Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Arabic
The author of al-Fihrist (The Catalog) was Abu al-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Muhammad ibn Ishaq, but as a rule he is called al-Nadim because he had the distinction of being a nadim or court companion. As the surname of his father was Abu Yaqub, he evidently had an elder brother named Yaqub and probably had other brothers and sisters as well.
The year of his birth is unknown but it cannot have been much after 935 AD and more likely was somewhat earlier. The author's father was called a warrq, which in his case evidently meant that he was a book dealer. As he seems to have been prosperous, it is likely that he presided over a large bookstore, which was almost certainly at Baghdad. It's easy to imagine how he commissioned his sons to buy manuscripts from other dealers and had his own scribes make copies of manuscripts for his customers.
A medieval manuscript was about the size of a modern book, but it was written by hand instead of being printed. The leaves were made of a paper of good quality, with writing on both sides. As a rule these pages were bound in a leather cover. The bookshop, like the old shops in al-Najaf, was probably on an upper story, where it formed a meeting place for scholars who came to examine the books, enjoy refreshments, and discuss academic problems.
When he was about six years old the author undoubtedly attended an elementary class attached to a mosque. One can visualize the little boy sitting on the ground in a group of other children, swaying back and forth as he repeated the verses of the Quran, which his teacher recited to be memorized. The child also must have learned how to write the verses on his board, erasing each verse when he learned how to copy it, in order to make the board clean for a new quotation. By the time he was ten years old, he had probably memorized the entire Quran, so as to be prepared for study of a more mature nature.
It is reasonable to believe that al-Nadim joined a study circle in some important mosque to learn the intricacies of Arabic grammar and rhetoric as well as something about Quranic commentary, the Hadith or traditions of the Prophet, and rules for reciting the Quran in an authorized way. Before long he undoubtedly worked as an apprentice in his father's book shop, copying manuscripts, entertaining scholars and helping to sell what they wanted to buy.
It is probable that while he was still a young man al-Nadim began to make a catalogue of authors and the names of their compositions for use in his father's bookstore. It is reasonable to believe that al-Nadim wrote notes about each author on a piece of paper. As he grew older, he evidently became interested in so many subjects about which he read in books, or which he learned about from friends and chance acquaintances, that he included a great deal of additional material with his notes about the poets and scholars. Thus, instead of being merely the catalog for a book shop, al-Fihrist became an encyclopedia of medieval Islamic culture.