Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Quran was the only book salvaged when Abbasid Caliphate’s famed libraries with thousands of rare books were destroyed in the Mongol army’s Siege of Baghdad.
The year was 1258. And the all-conquering Mongol army was rampaging through the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate in an orgy of death and destruction that was to be later known as the 13-day Siege of Baghdad.
Under the ruthless military commander Hulagu Khan, the grandson of the greatest Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, the invading army pillaged and plundered the magnificent and opulent city and butchered thousands of civilians in what was one of the biggest massacres of the 13th century.
Baghdad would regain its glory and riches later but what was lost forever in the invasion was one of the biggest repositories of wisdom in the Islamic world—the Abbasid Caliphate’s grand libraries which were completely destroyed along with thousands of rare and priceless books.
Among the places destroyed was the Bayt al-Hikmah — the House of Wisdom — one of the most important science centres of the Islamic world for more than 500 years, and its magnificent library.
Written documents and oral stories passed down through generations speak of mountains formed by the destroyed books and manuscripts. The Tigress river was said to have turned black by the ink from hundreds of books thrown into it.
Such was the loss that the Siege of Baghdad is widely acknowledged as the beginning of the end of the ‘golden age of Islam’.
The attack on Baghdad resulted from many geopolitical upheavals during the period.
When Genghis Khan died in 1227, he left behind such a large empire that its borders extended from the west to southern Europe. Far from the Mongol capital of Karakorum, these western parts of the empire were proving hard to govern.
In a move to consolidate his position, the fourth Mongolian emperor Mengu Khan embarked on a mission of consolidation and expansion. He sent one of his brothers Kublai Khan to China and the other brother Hulagu to the territory covering present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Caucasus and Anatolia.
Leading an army consisting of two-tenths of the standing Mongol army, and designated as the ‘Ilkhan’—meaning ‘the ruler of the region’—Hulagu embarked on his mission in 1253. It was to change the fate of the third Caliphate.
Hulagu had a three-point agenda. The first was to eliminate the Assassins, a mystical band of Shite Islam followers who had gained notoriety as skilled killers who later gave birth to the English word, assassin. Founded by Hasan Sabbah, the Assassins operated out of the Alamut Castle, now in Iran.
The Assassins, a thorn in the Islamic world for a long time, were no match for the mighty Mongol army and were swiftly put down. The Alamut Castle and other castles belonging to them were captured.
Hulagu, also tasked with subduing the Abbasid Caliphate and seizing Syria and Egypt, then turned his attention towards Baghdad. The year was 1258.
Al-Musta’sim Billah, the last caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, opened the doors of Baghdad under the impression that would spare him and his subjects. His optimism cost him dearly.
Hulagu imprisoned the last Abbasid caliph, along with his three children, and tortured him for information about the caliphate’s treasure. After Al-Musta’sim gave away the location of the treasury, Hulagu killed him. Then he let loose his army on an unsuspecting Baghdad. It is said that Hulagu had to leave the city for a while because of the stench of rotting corpses after the massacre.
The burning of the libraries and the books were to follow soon.
Amid the death and destruction, one book survived, and it has remained one of the most important documents and proof of the carnage unleashed by Hulagu.
“I took this book out of the Tigris River, thrown by the Mongols,” says a handwritten note in Arabic on the inside cover of the book. Under the note written by the anonymous person is the year Hijri 656, which corresponds to 1258 in the Gregorian calendar.
The retrieved book, Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Quran, by Arabic language scholar Al-Raghib al-Isfahani, is a dictionary of Gharib words in the Qur’an. Gharib words’ meanings are not easily understood as they are no longer part of the regular vocabulary.
The book is now in Baghdad’s Abdul Qadir Gilani Library which escaped destruction during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. At least ten major libraries were destroyed during the US occupation of Baghdad.
In his catalogue titled The Manuscripts of the Library of Abdul Qadir Gilani, Ibrahim ed-Derrubi dates the Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Quran to the 5th-century Hijri.
However, only the second of Isfahani’s three-volume books survives today.
But the literary world, as well as the Islamic world, owes a debt of gratitude to the unknown person who had the wisdom to pick up the book from the Tigress. If not for him — or her — this rare book would have joined others collectively known as the ‘Lost Books of the East’.