Tracing an author’s library

Tracing an author’s library: The autograph corpus of Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn (d. 1546)

Torsten Wollina

The project starts out from the assumption that additional meaning is created of individual texts when they are compiled with others into collective volumes, and, in turn, that additional layers of meaning are evoked by the collection of books into a library, creating a distinct ’neighborhood of books'. Whereas research into texts and textual traditions of the premodern Arabic literary landscape has long been a mainstay of modern Middle Eastern History, the consultation of manuscripts and the acknowledgement of the important relations between knowledge and its materiality as manuscript has only recently come to the foreground again. The field of library or archive studies, however, is still in its infancy with regard to the Middle East. 

This project situates itself within these fields and upholds that the question of the physical and ideal organization of knowledge or – in modern parlor – ‘information management’ deserves more attention, even though documentary and circumstantial evidence for these historical practices is rare. It thus also responds to recent developments which utilized manuscript annotations and layout for the sake of establishing a ‘social codicology’, combining both codicological and more general historical research interests. Furthermore, it will add to the debate on the role of writing and orality/aurality in Muslim transmission of knowledge.

The project pursues these questions using the example of Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn, a prolific author himself and an eyewitness of the Ottoman conquest of Syria. The Ottoman conquest of the former Mamluk realms of Egypt and Syria in 1516/17 is often treated as a watershed moment, signifying the triumph of an early-modern “gunpowder empire” over a more loosely organized medieval state. While this dichotomy has been questioned in recent years, this project assesses the synchronous shifts in knowledge production and transmission and their longterm consequences. It supports earlier findings that attest to a growing importance in book-related practices, including book ownership and collecting. It also builds upon earlier research that indicates transformations in practices of the documentation of transmission. In conjunction, these findings betray a shift in relations between content, materiality, and context of books between, roughly, the 16th and 20th centuries, which in turn indicates a change in the understanding of ‘book’ as well. 

The project consists of three distinct parts which aim to unearth new information about Ibn Ṭūlūn’s personal library. Part one is dedicated to the identification of his autographs and later copies of his works. Through the use of manuscript evidence, microfilms, and library catalogues, among other sources, I aim to establish his surviving autograph corpus and to trace the historical trajectories of his manuscripts from his endowment of the library at the ʿUmariyya Madrasa in Damascus to their present collections. This is the subject of an article submitted to the Journal of Islamic Manuscripts to be published by the end of 2018.

The second part addresses the production and transmission of Ibn Ṭūlūn's works during his lifetime. It deals with questions of authorship, audience, and genre. It should be noted that naturally the reception of an author’s works does follow different constraints before and after their death. Among the most important sources in this regard are his own biographical dictionaries (and several other works), which seem to have served him in the documentation of both verbal and written transmission. In addition, surviving certificates of teaching or transmission have been surveyed and preliminary transcripts have been published on the platform github []. This part also situates Ibn Ṭūlūn within his own time and place and thereby address the contemporary book culture as well.

The final part is concerned with Ibn Ṭūlūn’s working methods, both as an author and as a collector – and endower – of books. Most importantly, it disentangles the complicated interrelations and cross-dependencies between the contents statements featured in all his original compilations and an alphabetical work list he himself penned contemporaneously to the endowment of his library. It is my contention that he reorganized his own writings for the endowment so much more than his actual publications would get a place on the shelves. This includes the plentiful writings he summarily calls ‘taʿlīq’, one of whose translations would be 'reading notes’. 

During this life-cycle approach not only to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s autograph manuscripts but to the ephemeral library at large, this project aims not only to add to book history but also to the current trend that argues for a contextual approach to knowledge production. It does so mostly from an organizational perspective, which discloses diachronic relations between an author of 16th-century Damascus, collectors and book traders in 19th-century Cairo, and digitization initiatives in 21st-century Princeton.

You can follow it on the Research blog Opens external link in new windowDamascus Anecdotes. Reading Historical Bilād al-Shām.



Dr. Torsten Wollina (