Why Sahib-ibn-Abbad carried 2,06,000 books on 400 camels
He did not carry them on an iPad or a Kindle. Instead, he carried them on 400 camels that walked in alphabetical order.
You might be wondering, “who’s this guy!”.
His name is Abu’l-Qāsim Ismāʿīl ibnʿAbbād ibn al-Abbās (quite a long name right!), commonly referred to as Sahib ibn Abbad and Abdul Kassem Ismail in history books.
To know more about who he is and what he did, let’s travel back to 10th century Persia.
The rise of the Buyid Dynasty
During the early 10th century, Persia was undergoing a significant shift. The land that was once ruled by Arabs after their invasion during the 7th century had started to see the rise of several native Persian Muslim dynasties who fought hard to take control of their lands. This period is often known as the Iranian Intermezzo or the Persian Renaissance.
This period saw the rise of several Persian dynasties, including the Tahirids, Sajids, Saffarids, Samanids, Ziyarids, Buyids, and Sallarids.
Among them, the Buyid dynasty was on the most powerful kingdoms in the middle east. Ali ibn Buya founded the Buyid dynasty in 934. They ruled a vast landmass until 1062 that also included present-day Iraq and parts of Oman.
In 938, in the middle of all this, Sahib ibn Abbad was born in Persia.
Grand Vizier of Mu’ayyad
At its peak, the courts of the Buyid Dynasty naturally attracted several scholars and bureaucrats.
One such man was the father of Ibn Abbad. He was the vizier of Rukn al-Dawla, the first Buyid ruler. The term Vizier refers to the Chief officer of the state. It is one of the prestigious positions in an Empire, and they enjoyed a wide range of benefits.
When his father died, Ibn Abbad was only seven or eight. But, his father’s acquaintance, the famous Grand Vizier Ibn al-‘Amid, trained Ibn Abbad to be a competent bureaucrat and secretary. When the boy was twenty, he was sent to serve as the secretary of Mu’ayyad al-Dawla, the third son of Rukn.
The prince and the secretary soon became close friends; the latter’s nickname, Sahib, means “companion” and was given to him by Mu’ayyad to show how much he valued their mutual relationship. In 970, Ibn Abbad became Mu’ayyad’s Grand Vizier.
For the next two decades, Ibn Abbad was the second most powerful man in the Buyid courts.
As a Vizier, Ibn Abbad made himself famous—both in his own time and in history, for Ibn Abbad remains an example of a successful Vizier even today in the Muslim world—as a writer and patron of literature.
He also had close ties with a network of over 500 poets, theologians, and other writers. They helped make Ibn al-Abbad’s court one of the premier centers of Shi’a and rationalist thinking in Persia.
And, apart from his other contributions, he’s also known in the history for one other important thing—his love for books.
Ibn Abad’s Love for Books
Ibn Abbad loved reading and collecting books. During his time as a Vizier, he collected a vast amount of literature that spanned across disciplines.
It is said that Ibn Abad owned roughly 1,17,000 books, and it took 400 camels to take all of them. This included sixty camels just for his dictionaries. And, the catalog of his library alone up ten volumes.
But, another source approaches this a little differently.
They calculated the average weight of medieval Persian books and the average load that camels can carry, and estimated that if Ibn Abbad must have owned some 206,000 books!
From a quick calculation I did, I found out the following:
Each camel would’ve carried roughly 500 books. (400 x 500 = ~2,00,000 books)
If we take out those 60 camels that carried only dictionaries (60 x 500 = 30,000 books), there are 340 camels remaining.
Considering there are 32 alphabets in the modern Persian Language (9th century and above), it would’ve taken 11 camels to carry books with respect to each alphabet.
Ibn Abbad carried his entire library whenever he traveled, and his camel drivers acted as his librarians. The camel drivers were also trained to walk the camels in order of the Persian alphabets.
His Life and Contributions
Ibn Abbad himself was a great poet and writer (if probably not as great as he thought himself to be). He was a genuine polymath, and wrote several books on Religion, History, Literary criticism, etc. and a countless number of poems in the Persian language.
After achieving so much, Ibn Abbad died in 995 at the age of fifty-seven. Even after his death, he is fondly remembered in the history books for his love for books.