A Lost World: On Travis Zadeh’s “Wonders and Rarities”

February 12, 2023   •   By Nile Green

Wonders and Rarities: The Marvelous Book That Traveled the World and Mapped the Cosmos

Travis Zadeh

WHAT IS THERE left of wonder in the world? Little perhaps for us postmoderns: a dying planet, a godless universe, the lingering angst of political strife and pandemics. The closest science has come to connecting us with the cosmos is the materialist reassurance of Carl Sagan’s adage, “We are made of star-stuff.” Yet our dismal globe is a thing of recent discovery. For a long time, other cultures looked through quite different lenses at the earth and skies above.

In Wonders and Rarities: The Marvelous Book that Traveled the World and Mapped the Cosmos (2023), Travis Zadeh takes us on a tour through one such lost world — a medieval Muslim cosmos in which the earth and all its parts had their place in a benign divine order. It is a cosmography contained within the pages of a single book that, for the best part of 700 years, was read from India to Egypt — the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾ ib al-mawjūdāt (“The Wonders of Things Created and Rarities of Matters Existent,” in Zadeh’s rendering) by Abū Yaḥyā al-Qazwīnī, who was born around 1203 in what is today Western Iran. Nowadays, its many extant manuscript versions are mostly known for their fabulous illustrations, at once geometric and fantastic. The past decade has seen several exhibitions based on copies held in European and American libraries. But Zadeh is primarily concerned with al-Qazwīnī’s words, acting as a commentator in the classical sense of someone seeking to reveal the layers of reference and meaning in a text from another time. In taking this approach, Zadeh presents his book in the guise of the Persian literary commentary known as a javāb, or “answer,” to an author from centuries earlier. In this way, he gives us vicarious entry to a centuries-long conversation, not only with al-Qazwīnī himself but also with his many other commentators. Thus, Zadeh has not so much written a study of al-Qazwīnī as a biography of his book and its interpretation and circulation over the course of seven centuries.

Perhaps the most successful biography of a book in recent years was Christopher de Hamel’s surprise bestseller Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (2016). But there have also been the more culturally varied offerings in Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, which range from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali to Saint Teresa of Avila’s El libro de la vida. Biographies of Muslim books remain few and far between, though (even the Princeton series so far includes only the all-too-obvious Qur’an). So, in recounting the life of an Islamic text as its fortunes waxed and waned over centuries, Wonders and Rarities is something of a rarity itself. As for wonder, that is the core of its subject matter — a mode of perception that opens consciousness to the cosmos via its infinitely interrelated parts.

For as its original Arabic title suggests, al-Qazwīnī’s ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt describes every class of “existent” in creation, from the distant stars and planets to the earth and every little and large thing upon it. Describing each of those things through the language of wonder and rarity was not merely a rhetorical device for al-Qazwīnī; it was a means of knowledge. How so? Because by learning what was matchless and marvelous in the universe, his readers were equipped to look up and around to see, appreciate, and understand the world anew. Except, of course, that the wording of al-Qazwīnī’s title was not the “world” but rather “things created” — al-Makhlūqāt — which is to say, things brought into existence by the Creator, al-Khāliq, one of the Qur’anic names of God.

From its very title, then, al-Qazwīnī’s book takes us into an axiomatically Islamic view of the universe, “a cosmos that is quite foreign to modern dispositions,” Zadeh notes. Yet Zadeh is also keen to make clear from the start that this was also a work of science, albeit of a kind that later fell out of favor among Muslims. To support this claim, he positions the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt among the scientific theories of the time, which al-Qazwīnī read assiduously as a student, and then a teacher, in 13th-century Iraq. By also introducing the many other subjects al-Qazwīnī studied and taught in the madrasas of Baghdad and Mosul, Zadeh shows that the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt was a work of metaphysics and ethics as well. And angelology and minerology — a study of the higher and lower spheres of the cosmos, along with weather and animals in the intermediary spheres. And, of course, plain geography, albeit with the many gaps on the medieval map filled with questionable travelers’ tales and mariners’ lore. Then there were sections on alchemy and other occult sciences — and the amusing anecdotes and witticisms al-Qazwīnī couldn’t resist including.

All told, the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt included a bit of everything under the sun, yet it was far from a random miscellany. The book was carefully constructed as a lens or mirror (both of scientific interest to al-Qazwīnī) through which to look upon the world. As Zadeh explains, its purpose was to help readers “face the puzzle of a divine design that is both transcendent and yet manifest, to contemplate the perfection of a creation that is nonetheless riddled with suffering, to entertain the plausible and outlandish through realms of possibility.”

As any book biographer should, Zadeh uses the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt as a guide to the wider culture it came from. While the opening chapters begin with al-Qazwīnī himself, tracing his career as a student and teacher, Zadeh positions us as readers peeping over al-Qazwīnī’s shoulder: we read what he does, albeit in manageable digests of his complicated curricula. Much of al-Qazwīnī’s reading drew from the Greek traditions of learning — Aristotle, Ptolemy, even Plutarch — which were preserved and elaborated in Arabic, then placed in dialogue with the Qur’an. There’s a lot to take in, but Zadeh writes with a clear and breezy lyricism that makes light reading of heavyweight topics.

Zadeh also gives a lively sense of al-Qazwīnī’s milieu beyond the library. Through effective scene-setting — a magnificent clock with celestial motifs over the gate to the Mustansiriya Madrasa, bureaucrats plodding along as the Mongol horde loomed on the horizon — there are lively jolts of atmosphere too.

It is only in Zadeh’s second trio of chapters that he finally opens for us the covers of al-Qazwīnī’s masterpiece, explicating its main sections on the celestial and terrestrial spheres, and thence the countless wonders of the heavens and earth. Not that these spheres were understood to be separate — quite the opposite. Drawing from the Qur’anic call to look for signs of Allah in his creation, al-Qazwīnī pointed to hidden correspondences tying every point of the cosmos together. Here he relied not only on the authority of scripture but also on the orthodox theology of medieval Islam, settled a century earlier by the great al-Ghazālī. Zadeh summarizes this neatly:

The entire world is God’s written collection, a taṣnīf, an ordered compendium, Ghazālī counsels, containing all the wonders of His creation. And so it is that meditation on God’s book of natural wonders, with perplexity and amazement, offers a pious means of awakening to the world. The ancient metaphor of nature as divine scripture was a powerful conceit in the development of Islamic philosophy.

Consequently, while al-Qazwīnī was wont to include tales about islands at the end of the world where women grew on trees and other dubious mirabilia, his purpose was lofty indeed. When he turned away from the heavens to more earthy concerns, such as advising on talismans for practical (and procreational) purposes, he remained in the same “field of therapeutic possibilities for mobilizing the orders of creation.” The alchemical arts were also within his purview, prompting al-Qazwīnī to explain the khawāṣṣ, or special properties, of sundry earthly substances that, as parts of a perfect cosmic design, had hidden correspondences with the starry heavens.

The principle at work here was also that evoked by the alchemists of Europe: “As above, so below.” And this was no coincidence, for Paracelsus in 16th-century Austria drew on the same Greek tradition that al-Qazwīnī in Iraq had a few centuries earlier. Except that, through a kind of theological alchemy, the Muslim mages had managed to meld Greek thought with Islam. Thus, Hermes Trismegistus was identified with the Qur’anic prophet Idrīs, while the Arabic translation of Apollonius of Tyana’s Great Book of Talismans included the recommendation to recite the Qur’an whenever preparing an amulet.

In his final trilogy of chapters, Zadeh turns to the life of the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt after the death of its author in 1283. Within a generation, copies had reached Egypt. Subsequent centuries would see it translated from Arabic to other languages, especially Turkish and Persian, letting it travel much further. But while calligraphers and artists were producing ever more beautifully illustrated versions of al-Qazwīnī’s cosmic vade mecum, on the other side of the Old World, discoveries were underway that would radically undermine his picture of the planet: the realization that an entire New World lay across what Arabic geographers called the Encompassing Sea.

Within a mere two decades of Columbus’s first voyage, a new map of the world was made by the Ottoman mariner Piri Reis. As other Muslim scholars added more information on the Yangi Dunya, or New World, to their revised books of geography, al-Qazwīnī’s work no longer seemed so credible, at least not as a map of the physical world. Yet conviction in an orderly cosmos, and the appeal of a world full of wonders, remained remarkably robust. (Here it would have been helpful had Zadeh discussed the impact on Muslims of European astronomical and geographical discoveries.) Consequently, the 18th and 19th centuries saw another bibliographical boom for the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt, especially in South Asia. “The sheer number of manuscripts in India is astounding,” writes Zadeh, before giving a long list of libraries where they still sit on the shelves. Such was al-Qazwīnī’s success in the subcontinent that it inspired one of the most remarkable moments in his posthumous career: a manuscript copyist decided to inflate the value of his product by adding a forged seal and a fanciful portrait of al-Qazwīnī himself.

Portrayed in Indian dress, with a pen box and spittoon by his side, the painting misled some readers to assume that al-Qazwīnī must have come from India. And, in some ways, he had at least become Indian — or, rather, his book had. Translated into Urdu, it inspired a late resurgence of wonder texts that, amid the cultural commixtures of colonialization, incorporated novel evidence of the marvels of the universe by way of mesmerism, theosophy, and sundry other expressions of the Victorian occult. It was also in India that the text was finally printed in 1866. Using German lithography to add illustrations at rock-bottom prices, the great Hindu publishing impresario Nawal Kishore produced the first ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt for the masses.

Nevertheless, the intellectual tide was turning against wonder as a new generation of Muslim modernizers rejected the old view of the cosmos as a plain contradiction of science. One such reformer was the Egyptian philologist and statesman Aḥmad Zakī Pāshā. Far from philistine, Zakī Pāshā was actually one of the main people responsible for bringing medieval Arabic manuscripts into the new medium of print. But as a modernist as much as a bibliophile, he was very selective about what he placed before the new reading public. Indeed, so suspicious was he of old treatises on talismans, astrology, and other topics discussed by al-Qazwīnī that, when advising the Ottoman Imperial Library of Istanbul, he told them to ban everyone from access to such texts except with the express permission of the head librarian. Far from being the key to understanding the universe, books like al-Qazwīnī’s became all but forbidden.

And so, over the past century, scientizing religious reformers ensured that the Muslim view of the cosmos would become much like its secular counterpart, except with a deity presiding above it. Even in Mecca, the Abrāj al-Bait clock tower that today looms over the Kaaba hosts a museum of astronomy that seeks to reconcile religion with science. By contrast, al-Qazwīnī’s book reveals the universe that Muslims experienced before the celestial ruptures of modernity — and the essence of that experience was wonder. Zadeh is at pains to make clear the importance of this point: “In the contours of Islamic history, wonder and rarity are inescapable. They are a means for fathoming all of creation, as well as for organizing and containing it.”

Like al-Qazwīnī himself, Travis Zadeh has written a deliciously baggy tome, full of delights and diversions in its tour of the cosmic horizons. This is a book to get lost in, whether one wants to or not. Zadeh describes the ʿAjaʾib al-Makhlūqāt as containing a “world within a book.” In his own Wonders and Rarities, he has managed something similar himself.


Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. He is the author of How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding (2022) and host of the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam.