Ibn Al-Nadim


Died 998


Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Ishaq al-Warraq commonly known as Ibn al-Nadim (died September 17, 995 or 998) was a bibliographer of either Persian or Arab background. He is famous as the author of the Kitab al-Fihrist. His choice of the rather rare Persian word pehrest (fehrest/ fehres/ fahrasat) for the title of a handbook on Arabic literature is noteworthy in this regard.

Very little is actually known about his life. He was a bookseller, a calligrapher who copied manuscripts for sale, as his father was before him. He lived in Baghdad and sometimes he mentions a sojourn in Mosul. Of his teachers he mentions al-Sirafi (died 978-9), 'Ali b. Harun b. al-Munadhdhim (died 963) and the philosopher Abu Sulayman al-Mantiqi. He belonged to the circle of a son of 'Ali b. 'Isa the "Good Vizier" of the Banu al-Dharrah, whom he praises for his profound knowledge of the logic and the sciences of the Greeks, Persians and Indians. Ibn al-Nadim also met in his house the Christian philosopher Ibn al-Khammar. With these men, none of whom was an orthodox Sunni, he shared an admiration for philosophy and especially for Aristotle, and the Greek and Hindu sciences of antiquity (before Islam). He admired their breadth of outklook and their air of toleration.

It did not escape his biographers that he was a Shi'i (Ibn Hadhar, l.c.); he uses khassi instead of shi'i, 'ammi instead of sunni, al-hashwiyya for the "Sunnis", ahl al-hadith instead of ahl al-sunna. He puts the eulogy for prophets (taslim) after the names of the Shi'i Imams and the ahl al-bayt. He calls the Imam al-Rida mawlana. He asserts that al-Waqidi [q.v.] was a Shi'i but concealed this fact by taqiyya. He claims most of the (orthodox) 'traditionists' for the Zaydiyya. He speaks of the Mu'tazila as ahl al-'adl, calls the Ash'aris al-mudhbira. That he belonged to the Imamiyya (Twelver Shi'a) is shown by his distaste for the doctrines of the Sab'iyya and by his criticisms in dealing with their history. He remarks that a certain Shafi'i scholar was secretly an Imami. He mentions Shi'is among his acquaintances, e.g., Ibn al-Mu'allim [see al-mufid], the da'i Ibn Hamdan and the author khushkunanadh. To the same circle belonged the Jacobite Yahya b. 'Adi (d. 363/973) who instructed 'Isa b. 'Ali in philosophy and who was, like Ibn al-Nadim, a copyist and bookseller (p. t64, 8).

His great book, the Fihrist, according to its brief preface, is meant to be an index of all books written in Arabic, whether by Arabs or non-Arabs. There existed already books (tabaqat) dealing with the biographies of poets. The Fihrist was published in 938; it exists in two manuscript traditions, or "editions": the more complete edition contains ten "discourses" (maqalat). The first six of them are detailed bibliographies of books on Islamic subjects: 1. the Holy Scriptures of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, with emphasis on the Qur'an and hadith; 2. works on grammar and philology; 3. history, biography, genealogy and the like; 4. poetry; 5. scholarly theology (kalam); 6. law (fiqh) and tradition. The last four discourses deal with non-Islamic subjects: 7. philosophy and the 'ancient sciences'; 8. legends, fables, magic, conjuring etc.; 9. the doctrines (maqalat) of the non-monotheistic creeds (Manicheans, Hindus, Buddhists and Chinese); 10. alchemy. He gives the titles only of those books which he had seen himself or whose existence was vouchsafed by a trustworthy person.

The shorter edition contains (besides the preface and the first section of the first discourse on the scripts and the different alphabets) only the last four discourses, in other words, the Arabic translations from Greek, Syriac and other languages, together with Arabic books composed on the model of these translations. Perhaps it was the first draft and the longer edition (which is the one that is generally printed) was an extension.

Ibn al-Nadim often mentions the size of a book and the number of pages, so that buyers would not be cheated by copyists passing off shorter versions. Compare the Stichometry of Nicephorus. He refers often to copies written by famous calligraphers, to bibliophiles and libraries, and speaks of a book auction and of the trade in books. In the opening section he deals with the alphabets of 14 peoples and their manner of writing and also with the writing-pen, paper and its different varieties. His discourses contain sections on the origins of philosophy, on the lives of Plato and Aristotle, the origin of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, thoughts on the pyramids, his opinions on magic, sorcery, superstition, and alchemy etc.