Thursday, December 5th, 2013 2:02 pm

Michael Cooperson is a man of broad interests: from classical Arabic poetry to time travel to Maltese historical novels. He’s translated modern Arabic novels—Khairy Shalaby’s The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets and Jurji Zaidan’s The Caliph’s Heirs—and also has an interest in the fascinating life of Ibn Ḥanbal. Cooperson has translated Ibn al-Jawzī’s Virtues of the Imam Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal for the LAL, a linear narrative that takes us through the life of a man who, as Cooperson writes, is “probably one of the most famous Muslims in history.” (You can find the already-published Volume One here. Volume Two will be coming out later in 2014.)


In his interview with M. Lynx Qualey, Cooperson talked about Ibn al-Jawzī’s visceral, “street-level view” of ninth-century Baghdad and how hard it was for Ibn Ḥanbal to be “pious when you’re knee-deep in the same real-world crap as everyone else.”

It’s interesting that you mention Russian novels in your introduction, when discussing the variations in names, as the portrait of Ibn Ḥanbal that Ibn al-Jawzī provides is very novelistic and surprisingly nuanced. As you note, this is not hagiography. We learn not just the great moments of his life, but the small ones, including his money troubles and his fraught relations with his family. How does this stand out from other biographies being written at the time, outside of the reader-friendly table of contents?

Virtues stands out for its length. Hardly anyone except the Prophet had such a long work devoted to him. One reason is that Ibn al-Jawzī had some points to make. For example, he wanted to make sure people knew that Ibn Ḥanbal could do legal reasoning, not just memorize Hadith. And the relationship between the Hanbalis and the Abbasid caliphate still needed some retro-tweaking. Ibn Ḥanbal viewed the caliphs as a necessary evil, but later Hanbalis—including Ibn al-Jawzī, who preached for the regime—had to make it clear that this was no longer an appropriate position. So the biography is unusually long because Ibn Ḥanbal was unusually controversial.

You quote Christopher Melchert, in the introduction, seeming to say that the translation of a medieval biography of Ibn Ḥanbal wouldn’t be of wide interest. But in fact the biography reads quite simply (with the exception of Ibn al-Jawzī’s brief introduction), and is a good deal clearer than much contemporary scholarly writing. It also offers a compelling biographical portrait of Ibn Ḥanbal with so many wonderful details, from sweat stains on his collar to his relationship with his wives. In this way, we see him through a near lens rather than a distant one. Are there ways in which you think this is advantageous for viewing a medieval figure? Are there drawbacks (outside of the length of the text)?

Christoph was thinking of the masses of non-narrative data, like the lists of teachers and students. LAL thought a lot about how to make that data as unobtrusive as possible. Evidently, our solution worked for you: you were able to skip the lists and still have something like a continuous reading experience.

The details you mention are one of the reasons I wanted to translate this book. Other biographies have details too, of course, but here there are more—not simply because the work is longer, but because readers really wanted to know how Ibn Ḥanbal dealt with the problems of everyday life. It’s easy being pious if you live in the desert; the real test is being pious when you’re knee-deep in the same real-world crap as everyone else.

The biggest drawback is that the portrait is pontillistic. Ibn al-Jawzī’s original readers didn’t need the big picture, and so they could pause to savor five or six reports about their hero’s genealogy or the names of his children. But most modern readers need to be told why those details mattered. To Ibn al-Jawzī’s credit, he does occasionally step back and remind us where we are in the story. Whenever he did that, I’d breathe a sigh of relief. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though: the man also wrote joke books, and he knew how to manage a narrative.

A Hanbali writing joke books. Were there funny moments in the biography that I missed?

There were two passages I thought were funny, though I’m not sure Ibn al-Jawzī thought so. One is when al-Marrūdhī catches Aḥmad feeding a dog (42.7). The story is supposed to show that Aḥmad was kind even to dogs. What’s funny is that he’s embarrassed to be caught in the act. The other is when Aḥmad and al-Marrūdhī are in the caliph’s palace in Samarra and Aḥmad tells him not to look at the walls, probably because they were decorated with images of people dancing and drinking (49.39). There is something incongruous about seeing two Hadith-men so far out of their element, and something comical in the thought of al-Marrūdhī sneaking a peek at the frescoes before getting busted.

The LAL is both attempting to be complete, hence the unabridged version, and to reach an audience beyond the field. Were there accommodations that you made to reach a wider audience, outside of printing the transmission information in a smaller font and suggesting the skippability of certain chapters?

Those things, plus the notes, are all we could do to make this particular work as non-grotesque as possible. The only way to go further would be to do a new edition for LAL’s English-only imprint, where we’d drop not only the original Arabic but the name-lists, the isnads, and probably some of the duplicate reports. That would make for a relatively snappy read, but I don’t know whether it’s in the cards right now.

How did you come to translating this text? How did the LAL board decide on it? Why Ibn Ḥanbal? And why this Ibn Ḥanbal biography vs. the other one Melchert mentioned, the al-Dhahabī? Were there particular reasons you wanted to take on this project? When did your relationship with Ibn Ḥanbal begin?

My first book, Classical Arabic Biography (Cambridge, 2000), was about four figures who represented competing strands of religious authority. One figure was Ibn Ḥanbal, who had the courage to thumb his nose in public at the Abbasid caliphate and its Qurʾanic creationism. One of the books I used in my research was Walter Patton’s Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal and the Mina (1897). Patton does a bang-up job with narrating the Inquisition—maybe because he came to the story as a Christian primed to appreciate a good martyrology. Unfortunately, he makes some assumptions we now know to be wrong, and he combines several Arabic sources into a single narrative. So, as well-told as Patton’s story is, it can’t serve as an up-to-date account of Ibn Ḥanbal’s life.

Fast forward to a few years ago. LAL was just getting started, and I thought immediately of Ibn Ḥanbal. Except for the Epistle of Forgiveness, there were no linear narratives being proposed, and I like linear narratives. Meanwhile, there had been lots of new research on the Inquisition. So I proposed Ibn al-Jawzī, who is late enough to have collected almost everything the Hanbali tradition has to say about the imam, but not so late to have lost the thread of the living tradition. Also, he carefully names all his transmitters, someone who wants to reconstruct particular memory traditions can do so.

As for al-Dhahabī, his entry on Ibn Ḥanbal is not a birth-to-death story, but commentary (sometimes a very caustic one) on the claims of previous biographers. So it wouldn’t do as a stand-alone work.

As for the LAL board, one great thing is that there’s no agenda: anything in pre-modern Arabic is fair game. Since I was willing to do this, it was approved.

Is there anything this biography misses about Ibn Ḥanbal because of its particular blind spots?

It’s told from the Hanbali point of view, which says that the only way to live is study Hadith and apply its precepts, without trying to reason or rationalize. So, from Ibn al-Jawzi’s perspective, many of the figures modern scholars find sympathetic—al-Jāḥiẓ, al-Naẓẓām, and other rationalist types—are simply villains (not that he mentions those two in particular, but he mentions people like them). Where it gets interesting is in the treatment of groups that Ibn Ḥanbal had misgivings about but couldn’t simply dismiss: the rulers, for example, and the Shāfiʿī jurists.

Humphrey Davies said, “I translate in order to understand.” Was there anything you understood differently about the Ibn al-Jawzī after translating it; about how the biography was constructed, about Ibn Ḥanbal, something else?

One thing I understand in a way I didn’t before is how coddled we are by our editions of pre-modern Arabic books. There’s an excellent critical edition of Virtues by ʿAbd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī. In making my own edition, I almost always agreed with al-Turkī’s reading of the text. But as I read through the manuscripts I came to realize how much he’d added by using modern paragraphing and punctuation. Our LAL editions try for minimal meddling—not too many vowels, not too much punctuation—and that, plus Stuart Brown’s marvelous type and text design, bring you closer to the feeling of reading a manuscript. To me that seems like a good thing, but I’d be curious to know what Arab readers think.

Let me mention one choice that producing an edition forces you to make. One of the manuscripts often supplies final inflectional markings, and al-Turkī supplies many more. When we see these endings, we might imagine that Ibn Ḥanbal and his contemporaries went around speaking with full inflection. But I don’t think that’s why the endings are there: rather, it’s because the people who copied the manuscripts added them to clarify the meaning of difficult sentences—a practice followed in turn by al-Turkī in his edition. Since I tend to believe that ninth-century speakers didn’t use full inflection, I’ve tried to cut endings down to a minimum. But no one really knows how people sounded back then. Any choice we make about how to represent their speech is just that: a choice.

Certainly this text is a good deal simpler than most of the other LAL books. So although there are no verbal pyrotechnics, and the poetry is exceptionally simple, Ibn Ḥanbal is a fascinating character. The character study was what attracted me to the text. What were you hoping other non-specialist audiences would find in it?

I’m delighted that you found him fascinating. Besides Ibn Ḥanbal himself, there’s also the time and place: Baghdad (and a few other cities) in the early to mid-ninth century (third AH). Virtues gives a street-level view of real life: grocery stores where they wrap your butter in leaves of chard, a market where you can sell a live chicken to the highest bidder, and a courtyard where you might accidentally drop a pair of scissors down the well or lose track of a child who’s run off to watch the weavers at their looms. Of course, Ibn al-Jawzī had no intention of writing about ordinary life for its own sake: he included these details because he couldn’t tell the story any other way. So it all seems quite believable. And it’s a welcome break from the mannerist minuet of classical poetry, with all the beloveds-like-gazelles and cups-like-stars and so forth. That may have been someone’s reality, but most people lived in Ibn Ḥanbal’s world, and this is as detailed a picture of it as we’re likely to get.

In Volume One, Ibn Ḥanbal grows up, establishes his career, his reputation, and his relationship with his family. What will readers find in Volume Two?

The Inquisition: Ibn Ḥanbal is arrested, sentenced to death, reprieved, thrown in prison, pulled out again, and finally put on trial. Also, a cult of sanctity grows up around him after his death.

The term “Hadith-men,” sometimes for “asḥāb al-adīth” or “ahl al-adīth”, stood out. Were there other terms you played around with?

We’ve put lots of (still unsystematic) thought into the names of groups. On the one hand, the Muʿtazilah, the Kharijites, and many others are already known under those names in English-language scholarship. On the other hand, the terms have a literal meaning in Arabic, and the meaning matters, or used to. So some of us have tried for an effect like “pro-life,” “neo-con,” or “libtards” in American English, and come up with Seceders, Dissenters, Proponents of the Created Utterance, and so on. (James Montgomery in particular has a knack for coining terms like these; the awkward ones are mine.) Hadith is a bit different, though: there’s no real equivalent to it in other traditions—at least, not in any that have contributed common words to English. So I’ve always favored calling it Hadith. The transmitters weren’t always men (as an excellent new book by Asma Sayeed explains) but the vaguely sexist translation is not out of place given the milieu.

That’s Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam, correct?


Ibn al-Jawzī did use a few female transmitters. You say in the introduction that his doing so was unusual; how unusual was it?

The way Asma tells it, women were active in transmitting reports of the Prophet during the first generations of Islam, but then the professionalization of tadīth forced most of them out. In the tenth century and again in the twelfth, they come back. Given this story we might expect to see more women transmitters either in Aḥmad’s isnads or in Ibn al-Jawzi’s, but I don’t recall more than one or two. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t keep track of them. When the full text comes on line, a search for “addathatnā” should turn them up.

Ibn Ḥanbal didn’t seem tremendously fond of women.

In Volume Two there’s a chapter on the women in the family. There Aḥmad reports on how his wife Umm Ṣāliḥ supported the family with her weaving. To me he sounds very respectful. Of course, he was deeply embedded in a phallocentric world, and one anecdote doesn’t change that. But he was also too self-critical to feel superior to anyone except rationalist theologians and Christians (and the Christians seem to have liked him anyway). Here of course I’m speaking of him as a figure of biography; the real Aḥmad may have been different.

It says in 27.1 that Aḥmad “did not believe in writing books.” How does this effect what was written about him? Presumably he would not have approved of Ibn al-Jawzī’s book?

Exactly. This is one of the ironies of the Hanbali enterprise. Another is that it’s based on emulation of the Prophet, who did not emulate anyone, meaning that his not emulating anyone remains something that cannot be emulated. I don’t think ninth- or twelfth-century people were directly aware of these dilemmas, but they may explain why Ibn Ḥanbal lived in a state of constant self-reproach, and why Ibn al-Jawzī felt he had to apologize for writing his book. This sort of tension is of course present in any religious tradition, the problem in all cases being the squaring of theory with the exigencies of life. It now occurs to me that if Virtues has a theme, that would be it. And the answer, it seems to me, is the same as Dostoevsky’s. You can’t really live like Jesus, or Muhammad, because real life (or the devil, or your corrupted soul) will drag you down. The resulting spectacle is a melancholy one. But there’s something heroic about the attempt, and it can ennoble real life—as a readerly effect, at least.

The LAL board seems to have an unusually close, collaborative relationship. How does this collaboration change a particular translation, such as the Ibn Ḥanbal? And how does it generally change the way classical Arabic literature is being translated and studied, and potentially received by a wider audience?

I’ve made a nuisance of myself at our editorial board meetings by asking the group to weigh in on all kinds of things. Should the isnad be in a smaller type? Should we translate names if they mean something? And so on. Whatever answers we have are collective (and not always ones I agreed with at first). I’ve also pestered my fellow LALites with one-on-one questions on all sorts of things. The chapter on Ibn Ḥanbal’s fiqh is especially shameless: several sections were translated for me by Joe Lowry and Devin Stewart. And my project editor, Tahera Qutbuddin, caught all kinds of boneheaded errors and improved many a locution. So the translation is really a collective work. Even more important, I think, is how Phillip Kennedy has kept LAL in the public eye by arranging lectures and panel presentations in NY and Abu Dhabi. At some of these, members of the audience chewed us out for what they thought was a mistake or a bad choice. Where this is taking us (I hope) is toward a place where lots of people have a stake in any particular translation. I already think of my work as a collaboration with medieval copyists, modern editors, and the UCLA students who read drafts with me, as well as my colleagues at LAL. The more we can expand this circle, the better.

Is there an LAL project you’re working on now, or next? 

I’m project editor for Humphrey Davies’ altogether unbelievable (and nearly complete) rendering of al-Shidyāq’s Leg over Leg. I’m slated to edit two or three new projects set in Abbasid Baghdad, which now seems like a piece of cake compared to Shidyāq’s nineteenth century. There are a few works from that same period that I’d like to translate myself, though the prospect of the labor involved in establishing a new Arabic text has so far deterred me from claiming any title too loudly. And, outside LAL, I’m hoping to start translating from Maltese. There’s something irresistible about books written in a modern language descended not from Classical Arabic but from a dialect—in this case, eleventh-century Sicilian.

What are you planning to translate from the Maltese?

Nothing’s in the works yet, but a wish list would include Pierre Mejlak, who writes marvelous short stories; Guze Stagno, who writes hilariously filthy novels, and (if I ever become half as good as Rose Marie Caruana at translating from Maltese) Frans Sammut’s historical novel Il-Ħolma Maltija.