Friday, May 5th, 2023 8:00 am

The Book of Monasteries transports readers to a world of Christian monasteries rarely seen by outsiders. Written in the late tenth century and set across the Arab world—from modern day Iraq through southern Anatolia to Egypt—the book is not of the typical themes of prayer, asceticism, and withdrawal from the world. Instead, you find a rich tapestry of poetry, political intrigue, and even murder. In this two-part series, translator Hilary Kilpatrick sits down with A.J. Naddaff to discuss the content, medieval authors, topography, wine drinking, and pluralism.

AJN: Your expertise and publications range from al-Raghib al-Isfahani in the 10th century to Ghassan Kanafani in the 20th. You have also been one of the first in the Western academy to research Ottoman Arabic literature in the 17th and 18th centuries. What sparked your interest in a book on medieval Arabic monasteries?

HK: I bought a copy years ago. I was a student at Oxford, and there was a wonderful bookshop called Thornton’s, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was on four stories, and they had bookshelves on the top floor  with Arabic books, including The Book of Monasteries, which was a 1962 edition. It sat on my shelf for years. And it was only really when my husband asked me if I could write a paper for a book he was editing on Muslim views of non-Muslims in adab literature [(belles lettres] that I pulled it out. That was around the time when I was working on the Aghani [Book of Songs], and it goes from there.

AJN: I’m curious as well if you can speak to why this text is important to you on an individual level.

HK: One of the key motives for a lot of my work has been to try and correct misconceptions. That’s the reason why I translated Kanafani’s work. And on a more academic level, it was why I got interested in al-Aghani, because when I started working on it, people just thought of it as a useful source for all kinds of information, and they didn’t ask why it was written the way it was. And the same thing, I think, with the monasteries book, because at least since 2000, the situation of minorities in the Middle East has deteriorated so much. When I first went to Lebanon in 1965, the situation like there is now in Iraq and Syria was unthinkable. And I think that of course has stimulated a great deal of hostility to Islam in general. People don’t know this whole history of coexistence, which has been difficult at times, but it is there. And that is one of the reasons why I thought it was interesting to translate this book.

AJN: It seems that there has been more of a push against traditional scholarship of pre-modern Arabic that isolates the text from a modern, or even 21st-century context. Towards this end, we are taught to think of Arabic literary history as a continuum.

HK: Simply, if one is open-minded about historical change, one has to admit that a book like this has a very unexpected take on monasteries. I mean all the authors in the book are Muslims, and already, to have Muslims talking about monasteries is something that not everybody expects. It’s a way of trying to present a very different side of Christian-Muslim relations.

AJN: But then most of the book is not very much about monasteries, right?

HK: What happens is that you have a monastery, and it is described, always in positive terms or else, I mean, it’s in ruins, but there’s never a negative aspect to it. And then you have a lot of poets who compose poetry, and information about the poets or about other things that happened. There are also historical topics, some monasteries associated with historical events or important historical figures. You have one monastery which is associated with a man famous for his jokes. And there is another monastery, which is associated with a buffoon figure. There are monasteries which are excuses to introduce a lot of poetry. So in fact, my conclusion is that it’s really more like a pocket anthology of classical Arabic literature.

AJN: Al-Shābushtī is a striking name to say the least. Who is this character? 

A plan of Fatimid Cairo as reconstructed by Stanley Lane-Poole. Public domain.

HK: He’s a compiler, which is a very common profession in the pre-modern Arabic literary sphere. We don’t know very much about him. The name seems to be Persian and as far as one can tell, he grew up in Baghdad. He had a very good education, and he made this book and also wrote for instance about Islamic law.

He also transferred to Cairo, where he was librarian of the Fatimid caliph. He quotes from a very wide range of books – he obviously knows Arabic literature of his time very well indeed. And one could see him going to the caliph and saying, “you’re looking for a librarian. Look what I can do and all the books I know about.” But unfortunately, not only do we not have much information about him from other texts, but even the preface of the book is missing.

AJN: Back to this idea of thinking of the text as a pocket anthology of Arabic literature. Maybe this speaks to the fluidity of pre-modern Arabic literary genres. Can you fit this text in a generic convention?

HK: Why do you have to fit it, at least as far as we understand it? I don’t know exactly how these books were used. But interestingly, for this particular book, there is just one manuscript which exists from the 13th century and then it was read in the 16th century. It spoke to the readers partly because it is very sensitive to poetry. That is one of the reasons so much pre-modern Arabic literature has both prose and poetry. I do not know if people in the 10th century would have thought about it as a genre.

AJN: What would the people of 10th century likely think of this then?

HK: They would think of this as examples of fine poetry, of interesting anecdotes, of also sometimes lessons about lives.

AJN: Are there any good lessons?

HK: You have this anecdote where there is an important figure, the police chief, having a meal and his favorite dish has been cooked. Then he finds that there’s a hair in one of the dishes. And so, he sends a message to the kitchen and soon after there’s a covered dish brought in with a hand of the cook! Now, later on, we get the same kind of situation with another important figure. The cook is so pleased that he brings a dish in, and he trips and the whole of the dish is dropped onto the person’s lap. This person just gets up, changes his clothes, sits down, summons the cook. The cook is absolutely terrified. And the important man says, “you must have been so worked up, don’t worry, I am going to free you and give you a free slave girl and set you up in life.” The comment then of the person who recounts this is to compare these two ways of reacting to a similar situation: one is merciful and the other is unmerciful.

AJN: There are also the discussions of sexuality and the homoeroticism that comes up a little bit.

HK: All these subjects are in the context of a discussion of a particular monastery. It is not as though there is a section on sex. But there are some interesting anecdotes with sometimes very explicit poetry and sometimes much more delicate poetry about sexual relationships. For one thing, the most interesting anecdote in my opinion doesn’t happen in the monastery. It is about the seduction of a young adolescent against his will. In the end, the attitude of the seducer but also other people in this particular context, it’s so different from the #MeToo Movement today. They are just not interested in the feelings of the young man. They’re interested in how you can sort out the social situation between the boy’s father and the seducer. It’s a very good illustration of how thinking about sexuality in that area was completely different from our ideas now—there isn’t this idea of sympathy for the victim.

You introduced the text by saying that the anecdotes are about Muslims.. What were Muslims doing in these monasteries?

What we have actually, which I think people have would have difficulty believing now, is that in the time when it was compiled Muslims were still not a majority. I mean, there were actually probably still more Christians around, although they were not evenly distributed. There are areas like Upper Egypt with more Christians around, but you still have a lot of Christians in places like Baghdad. There was a process of conversion going on, largely for reasons that were unconnected with doctrine. You might decide that you had a falling-out with your local church and say you became a Muslim, or you thought it would be better for your career. I mean, this kind of reasons is why people became Muslims, but of course, most of them still had Christian relatives. So one of the reasons for going to a monastery would be to accompany your Christian relatives to a festival because most of the anecdotes take place when there are festivals going on.

AJN: Can you talk a bit about the topographical setting of these ancient monasteries and how that influenced Muslim visitors?

HK: Well, another reason Muslims went to monasteries is that they were out of town. Mosques can be very beautiful inside, but they’re all in cities. And if you want to go out of town, you really don’t have many mosques. So a monastery offered a kind of country setting which was really open to anybody, was very attractive. Also because they were not located in cities, when people traveled and they were looking for somewhere to stay the night, there were no hotels, so one possibility is a monastery.

AJN: And what about the fact that they produced wine?

HK: A lot of interesting stuff has been said about how Muslims went to monasteries to drink wine. And it’s true that there’s a lot of wine consumed. But of course, they didn’t need to go to monasteries to drink wine. There are lots of anecdotes about Abbasid princes hosting parties at home, so you could get wine and have your own private gatherings with no problem at all. But I think the difference, or really the main advantage, is that you could meet all kinds of people that you otherwise wouldn’t meet. You’ve got a wider social choice when you go to a monastery.

AJN What you just described is in sharp contrast to the rigidity of religious lines and communities as we think about them in the 20th and 21st century.

HK: I agree that this rigidity is very much a modern development. There’s a very interesting book called The Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, which was written by a journalist [Matthew Teller]. He talks about all the different communities which were living in Jerusalem historically before the 20th century. It’s fascinating. It’s a mosaic. And people did manage to live together somehow. There were some of these attacks on different communities. It wasn’t always fun. But on the whole, people managed to live together. And I think that’s really a very important lesson for today.

AJN: The Book of Monasteries perhaps echoes this plurality in that it does not delve into the theological or doctrinal differences among confessions, although there are four churches in the book: the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Melkites, and Copts. Could you talk a little bit about these communities in the text?

HK: I think it’s important to note these are monasteries in Christian traditions which are pretty unknown to most people in Europe or in North America. Of course, with migration now, the Church of the East has its center in Chicago. But these are rather small communities, whereas where they developed, they are basic Christian communities. And we tend to think when we talk about the Eastern Christians, what you actually mean is the Eastern Orthodox, but in fact, this book takes you out further east. So you really have got a different Christian set up from the one that we’re used to. And I think these are not monasteries where we imagine, for instance, monks living very much apart from the faithful, from the community. In contrast, there was not much of a divide, and it gives a different idea of what a monastery can be.

Part Two can be found here!