[This is an article from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. For copying details, see the Miscellany Introduction.]

Some Sources for Islamic Persona

Not all, not even most, Muslims were Arabs. Islam may have been the first world civilization; in period it stretched from Spain to Malaya. Muslims might be Arabs, Berbers, East or West African Blacks, Indians, Kurds, Mongols, Persians, Turks, ... . They were all united by a common religion and a common religious language, but divided by numerous religious factions, languages, and cultures. In order to be a medieval Muslim, you will find it necessary to learn about both medieval Islam and the particular culture your persona belongs to.

You will find yourself learning two sorts of things: physical and historical details and what it felt like to be a medieval Muslim. The best way to learn both, but especially the latter, is to read books that your persona might have read--or written. Such books give you both detailed information on the world your persona lived in, and a first hand view of how it looked to people who lived in it. So I will start my list of sources with primary sources--things written in period.

Primary Sources

The Koran: This is the one book that every educated Muslim knew. Islamic literature and conversation was full of Koranic references, and Islamic Law was in part based upon the Koran.

The Thousand and One Nights. The story of Scheherezade, which provides the frame story for the Nights, is mentioned by al-Nadim in the 10th century; the surviving texts are considerably later, possibly 15th century. The Burton translation (16 volumes!) is a delight; Payne is also supposed to be very good. Anything under eight hundred pages and calling itself the Arabian Nights is likely to be an abbreviated and bowdlerized version, intended for children. The stories give you a sample of period fantasy fiction and, along with the footnotes, provide a good deal of information on period Islamic attitudes and society.

The Fihrist of al-Nadim, tr. Bayard Dodge, Columbia University Press 1970.This is something between an annotated bibliography and an encyclopedia. It is a list of every book al-Nadim has read, organized by subject--I think the total is in the thousands. It is not easily read through at a sitting, but dipping into it gives one a good picture of the intellectual world of an educated tenth century Muslim.

The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, by al-Muhassin ibn Ali al-Tanukhi, D. S. Margoliouth, tr. Al-Tanukhi was a tenth century judge who found that the anecdotes people were telling were no longer as good as the ones he remembered from his youth, and decided to improve the situation by writing down all the ones he could remember. The book is a wonderful first person view of the Middle East in the tenth century.

An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munkidh, Philip Hitti tr. Usamah was a Syrian Emir; his memoirs, dictated in his old age, describe events during the period between the first and second crusades.

The Shahnamah. This is a famous Persian epic, which any late Persian persona would be familiar with. The Epic of the Kings, Reuben Levy tr., revised by Amin Banani, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London: 1967,1973,1977 (ISBN 0 7100 1367 1) is a prose translation, with some omissions. A King's Book of Kings, available from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, contains copies of the miniatures from an extraordinary illuminated manuscript of the Shahnamah and is a good source for late Persian clothing.

Khalila wa Dimna: This is a collection of beast fables in Arabic, based on a Persian translation of an Indian collection (The Panchatantra).

The Travels of Ibn Battuta: Ibn Battuta was a fourteenth century Islamic world traveller who apparently made it to China and back. There seems to be no complete and unabridged translation of his account of his travels. H. A. R. Gibb produced the first three volumes of one (The Travels of Ibn Battuta, by H.A.R. Gibb, Cambridge, 1958, 1962, 1971) before his death. He also produced an earlier abridged translation (The Travels of Ibn Battuta, London, 1929). There are partial translations by several others. Ibn Battuta's account is detailed and filled with interesting anecdotes. He describes travels to or through East and West Africa, Arabia, Iraq, Persia, Anatolia, Constantinople, Southern Russia, Afghanistan, India, China, Andalusia and points between.

The Maqaddimah of ibn Khaldun, tr. Franz Rosenthal, Princeton University Press, Princeton (1967). This is the introduction to a world history by a famous Moorish scholar c. 1400. It gives you a picture of the world as seen from that time and place. It is also considered one of the first great works of modern political science.

Arab Historians of the Crusades, selected and translated from the Arabic sources by Francesco Gabrieli, Translated from the Italian by E.J. Costell, University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles, 1969, 1978. This is a collection of extracts from contemporary Arabic accounts of the crusades.

Books of Traditions. Islamic law was and is based on the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet--accounts of things that Mohammed said and did. The attempt to collect traditions and verify their authenticity was a major scholarly project for many centuries. Some of the most famous collections are those of Al-Bokhari and ibn Muslim. They are useful both as things your persona might have known and as snapshots of Arabic life at the time of the Prophet.

Saracen Archery by J.D. Latham and W.F. Paterson, Holland Press Ltd., London 1970. This is a modern annotated translation of a period treatise on archery. It is useful as a source of information on both Islamic archery and an archer's life in Mameluke Egypt.

Secondary (and out of period primary) Sources

Mohammad's People, by Eric Schroeder, The Bond Wheelright Company, Portland, Maine (1955). This is something between a primary and a secondary source-a history of the early centuries of al-Islam, made up of passages from period sources fitted together into a reasonably continuous whole. It is very readable and gives you a feel for the history of Islam as your persona might have known it.

The Modern Egyptians by Edward Lane, 1860 (facsimile from Dover). This is a detailed account of Egyptian life in the early nineteenth century. If it were only period, it would be exactly what an Islamic persona needs. Given that Islamic society was relatively conservative, a large part of what it describes is probably accurate for our period--the problem is that, without additional evidence, one does not know which part. Still, a guess is better than nothing--and the next book provides some of the author's very expert guesses.

Arabian Society in the Middle Ages, by Edward Lane, Curzon Press: London, Humanities Press: N.J., 1987 reprint of 1883 edition, edited by Stanley Lane-Poole, based on the notes to the 1859 edition of Lane's translation of the 1001 nights. This is a readable and entertaining description of Arabian, and in particular Egyptian, society in our period. While Lane is careful about details such as the dates of introduction of tobacco and coffee, it is not always clear how much of what he is saying is based on period sources and how much on his observations of early 19th century Cairo, described at greater length in The Modern Egyptians. He often cites period sources but rarely dates them, and never cites modern translations--probably because they did not exist when he was writing.

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah, by Sir Richard F. Burton, Dover, N.Y. (1964 reprint of 1893 edition). This is another first hand account of part of the 19th century Islamic world, by a famous English adventurer, scholar, and linguist.

A History of the Maghrib by Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, Cambridge University Press, London 1971,

The Berbers in Arabic Literature by H.T. Norris, Longman London &N.Y., 1982. These two books contain a lot of interesting information on the history and culture of the Maghrib--North Africa and Muslim Spain.

Arab Painting, Richard Ettinghausen, Macmillan, London 1977. Lots of pictures, so a good primary source for clothing.

"An Introduction to Arms and Warfare in Classical Islam," by David Nicolle, in Islamic Arms and Armor.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, translated by Jan Rothschild, Schocken Books, N.Y. 1985. This is a history of the crusades from the Muslim side, based on contemporary Arabic sources.

Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey, by Raphaela Lewis, Dorset Press, N.Y. (1971).

Daily Life in Abbasid Times: This is a book I once read but do not have. I do not remember the author, and may not have the title exactly right.


The primary sources we know of are listed at the beginning of the cooking section of this book, along with non-Islamic cookbooks. Two secondary sources are:

A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden, Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. This is a good modern cookbook that contains some information about period cooking and a few period recipes.

In A Caliph's Kitchen by David Waines, Riad El-Rayyes Book, 56 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7NJ (1989). So far as I know, this is the only substantial collection of worked out period Islamic recipes in print, other than the book you are now reading. In addition to the recipes, it contains an interesting discussion of the historical and cultural background.

You may also want to look at articles on related subjects elsewhere in this book.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir