Three years before his death in 990 CE, the Iraqi bookseller Abu al-Faraj Muḥammad b. Ishaq, known as Ibn al-Nadīm, completed his only surviving work. In the Fihrist, or catalogue, he attempted to provide historical, bibliographical surveys of writing in Arabic in the main scholarly fields of his day. To read the resulting work is to have direct access to the libraries and bookshops of tenth-century Baghdad, something that makes the Fihrist one of the most important works produced in the medieval Islamic world. In addition to bibliographies of individual authors and lists of books in the various subfields of the sciences, the Fihrist includes scores of priceless anecdotes, historical accounts, and tidbits of information that are found nowhere else.
The Fihrist is without doubt the most important single source on the translation movement centered in Abbasid Baghdad, which began in the second half of the eighth century and continued until c. 1000 C.E. Ibn al-Nadim provides crucial information on translators, their patrons, and the process of translation of scientific works from Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit, bringing out in particular the key role played by Middle Eastern Christian translators, who translated works from Greek into Syriac and Syriac into Arabic, as well as Greek directly into Arabic. He provides crucial information as well on the works that were translated in the fields of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, medicine, logic, and philosophy. Ibn al-Nadim reports a dream that the Caliph al-Maʾmun (813-833) had of Aristotle, the supposed impetus for the translation movement and the establishment of al-Maʾmun’s library and research institute, the Bayt al-Hikmah.
The Fihrist also documents the rise and development of the Islamic religious sciences, including Qur’anic studies, theology, law, and mysticism, up until the late tenth century CE. His work preserves material on the rationalist Muʿtazilah school of theology that is preserved nowhere else, including an account according to which the Muʿtazilī doctrine goes back not just to Wāṣil b. ʿAṭāʾ (d. 748), who is often credited with founding the movement, but even back to the Prophet, and to the angel Gabriel himself! The Fihrist includes one of the most important accounts of the trial and execution of the famed mystic martyr Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (d. 922), as well as the most extensive bibliography of his works. He also includes crucial information on Islamic legal schools that thrived in the late ninth and tenth centuries but subsequently died out, including the Dāwūdī or Ẓāhirī madhhab, founded by Dāwūd b. ʿAlī b. Khalaf al-Iṣbahānī (d. 884), and the Jarīrī madhhab, founded by Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), who is now better known as a historian and commentator on the Qur’an. The Fihrist represents a substantial chronicle of the rise of the Islamic sciences because in every one of these fields, as in the scientific fields, many of the early, seminal works have been lost.
Ibn al-Nadīm had access to individual comprehensive bibliographies of scholars such as al-Kindī (d. C. 873), the first major philosopher to write in Arabic, the famed litterateur and theologian al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868-69), the doctor Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. 925), and others, when only a fraction of their works have survived. In addition, he provides rare anecdotes, such a Nestorian priest’s account of China, Cambodia, and other lands of Southeast Asia after returning from a seven-year mission, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī’s account of a Chinese doctor’s use of shorthand to record the works of Galen in record time, Abū Dulaf’s (fl. mid-10th c.) account of temples in Sind and India, Ibn Shahrām’s (fl. 10th c.) description of an ancient temple in Anatolia and so on. It also contains one of the earliest recorded mentions of the frame tale of the 1001 nights, with the story of Shahriyar and Shahrazad, along with the statement that the work was translated from a Persian work entitled Hezar Afsan (One Thousand Tales), as well as one of the earliest mentions of a collection of anecdotes about Juḥā, the famed fool or wise fool of Arab folklore.
Ibn al-Nadīm’s ecumenical interests make the Fihrist a valuable source for the history of religions, including not only Judaism and Christianity, but also the religions of the Sabians, the Manichaens, and the Marcionites, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. The scripts of all nations, romances of the Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Greeks, manuals on perfumes, gems, cookery, treatises on alchemy and the occult sciences also appear`–little escapes Ibn al-Nadīm’s interest or attention.
In addition, through the organization and presentation of his material Ibn al-Nadīm conveys his own views about the history and development of the various fields of inquiry that he records and about the interrelationships between those fields. His work thus is far more than a reference work for book titles. It is a crucial document recording the historical transmission of knowledge from Late Antiquity to the medieval Islamic world and a systematic taxonomy of human knowledge.