The Fihrist: A 10th Century AD Survey of Islamic Culture

Abu ‘l-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim; edited and translated by Bayard Dodge
(Chicago: KAZI Publications; 1998) 1,149 pp., $79.95

Insects, inhospitable climates and warfare have all taken a toll on the few extant remnants of al-Nadim’s Fihrist. Today, only 11 partial manuscripts preserve the tenth-century scholar’s compendium of knowledge.

The original copy of the Fihrist was probably deposited in the royal library in Baghdad, as al-Nadim was a member of the caliph’s court. This “first edition” was very likely destroyed when the Mongols sacked the city in 1258 A.D. Fortunately, however, the author had had a scribe make copies of the catalogue for the family bookstore, and at least one of these eventually made its way to Damascus. By 1423 C.E. the copy was in the hands of the famous historian Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al-Maqrizi. The manuscript later turned up in the great mosque of Akko during the Napoleonic era, when it was stolen and apparently divided in half.

Other fragments of the text were stored in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Kuprulu Library in Istanbul, the Sa’adidyah Library in Tonk, Rajastan, and libraries in Vienna, Leyden and Dublin. Some of these fragments were assembled into a less-than-complete version of the Fihrist by a German orientalist named Gustav Flügel. His edition, posthumously published in 1871, reintroduced the remarkable catalogue to the western world.

Nearly a century later, Bayard Dodge, president of the American University of Beirut from 1923 to 1948, published the first English translation (Columbia University Press, 1970) of al-Nadim’s book. His work was based on two large manuscripts referred to as Number 3315 and MS 1934. The former—also known as the Beatty Manuscript—comprises the first half of the book and was purchased and magnificently restored by Sir Chester Beatty (1875–1968) for his library in Dublin. The latter consists of the second half of the book and was found in the library adjacent to the Sulaymaniyah Mosque in Istanbul.

Most scholars believe that these two halves constitute the copy of the Fihrist that had been stolen from Akko during the Napoleonic period, because they are written in the same handwriting, have similar page layouts and even show the same grammatical errors. The combined Beatty and 1934 manuscripts provide the most authoritative and comprehensive text of the Fihrist known to exist.