Kitāb al-Futūḥāt al-rabbāniyya fī tafsīr mā warada fī al-Qurʾān min al-awāmir wa’l-nawāhī al-ilāhiyya

While browsing the used books in the Sahaflar Çarşısı (located in the Aslıhan Pasajı off of Istiklal Street in Beyoğlu, Istanbul) we came across a corner bookstore called Ayça Kitabevi. Inside I found a stack of mostly old Ottoman books, but intermixed with these works were a few Arabic ones.

After going through the store’s small collection I ended up purchasing a copy of the Qur’an printed in Mecca, whose publication date is unlisted (according to the text this edition was verified in Ramadan 1366/July-August 1947), and a two-volume Arabic tafsīr or commentary of the Qur’an. Both volumes of the text are in fairly poor condition. The cover to volume two, for example, has been previously “repaired” with tape. The tafsīr in question is entitled Kitāb al-Futūḥāt al-rabbāniyya fī tafsīr mā warada fī al-Qurʾān min al-awāmir wa’l-nawāhī al-ilāhiyya and was written by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥakīm. According to the introduction the author’s full name is Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥakīm Ibn ʿUmar Rāsim b. Ḥusayn b. ʿAbd al-Raḥīm (vol. 1, p. 3). Consulting al-Ziriklī, the author, who also bears the nisba al-Kuraydī, appears to have died in 1324/1906 with this tafsīr listed as his only work of note (al-Ziriklī, al-Aʿlām, vol. 4, p. 24). This date of death cannot be correct if the tafsīr itself is to be believed. The colophon to the second volume states that the work was completed on Monday 29 Safar 1324/23 April 1906. However, the colophon to the first volume states that that volume was completed a year later on 12 Rabīʿ al-Awwal 1325/24 April 1907. It would seem that volume one was finished after volume two and that the author was still alive in 1325/1907.

The text is an aḥkām al-Qur’ān work. Based on the repeated Qur’anic injunction to command the good and forbid the wrong, the book is divided into two volumes; one deals accordingly with divine commands (awāmir) and the other with divine prohibitions (nawāhī). The first volume is 352 pages with 4 additional pages of corrections and the second volume is 354 pages also with 4 pages of corrections. Neither a date of publication or publisher is given in the work. The book appears to be rare. Checking the libraries catalogued on WorldCat the tafsīr only appears in the collection of two libraries: the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and Brigham Young University. The edition that they have, however, is a later printing. We know this because their edition, which was published in 1936  by Maṭbaʿat el-Mahmūdiyyah in Cairo, has both volumes printed together as one, whereas as the present edition was printed as two separate volumes as it was initially intended.

If anyone can shed further light on this work or its author Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥakīm, it would be greatly appreciated.

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The Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan

My eyes quickly scan the spines of books lining the overburdened shelves, stacked and piled with patient tomes. The letters are familiar, my mind registers them as English, however the words are Turkish. My brain struggles to make sense of the jumbled script and forces my eyes to settle on words I can understand. New York City Guide.

This is no ordinary guide to New York City, the greying hard cover, weathered binding and strained spine reveal its age. Instinctively I turn to the verso to find it is a 1939 print. While Martin is methodically searching through shelves and amassing his own collection of books, I settle into a chair on the dusty 4th floor of Simurg Bookstore. I skim the table of contents and flip to the index searching for any indication of Muslims living in Lower Manhattan.

I’ve read contemporary studies, newspapers and opinion pieces of the evidence supporting the existence of places such as Little Syria. The case for Muslims being a part of New York’s unique tapestry has been made. However, at times I need the evidence to manifest itself to me – to appear in a 1939 guidebook. I need for the rosy fragrance of deteriorating pages to invade my senses, to witness acidity yellowing the pages, to feel the strain of cradling a heavy book on my wrists. I want to read paragraphs, uninhibited by an author’s interjections, on the Muslims of New York.

At a time when hotels were rented for $2.00 a night, subway fare cost 5 cents, and traveling via steamship was normal, baklava was being sold on the street corners of Lower Manhattan.

In the market section, comprising a world of its own, is the Syrian Quarter, established in the late 1800’s at the foot of Washington Street from Battery Place to Rector Street. A sprinkling of Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Greeks also live here. Although the fez has given way to the snap-brim, the narghile has been abandoned for cigarettes, the coffee houses and tobacco and confectionery shops of the Levantines still remain.

Using the same methods and types of implements as native Syrian bakers, the confectioners make delicious sweets such as baclawa (chopped walnuts or pistachios, wrapped in forty layers of baked dough of gauze-like thinness flavored with goat’s milk butter and drenched in honey), knafie (twisted hank of fried dough with a core of chopped pistachios flavored as baclawa), sweet-sour apricot paste sprinkled with pistachios strings of walnuts dipped in grape syrup, and “Syrian delight” scented with attar of roses. Restaurants feature shish kebab (spit-broiled lamb) and rice cooked in salted vine leaves, and furnish narghiles upon request. Other neighborhood stores sell graceful earthen water jars; brass, silver, and pewter trays; tables inlaid with mother of pearl; brass lamp shades fringed with variegated beads, and Syrian silks of rainbow hues. (p. 76)

Flipping between the index and the text, my fingers interlaced with the pages, I learn that in addition to Syrians residing in Lower Manhattan they also lived in Brooklyn.

[I]n the Red Hook vicinity there are many Arabs and Syrians. It is anomalous that Brooklyn, the borough of homes and churches, should have some of the worst slums (Williamsburg, Brownsville, Red Hook) of the nation, yet such is the case.” (p. 433)

Concerning South Brooklyn:

Here are Erie and Atlantic basins, the Todd and United Shipyards, the busy State Barge Canal Terminal, and miles of freight railway tracks. Sailors from a hundred foreign ports fill the bars and rooming houses, and the prevailing atmosphere of a great international seaport is increased by the Syrian shops and coffee houses with their Arabic signs, on Atlantic Avenue. (p. 463)

Finally, on diverse Brownsville:

Brownsville extends from Ralph Avenue to Junius Street, between Liberty and Hegeman Avenues. With more than two hundred thousand people dwelling in its 2.19 square miles, it is the most densely populated district in Brooklyn. The population is predominantly Jewish. A large group of Negroes lives on Rockaway Avenue, Thatford Avenue, and Osborn Street between Livonia and Sutter Avenues. The only Moorish colony in New York is on Livonia Avenue between Rockaway and Stone Avenues. Italians live in the northern section of Brownsville; and on Thatford Avenue near Belmont is a small Arabian and Syrian quarter.” (p. 498)

Entranced, I continued to search. What else could I find? And what exactly was this treasure I had found?

A few months later, and back in the states I learned that the guidebook I stumbled upon in Istanbul is only one of an impressive series of books, all part of The American Guide Series – the first guidebooks to cover the states and regions of the United States. This warranted a trip to the library where we picked up a few more books on the guidebook series and the program that started them. In the mid 1930’s and in response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal. The WPA was enacted to employ millions of workers in public works projects. One of the more creative WPA projects was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP); this division was created to support written work and writers during the Depression. The Federal Writers’ Project relied upon struggling writers to document the peoples and places of the United States. Many notable writers held modest careers as FWP writers, including Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston. More can be found on the WPA and the Writer’s Project in Soul of a People (book and documentary). The American Guide Series and the research that went into it ended up being an incredible anthropological study of the American people. I found that the New York City Guide is the companion volume to New York Panorama, a broader view of the city’s life and history.

The Panorama provided even richer details of the early immigrants.

Of the three near-Eastern groups, the Syrians have the largest population in the city, numbering 30,000 throughout greater New York. The Armenians come next with 22,000, while the Turks in New York number only about 300.

Only 1,000 of the city’s Syrians live in Manhattan, along Washington Street between Morris and Rector Streets. The largest Syrian colony lies between De Graw and State Streets, running from the East River to Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. A smaller settlement has grown up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.

The Turks are settled mainly along Rivington and Forsythe Streets in Manhattan.

Armenians and Syrians in the city are almost without exception Christian, the former adhering to the Gregorian Church while the latter have formed a number of sects related to the Greek Orthodox and the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church at 57 Washington Street, best known Syrian church in the city, conducts services in Syrian.

The Turks are exclusively Mohammedans. The only real mosque in the city, at 108 Powers Street in Brooklyn, claims most of the devout. Some belong to the Mohammedan Unity Society at 67 West 125th Street. (p. 117)

In many ways, Michael Gomez says it best, “arguments are necessarily more tentative than conclusive…” (Gomez 1998, 60). Despite the hopes I once held for Muslim Syrians in Lower Manhattan, a mere two sentences on the Turks has abated my disheartenment. How appropriate is it then that I found the New York City Guide tucked away on a dusty shelf in Istanbul. Somewhere in the pages, interspersed between the lines lies a fleeting truth. I am caught between discerning facts and waiting for unanticipated discoveries, clinging to the fine details. Culling for the truth and always hoping for something more, these small nuggets of information keep the search alive.

Gody, Lou, Chester D. Harvey, and James Reed, eds. 1939. New York City Guide. New York: Random House.

New York Panorama. 1938. New York: Ramdom House.

Michael Gomez. 1998. Exchanging Our Country Marks. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Ephemera: The Garden of Allah

Always in pursuit of a new opportunity to find unique items, Martin and I ventured to an ephemera fair. It is only recently that we’ve started to appreciate and understand the potential value of ephemera. Ephemera consists of everyday one-time use materials; printed objects that were never intended to have enduring historic value. This includes everything from pamphlets, brochures and postcards to posters, stock certificates and advertisements. For example the Library of Congress has a collection of restaurant menus. Though many of these materials may not hold much value on their own, when viewed in a series or as a collection they begin to illustrate a story, a window into social history. The perceptions, thoughts and ideas of people begin to gain clarity through the printed material that they created or read. A single postcard then is only a piece in a larger, elaborate, puzzle.

Overwhelmed and timid we took a quick walk through sixty-some exhibitor booths. The larger of the two rooms was designated for dealers and a smaller room for members exhibiting their personal collections. In addition to the exhibit space there are sessions and discussions for members of the society. We spent all of our time among the dealer booths. We narrowed our focus and decided to search through the following categories that were present there:

1. Black ephemera

2. Religion

3. Foreign Travel

Personally we were searching for material related to early Muslims in America or how Americans have imagined Islam. Unfortunately our searches yielded few results. One of the two pieces we did find is this:

The Garden of Allah – Southern Arizona and California is a travel brochure, copyright 1936, for the Rock Island Lines, a railroad company. Though Allah is only mentioned in the title the imagery it intends to invoke is scattered throughout it’s pages:

Thus, in four words, may be told “The Winter’s Tale” that summarizes all the varied delights of Southwestern Resorts reached directly by the Golden State Route.

Romance, color, exotic charm, historic interest, scenic grandeur, social vivacity, out-door sport, – all in the golden wash of a never-failing winter sun – at El Paso-Juarez, Tucson, Chandler, Phoenix, Litchfield, Indio, Palm Springs, San Diego, Coronado, La Jolla, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara!

The fair, called Ephemera 32, was presented by the Ephemera Society of America in Old Greenwich, CT.

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.