Ryan Lynch’s monograph offers a study of the ninth-century historian Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā ibn Jābir al-Balādhurī and one of his most influential works, Kitāb Futūḥ al-buldān (The Book of the Conquests of Countries). Lynch’s study fills a gap in the modern study of early Arabo-Islamic historiography, which has hitherto been sorely lacking in studies of Balādhurī and his works. His monograph thus ought to be seen as a landmark contribution. The importance of Balādhurī and his corpus for any modern attempt to understand the early Islamic past is difficult to overestimate. Simply put, the works of Balādhurī represent the acme of Arabo-Islamic historiographic writings in the ninth century. Balādhurī is an author deeply enmeshed in the world of the Abbasid court, and his works combine the exactitude and resourcefulness of an imperial bureaucrat and the refinement of a cultured man of letters. He has few peers that equal him. The two works that bear his name—the aforementioned Futūḥ and his Ansāb al-ashrāf (Lineages of the Arab Notables)—remain indispensable to the modern historiography of the early Islamic period, although the influence of the Futūḥ has been greater due to its early publication and translation. The first translator of the Futūḥ, Philip K. Hitti (1886–1978), perhaps put his finger on the significance of the Futūḥ when Hitti, rather than literally translating its Arabic title, retitled his 1916 English translation of the work as On the Origins of the Islamic State. For Hitti and many like-minded modern historians, Balādhurī’s Futūḥ encompasses not merely an account of the conquest of this or that territory by the armies of the caliphates; it amounts to a veritable record of the emergence of Arabo-Islamic civilization, the course of its geographic spread, and the founding of its enduring institutions.
To do justice to this early scholar and the legacy of his work is, therefore, a daunting task. Lynch is systematic and careful in his approach. He divides his monograph into six main chapters, accompanied by an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 examines the textual transmission of the Futūḥ, its preservation, and the history of its publication and translation; chapter 2 attempts to reconstruct the life of Balādhurī and the context of his Futūḥ; and chapter 3 reviews the sources that Balādhurī relied on to compose the Futūḥ. The remaining chapters delve more directly into the context and legacy of the Futūḥ. Chapter 4 summarizes the contents and themes of the text, especially its aim to provide a literary and administrative register for the Abbasids’ imperial project and to exposit its juridical and ideological underpinnings. The concerns of Balādhurī, Lynch argues, arise from his interest in the nitty-gritty administrative needs of the Abbasid imperial project: conquest treaties and settlements, land and resource exploitation, urban development, etc. are the mainstays here. All of this is not to say that the Futūḥ is a purely bureaucratic slog or that it lacks the refined touch of a man of letters—indeed, Balādhurī is no slouch when it comes to literary taste—but for Lynch the key takeaway here is that the contents of the Futūḥ render it something akin to an administrator’s handbook. It is a work intended to legitimize the Abbasids in particular and to bolster caliphal governance in general. Chapter 5 addresses the matter of how the Futūḥ straddles genres and combines the features of the geographic works of other Abbasid administrators and officials and the features of the early romantic paeans that recounted the heroism of the founding conquerors. Lynch adeptly demonstrates that the Futūḥ is more than mere “conquest history.” Finally, chapter 6 discusses the reception of the Futūḥ in the premodern period. Lynch covers a lot of ground, and his arguments and analyses are often persuasive. I offer some more detailed observations ahead.
Lynch’s first chapter offers a relatively straightforward review of the scholarly editions and extant manuscripts of Balādhurī’s Futūḥ, but while much of the material covered here is familiar, new information appears, too, that deserves to be widely noted. His first chapter also draws our attention to a neglected manuscript of the Futūḥ housed in Yale University’s Beinecke Library, which the library acquired after it was purchased by Morris Jessup and bequeathed to the institution in 1900. This manuscript is the earliest copy of the Futūḥ currently known to be extant, and neither M. J. de Goeje nor Ṣalāh al-Dīn al-Munajjid were able to examine it for their respective printed editions of the Futūḥ. Lynch plausibly dates the Yale manuscript to the tenth century (31), although the scribe neither identifies himself nor provides the date that it was copied. Lynch deduces his dating of the Yale manuscript from a note at the top of the folio bearing the work’s title, which states, “This section is in the handwriting of (hādhā l-juzʾ bi-khaṭṭ; pace Lynch who reads hādhā l-ḥadd) al-Farghānī, author of the Continuation of al-Ṭabarī.” As Lynch observes, this note references Abū Muḥammad al-Farghānī (895–973), the author of a lost continuation of the magisterial Tārīkh al-rusul wa-l-mulūk of his teacher Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭabarī (d. 923).1 As we know, Ṭabarī did not himself rely on the works of Balādhurī, who was his elder; however, this manuscript indicates that Ṭabarī’s acolytes apparently did. As Lynch notes, this notice is not written by the scribe of the manuscript himself but rather in the hand of one of the manuscript’s earliest owners, whose ownership notice appears at the bottom of the same folio. He names himself as being a certain ʿAbd al-Ḥākim ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥusaynī and identifies himself as being from al-ashrāf al-aqārib—in other words as a man descended from the prophet Muḥammad through the line of al-Ḥusāyn ibn ʿAlī and a member of the Fāṭimid caliphal house.2 The manuscript thus serves as an important witness to the reception history of the Futūḥ, not merely its textual tradition.
In chapters two and three, Lynch offers important interventions on problems surrounding the biography of Balādhurī and the sources on whom he relied. Lynch understandably struggles in these chapters to eke out from a tangle of difficult sources a systematic account of when Balādhurī lived and died. This second chapter attempts to make up for the difficulties in reconstructing Balādhurī’s precise biography by opting to paint a broader picture of the Abbasids’ bureaucracy and the literature of its administrators. This course of action seems to me wiser, but Lynch does leave many references to, and anecdotes about, Balādhurī on the cutting floor. I believe that many of these might have provided us a fuller picture of the scholar’s life. Future studies into Balādhurī’s life may round out even further the image of the historian presented by Lynch from such anecdotes about Balādhurī found in Abbasid-era anthologies of Arabic belles-lettres. These anecdotes, for instance, depict al-Balādhurī as studying under the Kūfan philologist Ibn al-Aʿrābī (767–846);3 composing a dirge for the famed poet Abū Tammām (d. 846);4 litigating a debate before the Qāḍī al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad of the Banū Abī l-Shawārib;5 undermining ʿUbaydallāh ibn Yaḥyā ibn Khāqān at the caliphal court;6 vying for influence with the children of Qabīḥah (d. 868), the favorite concubine of the caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861) and mother of the caliph al-Muʿtazz (r. 866–69);7 and so on. Taken as a whole, I believe that a more thorough audit of such anecdotes has the potential to shed more light on Balādhurī’s biography.
All the same, many of the problems involving the biography of Balādhurī as an individual might simply be unresolvable. Take, for instance, Lynch’s astute reading of our earliest source on Balādhurī’s life: the Fihrist compiled by the Baghdadi bookseller Ibn al-Nadīm circa 987–88. Ibn al-Nadīm offers few details about Balādhurī other than a just-so story about the origins of the curious moniker, “al-Balādhurī.” The author of the Fihrist notes that Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā’s grandfather, Jābir, served the Abbasids’ administrator of the tax bureau (ṣāḥib dīwān al-kharāj) in Egypt under the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809), but then he proceeds to note that “he” was a poet and transmitter of poetry who succumbed to dementia at the end of his life and died when “he” unknowingly consumed the fruit of the marking nut tree (Arabic balādhur, from the Sanskrit bhallātaka). But who is this “he”? As Lynch and others note, the text is ambiguous: it is unclear whether Ibn al-Nadīm here describes the author of the Futūḥ or his grandfather. Lynch is correct to suspect that Ibn al-Nadīm’s account of “Balādhurī’s” death by consuming a concoction derived from the marking nut probably describes the historian’s grandfather rather than the historian himself. But I would go even further down this road than Lynch does. Ibn al-Nadīm’s account only refers to the grandfather’s life and tells us very little about the author of the Futūḥ; thus, it is also the grandfather whom Ibn al-Nadīm identifies as “a poet and reciter of poetry,” not the author of the Futūḥ. Lynch flirts with this conclusion (38–39), but this reading of Ibn al-Nadīm’s notorious passage finds confirmation, I believe, in an anecdote overlooked by Lynch in which a certain “Balādhurī” consoles the Imām of the Shiʿah, ʿAlī al-Riḍā, after the passing of his father Mūsā al-Kāẓim in 799.8 This individual is certainly the historian’s grandfather and not the author of the Futūḥ, unless one assumes that the historian lived and enjoyed the good graces of the Abbasid court for well over a century.
Lynch’s third chapter provides a great deal of data that could have helped resolve some of these issues by way of his examination of Balādhurī’s teachers and sources. Scholars of the period, with very few exceptions, rarely if ever cited authorities and teachers significantly younger than they were. One may thus infer from the age and dates of Balādhurī’s many sources and teachers his approximate age. Lynch’s analysis of Balādhurī’s teachers and sources builds on an earlier study by Khalil Athamina and makes considerable headway in delineating for us how to determine when Balādhurī cites a source versus when he cites a teacher directly. However, though Lynch’s analysis is strong here, it is a shame that Lynch’s analysis does not benefit from the far more comprehensive analysis of Balādhurī’s teachers and sources undertaken by Yūsuf al-Marʿashlī in the introduction to his new scholarly edition of the first volume of Balādhurī’s Ansāb al-ashrāf published in 2008. Whereas Lynch focuses on nine sources/teachers, Yūsuf al-Marʿashlī adduces 109 teachers (shuyūkh), albeit of widely varying importance, and 29 sources. Marʿashlī thus offers scholars a far more comprehensive view and broader survey of the evidence for inferring Balādhurī’s entanglements with his predecessors and contemporaries, and it is a pity that Lynch’s monograph overlooked this study.
Nabia Abbott postulated that a fragment of Farghānī’s work survives on a papyrus fragment housed at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, which she herself edited; see Abbott, Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri I: Historical Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957), 115–16. Numerous citations from Farghānī’s work can be found in the Tārīkh madīnat Dimashq of Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 1176); see Ṭalāl Saʿūd, Mawārid Ibn ʿAsākir fī Tārīkh Dimashq, vol. 1 (Medina: al-Jāmiʿah al-Islāmiyyah, 2004), 149-50.
Taqī al-Dīn al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442), Ittiʿāẓ al-ḥunafāʾ bi-akhbār al-aʾimmah al-Fāṭimiyyīn al-khulafāʾ, ed. Jamāl al-Dīn al-Shayyāl, vol. 3 (Cairo: al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li-l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyyah, 1996), 340.
Abū Aḥmad al-ʿAskarī (d. 993), al-Maṣūn fī l-adab, ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn (Kuwait: Maṭ-baʿat Ḥukūmat al-Kuwayt, 1983), 10; al-ʿAskarī, al-Taṣḥīf wa-l-taḥrīf, vol. 1 (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Ẓāhir, 1908), 83–84.
Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī, The Life and Times of Abū Tammām, ed. and trans. Beatrice Gruendler (New York: NYU Press, 2015), 322–23 (§180).
Abū Saʿd al-Ābī (d. 1030), Min Nathr al-durr, ed. Maẓhar al-Ḥajjī, vol. 3 (Damascus: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, 1997), 243–44.
Ps.-Jāḥiz, Kitāb al-Ḥjiāb, in Rasāʾil al-Jāḥiẓ, ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn (Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī, n.d.), 85; see also Matthew S. Gordon, “The Khāqānid Families of the Early ʿAbbasid Period,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 121 (2001): 236–55 at 244.
Abū Isḥāq al-Ḥuṣrī (d. 1022), Nūr al-ṭarf wa-nawr al-ẓarf, ed. Līnah Abū Ṣāliḥ (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1996), 206.
Ibn Ḥamdūn (d. 1166), al-Tadhkirah al-Ḥamdūniyyah, ed. Iḥsān ʿAbbās and Bakr ʿAbbās, vol. 4 (Beirut: Dār Ṣadir, 1996), 210.