Introduction to Arabic gnomological collections

Graeco-Arabic Material 

The SAWS project covers a number of transmission processes of Greek wisdom, namely the transmission from Greek into Syriac and Arabic and from there onwards into Medieval European languages (Latin and Spanish), as well as from the Ancient Greek culture into the Byzantine world.

In the ninth and tenth century Greek works of wisdom literature and philosophy, sometimes in their late Antique re-workings, were translated into Arabic. Many of these translations are nowadays lost, but collections and compilations composed in the early Islamic centuries preserve excerpts and traces of them. Editing and analysing such collections thus serve a twofold purpose, namely to make the otherwise lost source material accessible and to provide insight into the world and mind-set of the Arabic speaking compilers by considering their literary products in their own right.

The Arabic texts which SAWS provides may broadly be divided into two groups: the gnomological collections and the purely philosophical compilations.

Arabic gnomological collections 

A neat description  of  Byzantine gnomologia which were then translated into Arabic is found in al-Anṣārī’s Ādāb al-falāsifawhich preserves material from Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s lost Nawādir al-falāsifa (on al-Anṣārī’s work and its relation to Ḥunayn’s see Zakeri (2007) pp. 59-61 and Zakeri (2004), pp. 185-7):

unayn ibn Isāq says: I have seen in transmitted volumes first parchment coloured in purple, which is a red colour, written on in gold and silver, then some parchment written on in gold and some in other colours. At the beginning of the volume there is a picture of the philosopher on his chair and his students in front of him.

unayn ibn Isāq says: The Byzantines use this style for their volumes and their psalters up to this time: written in gold and silver script on parchment coloured in these colours, at their beginning the picture of the sage painted. If the volume gathers sayings, there is a distinction made between two groups of sayings by painting the picture of each philosopher before his words. The books are cover in different kinds of leather decorated in gold and silver. This happens because of their desire, love and high esteem for wisdom. (tr. Wakelnig following Badawī’s edition, 1985, pp. 43-44.

As examples for such Arabic gnomologia based on Byzantine sources  the SAWS project presents Ps.-Sijistānī’s Muntakhab iwān al-ikma (Selection from the Cabinet of Wisdom), al-Sāwī’s Mukhtaar iwān al-ikma (Excerpt from the Cabinet of Wisdom), Ps.-ʽĀmirī’s Kitāb al-Saʽāda wa-l-Isʽād (On Seeking and Causing Happiness) and the entry on Aristotle in Mubashshir’s Mukhtār al-ikam wa-maāsin al-kalim (The Choicest Maxims and Best Sayings).

Description of the texts 

Anonymous, Muntakhab iwān al-ikma (see text) and

ʽUmar ibn Sahlān al-Sāwi, Mukhtaar iwān al-ikma

on which see al-Qādī (1981) and Gutas (1982): see text.

The Muntakhab and the Mukhtaar iwān al-ikma are witnesses of a no longer extant collection of biographical and gnomological material of Greek and Arabic philosophers, namely the iwān al-ikma (Cabinet of Wisdom). Judging from the sources used (Tawḥīdī, Miskawayh and ʽĀmirī) the iwān was most likely composed somewhere in the Persian lands of the Islamic Empire between 985 and 1030. The ascription of the iwān to Abū Sulaymān al-Sijistānī is no longer upheld; it was already doubted by Gimaret (1987) and then refuted with convincing arguments by al-Qādī (1981), who suggested a student of ʿĀmirī as a possible author.

As for the abridgements of the iwān, the Muntakhab was put together by an anonymous compiler, of whom we know that he also composed an appendix to the iwān entitled Itmām Tatimmat iwān al-ikma between the end of the twelfth and the middle of the thirteenth century. The Mukhtaar is the work of ʽUmar ibn Sahlān al-Sāwi, who died around 1145. Both abridgements not only summarise the original iwān, but also add material of their own, as al-Qāḍī has pointed out: al-Qāḍī (1981), pp.89-93. Yet the material which is common to both of them has most probably been part of the original iwān.

SAWS provides transcriptions of Dunlop’s edition of the Muntakhab and of Kartanegara’s edition of the Mukhtaar which is otherwise difficult to get hold of. The texts are marked up, so that narratives and statements are easily discernible. They are further linked to each other so that the common material becomes obvious. Comments give bibliographical references to translations of and research on individual passages of the Muntakhab.

Mubashshir ibn Fātik, Mukhtār al-ikam wa-maāsin al-kalim

on which see Rosenthal (1960-1)

A gnomological collection which seems to draw on the same sources as the iwān-tradition is the Mukhtār al-ikam wa-maāsin al-kalim (The Choicest Maxims and Best Sayings). It is the only work known to be extant by the scholar Abū l-Wafāʾ al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik and was, according to the claim of the author himself, composed in 1048/9. The Mukhtār al-ikam consists of sections each of which deals with one Greek authority, providing biographical information and gnomological material. Its Spanish version Bocados de Oro became influential in Europe.

SAWS presents the text of the entry on Aristotle (see text), which makes use of the Ps-Aristotelian Risālat Arisūālīs ilā l-Iskandar fī siyāsat al-mudun (see Bielawski (1970), pp.23-4) and the Ikhtiār al-Iskandarānīyīn of the Nichomachean Ethics, on which see Ullmann (2012). The SAWS text is linked to this latter source and to the Bocados de Oro chapters on Aristotle and Alexander.

 Ps.-ʽĀmirī’s Kitāb al-Saʽāda wa-l-Isʽād (On Seeking and Causing Happiness)

is a compilation of gnomological and philosophical, mainly ethical and political material taken from Greek, Arabic and Persian sources and loosely arranged according to subjects. The compiler calls himself Abū l-Ḥasan ibn Abī Dharr, but no further information about him could be found by the first two scholars who discussed the K. al-Saʽāda, Kurd ʽAli (1929) and Arberry (1955). The latter (Arberry (1963) p. 146, n. 1) later accepted Minovi’s (see Minovi (1957), p. 59) identification of Ibn Abī Dharr with Abū l-Ḥasan al-ʿĀmirī for which there is no basis, as the manuscript evidence given by Minovi is incorrect: the single manuscript containing al-ʽĀmirī’s K. al-Fuūl fī l-maʽālim al-ilāhīya does not give its author’s name as Abū l-Ḥasan Muḥammad ibn Abī Dharr Yūsuf al-ʽĀmirī, as Minovi claims, but as Abū l-Ḥasan Muḥammad Yūsuf al-ʽĀmirī.

Minovi has produced what is generally referred to as a facsimile edition of the unicum containing the K. al-Saʿāda, namely Dublin, Chester Beatty, MS Ar 3702, but is in fact a facsimile of Minovi’s handwritten transcription of the MS which does not even consistently adhere to the page-layout of the MS. A further peculiarity of Minovi’s edition is that he claims to have had access to a transcription of the MS which was made at a time when the MS was still more complete than it is now and before it came into the possession of Sir Chester Beatty. Based on this mysterious transcription which is, according to Minovi, in private possession in Iran, he adds the text of an additional folio (between the existing folios 4 and 5) to his edition. However, the type of quire of the MS is a consistent binion (of two bi-folia) and it seems thus very unlikely that a single folio should be missing between two quires of two bi-folia. If something was missing, it would be more reasonable to assume that an entire quire of two bi-folia got lost, but for this assumption that additional text provided by Minovi is not long enough. However, this additional material is also reproduced in ʿAṭīya’s edition of the K. al-Saʿāda. The Chester Beatty MS is today in quite bad shape and contains many holes which have been covered up in some preservation process, but their script is lost. The resulting textual gaps can be filled by recourse to Minovi’s edition although his source remains somewhat dubious.

SAWS provides a text (set out in 6 sections: see Part 1, ff) which is based on Minovi’s edition, but is the process of being collated to the MS, so that finally a truthful picture of the MS as it is conserved today should emerge. The text is further linked to the Platonic and Aristotelian sources which have been established for parts of the K. al-Saʿāda by Lacroix (1989) and Pohl (1997).