Ibn al-Nadim

Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Ishāq al-Nadīm (Arabic: ابو الفرج محمد بن إسحاق النديم), his nasab is ibn Abī Ya'qūb Ishāq ibn Muḥammad ibn Ishāq al-Warrāq and he is more commonly, albeit erroneously, known as Ibn al-Nadim (d. 17 September 995 or 998 CE), was a Muslim scholar and bibliographer[1]

Al-Nadim was the tenth century bibliophile of Baghdad and compiler of the Arabic encyclopedic catalogue known as 'Kitāb al-Fihrist'. This crucial source of medieval Islamic culture and scholarship, from his own and various ancient civilizations, preserves names of authors, books and accounts that are otherwise entirely lost. Al-Fihrist evidences Al-Nadim's voracious thirst and curiosity for all forms of knowledge and learning, and captures a glimpse into an exciting sophisticated milieu of Baghdad's intellectual elite. In the preface Al-Nadim describes his book as:

A catalogue of the books of all peoples, Arab and foreign, existing in the language of the Arabs, as well as their scripts, dealing with various sciences, with accounts of those who composed them and the categories of their authors, together with their relationships, their times of birth, length of life, and times of death, the localities of their cities, their virtues and faults, from the beginning of the formation of science to this our own time (377 /987).[2][3]


Much of what is known of al-Nadim is deduced from his epithets. The name 'al-Nadim' means 'the Court Companion' (Arabic: النَّدِيم) and 'al-Warrāq (Arabic: الْوَرَّاق) means 'the copyist of manuscripts'. He was probably born in Baghdad ca. 320/932 and died there on Wednesday, the 20th of Shaʿban in the year 380. Some have suggested he was Persian.[4][5]

From the age of six al-Nadim would have attended a 'madrasa'. Clearly al-Nadim received a quality comprehensive education in Islamic studies, history, geography, comparative religion and the sciences. He would have studied Arabic grammar, rhetoric and Qurʾanic commentary. Ibrahim al-Abyari, author of Turāth al-Insaniyah says al-Nadim studied with al-Hasan ibn Sawwar, a logician and translator of science books; Yunus al-Qass, translator of classical mathematical texts; and Abu al-Hasan Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Naqit, scholar in Greek science.[6] An inscription, in an early copy of al-Fihrist, probably by the historian al-Maqrizi, relates that al-Nadim was a pupil of the jurist Abu Sa'id al-Sirafi (d.978/9), the poet Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, and the historian Abu Abdullah al-Marzubani and others. Al-Maqrizi's phrase 'but no one quoted him', would imply al-Nadim himself did not teach.[7] While attending lectures of some of the leading scholars of the tenth century, he served an apprenticeship in his father's profession, the book trade. His father, a bookdealer and owner of a prosperous bookstore, commissioned al-Nadim to buy manuscripts from dealers. Al-Nadim, with the other calligrapher scribes employed, would then copy these for the customers. The bookshop, customarily on an upper floor, would have been a popular hangout for intellectuals.[8]

He probably visited the intellectual centers at Basra and Kufa in search of scholarly material. He may have visited Aleppo, a center of literature and culture under the rule of Sayf al-Dawla. In Mosul he discovered a fragment of a book by Euclid in one of its libraries, and works of poetry. The city was ruled by Nasir al-Dawla, a Hamdanid and a lover of learning and al-Nadim may have served him as 'Court Companion'.[9] The author came from a highly educated family so he, or one of his ancestors, may have been a 'member of the Round Table of the prince'. The Buyid Khalif 'Adud al-Dawla (r. 356-367 H), was the great friend of a arts and sciences, loved poets and scholars, gave them salaries, and founded a significant library.[10] More probably service at the court of Mu'izz al-Dawla, and later his son Izz al-Dawlah's, in Baghdad, earned him the title. He mentions meeting someone in Dar al-Rum in 988, about the period of the book's compilation.[11] However it is probable that, here, 'Dar al-Rum' refers to the Greek Orthodox sector of Baghdad rather than Constantinople.[12]

Others among his wide circle of elites were Ali ibn Harun ibn al-Munajjim (d.963), of the Banu Munajjim and the Christian philosopher Ibn al-Khammar. He admired Abu Sulayman Sijistani, son of Ali bin Isa the "Good Vizier" of the Banu al-Jarrah, for his knowledge of philosophy, logic and the Greek, Persian and Indian sciences, especially Aristotle. The physician Ibn Abi Usaibia (d.1273), mentions al-Nadim thirteen times and calls him a writer, or perhaps a government secretary.[13] Al-Nadim's Kunya 'Abu al-Faraj' indicates he was married with at least one son in Baghdad.


Ibn Hajar claimed al-Nadim was Shiʿah.[14] Al-Nadim uses the term specific people (Arabic: الخاصة), for the Shiʿah, and the term general people (Arabic: العامة) for non-Shiʿahs. He also uses the pejorative term Ḥashawīyya (Arabic: الحشوية), meaning those who believe Allah can be confined to physical dimensions, for Sunnis and calls the Hanbali school Ahl al-Hadith ("People of the Hadith") instead of Ahl al-Sunna ("People of the Tradition"). Al-Nadim uses the supplication of peace be upon him (Arabic: عليه السلام), after the names of the Ahl al-Bayt (Descendants of Muhammad). He refers to Shia imam Ali ar-Rida, as 'mawlana' (Arabic: مولانا) meaning master. He alleges that al-Waqidi concealed being a Shiʿah by taqiyya (dissimulation) and that most of the traditionalists were Zaydis. Ibn Hajar claims that al-Nadim was a member of the Muʿtazila sect. Much of chapter five of al-Fihrist discusses this sect, described as People of Justice (Arabic: أهل العدل). The Ash'arites being called al-Mujbira, harsh criticism of Sab'iyya doctrine and history, and an allusion to a certain Shafi'i scholar as a 'secret Twelver', suggest al-Nadim's possible Twelver religious affiliation. Others among his circle were the theologian Al-Mufid, the da'i Ibn Hamdan, the author Khushkunanadh, and the Jacobite philosopher Yahya ibn 'Adi (d. 363/973) who instructed Isa bin Ali and who was also a copyist and bookseller (p. t64, 8). The claim that al-Nadim was Isma'ili, on the grounds that he met an Isma'ili leader and attended a meeting, is not borne out.[15]


In 987, Ibn al-Nadim created a somewhat chaotic but exhaustive bibliographic record of Arabic literature and translated works from other cultures. He collected thousands of slips of paper concerning authors, their biographical data, and the titles of their works, eventually compiling them into a book  that came to be called al-Fihrist, or 'the Catalog'.

An incredibly original and unique catalog, the Fihrist lists authors and details of their lives and works while offering candid assessments of their literary value. Along with religion, customs, and science as subjects, al-Nadim dealt with obscure facets of medieval Islamic history, including works on superstition, magic, entertainment, and other, often vulgar, topics. In the pages of the Fihrist, great poems and historical works from Persia, Babylonia, and Byzantium sit side by side with mundane titles and the bizarre, obscene prose of “jesters and clowns”. Because the Fihrist was not tied to a single collection or library, al-Nadim had the freedom to be as selective as he wished, creating an inclusive cultural catalog of his time.[16]

In the Fihrist as a whole, chronology is a fundamental ordering principle, operating at four distinct levels: the internal order of lists of works within a single genre; the internal order of the chapter, orfann; the internal order of the maqala, that is, the order of the chapters orfanns within an individual maqala; and the order of the book as a whole, that is, the order of the maqalas within the Fihrist. An understanding of these four chronological principles helps to interpret the work and the ideas behind it. Using them, the investigator may retrieve information from the work that has eluded investigators to date and also gain insight into Ibn al-Nadim's method of composition, ideology, and historical analyses.[17]

The Fihrist testifies to the great wealth of knowledge disseminated in the literature of the Islamic Golden Age, ranging in breadth, historically and geographically, from the modern to the ancient civilisations of Syria, Greece, India, Rome and Persia. Sadly little survives of the Persian books listed by Ibn al-Nadim. The Fihrist's preface sets out its purpose as an index of all books written in Arabic, whether by Arabs or others. Biographies of poets (tabaqat) had existed so an index was not a new literary form. The Fihrist was published in 987; 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:

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 One Thousand and One Nights, thoughts on the pyramids, his opinions on magic, sorcery, superstition, and alchemy etc. The chapter devoted to what the author rather dismissively calls "bed-time stories" and "fables" contains a large amount of Persian material.

In the chapter on anonymous works of assorted content there is a section on "Persian, Indian, Byzantine, and Arab books on sexual intercourse in the form of titillating stories", but the Persian works are not separated from the others; the list includes a "Book of Bahrām-doḵt on intercourse." This is followed by books of Persians, Indians, etc. on fortune telling, books of "all nations" on horsemanship and the arts of war, then on horse doctoring and on falconry, some of them specifically attributed to the Persians. Then we have books of wisdom and admonition by the Persians and others, including many examples of Persian andarz literature, e.g. various books attributed to Persian emperors Khosrau I, Ardashir I, etc.

See also


  1. "FEHREST – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  2. B. Dodge The Fihrst of al-Nadīm, vol.1 pp.1-2
  3. Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne (1907). A literary history of the Arabs. T.F. Unwin. p. 362. Retrieved 19 June 2010.
  4. Reynold A. Nicholson A Literary History of the Arabs, p362
  5. Gray, Louis H., Iranian material in the Fihrist, p.24
  6. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadim, vol.1, p.xvii
  7. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, vol.1, p.xxvi
  8. The Fihrist of al-Nadim, Bayard Dodge, ed. and transl. Columbia University Press, 1970, vol.1 p.xviii
  9. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, vol.1, p.xx
  10. Fück, Johann Wilhelm. Eine arabische Literaturgeschichte aus dem 10. Jahrhundert n. Chr. p.117.
  11. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, vol.1, p.xxi
  12. name="Nallino1911">Nallino, Carlo Alfonso. Ilm al-falak: Tarikhuhu ind al-Arab fi al-qurun al-wusta (Astronomy: the history of Arabic Writers of the Middle Ages).
  13. Usaybi'ah, Part I, p.57
  14. Hajar, Lisān al-Mīzān, pt.5, p.72
  15. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, vol.1, p.xviii
  16. The Card Catalog Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures. California: Chronicle Books LLC. 2017. pp. 16, 17. ISBN 9781452145402. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  17. Stewart, Devin (August 2007). "The Structure of the Fihrist: Ibn al-Nadim as Historian of Islamic and Theological Schools". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 39 (3): 369–387. JSTOR 30069526.


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