What else can we learn from the manuscript of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ?

By Adam DeSchriver, Ammar Farra, Henry Stratakis-Allen and Ahmed El Shamsy

The preceding essays describe various aspects of the only surviving complete manuscript of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ. We introduce the manuscript and its copyist, trace its transmission history, and analyze its legal terminology in relation to the terms used in the other recensions of the Muwaṭṭaʾ. In this final essay, we outline some additional features of the manuscript and consider its overall significance for the study of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, in particular, and Islamic legal history, in general.


The vast majority of the nonlegal variants that we encountered in the manuscript of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ as compared to the published fragment and the other recensions were relatively meaningless—for example, alternative spellings and omissions of stock laudatory phrases, particularly after the names of early figures such as ʿĀʾisha and ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb. The most striking type of variant that we found involved the accidental omission of entire lines of text. The following example illustrates the effect of such omissions. This passage is taken from the published fragment of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension, edited by ʿAbd al-Majīd al-Turkī:

ثنا القعنبى عن مالك انه سال ابن شهاب عن قول الله عز وجل يا ايها الذين امنوا اذا نودي للصلوة من يوم الجمعة فاسعوا الى ذكر الله وذروا البيع فقال ابن شهاب كان عمر بن الخطاب رضي الله عنه  يقرؤها اذا نودي للصلوة من يوم الجمعة فامضوا الى ذكر الله[1]

Al-Qaʿnabī reported to us from Mālik that he asked Ibn Shihāb about the words of God, Blessed and Sublime is He, “When the call to prayer on Friday is proclaimed, hasten earnestly to remember God.” Ibn Shihāb said, “ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb would recite it thus: ‘When the call to prayer on Friday is proclaimed, go to remember God.’”[2]

The manuscript omits a line in the middle of this passage (underlined above) and reads:

ثنا القعنبى عن مالك انه سال ابن شهاب عن قول الله عز وجل يا ايها الذين امنوا اذا نودي للصلوة من يوم الجمعة فامضوا الى ذكر الله[3]

Al-Qaʿnabī reported to us from Mālik that he asked Ibn Shihāb about the words of God, Blessed and Sublime is He, “When the call to prayer on Friday is proclaimed, go to remember God.’”

However, when the copyist was collating the copy, he clearly noticed his mistake and inserted the missing line in the margin (the location of the addition is circled):

At first glance, the omission of a whole line seems to validate the idea of the mindless medieval scribe who simply copied texts without understanding them: how could the scribe have failed to notice that he was jumping between two entirely different quotations? On closer inspection, however, the apparent error turns out to have some logic to it. The resulting text is both grammatically correct and—perhaps more importantly—coherent in terms of meaning. Indeed, the missing line merely provides a second report that differs minutely from the first.[4] Although the passage is nonetheless factually inaccurate, the mistake is not a sign of grammatical ignorance, and its correction in the margin points to an effective collation process.

Why might the copyist have made the mistake in first place? He seems to have mixed up two instances of the same phrase, min yawm al-jumaʿa. This type of copying mistake is known as “saut du même au même” (skip from the same to the same),[5] and it is quite understandable given the organization of a manuscript text that lacks quotation marks, commas, colons, paragraph indents, and the other myriad framing devices that render modern critical editions so accessible and make it much less likely for a reader’s eye to jump to the wrong instance of a phrase.


In terms of orthography, the manuscript contains a number of features that differ from the written conventions of modern Arabic. One of the most common deviations from modern Arabic orthography lies in the manuscript’s usage of the so-called weak vowels (i.e., wāw, alif, yāʾ). Where modern convention employs an alif, the manuscript oftentimes has a wāw. The most common and persistent occurrence of this phenomenon is in the noun ṣalāt (prayer), which is today spelled صلاة but appears in the manuscript as صلوة. An example is found on fol. 7b, in the phrase ثم يعيد الصلوة ولا يعيد الوضوء (“then he repeated the prayer but did not repeat the ablution”). However, the manuscript’s orthography is not consistent, as صلاة also appears occasionally, including on fol. 13a, line 2.

Two additional orthographic irregularities are worth mentioning: the alif madda and the hamza. The former occasionally occurs in places where one would not expect it. For example, the word māʾ (water) is conventionally spelled ماء, but in the manuscript, it frequently appears as مآء (e.g., fol. 9a, line 5; fol. 10b, lines 1–5). Conversely, sometimes the madda does not appear where one would expect it, especially in the word Qurʾān. To wit, fol. 13b, line 20, has قران, as does fol. 14b, line 26. Interestingly, however, the word Qurʾān is not consistently written without a madda: on fol. 13a, lines 18 and 23, there is a madda over the alif.

In terms of the hamza, one generally finds terminal hamzas where one would expect them. The word wuḍūʾ appears numerous times in the manuscript, and each time the terminal hamza is in place: وضوء (as on fol. 6a, line 4, and fol. 9b, line 5, for example). Medial hamzas, on the other hand, are frequently omitted. The name “ʿĀʾisha” is one example, written as عاىشة instead of عائشة on fol. 9b, line 9. The word imraʾa (woman) is another case, as it often appears as امراة instead of امرأة, as one might expect (e.g., fol. 10a, line 12). The same phenomenon occurs in imraʾa when the initial alif is assimilated due to the presence of the definite article, i.e., المراة instead of المرأة (fol. 10a, line 9).


A slip of paper inserted between the manuscript’s folios contains lines of poetry. One end of the slip pokes out between folios 121 and 122 and contains four lines of poetry:

The other end of the slip, found between folios 114 and 115, is mostly occluded in the digital manuscript image by another piece of paper that continues the main text, so only one line is visible. The handwriting on this slip differs from that of the main text. The lines quoted appear frequently in works of rhetoric (balāgha), and their copyist has further indicated their meter (baḥr).

The first two lines were composed by the Abbasid-era poet al-ʿAbbās b. al-Aḥnaf (d. 192/808), and they were often used to illustrate metaphorical statements; climbing upward was widely understood to be a metaphor for obtaining greater nobility and power:

هي الشمس مسكنها في السماء … فعزّ الفؤاد عزاء طويلا

فلن تستطيع إليها الطلوع … ولن تستطيع إليك النزولا

It is the sun [whose] residence is in the sky, so console your heart with a long consolation,

For you shall not be able to climb to it, nor shall it be able to come down to you. (meter: mutaqārib)

The third line is from the pre-Islamic/early Islamic poet Abū Dhuʾayb al-Hudhalī (d. 28/649):

وإذا المنية أنشبت أظفارها … ألفيت كل تميمة لا تنفع

And once death sinks in its talons, every amulet, you’ll find, will be of no avail.[6] (meter: kāmil)

The authorship of the fourth line is disputed, but it is typically cited as an example of mushākala, the use of a word outside of its usual meaning in a nod to a prior instance of the word. In this line, the use of ṭabkha, “cookery,” for the sewing of clothes in the second hemistich is unexpected, but it gestures to the appearance of the same word in the first hemistich. The Qurʾānic precedent for this figure is the use of the unusual verb makara to refer to God in Q 3:54: “And they devised (makarū), and God devised (makara), and God is the best of devisers.”

قالوا اقْترِحْ شَيئًا نَجدْ لك طَبْخَه … قلتُ اطْبُخوا لي جُبَّةً وقَمِيصَا

They said, suggest something to us, and we shall find you its cookery (ṭabkha). I said, “Cook for me a long garment (jubba) and shirt.”

(meter: kāmil)

The only line visible in the second insertion (or the second part of the inserted slip of paper) is ascribed to various poets including Abū Nuwās (d. ca. 198/813), and it was frequently cited in discussions over the veritability of poetry:

أَسْكَرُ بِالأَمْسِ إِنْ عَزَمْتُ عَلَى الشُّرْ … بِ غَدًا إنَّ ذَا منَ الْعَجَب

I [would] get drunk yesterday if I resolve to drink tomorrow—what wonder is that!

(meter: munsariḥ)

Why were these lines included in a text of ḥadīth and law? One possibility is that a reader of the manuscript saw them as relevant to the issue of distinguishing between veritative expressions (ḥaqīqī) and figurative ones (majāzī) in the application of legal rules. Indeed, a contemporary commentator on the Muwaṭṭaʾ cites one of these lines (the fourth line above) in his commentary.[7] However, it is also possible that the insertion(s) ended up in the Muwaṭṭaʾ randomly; the reader simply needed a bookmark. Even so, these lines give us a glimpse into the broader reading culture around the Muwaṭṭaʾ.


The last page of the manuscript (MS Cârullah 428, fol. 144a) contains eight lines of text, partly cut off by rebinding on the top and through damage on the right:

Despite the lacunae, it is clear that the text reflects a well-known report about Mālik’s reply when he was asked by a questioner about the Qurʾānic statement that God is seated (istawā) on the throne (Qurʾān 20:5)—a statement that raised the specter of anthropomorphism, or envisioning God in human terms. Mālik responded: “[The verb] being seated is known, [whereas] the modality (kayf) is unknown; believing in it is obligatory, [whereas] inquiring into it is a deviant innovation.” The text ends: “He [Mālik] thus follows the path of the forefathers (madhhab al-salaf) according to which we accept it as it came [to us in revelation] (nuʾminu bihi ka-mā jāʾa) and we do not interpret it figuratively in departure from its original meaning (lā nuʾawwiluhu bi-taʾwīl yakhruju ʿan al-ḥaqīqa).” This quotation is an important early contribution to the theological debate concerning divine attributes, and its inclusion in the manuscript, along with the accompanying explanation, strongly suggests that the copyist al-Jirahī adhered to the approach to divine attributes outlined in the quotation—namely, endorsing Qurʾānic descriptions of God at face value, neither explaining them in figurative terms (such as by interpreting “being seated on” to mean “having power over”) nor extending these descriptions to conclude that if God is seated, He must have a body, physical mass, and so on. This stance of avoiding discussion of the modalities (kayf) of divine attributes is characteristic of a traditionalist Sunnī theology, as opposed to the Ashʿarī Sunnī position.[8]


The seemingly only complete surviving copy of Qaʿnabī’s recension of Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ was produced in fifteenth-century pre-Safavid Iran at a time when most of Iran’s population was still Sunnī. The copy was produced by a local scholar who, like the vast majority of the known transmitters of this recension, did not adhere to Mālik’s school of law but rather transmitted the text as part of a pious practice of textual transmission of ḥadīth and the legal opinions of early authorities. The theological addition at the end of the manuscript indicates that the copyist, and by extension the circles in which he studied and taught, followed a traditionalist Sunnī theology rather than Ashʿarī doctrine. It appears that the copyist, al-Jirahī, produced the copy for his own personal use. He was not a professional copyist and made frequent mistakes, but he followed the protocol of ḥadīth transmission and collated the newly copied text against the original copy in order to catch mistakes and omissions, which he then corrected in the margins. The manuscript remained in his family and was evidently treasured, since the births of al-Jirahī’s grandchildren were recorded in it. However, it eventually traveled to Istanbul where it remains today, and there is no evidence (such as isnāds or readers’ notes) that it was taught or read afterward. Al-Qaʿnabī’s recension fell out of active circulation soon after this copy was completed; the last of the admittedly few surviving witnesses to this recension is the partial copy made of Cârullah 428 now held at Al-Azhar Library (3857/53125, fol. 2b), which was produced in 891/1486:

The immediate legal significance of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension is negligible, as there is no evidence that it was used or studied as a legal work after al-Qaʿnabī’s lifetime. However, in a broader sense this text makes an important contribution to our understanding of second/eighth-century Medinan law. As the fourth complete recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ available for study, it constitutes an additional witness to the legal terminology recorded from Mālik. The evidence it provides indicates that although much of Mālik’s legal terminology is fairly stable, there is also some potentially significant variation. As our previous essay suggests, the most likely explanation for many of the variants is that Mālik’s positions on individual legal issues (for example, his assessment of how widespread or historically rooted a practice was in Medina) evolved over the course of his life, and these shifts were reflected in the different recensions of his work produced by his students over the years. This perspective encourages us to see Mālik as an active jurist evaluating and formulating the law, rather than just as the caretaker and recorder of a static legal tradition.


[1] Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ li-l-Imām Mālik b. Anas: Riwāyat ʿAbd Allāh b. Maslama al-Qaʿnabī, ed. ʿAbd al-Majīd Turkī (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1999), 210–11.

[2] The translation follows that of Mohammad Fadel and Connell Monette, Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ: The Recension of Yaḥyā Ibn Yaḥyā al-Laythī (d. 848) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 134 (no. 287).

[3] MS Cârullah 428, fol. 22a.

[4] The wording attributed to the Qurʾān in the fuller version, “hasten” (fa-sʿaw), is the one used in the dominant Qurʾānic readings. The alternative that appears in the abbreviated version, “go” (fa-mdū), is reported from various companions of the Prophet but does not match the standard consonantal text of the Qurʾān (rasm ʿuthmānī). See Abū al-Fatḥ Ibn Jinnī, al-Muḥtasib fī tabyīn wujūh shawādh al-qirāʾāt wa-l-īḍāḥ ʿanhā, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭā, 2 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1998), 2:375.

[5] Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers (Leiden: Brill. 2009), 234.

[6] Translation from Jaroslav Stetkevych, “The ʿAyniyyah of Abū Dhuʾayb al-Hudhalī: The Achievement of a Classical Arabic Allegorical Form,” Journal of Arabic Literature 51, nos. 3–4 (2020): 280.

[7] ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Khuḍayr, “Sharḥ al-Muwaṭṭaʾ,” October 5, 2014, “Kitāb al-ṣalāt fī Ramaḍān,” dars 21, https://shkhudheir.com/scientific-lesson/1856641283.

[8] See Ahmed El Shamsy, “‘The Mushabbiha Are the Jews of the Umma’: On the History of a Heresiographical Label,” in Religious and Intellectual Diversity in the Islamicate World and Beyond: Essays in Honor of Sarah Stroumsa, ed. Omer Michaelis and Sabine Schmidtke (Leiden: Brill, 2024), 1053–55.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Adam DeSchriver, Ammar Farra, Henry Stratakis-Allen & Ahmed El Shamsy, What else can we learn from the manuscript of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ?, Islamic Law Blog (March 28, 2024), https://islamiclaw.blog/2024/03/28/what-else-can-we-learn-from-the-manuscript-of-al-qa%ca%bfnabis-recension-of-the-muwa%e1%b9%ad%e1%b9%ada%ca%be/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Adam DeSchriver, Ammar Farra, Henry Stratakis-Allen and Ahmed El Shamsy, “What else can we learn from the manuscript of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ?,” Islamic Law Blog, March 28, 2024, https://islamiclaw.blog/2024/03/28/what-else-can-we-learn-from-the-manuscript-of-al-qa%ca%bfnabis-recension-of-the-muwa%e1%b9%ad%e1%b9%ada%ca%be/)

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