Ibn al-Nadim

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Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'hāq al-Nadim (Arabic: ابوالفرج محمد بن إسحاق النديم‎) (died September 17, 995 or 998) was a Muslim scholar and bibliographer, possibly of Persian origin.[1] He is famous as the author of the Kitāb al-Fihrist. It is, in his own words "an Index of the books of all nations, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, which are extant in the Arabic language and script, on every branch of knowledge; comprising information as to their compilers and the classes of their authors, together with the genealogies of those persons, the dates of their birth, the length of their lives, the times of their death, the places to which they belonged, their merits and their faults, since the beginning or every science that has been invented down to the present epoch : namely, the year 377 of the Hijra."[2]


Very little is actually known about his life. He was a bookseller, a calligrapher who copied manuscripts for sale, as his father, known as al-Warrāq (الورّاق), was before him. He lived in Baghdad and sometimes he mentions a sojourn in Mosul. In 988 AD, the year his book was compiled, he reports he was in Constantinople (Dar al-Rum).[2] However, Carlo Alfonso Nallino believes this is a misunderstanding and Dar al-Rum does not mean Constantinople, rather al-Nadim meant that he met someone in a Christian neighborhood in Baghdad.[3]

Of his teachers he mentions al-Sirafi (died 978-9), the Munajjimid Ali ibn Harun ibn al-Munajjim (died 963) and the philosopher Abu Sulayman al-Mantiqi. He belonged to the circle of a son of 'Ali b. 'Isa the "Good Vizier" of the Banu al-Jarrah, whom he praises for his profound knowledge of the logic and the sciences of the Greeks, Persians and Indians. Ibn al-Nadim also met in his house the Christian philosopher Ibn al-Khammar. With these men, none of whom was an orthodox Sunni, he shared an admiration for philosophy and especially for Aristotle, and the Greek and Hindu sciences of antiquity (before Islam). He admired their breadth of outlook and their air of toleration.

It did not escape his biographers that he was a Shi'ite (Ibn Hajar, l.c.); he uses khassi instead of Shi'ite, 'ammi instead of Sunnite, al-hashwiyya for the Sunnis, Ahl al-Hadith ("People of the Hadith") instead of Ahl al-Sunna ("People of the Tradition"). He inserts the eulogy for prophets (consisting of the words alaihi al-salam, "peace be with him") after the names of the Shi'i Imams and the Ahl al-Bayt (the descendants of Muhammad). He calls the Ali ar-Rida mawlana. He asserts that al-Waqidi [q.v.] was a Shi'ite but concealed this fact by taqiyya. He claims most of the (orthodox) 'traditionists' for the Zaydiyya. He speaks of the Mu'tazila as Ahl al-'Adl ("People of the justice"), calls the Ash'arites al-mujbira. That he belonged to the Twelver Shi'a is shown by his distaste for the doctrines of the Sab'iyya and by his criticisms in dealing with their history. He remarks that a certain Shafi'i scholar was secretly a Twelver Shi'ite. He mentions Shi'is among his acquaintances, e.g., Ibn al-Mu'allim, the da'i Ibn Hamdan and the author Khushkunanadh. To the same circle belonged the Jacobite Yahya ibn 'Adi (d. 363/973) who instructed 'Isa b. 'Ali in philosophy and who was, like Ibn al-Nadim, a copyist and bookseller (p. t64, 8).


His great book, the Fihrist, gives ample testimony to the knowledge of pre-Islamic, Syriac, Greek, Sanskrit, Latin and Persian in classical Islamic civilization. Unfortunately of the Persian books listed by Ibn al-Nadim only a minute sample is extant. According to Fihrist's brief preface, it is meant to be an index of all books written in Arabic, whether by Arabs or others. There existed already books (tabaqat) dealing with the biographies of poets. The Fihrist was published in 938; it exists in two manuscript traditions, or "editions": the more complete edition contains ten "discourses" (maqalat). The first six of them are detailed bibliographies of books on Islamic subjects:

1. the Holy Scriptures of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, with emphasis on the Qur'an and hadith;

2. works on grammar and philology;

3. history, biography, genealogy and the like;

4. poetry;

5. dialectical theology (kalam);

6. law (fiqh) and hadith.

The last four discourses deal with secular subjects:

7. philosophy and the 'secular sciences';

8. legends, fables, magic, conjuring, etc.;

9. the doctrines (maqalat) of other religions (Manichaeans, Hindus, Buddhists and Chinese);

10. alchemy.

He gives the titles only of those books which he had seen himself or whose existence was vouchsafed by a trustworthy person.

The shorter edition contains (besides the preface and the first section of the first discourse on the scripts and the different alphabets) only the last four discourses, in other words, the Arabic translations from Greek, Syriac and other languages, together with Arabic books composed on the model of these translations. Perhaps it was the first draft and the longer edition (which is the one that is generally printed) was an extension.

Ibn al-Nadim often mentions the size of a book and the number of pages, so that buyers would not be cheated by copyists passing off shorter versions. Compare the Stichometry of Nicephorus. He refers often to copies written by famous calligraphers, to bibliophiles and libraries, and speaks of a book auction and of the trade in books. In the opening section he deals with the alphabets of 14 peoples and their manner of writing and also with the writing-pen, paper and its different varieties. His discourses contain sections on the origins of philosophy, on the lives of Plato and Aristotle, the origin of One Thousand and One Nights, thoughts on the pyramids, his opinions on magic, sorcery, superstition, and alchemy etc. The chapter devoted to what the author rather dismissively calls "bed-time stories" and "fables" contains a large amount of Persian material.

In the chapter on anonymous works of assorted content there is a section on "Persian, Indian, Byzantine, and Arab books on sexual intercourse in the form of titillating stories", but the Persian works are not separated from the others; the list includes a "Book of Bahrām-doḵt on intercourse." This is followed by books of Persians, Indians, etc. on fortune telling, books of "all nations" on horsemanship and the arts of war, then on horse doctoring and on falconry, some of them specifically attributed to the Persians. Then we have books of wisdom and admonition by the Persians and others, including many examples of Persian andarz literature, e.g. various books attributed to Persian emperors Khosrau I, Ardashir I, etc.


  1. ^ "FEHREST – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne (1907). A literary history of the Arabs. T.F. Unwin. p. 362. Retrieved 19 June 2010.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Nicholson1907" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  3. ^ Nallino, Carlo Alfonso. Ilm al-falak: Tarikhuhu ind al-Arab fi al-qurun al-wusta (Astronomy: the history of Arabic Writers of the Middle Ages). 


  • L. H. Gray, "Iranian material in the Fihrist," Le Muséon, 3/1, 1915, pp. 24–39.
  • R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, Cambridge, 1907.

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