For those in Paris, LAL Executive Editor James Montgomery will be discussing and reading from his new book of translated poetry by the sixth-century Arabic poet al-Khansāʾ. The talk will be held Thursday, 9 November at the American University of Paris, University Room: C-104, from 18:30-20:00. Here is more information from the AUP site:
LOSS SINGS: A READING AND TALK BY PROFESSOR JAMES MONTGOMERY
University Room: C-104
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 2017 – 18:30 TO 20:00
James Montgomery is the Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and the Executive Editor of the prestigious Library of Arabic Literature. He is also the author of Loss Sings, the latest in Cahiers Series run by AUP’s Center for Writers & Translators.
This evening, he will read from his cahier and discuss how he came to translate poems written by the sixth-century Arabic poet al-Khansāʾ, whose laments for her dead brothers had always seemed to him to be cliché-ridden, until his own experience of trauma and loss led him to a new connection with them.
We’ve been delighted to see some of our readers attempting the recipes from LAL’s 13th century cookbook, Scents and Flavors. Most recently, Anny Gaul tried her hand at jūdhābat tabbālah, a medieval Syrian recipe similar to m’sakhan – one of her favorite Palestinian dishes — and documented it on her Middle East cooking blog!
As a nod to contemporary m’sakhan, Anny adapted the original recipe to include toasted pinenuts and caramelized onions. She added as well a Moroccan spice mixture, also called m’sakhan, composed of cumin, ginger, allspice, and cinnamon. She confirms that, true to the original recipe’s claim, the final dish “comes out very nicely.”
If you’d like to try Anny’s adaptation of jūdhābat tabbālah, jump to her blog, Cooking with Gaul, here. You can also check out her recipe for chicken with caraway, mint, and garlic – another Scents and Flavors adaptation – here.
Be sure to pick up your own copy of Scents and Flavors here.
And let us know if you have tried any recipes from Scents and Flavors yourself!
In a recent essay for Tamawuj, Marina Warner describes how, after writing the foreword for LAL’s recently released Consorts of the Caliphs paperback, she felt compelled to communicate the stories of the qiyan to a broader audience. Ballet, Warner imagines, provides the perfect medium to tell these stories, with the dancers’ “curvilinear arcs and feats of vertical balance” that evoke arabesque design (for which a central pose in classical ballet is also named). “Arabesque designs,” says Warner, “aren’t in motion, but the rhythmic patterns and variations make them seem to be, and the pulse comes to an end only when they meet a border or frame, strongly implying that otherwise they would extend ad infinitum in space and time.” Further, ballet mimics ornament and calligraphy due to the “dancer’s implied gliding and soaring, which echo the strokes of Arabic calligraphy as the scribe’s hand dances across the page.”
Warner is currently working on a series of ballet scenes of stories from Consorts to weave together these concepts of literature, dance, design, and calligraphy.
You can read more about Warner’s experimental dance project, in her own words, here on the Tamawuj site!
tamawuj.org is the online publishing platform of Sharjah Biennial 13. Throughout 2017 it has been commissioning a continual series of essays, short fictions, and audiovisual materials in relation to the biennial’s four keywords: water, crops, earth, and culinary.
LAL’s own tireless General Editor Philip Kennedy was featured in today’s issue of The National discussing his upcoming translation project – The Doctors’ Dinner Party, a sardonic novella by Ibn Butlan.
“Ibn Butlan was a respected doctor of his time and known for his technical writing. He travelled to Cairo around 1040 to study under Ibn Ridwan, a self-made man of poor origins who monopolized the study of medicine.
In this period, being a doctor was not just about one’s medical and scientific knowledge but also about being a man of philosophy and the arts. The two men did not see eye to eye….
The two accused each other of bad practice and eventually Ibn Ridwan used his influence to get Ibn Butlan driven from Cairo. He moved to Constantinople where he penned his sardonic novella. The Doctors’ Dinner Party may be fictional but it reflects the disdain Ibn Butlan no doubt harboured towards his former mentor. It draws on both the romantic, lyrical poetry of its age and popular medical literature, written at a time when quackery was rife and books were written on how to tell an honest practitioner from a charlatan. It also draws on another theme of its age: a dinner of words, devoid of food.”
Read more about Ibn Butlan by going to the full article here!
On Teaching with Classical Arabic Texts That “Capture a Sense of Marvel, Wonder, Humor, And, Above All, Adventure”
Sean W. Anthony — a historian and professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures — is editor-translator of LAL’s The Expeditions: An Early Biography of Muḥammad.
Here, M. Lynx Qualey speaks with Anthony about teaching with the LAL texts, including — as it’s Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) — Consorts of the Caliphs, which collects writing by and stories of thirty-eight free and slave women who were consorts of men in power:
Which works do you teach from van Gelder’s Classical Arabic Literature anthology, and–with these works—what are you hoping to illumine?
Sean Anthony: Van Gelder’s anthology is an especially rich and exceptional specimen of the anthology genre for a number of reasons. I’ll just name a couple and get to the point. Principally, it is exceptional because the translations come from a single scholar’s pen—and quite an accomplished scholar, too. The translations, therefore, do not suffer from the unevenness of quality so typical of anthologies. They also have a nice, readable, and modern style. Another thing that I like about the anthology is that it includes formidable Arabic texts that are difficult to translate and that have, therefore, remained long-revered by specialists but neglected by translators. As a result, there are many gems in this anthology, but I’ll single out just a few.
One small section of the anthology I often return to is the collection of early oracles of the pre-Islamic soothsayers. The pre-Islamic qaṣīdah, or ode, usually dominates most discussions of pre-Islamic literature and, as a result, tend to crowd out the oracles. These oracles were composed in a type of rhymed, rhythmic prose called sajʿ in Arabic The rhyme and rhythm tends to be the first thing to go in translation; however, van Gelder’s little section manages to explain what sajʿ is and to demonstrate how sajʿ works pretty well alongside his translations. This is important. Much of the Qurʾan is also written in a type of sajʿ, and I find that van Gelder shows how the oracles of the soothsayers and the early Meccan chapters of the Qurʾan resemble each other in profound ways structurally. The comparison, however, redounds to the benefit of the Qurʾan, too, and is also highly instructive – the comparison really helps highlight how the message of the scripture elevated and transformed this medium of expression.
Two texts from the anthology that I often pair are Bashshār ibn Burd’s poem lampooning the tribal Arabs and Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī’s prose essay on the superiority of the Arabs. I return to these texts so often because they intrinsically raise the question of who “owns” Arabic and because our contemporary society is so obsessed with identity—what privileges this or that identity confers, what identities are valorized or which ones are deprecated, how identity relates to societal values such as equality, etc. Both works were written in the shadows of debates over Arab political and cultural supremacy vis-à-vis the multitudes of non-Arab peoples who populated the vast and cosmopolitan Abbasid commonwealth. They are also great texts for showing how Arabic, much like English, transcends “Arabness” as a parochial ethnic identity. I’m actually looking forward to introducing the recently published volume by Ibn Qutaybah, Excellence of the Arabs, into this mix as well.
One other selection I’ll mention is the story of Qays and Lubnā, which was excerpted from the Kitāb al-Aghānī of Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī. It’s a G-rated (or, “chaste”), tragic love story that offers a nice mix of poetry and prose, but it is also a great story for observing societal change in the post-conquest period and the changes in literary aesthetics that came with these societal upheavals. Love stories and poems aren’t as frivolous as they might seem at first blush, especially tragic ones, as they offer interesting windows into literary critiques of society and its hierarchies. Tragic love stories seem to inculcate the sense that their two protagonists ought to be together but are prevented by an unsympathetic society that ultimately destroys not just their chance at union but also their very persons. The subtext often seems to be: What’s wrong with society that makes their love impossible? Qays and Lubnā, in any case, makes for an excellent specimen for demonstrating this literary dynamic in Arabic literature.
What sections from the Two Arabic Travel Books do you use, or do you assign the whole text(s)? Are the students meant to read them one-sided or bilingually? What sorts of discussions have you had around the travel books, and how does travel writing help us understand histories of those writing and those written about? Tim Mackintosh-Smith said he’d like all seventh and eighth graders to read his…I assume you have slightly different discussions than would take place in the middle-school classroom.
SA: Firstly, these are fun texts that capture a sense of marvel, wonder, humor, and, above all, adventure. In a university setting, both of these texts get at a fundamental human problem that I enjoy highlighting: How does one write about and represent cultures and peoples other than one’s own? What pitfalls await even a sympathetic observer? I usually assign the entirety of Ibn Faḍlān, and I often single out the passages on China from al-Sirāfī. Both texts give vivid accounts of what diplomacy and trade looked like in the Abbasid period and also how beliefs about geography and classes of people shaped perceptions of the larger world outside the so-called Abode of Islam. Then there’s the texts’ particular strengths. Ibn Faḍlān affords a great opportunity to discuss how conversion and diplomacy intertwine as well as the influx of prestigious Islamic silver to northern lands and contacts with the Rūs and Vikings. Al-Sirāfī’s descriptions and tales of trade with Tang China I usually supplement with a discussion of seafaring, an explanation what the hell ambergris is anyway, and a study of historically relevant material finds, especially, Alain George’s wonderful study of the Belitung shipwreck discovered in Indonesia, which contains the remains of an Arabian dhow from circa CE 830.
How much of Consorts do you use, and why Consorts? To get at the possibility of seeing / reconstructing what we know of women’s lives in the times the works were written and compiled?
SA: The lives of unfree persons and of women, let alone their voices, pose notoriously formidable challenges for historians of the distant past to reconstruct. In this way, Consorts is an exceedingly precious source. I tend to use the first half of it in my classes on Arabic literature and Abbasid history.
How have students responded to the works in Consorts, for better or worse?
SA: Reactions vary and continue to surprise me – every teacher learns a great deal from the reactions of his or her students, I think. Some students are puzzled by the form of slavery on display, and some are shocked that slavery existed in this period at all. Others sometimes think that the phenomenon of singing-girls and accomplished court poetesses is foreign and distant. I beg to differ with that second sentiment. How do such women compare, for example, to the child celebrities whose commodified lives seem to solely exist for the propagation of popular culture and its profits? One shouldn’t overdo it, of course, but the discussion is important. Surely, the life of the courtesan ʿArib differs in fundamental ways from, for example, the likes of a Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, or even a Justin Bieber. But how exactly? Listening last year to a Radiolab podcast on K-Pop, I was again struck by how modern some aspects of these women’s lives were.
And about your own book, The Expeditions— in what classes have you used it, and how?
SA: There are several passages that I continually return to: Muḥammad’s marriage to his first wife, Khadījah, and his earliest revelations and experience of persecution in Mecca; his wife ʿĀʾishah’s firsthand account of how rumors of adultery spread against her and how she was exonerated; and passages on the final days of Muḥammad’s life and the controversies over his secession, especially as narrated in a speech attributed to the second caliph ʿUmar. It’s hard to sum up how or why these stories are important—they become such titanic narratives. I like the version of these stories found in the Expeditions because they are so early and, thus, easily compared with later stories in order to observe how they evolved over time. Such comparative readings are highly instructive when it comes to developing an understanding of how the past is constructed and the role of narrative in that process. I use these selections from the Expeditions in my introductory courses (whether to Islam or to Arabic literature) as well as in my more advanced courses on the Qurʾan and Islamic political thought because they are foundational narratives. As foundational narratives, revisiting them always proves rewarding in a classroom context because you’re simultaneously equipping students with religious literacy and demonstrating how these old stories remain cherished today and maintain their power to evoke strong responses from us today.
–M. Lynx Qualey
Peter Webb, a lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at the University of Leiden, is author of Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (2016), and editor-translator of the entertaining second part of the Library of Arabic Literature’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Excellence of Arab Learning.”
The two-part interview with the translator of the first half, Sarah Savant (one, two), discussed the challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah, his central place in Western scholarship, and his apparent incapacity for humor.
In the first part of a two-part discussion with Webb, he spoke with M Lynx Qualey about the construction of Arab identity during the early period of Islam, the importance of translating Ibn Quataybah, and why this book should be interesting to those who study medieval history.
In the second part of this discussion, Webb talks about poetry as proof, the roles of women in proving Arab excellence, and the translation challenges — including the varied horse terminology.
Poetry is a key part of Ibn Qutaybah’s proof-making. Not only does he say the Arabs were the best of all poets, he supports his claims about astronomical and meteorological knowledge with poetry. Can you talk a bit about the cultural authority of poetry?
Peter Webb: Very early on, Arabs became associated with being producers of poetry. The fact that Arabs have a mastery of poetry is something that distinguishes them as a unique quality of their learning.
By Ibn Qutaybah’s time, it was firmly established that poetry was a very, very special mark of the Arabs. They had the ability to compose good poetry, and they had put their knowledge in poetry. Learning the poetry by heart, being aware of its obscure words and obscure meanings, was one of the most important things you needed to do in order to participate as a cultured member in Ibn Qutaybah’s urban Iraqi society. They have an interest in poetry, a broad knowledge of poetry, and a nostalgic love of poetry. So you have all these urban Iraqis in the ninth and tenth century, singing poems about the desert, and they’d never even visited it! But they loved the idea of using desert imagery in poetry.
As a result, poetry became not only an art form, but it was so closely identified with Arab identity, history, and knowledge, that quoting poetry was essentially about finding facts. You could pick out a line or two, that had a point that was relevant to some cultural argument that you wanted to make, and the poetry would be considered proof of that.
Ibn Qutaybah’s audience collectively knew tens of thousands of lines of poems. And, when they were articulating arguments about the Arabs, or about certain forms of cultural endeavor, these lines would materialize, and they would use them to help their argument.
One of the things that Ibn Qutaybah makes a very strong point of is that the Arab excellence is based on their wonderful vocabulary. This is tied to the idea that the Arabic of the Qurʾan is God’s language, and therefore Arabic is the world’s greatest language, and therefore the greatness of the Arabs is revealed in the breadth of their vocabulary. An example of this is when a really weird word appears—a word that Ibn Qutaybah, or you and I, don’t know—but it’s in a pre-Islamic poem, and that shows the Arabs had developed a very advanced vocabulary.
Sometimes, he would just cite lines of poetry to show an existence of a word in the past, and you’re to infer from this that the word could not have existed unless the Arabs had been thinking about language in a very serious way and had developed a very perfect language system.
Poetry was evidence of obscure words, which was associated with the greatness of the Arabic language. Poetry was also associated with the knowledge and the history and the tales of the Arabs.
The prose sections are also short, easy-to-memorize bits that feel very much tied to an oral tradition.
PW: Here, you have two kinds of prose: one is sajʿ, a rhyming prose, and the other is the prose maxims, another cornerstone of what would’ve been considered quintessentially Arab culture. Some of these maxims were connected with memories of Arab history. Very frequently, when we look at tales of history of pre-Islamic Arabia, these aphorisms appear in them, and they’re intimately connected with stories of pre-Islamic heroes. Also, the aphorisms were important because they show that the Arabs were clever, and they were able to think in a conceptual way just like everybody else.
There’s a nice example in a book written by al-Tanūkhī, who wrote a large collection of tales, Nishwār al-Muḥāḍar. There was a story within that about kingship, and I think the moral of the story was that, although a king’s legitimacy based on his ancestry, all kings originate with some usurper, at some point in time. And in order to make this story, the Indian writer who originated it related a fairly long fable, and it took a couple pages to come to the point that a usurper king can become legitimate. The story ends with an Arabic maxim that says the exact same thing in about four or five words.
Thus, you see, the Indians had to tell a whole story in order to make a point, but the Arabs were able to sum it up in a couple words.
Once again, the maxims show that Arabs are participating on a philosophical or an intellectual level equal to other peoples, and perhaps they’re even doing it better, because the other people need to tell long-winded stories. So Arabic must be the world’s best language, the fastest and most efficient.
As you note, many of these sources are from early in the formation of an Arab identity, or even before such a conception, and so much of it pre-Islamic. For instance, his respectful discussion of fortune-telling and then telling us to reject it.
PW: The overall question is about ways in which Muslims have regarded Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. The easy answer would be they reject it as a Dark Ages before Islamic enlightenment.
But of course Ibn Qutaybah, in this book, shows this really isn’t the case. Because the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia were the first people to join Muhammad’s message, you need them to be useful people. These are the people who brought Islam to the rest of the world, so it’s important that they’re okay. The way in which pre-Islamic jāhilīyah is articulated in Arabic writing by Ibn Qutaybah and many other people exhibits this plus and minus, hot and cold, where there is a tremendous effort to rehabilitate pre-Islamic Arabia, while, at the same time, a certain unease at those things that were going on in pre-Islamic Arabia that should be repudiated.
Ibn Qutaybah takes an even-handed middle ground, where he praises what they did in pre-Islamic times, yet admits that maybe we won’t continue with all those things.
Also, there’s a connection with the way in which Muslims thought about the Arabic language and Islam: They needed pre-Islamic times to be an era of good Arabic. They understood pre-Islamic Arabic as a linguistic ideal, with a climax in the Qurʾan, and therefore there was a respect for pre-Islamic Arabian language, because there was a respect for the language of the Qurʾan.
So they have this difficulty of needing to praise pre-Islamic times whilst at the same time recognizing that Islam had replaced it. But there are all sorts of different takes on pre-Islam. I think Ibn Qutaybah has a very middle-of-the-road one. There were some people, especially writing in the generations before him, who really tried to give a positive spin to pre-Islamic Arabia.
We can understand this from a very practical perspective: The early Muslim elite had come from pre-Islamic Arabia, and these were their ancestors, and they were now in charge of the caliphate. So it would have behooved them to show how great their ancestors were. People writing two or three generations before Ibn Qutaybah, when Arabs really were a powerful faction across the caliphate, wrote all sorts of very nice things about pre-Islamic Arabia. The rush to repudiate pre-Islamic Arabia was certainly not there at all.
Women appear, in his discussion of pre-Islamic times, in very empowered positions. For instance, there is the Bedouin woman who tells off those ogling her with poetry, and the girl soothsayer who can not only predict the deaths of others, but can even suggest how to avoid them. Are certain forms of women’s power placed in an unattainable past? How do you see the book’s relationship to creation of gender ideas and ideals?
PW: From a historical perspective, one of the things that seems somewhat clear was that we had a matrilineal society in pre-Islamic Arabia—you established your identity on the genealogy from the direction of your mother. And there are examples of warrior queens of pre-Islamic Arabia that pop up, Zenobia of Palmyra is a famous example.
In the early period of Islam, from a genealogical perspective, there was a change, for a number of reasons. Several things happened to shift the status from matrilineal genealogy towards a more patrilineal genealogy.
So in Ibn Qutaybah’s time, women were not given much political importance, but stories were remembered about women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and these formed a body of knowledge, which he drew on. So when he was saying that the diviner girl who’s predicting the deaths of different people—you could also find examples where men were doing that job. There are also examples where eloquent women are speaking, but you can also find men giving very similar speeches. Poetry was another realm in which women were remembered.
So there was plenty of scope in which Ibn Qutaybah to imagine that women also embodied an eloquent Arabic ideal, which is something that the men had as well. What’s important for Ibn Qutaybah in early Islam is this mastery of language, this ability to observe nature, observe the signs, and produce poetry, and I don’t think he would consider gender to be a barrier to that.
Can we talk about horses, and the work they do? Is his other work on horses still extant?
Horses formed a chapter in one of his books, Jāmi‘ al-Nah w al-Kabīr, which is a two-volume work in the modern Arabic edition, which is just an absolute maze of poetry.
There are a lot of monographs about horses that survive as well. Not by Ibn Qutaybah, but by his contemporaries. You had the genealogy of horses, or knowing the pedigree of horses. One of those that survived is by Ibn al-Kalbi. That book connected horses with prophecy, because it said the Arab horses either originated as the horses of Suleiman or as the horses of Ismail.
Most importantly, the Muslim conquerors used horses in their conquest wars. Their ability to cover ground quickly, and to use horses to their advantage in battle, is very important. So I think the notion of an Arab in early Islam, in the late seventh and eighth centuries, was a horse-mounted warrior elite. So horses were something that was very important to them, and it was basically the object that enabled them to make these conquests. And as the Arabs articulated their genealogy, they wanted a prophetic lineage for their horses as well.
So horses have a political and cultural importance. But at the same time, the horse poetry has an enormous array of extremely rare and difficult Arabic words. The mere fact that Arabs had all this jargon for horses was, to Ibn Qutaybah, proof that their language was amazing, that they had sat down and thought about horses in a serious way. And even though they, for instance, hadn’t written books on horses, they had developed this great horse vocabulary.
In Ibn Qutaybah’s imagination, he would probably have thought that, in pre-Islamic Arabia, people sat around a campfire and used all these very complex words for horses when talking about horse husbandry.
Did you have a horse expert read the text?
PW: No—but in order to figure out how to translate some of these words, I had to read up on the anatomy of horses in much greater detail than I ever thought I would. The terminology goes quite far beyond what can be translated into English. I think Ibn Qutaybah would be extremely happy to hear that, because he could then point to the fact that Arabic is much more advanced in its horse vocabulary than the European languages, proving his point—the Arabs think about horses more.
Beyond horse terminology, what were the other translation challenges?
PW: Making sense of the poetry. Ibn Qutaybah was interested in the most difficult of Arabic poems, because he wanted the ones with the most obscure words, and then he was often quoting the poems out of context. As we mentioned earlier, the readers of this book would’ve known this context, because these poems were circulating in an oral format everywhere.
So one of the jobs was to figure out where the poems came from, and to look at the bigger context, in order to figure out how to translate the poem. When one line comes at you out of context, you need to go back to the original, read the whole poem. It’s very difficult to translate some of them without knowing the context, because you don’t know who the pronouns are referring to, or where the actions are going.
Not only were the poems challenging in that respect, the manuscript itself had quite a lot of variations in the way the poems were narrated.
But you enjoyed it.
PW: It was fun! And what I quite liked about it is that it was tremendously educational, and it compelled me, in having to translate these poems, to really figure out what they said, and to participate in the intellectual culture of ninth-century Iraq. One of the advantages is that, in other projects that I’m working on, I’m seeing many of these poems coming back. And now I have a much more personal relationship with the poetry.
So these aren’t obscure poems, that only Ibn Qutaybah would’ve known. They’re part of a known body of work?
PW: It’s a bit of both. I don’t think there’s any poem in here that is not recorded anywhere else. I do believe I found all of them somewhere. So that does imply that there is a relatively well-known shared body of poetry. Whether a reader would’ve known all of those lines—I doubt it. But I think most readers would’ve known most of the lines. There would’ve been some people, among Ibn Qutaybah’s contemporaries, who would’ve known all of them. But I think even the non-poetry specialists would’ve known quite a few of them.
–M Lynx Qualey
Just in time for the forthcoming fall release of its English-only paperback, the Times Literary Supplement ran a wonderful review of Bruce Fudge’s A Hundred and One Nights a couple of weeks ago:
“Stories, like salt and silk, travel trade routes. They mutate as they migrate, as they are passed from mouth to ear, from memory to paper, from one tongue to another. Bruce Fudge’s erudite translation of A Hundred and One Nights, a slimmer relation of The Arabian Nights, compiled in the Maghreb around the ninth or tenth century and hitherto unknown in English, is a major contribution to the field and promises to intrigue and beguile the general reader as well as to become indispensable to literary scholars. Fudge’s introduction, meticulously footnoted and indexed translation and the parallel text give fresh insight into the origins and routes of transmission of narrative.”
-Amanda Yee, Assistant Editor
When Arabophones Weren’t Arabs: Ibn Qutaybah and Identity Formation During the Early Period of Islam
Peter Webb, a lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at the University of Leiden, is author of Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (2016), and editor-translator of the entertaining second part of the Library of Arabic Literature’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Excellence of Arab Learning.”
The two-part interview with the translator of the first half, Sarah Savant (one, two), discussed the challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah, his central place in Western scholarship, and his apparent incapacity for humor.
In this first part of a two-part discussion, Webb speaks with M Lynx Qualey about the construction of Arab identity during the early period of Islam, the importance of translating Ibn Qutaybah, and why this book should be interesting to those who study medieval history.
The (excellent) introduction to Excellence of the Arabs is also available online.
What brought you to this particular text, and what’s been your relationship with it?
Peter Webb: The reason I was asked to do it was because the research for my PhD, and the book I finished last year [Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam], were trying to think about Arab identity and the construction of Arab identity at the early period of Islam. So I’d worked quite extensively with this text.
To think about: What did early Muslims think Arab identity meant? What did it mean when one called oneself Arab? What were the boundaries of that community?
Would you consider The Excellence of the Arabs seminal in the creation of a shared Arab identity?
PW: It’s a commentary on a process that had been happening about 100, 150 years before Ibn Qutaybah’s time. My research has led me to look at how the dawn of Islam, or the first three generations after Islam, were really a formative period in defining a sense of Arab identity that we still understand today.
The elites of the era decided to call themselves Arabs in a certain way, and then they needed to think about what that identity would entail. We find bits and pieces of that process of imagining an Arab identity through early literature, but this is one of the very few books that sets it out all in one place, as a monograph on the Arabs. Because for instance, in this period, you don’t have other books on Arab history.
People tended to incorporate bits and pieces of Arab identity into much bigger writings, but this is one of the first monographs on that topic.
Your introduction, with Sarah Bowen Savant, refers to a central question Ibn Qutaybah’s text addresses. How would you articulate this central question: “Who are the Arabs?” or “Why are the Arabs so great?” or “Why should the Arabs rule over us?”
PW: It’s certainly not a question of why the Arabs should rule over us. At this point, when Ibn Qutaybah was writing, the elites of the caliphate were really dropping the whole notion that we need to be proper Arabs, and the idea that kinship with Arabs was related to legitimate political authority.
What was more at stake at this point was more of a cultural question. Which was: Looking back, over the three-hundred-year history that they were aware of in the ninth century, they knew there had been a Persian Empire, and a Byzantine Empire—which they called the Romans—and that the Arabs were a people somewhat apart from this, in Arabia.
The conquest had happened, Islamization had occurred, and then a cultural question came: Which of these ancestors of our Iraqi civilization were better? And a number of the people who had written before Ibn Qutaybah had made an argument that maybe the Persians were superior—that they had been militarily defeated by the Muslim conquerors, but that they’d had a greater civilization and culture.
This is an important point. Because if the Persians were greater, does that mean we should drop some of the things that come along with Arabness? Does that mean that Islam was an outsider religion? What they needed to try to do, in response, was articulate a system where they could be proud of the Islamic heritage and not have to look down on Arabs culturally.
The solution was: If we conceptualize the Arabs not as necessarily ourselves, but as this imagined community in pre-Islamic Arabia, and if we think about them as a people who have a peculiar culture and peculiar kinds of knowledge that are separate and independent from all other civilizations, then there’s no point in comparing them to the Persians or the Byzantines. Because what the Arabs were good at was separate from what the Persians or what the Byzantines were good at.
Therefore, you can’t look down on the Arabs anymore, because you’re not comparing like to like. Now, what you can say is that these were a worthy people who participated in knowledge and learning. They didn’t necessarily have the same book culture or urban culture that the Persians and the Byzantines had. But they had their own good culture. Then they came in and brought Islam, and now we are all proud beneficiaries of this.
And this is the question the book answers.
PW: What the book does, somewhat deftly, is say that the Arabs had a very learned culture before Islam. This learned culture was different from all the other civilizations, but it was certainly not inferior. And in fact, you could make the point that it was superior, in terms of their knowledge of language, their knowledge of natural phenomena, their poetry.
They articulated a sense of Arab culture around an idealized Bedouin community. And that, which was then attached to Islam, became the stereotype of the Arabs ever since. That’s one of the interesting legacies of the book, because today it’s very common for people to associate Arab identity with the desert, and we do that because we trace the genealogy of our thinking about Arabs, and it goes back many hundreds of years, to early Europeans who read books like this one, that were adamant that Arab culture was a Bedouin thing.
So these Bedouin stereotypes have been much embedded in our thinking, thanks to the fact that we’ve read these kinds of books—that were creating a Bedouin stereotype relevant to ninth-century urban Iraqis.
What do we know about other texts or figures that Excellence of the Arabs influenced, or to what extent it played a role in Arab group-identity formation?
PW: The book is kind of unremarkable: I think it was making an argument that most of his contemporaries would agree with. In the generations before Ibn Qutayban, these arguments had been fairly well thrashed out by all sorts of people.
Then you look at tenth-century and eleventh-century writing, and the writing that comes after, and they basically carry on with the same tune. They develop it a little more—the construction of a Bedouin ideal for the Arabs is accentuated and intensified. I think a number of the arguments of Ibn Qutaybah’s book are quite evident in the important tenth-century writer al-Masʿūdī, and looking at that, you can see that the ideas of Ibn Qutaybah are accepted by al-Masʿūdī, and people cited al-Masʿūdī going forward. So you can look at a chain of writing, and you can see that the ideas of Ibn Qutaybah were broadly accepted, and very few people spoke out against them very expressly in the centuries that followed.
But I would not want to say that Ibn Qutaybah had a decisive role in making the argument stick.
It wasn’t as if Ibn Qutaybah’s argument would’ve ruffled feathers—there weren’t Persian resistance movements poised to take over the caliphate as this book was being written.
Ibn Qutaybah is not ethnically Arab, but is there a sense in which he would’ve considered himself part of a larger, developing Arab-ness?
PW: The easy part is to answer the question of whether he sees himself as an Arab: Absolutely not. He expresses in the book that I am not an Arab. He is writing in Arabic, participating in this Arab-created civilization, and he’s very proud to be a member of that Muslim-Arab civilization, but he’s absolutely clear that he’s not an Arab himself. This reflects how Arab identity was being conceptualized in the ninth century.
As far as I can tell, many of the people who participated in the Muslim conquest in the seventh century decided to find a new sort of unity as Arabs. In the pre-Islamic period, quite interestingly, there’s really no evidence that the populations in Arabia used the word “Arab” as a means to define community or set an idea of solidarity. Mohammed never preached to the early community that, You are Arabs, and this is your religion. As far as we can tell, in the early mobilization of the first Muslims and their conquests, Arabness was not part of that mobilization. It was more of a faith movement.
Over the next couple of generations, at the end of the seventh century, many social changes had occurred: New cities were built, the caliphate was being organized. So the elite, who had come from Arabia via the conquest, had an idea that Arabness would be a nice way of ring-fencing their elite status.
That’s the background. Ibn Qutaybah comes 150 years after the time when Arabness was a marker for the elite, who then had some heritage that went back to Arabia. It was once a very important social asset. If you were an Arab, that meant you were on top, in early Islam. One hundred years before Ibn Qutaybah, that was definitely the case.
Later on, from the first half of the eighth century onwards, there were lots of new joiners in the idea of being an Arab. Then in Ibn Qutaybah’s time, in the ninth century, society was changing again. By this time, lots of assimilation had occurred, lots of conversion to Islam. So the social boundaries of the ninth century were starting to blur. It was difficult to decide: What do you need to be to be an Arab? Do you have to come from a genealogy that is considered Arab? So there was a shift going on.
In Ibn Qutaybah’s time, two salient things happened. One was that the definition of what it meant to be an Arab was being increasingly tied to a sense of Arab genealogy as articulated by his contemporaries, who claimed there was a closed-ended family tree of what the Arabs are, and if you aren’t genealogically related, or couldn’t claim a kinship. You were not an Arab, even if you spoke Arabic.
What is also intriguing in the ninth and tenth centuries, or Ibn Qutaybah’s time, is that among his immediate contemporaries and those who came after them, they stopped calling themselves Arabs. They stopped using Arabness to mark their own identity.
So we have this intriguing period, where Arabness emerges to unite early Muslim conquerors, as an idea of high-status identity. But then by the middle of the ninth century onwards, the caliphate starts collapsing, and people actually stop calling themselves Arabs in many places—Iraq and Syria and Egypt—and they switch to other identities.
Ibn Qutaybah is a good example of that. He never tried to become an Arab. He copied Arabic language and Arabic styles, but never thought of himself as an Arab. Instead, his status came from the mastery of the culture and mastery of the language without actually needing to forge a genealogy and pretend he was an Arab.
If the ideas were so accepted by his contemporaries, why make the argument and write this book?
PW: Ibn Qutaybah was a compiler. Ibn Qutaybah also, I think, thought of himself as a bastion of great knowledge, and he believed that people needed to hear what he knew. He certainly has opponents in mind. Part 1 of the book is a much more argumentative section, while my part, Part 2, is a more evidential section. But this book is a very Ibn Qutayabah-esque sort of job.
Ibn Qutaybah was living at the beginning of a very new period in Islamic civilization, which is the emergence of this book culture. For people two generations before him, most of knowledge was done with limited writing and a greater recourse to oral discussion.
Ibn Qutaybah and the ninth century was when things started getting written down in books in a really serious manner. I think there was a novelty, as well as a belief that we should start writing stuff down. So all this evidence that had been spoken about in the generation before—I think they felt it was time to start compiling it. Whilst the book is certainly polemical, I think part of his interest in writing it is to show that he knows a lot of stuff.
We’re looking at a transition to a much more bibliophilic culture.
So what was particular about him as a writer was his knowledge-and-vocabulary showcasing?
PW: He also lived at a tricky period.
When he was just a child, the caliphate suffered a major setback: There was a civil war between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, and they fought over who was going to take over the caliphate. As a result of their war, Baghdad was sieged and very badly damaged, and the Iraqi countryside was very badly damaged, and there were all sorts of political problems, social problems, political problems, and a changing of the guard.
Many of the old elite Arab families lost power in the shift. And as the winning caliph was originally based in Eastern Iran, he brought a lot of Easterners with him into Baghdad, and they too reorganized the power structure. All this happened when Ibn Qutaybah was between five and ten years old.
Two things are important for the context. One: After this civil war, the caliphate never really recovered its power. This was the time when the Muslim world started fragmenting into regional kingdoms. So when Ibn Qutaybah was an adult and writing books, it was a time of tremendous instability in the caliphate.
Second: I think that, living in this turbulent time, Ibn Qutaybah saw himself as a bastion of knowledge. He looks back nostalgically to a time before he was born, when the Abbasid Caliphate was doing really well, and it was great. I think he thought there was a dumbing down in society, that society wasn’t as smart as it was in the days before the civil war, and that people like him, who had retained at least some of that knowledge, better write it down now. There was an educational, and also a cultural-conservation approach.
He wanted to make Arabness great again?
PW: Probably not. What I think was more important was that, in the face of the political fragmentation of the caliphate, a praise of Arabness retained prestige for the Islamic world system.
They wanted a sense of Arab identity that would be independent of the fragmenting politics of the ninth century. So instead of “Make Arabness great again,” it’s “Let’s prove why it’s the best thing, let’s hold on to this as an aspect of culture.” As opposed to a political platform associated with it.
And I think they were extremely successful, because people still speak Arabic between Morocco and Western Iran. The books that they wrote are really considered the classics of Arabic literature. It’s an interesting dichotomy—from their perspective, they were looking at a world that was falling apart, while from our perspective, these are first flowering of Muslim writing in Arabic.
They established a discourse that survived, even though it didn’t help the political strength of the caliphate.
Do we know anything about Ibn Qutaybah’s readership?
PW: That’s difficult to answer. I think one of the things that modern scholarship on the period needs to do more work on is to think about how we can go about researching the readership of the books.
This particular book does not seem to be very extensively quoted.
However, I think it was Al-Bīrūnī, a Central Asian writer at the end of the tenth and early eleventh centuries, who does quote the book directly, and he actually doesn’t think much of it. He particularly critiques the book for creating an idealized notion of Arab greatness that really doesn’t hold water.
That’s one direct quote of the book I have found, from an author living quite far away—traveling between what would be modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan—who read the book and says that Ibn Qutaybah’s claim that Arabs are better than all other people for certain aspects of Bedouin knowledge is not true, because there are plenty of other Bedouin people who have that same knowledge.
So the book got around, but we really don’t have a very good idea of how many people were reading it, or how they even read it. Was it something that they would read bits of, or memorize parts of and distribute that way? We still don’t have answers.
Why do think this particular text—unremarkable as you say it was—is important to have in the Library of Arabic Literature collection?
PW: Ibn Qutaybah was a very prolific writer of the ninth century, one of a handful of important writers. Yet his works are neither translated nor well-known in English. So it’s nice to get Ibn Qutaybah on the map. And we have a nice volume here, because it deals with questions that are of enduring interest.
How do we articulate what it means to belong to a certain ethnos, and also specifically what did the Muslims in the ninth century think about Arabs? It shows us that, although they spoke Arabic, and participated in this Arabic cultural community, they didn’t necessarily think they were Arabs themselves. They were slowly going through the process of othering the Arabs, and constructing an idealized Bedouin identity for the Arabs. A lot of issues relevant to “What does Arab identity mean?” are preserved in this book.
Who do you think should read this book?
PW: People who are learning Arabic, and are able to use the bilingual text as the Loeb library did for Latin and Greek, are a huge readership and quite important.
For those who are just going to look at the English side of things, I think people who are interested in the idea of Arab identity should look at this book because Arab identity is a big topic, but what’s intriguing is that people are very quick to see the constructedness and the weird contours of Arab identity in the modern era, but we kind of assume that in the old days, Arabs were Arabs, and they were desert people.
Reading pre-modern texts about Arabness is quite important to help us see where this identity came from, how Arab identity was constructed. It’s important to open up the pre-modern period to more inquiry about the roots of Arab identity. The stereotypes we hold about Arabs today are directly relatable to books like these. So the more we know about them, and the more we understand about why they were created, the better we can appraise Arabness as an identity today.
The book should also be interesting to people who study medieval history of the rest of the world, because this was a time, in the post-Roman world, in which the identities of the modern European nations—the Franks, the Anglo Saxons, and even German identities—were being constructed in Europe. It’s really at the same time that Arabness was being constructed in the Middle East, so from a comparative perspective of the birth of modern nations, this book would be very helpful to people who know a lot about how Anglo Saxon identity was constructed, for instance. I think it would probably be very intriguing for them to look at how Arabness was being constructed.
I think medievalists in general might otherwise take the idea of Arab identity as something fixed. But we’ll see, in this sort of book, that it was anything but. The same sort of processes that were happening in Europe were going on in the East as well.
–M. Lynx Qualey
This past weekend, Charles Perry joined Eat Your Words host Cathy Erway on the Heritage Radio Network to discuss some of the recipes from his book Scents and Flavors, as well as the challenges of editing and compiling the original Arabic manuscripts into the volume. You can listen to the full interview here.
Sarah Savant on Ibn Qutaybah’s (Probable) Raison D’être, His Lack of Humor, and Directions for Future Study
Sarah Bowen Savant is Associate Professor at The Aga Khan University, London, the author of The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran (2013), and most recently the translator of the first section of Ibn Qutaybah’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Arab Preeminence.”
In the first part of the interview, which ran last week, Savant discussed the particular challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah’s text.
In this second part of the interview, Savant talks with M Lynx Qualey about fresh ways to read this text and additional directions for scholarship, Ibn Qutaybah’s (lack of) humor, and the scholar’s probable raison d’être.
As you worked on this, reading in and around it, what were the areas you thought deserved additional attention and interest from scholars?
I’m particularly interested in the intertextual elements of the tradition. The third/ninth century is very early in the tradition. It’s not absolutely early—others were writing much earlier, but still quite early in the total of the span of the written tradition. If you look at a lot of the evidence that he marshals, when he cites poetry, you can find it throughout the written tradition—these same pieces. And I’m quite interested in chasing them up, and trying to see exactly how he’s putting together the book. We now have methods to do this, and this is part of my current research, working on how texts are reused, using algorithms to do that.
The other issue is the reception of both parts of this book. We know by citations that it was received in al-Andalus, and we can see also that Ibn Qutaybah’s other books, although I don’t know yet for this one, were received widely in Iran. So I’m quite curious to get a sense of Ibn Qutaybah as a total literary figure in later periods, how he was received, and what parts of his corpus was received.
Do we know how his work was received by the so-called Shuʿūbīs, his opponents?
The people he was accusing were dead.
But do we have a response to him? Potentially. Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, in al-Andalus, has a section where he has a statement that he credits to Shuʿūbīs; he then cites from our book here, and then includes what he labels as a response by the Shuʿūbīs. Whether these are in fact original literary pieces that were actually written in response to each other, or whether he has assembled something of his own, I don’t think is quite clear.
In terms of other reception, we don’t really know. To me, the elephant in the room is the Turks. You can speak, probably with some safety, about the values of Arabs in this period against the Persian bureaucracy and Persian courtiers. But you really can’t do the same with regards to Turks. And during his lifetime, as we write about in the introduction, this is really where the threat to the stability of the caliphate is coming from.
So I do think there is a bit of indirect critique in this book.
Was it translated into any other languages in its time or soon after, for instance Persian?
We don’t know, but I would guess not.
I don’t think it was as well-received as his other works. I have text reuse data now, because I have digital files of those books. We know there are commentaries, for instance, on Adab al-Kātib. But we don’t have that sort of trace of reception now for this book. We may find it when we get it digitized and compared against the other works.
And we don’t have everything that survives, we only probably have something like 10-20 percent of the literary tradition as it once existed. But at least from what we can see, it doesn’t seem to have had the same impact as his other works, or the same wide reception.
Do you have any guess as to a reason for this smaller reception?
It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say for any reception history for a book from this period. There are accidents, of course, of what passes through manuscripts, and texts were fragile. Otherwise, it wasn’t encyclopedic. It was an argument, and it was written in a specific time period.
The others of his works—and in fact works by other authors that were reused frequently—tend to be more encyclopedic. And by encyclopedia I mean, of course, things like the ʿUyūn al-Akhbār. Even, in a certain way, you can reuse and take apart materials from the Tafsīr. But it’s not the same with an argument like Arab Preeminence.
The second part of the book may have an entirely different reception history.
Why pen this shorter argument, when he’s already written a longer work on this topic?
You’re referring to the part of the book where he mentions he’s treated this elsewhere, in his ʿUyūn al-Akhbār?
There are parts of the books that overlap, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not that ʿUyūn al-Akhbār contains a longer version of the same argument. It is true that you can find parallel passages between the books, and for that reason it was very useful to us, when we were editing this text.
It’s also interesting to see what’s really important to an author, because generally if an author uses materials more than once, they’re important to them.
So what was really important to him?
The defense of Arabs and Arab values at a time when he perceived them to be under threat, when he perceived the caliphate perhaps to be losing focus on its origins. There’s definitely a Golden Age articulated by him, which is why I used the term “cultural conservative.”
In terms of his language, what do we know about his originality vs. his use of clichés and stock language in circulation?
In terms of language, his language belongs in its day.
He evokes negative points his opponents are meant to have made about Arabs, including, for example, that they drink camel’s blood and stomach juices. That they’re stingy. These are obviously, in his view, insults being targeted at Arabs. He clarifies by saying that every group has the poor, and they shouldn’t be mistaken for the greater part of the Arabs.
A lot of the arguments are like that—where he’s taking what someone has apparently said, something that is negative about the Arabs, and he tries to explain why they’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood what apparently were well-known sayings or poems. The person who’s citing them is distorting the sayings or poems, he suggests. They’re blind to the real meaning.
Ibn Qutaybah is dealing with, in one case, a poem where the poet described his guest as follows: “They spent the night crowded around a basket filled with choice dates,/ fingernails dug in like knives./ Next morning the date stones were piled high, where they had slept:/ poor men don’t throw the stones away.”
The point of the poem is, as he says, that some people eat the stones, and this is meant to be an indication of how poor they are. But it’s not meant to be an indication that all Arabs like to eat date stones, or that they’re cheap.
He also seems to use frequent exaggeration. For instance, that some people delight in the smells of sewage over and above aloe wood.
That’s part of a polemic as well, because he’s trying to explain that he’s dealing with a problem—you referred to it as trying to thread a needle—that, from his perspective, on the one hand Islam would seem to say that all people are equal. On the other hand, we see that manifestly people are not equal. How do we explain this as just? His point is that humanity is varied, it takes all types. Just as there are different colors of the earth, so there are different types of people. So he goes through lots of differences of people, as for instance men who are attracted to old women instead of the young, the fleshy instead of the thin.
In a way, it’s a justification for hierarchy.
And at the very end of the book, he also makes a small stand against the Arabs “whose own bigotry matches the Bigots’.”
I think in the total context of the book, it’s a small part. I don’t think it’s a major concession on his part that the Arabs have bigots.
He wasn’t himself Arab, so would he have felt the importance for making a space for himself?
The section on Khurasan is fascinating, and that was one of the passages that struck my eye very early, in that he distinguishes between Khurasan and Persia. Importantly, the idea of Iran in this period is rooted in a pre-Islamic past and is not part of his vocabulary. So for him, the operative ways of referring to territory within Iran would instead be regional, or they would include this notion of Persia, which is a substitute or an alternative to Iran but more restricted in territory. He himself had roots in Khurasan, and also the elites in the period were very much connected to Khurasan. Ibn Qutaybah’s books subsequently survive and circulate within Khurasan. So there’s an important connection between Iraq and Khurasan that he is defending. And the distance separating Khurasan from what he’s calling Persia is important.
Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, the late Umayyad and early Abbasid translator and prose writer, was from Persia. Ibn Qutaybah is from a very different region and a different orientation. Ibn Qutaybah goes to some length to make the Khurasanians the equivalent of the Ansar to the Arabs.
This is a shared opinion?
I think it firmly reflects a very widely held position among elites in his day.
When he is speaking negatively about Persia, he’s speaking about those who are championing a heritage, as he sees it, that is pre-Islamic, that’s rooted in Fars—so a different part of the Iranian territory—that has a whole different set of histories, mythologies. These, he would like to distinguish. That’s what makes this text very important, because you don’t often find that kind of clarity in our sources, where scholars are making these distinctions.
Why capitalize “Proponents of Equality” in your translation? Were they a separate faction?
There was a paper given a few years ago, suggesting they might be a separate faction from the Shuʿūbīs. I am not of that opinion. I think that it’s just another way that he’s referring to them. Both terms are actually also used in the ʿIqd synonymously.
I capitalized it, however, because just as we say these are the “Bigots,” he’s using a parallel phrase. And again, it’s not a coherent group, it’s an epithet. He might be saying, They claim they’re proponents of equality, but they’re really not. And that’s his point, too. So there’s a bit of sarcasm.
So is there sarcasm or irony, or forms of humor that he’s using, that are difficult for the contemporary reader to parse?
There might be. I’ve really tried to find some humor in him, but I find him humorless.
I think sometimes he cites poetry that came from a context that had lots of humor, originally, in the way the poetry was used—but he’s taken it out of that context. I suspect he’s taking poetry that had a lively humor, and he’s strong-arming it into his argument. We can still get echoes of the original context sometimes, but it can be very difficult.
What do you see as Ibn Qutaybah’s raison d’être?
He was a man of the court, very familiar with the literary scene of Baghdad. He could be quite creative in thinking about poetry. He worked in the same period as the codification of different sorts of knowledge, including hadith. This is the period from which we have, eventually, some of the most authoritative works on hadith. So he’s working in an extremely important period for knowledge-creation, and he’s part of it, he’s right in the thick of it.
That being said, when he turns to the topic of identity or ethnicity, he’s a cultural conservative. He’s nostalgic. This nostalgia is wired into the Abbasids, going back to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ himself, who in his al-Adab al-Kabīr begins with a comment about the good old days. It’s not as if, in his period, it was a time for nostalgia. The Abbasids, at least as far as I read them, had nostalgia from the minute of their birth. This may be true of empires—that in the periods that were retrospectively their golden ages, they were already longing for the past. There might be something about the search for permanence that is embedded within empires, and in their literary sources.
That is one of the interesting elements of this text, that there’s this nostalgia written through it, and it’s not necessarily conversant with what’s going on in his day. As I mentioned, you have the Turks, who he doesn’t address, and his opponents are all dead.
So he’s not engaging with what’s going on around him?
It’s at an angle.
We could probably productively re-read all of Ibn Qutaybah’s works thinking about the Turks as a specific question.
—Marcia Lynx Qualey