al-Nadim's Fihrist addresses poetry and sects without book titles

In tenth-century Baghdad, court companion and bookseller al-Nadim wrote the Fihrist.  The Fihrist is widely regarded as being a catalog of books.  Al-Nadim, however, actually cataloged persons and social groups.  Within that primary organization, al-Nadim listed titles of books.  The Fihrist‘s main divisions covering poetry and sects contain very few titles of books.[1]  The Fihrist‘s coverage of poetry and sects underscores its fundamental concern with persons and groups.

The Fihrist indicates that persons wrote individual poems, not books of poetry.  In the ancient Islamic world, poetry functioned widely as an important instrument in personal relations.  A poem could exhibit literary learning and social status, be done for hire to celebrate a specific occasion, serve as an application to a potential patron, or support or oppose a theological or political party.  Al-Nadim recorded the number of leaves of poetry that persons wrote.  Since many learned, socially ambitious persons wrote poetry, al-Nadim probably cataloged persons whose poetry had gained some social circulation and acclaim.  Persons other than poems’ authors collected poems into anthologies and collections.  The titles of those books mattered less than the name of the poet and knowledge of how much poetry he or she wrote.

Sects to al-Nadim seem to be a book problem.  The Qur’an definitively established Islam.  The Qur’an refers to earlier religious groups based on books: Jews, Christians, and Sabians.[2]  Al-Nadim treated with skepticism the transmission of Jewish and Christian books.  He covered other sects in a primary division separate from people of the book.  He described sects sociologically.[3]  He also recorded an eighth-century Muslim author’s enumeration of sixty-one sects existing between the time of Jesus and the coming of Islam.[4]  That enumeration served in argument against Christianity.  The wide variety of sects that al-Nadim catalogs, including ones in India and China, contrasts with the ideal unity of Islam through the Qur’an.

Al-Nadim did not list titles for all the books that he knew.  He does not list the title of the work enumerating the sixty-one sects between the time of Jesus and Islam. He quotes at length from the Akhbār Bābak of Wāqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamīnī, but does not list the title of that book. He quotes Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah Salam describing many of his translations, but does not list titles of any of those books.  Factors other than just the existence of a book affected whether the book was included in the Fihrist.

The Fihrist is a catalog.  The Fihrist isn’t, however, a catalog of books in the conventional understanding of books in high-income, twentieth-century democracies.  The Fihrist is a catalog of persons and groups recorded with books.  That social understanding of books is likely to become more important with the Internet increasingly connecting persons through electronic books.

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[1] The Fihrist’s first sub-division of its first division concerns languages, scripts, and calligraphy.  That sub-division includes no titles of books.  It might be thought of as preliminary material concerning the symbolic substance of books.  But the sub-division also gives considerable emphasis to persons and groups, e.g. “names of persons who wrote copies of the Qur’an in gold” and scripts of various groups.

[2] Although Sabians, like Jews and Christians, are recognized in the Qur’an, al-Nadim doesn’t include Sabians in division I.2 with Jews and Christians.  He puts “Sabians” in IX.1, and describes that label as adopted by a sect at Harran for political advantage.  Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970) pp. 751-2.

[3] Al-Nadim sought to describe accurately.  He reported two Bardaisan parties’ views on the metaphysical relationship between light and darkness:

One party asserted that light became mixed with darkness voluntarily, so as to make it good. … The other party asserted that light desired to clear away darkness from itself when it perceived its coarseness and putridness, but it became interwoven with it against its will.  It was like a man who desired to remove something with sharp splinters sticking into him.  The more he tries to remove them, the further into him they go.

Id. pp. 805-6.  Splinters are small, concrete, mundane objects.  Nonetheless, al-Nadim used them in a metaphor to explicate cosmic views of the relationship between light and darkness.

[4] Id. pp. 814-6.  Al-Nadim attributes the list to a work of Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Qahtabi.


Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

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