A review of Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics. How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2020)

In my first monograph, recently published, I tried to reconstruct the library of the early 16th-century Mamluk sultan, Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī, starting from a collection of 135 manuscripts that were once part of it. One of the questions I asked myself was to what extent this rather modest collection reflects the undoubtedly much larger library of which it was once part, both quantitatively and — mutatis mutandis — qualitatively. In answering this question, I found the gravitational pull of negative evidence particularly strong. As I state,

“Indeed, informed by his own scholarly background, each reader will browse through the list [of 135 manuscripts] with idiosyncratic expectations on what to find. While some of his expectations will be met, undoubtedly, others will not. As idiosyncratic a scholar as any other, I too went through the list, and identified a number of lacunae that at least I found suspicious.” (p. 273)

Of those titles that I found suspiciously absent from the list were, to name but the most famous ones, al-Kutub al-Sitta. Taking a reflexive turn, I asked myself:

“Perhaps the sultan’s library did not hold a full set [of al-Kutub al-Sitta], but we must ask ourselves: why should it? In fact, it would seem that the absence of a full set wasn’t quite as odd as our biased self would expect it to be (….) The fallacy that plays here is, obviously, a most common one: the ‘fallacy of presentism’.” (pp. 276–277)

While Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies and Adam Talib’s paper on the “Emblematic or Exceptional” proved most inspirational, I still had a hard time shaping my thoughts and expressing them clearly. As a way out, I came up with the following dichotomy: the Mamluk Library, with uppercase L, and a Mamluk library, with lowercase l. The Mamluk Library I defined as

“the corpus of Mamluk literature that we, Mamlukologists, consider valuable enough to edit, to analyse, and, indeed, to include in our private or institutional libraries. The Mamluk Library is what we find to be the green twigs of Mamluk literature, the exceptional, the Ṣafadīs, with its dead branches, the emblematic, the Damāmīnīs pruned away. As such — and it is important to stress this — this Mamluk Library is, to a large extent, a Mamlukologist library, that is, informed by Mamlukologists’ preferences and biases. Presentist by definition, it provides but a poor yardstick against which to measure any historical Mamluk library. The presentist fallacy consists of mistaking Fischer’s dead branches and the green twigs of the present for those of the past, and Talib’s exceptional for the emblematic. Unless taken for what it’s worth — just to be clear on this: a lot! — the Mamluk/ologist Library distorts our understanding of a Mamluk library.” (p. 278)

Rereading this, I can only conclude that I struggled — I always struggle — to make my point clearly and succinctly. Little did I know that right about that time Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics was rolling off the presses and would provide me with yet a clear and succinct framework to grapple with the fallacy of presentism that loomed large in my reconstruction of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī’s library. Rephrasing the issue that I struggled with along the lines set out so eloquently by El Shamsy, I could simply have stated that “we would do well to keep in mind the contingency of this largely print-defined body of classics” (p. 240).

One of the other numerous aspects of my reconstruction of Qāniṣawh’s library that I grappled with was the near-absence of fiqh books. Trying to come to terms with this distinct trait, I made the connection with the rise of siyāsa sharʿīya:

“As observed by Yossef Rapoport, the reigns of Qāytbāy and Qāniṣawh ‘s(aw) a concentration of all jurisdiction in the hands of the sultans, who present themselves as champions of the shariaʿah and openly dispute the formalistic doctrines of the judiciary’ (p. 76). As the sultan’s legal authority or siyāsa ‘did not come with an extensive body of literature’, but ‘was founded on popular notions of equity’, what else to expect than a library that is light on fiqh? Did Qāniṣawh perhaps think he could do without, as Qurʾān and Fürstenspiegel, topped with some Sunna and ilhām provided him with all the guidance that he needed for being a good Muslim and, above all, a just ruler?” (p. 276)

Once more, little did I know that El Shamsy’s book, — one on the rise of printing in the Arab world, no? — would turn out to be spot on, with its discussion of postclassical “anti-bookish” epistemological esoterism.

This lengthy introduction should not be mistaken for a blurb of my own book in disguise of a review of someone else’s. What I am trying to convey is just how much El Shamsy’s book might serve as an eye opener for scholars of all stripes, including but not limited to those working on 15th and 16th-century libraries. Indeed, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics is first and foremost a book about the history of the printing and the editing pioneers of the Middle East, and indeed, one wouldn’t expect it to be particularly relevant for scholars as myself. However, Yet, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics is not just a story of how the Islamic classics were rediscovered, by whom, when, where and why; it is also a story that invites us to rethink what these Islamic classics are. With great sympathy and using an impressively wide array of sources, Ahmed El Shamsy traces the history of the Islamic classics (or, as I would call it, the Islamic Library, uppercase L), the Ṭabarīs, the Shāfiʿīs, the Iṣbahānīs, and the Jurjānīs of Arabic literature.

The cover of the book via Princeton University Press.

The first two chapters paint a fairly unrelenting picture of Islamic book culture in the postclassical era: a veritable manuscript drain to the West by the hands of the Schefers, Wetzsteins and Garrets of Paris, Berlin and Princeton; a decline of the traditional library due to the provincialisation of the Arab lands; textual scholasticism; and epistemological esoterism; the result being an undeniable and encroaching scarcity and marginalisation of those Islamic classics that we are so familiar with and have ready access. As observed by El Shamsy, it is hard and probably not very useful to try and disentangle cause from effect. All of them fed into one another, fuelling each other on the way, and the outcome was dramatic. The Maḥmūdīya library in Cairo, which boasted 4000 volumes in al-Suyūṭī’s days, only held 58 (!) manuscripts by the end of the 19th century. Together with these manuscripts, also the texts they carried were gradually becoming beyond retrieval. One might have expected that at least the time-honoured genre of the sharḥ would have preserve the classical texts for perpetuity, but not so. As El Shamsy points out, synopsis upon gloss upon commentary increasingly marginalised the foundational text that had sparked such sustained engagement almost up to vanishing point. Margins can only grow in width to some extent. Beyond that, still calling them margins becomes ludicrous.

Following this dim picture, in the next six chapters, El Shamsy takes us on a tour through the 19th and early 20th century, combining a roughly chronological and a more thematic approach. As for El Shamsy, “the technology of print was not a cause of the transformation as much as it was a site and a means of it” (p. 5), you should not expect a presentation of the development of movable print or other technicalities. Instead, El Shamsy introduces us to those pivotal figures for whom this new technology was indeed such a site of transformation and a means of that. There is little point in me summarising the following six chapters. As El Shamsy is remarkably good in providing bridges between the various chapters, one could limit oneself to reading just those. That, however, would be a great shame, as one would miss out on his treatment of some of this story’s key figures, people whose manuscript funds, editiones principes or reference works we are all bound to have used: al-Ṭahṭāwī, Nāfiʿ, Taymūr, Sarkīs, etc. His presentation is always lucid and to the point, often entertaining, sometimes even downright jaw-dropping. Between 1872 and 1878 alone, well over 300,000 individual books were printed in Egypt. While this number hardly speaks by itself, it reveals itself to be staggering as soon as it is compared to the total number of manuscripts that are currently kept in Egypt: 125,000. Print had caught up on manuscripts, and it had done so fast… Whereas classics such as al-Iṣbahānī were virtually impossible to come by in Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century, barely 50 years later, a print run of thousands of copies made sure that its tables had been turned for good. In Chapter Five, El Shamsy introduces us to another such pivotal figure, Aḥmad Zakī, who shed the concluding colophon (replaced by an introduction) and the marginal notes (replaced by footnotes) as two last relics of manuscript culture. It is Aḥmad Zakī who has shaped the institution of the editor (muḥaqqiq) as we know it today, as the “primary interface between classical manuscripts and their printed manifestations” (p. 137)

Every reformation spawns its contra-reformation, and in this the printing revolution proved no exception. This becomes most clear when El Shamsy changes focus from the “men of the pen” to the “men of the turban”. Some of these, including ʿAbduh, embraced it. Acutely aware of the foundational importance of disseminating classical works, he saw printing as a key tool for his reform agenda of pushing an “indigenous” modernity, that is, one that allowed people to combat the backwardness of postclassical tradition and to engage with Western thought without loosing their own identity. Other “men of the turban” rejected the printing revolution, recognising it as a devastating critique of much of what their postclassical tradition stood for. One of the main goals of the postclassical tradition had been to preserve and to pass on, fully and correctly, all that deserves to be remembered. For them, what had fallen out of usage had done so for a good reason, and diverting this back into society by disseminating it widely in print was no less than a direct assault. While reformist ʿulamāʾ such asʿAbduh sought to revitalise the world indirectly, others chose to confront the prevailing orthodoxies in a much more overt way. Al-Ālūsī and al-Qāsim — Early Salafis still true to their etymological roots — tried to break open the epistemological esoterism and textual scholasticism, not by offering their alternative version of “what to think”, but rather with an alternative methodology of “how to argue” (p. 198).

El Shamsy’s discussion of the early Salafis’ rediscovery of Ibn Taymīya leads seamlessly to the eight and final chapter, in which he focuses on the development of philology and textual criticism. As the corpus of printed classical works was quickly growing, sufficiently sophisticated gatekeepers were required in order to prevent intellectual life to be suffocated once more, now no longer by a textual scholasticism, but by classics of doubtful authenticity or below-standard editions. As to expect, two parties butted heads on this front as well: those who wholeheartedly embraced Western criticism versus those who sought to resurrect an indigenous philological tradition.

In his conclusion, El Shamsy aptly summarises the role of the pivotal figures he has introduced us to: those early printers “turned tradition from an unquestionable authority to something that could be negotiated and shaped- and themselves from subjects of tradition to its active makers” (p. 237). In his concluding words, he also returns to the shadow that looms large over the book and that he had already hinted at every here and there: the shadow of the decline paradigm. As 19th-century printing very much meant “rediscovering the classics”, it also meant discarding the post-classical age as a ‘moribund and hopeless age’, doesn’t it? El Shamsy readily recognised the risk that his book could easily rekindle this paradigm, yet there is no need for him to be apologetic. As he makes amply clear, it were the key figures of the 19th-century printing history themselves who saw some very real problems in post-classical scholarship and its significant discontinuities with classical scholarship. Yet, as El Shamsy rightfully insists, their response was not a wholesale rejection of Islamic tradition “in favour of an imported modernity” (p. 5), but one that was working towards an indigenous modernity, by circumventing an ossified post-classical literature and rekindling the classical tradition.

For El Shamsy, the rise of print in the Arab world was not merely a mechanical overhaul from manuscript to printed book and much more than a technological revolution; it was a veritable epistemological shift that reshaped not only the outward form of literature, but also the whole literary field and intellectual tradition. His Rediscovering the Islamic Classics is not only a story of how Islamic classics were rediscovered, but also a story that invites us to rethink these Islamic classics and the canonising forces (read: real people) that have shaped them and continue to do so. This story had to be told, and El Shamsy has done so in a most lucid yet entertaining way. In fact, I have caught myself thinking of his Rediscovering the Classics when I was browsed through the well-stocked academic library at my home university, and I’m sure that I will think of it the next time I find myself at work in some manuscript depository in the Middle East or beyond. At least for a book, I find this a remarkable effect, and I can only recommend everyone to expose him- or herself to it.

If you’ll now excuse me, I’m dying to see what Aḥmad Taymūr’s Taṣḥīḥ al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ is all about. Freely downloadable on wadod.net! Thank you, Aḥmad! Thank you, Ahmed!

Works quoted:

K. D’hulster, Browsing through the Sultan’s Bookshelves. Towards a Reconstruction of the Library of the Mamluk Sultan Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 906–922/1501–1516) [Mamluk Studies, vol. 26] (Göttingen: V&R unipress & Bonn University Press, 2021).

D.H. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies. Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York, 1970).

Y. Rapoport, “Royal Justice and Religious Law: Siyāsah and Shari’ah under the Mamluks”, Mamlūk Studies Review 6 (2012): 71–102.

A. Talib, “Emblematic or Exceptional? Aṣ-Ṣafadī and ad-Damāmīnī” (paper presented at the Conference of the School of Mamluk Studies, 2017, Beirut) (reworked in “Al-Ṣafadī, His Critics, and the Drag of Philological Time”, Philological Encounters 4 (2019): 109–134).