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  • The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Constructions of Knowledge by Muhsin J. Al-Musawi
  • Rebecca Hill
Muhsin J. Al-Musawi, The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Constructions of Knowledge (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 2015) 480 pp.

To argue that the vast majority of cultural items produced in or by members of the Islamicate between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries were created under the invisible directorate of a republic of letters is an ambitious objective indeed, especially as the authors of this body of letters, who hail from different sovereignties, language groups, and classes, issue radically different styles and genres of work. And yet, Muhsin J. Al-Musawi’s book The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Constructions of Knowledge assembles a wealth of examples, which, in their totality, suggest that even under disparate forms of rulership and subscriptions to Islam, the producers, commentators, and conservators of Arabic or Arabic-affiliated texts share a living genealogy rather than a mere common ancestor. Brilliantly building off of and challenging Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters, Al-Musawi develops an alternative, manageable system through which to see the cultural products of the medieval Arab world in concert with one another.

The first chapter, “Seismic Islamica: Politics and Scope of a Medieval Republic of Letters,” illustrates how interrelated some of the most famous luminaries of Arabic literature are. This chapter alone constitutes a book; it serves as a whirlwind orientation to the diversity of cultural production from authors living in or writing about places such as Morocco, China, and sub-Saharan [End Page 245] Africa. For example, Al-Musawi shows how convert Johannes Leo de Medicis (formerly Hasan Al-Wazzan) drew upon the material from Ibn Battuta’s rihla in order to compose his Geography of Africa, which piqued the interest of the papacy for both missionary and colonial purposes, having obvious long-term ramifications. This chapter also explores how certain literary forms, such as the qasidah, became the site of linguistic conflagration and appropriation between Hellenic, Indian, and Persian traditions, such as in Hafiz’s tadmin or Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah’s khamiryyah. This chapter serves scholars searching for a well-represented overview of Arabic cultural production from the twelfth to eighteenth century, and would be useful to the better-versed expert wishing to understand the synthesis between manifold texts and authors.

The argument of this book resists chronological cataloguing, and so do the chapters which follow. Yet they build off one another thematically, making it unwise to extrapolate certain sections for particular interests. The second chapter, “A Massive Conservation Site: The World Empire,” examines the collaborative lexicons, grammars, and encyclopedias—in the face of polyglotism and solecism—that characterize the Arabic republic of letters as one that predates the European Enlightenment. The third chapter, “The Lexicographic Turn in Cultural Capital,” considers the role that Malmuk and Ottoman lexical collections played in the Arab awakening, or nahdah, putting the proverbs and commentary of the Arab past in direct conversation with the modern. The fourth chapter, “The Context of an Islamic Literate Society,” begins with an epigraph from Muhammad the Prophet illustrating the inextricable link between Islam and intellectualism. This epigraph from the hadiths, beginning “Knowledge is my capital…,” sets the tone for the chapter, which reflects on both the institutionally-sanctioned and free-form transmissions of knowledge and cultural capital issued in the republic of letters. The fifth chapter, “Superfluous Proliferation or Generative Innovation?” takes up issues of overproduction and imbalanced representation. As Al-Musawi points out, the mere title of the book Kitab hazz al-quhuf bi-sharh qasid Abi Shaduf (or, Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf) speaks to the self-consciousness of the republic of letters as it mushroomed and of the censorship which came not from governing bodies but from rhetoricians within. The sixth chapter, “Disputation in Rhetoric,” focuses in on the realm of adab, or ethics, ‘ilm, or science, and speculative theology, among other genres. They enter into sometimes hostile conversation with one another in obvious but still research-worthy disputation.

The final two chapters may be read independently if desired, and sweep the entire period. The seventh...