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Beyond ‘genre’: literary variety and text preservation in Ibn Khallikān’s biographical dictionary

Photo of Fozio Bora standing within medieval archways

Tuesday 7 February 2023, 5.30PM

Speaker(s): Dr Fozia Bora (University of Leeds)

When renowned British convert to Islam William Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932) published in 1931 a series of poems inspired by earlier Islamic tradition, he drew on the English version of an Arabic classic: the biographical dictionary Wafayāt al-A‘yān (Deaths of Notables) compiled between 1256-1274 by the Sunni chief Judge of Damascus Ibn Khallikān (1211-1282). Translated into English by De Slane in the mid-to-late 19th century, the book offers capsule obituaries/biographies of some 855 public figures from the Islamic world over the seven centuries leading to the author’s present. Quilliam’s choice of Ibn Khallikān’s text illustrates both its usefulness six hundred years after its first appearance, and its accessibility, not only because of the availability of an English translation. Departing from convention, Ibn Khallikān ordered his entries alphabetically by the biographee’s first name and treated individuals from all walks of life, fusing careful verification of ‘factual’ details with a love of far-fetched anecdotes and poetry in various styles and registers. How did this biographical dictionary remain relevant to new audiences over the long term? In this talk, I explore the complementarity of social history with mythopoetic material in this work as an aid to readability for diverse audiences. I consider where the dictionary (and other works of its era) stand in relation to Ali Altaf Mian’s formulation of genre as encompassing ‘(1) a classificatory logic that regulates conventions of textuality and authorship and (2) a discursive practice that seeks to produce a particular type of knowledge’ (2019). Focusing on Ibn Khallikān’s entries on the fourteen Fatimid caliphs (909-1171), his longest entry on the Kurdish general Saladin (d. 1193), and considering how and to what degree he includes women as exemplars, I examine the nuances of Ibn Khallikān’s method in writing one of the best known pre-modern Arabic compendia. As a work of both history and literature (ta’rīkh and adab), the dictionary embraces a range of narrative modes while functioning as a knowledge archive, engaging readers with diverting stories while preserving earlier texts witnesses to history that would otherwise be lost.

Dr Fozia Bora is Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Leeds, and Chair of the British Association of Islamic Studies.

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Sponsored by the Centre for Medieval Studies (York), Fordham Center for Medieval StudiesHenri Pirenne Institute of Medieval Studies (Ghent), Centre for Medieval Literature (York and Odense) and Universidade Santiago de Compostela


Location: K/133, King's Manor