Binge Reading in Fifteenth-Century Damascus

Binge Reading in Fifteenth-Century Damascus [DYNTRAN Working Paper, no. 27, August 2017]


At the end of the ninth/fifteenth century, in the year 897/1492, a Damascene scholar sat down in his garden to read through his considerable library. He neither did so silently nor alone, rather he read the books aloud with members of his family. Over the course of the next year the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī family made its way through hundreds of books, reading up to a dozen texts a day. Each of these readings was carefully noted down on the respective manuscript, so we are able to follow the family’s reading trajectory: The participants changed, often on an hourly basis. We see sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and concubines coming and going; we see new-born son Aḥmad joining the readings from the day after his birth (at times it is carefully noted that he – not surprisingly – was asleep during the reading); and we see the scholar’s son, ʿAbd al-Hādī, who rarely made it on time. What drove the family (or at least Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī) to voluntarily engage in such a reading marathon? What is the wider cultural significance embedded in this practice? This blog provides the first tentative answers to these questions and is the outcome of my ongoing book project on the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī library (which I hope to have off my desk by 2019).

The protagonist of our story, Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī, was a member of the Maqdisī scholarly dynasty, which had started to play a prominent role in Damascus in the sixth/twelfth century (Leder 1997). When Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī was born this outstandingly influential family group certainly was past its most glorious days, when up to a dozen of its members had had salaried positions in the city’s institutions at the same time. Yet, it was still well-known in the Damascene Ṣāliḥīya quarter on the slopes of Mount Qasyun. The quarter was founded by the Maqdisī dynasty’s progenitor, Shaykh Aḥmad (d. 558/1162), and was the very centre of the Ḥanbalī school of law, to which virtually all Maqdisīs belonged (Miura 2016). The Ṣāliḥīya quarter was Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s home turf: where he was born, where he lived and where he died. At the same time, it was home to the ʿUmarīya Madrasa, founded by Shaykh Aḥmad’s son Abū ʿUmar (d. 607/1210), which was his intellectual home for most of his life and was still the most prestigious institution of education in Ṣāliḥīya more than 300 years after its foundation (al-Ḥāfiẓ 2001).

Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s main field of scholarly activity was that of ḥadīth, the transmission and study of reports on the Prophet Muḥammad’s words and deeds, the most characteristically Ḥanbalī field of learning. Here his written output fits very comfortably with what G. Davidson (2014) has called the ‘post-canonical’ ḥadīth culture, i.e. a scholarly activity strongly infused with ritualistic characteristics. After ‘canonical’ ḥadīth scholarship had established a broad consensus on which traditions were authenthic, from the fifth/eleventh century onwards ḥadīth scholars started to emphasise that keeping a direct – and preferably very short – line of transmission to the Prophet Muḥammad was at the core of their mission. These lines of transmission were increasingly recorded on the manuscripts with highly standardised samāʿāt, certificates of audition (Görke/Hirschler 2011). For our purposes, the most important point is that this specific way of dealing with ḥadīth was centred on small-scale collections of Prophetic traditions often not encompassing more than 10 folia or so. This matters because the vast majority of texts in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s library were such items; some of them over three centuries old with numerous certificates of audition bearing witness to their transmission, some of them written by himself and thus naturally devoid of such certificate.

Fig. 1: A typical certificate of audition in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s hand in the bottom right corner, with four-day old Aḥmad attending. Damascus, National Syrian al-Assad Library, MS 3744, fol. 90b/91a (© National Syrian al-Assad Library)

The prominence of post-canonical ḥadīth collections in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s library was far from self-evident in his period. After this genre’s heyday in the 7th/13th and 8th/14th centuries, enthusiasm for transmitting ḥadīth started to significantly drop off in Damascus. It certainly never entirely disappeared from the possible intellectual pursuits available to scholars in the city. Yet, the intensity with which Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī pursued these activities put him rather on the fringes of the learned community and gave him a strong revivalist bent. It is no coincidence that he had read most of these compilations with a very small circle of teachers as the pool of ḥadīth transmitters was limited. Furthermore, many Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī books are full of certificates of audition up to the eighth/fourteenth century, but then break off for over a century. Such certificates only return to the books’ pages with Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī registering first his own certificates and subsequently his family reading sessions. Yet, he was clearly a voice in the wilderness and after him there is again a dearth of certificates for the following centuries.

We are unusually well-informed about the binge reading of the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī family for two reasons: Firstly, Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī composed a book register (fihrist) for this endowment, which is today preserved in the National Syrian al-Assad Library (MS 3190). Consisting of fifty-eight folia it lists some 600 manuscripts in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s characteristically sloppy hand (which, by the way, is a wonderful indicator to track down his books in modern-day collections). As most of these manuscripts were composite manuscripts, i.e. volumes which were assembled from initially separate codicological units or booklets (Schwarke/Friedrich 2016), the entry for one single manuscript can easily list twenty texts. This book list is one of the very few documents from pre-Ottoman Syria that gives us insight into the make-up of a private library (Hirschler 2016).

Fig. 2: The first pages of Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s book register (in the margins in the top right corner are entries for copies of the Koran that he had forgotten when he started his register). Damascus, National Syrian al-Assad Library, MS 3190, fol. 1a/2b (© National Syrian al-Assad Library)

The second reason why the family’s reading programme can be reconstructed in such detail is that a vast number of Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s manuscripts can be tracked down in modern libraries. Most of these manuscripts have stayed in Damascus and are today in the National Syrian al-Assad Library (which absorbed the former Ẓāhirīya Library in 1983, which in turn goes back to the late-Ottoman Public Library (al-Maktaba al-ʿumūmīya) founded in 1295/1878, which in turn absorbed most of the extant madrasa libraries of Damascus). However, over the centuries the manuscripts once owned by Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī have also travelled to new shores and we find them in collections that include the Dār al-kutub in Cairo, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, the Escorial Monastery close to Madrid, the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and the Princeton University Library.

Matching a substantial number of entries in a medieval book list with extant manuscripts obviously offers a wonderful vantage point to tell a fine-grained history of a vanished library. Yet as any book historian knows, matching an entry with an extant manuscript can be a fiendish piece of work and the very uneven quality of catalogues for Arabic/Islamic manuscripts does not facilitate matters. In addition, Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī was not a great fan of putting ownership notes in his books and there is not a single note in any of his books testifying to his endowment. However, he did facilitate matters with his distinctive hand, which has allowed a considerable number of pairs to be matched. Once the corpus slowly started to crystallize, it became clear that there was an even more conspicuous feature allowing me to link register entry and manuscript, namely the certificates documenting the reading sessions of the family. In other words, the manuscripts dispersed in libraries around the world today can only be read as the historical corpus they had once been via the notes documenting what was going on in the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī household in 897/1492. These notes, and thus the family reading sessions, are what gave the individual items in this book collection a collective identity – the cultural practices of using the books were seemingly more meaningful than the legal status of ownership/endowment. What then was the significance of these cultural practices and of the family reading marathon?

To some extent, the reading sessions were certainly held to transmit the authority to teach these texts to the next generation. Holding readings with family members was a standard strategy to ensure that cultural capital was handed down – cultural capital that could potentially be converted into social capital once (and if) the family member embarked on a scholarly career and could then draw on prestigious lines of transmission for a multitude of texts. However, it is most unlikely that it was Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī ‘s intention for those who received his transmission rights to be, with very few exceptions, family members. This was rather down to the fact that this kind of post-canonical ḥadīth texts had by then little traction in the city. In addition, it is striking that some of the most regular participants were his (former?) female slaves (described as ‘Umm walad’ if they had fathered him a son), especially Bulbul, the mother of his son Ḥasan. While ḥadīth was in general the scholarly field with the highest rate of female participants, it is rather unlikely – though certainly not impossible – that the participation of Bulbul, Ghazāl, Jawhara and Ḥalwa, was meant to be the first step in a scholarly career.

The readings were certainly also meant as a devotional ritual. Reading and listening to traditions on the deeds and words of the Prophet – and to do so with an uninterrupted chain of pious transmitters – was a crucial channel to come close to the Prophet himself. When specialised institutions for the transmission of ḥadīth were founded in seventh/thirteenth-century Damascus, we thus repeatedly find that they held a relic of the Prophet, such as his sandal. In this way, the textual proximity to the Prophet could be combined with immediate physical proximity. It is this quest for blessing and salvation that certainly also explains why little Aḥmad was from the second day of his life a regular participant in the readings.

The most crucial explanation for the homely reading marathon, in addition to scholarly and ritual concerns, is however of biographical nature. When Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī conducted these readings he was about to endow his books to the ʿUmarīya Madrasa, his intellectual home for the past decades. Endowing one’s books to a madrasa library was quite normal for a medieval scholar, but doing so during one’s lifetime was rather unusual. In Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s case, this act was most likely driven by an intellectual re-orientation: Though he had spent most of his career in the field of ḥadīth, he was hardly active in this field after the reading year of 897/1492, moving rather to new intellectual pastures, in particular Prophetic medicine. This was a massive break in his scholarly trajectory: Up to 897/1492 he had authored hundreds of works in the field of ḥadīth. Giving away so many of his own works and so many works he had collected over the years must clearly have been an emotional decision for him.

This was particularly true as his library consisted to a large extent of (mostly ḥadīth-related) books that had once been endowed by one of the great Maqdisīs of the past, Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn al-Maqdisī (d. 643/1245), in the library of his Ḍiyāʾīya Madrasa-cum-Dār al-ḥadīth in the Ṣāliḥīya Quarter. The Ḍiyāʾīya had folded some 100 years earlier in the aftermath of the Timurid conquest of Damascus. We do not know how Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī got hold of so many books from that specific library, but they were clearly of special value to him as he so assiduously filled his shelves with them. To subsequently give away these books must have been particularly difficult as they represented not only his family identity, but also his scholarly and spatial identities as a Ḥanbalī Ṣāliḥī scholar. It must have been some consolation that he was at least able to endow them in the ʿUmarīya Madrasa, thus making sure that a Maqdisī book collection of an institution of the past (Ḍiyāʾīya) went via his private library into the Maqdisī library of a present institution (ʿUmarīya).

Fig. 3: Typical title page of a book from Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s library, here a ḥadīth collection ascribed to ʿAbd al-Ghāfir b. Ismāʿīl al-Fārisī (d. 529/1134-5). The bold endowment notice for the Ḍiyāʾīya is well preserved and the subsequent status of the book is inscribed via the certificate below in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s hand documenting a reading in 897/1492, attended by Bulbul and three of his sons. Damascus, National Syrian al-Assad Library, MS 3775, fol. 18a (© National Syrian al-Assad Library)

The binge reading session of the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī family was thus at first glance linked to transmission and family in a rather predictable way, namely passing down scholarly authority. However, a close reading of the material at the centre of these sessions, the manuscripts, shows that this was also a deeply personal moment when Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī parted with a book collection that he had built up throughout his life. It marked a turning point in his own life away from the field of ḥadīth, which occurred for reasons unknown to us: Was he fed up with being the lone voice?; Was he simply bored with studying the same field for so many years? He thus gathered his household to bid farewell to his books, but made sure that the link with the wider family group of the Maqdisīs was retained. And he was impressively successful in his endowment strategy: When the first catalogue of the new Public Library was published in Ottoman Damascus in 1882, the only medieval library to figure in it as one of the absorbed libraries was the ʿUmarīya. And even though the ʿUmarīya had once been a massive library with many endowments by prominent scholars, the majority of the ʿUmarīya books listed in 1882, were books by Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī.

Konrad Hirschler



  • Davidson, Garrett (2014): Carrying on the tradition: An intellectual and social history of post-canonical hadith transmission. PhD-Diss, University of Chicago.
  • Görke, Andreas/Konrad Hirschler (eds) (2011): Manuscript Notes as Documentary Sources, Würzburg.
  • al-Ḥāfiẓ, Muḥammad Muṭīʿ (2001): al-Madrasa al-ʿUmarīya bi-Dimashq wa-faḍāʾil muʾassisihā Abī ʿUmar Muḥammad Ibn Aḥmad al-Maqdisī al-Ṣāliḥī (al-mutawaffā sanat 607 h) wa-al-taʿrīf bi-usrat Āl Qudāma, Beirut: Dār al-Fikr al-Muʿāṣir.
  • Hirschler, Konrad (2016): Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library – The Ashrafīya Library Catalogue, Edinburgh.
  • Leder, Stefan (1997): “Charismatic Scripturalism. The Ḥanbalī Maqdisīs of Damascus”, Der Islam: Journal of the History and Culture of the Middle East 74/2: 279-304.
  • Miura, Toru (2016): Dynamism in the urban society of Damascus: the Ṣāliḥiyya Quarter from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, Leiden/Boston.
  • Schwarke, Cosima/Michael Friedrich (2016): One-Volume Libraries: Composite and Multiple-Text Manuscripts, Berlin/Boston.

To quote this publication:

Konrad Hirschler, “Binge Reading in Fifteenth-Century Damascus”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, no. 27, online edition, August 2017, available at:

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