Assistant history professor studies early Islamic books

Apr 4, 2012 | General News, Liberal Arts

Written texts that recorded oral traditions were essential to the initial establishment and spread of Islam.  But how were books produced, authenticated and distributed in the Middle East during the centuries before the printing press was introduced in the region in the early 1800s? This is the problem A. Nazir Atassi, a Louisiana Tech assistant professor of history, tackles in his recently published article, “The Transmission of Ibn Sa’d’s Biographical Dictionary Kitab al-Tabaqat al-kabir.”  The study appears in the latest number of the Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies. Atassi focuses on the history of a specific book, the “Kitab al-Tabaqat al-kabir,” attributed to Mohammed Ibn Sa’d, a scholar and writer who lived in Baghdad more than 1,000 years ago.  Known in English as “The Great Book of Strata” (or Generations), the KTK, as researchers call it, is a compilation of biographies of people known in Muslim tradition as transmitters of the Hadith, or reports of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed. “These reports are our principal sources for the life of Mohammed and the early history of Islam,” Atassi said, “and among Muslims they are particularly important to the Sunni tradition.” The authority of Hadith traditions depends upon knowing who passed them from one generation to the next. “That is why compilations such as the KTK were so important,” Atassi said. Compiled originally in the ninth century, some 200 years after the death of Mohammed, the KTK is the oldest existing example of such works. “Back in those days and for a long time afterwards, too, books were copied by hand for distribution,” Atassi said.  “The problem is to understand how manuscript works survived and how they retained their integrity as they passed from generation to generation.” A detailed study of existing versions of the KTK allowed Atassi to reconstruct complex patterns of transmission over time, as well as spatial distribution as copies of the work spread from Baghdad to Damascus and from Aleppo, Syria, to Cairo, Egypt. Atassi said one of the principal obstacles to faithful transmission was the tendency of some teachers to disassemble the text and incorporate parts of it into their own works. “But there were others who dedicated themselves to transmitting the work intact as a whole,” he said.  “Thanks to them, the text became stable by the 10th century and it was handed down over the years, with its integrity preserved by a system of older scholars’ granting licenses to younger ones to copy and teach the KTK.” Atassi said his work has a larger importance. “By recovering how the KTK was compiled, how it was used and by whom, how it was transmitted from one generation to the next, how it circulated throughout the medieval Arab world, and how it came to be stable and standardized, all without the technology of printing, we can expand our understanding of the nature and significance of books in all eras and in all civilizations,” he said. A native of Syria, A. Nazir Atassi holds advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering, as well as the M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Santa Barbara.  He has been a member of the Louisiana Tech faculty since 2007, teaching courses in world history, ancient history and the history of the Middle East.