Tahera Qutbuddin, Associate Professor of Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, has written widely about ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, who Qutbuddin says has had a “seminal influence on Arabic literature,” from the risalah and maqamat traditions to today.
Qutbuddin, who grew up on the words of Ali, spoke with M. Lynx Qualey over Skype and email about why ‘Ali is like Shakespeare, why his words will be interesting to historians, and why “everyone can find something within [the book’s] pages that applies to their own life.”
How did you come to this project? Why choose Ali’s words to edit and translate?
I studied classical Arabic literature from a very young age, and when I encountered Ali’s sermons and sayings, I just fell in love with them. They have sparkle, they have verve, they are so simple, yet so deep. When the LAL board asked me to pick a text to edit and translate, for me it was a no-brainer to pick a compilation of Ali’s sayings and sermons.
It’s an unfortunate fact that many of the masterpieces of classical Arabic literature remain untranslated and quite unknown outside the Arabic reading world, and the Dustur ma’alim al-hikam (Treasury of Virtues) and the Mi’at kalimah (100 Proverbs)—the two texts I chose to edit and translate for LAL—were among these. These two are among the earliest extant compilations of Ali’s words, a vital part of the vast and wonderful corpus of Arabic literature.
As the first Shia imam and the fourth Sunni caliph, Ali is one of the most important figures of Islamic history, and he is widely acknowledged as a sage of Qur’anic wisdom and a master of Arabic eloquence. His sermons and sayings are a rich repository of profoundly humane teachings, magnificent nature imagery, and beautiful rhythmic cadences, and they’ve played a foundational role in the development of Arabic prose. Since neither the Treasury nor the 100 Proverbs had ever been translated into English—perhaps in part because of the complexity of their language—I was happy to have the opportunity to make these seminal works of Arabic literature and Islamic wisdom accessible to English readers. Moreover, the 100 Proverbs had never before been edited as a stand-alone text. The Treasury had been edited, but the earlier edition was based on a single manuscript (a good manuscript but with some lacunae), and I was able to locate and use three additional manuscripts in order to produce an accurate critical edition.
The Treasury offers a very thorough picture of Ali’s simultaneously pious and pragmatic personae because it has so many different genres and themes: you have sermons, proverbs, testaments, dialogues, verse and prayers, containing counsels to pursue virtues such as integrity and eschew vices such as greed, supplications to the Lord, philosophical discussions of God’s oneness and the Last Day, urgent exhortations to perform good deeds in preparation for the imminent hereafter, practical advice on everyday matters, acute observations about human nature, ad hoc instructions about the medical benefits of dates and raisins and certain other foods, and much more—all of which make it a very rich text.
What would be surprising about this text to a general reader?
The Treasury of Virtues showcases core human values such as honesty, hard work, and patience that are similar across faiths and religions, but presents them in a novel and dynamic format, namely, a fourteen hundred year old, nature-based, Arabian-desert culture. Although the metaphors, the vocabulary, the sights and sounds will be exotic and foreign for average American readers, they will be surprised by the universality and familiarity and relevance of Ali’s ideals.
Now let’s pick a particular kind of reader. Let’s say it’s a reader in the US or Europe, who for the past 10 years has been bombarded by images of Islam that are politicized and martial. Here, [in the Treasury,] you see something completely different. You see the deeply spiritual and pietistic face of early Islam, of Ali, of the early Muslims, that the average reader probably didn’t expect.
What else would you tell a general reader about why they might be interested in this book?
It’s a very personal book, in that it speaks directly to each individual. It’s not a story; it doesn’t recount a narrative or tale of events. It is theology, it is philosophy, it is religion and faith, all of it distilled in a very personal, ethical, practical mode. Everyone can find something within its pages that applies to their own lives.
How did Ali’s work influence later Arabic sermons, proverbs, poetry, and prose writing – all the way to the current time?
Ali’s sayings and sermons were recorded in many early literary and historical texts, and in very early individual compilations. Their influence goes back several centuries before the Treasury of Virtues was compiled. It was the texts’ enormous presence in his world that led al-Qadi al-Quda’i, the compiler of the Treasury of Virtues, and other compilers like him, to bring them together in one place.
I mentioned in my introduction to the Treasury of Virtues that Ali influenced Abdel Hamid al-Katib, who was the chief chancery official for the Umayyads. The risalah [epistle] is at the head of the written Arabic prose tradition, and Abdel Hamid is credited with being the founder of Arabic prose, being the author of many of the earliest Arabic epistles aspiring to high style. After he became famous, Abdel Hamid was asked, what was your training in eloquence and how did you become eloquent? He said: I memorized the words of Ali.
The influence of Ali’s words is widely acknowledged by scholars, but this is something that has not been documented carefully in Western academia. In Arabic-language materials and in Persian and Urdu, some work has been done tracing the influence of Ali’s words on the development of Arabic literature. Mutanabbi, for example, who is considered one of the greatest Arabic poets, was famous for his gnomic verse, and Abdel Zahra’ al-Husayni al-Khatib has published a book tracing the themes of Ali’s sayings in Mutanabbi’s poetry (titled Mi’at shahid wa-shahid).
Abdel Hamid al-Katib and Mutanabbi are two very telling examples, but they’re not the only ones. The tenth century Syrian preacher Ibn Nubatah is yet another example of famous adeebs [authors] being influenced by Ali’s words. And there are many more, poets, litterateurs, orators, and preachers who acknowledged the words of Ali—their style, their themes, their actual phrases—as being foundational in their own training and output.
Mutanabbi has been called – by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra – the “brother of Shakespeare.” Do you think there is a metaphor that works with Ali, that would help English-language audiences to understand his importance?
It’s hard to name a single person in the Western canon who embodies the multiple aspects of Ali’s appeal. Like Shakespeare’s importance for English drama, Ali had a seminal influence on Arabic literature, but he was also a spiritual leader, a wise teacher, a dynamic orator, a jurisprudent and judge, a political ruler, and a military commander.
Can you tell us about Ali’s influence on contemporary literature?
Modern Muslim preachers regularly study Ali’s words and cite them; the Shia all the time, but Sunnis frequently as well. Because Ali’s words reflect fundamental values of the Qur’an and core teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and they do so in such beautifully persuasive language, Muslim religious scholars draw upon them as a key resource when putting together their own sermons.
Speaking in terms of the genre of oratory: The oratorical tradition, of which Ali’s words were a key component, influenced the risalah [epistolary] genre, and then the risalah—particularly in terms of its style—influenced a genre of fiction that came a little later, which is that of the maqamat, which are kind of quasi-picaresque novelettes or short stories with an anti-hero. The influence of Ali’s oratory —principally the parallelism, the rhythm, the rhyme—trickles down into the various genres of Arabic prose. Scholars have shown that the maqamat genre had its own influence on modern literature. Modern Arabic literature drew a lot on European forms, but for the traditional aspect, the modern novel, short stories, and drama often looked back at the maqamat for inspiration.
How was all this material gathered? You wrote in your introduction that some of the memorization was supplemented by scholarly note-taking?
Ali’s sermons, sayings, and poems (like all other artistic and historical verbal material from his period), were at the outset transmitted orally over several generations. The initial audience would be people who were listening. Let’s say there were 100 people in the audience for an oration: Ten people went home and talked to their associates and their family, and described what Ali had said. And it got passed down in multiple transmissions until someone, or several individuals, wrote down the oral reports. The first couple of transmitters in any chain of transmission were often ad hoc, in the manner I just described. The next few were mostly scholars who methodically and deliberately collected this material.
An orator needed to be a prominent leader in order to draw an audience, and his content needed to be wise and relevant. But in order to be considered a superb orator, he also needed to have internalized and mastered the aesthetics of orality, which focused on mnemonic techniques —rhythm, parallelism, rhyme, vivid images, succinct phrases, rhetorical questions, quotation of proverbial prose and verse, and so on.
Because the best oratorical materials had these in-built mnemonic devices which facilitated memorizing and transmission, they were ably passed on from person to person—for two or three or four generations in the case of Ali’s sermons—until they were eventually recorded and systematically collected. Some of the materials attributed to Ali may not have been said by Ali, but it is reasonable to believe that many of them may indeed have been spoken by him, perhaps with some variation, perhaps verbatim.
In many cases, the oral transmission was supplemented with written notes, and there are reports of brief compilations of Ali’s words put together by some of the earliest Muslim historians, and even by one of Ali’s contemporaries. Additionally, just as scholars used written notes as an aide-memoire for teaching and transmitting poetry, history and hadith (as Gregor Schoeler has demonstrated in his writings), they would have used written notes to teach and transmit Ali’s sermons and sayings.
How do you judge Ali’s eloquence against other creative composers and speakers of the time?
There were many eloquent speakers of early Islam, who spoke on similar themes and used similar rhetorical techniques, but Ali’s oratory was deemed by Jahiz and other medieval critics to be in a league of its own. Moreover, the number of sermons and speeches and proverbs that have been transmitted from Ali are perhaps more than the rest combined. There was something in the appeal of their pietistic teachings, and their choice of just the right word to convey those teachings, that resonated and made them memorable.
People vote with their feet. In this case, they voted with their transmission. That’s a telling indicator: just the fact that people liked Ali’s output, they remembered it, they transmitted it, and they kept looking back at Ali as the master model of eloquence.
What was the artistic context in which these sayings, poems, and sermons were composed?
Pre-Islamic and early Islamic society was largely oral, and this orality shaped their artistic output. The major verbal art forms of the period were poetry, oratory, and the Qur’an. The Arabs considered their odes (qasida) to be their historical register and a record of their glorious deeds. Orations served many dynamic religious, political, military and legislative functions. And the Qur’an was believed by Muslims to be the word of God, the ultimate guide and the final arbiter. Each of these forms was shaped in large part by the oral milieu and an instinctive use of mnemonic techniques; their rhetorical characteristics were grounded in the aesthetics of orality, its hallmark being rhythm and vivid imagery.
In some ways, pre-Islamic and early Islamic poetry and [Ali’s] oratory are similar, and in others they’re very different. They’re similar in that they stem from the same cultural background. We see in both a strong substratum of nature imagery, camels, horses, the desert, rain. This substrate tells us what was really important in terms of their lifestyle and what they needed for their sustenance. There is one genre within poetry that overlaps with the genre of the sermon, and that is ritha’ or elegy. It not only draws on the same nature imagery, but it also has similar themes of the nearness of death and the transience of human life.
But most genres of early poetry have functions and themes that are quite different from those of Ali’s sermons and sayings. The palate is the same, but they’re painting a very different picture. The poetry focuses on love, descriptions of storms, tribal praise, and a recounting of desert journeys to a watering hole. Ali’s orations turn that journey into a metaphorical one–the journey to the hereafter, with the need to gather good deeds as provisions while the traveler still has time, before the call is given to depart.
Additionally, the Qur’an has its own rhythmic assonances and nature images, as well as themes of piety and preaching, and these themes and images were quoted and referenced frequently in Ali’s sermons and sayings.
Would these sermons, proverbs, and poems also be interesting to a historian?
Orations can be an important source of historical information, if used judiciously and with caution, after carefully examining their provenance and substance. The same caveat would apply to historical reports and poetry from the period. Some scholars have claimed that sermons and speeches from this period are ‘clearly inauthentic’ and thus inadmissible as a historical source. But they give no convincing proof as to why the texts should be summarily rejected as inauthentic, beyond citing the case of ancient Greek and Latin histories where orations were admitted to be “what the heroes would have said.”
The context in early Islamic Arabia is different, and the strong indigenous tradition of oral transmission should not be underestimated. These orations can provide key data to supplement or bolster the historical reports, and perhaps more importantly, they can depict the ethos of the time. They showcase the personal struggle, the human aspect. They give us a very direct window into the minds of the people of that time itself, versus a scholar writing about it 300 years later.
Like orations, poetry also conveys emotions and feelings in a way the dry historical record often can’t. Most of the early Arabic history books are filled with verse, and several of the poems collected by Quda’i are from these. The poetry, in terms of the historical record, is quite cryptic. You have names, you have events that are related, which sometimes provide information you may not find elsewhere; so poetry can have an important role to play in historical detective-work.
At the same time, it works most efficaciously as a historical piece if you take it in conjunction with the historical record. Because it’s not written as a record of history, in fact it’s written within a certain historical context, and it reflects that context, but it also has its own functions and aims, including PR; because poetry at that time was very much a public relations tool, and it was a way of disseminating information about one’s tribe or community’s strengths and victories across the Arabian peninsula. These things are important to keep in mind when evaluating early Arabic poetry as a historical source.
Unfortunately, many modern historians of the Middle East tend to skip over poetry even when they come across it within a historical text. Maybe it’s too hard? Maybe it’s the attitude that this is literary material and doesn’t concern core history? But this position should be reconsidered. Poetry has a lot to offer historians. I attended a conference a few years ago at the American University of Beirut on the value of poetry in reconstructing Middle Eastern history, and a number of good arguments were made supporting the immense value of poetry as a supplemental source of history (they can be found in the published Poetry and History volume of the conference proceedings).
Proverbs, when denuded of their context (as they habitually are in these texts), are less obviously useful as a source of hard data. But like the sermons and poetry, they give a feel for the period’s values and ideals.
You write that the latter part of the text, the Mi’at Kalimah, may or may not have been compiled by al-Jahiz. To what extent does that matter?
The identity of the compiler matters, because, if possible, you want to establish who compiled what. The attribution of the compilation to Jahiz is uncertain. If he did compile it, it would be compatible with what we know of him, in that he frequently lauds Ali’s eloquence in his many books. It’s also possible that someone a hundred years later attributed the collection to Jahiz because anything attributed to his pen would benefit from his fame.
But in the larger scheme of things, the identity of the compiler doesn’t matter so much. Whether or not Jahiz compiled it, the probability of the attribution to Ali is about the same for the 100 Proverbs as it is for other collections of Ali’s words, because these same proverbs are also found scattered in many different literary and historical sources, including a handful in Jahiz’s own works. Authenticity of words attributed to Ali (and to others from his time) has to be considered at the level of the individual proverb or sermon rather than at the level of the compilation as a whole.
Why do these texts interest contemporary readers?
Because of their ethical, universal themes, these texts are timeless. They apply to people anywhere, anytime. But at the same time, they also provide a unique window into the traditions and society of early Islam and into Ali’s personality. And people interested in different literatures and cultures can find in them the culturally specific motifs and metaphors that formed the lifeworld of these early Muslims.
And for contemporary Arabic readers?
Ali’s proverbs and sermons are quoted frequently by people on the street, by school kids. They’re used in daily speech and mundane routines by Arabs, Muslim and Christian, as well as by non-Arab Muslims. They’re also studied in more formal ways. The Mi’at Kalimah, the 100 Proverbs, is one such text that has been studied over the centuries and it continues to be studied today in schools, seminaries and universities in the Arab and Islamic world. And the sermons and aphorisms of the Treasury of Virtues are avidly read and cited as well.
This is partly because of Ali’s high status in Islam: Ali is revered by the Shia as the first imam, the legitimate spiritual and temporal successor of the Prophet Muhammad, and he is venerated by the Sunnis as the fourth of the “Rightly Guided caliphs.” It is also because his words are just so powerful; they are treasured by Arabic speakers as a fount of eloquence and wisdom.
What were the challenges of translating this text? How was it different for sermons, for proverbs, for poetry?
Ali’s sayings and sermons are arguably some of the most difficult Arabic texts to translate. Some of their cryptic utterances are not easily unraveled, for they utilize an archaic and multidimensional lexicon, a culture-specific idiom derived largely from the body parts and movements of the camel, and they’re dense and intense. Even when unraveled, rendering them into similarly forceful English is even harder.
For the proverbs and sermons, the challenge was cutting out the prepositions and making it succinct and strong and choosing just the right word, liberating my pen from the exact dictionary meaning of single words to get across the sense and the sparkle of the whole. The translation was especially hard because the proverbs are so pithy and at the same time so profound. They come with a whole host of meanings, and you have to pick one and stick to one and not give a whole long sermon about it yourself. I struggled many times, in many of the lines, trying to get it just so: wiggling a line, tweaking it, sounding it out in English: Does it sound like a proverb in English? Does it sound too vague, too wishy-washy? Does it have too many ifs and buts and ands? This is where LAL’s system of collaboration was most helpful. My project editor, Shawkat Toorawa, gave excellent stylistic suggestions, and LAL editorial board members helped out with interpretations for some of the trickier materials.
In terms of the poetry, one of the things I played with was whether I should try to maintain rhyme and meter in my translations. I actually did two whole versions of chapter nine: one rhymed and metered, and one where I freed myself from the rhyme and meter. I showed the two versions to my colleagues, and they advised, rightly so, that the rhymed and metered version sounded frivolous and light, out of step with the grave, epic themes of the poetry in theTreasury of Virtues. It was better to stick with the more direct version. Classical Arabic poetry is rhymed and metered, of course, and there is some benefit to maintaining those aspects in the translation. But I’ve found that your choice of vocabulary and syntax becomes so restricted that it really has a negative counter effect. As Richard Sieburth said in a LAL translation workshop last year, you have to lose some battles to win the war.
What did you focus on, if you jettisoned the rhyme?
A combination of rhythm, where I could get in some kind of rhythm in a natural, unforced manner, with alliteration and paronomasia, and most importantly, a sanguine choice of English words and syntax. I tried to be as straightforward in my translation as possible, using active verbs which conveyed the action of the war poetry. And I tried to keep intact the metaphors and descriptive epithets—strangely beautiful for a Western audience—for instance, Ali describing his weapon as a sword the color of salt.
What was important to convey in the poetry?
I wanted to make sure I conveyed the spontaneity and the spirit of the pieces. Ali was not a poet in the professional sense of the word, in the known sense of the word. Most of his artistic output is in fact prose, and the poetry is a tiny sliver from the large verbal corpus that is attributed to him. Moreover, these poetry pieces are in the mode of the sermons and proverbs in that they’re not stylized at all. They have the feel of being spoken spontaneously as a response to something that happened. They’re short pieces and the meters and rhymes are simple, relatively easy to compose. Warriors, including Ali, have been reported to spontaneously compose and recite—as they were fighting—one or two lines of verse which typically say something like: I am so-and-so, son of so-and-so, and I’m going to fight you because I’m on the side of truth and you’re on the side of deceit. The poems in the Treasury of Virtues are a slightly longer, after-the-battle version of those in-battle verses, but they have the heat of the battle imbibed within them. This movement and fervor is what I tried to convey.