Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani

Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Iṣfahānī ( أبو الفرج الأصفهاني ), also known as Abul-Faraj (897–967 CE) was an historian of Arab-Quraysh origin who is noted for collecting and preserving ancient Arabic lyrics and poems in his major work, the Kitāb al-Aghānī.


Abu al-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī was born in Isfahan, Persia (present-day Iran) but spent his youth and made his early studies in Baghdad (present-day Iraq). He was a direct descendant of the last of the Umayyad caliphs, Marwan II, and was thus connected with the Umayyad rulers in al-Andalus, and seems to have kept up a correspondence with them and to have sent them some of his works. He became famous for his knowledge of early Arabian antiquities.

His later life was spent in various parts of the Islamic world, in Aleppo with its Hamdanid governor Sayf ad-Dawlah (to whom he dedicated the Book of Songs), in Ray with the Buwayhid vizier Ibn 'Abbad, and elsewhere.

Although he wrote poetry, also an anthology of verses on the monasteries of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and a genealogical work, his fame rests upon his Book of Songs (Kitab al-Aghani).

Book of Songs & Other Works

  • Kitāb al-Aġānī (كتاب الأغاني) 'Book of Songs', a collection of Arabic chants rich in information on Arab and Persian poets, singers and other musicians from the 7th - 10th centuries of major cities such as Mecca, Damascus, Isfahan, Rey, Baghdād and Baṣrah. The Book of Songs contains details of the ancient Arab tribes and courtly life of the Umayyads and provides a complete overview of the Arab civilization from the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya era, up to his own time. Abū ‘l-Faraj employs the classical Arabic genealogical devise, or isnad, (chain of transmission), to relate the biographical accounts of the authors and composers. Although originally the poems were put to music, the musical signs are no longer legible. Abū ‘l-Faraj spent in total 50 years creating this work, which remains an important historical source. The first printed edition, published in 1868, contained 20 volumes. In 1888 Rudolf Ernst Brünnow published a 21st volume being a collection of biographies not contained in the Bulāq edition, edited from MSS in the Royal Library of Munich.

  • Maqātil aṭ-Ṭālibīyīn (مقاتل الطالبيين}), Tālibid Fights, a collection of more than 200 biographies of the descendants of Abū Tālib ibn'Abd al-Muttalib, from the time of the Prophet Muḥammad to the writing of the book in 313 the Hijri (= 925/926 CE) who died in an unnatural way. As Abūl-Faraj said in the foreword to his work, he included only those Tālibids who rebelled against the government and were killed, slaughtered, executed or poisoned, lived underground, fled or died in captivity. The work is a major source for the Umayyad and Abbāsid Alid uprisings and the main source for the Hashimite meeting that took place after the assassination of the Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd II in the village of al-Abwā' between Mecca and Medina. At this meeting, al-'Abdallah made the Hashimites pledge an oath of allegiance to his son Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya as the new Mahdi.
  • Kitāb al-Imā'āš-šawā'ir (كتاب الإماء الشواعر) 'The Book of the Poet-slaves', a collection of accounts of poetic slaves of the Abbasid period.