From a western point of view, the Christian Crusades have a glorified and righteous history: countless films and books recount how the shining knights of Christianity set out to save Christendom from the “infidel.” Ironically, the reality of Crusades history is that probably the best thing to come out of the Christian Crusades for western civilization was not the conquest of, but rather the exposure to, the Muslim “infidel.” Below, J. Harold Ellens details this twist in Crusades history in “The Fihrist: How an Arab Book Seller Saved Civilization.”
At a time when western Christian society could be accurately characterized as superstitious, brutal, dogmatic and repressive, the Arab world during the Christian Crusades period was reaching a zenith of learning and enlightenment. Once such example of this is the watershed work called the Fihrist (meaning “the catalogue”), a compendium of all of the significant written works on religion, the humanities and science available at the end of the first millennium A.D. The Fihrist, and the scholarship it represents, is one of the shining positives that emerged from a Crusades history that was otherwise brutal and bloody.
As explained by J. Harold Ellens below, from the Fihrist western scholars gained from the Christian Crusades the wealth of human knowledge that spanned the preceding several millennia—even Aristotle’s will was included in the masterwork compendium. It could be—and has been—argued that in Crusades history the best and unanticipated consequence of the Christian Crusades is that the western world now had the opportunity to regain ancient knowledge—through works like the Fihrist—that centuries of political instability and religious superstition had lost.
It took time. The western Renaissance several hundred years later is largely attributed to this reacquisition of ancient learning from works like the Fihrist. But gradually this consequence of the Christian Crusades trickled down to men (and some women) of learning in later generations, who were able to incorporate this aspect of Crusades history into a revival of knowledge in the humanities and sciences.
What the Christian Crusades gave to the Muslim world in terms of destruction, death and conflict was nowhere near the unexpected and unanticipated gift that the western world obtained from Crusades history in the form of works like the Fihrist. The Christians set out to conquer the “infidel,” but the “infidel” ended up educating the Christians.
In a fiery speech delivered at Clermont, France, in 1095 C.E., Pope Urban II called on Western Christians to expel the “Infidel” from the Holy Land. Thus the Pope unleashed the Crusades, during which European armies gained control of most of the Levant, including Jerusalem. The Pope also unleashed something else—a kind of frenzied destructiveness that frequently accompanies righteous fury. The wars of the following two centuries were marked by unimaginable and often irrational acts of rapine and murder, not the least of which was the Crusader attack in 1203 upon Constantinople, in which hundreds of thousands of Eastern Orthodox Christians were slaughtered.
In return, the West received one of the greatest gifts ever presented by one civilization to another. The Crusades opened up a rich mine of Eastern scholarship. The West would be civilized by the “Infidel,” informed by refined Persian and Arab scientists, historians, physicians, poets and philosophers.
An important instrument in this cultural exchange was a remarkable book, the Fihrist (Catalogue). This tenth-century C.E. book is a catalogue of all the significant written works on religion, science and the humanities that were available at the end of the first millennium C.E. It includes a digest of ancient Greek and Roman literature, much of which was lost to the West after the fall of the Roman Empire and the destruction of the Alexandria Library.a The Fihrist also lists classical texts that were preserved by Eastern scholars in the great imperial libraries of Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and Khurasan.
The breadth of learning revealed by the Fihrist is astonishing. It treats language, calligraphy and holy scriptures such as the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran. It contains chapters on Arab grammarians, history and politics, pre-Islamic poetry, the literature of the Umayyad (661–750) and Abbasid (750–1258) caliphates, as well as chapters on prominent jurists and legal authorities. It provides a summary of philosophy from the Hellenic thinker, Thales of Miletus (c. 620–555 B.C.E.), to the end of the first millennium C.E.—devoting considerable ink to Plato and Aristotle, even recording the entire text of Aristotle’s will. The Fihrist discusses mathematics, astronomy, medicine, fables and legends, Christian and Islamic sects, alchemy and bookmaking, and it tells what was known of such faraway places as India, Indochina and China.
The author of this signal work, Abu ’l-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim (c. 935–990 C.E.), was probably born in Baghdad, where his father ran a bookstore. The name “al-Nadim” (literally, “courtier”) means that he was a court official of some sort. His father was a warrag, or entrepreneur. Al-Nadim probably received a normal education: beginning instruction at the mosque at age six, memorizing much of the Koran by early adolescence, and then entering one of the mosque’s study circles. During the course of his life, he also had the opportunity to study under some of the luminaries of his day, such as the famous jurist Abu Sa’id al-Sirafi, the mathematician Yunus al-Qass and the historian Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Marzubani.
Click here to read J. Harold Ellens’s article “The Ancient Library of Alexandria” for free in Bible History Daily.
Al-Nadim’s greatest source of learning, however, was his father’s bookstore, where he was employed. No doubt his research was extremely useful to his father and their potential customers, especially his detailed knowledge of important books and authors. One imagines that his daily routine included copying manuscripts, entertaining scholars and acquiring books.1 In chapter four of the Fihrist, al-Nadim explains that his life’s work was “to present the names of the poets and the amount of verses written by each poet among them … so that whoever desires to collect books and poems can have this information.” Perhaps not accidentally, this system closely corresponds to that developed by the third-century B.C.E. scholar Callimachus for recording books in Egypt’s Alexandria Library.2
One of al-Nadim’s biographers refers to him as a Mu’tazili—that is, a member of a heretical Islamic sect that embraced the rationalistic and humanistic aspects of Islamic thought. The Mu’tazili, for instance, rejected traditional Islamic determinism, according to which everything happens because of the will of God. They believed, instead, that God’s justice could only exist if human beings were the authors of their own actions—and thus were punished or rewarded according to what they, not only God, willed and did. Even though al-Nadim was a Shi’ite who considered the rival Sunni Muslims crude and ignorant, he must have been seriously interested in the Mu’tazili, since he devotes a large part of chapter five to the sect.3 Mu’tazilism also seems like the sort of philosophy that would appeal to a man of al-Nadim’s learning.
Al-Nadim added to, arranged and rearranged his encyclopedia until his untimely death at the age of 55. On the title page of the Fihrist manuscript in Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library (see the second sidebar to this article) is a note, almost certainly penned by the great historian al-Maqrizi (1365–1441), indicating that al-Nadim died on the tenth day before the end of the month of Sha’ban in 990/1. Manuscripts of the Fihrist in al-Nadim’s own handwriting were probably placed in the royal library at Baghdad. In 1229 an Arab scholar claimed that he had worked from a manuscript of the Fihrist in its author’s hand; in 1252 the lexicographer al-Saghani made a similar claim.
One of al-Nadim’s persistent interests was the Arabic language. He cites scholarly debates about the origins of Arabic script—whether it was developed in a small Midianite Bedouin encampment in modern northwest Saudi Arabia or was borrowed from foreigners. Some sources say that Adam passed the script down, al-Nadim tells us; others claim that Ishmael gave it to his descendants. Al-Nadim is not much concerned with these folk traditions, but he is very interested in transcriptions of the Koran in the various dialects, scripts, hands and illuminations available in his day.
Al-Nadim not only sold and catalogued books, he was passionate about them. In the Fihrist, he comments on books and scripts of the Persians, Greeks, Hebrews (archaic and current), Syrians, Saxons, Chinese, Turks, Indians, Nubians, Russians, Bulgarians, Franks and Armenians. He loved all aspects of bookmaking, from orthography and calligraphy to methods of sharpening pens and making paper. Books, for al-Nadim, were almost alive; they were friends and teachers. “[B]ooks are the shells of wisdom, which are split open for the pearls of character,” he records one source as saying. From another source he quotes: “If books had not bound together the experiences of former generations, the shackles of later generations in their forgetfulness would not have been loosed.” Books represented an ideal existence without the failings to which men and women are prone. As one source says,
We have companions of whose conversation we never weary;
Confiding and trustworthy whether absent or present,
They give us the benefit of their knowledge … of what has passed,
With wise opinion, discipline, and instruction well-guided,
Without cause to be dreaded or fear of suspicion.
It is not surprising that al-Nadim devotes an extensive section of his volume to how the Koran was supposed to have been assembled from the revelations of the prophet Mohammed. He discusses the various sources, editions and interpretations of the Koran, along with the Islamic sages who commented on the holy book and the people and places mentioned in it. Al-Nadim also includes careful notes on discrepancies in the Koran— inconsistencies, special characteristics of language or ideas, as well as other notable peculiarities in the sacred texts.
Apparently al-Nadim visited official libraries, bookstores, authors and private libraries in his search for books. Of one book collector, Mohammed ibn al-Husayn, who lived near Aleppo, al-Nadim writes: “I have never seen anyone else with a library as extensive as the one which he had. It certainly contained Arabic books about grammar, philology, and literature, as well as ancient works. I met this man a number of times and, although he was friendly with me, he was wary and tight with his possessions.”
Hand-copied books were valuable objects—prized particularly by the feudal chiefs who ruled Aleppo from 944 to 967 C.E. and who were commandeering books to build their own library. Al-Husayn was “tight” because he was worried that the Aleppo sheiks would learn of his beloved volumes and then confiscate them. Among his precious antique manuscripts, al-Nadim reports, were “trusts and contracts in the handwriting of the Commander of the Faithful, Ali,” the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, along with documents in the hand of Mohammed’s scribes.
While making his way from library to library and from city to city, al-Nadim was always on the watch for especially rare books. He knew of two eighth-century C.E. Arabic grammar books that had apparently been lost, since he could find no one who had ever seen a copy or knew of anyone who had. One can sense the palpable grief of a true bibliophile in al-Nadim’s account of his futile search for these tomes.
Generally speaking, al-Nadim comments favorably upon the authors he mentions, but he is not above straight talk. Here he records the remarks of one author about another:
He was first a teacher in a common school, but later did private work, being established at the Paper Workers’ Bazaar … on the East Side [of Baghdad]. I have never seen anyone who became known so quickly as he became known for compiling books and reciting poetry, most of which he corrupted. In fact there never was anyone more stupid intellectually or more erroneous in pronunciation than he was … but at the same time he had a praiseworthy character, with a pleasant social manner, mellowed by maturity.
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Of a well-known man named al-Suli, “one of the brilliant men of letters and collectors of books,” al-Nadim reports a long list of admirable things, from his writing important books to his being a champion chess player. But the news about al-Suli is not all good. In his magnum opus on poetry, entitled Leaves, al-Nadim observes, “he relied upon the book of al-Marthadi about poetry and the poets; in fact he transcribed and plagiarized it. I have seen a copy of [the work of] this man [al-Marthadi] which came from the library of al-Suli and by which he was exposed.”
One intriguing passage in the Fihrist concerns ancient Persian astronomy. After carefully describing how Persian scientists treated the bark of the white poplar tree to produce a durable writing material, al-Nadim informs us that they wrote down detailed astronomical tables collected from as far back as the Babylonians. Then the ancient scientists looked for a city where the climate was optimal for preserving these records. They determined upon the Persian city of Jayy:
Then they went … inside the city of Jayy, to make it the depository for their sciences. This [depository] was called Sarwayh [Saruyah] and it has lasted until our own time. In regard to this building … many years before our time a side [of the building] became ruined. Then they found a vault in the cleft-off side … in which they discovered many books of the ancients, written on white poplar bark … and containing all of the sciences of the forefathers written in the old Persian form of writing.
Al-Nadim reports further that he had it on “reliable authority” that in 961 or 962 “another vaulted building cracked open … Many books were discovered in this place, but nobody found out how to read them.” The author then informs us that a decade before he had seen for himself books in Greek that had been found in a wall of the city (presumably Jayy). Al-Nadim closes this account by observing that in ancient times learning was forbidden except for those who were scholars or known to be able to receive learning by natural genius. Although the Greeks and Romans promoted learning, the Byzantine Christians forbade literacy except for the study of theology. In contrast, al-Nadim believed that Islam encourages the pursuit of literacy and knowledge.
Although the Fihrist is probably most valuable as a compendium of knowledge, it also preserves the spirit of its times through informative and entertaining narratives. One such story tells of a cotton worker named Mohammed ibn Kullab, who had a running theological debate with an acquaintance. Ibn Kullab contended that the Word of Allah, notably the Koran, is also Allah. His interlocutor then accused ibn Kullab of being a Christian, since Christians believed, on the basis of the Gospel of John, that the Word is God, and asked, “What do you have to say about the Christ (al-Masih)?” He would say the same thing about Christ that the Sunni Muslims say about the Koran, ibn Kullab responded: He is the Word of God.
This story nicely illustrates al-Nadim’s tone of mind: tolerant, curious, often bemused. Not only does the Fihrist show the breadth of al-Nadim’s knowledge, it is also a testament to his compassion. This devout Muslim, extremely proud of his culture and heritage, honored the beliefs of other peoples and gave them residence in his life’s work. He knew much about Judaism and Christianity, for example; he knew their histories, their scriptures, their religious beliefs. He knew the works of ancient Greek, Hindu and Chinese scholars. He was fascinated by the world beyond his own, so he built a monument to it, the Fihrist, which shines brightly with his humane spirit.
“The Fihrist” by J. Harold Ellens originally appeared in Archaeology Odyssey, September/October 2001.
The free eBook From Babylon to Baghdad examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the cultures of modern Western societies.
J. Harold Ellens is a retired scholar who researched at the University of Michigan and served as an occasional lecturer for the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate School in California. He is the author of hundreds of articles and numerous books, including The Ancient Library of Alexandria and Early Christian Theological Development (Claremont Graduate School, 1993).
1. Al-Nadim provides numerous accounts of book collections in remote places. For example, he tells of one sage, Khalid ibn Yzid ibn Mu’awiyah, who ordered a group of Greek philosophers from a city in Egypt, presumably Alexandria, to translate Greek and Coptic scientific books into Arabic (p. 581). Al-Nadim gives one unusually interesting account: “I heard Abu Ishaq ibn Shahram tell in a general gathering that there is in the Byzantine country a temple of ancient construction. It has a portal larger than any other ever seen with both gates made of iron. In ancient times, when they worshipped heavenly bodies and idols, the Greeks exalted this [temple], praying and sacrificing in it. He [Ibn Shahram] said, ‘I asked the emperor of the Byzantines to open it for me, but this was impossible, as it had been locked since the time that the Byzantines had become Christians. I continued, however, to be courteous to him, to correspond with him, and also to entreat him in conversation during my stay at his court. … He agreed to open it and, behold, this building was made of marble and great colored stones, upon which there were many beautiful inscriptions and sculptures. I have never seen or heard of anything equaling its vastness and beauty. In this temple there were numerous camel loads of ancient books … Some of these [books] were worn and some in normal condition. Others were eaten by insects.’ Then he said, ‘I saw there gold offering utensils and other rare things.’ He went on to say, ‘After my exit the door was locked …’ He believed that the building was a three-day journey from Constantinople” (pp. 585–586). It is likely that this was the famous Celsus Library at Ephesus, built in the second century C.E.
2. Callimachus (c. 305–235 B.C.E.) served under four successive chief librarians as the collector and collator of the Alexandria Library. He produced a 120-volume catalogue, called the Pinakes, of the library’s 500,000 books (that number would reach 1,000,000 by the time of Jesus). The Pinakes contained information on each book’s contents, provenance and author. After the library was destroyed in the seventh century C.E., many of its surviving books were apparently carried off to the imperial libraries of the caliphates, where they were translated into Persian and Arabic. For more information, see J. Harold Ellens, “You Can Look It Up!” AO 02:02; “The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s Most Important Repository of Learning,” BR 13:01; The Ancient Library of Alexandria and Early Christian Theological Development, Occasional Papers no. 27 (Claremont, CA: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University, 1993).
3. In the Fihrist, al-Nadim provides a summary of what others think of the Mu’tazilah (meaning “Those Who Separate Themselves”): “The Zaydiyah and Ibadiyah said that they did not believe in [God’s] grace, and were neither polytheists nor Muslims, but sinners. The companions of al-Hasan said that they were hypocrites and also sinners. All of the Mu’tazilah separated themselves from the things about which these [groups] differed. They said, ‘We agree about what they join in calling sin, but we avoid matters about which they disagree concerning unbelief, belief, hypocrisy, and polytheism’” (pp. 380–381).
a. See J. Harold Ellens, “The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s Most Important Repository of Learning,” BR 13:01.
Originally published in 2011, updated in 2014.