brought it was exactly as he had said.

This little story is a lovely snapshot of the many ways texts worked together in various media and matrices: Abū al-‘Abbās is seen browsing the book market, which suggests that then as now browsing books without necessarily looking to buy them was not uncommon; the book market here functions in a way akin to a library, since he spends at least some time actually reading the Qur’an commentary in question and using an unspecified amount of time to memorize particular contents he found striking. The primary point of the anecdote is Abū al-‘Abbās’ prodigious ability to memorize things, to be sure, but still we can imagine that some time is being expended (and the tone of the story does not convey that this feat is somehow miraculous or totally unheard of, simply a taking to an extreme a culturally valuable and cultivated skill).

There are several distinct movements and contexts related to the given text at work here: the production of the original Qur’an commentary, its being copied and turned into a commercial object, Abū ‘Abbās’ browsing and encountering the text, then his experience and conceptualization and reproduction of, not the entire text, but a discrete section, devoted to a particular question of fiqh, the details of which we are not told but which presumably was of ongoing contemporary interest (which would help to explain why Abū ‘Abbās memorized it as well as why a supplicant came with a question specific to that issue). So we have a movement from author to manuscript (via engagement with the written and memorized text of the Qur’an), to (probably) copy by a professional copyist, to book market, to selective reader, then to memory. In the scholars’ session—which if I am interpreting things correctly was meant for ‘regular’ people to bring questions of fiqh to a council of learned experts, a sort of early modern AMA forum—we see another form of textuality, the ‘slip’ of paper (biṭāqah), a word with a long bureaucratic pedigree, predating Islam in fact. The writer of the slip has inadvertently chanced upon the very topic of the first text, but then there is a problem: no one else in the session had encountered the clarifying text, or, if any of them had, they did not remember it. When it reaches Abū al-‘Abbās his reaction is striking: he calls for an inkwell and then writes out his memorized text, when we might expect simply an oral response. While it is not exactly specified the substrate for his writing must surely be that slip of paper, with the implication that the supplicant/questioner would take it back home for his personal archive or other uses (and since it is fiqh we can imagine a practical use here akin to a fatwa and not simply curious interest). So we have more textual movements: an unrelated (on the surface at least) impromptu text which is visually reviewed by the members of the assembly, which, once it is encountered by Abū al-‘Abbās, registers with the memorized commentary passage and precipitates now a written reproduction of the randomly encountered text. His oral explanation of the text, after it has been successively read (and we get a sense that the paper is passed around, not read out loud), leads to the physical manuscript of the commentary being produced and read publicly (or silently perused one by one? the text is unclear). Finally, this incident gives rise to a sort of ‘social text’ of Abū al-‘Abbās’ prestige in Cairo thanks to his memory and powers of recall and correlation. Continue reading “Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo”

Judgeship in ‘Umayyad Spain

The following are two short anecdotes about a judge in Cordoba, Spain during the rule of the ‘Umayyad amir Abdallah ibn Muhammad (r. 888-912). Both stories come from the Quḍāt Qurṭubah of Khushani, a member of the ‘ulama in tenth century Spain; the Quḍāt Qurṭubah is a history of the judges (quḍāt) of that city. In the first story, the traits of a good judge are exemplified: a quiet, humble sort of ascetic piety, in this manifested by the judge’s doing labor that would not be expected of someone of his apparently high social state. The reader can draw further conclusions about this story’s significance, and the significance of its memory by later generations of Cordobans. As for the second story, it illustrates a couple of tensions often present in early Islamic societies: one, the interplay between the judge- who may or not be a learned member of the ‘ulama– and the scholars and jurists of the community. Second, it reveals the tension between “commanding the good and forbidding the wrong,” and the principle of respecting privacy (as we would put it- though the concept in the shari’a is more complex), a central tenet of medieval Islamic jurisprudence and ethics.

Khalid ibn Sa’id said: Muhammad ibn Hashim al-Zahid related to me, saying: A sound woman from the people of the veiling related to me that one day she went to the house [of Muhammad ibn Salma], before noon, and knocked on his door. He came out to her—she did not know him before that—and on his hands were the traces of bread dough, as if he had been kneading dough. So she said to him: ‘I want to talk with the judge, as I need him for something.’ So he said to her: ‘Go on to the congregational mosque, and he’ll meet you in an hour.’

She said: ‘So I went to the congregational mosque, made my prostrations, then sat down, looking for the judge. It was not long before that man who had come out to me with dough on his hands came, and began his prostrations. So I asked about him, and someone said to me: “He’s the judge!” So when he had finished his prostrations, I came before him and talked to him about my need, and he ruled on it for me.

Ahmad ibn ‘Ubada said: one day I was walking with Muhammad ibn Salma, when he was judge. We met someone carrying a sack on his head, in which something was obscured, and in his hand was a drum. The judge ordered him to break the drum, and he knew without a doubt that the sack was full of drums, so he said: ‘Put down the sack and show what is in it!’

So Ahmad ibn ‘Ubada said: I said to him: it is not incumbent upon you to force the disclosure of the goods of the people and their hidden things—rather, it is your duty to change that which is already manifest.’ So he [the judge] desisted from his command to disclose the contents of the sack. Then we went on, and ran into Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn Laba, and [the judge] asked him about the incident, and ibn Laba replied with words similar to mine.

Then the judge inclined towards me and said: We have benefited from your companionship today, my shepherd!’

Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥārith Khushanī, Quḍāt Qurṭubah, (Maktabah al-Andalusīyah 4. al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Kutub al-Islāmīyah, 1982), 197.

Returning to Khurasan

The excerpt below is taken from the Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah, compiled by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shahrazuri (1181-1245/577-643), a jurist and scholar of the Shafi’i ‘school’ (madhhab) who, while originally from what is now northern Iraq, spent most of his life in Damascus. Many of Shahrazur’s works deal with the theory and practice of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence; among these is his tabaqat dealing with jurists of the Shafi’i school.

A tabaqat, which literally means ‘layers’, is a sort of biographical dictionary, usually focusing on a particular group of people, and arranged by generations. The genre was hardly limited to religious figures: there are tabaqat for poets and singers, as well as tabaqat concerning scholars and Sufis. However, across the genre there are certain generally consistent features. The entries tend to be short, and much of the information formalized. In a tabaqat dealing with scholars and other religious figures, such as this one compiled by al-Shahrazuri, there is usually an emphasis upon the other scholars and masters the person under consideration studies under, or received hadith from, or was licensed to copy a book, and so on. Other matters appear as well, including short antecdotes that emphasize some aspect of the person’s piety or scholarliness.

As al-Shahrazuri says in the introduction to his work, the purpose of these brief biographies is to ‘connect’ the reader with a whole community of scholars in the past, and to give examples for emulation. The following antecdote is an instance of this purpose of tabaqat; it also reveals a very small glimpse into one scholar’s life and thought. Two major themes of medieval Islamic scholarly life appear here: the centrality of travel in the pursuit of knowledge (travel which can be quite difficult, and often involves long distances), and the importance of dreams, both for the dreamer and for those who encounter them through narration or text.


[Muhammad ibn Ahmad Abu Zayd al-Marawzi] said: When I had resolved to return to Khurasan from Mekka, my heart was stiffened by the prospect, and I said: ‘When it happens- the distance is so long, I cannot bear the hardship- I am so advanced in years!’ Then I saw in my sleep as if the Messenger of God, peace and prayer be upon him, was sitting in the Sacred Mosque, with a young man (shab) at his right hand. So I said: ‘O Messenger of God! I have resolved to return to Khurusan, but the distance is so long!’ Then the Messenger of God, peace and prayers be upon him, turned to the young man, and said, ‘O spirit of God! Accompany him to his homeland.’

Abu Zayd said: So I saw that he was Gabriel, upon whom be peace, so I proceeded on to Merv, and I did not feel anything of the hardship of the journey.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah