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Ibn al-Nadim on the Transmission and Authorization of Books

About This Resource

Ibn al-Nadim (d. 995 or 998) was a Baghdadi bookseller engaged in both the manufacture (copying) and marketing of books. His Kitab al-Fihrist (an index of books that claimed to include all works in Arabic) was completed in 987-8. In it Ibn al-Nadim explains how written works were copied by a laborious process designed for quality control. An author would dictate the manuscript either from memory or from his own manuscript to one or more scribes, sometimes also in the presence of a larger audience. A scribe would read the copy back to the author, who would make corrections and sometimes additions. Once this had been done to the satisfaction of the author, the copied edition was officially designated an authorized version and could, in turn, be transmitted to others. The account given below is particularly complex because authorization was begun before the author had finished the works and had to be changed to allow for the insertions and emendations.

The disciple Abu’l-Fath tells how he and three others received the dictation and authorization of a work from its author, Abu ‘Umar al-Mutarriz. One can imagine the frustration of the poor scribe when, having gone through the entire manuscript “from first to last,” the author began spontaneously to add lengthy new portions.

Annotation by D. Fairchild Ruggles.

The photograph shows a book cover with a flap for the Sahih al-Bukhari, a compilation of sayings and practices known as hadith, through which the Prophet provided guidance that the companions transmitted to later generations. The cover is red Moroccan leather.


He began dictation of this book, Kitab al-yaqut (The Book of the Gem) on Thursday, 29 Muharram in the year 326 (December 6, 937) in the principal mosque of Abu Ja’far’s city (Baghdad), from memory, without any books or notes, and he continued with the dictation at regular hours until he reached the end. And I wrote what he dictated, hour after hour. Then he began to make additions, and he added twice as much as he had dictated, and extemporized other gems. Abu Muhammad al-Saffar was especially busy with this addition, because he was closely attached to him, and also with the readings of this book for Abu ‘Umar (the author). I had the addition from him. After that he assembled the public for Abu Ishaq al-Tabari’s reading of the book; this reading was called “the statement” (fadhlaka); he read it out to the author, and the public heard him. Next the author made further additions to it, and I collected all the additions in my book. And I began the reading of the book for him on Thursday, 27 Dhu’l-Qa’da in the year 329 (August 23, 941) and continued until I finished it in the month of Rabi’ II in the year 331 (December 13, 942 until January 10, 943). And I had all the transcripts at hand during my reading: Abu Ishaq al-Tabari’s and Abu Muhammad al-Saffar’s and Abu Muhammad ibn Sa’d al-Qurtubi’s and Abu Muhammad al Hijazi’s copies. He (Abu ‘Umar al-Mutarriz) gave me some additions during my reading for him, and we were in accord concerning the entire book from first to last. Then he again extemporized further gems and twice as many additions as the length of the book. The man particularly concerned with these additions was Abu Muhammad Wahb, for he was now attached to him. So he assembled the listeners and promised them that Abu Ishaq (al-Tabari) would should recite this book for him, and that this would be the last reading (‘urda), so that by it the book would be finished, and that there would be no further additions thereafter. This reading was called “the curative” [Pedersen reads this possibly as al-buhraniya]. The public now assembled on Thursday, 14 Jumada I in the year 331 (January 25, 943) in his (Abu ‘Umar’s) dwelling in the presence of (garbled word) Abu’l-‘Anbar (sic), and he dictated to the people verbatim. Abu ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Wahid (that is, I myself) says: “This version is the one that Abu Ishaq al-Tabari alone recited as the last version I allow to be read out now that he has written it down. If anyone transmits the present version of this book from me with a single word (added), then it is no my word, and by it he imputes lies to me. This version accords with Abu Ishaq’s reading for the public at large, hour by hour, for I conducted this reading word for word. (Trans. Pedersen, pp. 29-30)


Ibn al-Nadim, Abu’l-Faraj Muhammad. Al-Fihrist, 2 vols., ed. G. Fluegel. Leipzig, 1871-2; reprinted in Cairo 1348 AH; reprinted in Beirut 1964.

Pedersen, Johannes.  The Arabic Book, trans. Geoffrey French (from 1946 original). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. 


Ruggles, D. Fairchild, ed. Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 32-33. Image credit: Book cover with flap of the Sahih al-Bukhari(red Moroccan leather), Islamic School / Musée Condé, Chantilly, France Ms 212/1162. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase, F1954.23.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #207: Ibn al-Nadim on the Transmission and Authorization of Books", September 22, 2017


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