Working with Brockelmann’s history of Arabic literature

Yesterday I started to compile a list of the passages in Galen where he mentions the Christians.  I believe that there are six.  Unfortunately Walzer’s book Galen on Jews and Christians has not arrived, so I had to make do with whatever PDF’s I had. 

Two of the fragments come from Arabic authors of the middle ages.  I had a couple of PDF’s by Sprengling in which he analysed these.  I noticed that he attributed one of them to Agapius, and that other Islamic historians copied him.  But the Patrologia Orientalis edition and translation has no material about Galen! So I suspect that it is the other way around.  For the CSCO edition of Agapius uses material from al-Makin, writing 3 centuries later, on the basis that al-Makin quotes Agapius extensively.  So, far from being present in Agapius and copied by later writers, probably it is present in al-Makin, and al-Makin borrowed the Galen material from Islamic writers!  But that’s a detail.

However it pointed out to me, what has been apparent for some time, that I need to have an overview of the historians and translators of the Islamic period.  

So last night I picked up a pencil and my copy of Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (2nd ed., vol 1 of 2, 1943) and took it to bed with me.  I started looking at the section on the Islamic historians of the post-classical period, and scribbling notes in the margin.

Today I continued by doing the same for the classical period (ca. 750-1000 AD).

It’s a weird book, it really is.  I can only explain its baffling structure by presuming that much of it was composed in an air-raid shelter by people who hadn’t slept properly for six months.

Firstly, and most damningly, it isn’t complete.  I’ve only got volume 1 of the 2nd edition, which covers history up to ca. 1500.  This has numbers in the margin, which look to me like the page numbers of the first edition.

Why on earth would you need these, we might ask?  The answer lies in the text, where, for many writers, there is only a short entry and then “See Suppl. I”.  Or else there is a longish entry, but the list of works by that author consists of numbers 1, 5 and 6; and there is a note “2-4 see Suppl.”.

Brockelmann published his first edition in two volumes ca. 1900.  In the late 30’s he published two volumes of supplements to the first edition, keyed to the page numbers of the first edition.  He published the second edition in 1943.

You or I would imagine that the second edition consisted of the first edition plus the supplements plus some revisions.  But in fact it seems to be just new material, plus some framework words.  So to find all the information on a writer, you need to look in the 2nd ed., then in the supplement volume, and possibly in the first edition also since it is the page numbers of the first edition that are used in the supplement.

This … is appalling.  I can’t understand quite why Brill allowed a book to go out like this, and have left it in this state for 70 years.  If I’d paid $1,000 for the 2nd edition, instead of producing a bound photocopy for my own use, I’d be pretty cross right now.  Fortunately the first edition is on Archive.org, and the supplements can be found on a site in India.  But I may still need to produce paper versions of these, as I can’t read these kinds of books on-screen.

Nor is this the only problem.  Someone new to the subject will find all the names rather unfamiliar.  The average writer is given as the equivalent of “John son of Bill son of Harry son of John who lived in the Camden Town and was often known as Mad John”.  When you see something of that length, you know, beyond doubt, that no-one repeats all that lot to refer to him.  But in Brockelmann you have to scan the highly abbreviated notes beneath to work out that scholars call that author “the one from Camden Town” in the literature.  Brockelmann does not feel that he needs to indicate this.  I’ve ended up underlining parts of the names so I can tell that (e.g.) this long list of Arabic names is actually “al Tabari” or “al Mahsudi”.

The sins of the author are visited on the reader, and Brockelmann committed many more sins than these. 

Here’s another.  All those names are unfamiliar to the newcomer.  So what he did was abbreviate them, to make them even less recognisable.  Why say “ibn” when you can say “b.”?  Why say “Ali” when you can say “A.”?  Of course, if you are unfamiliar, this means that you can’t even read the name!  And he doesn’t trouble to give a proper decryption key either.  This is unforgiveable, really it is.  We can only be grateful that he didn’t encode the names in Arabic characters as well. But he does his best to be difficult, using a strange version of “h” where normal people write “kh”.

What I take from this is that there  is an urgent need for a new History of Arabic Literature.  It should have the same scope as Brockelmann, but be properly organised, and in English.  The actual entries in Brockelmann are much too brief anyway, and I have no doubt that 70 years has brought many more editions and translations.

If I were an academic working in this area, I would do it.  It would make my name live for a century.  If so bad a book as Brockelmann’s GAL is still the standard reference work, it should be trivial to surpass it.  It could be done in a year or two.

Nor is it necessary to translate Brockelmann, nor desirable to do so.  Retain his structure, yes; and give a marginal reference to his pages.  But it will be far easier to simply write your own text, rather than fight to understand his cryptic notes.

I’d do it myself, except that I have to write software for mobile phone companies and the like in order to pay the electricity bill and so I don’t have the time.  But … come on, chaps.  This is a simple exercise that we could all do.

Meanwhile, I think I shall look at getting a print-off from Suppl. vol. 1!

UPDATE: I’m just looking at the PDF of the supplement, and, in this, he places the important bit of the name in italics!  So he was clearly aware of the issue also.  Again it shows that you can’t even read the GAL pages by themselves.

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