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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

02/2016 manuscript  of the month

Did It Just Explain Difficult Terms?

A Mediaeval Arabic Encyclopaedia of an Unusual Kind

By the beginning of the 10th century, Islamic culture included such a large number of subjects and terms that it was hard for anyone to know them all. A scholar called Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (who died around 933) alleviated the problem by producing an encyclopaedia entitled Kitāb al-Zīna, which can be translated as ‘The Book of Adornment’. As its preface states, the name was chosen because the author felt anyone who was aware of the correct meaning of the many theological and religious terms used in conjunction with Islam would adorn themselves with this knowledge. The manuscript described here contains fragments of three texts, one of which is the oldest handwritten copy of the Kitāb al-Zīna. These pages are the earliest testimony to a written work produced by the Ismailites, a Shiite group to which Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī belonged. Reading between the lines, it seems that this group believed it was the only one to be following the True Path at that time. Was this manuscript possibly intended to convert its readers to the Ismaili faith?

Fig. 1: The manuscript known as UB Leipzig,
Ms. or. 377 prior to its restoration. > Enlarge

The manuscript is nondescript and rather small – roughly the same size as an ordinary paperback (fig. 1). When Leipzig University Library purchased it in 1996, the front and back covers were missing from it, many of its leaves were damaged and some of the quires were held together by just a few threads. When it was realised just how much the manuscript was worth around ten years later and the decision was made to display it online, it was painstakingly restored (fig. 2).

The manuscript consists of three independent parts written by different scribes, which were bound together sometime later (it is not clear exactly when). The first part, which has nine leaves in it, contains fragments of text from the middle of the Kitāb al-Zīna, but ends abruptly after that. The second part, which is the longest one, spanning 156 leaves, also contains several chapters of the book and explains terms such as faith and faithlessness. In addition, there is a detailed list of Islamic groups, which provides an insight into the denominational divisions in Islam up to the late 9th century (fig. 3). This part of the work also breaks off suddenly and is followed by seven leaves on various philosophical topics, which have not been ascribed to any known work yet. According to the scribe who wrote out this last part, he finished copying it in 1149 in a district of a town called Rayy in northern Iran (fig. 4). This means these few pages were probably written at a time when Ismaili assassins were unsettling society in northern Iran. While this happened, Rayy was suffering at the hands of various warring princes from the area and was almost completely destroyed by the Mongols in the 1220s. None of this is mentioned at all in the third part of the Leipzig manuscript.

The scribe’s note that has just been mentioned – a colophon – is misleading, however, as it suggests that a relationship to the author of the Kitāb al-Zīna existed, seeing as the last part of Abū Ḥātim’s name, ‘al-Rāzī’, means ‘the one from Rayy’, a place he had worked in as an Ismaili missionary (dāʿī) at the beginning of the 10th century. We do not have any proof that he actually wrote the philosophical texts on these last few pages, though. Conversely, the first two parts of the manuscript including the Kitāb al-Zīna do not contain any clues whatsoever as to where or when they were made. The paper used for the important second part of the work was therefore subjected to carbon dating in 2015 to determine its age. The results of the analysis suggest it was made in the early 11th century. If that is true, it means the main part of the manuscript is not only more than a hundred years older than the last part of it, but it is older than the assassins, who only split off from the other Ismailites at the end of the 11th century. Apart from that, most extant copies of the Kitāb al-Zīna were only made in the 19th century; consequently, the Leipzig manuscript is the oldest surviving copy to have been dated. What’s more, it is the oldest copy of an Ismaili text currently known to us.

Fig. 2: Figure 2: The last few leaves with pink mould (killed off by irradiation) and newly
bonded paper around the leaves. The flap typical of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts on the right
should really be on the left (the new cover has been put on correctly in the meantime).
> Enlarge

Fig. 3: Figure 3: Beginning of the passage about Islamic movements (second part). The red
lemma near the bottom of the left-hand page opens the chapter on the Shia (ash-shīʿa).
> Enlarge

Interestingly, it is not obvious that the Kitāb al-Zīna is an Ismaili work; first and foremost, it is simply an encyclopaedia that explains religious terms. In its foreword, which we are already familiar with from other copies, Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī says the following:

This book contains the meanings of names and the etymologies of terms […] that legal scholars need to know and writers will find indispensable. Having such knowledge can be a great help and is an adornment (zīna) for anyone of a religious and virtuous mind.

The approach that Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī took when writing the book is in line with traditional Arab lexicography, in which words were explained with the aid of well-known verses of poetry, for instance, as these were regarded as examples of good Arabic. This focus on terms and their ‘original’ meaning was also employed in a strategy that only becomes clear upon closer inspection, however. What is primarily affected by this is the section on Islamic movements and sects, which is completely intact in the second part of the Leipzig manuscript.

Being an Ismaili Shiite, Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī belonged to one of the Islamic movements that were rivals at that time (and still are today in some cases). In his description of the groups, he casually mentions evidence to show that Shiite convictions are true and explains why this is so. Conversely, he also finds ways of discrediting all the other Islamic movements. In one such case, he argues that the tradition (sunna) of the Prophet Muḥammad (who died in 632) has been preserved and continued by his cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (died in 661). Consequently, the Shiites – shīʿa means ‘party’, referring to ʿAlī’s followers – are the true ‘Sunnis’, he says, i.e. the ones who follow the authentic teachings of the Prophet. Although this explanation might seem to be quite objective at first, it actually implies that non-Shiite movements have not been following the True Path. Even when Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī differentiates between the various Shiite groups later on, the only ones not to be criticised are the Ismailites.

Fig. 4: Figure 4: Colophon written by the last
scribe to work on the manuscript (the third part),
which attests it was finished in Rayy on 22 July
1149. > Enlarge

If one takes the approach followed by Ismaili missionaries into account, then it will not come as any surprise that the reader might have been strategically influenced this way. Just as in the Kitāb al-Zīna, the missionaries initially kept their own standpoint a secret if they wanted to get potential adepts interested in their beliefs. In the early 11th century, when the copy of the Kitāb al-Zīna found in the second part of the Leipzig manuscript was made, their mission (daʿwa) was still underway, so the context in which the copy was created may be found there, particularly as the section of the monumental work it contains could have been used for missionary work. Although it is unlikely that a Muslim who was not a Shiite would have been converted simply by reading a book, one can still imagine how individual readers might at least have started asking themselves if the Ismailites weren’t the only Islamic group to be on the right path after all.


ABŪ ḤĀTIM AL-RĀZĪ, Aḥmad b. Ḥamdān (2015): Kitāb al-Zīna. In: al-Ghānimī, Saʿīd (ed.): Kitāb al-Zīna. Muʿjam ishtiqāqī fi l-Muṣṭalaḥāt al-dīniyya wa-l-thaqāfiyya, 2 vols., Beirut/Baghdad: al Kamel.

ALI, Jamal (2008): Language and Heresy in Ismaili Thought. The Kitab al-Zina of Abu Hatim al-Razi. New Jersey: Gorgias Press.

BERTHOLD, Cornelius (2014): ‘The Leipzig Manuscript of the Kitāb al-Zīna by the Ismaili Author Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (d. 322/933–934)’. In: Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, 5/1, 19–42.

BERTHOLD, Cornelius: Differenz und Subversion. Die Häresiografie im Kitāb az Zīna des Abū Ḥātim ar Rāzī, PhD dissertation (Leipzig University, 2016); Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz (in preparation).

HALM, Heinz (1991): Das Reich des Mahdi. Der Aufstieg der Fatimiden (875–973) , Munich: C. H. Beck.

KLEMM, Verena (2009): ‘Obvious and Obscure Contexts. The Leipzig Manuscript of the Kitāb al-Zīna by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (d. 322/934)’. In: Journal of Semitic Studies, Supplement 26, 55–67.

Catalogue entry and digitised versions in the ‘Islamic Manuscripts’ database, Leipzig University Library:

University of Leipzig
Shelf mark: Ms. or. 377
Material: ‘Oriental paper’
Provenance: Rayy, northern Iran (only part 3)
  • Fols. 1-16, 18-69, 71-165: 17 x 13 cm
  • fols. 17 and 70: ca. 17 x 11 cm
  • fols. 166-171: 16 x 12 cm
Contents and dating:
  • part 1 (fols. 1–9): Kitāb al-Zīna, 11th–13th century
  • part 2 (fols. 10–165): Kitāb al-Zīna, early 11th century
  • part 3 (fols. 166–171): philosophical texts, 1149

Text by Cornelius Berthold
© for all the illustrations: Leipzig University Library
Reference note:
Cornelius Berthold, “Did It Just Explain Difficult Terms?”
In: Andreas Janke (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2016.02, SFB 950: Hamburg,