Abū ’l-Khayr

Kitāb al-filāḥa

Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī, surnamed Al-Shajjār, ‘the tree-planter’ or ‘the arboriculturist’, was a native of Seville (Ishbīliya). He authored a treatise on agriculture, the Kitāb al-filāḥa, and also, probably, the most important botanical encyclopedia of medieval Islam, the anonymous ‘Umdat al-ṭabīb fī marifat al-nabāt li-kull labīb, ‘The Physician’s reliance in the knowledge of plants for every man of understanding’ (García Sánchez & Hernández Bermejo 2007, p. 76)1. He is not mentioned in the biographical sources and we know little about him except that he was a contemporary of king Al-Mu‘tamid of Seville (reigned 461/1069-484/1091) and that he died towards the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th century (Abū ’l-Khayr 1991, p. 22). He is much quoted by Ibn al-‘Awwām, and based largely on the latter’s citations Attié concludes that Abū ’l-Khayr flourished in the second half of the 11th century (being a slightly younger contemporary of the agronomist Ibn Baṣṣāl) and that he wrote his agricultural manual c. 1070-75 (Attié, B. 1982, pp. 299-332).  Autobiographical references in the ‘Umdat al-ṭabīb reveal that its author was a disciple of both Ibn Baṣṣāl and the botanist-physician Ibn al-Lūnquh (d. 1105), so Abū ’l-Khayr most likely worked alongside Ibn Baṣṣāl in the king’s experimental garden in Seville. In any case Abū ’l-Khayr must have been part of the circle of eminent 11th century Andalusian agronomists, horticulturalists and botanists that included Ibn Baṣṣāl, Ibn al-Lūnquh, Ibn Hajjāj and Al-Ṭighnarī (Pérès, H. 1999, n.p.).  

In his Kitāb al-filāḥa Abū ’l-Khayr declares that “Agriculture is a well-founded science and a divine grace, with a huge reward” (García Sánchez 1994, p. 196). He was held in high esteem by the late 12th/early 13th century agronomist Ibn al-‘Awwām, especially for his knowledge of soils, irrigation, and the cultivation of olives, and it was from him (and from Ibn Baṣṣāl and Al-Ṭighnarī ) that Ibn al-‘Awwām borrowed his descriptions of the digging of wells and the instruments used for leveling land (Bolens 1981, pp. 26-27). Abū ’l-Khayr often cites his predecessors, especially his master Ibn Baṣṣāl, Al-Dīnawarī’s Kitāb al-nabāt or ‘Book of Plants’, and Aristotle, as well as Ibn Waḥshīya, Anatolius, Democritus, Fidas al-Fāsī, and ‘Qusṭūs’ or Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus. In keeping with the practical nature of Andalusian agronomy he draws on his personal experience, experiments and observations in the gardens, fields, olive groves and ramblas of his native Aljarafe (García Sánchez 1994, p. 196), the hilly back-country to the west of Seville, noting on occasion, “We know this from our own experience” (Abū ’l-Khayr 1946, p. 15). His agronomical treatise has come down to us incomplete and is preserved in just three manuscripts.

1 The ‘Umdat is traditionally attributed (in ms. XL of the Gayangos Collection of the Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Historia de Madrid?) to the Christian physician Abū’l Ḥasan al-Mukhtār ibn ‘Abdūn of Baghdad, known as Ibn Buṭlān, a claim refuted by Asin Palacios who presents convincing proof that the author was in fact an Andalusian Muslim of the 11th/12th century (Asín Palacios, 1943), subsequently referred to as the Anonymous Botanist of Seville (Bolens 1981, p. 27-29). The Anonymous Botanist has since been identified as the Sevillian agronomist Abū ’l-Khayr by García Sánchez (1994) and confirmed by the editors of the critical edition (Abū ’l-Khayr, 2004).


“This book, which contains not less than 360 quarto pages in a very readable Maghrebi script, forms, so to speak, a compendium of Muslim agronomical knowledge of the Middle Ages. From the most delicate flowers to the sturdiest of trees, from staple vegetables to luxury plants, and from the preparation of the soil to the processing of the crop, the author, as an expert as well as citing the authorities, describes and explains the best systems of cultivation. Further, he gives instruction to both farmers and gardeners on plant hygiene and pathology; he details the prevention and cure of a good many diseases, according to the species, most notably those that afflict the vine. He expounds on fertilizers and manures and their preparation; the ploughings that precede sowing and the operations that follow planting; the trees, grains and vegetables that should be planted or sown on each type of land; the cultivation of the plants of the Sahara; the five techniques of grafting (the Rūmi or Roman, the Persian, the Nabataean, the Gothic and the Greek); a description of the tools of grafting; the various grafts according to their suitability for each species; and finally how to preserve grapes, figs and olives. Following the chapter on grafting one finds a multitude of curious instructions on how to impart various flavours and scents to fruits, how to make designs and inscriptions appear on apples and pears, etc., and how to obtain figs of different colours on the same tree. After the theory of pruning, which completes the survey of horticulture, are a series of recipes for repelling and extirminating harmful creatures and insects. The work ends with a final chapter on livestock.

Such is the overview of subjects dealt with by Abū ’l-Khayr. As to the details, herein are revealed the ideas, or to be more exact, the superstitions of the time, mixed with a scholarly erudition that is not without value; for, in regard to such and such an operation where the author assigns an important role to amulets and talismans, we also encounter the principles of Aristotle and the aphorisms of Hippocrates or Galen. More than one perfectly accurate observation is marred by a comment that does not accord with practical experience. Night dreams featuring the vision of certain flowers clash with diverse tableaux presenting on the one hand poetic pictures of springtime and on the other scientific descriptions of useful plants.” (translated from A. Cherbonneau’s introduction to Abū al-Khayr al-Ishbīlī, 1946. Cherbonneau is here summarizing the contents of a miscellaneous manuscript which he wrongly identifies as being entirely the work of Ibn al-Ḥusayn, later identified as Abū al-Khayr).

On the other hand, H. Pérès has outlined the main contents of Abū ’l-Khayr’s treatise thus: “(i) General considerations on planting (gharāsa): favourable months; influence of the moon; the time needed for plants to grow and to yield fruit; age of trees; damage (weather, animals, fire, water); special treatment of olive-trees, vines, fig-trees, palm-trees; (ii) Cultivation of trees, bushes, grains, seeds; layering, pruning, grafting; fruit and vegetable conserves; growing of vegetables; aromatic plants, flowers; flax and cotton; banana and sugar-cane; (iii) Animals: of the back-yard, especially pigeons; bees and wild animals; harmful animals (reptiles, rodents and insects); (iv) Finally two pages on tajārib al-‘ām, i.e. meteorological or astrological prognostications.” (Pérès 1999, n.p.)

Published Editions & Translations

There have been three published editions/translations of Abū ’l-Khayr’s work:

  • Abū al-Khayr Al-Ishbīlī (1938). Kitāb fī al-Filāa. Fez: Sīdī al-Tuhāmī al-Nāṣirī al-Ja‘farī.
    The ‘Fez Edition’ of miscellaneous Andalusian agricultural texts in Arabic. The work of Abū l-Khayr is found on pp. 144 to 174, together with two previous pages, 83 and 84 (Abū ’l-Khayr, 1991: 27-28; Attié, 1982: 323; García, 1987: 337; García Gómez, 1945: 134-135). For a discussion on this edition see here

  • Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī  (1946). Kitāb al-Filāḥa ou Le Livre de la Culture : Notice et extraits traduits par A. Cherbonneau, éclaircissements par H. Pérès [Bibliographie Arabe-Française 5]. Edited by A. Cherbonneau & H. Pérès. Alger: Carbonel.
    Extracts from Abū ’l-Khayr translated into French, without Arabic text. In his introduction to the translation Cherbonneau attributes the work to a certain Ibn al-Ḥusayn, which Pérès later disproved by examining Ms. 4764 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, which contains, under the global name Ibn al-Ḥusayn, a miscellany of texts including that of Abū ’l-Khayr, from which Cherbonneau had translated extracts. See an English translation of this work here

  • Abū l-Jayr. Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī (1991). Kitāb al-Filāa: Tratado de Agricultura. Edited, translated into Spanish and indexed by J.M. Carabaza Bravo. Madrid: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, Instituto de Cooperación con el Mundo Árabe.
Since no new manuscript of this work has appeared, this can be considered as a definitive edition and translation (with the exception of some minor errors based on incorrect reading). In addition, some botanical identifications need to be revised in the light of recent collaboration between botanists and Arabists on the plants of Al-Andalus.

( Source: Carabaza Bravo & García Sánchez, 2001 and 2009)


The following manuscripts have been erroneously attributed to Abū ’l-Khayr: nº 13812 of the National Library in Tunis; nº 2809 of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; and nº 19 of the Library of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. Those which really contain parts of his Kitāb al-filāḥa are the following:

  • Bibliothèque Générale, Rabat, nº 1410 D, folios 130v-133v.

  • Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, nº 4764, folios 64r-151v.

(Source: Carabaza Bravo &  García Sánchez, 2001 and 2009)


Abū al-Khayr Al-Ishbīlī (= Abū al-Khayr al-Shajjār al-Ishbīlī al‑Andalusī) (1938). Kitāb fī al-Filāa. Fez: Sīdī al-Tuhāmī al-Nāṣirī al-Ja‘farī.
Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī  (1946). Kitāb al-Filāḥa ou Le Livre de la Culture : Notice et extraits traduits par A. Cherbonneau, éclaircissements par H. Pérès [Bibliographie Arabe-Française 5]. Edited by A. Cherbonneau & H. Pérès. Alger: Carbonel.
Abū l-Jayr/Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī  (1991). Kitāb al-Filāa: Tratado de Agricultura. Edited, translated into Spanish and indexed by J.M. Carabaza Bravo. Madrid: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, Instituto de Cooperación con el Mundo Árabe.
Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī (2004). Umdat al-ṭabīb fī ma‘rifat al-nabāt li-kull labīb (Libro Base del Médico para el Conocimento de la Botánica por Todo Experto), [Fuentes Arábico-Hispanas 30]. Edited by J. Bustamente, F. Corriente & M. Tilmatine.  Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.
Asín Palacios, M. (1943). Glosario de Voces Romances Registradas por un Botánico Anónimo Hispano-Musulmán (siglos XI-XII). Madrid-Granada.
Attié, B. (1982). ‘L’ordre chronologique probable des sources directes d’Ibn al-‘Awwām’. Al‑Qantara 3, pp. 299-332.
Bolens, L. (1981). Agronomes Andalous du Moyen-Age. Geneva‑Paris: Droz.
Carabaza Bravo, J.M. (1989). ‘Abū l-Jayr y su texto agrícola’. Boletín de la Asociación Española de Orientalistas 25, pp. 43-56.
Carabaza Bravo, J.M. (1990). ‘Un agrónomo del siglo XI: Abu l-Jayr’. In: Ciencias de la naturaleza en al-Andalus, I, pp. 223-40.
Carabaza Bravo, J.M. (1991). Abū l-Jayr. Kitāb al-filāha. Tratado de agricultura. Madrid: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional. See Abū l-Jayr/Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī  (1991).
Carabaza Bravo, J.M., García Sánchez, E. & Llavero Ruiz, E. (1991). ‘Obras manuscritas de los geoponos andalusies (siglos X-XII)’. In: Emilio Molina et al. (eds.). Homenaje al Profesor Jacinto Bosch Vila, vol. 2, pp. 1115-1132. Granada: Universidad de Granada.
Carabaza Bravo, J.M. & García Sánchez, E. (1998). ‘Códices Misceláneos de Agronomía Andalusí’. Al‑Qantara 19, pp. 393-416.
Carabaza Bravo, J.M. & García Sánchez, E. (2001). ‘Estado actual y perspectivas de los estudios sobre agronomia andalusi’. In: Tawfik et al. (eds.). El Saber en al-Andalus: Textos y Estudios 3, pp. 101-118. Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla.
Carabaza Bravo, J.M. & García Sánchez, E. (2009). ‘Studies on the agronomy of Al-Andalus’. Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée [Online] 126.
García Gómez, E. (1945). ‘Sobre la agricultura arábigoandaluza: Cuestiones bibliográficas’. Al‑Andalus 10, pp. 127-146.
García Sánchez, E. (1987). ‘Problemática en torno a la autoría de algunas obras agronómicas andalusíes’. In: Homenaje al Profesor Darío Cabanelas Rodríguez O.F.M., con Motivo de Su LXX Aniversario, vol 2, pp. 333-342. Granada: Universidad de Granada.
García Sánchez, E. (1994). ‘El botánico anónimo sevillano y su relación con la escuela agronómica andalusí’. In: Garcia Sanchez., E. (ed.). Ciencias de la Naturaleza en al-Andalus. Textos y Estudios 3, pp. 193-210. Granada: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.
García Sánchez, E. & Hernández Bermejo, J.E. (2007). ‘Ornamental Plants in Agricultural and Botanical Treatises from Al-Andalus’. In: Conan, M. (ed.). Middle East Garden Traditions: Unity and Diversity, pp. 75‑93. Dumbarton Oaks: Harvard University Press.
Millás Vallicrosa, J.M.  (1954). ‘Sobre bibliografía agronómica hispanoárabe’. Al-Andalus XIX, pp. 129‑142 . Reprinted (2001) in: Sezgin, F. (ed.). Agriculture. Texts and Studies 4 [Natural Sciences in Islam 23]. Frankfurt: Institut für Geschichte der Arabisch‑Islamischen Wissenschaften.
Millás Vallicrosa, J. M. (1955). ‘Aportaciones para el estudio de la obra agronómica de Ibn Haŷŷāŷ y de Abū l-Jayr’. Al-Andalus 20, pp. 87‑105. Reprinted (1987) in: Estudios sobre historia de la ciencia española, vol. 2, pp. 153‑81. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas.
Pérès, H. (1999). ‘Abū ’l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī’. In: Encyclopaedia of Islam [CD-ROM edition, v. 1.0]. Leiden: Brill.