About The Book
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahyá Al-Watwāt’s anthology Ghurar al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-Wāḍiḥah wa-ʻUrar al-Naqāʾiṣ al-Fāḍiḥah examines the strengths and weaknesses of human character. Literally translated as “The blazes of bright qualities and the shameful things of ignominious defects”, “Of Vices And Virtues” could equally serve as a summary title for Ghurar. Despite this book’s lesser fame compared to its author’s natural sciences and geography encyclopedia, a significant amount of scholarly research exists about its numerous curiosities.
The work’s 16 chapters alternately examine complementary positive and negative character traits. For example, a chapter on avarice follows one on generosity. For each virtue’s chapter, 3 further subsections praise it, recount prose and verse about individuals famous for it, and note censure about it. Each vice’s chapter mirrors that structure: censure about it precedes prose and verse on individuals famous for it, and ends with praise of it. Only one chapter – on solitude, a vice – differs from this formula by omitting praise of the vice. Instead, it concludes with Al-Watwāt’s personal, lengthy prayer confessing his weaknesses to God and begging for divine intervention to improve his situation in life. The prayer also serves as the book’s epilogue. Its highly skilled literary style – equally evident in the introduction – supports Al-Watwāt contemporary Khalīl ibn Aybak al-Ṣafadī’s claim of Al-Watwāt’s mastery of the Arabic insha compositional form.
In Ghurar, Al-Watwāt creates an ethical, educational discourse on character traits using contemporaneous and older philosophies and lessons. Intended for a learned – and most assuredly male – audience, it invites this cohort to perfect themselves by choosing moral decisions based on philosophic wisdom and intelligent thinking, instead of base instinct. As with similar anthologies, Ghurar mostly quotes and excerpts other materials, but Al-Watwāt’s original, considerable prose contributions distinguish this book, marking him as an author as well as compiler.
The Ghurar manuscript held by the JPL only includes its initial 8 chapters, ending at the section on ignorance.
About The Author
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahyá Al-Watwāt (1235-1318) was born somewhere in the Egyptian portion of territories ruled by the Mamluk Sultanate, to a family supposedly hailing from Merw (present-day Turkmenistan). His surname, Al-Watwāt (“The Bat”) seems an oddly appropriate predictor of his physical well-being: he suffered from an affliction that resulted in extreme photosensitivity to the point where he avoided sunlight.
He worked as a bookseller and stationer – which earned him the sobriquets Al-Kutubi and Al-Warraq, respectively – as well as a compiler. He also wrote poetry, an esteemed literary form in Mamluk society at this time, but his efforts received a lukewarm response, considered as barely capable efforts. By comparison, his prose writing garnered him much acclaim.
Al-Watwāt’s became quite wealthy on the strength of his reputation as a bookseller with extremely wide-ranging knowledge about all aspects of a book’s value, whether literary or financial. However, it did not result in any role in the Sultanate’s administration: despite the high demand for booksellers, the Mamluk society accorded them low social status. In fact, after Al-Watwāt tried to take advantage of his friend’s appointment as chief judge, the friend’s subsequent rebuff led to the legal authorities regarding him with some disfavour. He then apparently sought a fatwa against this friend, which the authorities also refused.
In addition to Ghurar, Al-Watwāt’s best-known work remains the natural sciences encyclopedia Mabāhij al-fikar wa manāhij al-‘ibar, which intersperses scientific and topical observations with poetic and literary quotations.
The JPL’s Copy
Many of the volumes in the Rare Books collection are of unknown provenance, and as the cataloguing approached completion, we found a number of books and manuscripts with no title pages and no clear indication of how the work ended up with us. This book forms part of that small set of miscellaneous publications.
The JPL acknowledges the formidable expertise of the librarians at McGill University’s Islamic Studies Library who identified this work and its estimated 1867 date of creation, based on its paper and bindings.
One of the few examples of manuscripts in our library’s antiquarian collection, our library’s copy of Ghurar also holds the distinction as that collection’s only Arabic book – indeed, perhaps the only Arabic one in all of our collections. It might also vie for the title of our most beautiful-looking work, despite its unremarkable size, measuring 24 x 19 x 3 cm. A gilded border and corner pieces, framing a gilded central medallion, set off its red leather bindings although much of the gilding is beginning to wear off. The leather, too, is rubbed in the four corners, and worm damage pocks the front and back covers. Unlike many of our books’ pastedowns, those for this volume contain decorative edges in both front and back. The pages’ bottom short edges include a penned Arabic inscription, in letters spanning the book’s entire 3 cm height.
Opening the book, one sees 3 blank leaves; between the 2nd and 3rd of those, there are also indications a 4th leaf was cut out. The paper, while lacking watermarks or chain-lines, is very thick and of impeccable quality. Most likely, it is wood pulp and not cloth – a useful factor in dating the work. No markings appear on the pages until the 4th leaf verso. The book’s first page features a beautiful gilded, 5 cm high headpiece coloured green, dark blue and red. It also includes 3 extremely ornate circular medallions within a green and gold field, surrounded by a rubricated, gilt frame. A 4th medallion, added to the margins, extends out from the frame. An inserted protective pink sheet lies between this leaf’s recto and the following leaf’s verso.
The initial 2 leaves also include two features not found on the book’s subsequent leaves: their text includes gold – rather than red, dark blue and green – rubrication. As well, while their page frames consist of a ruled border of 2 red lines within a blue line which itself bounds a gold line, subsequent leaves omit the gold line.
Page numbers are absent, but each leaf’s verso includes catchwords. The pages themselves show remarkably little wear or damage other than minimal wormholes. The text itself, written in black ink and contained within a frame measuring 17 x 11.5 cm, occupies only a small portion of each page. The script, North African Maghribi, is an Arabic cursive form with Kufic influences also widely used in Spain, particularly Andalusia.