So I have a confession to make. I kind of have a crush on a guy who died over a thousand years ago. I’m not really sure what he looked like. There’re pictures of him floating around, but no one knows if they’re accurate.

Why have I got a crush on him then? Well, there’s just something sexy about a guy who really likes books. I mean, really likes them.

Ibn al-Nadīm [1] is the guy in question. He’s responsible for writing the hugely popular Kitab al-Fihrist, a book catalogue that supposedly lists all of the extant works translated or written in Arabic in the tenth century.

The Fihrist isn’t the kind of book catalogue that you’re used to. It isn’t a boring alphabetical listing of books, [2] with just one or two lines allotted for each work. It’s a story about how we read.

It starts off with a discussion about how humans came up with language in the first place, and goes on to discuss how we think about knowledge, how we categorize it and decide whether or not it’s worth knowing. The books that get mentioned all pop up in the context of this discussion.

Today, there’s a debate among scholars about what Ibn al-Nadīm wanted this catalogue of his to do. If you compare the Fihrist to stuff written by Ibn al-Nadīm’s compatriots, like al-Ghazālī [3], it’s obvious that Ibn al-Nadīm put books above religion and ethnicity. Yeah, he was pimping books written in Arabic, the same way that I pimp books written in English, not as a conspiracy against books written in other languages, but because, as much as we might like to read those other languages, there’s only so much time in the day.

And if you wanted to get your hands on a book in the tenth century, you’d have a better chance of finding it in Baghdad than anywhere else in the world. Aristotle? They had it. The Bible? They had it. Forged alchemical formulas or the latest medical treatises from Spain? They had it. Booksellers even boasted that they had books from India and China.

In Baghdad, you could rent a bookshop and stay up all night reading. Here, you could find friends who, like Ibn al-Nadīm, went around quoting Socrates: “The joy of reading outweighs the risk of losing your eyesight” (Ibn al-Nadīm 1.1 page 20). Here you might meet a guy like al-Fatḫ ibn Khāqān, who used to carry books in his sleeves and shoes, and would read whenever he had free time, even in the latrine (Ibn al-Nadīm 3.2 page 255).

In Ibn al-Nadīm’s world, books were thought to carry baraka, or spiritual power. With so few books and so few people able to actually read, the written text acquired power in and of itself. In both West and East, Christians and Muslims wore quotes from Scripture in amulets around their necks to ward off evil. [4]

This fascination with writing manifested itself in an interest in the materials and skills associated with the production of books. Ibn al-Nadīm celebrated good penmanship (something to be truly treasured in the absence of a printing press!) and quoted Aristotle in praise of the pen. He explained how the kings of Persia, China and India had gone out of their way to ensure that scientific writings were recorded on durable materials. He offered up a list of celebrated bookbinders, knowing that his fellow collectors were very particular about the appearance of the books they purchased, especially since a book was, as Ibn al-Nadīm put it, a dear friend who could always be trusted. To illustrate the awe with which books were regarded, Ibn al-Nadīm told a story about a collector who sent a book to a far-off acquaintance: Lest the recipient mistake this gift for just a bundle of scribbles, the collector included a letter likening the binding to a veil cast over the text, which was itself likened to the dawn (Ibn al-Nadīm 1.1 pages 11-21, 7.1 pages 576-79). In today’s market of mass-produced paperbacks and e-books, it’s hard to imagine just how valuable books used to be, and not just in terms of a financial investment, but in terms of the emotional freight associated with a purchase or a gift.

Which just makes it all the more upsetting to come across stories about people who were trying to limit access to books. Byzantine emperors and intellectuals like ‘Abdallāh ibn-abī-Zayd were trying to ban books for fear that they would encourage heresy. [5] Ibn al-Nadīm saved most of his hostility for guys like this. In fact, there is shockingly little criticism of non-Muslims in the Fihrist, and when it does show up, it’s usually to complain about the destruction of books.

For Ibn al-Nadīm, the rarity of a text seemed only to enhance its value. He obviously loved to tell stories about manuscripts secreted away in hidden vaults, abandoned temples, and pyramids, especially when these manuscripts were found to be written in languages that no one could decipher (Ibn al-Nadīm 7.1 pages 576-79, 585-86, 10 page 847). He didn’t shy away from advertising books written by Greeks and Romans, or by Christians and pagans. He criticized black magic (Ibn al-Nadīm 8.2 pages 725-33), but he still included these books on his list. He was also critical of alchemy, but he concluded that, since it was for Allah (and not him) to determine what books got written, and there were already numerous texts on the subject, he figured that it would be alright if he devoted some pages to it (Ibn al-Nadīm 10 pages 844-45).

All of this makes Ibn al-Nadīm sound very much like my kind of guy. But maybe that’s just me. If I somehow got transported to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, I think there’s a very good chance that the Sorting Hat would put me in Slitherin’ House, solely because I want a chance to see all of those forbidden books that only Slitherin’ gets to see. I don’t like the idea that there are any books out there that I can’t get my hands on. I want to read the books that moralists pull off of library shelves. I want to know what other people are thinking; that’s the whole reason for reading in the first place. And I think that Ibn al-Nadīm would’ve agreed with me about that.

Right now, some people reading this article are probably thinking that I’ve forgotten the fact that I’m a woman. Did women even have a place in Ibn al-Nadīm’s world of books?

Alas, Ibn al-Nadīm doesn’t really talk about women one way or another. According to his compatriots, women only read the kind of frivolous, romantic adventures that Ibn al-Nadīm wasn’t very fond of. [6]

But Ibn al-Nadīm was first and foremost a booklover. And books bring people together. Ibn al-Nadīm’s book catalogue is proof of just that, with his inclusion of so many books by non-Muslims and non-Arabs. Books not only let us see how other people think, they give us a reason to talk to each other.

So I like to think that if I ever met Ibn al-Nadīm, he’d say to me: You like books? I like books. Let’s talk about books.


1 Ibn al-Nadīm died sometime between 379 and 381 per the Muslim calendar, or between 990 and 991 per the Western calendar. He lived in precisely that period that was so supposedly dark in Western Europe, but was just teeming with learning in the Muslim world. His full name is Abῡ al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq ibn Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq. The nickname “Ibn al-Nadīm” is a reference to the fact that, at one point, either his father or he apparently served as a nadīm, or a court companion. He probably grew up in Baghdad, a major of center of learning at the time, and followed his father’s footsteps into the book trade, where a book catalogue like the Fihrist would have been particularly useful. See Bayard Dodge, “Introduction,” The Fihrist of Al-Nadīm; A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970) xv-xxiii. The citations from the Fihrist above include the page numbers in Dodge’s translation.

2 By “book,” I mean the sort of items that Ibn al-Nadīm included in the Fihrist, including what we would think of as pamphlets, scrolls etc.

3 Abu Ḥāmid Muḥammad Ibn Muḥammad al-Ṭusī died in 504-505 (Muslim calendar)/1111 (Western calender).

4 Michael Chamberlain, Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

5 Muḫammad al-Ḫurāsānī al-Aḫbārī seems to have shared ibn-abī-Zayd’s fears regarding the danger of certain texts, claiming that the wide circulation of texts by Mani, Bardesanes and Marcion explained why there were so many heretics and apostates under al-Mahdī. See Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʻAbbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries) (London: Routledge, 1998), 65, 157.

6 Nabia Abbott, “A Ninth-Century Fragment of the “Thousand Nights” New Light on the Early History of the Arabian Nights,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Jul., 1949): 129-64.