About Martin

Scholar of Islamic Studies, Bibliophile, Manuscripter

Frye and The Histories of Nishapur

Richard N. Frye’s The Histories of Nishapur is an invaluable source for Islamic history, especially for documenting the local history of a medieval Islamicate city. I, like many other scholars, have made and continue to make frequent use of this book. To my surprise, however, I discovered shortly after I moved to Connecticut that Yale University did not own a single copy, where I had previously had access to five at Harvard. I was fortunate enough to find a copy of this rare book from the online site of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

This substantial tome is concerned with Nishapur, a city in Khurasan (or the northeastern region of modern day Iran) and provides facsimile editions of three important manuscripts on the city’s historical personalities. The texts, two of which are in Arabic and the third in Persian, are biographical dictionaries or ṭabaqāt. A number of important studies have used Frye’s collection to great advantage, the most famous being Richard Bulliet’s seminal book The Patricians of Nishapur.

The three text included in Frye’s Histories are:

1. Kitāb aḥvāl-i Nīshāpūr, a Persian manuscript from the Bursa Central Manuscript Library: Hüseyn Çelebi, Tarih 18, 74 folios.

2. Kitāb al-Siyāq li-tārīkh Naysābūr, an Arabic manuscript written by ʿAbd al-Ghāfir ibn Ismāʿīl al-Fārisī (d. 529/1134) and stored in the Dil ve Tarih Fakültesi Library in Ankara: İsmail Saib 1544, 98 folios.

3. al-Muntakhab min kitāb al-siyāq li-tārīkh Naysābūr, an Arabic recension of al-Fārisī’s Kitāb al-Siyāq written by Ibrāhīm ibn Muḥammad al-Ṣarīfīnī (d. 641/1243). The manuscript of 146 folios is from the Köprülü Library in Istanbul, no. 1152.

Perhaps, because of the book’s relative scarcity, I have noticed in recent years that some scholars are bypassing or overlooking Frye’s valuable collection altogether. Compounding the issue is the ready availability of edited print editions al-Ṣarīfīnī’s al-Muntakhab, such as the ones published by Dār al-Fikr and Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya. Not only are these print editions easier to read and navigate than the manuscript facsimiles in Frye’s book, they can also be more easily located in Arabic bookstores and on library shelves than the difficult-to-find and now costly The Histories of Nishapur.

But to pass over a work like al-Fārisī’s Kitāb al-Siyāq would be a mistake. As Frye has pointed out, al-Fārisī’s text has significant differences from al-Ṣarīfīnī’s. To focus on one would be to overlook much in the other. For example, al-Fārisī provides important information on the lives of Abū’l-Qāsim al-Qushayrī (d. 465/1072) and Ibn Ḥabīb (d. 406/1016) that is entirely absent in al-Ṣarīfīnī’s al-Muntakhab. This latter text, after all, appears about a century later. One would be wise to consult both texts.

To aid in navigating the manuscripts of Frye’s collection, Habib Jaouiche has compiled and published a useful index that covers the two Arabic manuscripts contained in the book. While Jaouiche only indexes the biographical entries in the texts, rather than every occurrence of a name, his work is nonetheless helpful.

Frye, Richard N., ed. 1965. The Histories of Nishapur. London: Mouton & Co.

Jaouiche, Habib, ed. 1984. The Histories of Nishapur: ʿAbdalġāfir al-Fārisī – Siyāq Taʾrīḫ Naisābūr, Register der Personen- und Ortsnamen. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.

Bulliet, Richard. 1972. The Patricians of Nishapur: A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Cairo 1916: Where have all the dragomans gone?

I’ll be travelling to Cairo soon and I’ve been reading through my travel guide in preparation. Apparently, I need a reliable dragoman. Dragoman, you ask? Allow me to explain…

Being the historian that I am, I’ve forgone the latest Lonely Planet and instead turned to a book of a much finer vintage, a 1916 Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân* from the Macmillan’s Guides series. A couple of years ago Kiran and I picked up this slim, handsome volume from the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair.

If there was ever an underused source for historical information, old prejudices and past insights it is the modern day travel guide. They are the ugly cousins to the more refined and consciously-worded travelogues and historical tomes. What distinguishes travel guidebooks from their kin is that they are published on a regular basis, constantly “updated” with new and more correct information (or so they would have you believe), and contain pro forma a wealth of detail not guaranteed in travel writings and history books. And of course travel guides are as much a window into the world of their authors and intended audiences as they are to the far off places they intend to cover.

For instance, let us return to the matter of the dragoman. First, a dragoman refers to a translator, interpreter or guide and the term itself derives from the Arabic word for translator, tarjumān. Concerning dragomans, the 1916 edition of Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân states:

Dragomans – It is unnecessary for the ordinary tourist, who only stays in the big towns and makes a steamer trip up the river, to have a dragoman constantly. For sightseeing in Cairo it is better to take a guide or dragoman each day than to engage one for the whole period of stay. The charge is from P.T. 30-40 a day, according to the experience of the man and his knowledge of English. Travellers must remember that the dragoman, whether Egyptian or Syrian, dressed in European, Turkish, or Arab dress, is merely a servant, and should always ride on the box and not in the carriage. They are quick to take advantage of the slightest familiarity. (p. 5)

A helpful rule of thumb indeed– that my dragoman must “ride on the box and not in the carriage.” Another choice tip about bakshīsh (meaning a tip):

Bakshîsh would seem to be the first word the Egyptian child learns, so great is the cupidity of the tourist-spoilt Arab. Yet, however big the tip given, it is rare to find the recipient grateful or satisfied, and the traveller must not think he has underpaid because no thanks are returned. (p. 5)

Finally, concerning Mohammedanism or Islamism, the guide notes:

Polygamy is allowed by the law of the Koran, but is not frequently practised. Unfortunately the law makes divorce particularly easy. In the year 1903, while there were 176,474 Moslem marriages registered, there were 52,992 cases of divorce. The position of women under Egyptian Mohammedanism is deplorable, and is responsible to a large extent for the unprogressive state of society. (p. 23)

Text aside, the book also provides a number of attractive illustrated maps, several of which fold out. For the curious, here are the maps of Cairo:

If you ever chance upon an old travel guide, it is certainly worth a look.

Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân including a Description of the Route through Uganda to Mombasa. 7th edn. Macmillan’s Guide series. St. Martin’s Street, London: Macmillan and Co., Limited., 1916.

*According to the personal inscription at the beginning, this book once belonged to a Sophie Voorhees of Richmond Hill, Long Island, New York. Her handwritten notes indicate that she likely stayed at the National Hotel in 1924 and then the Shepheard’s Hotel in 1928. I’ve discovered quite a bit about Sophie Voorhees’s social life from the archived New York State newspapers at fultonhistory.com.

Book: Sufi Master and Qur’an Scholar

Several copies of my new book Sufi Master and Qur’an Scholar: Abū’l-Qāsim al-Qushayrī and the Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt arrived today at the office. This work, which has evolved over the years from an idea into a prospectus into a dissertation into a book, is finally in print. I am indebted to many colleagues and friends for their help and support in composing this work. My thanks to you all.

Sufi Master and Qur'an Scholar by Martin Nguyen

While I knew how the book would appear well before it arrived (it is a handsome tome), I was unaware of the readers’ comments that would appear printed on back. They read:

“The detailed analyses and the vast cumulative data presented in Nguyen’s work have produced a fresh, original, thorough and well-articulated book. It has the potential to become one of the main textbooks in the study of Sufism as well as, more generally, in the fields of hermeneutics and medieval Muslim culture.”
-Sara Sviri, Department of Arabic and Department of Comparative Religions, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“This excellent book is the first in-depth study in English of one of the monuments of Sufi Qur’an commentary, the Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt of Abū’l-Qāsim al-Qushayrī. Clearly written and well-annotated throughout, this timely study brings to light some important and hitherto unexplored aspects of the celebrated Sufi theologian of Nishapur.”
-Annabel Keeler, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

The praise is generous and undeserved, but heartening nonetheless.

The book has been published by Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies. My experience working with them has been absolutely superb. For more information on the book, including availability, please visit my Lata’if al-ishārāt project page on this site.


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