The Construction of Knowledge in Islamic Civilization: Qudama B. Ja’Far and His Kitab Al-Kharaj Wa-Sina’at Al-Kitaba

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 The Construction Of Knowledge In Islamic Civilization
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Paul L. Heck
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In the first quarter of the fourth Islamic century (tenth CE), a work entitled “The Book of the Land-Tax and the Craft of Writing” (Kit§b al-khar§j wa-ßin§#at al-kit§ba) was composed by Qud§ma b. Ja#far (d. 337/948), a state official and scholar of some talent in the employ of the Abbasid dynasty (132-656 AH/750-1258 CE) in Baghdad.

This work, a wide-ranging overview of those branches of knowledge which were of interest to the Islamic state, is the subject of this study. At a deeper level, however, analysis of this work raises fundamental ques­ tions about the role of the state in the formation of Islamic civilization.

The work is not reducible to a training manual, i.e. the technical knowledge required of a government functionary for the performance of his daily bureaucratic tasks. Its audience consisted, rather, of officials of the highest rank in the political hierarchy of the day, i.e. an elite group with both tangible and ideological concerns about the nature and location of governance within the Islamic context in general—a context, it should be said, that was decidedly imperial.

Qud§ma’s work must be understood, then, as an encyclo­ pedia, an attempt to define and order particular branches of knowl­ edge in the service of an Islam which was no longer the Islam of tribes, nor solely the Islam of religious specialists, but the Islam of empire.1

It is in that sense that this study hopes to break new ground in elucidating the relation of the Islamic state of this period to religion, two entities often perceived to be on separate trajectories, one largely secular and promoted by the state’s various ranks of officials (#umm§l, kutt§b, wul§t, wuzar§” ), the other confessional and managed by the religious scholars (#ulam§”, fuqah§”, muÈaddithån).2

Certainly, distinct lines of interest can be drawn; but what held the state and religion together in a single point of reference was the Arabic language, the very area to which Qud§ma devotes most attention.3 While this is a vast topic only partially treated in this study, it is enough to say here that the grounding of both state and religion in the Arabic language renders it impossible to think of these two spheres of influ­ ence without reference to a single framework of civilization.

In fact, the administrative science (al-kit§ba), the main feature of Qud§ma’s encyclopedia, was consistently classified, along with the religious sciences, among the Arabo-Islamic sciences (e.g. law, grammar, poetry, etc.), in opposition to the non-Arabo-Islamic sciences (e.g. philosophy, astronomy, etc.), which, although integrated into the corpus of knowledge recognized as part of Islamic civilization, origi­ nated in cultures other than the Arabic. Since the identity of both state and religion were so thoroughly imbricated in the Arabic language, it makes little sense to separate them into such misleading categories as the sacred and the profane.4

Unlike attempts to unite (Greek) philosophical and (Arabo-Muslim) religious discourse into a single framework of knowledge, Islam as a religion occupied the same cultural and epistemological space, namely Islam as a civilization articulated in a single language.6 Kit§b al-khar§j wa-ßin§#at al-kit§ba is divided into eight secions,7 of which only four have survived (sections V through VIII) in a unique manuscript.8

The contents of the lost sections, however, can be as­ certained on the basis of references made to them by other authors as well as by Qud§ma in the extant sections of the work (see chap­ ter two). After a section introducing the overall design of his work, Qud§ma treats the following branches of knowledge:

the art of writing (section II), both the tools involved therein and orthography;9 the language itself (section III), especially rhetoric (bal§gha, i.e. the art of composition), including examples of both good and bad usages of the language; the administrative system in terms of its bureaus and departments (sections IV and V); geography (section VI); fiscal jurisprudence (section VII); and finally political thought (section VIII), including a theory of both human and political community alongwith an exposé on the art of governance.10

While a full description of the complex literary and intellectual currents of the late third/ninth and early fourth/tenth centuries is beyond the scope of this study, it is important to note here that Qud§ma’s work, one of the first to classify and assess knowledge systematically, is not merely a compilation of information, as is some­ times the case in the literary anthologies and legal compendia of the period, in which the relation of the various parts of the work to one another is not always immediately clear.

Rather, Qud§ma has organized branches of knowledge according to their interrelated con­ stituent parts, sub-branches and sub-categories, each, however, with its own concerns and perspectives. His work thus provides us not only with one individual’s point of view, but also with a systematic analysis of the intellectual concerns of the day. In other words, his arrangement of his material indicates that he is in dialogue with the wider scholarly milieu.

Because of that, it is necessary to read each section of Qud§ma’s work alongside the corpus of literature (i.e. the genre) to which it belongs.11 By proceeding in such a fashion, we hope to achieve two things: 1) locate more precisely Qud§ma’s contribution to various genres as a state official and, through that, the particular nature of the state’s involvement in that domain of knowledge;12 and 2) understand the basic contours and dynamic of these genres as a whole insofar as they have been spelled out by Qud§ma.

This is not the place to review the ongoing controversies over the use of the Islamic sources. The question we hope to raise in this study is the question of genre in sources that are not usually considered literary, a topic yet to receive full treatment.13 A closer look at the dynamic of genre—namely reading a work within and in relation to a corpus of works of a similar kind—can help us to specify the point of view of an author vis-à-vis other works of the genre.14

 Genre, as used in this study, represents a body of works which form a single discourse. When it comes to non-fictional works in the early Islamic context, it is a branch of knowledge (#ilm) which constitutes the genre or discourse. We can and do speak of the historical genre, the ad­ ministrative genre, even the legal genre and political genre, each of which formed a specific discourse within Islamic society. A genre,

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