About the Book
Extensive as is the reputation of the Suyuti as a distinguished author and scholar, and unsurpassed for the number and range of the works which in every branch of literature known to his age, his unwearied pen never ceased to produce, we are indebted to the malice or envy of but one of his contemporaries and to his own testimony, for the few details of his life and studies that we possess. Reference to one or other of his multitudinous volumes is made by writers of his own and succeeding times where the kindred subject of which they treat naturally calls for it, but only one contemporary biographical notice of him besides his own, is extant.
Many circumstances instigated the composition of this work: among them, that a collection of the biographies of the chiefs of the faith, and those endowed with virtue, was desirable and would be welcome, and in truth, there are those who have compiled histories in which they have introduced these distinguished men, but unsystematically, and without giving a full account of them, and their completion would entail prolixity and weariness. For this reason I was desirous of separately detailing each class of men in a work apart, which would be more advantageous for those who wished for particulars of anyone class, and easier.
Extensive as is the reputation of the Suyuti as a distinguished author and scholar, and unsurpassed for the number and range of the works which in every branch of literature known to his age, his unwearied pen never ceased to produce, we are indebted to the malice or envy of but one of his contemporaries and to his own testimony, for the few details of his life and studies that we possess. Reference to one or other of his multitudinous volumes is made by writers of his own and succeeding times where the kindred subject of which they treat naturally calls for it, but only one contemporary biographical notice of him besides his own, is extant. To these I shall presently refer.
Haji Khalifah, at the close of his Lexicon, gives a detailed list of as Suyuti’s works, prefaced by a column of laudatory epithets which have less the ring of sincere admiration than of conventional panegyric, yet his wonder or his envy might well offer the incense of adulation to the astonishing author of five hundred and four volumes. Quranic exegesis, Tradition and its cognate subjects, jurisprudence, philology, rhetoric, prose and poetical composition, the phenomena of nature, curiosities of literature, discourses on social questions, criticism, history, biography, all these were fields not too vast for his discursive intelligence and none too minute for his indefatigable industry. Some of his compositions are indeed, nothing more than pamphlets of smaller compass than many an article of a modem Review, but a considerable number, to judge from some of those, about one-fifth of the whole, that have come down to us, must have been of goodly bulk. It would doubtless have been better for his reputation as it would assuredly have been more profitable to the generality of his readers, had he confined his labours to the production of a few works of universal interest and written for posterity rather than for his day. By far the greater part of his writings were on subjects which have no interest to a European Student. Two hundred and six works on Tradition and ninety-one on Jurisprudence would, it might be supposed, have been thoroughly- exhaustive had not another line been previously written regarding them, yet this was the contribution of but one author to the store of countless volumes that had already preceded his labours and had been forgotten, to be followed by others as countless and as unremembered.
However much we may regret this misapplied diligence, the age in which as Suyuti lived, naturally moulded his literary tastes and influenced his course of study, and he but reflected its spirit in seeking pre-eminence among the scholarly and erudite of his nation after the manner in which they had attained it. Legal studies, inseparably connected as they are with the religion of the Muslims, were of the utmost consequence from the very infancy of Islam and at a time when the Crescent waved from the pillars of Hercu1es to the steppes of Tartary, they formed a necessary part of the education of all cultured minds. Every Muslims author or nearly every one with whom we are acquainted, was either a recognized doctor of jurisprudence or had studied it under some one of its famous masters. No college was founded but we read that its first chairs were those of Tradition and Law. Other branches of knowledge were indeed, far from neglected. Grammar, Medicine and the complicated problems of Inheritance were cultivated with assiduity and success, but with the exception of the first mentioned of this Eastern Trivium, which is rather an instrument of knowledge than an end in itself, they occupied, the second place. In the great Mustansiriyah College built on the eastern bank of the Tigris at Baghdad by the Caliph al Mustansir and endowed by his splendid munificence, provision was first made, as Suyuti tells us, for Chairs of the four great Schools of Muhammadan Law. The next was that of Tradition, the third of Grammer, followed by professorships of Medicine and the Law of Inheritance. De Slane in his Introduction to Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary has described the system of education pursued during the times of which we write. The young student, he says, commenced his labours by learning the Quran by heart, and as many of the traditions as he was able to acquire at his native place: to this he joined a slight acquaintance with grammar and some knowledge of poetry. On attaining the age of fourteen or sixteen, he began his travels and visited the great cities where he learnt traditions and received certificates of licence to relate them, from eminent traditionists. He then followed the courses of lectures held in the mosques or colleges, and generally attached himself to one of the professors. He there learnt by heart the most approved works on the dogmas of religion, and studied their commentaries under the tuition of his master. He acquired a knowledge of the different readings of the Quran and of its orthodox interpretation, whilst he pursued the study of ancient poetry and philology, grammar and rhetoric. The secondary points of jurisprudence, forming the doctrines of the school of which he belonged, next became the object of his study and an acqaintance with logic and dialectics completed his education. Having obtained form his professors, certificates of capacity and license to teach the works he had mastered, he was eligible for the posts of preacher, Kadhi, Mufti, Imam or Professor.
Under a system so universal in its adoption and so rigidly upheld by learned opinion as the sole method of orthodox mental discipline, profitable as a means of worldly advancement as well as the most salutary for the soul, it is not surprising that the literary efforts of as Suyuti should bear principally upon those studies to which such an exagggerated importance was attached by his age. Besides the treatises on Jurisprudence and Tradition already mentioned, his commentaries and writings on the Quran number thirty-five. Philology, Grammar and Rhetoric claim sixty-three of his volumes. Seventy-six were his contribution to general literature, and thirty- three were devoted to history and biography. For this classified list of his writings, we are indebted to his own autobiography in his well-known work entitled Husn al Muhadhirah fi Akhbar i’l Misr Wa’l Kahirah (agreeable Colloquy on Misr and Cairo). This autobiography has been published with a Latin version by Albert Meursinge in the Prolegomena to his edition of as Suyuti’s Tabakat u’l Mufassirin (Classes of the Interpreters of the Quran). But as it is a work not easily accessible and no English translation of the original has as yet appeared I cannot more fitly introduced the author to those interested in his life, than in his own words.
‘‘The author of this work," he writes, "is Abu’l Fadhl Abdur Rahman b-ul Kamal Abu Bakr b. Nasiriddin Muhammad b. Sabikiddin Abi Bakr b. Fakhr Othman b. Nasiriddin Muhammad b. Sayfiddin Khidhr b. Najmiddin Abi’s Salab Ayyub b Nasiriddin Muhammad bis Shaykh Humamiddin al Khudhyri al Usuyuti.’
In recording the narrative of my life in this book, I have but followed the example of recent, writers, for it is rarely that any of them has published a history without introducing therein his own biography? Regarding my ancestor Humamuddin, I have to observe that he was one of the masters of the spiritual life and of the doctors of the mystics. Mention of him will follow in the section treating on the Sufis. The others who came after him were men of position and authority. Of these, one exercised judicial functions in his own city, another held the office of inspector of markets, another accompanied the Amir Shaykhu’ and founded and endowed a college at Suyut;’ another was a wealthy merchant, but I know of none who altogether devoted himself to the acquisition of learning except my father, a notice of whom will occur in the section treating of the Shafiite jurisconsults.
As regards our connection with the name of Khudhayri, I do not know to what it can refer save the Khudhayri quarter of Baghdad, and in fact, a person whom I can implicitly trust, told me that he heard my father-may God have mercy on him-say, that his ancestor was a Persian or from the East. The connection therefore is apparently with the quarter above mentioned.
I was born after sunset on Saturday night the 1st Rajab, 819 (3rd October, 1445), and I was carried, my father being then living, to the Nafisi tomb, who gave me his blessing. I grew up an orphan and I learnt the Quran before I was eight years of age. I next got by-heart the Umdah, the Minhajul Fikh Wal Usul and the Alfiyah of Ibn Malik. From the beginning of year 641 began to devote myself to learning. I studied jurisprudence and grammar under a number of doctors and read the law of inheritance with the learned and most distinguished professor of his age in that science, the Shaykh Shihabuddin as Sharimsahi who used to say that he had arrived at a great age and had passed a hundred by many years. God knows best. I read with him his commentary on the Majmuu, I and received a certificate of licence to teach the Arabic language in the beginning of the year 66. In this year I became an author.
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