Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Some Dellys manuscripts

(Not linguistics, just history - possibly self-indulgent at that.)

Quite a few years ago in Dellys, I was allowed to photograph a bundle of pages from different manuscripts grouped together in a single detached cover, labelled as belonging to my great-uncle (رحمه الله). (I wasn't very good with metadata at the time, so I apologise in case anything ended up in the resulting folder from a different source.) Both the internet and my ability to read premodern Arabic handwriting have advanced a lot since then, and I can now identify (more or less) six of the works which these were taken from:

  • A commentary on al-Nawawī's Forty Ḥadīth - a selection of key sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad (SAWS)
  • Muhammad Mayyāra's commentary on Ibn ʕĀshir's Guiding Helper - a condensed summary in verse of essential Mālikī fiqh (religious jurisprudence)
  • Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī's Warning to the Neglectful, a book of religious exhortation
  • Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī's Decipherment of the Symbols and Keys of the Treasures, explaining Sufi concepts and terms
  • A linguistically focused commentary on al-Būṣīrī's Mantle - a poem in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad (SAWS)
  • Ibn Mālik's Thousand-Liner - a condensed presentation of Arabic grammar in verse to facilitate memorisation
  • A commentary on al-Abharī's Isagoge - an introduction to Aristotelian logic

Apart from these, there were a few pages of rhymed dua (supplication to God), which I can't find a source for online.

I still can't identify most of the commentators; it seems that plenty of commentaries have yet to be properly digitised. But the geographic spread of the authors is noteworthy, covering almost the whole span of the former territories of the Umayyad Caliphate: al-Samarqandī from Uzbekistan, al-Abharī from Iraq or Iran, al-Nawawī from Syria, Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī from Palestine, al-Būṣīrī from Egypt, Mayyāra and Ibn ʕĀshir from Morocco, Ibn Mālik from Spain. The chronological spread, on the other hand, is notably more concentrated: 10th c. (al-Samarqandī), 13th c. (al-Abharī, al-Nawawī, al-Būṣīrī, Ibn Mālik), 16th/17th c. (Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī, Ibn ʕĀshir). The 13th century doesn't necessarily spring to mind as a golden age of Islamic thought, but for the early 20th century curriculum this notebook presumably reflects, it was at least a golden age of school texts. (On the other side of the Mediterranean, it was also the age of Thomas Aquinas and Dante.) The absence of 19th century texts here might be accounted for by the rise of printing, but that cannot explain the paucity of texts from other recent centuries; even the 16th/17th century texts seem to be intended to open the door to understanding older works. The common purpose of these works should also be clear: all of them either relate directly to religion or are ancillary to the religious sciences.

The texts themselves accordingly therefore cast only a very indirect light on the context where they were being studied. A note carefully added in pencil on the inside cover sometime in the early/mid-20th century, however, is much more eloquent:

WARNING: The earth is a dark planet, lit by the moon at night and by the sun in the day. The earth is suspended in space by the power of Allah SWT; He made a gravitational power in the stars that attracts the earth towards them just as a magnet attracts iron. The earth is not carried on the horn of a bull, as claimed on p. 36 of this book in a ḥadīth of `Abd Allāh ibn Sallām when he asked the Messenger of Allāh SAWS about the earth "What was it created from?" and so on until he asked him "And what do these seven earths rest upon?" He replied "On a bull." He asked "And what is the bull like?" He said "A bull with 40,000 heads", etc. This ḥadīth has no basis, and has been deemed fabricated, and none of the learned have confirmed this ḥadīth - and Allah knows best.

This short comment feels like the entire modernist era in a nutshell - that late 19th/early 20th century moment of collision with the West, when this vast storehouse of traditional knowledge, stabilised over centuries by mnemonic verses and long insulated from external criticism, is suddenly confronted with an urgent need to sift out the grain from the chaff and go back to first principles, or risk losing intellectual as well as physical battles. We're still living through the aftermath; one result is a widespread suspicion of works formerly treated as unimpeachable, including some of those above.

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