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Searching for the Islamic Episteme: The Status of Historical Information in Medieval Middle-Eastern Anthological Writing

Riedel, Dagmar A.

This is a study of two compilations that originated in western Iran before the Mongol conquest. The research contributes to the ongoing discussion of the organization and preservation of knowledge in literate societies. The Muḥāḍarāt al-udabā’ wa-muḥāwarāt al-shuʿarā' wa'l-bulaghā' (Conversations among Men of Letters and Debates between Men of Poetry and Rhetoric) is a major anthology of literary Arabic, ascribed to the lexicographer and philosopher Abū al-Qāsim al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. before 1050?). The Rāḥat al-ṣudūr wa-āyat al-surūr (Comfort of Hearts and Wonder of Delights) is a Persian miscellany about the Great Seljuq sultanate that Muḥammad al-Rāwandī (d. after 1209), an obscure calligrapher and theologian, compiled in the first decade of the thirteenth century in Hamadan to petition the Rum Seljuq sultan Kay Khusrau (ruled 1192-1197 and 1205-1211) in Konya. Both works are single-subject encyclopedias, designed as comprehensive textbooks. The circulation of manuscripts and imprints provides a diachronic perspective on the diffusion of knowledge. These textbooks circulated largely between Isfahan and Istanbul. Rāghib’s anthology is a propaedeutic work for a general audience, and is still in print in contemporary Middle Eastern societies. In contrast, Rāwandī’s miscellany is a personalized curriculum of Great Seljuq politics and courtly etiquette, and thus became obsolete in the sixteenth century. The biographical data on their authors offer the complementary synchronic perspective on the geography of knowledge in pre-Mongol Iran. The contents of the Muḥāḍarāt and the Rāḥat illustrate how their authors utilized well-established conventions of transmitting knowledge to compile an anthology of literary Arabic and a miscellany about the Great Seljuq sultanate. The arrangement of their contents is the most original aspect of these textbooks. On the macro-level, the sequence of parts, chapters, and sections follows a principle of associative order of topics and disciplines. The textbooks are witnesses to societal dependence on literacy. The oral transmission of knowledge had lost its monopoly, yet writing was less a replacement than a supplement to the oral tradition. The contents and structure of the Muḥāḍarāt and the Rāḥat document the continued prestige and use of oral practices within a literate society.

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Center for Iranian Studies
Ph.D., Indiana University
Published Here
October 3, 2013