Monday 25th of October 2021
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How did some poor scholars manage to survive?

How did some poor scholars manage to survive?

Well, a man of letters sho lacked independent means could also transcribe books exclusively for sale. In this way, an entire professional caste emerged that was of very great importance in the dissemination of books. As anyone occupied with study had to undertake a large amount of transcribing, the position of warrāq emerged naturally from the scholarly life, and many important scholars and literary figures have the description of al-warrāq, “ the copyist,” appended to their names. Through this status a way of life was created that was of the utmost importance to the perpetuation of the literary class. It embraced people of all levels of education, including prominent authors. A well-known Christian Arab philosopher, Yahya b. ‘Adi (d. the 2nd half of the 10th century) made his living as a copyist. He twice transcribed al-Tabari’s exegeses, which in their present printed edition fill 13 thick volumes. Ibn al-Nadim was a warrāq, and the same is true, according to Yaqut, of a number of the literary personages of whom he writes. At all events it was a calling on which a man of letters could always fall back.

You mean it could be the last resort for some scholars?

Yes, Yaqut reports the case of one Muhammad b. Sulayman, a well-to-do man who squandered his inheritance as was forced to become a scribe for wages until the day should come when he might find a position (VII, 14). Yaqut himself was originally a slave, and after being freed in 1200 he lived by transcribing for payment (Ibn Khallikan, II, 210). We can often read complaints by copysists over the disproportion between their labor and their remuneration. But there were differences between copists, as well.

Copists played a major role in the translation movement in the early Abbasid period.

Yes, we hear of them in the early period of the the Abbasid dynasty, around 800, when the literary movement was beginning to gather momentum and the work of translating from the older literature was starting in earnest, notably at al-Ma’mun’s new academy, bayt al-hikma, “The House of Wisdom,” in Baghdad. It is obvious that there would have been employment here for large numbers of copyists. The story of the great philologist Abu ‘Ubaynda tells us how one influential man obtained books. He was brought to Baghdad from Basra by Isma’il b. Sabīh, a powerful official who had played an important role in the fall of the Barmakids under Harun al-Rashid. Isma’il got hold of Abu ‘Ubayda’s books. He sent for a skilful warraq, al-Athram, whom he installed in one of his houses and asked him to remain there and transcribe the books. Al-Athram gave the requisite paper to some younger people who came to him, and got them to carry out the transcription within an agreed short time limit. It is said that Abu ‘Ubayda was very ungenerous with his books, and if he had known what al-Athram was doing, he would have stopped it. (Irshad V, 42f)

Was it merely a translation movement or scholars produced original works as well?

Well, the caliph, al-Ma’mun (d.833) also procured original works by contemporary scholars. He attached to himself the philologist al-Farrā’ and asked him to writea work on language. The scholar was accommodated in an apartment of the palace with good servants, and the caliph provided him with scribes. It took some years to complete the workd, and al-Ma’mun commanded that it should be transcribed in the libraries. Next, al-Farra’ dictated publicly a book of Qur’anic exegisis. There were so many listeners that their number could not be determined, and among them were 80 qadis. Al-Farra’ had with him his towo copyists, Salāma b. ‘Āsim and Abu Nasr b. al-Jahm. It is said that when the dictation was completed, the copyists withheld the book from the public so as to make a profit on it; they would onnly release it on being paid one dirham for every five pages. People went to al-Farra’ to complain, and he attempted persuasion on the warrāqs, but it was useless. They said bluntly that they had only followed his discourse to make money on it; this was their daily bread. Al-Farra’’s efforts to bring the parties together came to nothing. But then he announced that he would hold a new discourse on the same subject in a considerably expanded form. Just the opening words of the first sura, al-hamd, “The Encomium,” filled a hundred pages. At that point the copysists yielded and agreed to supply what was being demanded – ten pages for one dirham. (VII, 276f.)

Could we consider copists as an independent class?

The warraqs were available to make copies for people who did not themselves take down dictation, either because they were not present or because they listened to the discourse but could afford to spare themselves the trouble of transcribing it. By having copyists present, the author assured his book of wide dissemination. But the story shows that the copyists were an independent class and that there were no economic commitments between them and the author. The pressure put upon them by al-Farra’ depended on the threat that his more detailed discourse would make the original one of less value.

Would copyists make use of authorized copies?

These scribes did not make certified copies consistently. It may nnot have been practical when the business in hand was on a large scale. But of course one of the copyist’s duties was to check that what he wrote down agreed with the original. The comparing of the manuscripts, muqabala, “the collation,” was a necessary stage in the book’s production. Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, who became sick and tired of books and transcribing in his old age, actually burned his books, said: “Why should my eye strain itself any more with ink and paper and parchment and reading and collation and correction and draft and fair copy?” (V, 390) Sometimes special correctors (muharrir) are mentioned. Collation would probably be effected as a rule by reading aloud, with the author’s check for authorization. It was always of value to a  a copyist if he could read his transcript to a scholar of high repute.

So the process of correction was done under the supervision of the author?

No, not necessarily. Just as an author atuhorized a book with his ijaza, so a recognized scholar could certify that he had verified a manuscript by appending his samā’, “hearing,” that is, an attestation that he had checked it by hearing it read over. (VI, 359) An older ms might sometimes be subjected to a proofreading by being read over to a scholar of standing. There are also mss that a lter reader has collated with another manuscript and in the margins of it he has made corrections.

How was the problem of the accuracy of the transcript dealt with?

Well, it was of course a persistent one despite all the checks, and authors complained from time to time about the unreliability of copyists. For instance, at the end of his great world history, al-Mas’udi begs pardon for the errors that may be introduced by the copyist. The author’s best guarantee, of course, was to transcibe his work himself, and for the scholar it was probably best to transcribe personally those works of particular importance to him. Yaqut tells us that he himself transcribed al-Isfahani’s “Book of Songs” in ten volumes, since used it for a work on the poets. But naturally there were limits to how much the individual couuld do in this direction.

So, copists served as the link between scholars and the general public.

Yes, copyists themselves belonged more or less to the literary class, but their livelihood was in multiplying the works of authors. They were not only copyists, but booksellers as well. A warraq had his stall or booth (hānut, dukkān) where copying went on and business in books was conducted.

It would be interesting to know whether copists had their sense of immportance as a representative of the world of learning as an independent entrepreneur.

Yes, apparently they had their sense of importance, but although they obviously had a considerable business in their stalls, it was still normmal for them to go out to work for others for payment. Yaqut (V, 66f.) tells us that al-Shu’ubi, who lived in Baghdad at the beginning of the ninth century was the author of various books, and for a time was a copyist in Bayt al-hikma, the recently established institute of science and letters. He had a stall in which he sold books and where he had people who transcribed for him. He was recommended by a rich man, who sent for him, and he then stayed in the rich man’s house for a time engaged in transcribing. One day, ther was a breach between them, apparently al-Shu’ubi had failed to meet the standards of politeness set by his employer. Al-Shu’ubi declared that he was not to be taught good manners by others: rather the reverse, for he had not come to beg for anything but to execute a task for which he had been commissioned and for which he received his wages. But now he swore that he would never again write a single letter in the house of another.

Could we say that an independent copyist performed a function that in our day in the West is shared between the printer and the bookseller, and also, perhaps we may say the publishing house?

An author’s copyist had the first copies of the work, and was obviously the person to be approached by anyone wanting to obtain it. A copyist of the mid-tenth century says that one day he met the poet al-Nāshi’ī, who said to him, “I have compsed a qasida (a lengthy poem of fixed form) that is in demand, and I should like you to write it by your hand, so that I may have it published.”(V,241). Books were produced and brought out on the book market through the warrāq.

Are there instances in which a warrāq steals a manuscript from a known author, naturally with publication in mind?

This happened to al-Tabari on one occasion. (VI, 450) This did not signify much economic loss for the author, as in all probability he had no share in the income from sales. But it is not difficult to believe that a warrāq may sometimes have bought a work from an author in order to make copies of it and sell them. Of course, he did not acquire any copyright in such a work, apart form the copies he himself bought or produced.

What about the prices? Were they fixed or the buyer and the seller bargained over books?

Well, in an age when every book was produced individually, fixed prices were not known, and price-haggling is still not uncommon. It is said that a person of princely rank was looking for a copy of the ‘Book of Songs” and procured a fine one for 10,000 dirhams. When he received the magnificent work, he censured his agent who had bought it for having treated the poor warraq badly, for the book was worth over 10,000 dinars. (V, 164; 417)  A person of princely rank might view a transaction like this, but common people behaved otherwise. Sometimes book sales were done by auction (nidā’, “call”). People sat in a circle and the book was called out, bid following upon bid. In an ordinary selling transaction the buyer tried to beat the seller’s price down little by little, but at an auction the price moved gradually upward. Generally speaking, auctions were not unusual and did something to satisfy the gambling instict condemned by the Qur’an.

Were booksellers and copyists in specific places?

Their stalls came by degrees to take up a good deal of room in the towns and they tended to cluster in a particular quarter, a tradition that has still not completely died out. Al-Maqrizi mentions the “bookmen’s quarter” in his description of Cairo in the 15th century and we often hear of the “quarter of books” or the “warraqs’ quarter” in Baghdad. It was situated a little outside the oldest part of the capital, the round city founded by al-Mansur, toward the southeast, by one of the canals. The corresponding quarter of Damascus, according to Ibn Battuta (14th century), was in the vicinity of the magnificent Uayyad mosque, with booths selling paper, pens, ink, and other articles associated with books. (V, 164; 240; VII, 291, V, 24; Maqrizi III, 165f.; Rihla 65f.) People with a literary taste frequented these quarters, sitting in the booths and whiling away the hours with literary gossip and discussion of the issues of the day. This milieu forms the setting for a good many of the anecdotes that are frequently met in scholarly biographies. They provide us with a glimpse of daily life.

Did booksellers have a guild?

Like other professions, the “bookmen” were organized in a guild headed by a shaykh, who occupied a position of standing. In his Muqaddima (“Prolegomena”), an introduction to his historical work surveying the culture of his day, Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) mentions that the increases in literary pursuits brought the emergence of the occupation of warrāq, which is concerned with transcribing, proofreading, binding, and everything else that has to do with books and office work.” (p. 334)

How do you compare and contrast the function of the copyists in the past with the printers and publishers in our time?

In our day, most of the books sold are printed and “bookmen” do not of course exist in the same way as of old, and the function of the copyist has been taken over by the printer; but the book trade continues on essentially the same lines as before, and the bookseller is the successor of the warraq of earlier times. If he wants a text to be duplictaed he gives it to a printer, just as he formerly handed it to a scribe. Other booksellers and the ordinary buyer can then obtain the book from him at a price agreed upon by the parties in each instance after the appropriate bargaining. Literary folk foregather in the booksellers’ shops for mutual entertainment, as before.



Writing material; calligraphers; book painting; bookbinding; libraries; printed books;

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