Medieval Islamic Work and Robbery: A Study of Al-Suyuti’s Fariq

by Omar Abdel-Ghaffar

At the end of his piece, What is an Author, Michele Foucault encourages us to imagine a world where the identity of the author becomes irrelevant, as “books were assigned real authors…only when the author became subject to punishment... In our culture—undoubtedly in others as well—discourse was not originally a thing, a product, or a possession, but an action.” He closes his piece by stating that once we have reached the ability to produce discourse sans auteur, society will begin to ask questions about the discourse itself, and “behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference: 'What matter who's speaking?'” Here he is echoing Roland Barthes, in his piece, The Death of the Authorwhere Barthes tells his readers that the efforts of critics to exhume the bodies of authors from underneath the text to hold them responsible for their supposedly unique production is counterproductive, as “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture” (146).

Pre-modern Islamic society provides us a space where we can explore the relationship between the author, the discourse he produces in writing, and the individual who may potentially “steal” this work, dissociated from the author in the modern sense. Abu al-Fadl ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn Abi Bakr ibn Muhammad Jalal al-Din al-Khudayri al-Suyuṭi’s (849-911 AH, 1445-1505 AD) short but fascinating workKitab al-Fariq Bayn al-Musannif wa-al Sariq, is an excellent example of a prominent Islamic jurist explaining how he understands writing and thievery. In this post, I will read his piece with the intention of complicating our understanding of three aspects of intellectual labor and property: the concept of tasnifas it relates to creativity and trustworthiness, the concept of ‘amal as an undifferentiated description of labor that transcends the dualism between the manual and the intellectual, and the relationship between author and work as a relationship of access rather than one of production. Such a close reading of the Fariq will demonstrate that pre-modern Islam was a civilization that can challenge modern conceptions of labor, making for a fundamentally different understanding of authorship. 

Tasnif: the Uniqueness of Taxonomy

The title of the work declares that the author seeks to differentiate between a very specific type of author, al musannif, and the thief. Suyuti does not choose to use the term “katib” or “ʿālim” which would have meant, respectively, “author” or “scholar,” but rather he uses the word muṣannif, the verbal noun of which, al-tasnif according to Lisan al-‘Arabis “tamyiz al-ashyaʿba’ḍaha ‘an baʿd” (the differentiation of things, one from the other), in other words, intellectual taxonomy. Suyuti is tackling a specific question: the type of distinctiveness involved in ordering and dividing preexisting pieces. As the book which has been allegedly stolen was on the miracles of the Prophet Muhammad, and Suyuti was born nearly eight centuries after the death of the Prophet, the entire book is self-consciously “a tissue of quotations.” Suyuti himself explains to us that this is no lesser of an art form nor is it of an inferior intellectual caliber when compared to other forms of writing; indeed, Suyuti elevates tasnif above the composition of poetry.

Suyuti’s piece here was written to expose a slightly younger contemporary scholar, by the name of Shihab al-Din Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr al-Qastallani al-Qutaybi (851-923 AH) who had, according to Suyuti, taught portions of one of Suyuti’s books without attributing the book to Suyuti. This book, al Mu’jizat wa-al-Khasa’is al-Nabawiya, is a lengthy book in which Suyuti gathered various accounts of prophetic miracles, and compiled them into a single text, after making sure that each account was valid and plausible (Suyuti, 13). The nature of the book makes al-Fariq’s defense particularly interesting; Suyuti did not “compose” or write any of these accounts himself; there is no pretense of ingenuity, only of the creativity and labor involved in gathering and ordering narrated accounts. The effort Suyuti spent in gathering and ordering this text makes him appalled at Qastalani’s audacity in attributing the work, not necessarily the text, to his person. 

Suyuti is incensed because Qastalani, “saraqa jami’ ma fiha bi-‘ibarati, wa-qal tatabba’tu wa jama’tu wa waqaʿa li” [“has stolen all that was in it, including my phrases, and he said “I have followed,” “I have gathered” and “It has occurred to me”] (33). Thus, Suyuti is upset not only at the usurpation of the phraseology, but at how the labor that was exerted by Suyuti came to be attributed to Qastalani; Suyuti explains that his work has gathered many of the great opinions of the madhab, and that he spent decades organizing these accounts in such a way as to make them easy for the ṭālib to access. 

‘Amal: Writing as Labor

Suyuti uses the language of property and property rights to describe his relationship both to his work, and to its violation. He calls Qastalani a thief and describes the crime repeatedly throughout al-Fariq as thievery. This text demonstrates just how incongruous any semblance of Descarte’s mind-body dualism was to Islamic thought, at least up until the sixteenth century: Suyuti complains that Qastalani attributed to himself the ʿamal of organizing and gathering. Qastalani’s denial of the true laborer becomes a type of spiritual ingratitude; Suyuti’s rebukes him for being one who “yastafid wa-la yaʿtarif” [he benefits but does not recognize it] (46).

Suyuti’s own biographical dictionary, which features himself, as well as various others, describe his writing as prolific and beneficial: he is sahib al-mu’llafat al-fa’iqa al-nafiʿa as he is described in Shadharat al-Dhahab. The fact that much of his production is narrated from various sources demonstrates that writing was understood as depending on pre-existing knowledge, the purpose of writing was to record and organize, not to create. Writing was secondary to speech, and like any other type of labor, depended on tools and materials. This is particularly evident when examining manuscripts, which include lengthy commentary in the margin, oftentimes correcting, commenting on, and summarizing a given text. Thus, intellectual writing was dialectical and worked with, against, and around existing knowledge, whether spoken or written. Furthermore, writing was not an isolated activity: it was always associated with gathering, commentating, explaining, or relating. Borrowing the text is not the problem for Suyuti, therefore, but that Qastalani attributed the labor of organizing to himself: “ka’annahu huwa man qam dahran yatatabbaʿuhu” [as if he were the one who spent an eternity tracing it] (44). Suyuti here describes the labor of writing as tatabbu’, following, tracing. This is distinct from the modern notion of the intellectual writing uniquely and miraculously, producing something original that had not existed before. It is, consciously, the writing which Foucault and Barthes long for.  

The relationship between the pre-modern Islamic scholar, particularly in the period preceding Suyuti, and the blurring of lines regarding types of labor is a key dimension of this work and other medieval Islamic works. The effectiveness of the pre-modern madrassa system in giving opportunities to individuals from various backgrounds is evident in the archives that record the diverse professions of the fathers of young scholars in medieval Baghdad. From henna-growers to grocers, from plowmen to cooking pot vendors, even the sons of domestic servants and animal drivers were represented in the milieu of students in the Madrasa (Ephrat, 97-99). Thus, the break between intellectual and non-intellectual was unclear and oftentimes, scholars engaged in other forms of labor other than teaching and writing. This may be the reason why for Suyuti, his adversary is a thief who stole the fruits of his labor: I imagine that Suyuti saw himself fashioning his muṣannaf from the various texts before him as a woodworker shapes and polishes a piece of furniture, recognizing throughout his indebtedness to the wood with which he is working and to the craftsman who chopped the wood, whereas Qastalani attributes all of this labor to himself, and that is his sin.

Not only does Suyuti’s discussion of labor create a complex narrative of writing, but the metaphysical consequences of stealing he presents further complicate the relationship between the scholar and his writings. One of the important aspects of this text is Suyuti’s presentation of a series of stories about people who previously stole the works of others, both poetical and juridical, and their unhappy end. The moral for all of the stories is the same: those works that are not properly cited never become popular, and their authors are doomed because they are transgressing against the laws of God, and so their labor is devoid of baraka (Suyuti, 44). To steal, therefore, is to break the trust and in doing so to defy not only the original author but the omniscient God Himself. Suyuti says that another individual, by the name of Ibrahim al-Nuʿmani (50) was not successful as an author because he stole the same texts stolen by Qastalani. This indicates that Suyuti does not believe that he himself has a personal right over his property, but that it is a Divine right that texts be properly attributed to their authors. Because of the intercession of the Abbasid family, Suyuti permitted his students to allow Qastalani to borrow his unique, precious books bi ‘iʿarat muṣanafatina al durar al fara’id (33). In other words, Suyuti allowed for his books to be given only because of the proximity of the interceding family to the Prophet, a point that he clearly sees as making Qastalani’s position even more grave. The relationships of trust and intercession, and the laws of trustworthiness create a dynamic wherein what we today would call plagiarism is replaced by a completely different spiritual transgression.

The opening line of Fariq, evidently an attempt by Suyuti to remind the reader of the gravity of the theft, is verse 4:58 “Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due and when you judge between people to judge with justice. Excellent is that which Allah instructs you. Indeed, Allah is ever Hearing and Seeing.” Suyuti then mentions the intercession of the Caliph on Qastalani’s behalf. This demonstrates that for Suyuti, the crime of theft is not primarily an act of disrespect to the original author; indeed, he only comes in fourth, after God, His Prophet, and the descendants of the Prophet. By opening with this specific verse, Suyuti is implying that Qastalani’s theft was an affront to Divine commandments, that the breach of trust had explicit Qur`anic implications. 

That said, the composition of a work is still seen as an act by the author, even though Divine law and the concept of amana involves many other actors. For example, Suyuti recounts the story of Muhadhib al-Din ibn al-Khaymi, who wrote a poem in a room where he was staying, and left the paper in the room, after leaving to travel. This paper, with the poem inscribed on it, was found by its later inhabitant, Najm al-Din ibn Isra’il, who attributed the poem to himself. When the two poets went to Omar ibn al-Farid to mediate the argument between them, ibn al-Farid demanded that each poet compose a new poem, in the same bahr (rhyming meter) as the one in question. After examining the two poems, he was able to know to whom the original one truly belonged (49). This anecdote, beyond relating to us an occurrence between several prominent poetic figures, indicates that there is an imagined relationship between all the production of a single individual, a relationship that can not only be traced vertically back to the producer-author, but can also be traced horizontally; connecting various types of labor-writing to each other through a nearly fraternal relationship. Ibn al-Farid was able to see the similarities between the poems, and discern a truth, because of the underlying assumption that all of an individual’s work is connected. An interesting question that could be asked is: what then is the relationship between a man’s written labor and other forms of his labor? Could ibn al-Farid have seen resemblance between a piece of pottery and a piece of poetry produced by the same individual? Unfortunately, Suyuti does not reveal this to us. In the next section, however, I will try to argue that this production is not so much production as it is association, since the relationship between author and the work he produces is not described by Suyuṭī as a paternal relationship, but of consummation. This will allow us to understand even further the perceived relationship between the laborer and his labor. 

Ownership, Access, and Attribution: Sexual Metaphors in al Fariq

Even though the violation which occurred is academic, meaning that it has to do with stealing a book that was intended to teach, Suyuti uses sexual imagery to describe the occurrence: “He violated our virgin brides, whom none had touched before us in this age, neither man nor jinn” [iftas abkar ‘ara’isina allati lam yatmithhunn fi hadha al-‘asr ‘insun qabluna wa-la-jinna] (33). He does this in two other places as well. This creates a fascinating dynamic between the writer and his text: it is not a child but a spouse, an intimate partner, and the process of stealing is therefore nothing less than an assault on that most intimate aspect of a writer’s life. The fact that a’mal (the plural of ‘amal) takes on a feminine pronoun in Arabic makes the simile even more powerful. The invocation of marriage and sexual relations implies how corrupt and treacherous al Qastalani’s action was, and how grossly this thievery deviates from the habits of scholars whose “jealousy over their reflections is akin to their jealousy over virgin girls ” (48). I hope to understand this relationship between man and his ‘amal through two methods: the first is the Ashʿari concept of iktisab, and the second is the relationship between ‘amal and access. The latter concept, I am building on Baber Johansen’s analysis of medieval agricultural law, wherein he states that “the ownership or the use of land and water was a 'relationship' and not a 'substance'” to begin to complicate our assumptions around ownership in general (28). Thus, though we today may describe certain dynamics as ones of production and ownership, Suyuti and his contemporaries may have attributed a distinct ontology to all their actions, as they did to their property and their spouses. 

Today, we imagine ownership and production as deeply related. However, this tie is subverted by the Ashʿari  doctrine of iktisab (acquisition). In this understanding, God creates an action, and man acquires it of his own will; man does not create the action. I believe that this creates a unique relationship between labor and laborer, and could shed light as to why Suyuti maintains this metaphor throughout his written piece. If man acquires his actions and does not create them, then this relationship of “production” is in fact not filial but spousal, since one does not create the ‘amal, one merely acquires it, as one may acquire a spouse. The relationship between spouses in Islamic law is of course fundamentally different than the one between a father and his offspring, though they both share the need for protection, as I will demonstrate presently. However, this would explain why, unlike Plato, Suyuti does not describe his written work as a child, but as a conjugal partner. Suyuti does not see his work as his own creation, but rather as a phenomenon that is created by God and which Suyuti acquired, and by virtue of this acquisition, he has shared an intimate relationship with the action. Plato, on the other hand, in describing how the written word can be easily manipulated and “when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself,” uses imagery of filiation (Plato, 158). The metaphysical implications of production in the two cultures is very distinct, though both assume that ones work is in need of intervention and defense. 

At one point in the text, Suyuti seems to go off on a tangent: he takes on several critics of the copied text, and refutes each of their critiques meticulously, demonstrating the strength of his arguments and the soundness of the accounts he has compiled. Only when he has finished refuting his critics does Suyuti pose the question: “how would this theif defend these texts, if they are indeed his, against such attacks?” Here, Suyuti demonstrates that he is so intimate with these texts that he can explain them and defend them, whereas someone who simply copies rather than acquires them, will not be able to do so. This is why Suyuti repeatedly uses the metaphor of a text being like a spouse: his ability to provide and defend entitles him to a specific relationship to it. The basis of a marriage relationship, according to Islamic law is protection (whether financial or otherwise) in exchange for reproductive and conjugal access. However, the idea of defense as proof of authorship is significant in itself; it is distinct from the idea of reproducibility as proof, which he mentions, and indicates a type of skill in dialectic that would allow the author to not only form a piece, but continue the conversation it sparks. The relationship between author and writing is not one creating the other, but rather two created phenomena that acquire one another, and “clothe” one another, as is mentioned in the Quran in 2:187. The defense of the text is the work’s legal right over her author, and to abduct the handiwork of a man is akin to abducting his legal spouse. 

If we are to maintain this metaphor between the author and his work, we must consider what is the product that is the result of the author’s exclusive relationship of access to the text. Sūyūtī tells us that the result of authorship is “husul al-naf’ wa-al-baraka wa-shukr al-‘ilm wa-ahlih wa- i’ta’ al-sabiq haqqih li-fadlih (gaining benefit and blessing, and offering gratitude to knowledge and its people, and rendering predecessors their due in return for the benefit they offer)” (41). Suyuti says that because of his neglect in thanking those that came before him, a scholar by the name of Ibrahim al-Nu’mani never rose to prominence, despite having the mind and education that would have permitted him to (50). These “bastard writings” are unblessed because they are the product of actions outside of the bounds of the law; the relationship between actor and action is neither sanctified nor legal, and so the author and his work are doomed. The relationship becomes sanctified only through upholding ideals of trustworthiness, and maintaining a specific ethic in ones labor. However, this metaphor is crucial: we do not create our work, we court it, we are intimate with it, but it ultimately has ontology distinct from ours. In other words, the utopian tradition Barthes and Foucault imagined existed, although outside the scope of both scholars: in Islam. 

Walking: Scholarly Labor and the Labor of the Scholar

The biographical dictionaries, including that of al-Kattānī, tell us that upon reading the text of al-Fariq Qastalani walked from al-Qahira (old Cairo) to Suyuti’s residence in Rhoda Island, bare footed and bare headed, asking for al-Sīyūṭī’s forgiveness. Upon reaching his destination in this humiliating way, Qastalani knocked on Suyuti’s door and explained to him that he had performed this feat in order to gain the Shaykh’s forgiveness. Suyuti, without opening the door and meeting his guest, told al-Qastalani that he was forgiven (29). This walk would have probably taken Qastalani a little over an hour, and would have caused him to walk by the oldest mosque in the area, the mosque of Amr ibn al-‘Aṣ, before he could have crossed to the island. I conclude with this anecdote because it further complicates this story, and provides us with more to think about. Why did Suyuti refuse to welcome his guest? What is Qastalani’s account of these events? How can we understand Qastalani’s walk? 

After having sought to indicate how pre-modern Islamic society did not differentiate between intellectual and manual forms of labor, and how labor itself is acquired not created, I propose that we understand this walk like any other type of activity attributed to an intellectual, whether it is writing or teaching. Though we today may not imagine it as a form of intellectual labor, it is undoubtedly the labor of an intellectual. It had a direct and practical goal: to reconcile with one of the greatest scholar of the realm, and so place one in a better position with sitting scholars and with the society at large. How then can we understand Qastalani’s relationship to his own walk? Who authored this walk, and who authorized it, and was this walk of shame, like Suyuti’s book, actually a labor of love and courtship?

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