Sudanic Africa 3, 1992.

Recent Books

Al-Tinbukti's Nayl al-ibtihaj

Nayl al-ibtihaj bi-tatriz al-dibaj by Ahmad Baba al-Tinbukti, ishraf wa-taqdim (edition supervised and introduced by) 'Abd al-Hamid 'Abd Allah al-Harama. Notes and indexes by students of the Kulliyyat al-da'wa 'l-Islamiyya. Tarablus: Manshurat Kulliyyat al-da'wa 'l-Islamiyya, 1398/1989.[1]

The Nayl al-ibtihaj is one of the most important bibliographical resources for the study of Islamic scholarship in Andalusia and in North and West Africa down to the end of the 16th century. The first modern edition of the work was a lithographed text published in Fez in 1317/1899 and there have been at least two printings in Cairo on the margins of Ibn Farhun's al-Dibaj al-mudhahhab fi ma'rifat a'yan 'ulama` al-madhhab, one in 1329/1911 and the other in 1351/1931-2. None of these editions has been a critical one and all have long since acquired the status of rare books.

In view of this a new edition is to be welcomed, but (it must be said) with reservations. These reservations are, moreover serious. In the first place this is not a 'new' edition based on a comparison of the known manuscripts, nor yet are its accompanying notes in any sense 'critical'. Secondly, it is not an easy edition to obtain, being published in Libya by an Islamic missionary college rather than a commercial press and hence designed to be given away rather than sold. I was fortunate enough to obtain my copy from the director of the Centre Ahmad Baba in Timbuktu, Dr Mahmoud Zouber, who had been given a number of copies by the Libyan college.

As the 'supervisor' of the publication makes clear in his introduction, the editing task was an 'exercise' for students of the college. Hence, he says, there was no need to burden it with additional commentaries and notes except to indicate some of the additional sources for the lives of the scholars whose biographies are given. Students did not attempt or claim to be producing a critical edition based on the manuscripts; rather they attempted to correct errors in previous editions. We shall see below how far they were successful in this objective.

In his introduction 'Abd al-Hamid 'Abd Allah al-Harama makes a number of critical comments about the work, some of which merely reveal the optic through which he (and presumably the college) interprets Islam, while others make it clear that a critical edition of the Nayl al-ibtihaj and a study of Ahmad Baba's methodology are long overdue. On the first count he makes clear his distaste for Sufism in the following words:

Some readers may find in the book things they disagree with, especially in the biographies of Sufis, and may therefore undervalue the book, though it in fact contains valuable material. ... It is no secret that the book contains Sufi shatahat which conflict with cognitive logic and with the clear text (zahir) of the shari'a, as well as other exaggerations which had to be retained since they form part of the content of the original text. We saw no need to comment on them separately as they occur, so we refer to them here in global fashion. The general reader will notice them as he goes through the book. How much more the judicious critic!
We may detect here a desire to bowdlerize the text that is only with difficulty resisted on grounds of scholarly impartiality, though a spiritual 'health warning' was deemed appropriate. One may wonder if future editors of such stripe will be so tolerant.

For scholars less concerned with endangering their spiritual health but more concerned with intellectual probity and the use of sources, his criticisms of Ahmad Baba's methodology may seem more damning. The editor takes him to task for cavalier treatment of quotations which, he says, the author generally abridges and edits in his own way, sometimes distorting their meaning. A genuinely critical edition of the Nayl, tracing quotations to their source and carefully examining the works upon which Ahmad Baba drew for his biographical dictionary (and which he thoughtfully lists at the end of the work) would allow us to arrive at a more informed judgement about the way in which the author worked and the extent to which his use of sources has distorted the meaning of texts he drew upon.

After the general introduction covering pp. 7-10, there are eight pages devoted to the life and work of Ahmad Baba. The editor refers to the obvious Arabic sources, the Encyclopaedia of Islam (both editions), Brockelmann's Geschichte der arabischen Literatur and Mahmoud Zouber's Ahmad Baba de Tombouctou (1556-1627), sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1977). The reviewer was scarcely surprised that his own writings on Ahmad Baba in English were not noticed, but it was a more serious omission to not refer to the fullest of all biographies of Ahmad Baba contained in al-Bartili's Fath al-Shakur which was published in Beirut, edited by Muhammad Hajji and Muhammad Ibrahim al-Kattani, in 1983.[2] A list of works provided in this section runs only to thirty, although Ahmad Baba wrote at least sixty. It would appear that no real use was made of the very full list in Zouber's 1977 study. There was, however, one title that is new to me. Item 28 is given as Istitrad al-zurafa` and it is said to be taken from the Badhl al-munasaha [fi 'l-musafaha of Ahmad b. 'Ali al-Busa'idi al-Hashtuki, a pupil of Ahmad Baba]. Interestingly, al-Hashtuki says that is was a study of the hadith about the 'twelve caliphs' and that Ahmad Baba did not make it public until after his return to Timbuktu, suggesting that he may have felt the Sa'dian authorities would consider it subversive. [3]

The actual text of the Nayl covers pp. 27-641 of the book. Each entry is numbered (a total of 802) and is highlighted in bold type making the beginnings of entries easy to locate­often a problem in other editions. At the end of the book is a simple index of entries in the order in which they occur and an index of sections of the book according to letter of the alphabet (harf al-hamza, harf al-ba`, etc.). Regrettably there is no genuine alphabetical index of persons whose biographies are given, much less a general fihrist al-a'lam, or index of nisbas, etc. There is absolutely no vocalization of the text, though it must be said that the type-face used is large and clear and the book is strongly bound in rexine.

In conclusion, let us see how far the students of the Kulliyyat al-da'wa have been able to correct errors in previous editions, as they claimed. On this matter, it has only been possible to take a 'sample census' and in order to get some idea of error frequency in this new edition I looked at the biography of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim al-Maghili (no. 701) which covers some three pages. The following errors were noted:

ba'd a'da`ihi
bughd a'da`ihi
[ila 'l-akh] al-Qasim b.A.n.d.r.s
al-qa`im bi-ma indarasa
Ahir (i.e. Air)
tanabbuh al-waqif
tanbih al-waqif
Yahya b. Badir
Yahya b. Yadir
Regrettably, scholars still stand in need of a reliable and readily available edition of this important work. A critical study of it is also a desideratum.

John O. Hunwick


1 Islamic dating in Libya begins in the year of the death of the Prophet (632 C.E.) rather than the year of the hijra (622 C.E.) [*]

2 I published a text and translation of this biography in my article 'A new source for the biography of Ahmad Baba al-Tinbukti (1564-1627)', Bull. SOAS, 26 1964, 568-93.[*]

3 The hadith probably referred to is the following: 'This religion will remain firmly established until there have been twelve caliphs, each of whom will enjoy the consensus of the community, ... then anarchy will follow'. The remarks of al-Hashtuki are quoted from Muhammad b. al-Tayyib al-Qadiri, Nashr al-mathani li-ahl al-qarn al-hadi 'ashar wa 'l-thani, ed. Muhammad Hajji & Ahmad al-Tawfiq, Rabat 1397/1977, I, 274.[*]

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