The Encyclopedia Industry Era


The more things change, the more they stay the same. When the Tatars entered Baghdad in the seventh hijri century (656 AH/1285 CE), led by Hulagu Khan, the first thing they did—after the bloodshed—was the destruction of its public libraries. A famous saying even stated that the Tigris was filled with manuscripts, which the Tatars used as a bridge for their horses to cross over; and the water of the River ran black with the ink of those manuscripts.

History recites stories even more severe and devastating than the Tatars actions in Baghdad—the capital of culture and science at that time—in what seems like a systematic extermination of the Islamic civilization’s memory and sciences since the era of the Tatars to date. After the Tatars invaded the civilizations, from Baghdad to Damascus, the Islamic civilization lost its written and inscribed sciences with the burning and destruction of its libraries and cultural features, as well as its oral knowledge, by murdering scientists and scholars.

It is enough to know that when the Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim went out servile to negotiate with Hulagu—after his traitor minister Ibn Al-‘Alqami arranged for that meeting—along with more than seven hundred men of the finest scientists, scholars, and notables of Baghdad, Hulagu killed them all. He spared only the Caliph but only to kill him twice afterwards: the first was when he watched the collapse of his Caliphate, the murder of his offspring, and the captivity of his wives; and the second was when he was killed by trampling and kicking.

Yes, the Muslims’ Caliph died being trampled and kicked with legs. From that point onwards, the Islamic Caliphate staggered from the excessive force of the onslaught of the Tatars from the East, followed two centuries later by the downfall of Andalusia from the West. Only Egypt—the conqueror of the Tatars in the Battle of Ain Jalut (658 AH), and the secure place for scientists escaping from East and West—and few civilizations survived the Tatars, heralding the dawn of the encyclopedia industry, as scientists realized the magnitude of the disaster they witnessed after the destruction of their identity and memory. A nation without a memory has neither present nor future.

At that critical period of the Islamic Caliphate age, scientists realized the responsibility that fell upon them towards the revival of sciences and texts that were ruined by wars and re-collecting them; it was inevitable. The era of encyclopedias started to retrieve what was lost as a result of vandalism, and to preserve what remained from the memory of the nation and the Islamic Civilization.

The encyclopedias were presented in various branches of science through two trends, as identified by Mr. Yousry Abdulghani in his book Egyptian Historians from the Era of Encyclopedias. The first trend witnessed the emergence of huge collections and comprehensive encyclopedias; the second was directed to the philosophy of history.

A new trend resulted from the previous two, which is the encyclopedic compilation; one of its most prominent figures is Ibn Manzur (711 AH) and his famous Encyclopedia Lisan al-‘Arab (The Arab Tongue), occupying 20 volumes, where Ibn Manzur gathered reference language books. This Dictionary included 80 thousand entries, exceeding Al-Qamus Al-Muhit (The Comprehensive Dictionary), by Firouzabadi (817 AH), with about 20 thousand entries.

From the prominent Encyclopedias representing the first trend—huge collections and comprehensive—are Uyun Al-Anbaa fi Tabaqat Al-Atibbaa (The Sources of Information on the Classification of Physicians), which is considered one of the primary resources for studying the history of medicine at the Arabs, by Ibn Abi Usaibia (668 AH); the Encyclopedia of Al-Wafi Bil-Wafayat (The Sufficient with the Deceased) by Salah Al-Din Al-Safadi (674 AH); the Encyclopedia of Wafiyat Al-Ayan wa Anba' Abna' Al-Zaman (Deceased Luminaries and the History of the Sons of the Epoch) by Ibn Khalkan (681 AH)—considered the most famous and finest Arabic biography for its accuracy and precision—to which Ibn Shakir Al-Kutubi (754 AH) added the Encyclopedia of Fawat Al-Wafayat (Omissions from the Deaths). In addition, Al-Kutubi has written also the Encyclopedia of Al-Mukhtasar fi Akhbar Al-Bashar (The Concise History of Humanity).

The second trend—directed to the philosophy of history—started by Ibn Tabataba (709 AH) and his book Al-Fakhri fi Al-Adab Al-Sultaniyah w Al-Duwal Al-Islamiyyah (The Honorary in Sultanic Literature and Islamic Countries) and Ibn Khaldun (808 AH) and his famous Enyclopedia of Kitabu l-ʻibar wa Diwanu l-Mubtada wa l-Khabar fi Ayam l-‘Arab wa l-Agam wa l-Barbar, wa man ʻAsarahum min Thawi Al-Sultan Al-Akbar (The Book of Lessons, Record of Beginnings and Events in the Days of the Arabs, Ajam and Berbers, and their Powerful Contemporaries), occupying seven volumes and the eighth is glossaries, which starts by the Muqaddimah (Prolegomena) also known as Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldun fi Elm Al-Egtma’ (Ibn Khaldun’s Prolegomena in Sociology), which made him the founder of Sociology.

It is not fair not to mention encyclopedias that preceded that age, which laid the foundations for Arabic encyclopedias industry; such as: Al-Kamil fi-l Tarikh (The Complete History), occupying 12 volumes, and Usd Al-ghabah fi Ma’rifat Al-Sahabah (The Lions of the Forest and the Knowledge about the Companions), occupying 5 volumes; and another duo by Yaqut al-Hamawi (626 AH) which is represented one of the most important books in geography and biography writings, which includes: Mu’jam Al-Buldan (Dictionary of Countries) and Mu’jam Al-Udabaa (Dictionary of Writers).

We cannot possibly amass all the valuable works here. We may say that Arab scientists have intensified their encyclopedias after the invasion of the Tatars; however, this era did not monopolize encyclopedias. As we have seen, the Islamic civilization abounded with numerous encyclopedias; we may say that perhaps the Arab Islamic thought in encyclopedias writing began as early as the third and fourth hijri centuries, for example: Sirat Ibn Hisham (Biography of Prophet Muhammad) (223 AH); Kitab Al-Bayan wa Al-Tabyin (Book of Eloquence and Demonstration) and Kitab Al-Hayawan (Book of Animals) by Al-Jahiz (255 AH); Uyun Al-Akhbar (Springs of Information or Choice Narratives) by Ibn Qutaybah (276 AH); Ta’rikh Al-Rusul wa Al-Muluk (History of Prophets and Kings) by Al-Tabari (310 AH); and Al-‘Iqd Al-Farid (Unique Necklace) by Ibn Abd Rabbih (328 AH). Given that vast amount of encyclopedias, which we have only mentioned some of, the former scientists may have understood that those who are left behind are those who do not have the ability to produce encyclopedias. Thus, they presented us with all what they have of knowledge, leaving us as sole owners of history.

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