Early Classifications

Organized by the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies – Islamic Studies, the URPP Asia and Europe, and the Università degli Studi di Milano, the conference “Putting the House of Wisdom in Order: The Fourth Islamic Century and the Impulse to Classify, Arrange and Inventory” (February 19–20, 2016) brought together several researchers on the Early Islamic period at the University of Zurich.

James Weaver

The fourth Islamic century (roughly the tenth century CE) witnessed a proliferation of texts that aimed in one way or another to codify and render accessible the scientific and literary production of the preceding Islamic centuries and of the pre-Islamic cultures whose intellectual heritage had entered the purview of Arabic scholarly tradition. In an age that combined consolidation with renewed scientific ingenuity, many authors aimed at comprehensiveness in compiling, arranging, editing and commenting upon the products of discrete, well recognised domains of scholarly endeavour. Others were involved in a more novel project of surveying the whole sweep of human knowledge, mapping the topology of its distinct parts, and describing their contents. This effort ranged in manifestation from the more pragmatically inclined composition of inventories and categorisations of books and the authors who had composed them, through to theoretical attempts to classify knowledge on a fundamental level, delineating its forms and structures and defining the relationship between them. Somewhere between the two lies a cluster of works, often referred to as ‘encyclopaedic’ and emanating largely from the cadre of state bureaucrats, that both lay out taxonomies of the sciences and present summaries of their contents, providing a sort of ‘state-of-the-art’ of a wide range of disciplines of knowledge. Reflection on such matters was not entirely new to Arabic-Islamic scholarship in the fourth century. But this period’s concentrated increase in the number of works, as well as the invention of new kinds of works dealing with the classification of knowledge or the arrangement of material according to discipline, is a readily observable intellectual-historical phenomenon worthy of scholarly attention.

An unanswered set of key questions

So far, this drive towards classification and arrangement has been approached in a largely piecemeal fashion, through studies on individual works (or, more often, particular aspects of works), and in a small number of articles that provide summary overviews of fairly divergent corpora of texts. These have thrown up, but mostly left unanswered, a set of key questions concerning whether concepts such as ‘encyclopaedia’, ‘humanism’ and ‘renaissance’ are at all helpful in understanding the fourth century phenomenon; whether there exist other genres of texts that should be considered relevant (e.g. mirrors for princes, secretarial manuals, literary anthologies); whether they should be linked with particular courtly environments or patrons; how the practical requirements for the composition of such works (well-stocked libraries, awareness of and access to teachers in a wide variety of disciplines etc.) would have been met; and what the relationship of these texts might be to earlier forms of literature, be they Arabic, Greek and Persian models, that treat the organization of knowledge in some fashion or another.

Current state of research

Organized by Ulrich Rudolph (University of Zurich), Letizia Osti (Università degli Studi di Milano), and James Weaver (University of Zurich), this workshop (the first of a two-part series, the second of which was held in Milan in May 2017), built upon that previous work, attempting to encourage (i) a more chronologically focused effort to understand the specifics of the new drive to classify and arrange that we see in the fourth century, and (ii) a more comprehensive approach that does not take as its starting point the identification of a genre of texts that can be labelled ‘encyclopaedias’, but seeks to understand the phenomenon of classification and arrangement of knowledge from a variety of perspectives, without excluding a priori any kind of text that devotes space to these topics. A group of international experts on Middle Eastern intellectual history and literature (Lale Behzadi, University of Bamberg; Maaike van Berkel, Radboud University Nijmegen; Hinrich Biesterfeldt, Ruhr Universität Bochum; Godefroid de Callataÿ, Université Catholique de Louvaine; Regula Forster, Free University of Berlin; Antonella Ghersetti, Università Ca’Foscari Venezia; Konrad Hirschler, Hugh Kennedy, both SOAS London; Sarah Savant, AKU London; Johannes Thomann, University of Zurich; and James Weaver came together to better establish the current state of research, present new findings for discussion, to elaborate on the conceptual models that have underwritten our approach so far, and to identify the most pressing focus-points for future research. They were joined by two experts in the fields of Sinology (Alessandra Lavagnino, Università degli studi di Milano) and Early Modern European History (Peter Burke, University of Cambridge), who gave regards obliques, providing comparative insight into similar phenomena in other periods and places.

Chronology and completeness

The workshop provided for a fruitful meeting, and various theses and avenues for potential further research were suggested. These can be summarized under the following four points:

i) The fourth century witnessed the increasingly rapid dissolution of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate. The new preoccupation with classifying and summarising previous knowledge was presented sometimes as a project to conserve something that was in danger of being lost, and sometimes as a product of a growing intellectual efflorescence in the former provinces as more sources of patronage became available to scholars from wealthy, local ruling dynasties.

ii) Technology-change in the form of the ever-greater availability of paper had led to an explosion in book production generally, that began much earlier but gathered speed from the late third century. To some extent the ‘classification and arrangement’ phenomenon seems to have been a response to an ever-larger literary environment that was increasingly difficult to manage and understand.

iii) The phenomenon might be bound up with the ‘coming of age’ of so many disciplines of Arabic-Islamic scholarship and the increasing professionalization of their practitioners, reacting to and bolstering a growing disciplinary self-consciousness even in fields that already had well established identities.

iv) The classificatory act is often normative in intention, but in practice often reflects the classifiers’ personal experiences of the institutional relationships between certain disciplines and their practitioners in the fourth century.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 15–16)