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Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān: Muʾarrikhū Miṣr al-Islāmiyya wa-maṣādir al-tārīkh al-Miṣrī, Cairo: al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma lil-Kitāb 1999, 208 S.

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Christian Mauder
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Stephan Conermann
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Christian Mauder: Rezension von: Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān: Muʾarrikhū Miṣr al-Islāmiyya wa-maṣādir al-tārīkh al-Miṣrī, Cairo: al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma lil-Kitāb 1999, in: sehepunkte 14 (2014), Nr. 9 [15.09.2014], URL:

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Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān: Muʾarrikhū Miṣr al-Islāmiyya wa-maṣādir al-tārīkh al-Miṣrī

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For centuries Islamic Egypt has been home to a vibrant tradition of historiographical writing. Especially, but not only, in the later medieval period, Egyptians excelled in such different literary genres as the chronicle, biographical dictionary or topographic history. The works of these authors continue to be objects of study to the present day and provide us with invaluable information on the history of life on the shores of the Nile.

Some of the highlights of this historiographical tradition are explored in Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān's Muʾarrikhū Miṣr al-Islāmiyya wa-maṣādir al-tārīkh al-Miṣrī ("Historians of Islamic Egypt and the Sources of Egyptian History"), in the form of 16 biographies of famous Egyptian authors and discussions of their most important works. The book begins with a preface by the series editor and an introduction by the author (1-6). The biographies that form the main part of the book are divided into two sections: The first one (7-60) features authors who lived up to the Fatimid period, whereas the second one covers writers from the Mamluk period up to early 18th century (61-189). The authors discussed in the first section are ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam (8-20), Abū ʿUmar al-Kindī (21-33), al-Ḥasan ibn Zūlāq (34-48), ʿIzz al-Mulk al-Musabbiḥī (49-54) and Abū ʿAbdallāh al-Quḍāʿī (55-60). The second section consists of biographies of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī (62-68), Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī (68-75), Abū l-ʿAbbās al-Qalqashandī (76-84), Taqī l-Dīn al-Maqrīzī (85-104), al-Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (105-113), Abū l-Maḥāsin Ibn Taghrī Birdī (114-126), Shams al-Dīn al-Sakhāwī (127-141), Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (142-151), Ibn Iyās (152-168), Muḥammad ibn Abī l-Surūr al-Bakrī (169-176) and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī (177-189). A bibliography and several indexes at the end conclude the volume (190-207).

Given the particular structure of the book under review, the best way to give the reader a clear impression of its subject matter and methodological approach would seem to be a detailed discussion of selected chapters instead of a general summary of its entire content. I have therefore decided to pay special attention to the introduction and the biographies of three important authors from the Mamluk period: Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī, Abū l-Maḥāsin Ibn Taghrī Birdī and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī.

In his remarkably personal introduction, Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān shares information on the writing process of the book, explaining that he penned most of the biographies at an early stage of his career in the 1930s. Using inter alia unpublished manuscripts and excerpts preserved in the works of later authorities, he tried to familiarize himself as completely as possible with the work of every single author covered. During this process, he faced particular challenges with regard to the early historians of Islamic Egypt, as most of their works have not survived. The author then goes on to describe how the individual biographies had already been published separately in various places, before being brought together in revised form in a single volume. He expresses his regret that he was not able to cover a number of other important authors he originally had planned to include in his study such as Ibn al-Furāt al-Ḥanafī or Badr al-Dīn al-ʿAynī. Finally, ʿInān contextualizes the book under review within his own scholarly oeuvre.

The first part of the chapter on Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī begins with a note on the publication history of his encyclopedic work Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār. ʿInān laments that the edition of this work under the auspices of the Egyptian Dār al-Kutub came to an early end after the publication of its first part in 1924, forcing the scholarly community to rely on manuscripts for the rest of this particularly valuable and informative text. He is thus obviously unaware of the 1988 facsimile edition issued by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science in Frankfurt am Main. [1] The author then contextualizes al-ʿUmarī's Masālik al-abṣār within the encyclopedic literature of its time and discusses its relationship with similar works by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī and Abū l-ʿAbbās al-Qalqashandī. Thereafter, he offers a detailed account of al-ʿUmarī's life, beginning with his birth in early Shawwāl 700 hijrī, corresponding to a date in June 1301 CE, and not 1300 CE, as the author claims. ʿInān then sheds light on al-ʿUmarī's education and his positions in the civilian part of the Mamluk apparatus, most notably the diwān al-inshāʾ. The author then continues with a general characterization of al-ʿUmarī's wide scholarly interests, emphasizing especially his fascination with the history and geography of foreign countries and peoples. Subsequently, he comments on al-ʿUmarī's literary skills and quotes relevant passages from Khalīl b. Aybak al-Ṣafadī's (d. 764/1363) Aʿyān al-ʿaṣr wa-aʿwān al-naṣr. Al-ʿUmarī's death date in 749 hijrī is again wrongly converted to the Common Era as it corresponds to the year 1349 and not to 1348 as indicated by ʿInān.

The second part of the chapter is dedicated to al-ʿUmarī's oeuvre. His more important works are enumerated and partially commented. A detailed outline of its structure and contents is provided in the case of the monumental Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, followed by information on the partial editions and translations known to ʿInān.

In the third part of the chapter, al-ʿUmarī's second magnum opus, the chancery manual al-Taʿrīf bi-l-muṣṭalaḥ al-sharīf, becomes the center of attention. The author discusses how al-ʿUmarī used his professional experience as a chancery official to compose this work, which is of great value for scholars interested in the institutional history of the Mamluk state. Throughout the chapter, ʿInān does not refer to any modern secondary literature, but rather draws completely on al-ʿUmarī's own works, on the one hand, and medieval biographical works on the other.

The first part of Abū l-Maḥāsin Ibn Taghrī Birdī's (d. 874/1470) biography consists of a general assessment of historiographical writing in Egypt during the ninth century hijrī and the development of an independent "national" school of historians in this period. Thereafter, the author deals with Ibn Taghrī Birdī's position within this school and then moves on to his family background, life, education and scholarly achievements. After that, he contextualizes his most important works, i.e., the chronicle al-Nujūm al-zāhira fī mulūk Miṣr wa-l-Qāhira and the biographical lexicon al-Manhal al-ṣāfī wa-l-mustawfī baʿd al-Wāfī.

In the following section, he outlines in great detail the contents of the just mentioned books as well as of Ibn Taghrī Birdī's Ḥawādith al-duhūr fī madā l-ayyām wa-l-shuhūr, pointing to their value for modern historians and speaking about their editions. According to ʿInān, only the first volume of al-Manhal al-ṣāfī has so far been published - a information that no longer holds true, given that a new complete edition of the work was begun in 1984 and has been finished in the meantime. [2] This oversight is particularly perplexing as this new edition was issued by the same publisher as the book under review. The information provided on the editions of Ibn Taghrī Birdī's other major works is partially outdated, too. The final section of the chapter is dedicated to Ibn Taghrī Birdī's problematic relationship with his contemporary and rival Shams al-Dīn al-Sakhāwī (d. 902/1497). ʿInān's main sources in this chapter are Ibn Taghrī Birdī's own works as well as al-Sakhāwī's writings; no relevant secondary literature is cited.

ʿInān's biography of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505) begins with a general appraisal of the polymath's intellectual achievements in fields such as law, Quranic exegesis, Ḥadīth, linguistics, literature and history. Thereafter, he focuses on al-Suyūṭī's family background, his education, writings, scholarly activities and travels. With regard to the latter, the author repeats a popular misunderstanding stating that "he (sc. al-Suyūṭī) undertook journeys to Syria, the Hijaz, Yemen, India, the Maghrib and Takrūr" (p. 143). As E.M. Sartain has shown in her comprehensive biography of al-Suyūṭī, which seems to be unknown to ʿInān, it was the polymath's books that travelled to these countries - not the scholar himself. [3] The section on al-Suyūṭī's life comes to a conclusion with remarks on the scholar's often tense relations with the rulers of his day, on the number of his works and on his death. Al-Suyūṭī's far-reaching claims regarding his own status as mujtahid and the renewer (mujaddid) of Islam in his time are not discussed at any length.

The second section of this chapter starts with a thematically organized list of al-Suyūṭī's major works. The more important of his historical writings are thereafter addressed in detail, beginning with the two-volume Ḥusn al-muhāḍara fī akhbār Miṣr wa-l-Qāhira. ʿInān presents both a synopsis of the contents and an appraisal of the scholarly value of this text, which is al-Suyūṭī's most comprehensive account of Egyptian history. Subsequently, the following historiographical and biographical writings ascribed to the polymath are summarized and commented on: Durr al-saḥāba fī-man dakhala Miṣr min al-ṣaḥāba, Tārīkh al-khulafāʾ, Naẓm al-iqyān fī aʿyān al-aʿyān, Tārīkh al-sulṭān Qāyitbāy wa-l-dawla al-Ayyūbiyya wa-duwal al-mamālīk and al-Shamārīkh fī ʿilm al-tārīkh. Again, in his account of al-Suyūṭī's life and works ʿInān makes no use of any modern secondary literature, relying instead heavily on pre-modern biographical works.

As has become clear from the examples presented, Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān's Muʾarrikhū Miṣr al-Islāmiyya wa-maṣādir al-tārīkh al-Miṣrī is based on a profound study of the relevant primary sources in general and the medieval biographical literature in particular. This fact deserves special attention as many of the sources cited were available only in manuscript at the time he wrote the book. However, his approach to the sources cited appears sometimes uncritical and influenced by nationalist tendencies (cf., e.g., 18, 114-119).

Moreover, although it would be unfair to criticize ʿInān for not including biographies of individual historians that might be of particular interest to one reader or the other, it is nevertheless problematic that the author nowhere explains his criteria for selecting those authors that he included. Moreover, his understanding of the term "historian" remains unclear. It might be open to debate whether authors such as Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī and Abū l-ʿAbbās al-Qalqashandī are best described as "historians" or should not rather be seen as "encyclopaedists" who also covered historical subjects within their works. Reflections of this kind could have found a place in a conclusion, which would also have provided an opportunity to present some general results on the development of Arabic historiography in Egypt.

The basic problem of ʿInān's book, however, is that overall it is based on a completely outdated state of research. The author does engage in several instances in intensive dialogues with important works of the secondary literature, paying special attention to studies in European languages (cf., e.g., 12-13, 33-35, 40-42, 91-94). However, almost none of the publications he refers to were written after the 1930s, i.e., when the biographies brought together in the volume under review had first been penned. Although the author states that he updated the texts for publication in the collected volume (cf. p. 4), this information seems to refer to the earlier 1969 edition of the work and not to its newest version. Moreover, this alleged revision obviously left the substance of the biographies unchanged. In other words, the book under review is an apparently unaltered reprint of an only marginally updated collection of articles written some 80 years ago. While this fact does not necessarily devaluate those of ʿInān's findings that are based on a close reading of the sources available at the time of writing, it makes the book next to useless as a critical contribution to the modern-day scholarly debate.

Given its various shortcomings and its complete neglect of modern research, Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ʿInān's Muʾarrikhū Miṣr al-Islāmiyya wa-maṣādir al-tārīkh al-Miṣrī cannot be regarded as in line with the requirements generally applied to present-day academic secondary literature. It is, however, of particular interest when seen from a different perspective: as a document of how Arabic historiographical literature was understood and written about in 20th-century Egypt. Viewed from this angle, the book becomes a fascinating object of historical research in itself. For example, it could serve as an expressive example of the way scholarship on Arabic historiography was interrelated with political power in Egypt at the end of the past millennium, given that it features a full-page hymn of praise on Suzan Mubarak on its very first page. Moreover, on the back cover of the book the reader is confronted not only with an image of Egypt's benevolently smiling former First Lady in an aureole, but also with reflections on the value of knowledge in ornate prose penned by Suzan Mubarak herself. The particular value of the book lies thus not in what it says about pre-modern Egyptian historiography, but in its character as a piece of the modern history of Egypt.


[1] After the publication of the book under review, a new edition of al-ʿUmarī's Masālik al-abṣār in 27 volumes appeared in Beirut in 2010.

[2] Ibn Taghrī Birdī, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū l-Maḥāsin: al-Manhal al-ṣāfī wa-l-mustawfī baʿda l-Wāfī, 13 vols., various eds., Cairo 1984-2009.

[3] Cf. E.M. Sartain: Jalāl al-dīn al-Suyūṭī, Volume 1: biography and background, Cambridge, London, New York and Melbourne 1975, 40-41.

Christian Mauder