Conceptions and Configurations of the Arabic Literary Canon: A Discussion with the Editors of the Library of Arabic Literature

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019 8:00 am

On June 19th, 2019, Marina Warner moderated a panel discussion with several of the editors of the Library of Arabic Literature at the workshop “Conceptions and Configurations of the Arabic Literary Canon,” held at the Paris Columbia Global Center and organized by Sarah bin Tyeer and Claire Gallien. The panel focused on the genesis of the Library of Arabic Literature and the ways in which the question of “the canon” in Arabic literature affected the selection of titles. Some highlights from the conversation follow:

The panel began with a discussion of the origins of the project. Philip Kennedy, General Editor, explained that the Library of Arabic Literature decided early on to use the term “literature” not in the sense of “adab” but in the sense of “anything that is written, the written heritage of a culture.” The Library of Arabic Literature, then, “seeks to be a library that is inclusive,” he added.

Marina Warner asked about the process for creating a new LAL edition and translation of a work. James Montgomery, Executive Editor, described how LAL editor-translators work with manuscripts to create new, authoritative editions. “Editing is a form of translation,” he said. Shawkat Toorawa, Executive Editor, chimed in to emphasize the collaborative nature of the LAL process, noting, “We subject every single word to review.” (more…)

Julia Bray on Translating Al-Tanūkhī, ‘A Useful Thinker for Our Times’

Thursday, May 30th, 2019 6:00 am

Al-Muḥassin ibn ʻAlī al-Tanūkhī (939–994) was a judge, collector of stories, and litterateur who was born in Basra and died in Baghdad. Raised in a lettered family with significant connections to the ruling elite, Tanūkhī knew many of the stories behind the great rises and falls of his day. Deliverance Follows Adversity is one of two influential anthologies he compiled, and it is full of stories of imprisonment, loss, and liberation.

More than a millennium after the author-editor’s death, Julia Bray, the Abdulaziz Saud AlBabtain Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, has translated the first three chapters of Deliverance, titled Stories of Piety and Prayer, into a sharp, clear English. Bray’s scholarly interests focus on medieval Arabic literature, life-writing, and social history, which puts Tanūkhī’s Deliverance—part autobiography, part social history, and part self-help—directly in her crosshairs. Indeed, Bray said that, when she began reading Tanūkhī, she found “practically everything I was interested in was there.”

What do Tanūkhī’s multiple—and varied—tellings of events tell us about his project? Why does Bray feel Deliverance was “a struggle to write,” and why is it a must-read for historians of emotion and narratologists? In this second part of a two-part discussion, Bray also talks about her translation decisions, and why she tried to stay as close as possible to the Arabic.

I’m usually someone who falls asleep during the isnāds, but I was surprisingly charmed by this book’s vigorous sourcing. Not only do we have chains of transmission, but sometimes Tanūkhī cites a book and a chain of transmission; sometimes he notes whether an anecdote was memorized or loosely remembered; he notes sometimes that he has permission to re-tell a story; sometimes whether the anecdote was read back and verified. Also, he gathers multiple tellings of events. In doing so, does he stand out from other authors in offering a kind of extra scholarly rigor? The function of the isnāds is generally clear, to tie us into a history, but what about the function of the multiple versions? (I find the idea that some translators would have cut the variations a bit shocking; they seem very important to this project.) 

Julia Bray: I’m pleased that you like and even enjoy the isnāds. They gave me a hard time to translate and annotate, and given that the names in them are often in shorthand I don’t doubt that I’ve got some identifications wrong, but without the isnāds I think we can’t understand Tanūkhī and what writing this book meant to him—a memorial to all his vital contacts, his teachers, friends, family, especially his father, living voices in his ear of people he loved and respected, and of course a living link with the Prophet and his descendants, sometimes an immediate one when he met ʿAlids who taught him ʿAlid family prayers. I sympathize with translators who cut Tanūkhī’s chains of transmitters, because translating them is awful drudgery, but it’s very instructive. Hadith and isnāds were at the core of Tanūkhī’s family identity: his relatives were famous hadith scholars and reciters. Isnāds shaped his literary identity, too. He was a pupil of Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, whose Book of Songs is a mosaic of source citations and text quotations which I believe set the benchmark of good scholarly practice in literature, biography, and history for quite a while to come. His practice certainly set the standard for Tanūkhī. As for the multiple versions of narratives, of course they’re good hadith practice and good practice in literary scholarship, but they do complicate things. Sometimes details change, sometimes people’s identities, and sometimes storylines. Given the impossibility, which more or less everyone at that time acknowledged, of getting at exact, unanimous historical truth, do multiple versions relativize the truth? Or do they multiply it? An open question, now as then.


You called the book in some ways academic, in some ways autobiographical. What do those terms mean in Tanūkhī’s context, in terms of what he meant the book to do? How was it meant to act in the world, to join the written conversation? You suggest this was also something of a journaling exercise, a way of coming to terms with his life? For myself, I suppose I found it in some ways pop lit. 

JB: Let’s start with pop lit. That’s what I find engaging and compelling about Tanūkhī: he was a scholar, but the story came first. Well, obviously, the isnād came first, but not just for the sake of scholarship, equally as a way for Tanūkhī to write himself into what the story meant in terms of his own identity.

How did he mean Deliverance to join the written conversation? There’s a clue in the books he quotes from. Even in Stories of Piety and Prayer, he quotes from books about bureaucrats and viziers. You might well ask what they have to do with the shining and unsurpassable example set by the prophets and patriarchs, which prefaces Deliverance. The slender thread is their common faith. The discrepancy is a fact in all religions. Anyone who practices a religion anywhere and at any time has to try to make sense of the fact that they’re nothing like the figures they’re supposed to imitate. By bringing flawed characters (a human menagerie, not just viziers) into the conversation about deliverance, Tanūkhī was throwing the conversation wide open. It needed throwing open, and I don’t think it ever had been before in such inclusive terms. Tanūkhī built a bridge between what we could crudely call the secular, as represented by the literary world of Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī’s Book of Songs, for example, and the devout, and the theologically rigorous: the ascetic, largely exclusionary piety of the hadith folk, and the equally exclusionary ruthlessness of the tougher brands of Muʿtazilism. I find Tanūkhī a useful thinker for our times. He confronts the problem of what to do with a faith model that’s removed from present realities. He doesn’t privilege the past or try to harmonize rules or role models; instead, by a leap of imagination, literary imagination, he works contemporary reality and subjectivity (very important!) into the fabric of lived faith.


You say that his family ties both explain some of his access to information and “[help] us understand certain aspects of his piety.” Can you expand on that?

JB: Tanūkhī had relatives and family contacts who were state scribes and told him a lot of anecdotes about the corridors of power, and he was a protegé of his father’s friend, the vizier al-Muhallabī. His outlook was definitely the outlook of a member of the elite: worldly-wise, with an expectation of privilege. The religious tenets he was brought up in were elitist too. Muʿtazilīs were intellectual, scathing of what they saw as facile and irrational beliefs. They held that humans have complete free will, which makes them the authors of their own salvation or damnation, because God is too just to predestine them in any way. It’s not a consoling doctrine. At the same time, Tanūkhī believed in astrology—his father was an expert in it and had predicted his own death. On the face of it, that sounds a bit like a contradiction of free will, and not very consoling either. But the local Basran school of Muʿtazilism, whose leader his father was close to, had a doctrine of divine grace, and argued that God doesn’t necessarily abandon us to the consequences of our own actions. That’s a more comfortable attitude. And Tanūkhī’s family were steeped in hadith, some them recognized virtuosos as scholars or reciters, and several of them were famed for their exemplary lives too: more elitism, but at what we usually think of as the other end of the religious scale from Muʿtazilism. Tanūkhī even had a relative who belonged to the ultimate pious elite, that of people whose prayers are answered, to the extent that he could pray successfully on behalf of people whose own prayers might not have made the cut, something that Tanūkhī offers no explanation for, rational or otherwise. The first chapters of Deliverance show that he believed, or hoped, that there’s a blessing in hadith which rubs off on people who know and repeat them, and that certain prayers and passages of the Qurʾan are guaranteed to help or save. Some of them are common knowledge, but others are passed on to Tanūkhī as insider tips, so to speak: more elitism. So in one way or another, his beliefs were pretty eclectic and accommodating, a kind of belt and braces approach.


Readers of his time would have certainly known more about other authors, popular poems, and notables than we do now. Would they also have known about Tanūkhī’s personal history? When he says, “I was once made to suffer great adversity by an enemy to escape whom I went into hiding,” is he being coy (as I can’t help but read it)? Or doesn’t it matter why he was forced into hiding? Or everyone else knew?


JB: You’re right, he is being coy here, and I wonder why, when in other places he’s quite specific about his misfortunes or oppressors. Of course there are a whole lot of things that he says nothing about, his personal life, for a start. In later volumes we get glimpses of his relatives seen from a child’s-eye viewpoint (which is possibly unique), and stories about some of them, even about an aunt who had led such a secluded life that she’d never seen a camel (actually, this is in Table Talk), but he never mentions his mother or wife or son. And while he’s very keen on love stories and on contemporary sentimental confessions (wait for later volumes of the translation), he never tells us whether he was ever in love himself.


A sight Tanūkhī’s aunt never saw. (CC0 via Pixabay.

Does Tanūkhī also gain additional believability and credibility from his attention to detail (and detail in multiple versions)? Or simply…narrative enjoyability? 

JB: I think it cuts both ways. In one sense, because the situation (adversity) is a given, that focuses interest on the action (how does deliverance come about?). In another sense, the given is the adversity and deliverance, which makes the action a given too and draws attention to the quality and specifics of the situation. And once you accept the premise of the book, which is that all situations in which there’s a deliverance show the operation of God’s mercy, then the more varied the situations (sublime or trivial or anything in between), the more important the details as signs of the reach of mercy. And of course, the better the story. Or the better the read, regardless of the story. In the course of nearly five hundred stories, Tanūkhī introduces his readers to kinds of people and places that their own lifestyles would probably never have brought them into contact with. One of the pleasures of Deliverance is the chance it gives the reader to be a fly-on-the-wall observer.


I’m very interested in how much imprisonment features, and yet how little of innocence or guilt. We, as readers, are by and large not given information so that we can judge the people within. As to many of those who are imprisoned, we don’t know for what crime (or if there was any crime at all). A few pray. But for many, their release seems entirely down to chance. “Deliverance may come at any moment,” because it’s utterly capricious. What does this tell us about his world, and how we should maneuver our way through it? The random acts of kindness are important, but I never felt as though he were encouraging me to commit any.

JB: You’re right, this isn’t a book about how to live virtuously. It’s about crises, and most of the characters are in a state of panic at that point in their lives and are only thinking about themselves. There’s one very short parable about kindness to animals (the man who goes mad after killing a calf in front of its mother, and is cured when he lifts a fledgling back into its nest). Perspectives broaden in later chapters, but there’s not much kindness in these early ones, or pity. On the contrary, there’s open satisfaction when former oppressors become victims in their turn.


Prison features a lot in Stories of Piety and Prayer, and even more in later chapters of Deliverance. People could be imprisoned for debt, and for holding suspect beliefs. Imprisonment was an almost inevitable risk for members of the elite—when you were in power, you put your enemies in prison; when you fell from power, they did the same to you, and tortured you, and confiscated your wealth. To that extent, imprisonment was a predictable part of a career cycle and life cycle. Perhaps the idea of prison afforded a good frame for thinking about life more generally, by singling out an almost inevitable experience that people would have anticipated and wondered how they would cope with. It is so ubiquitous that, instead of giving it one, exclusive chapter, Tanūkhī allows it to spill over into several.


And how does the vision of the world here relate to the world of Table-Talk (also by Tanūkhī)?

JB: On internal evidence it’s agreed that Table-Talk was begun first. It’s very much about human absurdities, which is something Deliverance often shares with it, and the two books actually share a few of the same stories too, but the outlook of Table-Talk is that of the experienced older people who were Tanūkhī’s unbuttoned oral informants (which explains Margoliouth’s rendering of the title as “Table-Talk”), who could look back on life unfazed by its aberrations. In Table-Talk and Deliverance both, Tanūkhī selected what he found congenial. I don’t think he included in Deliverance anything that he didn’t want to be there just because there was a precedent for it, but some of his materials had to be forced into the “deliverance” mold he’d made for them. Also, there’s a uniformity of outlook and style in Table-Talk, whereas Deliverance, especially Stories of Piety and Prayer, showcases a jumble of voices and a vastly wider range of literary styles and competences. You could say that Table-Talk is by an author in control and Deliverance by an author who often felt he’d lost control, and was possibly never quite satisfied. Table-Talk has no models or predecessors to contend with, and so has a flexible structure that Tanūkhī could adapt as he went along. Deliverance is conditioned by how Tanūkhī wanted to respond to previous works on the theme: he wanted to be both more comprehensive and more coherent, more expansive and more pertinent—a tall order, all the harder for being self-imposed. He tells us he wasn’t always sure what to drop and what to keep, and that he veered from one extreme to another over a period of years. The result was a lot of re-editing and reorganizing, as Tanūkhī says in his introduction, and as we can see from some manuscripts, where stories are told in a different order, or even assigned to different chapters. Deliverance was a struggle to write, and I think we can feel some of the tensions.


Who should read this translation, outside of historians of the era? You suggested historians of emotion? Who else do you think would be interested?

JB: Historians of emotion certainly. Deliverance, not least in these opening chapters, throws up basic problems of emotions history, methodological, epistemological, and ideological, namely: Do we have direct evidence for what emotions people had in the past and how they expressed them? Do stories, which we connect with intuitively if they work for us, connect us to past reality? Do we really want to know about past emotions if they’re not the same as ours, or don’t confirm them?

I’m sure it would be good for more “straight” medieval historians to read Deliverance. Some of them already do, and Dominique Sourdel based a lot of his monumental history of the Abbasid vizierate on it. (There are a lot more viziers in the volumes that follow Stories of Piety and Prayer.) And I’d like reading Deliverance to be mandatory for students of religion, to show what lived religion was like. But Deliverance is literature, and I designed the translation for people who are interested in literature, comparative literature, and storytelling. Tanūkhī’s implicit analysis of the components and structure of narratives, which I’ve highlighted in my paragraph numbering, makes Deliverance a must for narratologists. In the end, though, this is a book for people who just like a good read and want to keep turning the pages, and that’s my target audience.


One of the key translation decisions certainly seems to have been using consistent renderings on terms such as shiddah and faraj rather than free variation based on context, emphasizing these words’ incantatory weight. Were there other translational decisions you made up front? Particular stylistic markers you wanted to re-craft in the English? Key translational decisions you had to wrestle with in the moment?

JB: I’ve tried to keep as close to the Arabic as possible throughout, for several reasons. As a rule, I think it’s taken for granted intuitively by most readers that if you translate a piece of contemporary writing into the idioms and expressions of your own language, it’s a transposition, not a reproduction of the original. So if you make someone say, “I was over the moon” or “He’s just pulling your leg”, readers don’t assume that your contemporary Japanese or Norwegian original has the same metaphors or cultural references as your English rendering. But if you do that with a piece of pre-modern writing, Deliverance for example, that’s exactly what they think, and they start speculating about linguistic convergence or cultural borrowing. So if you want a translation of non-contemporary writing to have any kind of reliability and value for historical understanding, you must avoid that particular level of free translation.

But I think you can be freer on the structural level and still be faithful, for example when Arabic anticipates for dramatic effect in narrative, as I mentioned earlier. The same sort of anticipation happens a lot in poetry, where the way Arabic develops the relationship between the ideas in the two half-lines that make up a line can work better the other way round in English. So for a line of Arabic verse that presents as “A : B”, I might sometimes translate “B : A”. Otherwise, I try to translate poetry to the letter of the meaning. I avoid padding it to explain things or make the lines scan or rhyme. (Inverting the half-lines as just described can be a good way of avoiding padding.) Good poetry is muscular, and serviceable poetry is at least hardworking. I’m not sure that I know when this sort of Arabic poetry is just OK or better than OK, but my translations try to convey the work that poetry does at either level.

As for prose, I’ve avoided falling back on the fairly standard translator’s default practice of substituting indirect speech for direct speech whenever it might sound better in English, because I’m sure that the predominance of direct speech in medieval Arabic is culturally and stylistically significant (but like a lot of other basics this has never been explored).

Overall, I want to provide a rendering where readers who don’t know Arabic but want to think about how a story is told by and large have a chance to observe the main original features. I also want to flag up to Arabists features like direct speech that need thinking about. It’s legitimate for translations to address people who do know the language as well as those who don’t.

When it comes to register, sometimes it’s unambiguous in the original, as, for example, in highly wrought epistles or sermons, but in simpler passages it often isn’t, and in those cases the translator has to interpret, and decide whether to treat something as an archaeological hodge-podge, as with the stories about the three travelers or the snake I mentioned earlier, or as a modern faux–fairy tale, as with the story of the shipwrecked man and woman. Proverbs and adages are particularly elusive, even though, by definition, their meaning ought to be transparent; but perhaps it’s best to present them as linguistic fossils to be decoded, which is how Tanūkhī treats at least some of them.


I’d also like to talk a bit about the title. “Stories of Piety and Prayer: Deliverance Follows Adversity” makes it seem, to me, as though it will be a quiet and reflective book about well-behaved people. Although the German translation “Ende Gut, Alles Gut,” (All’s Well that Ends Well?) certainly takes it in a different direction, re-setting the context. 

JB: We could have called this volume Deliverance Follows Adversity, Volume One, but instead we decided on a title that condenses Tanūkhī’s first three chapter headings.

The idea that piety and prayer should be quiet and well behaved belongs to a secular outlook that sees piety as pretty well anachronistic, if not extinct, and prayer as a social convention, performed only occasionally, in set forms and in designated spaces. The piety in Stories of Piety and Prayer is about frantic personal praying in extreme circumstances, by people whose usual level of devoutness may only have consisted of routine ritual prayers, but who find themselves catapulted into desperate belief in their hour of need. As for “all’s well that ends well”, I don’t think so. It may cover some of Tanūkhī’s cases if it’s meant naively, but not all. Tanūkhī quotes some exemplary sayings about equanimity in adversity and adversity being a spur to ethical or spiritual growth, but most of his protagonists, himself included, seem to be lastingly harrowed by the shock of their ordeals. It’s not something they put behind them, and they don’t claim to have been improved by it. The idea that “all’s well that ends well” is not without irony for them: adversity brings them accesses of piety, lingering memories of pain in most cases, and an improvement of fortune, which may or may not lead to a “happy ever after”, witness Tanūkhī’s own ups and downs. As Tanūkhī’s would-be consoler Abū l-Faraj al-Makhzūmī wasn’t alone in pointing out, it’s a law of nature that as soon as things have got better, they’re bound to start getting worse again.

The ‘1001 Nights’ Outclassed: The 10th-century Stories of Tanūkhī

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019 8:00 am

Stories of Piety and PrayerAl-Muḥassin ibn ʻAlī al-Tanūkhī (939–994) was a judge, collector of stories, and litterateur who was born in Basra and died in Baghdad. Raised in a lettered family with significant connections to the ruling elite, Tanūkhī knew many of the stories behind the great rises and falls of his day. Deliverance Follows Adversity is one of two influential anthologies he compiled, and it is full of stories of imprisonment, loss, and liberation.

More than a millennium after the author-editor’s death, Julia Bray, the Abdulaziz Saud AlBabtain Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, has translated the first three chapters of Deliverance, titled Stories of Piety and Prayer, into a sharp, clear English. Bray’s scholarly interests focus on medieval Arabic literature, life-writing, and social history, which puts Tanūkhī’s Deliverance—part autobiography, part social history, and part self-help—directly in her crosshairs. Indeed, Bray said that, when she began reading Tanūkhī, she found “practically everything I was interested in was there.”

Why does Bray think Tanūkhī’s tales “outclass the Nights in every way,” and why does she call him “the opposite of imperturbable”? In the first of a two-part discussion on the charming, self-pitying, and erudite Tanūkhī, Bray talks about the author and what his Deliverance might have meant to him and his contemporaries, as well as the ways in which it’s been passed down, adapted, and understood by later readers.

I’d like to start with what brought you to this translation. How does it build out of your work and interests, as well as the work of David Samuel Margoliouth (1858-1940), Alfred Felix Landon Beeston (1911-1995), and ʿAbbūd al-Shāljī (1911-1996)? How do we insert you, and this translation, into the Tanūkhī story?

Julia Bray: How do I connect with Tanūkhī? I got interested in Arabic storytelling as a teenager through a book of translations edited by James Kritzeck. I liked the pieces he chose because of their plots, and because some of the translations were outstanding.

I think it was that that pushed me in the direction of learning Arabic at university. I was greedy for stories, but not 1001 Nights-type stories. I think Tanūkhī’s stories outclass the Nights in every way, and unlike Shahrazad, he doesn’t go on and on. His plots are brisk and varied, even though in Deliverance Follows Adversity all the stories are about someone, usually someone just like you or me, getting into some sort of tight spot in one of their less bright moments, and coming out gratefully on the other side—one of the unfailing shared plot types that western readers can recognize from Ancient Greek comedy to P.G. Wodehouse. Tanūkhī’s Deliverance stories are written in all the then-available literary registers about very human characters that we only get glimpses of, but long to know more about. Most of them aren’t by him—he makes it quite clear that the book is a collection of stories by other people, and he’s very anxious that his readers should know who those people are. It’s one of the ways he makes things individual and specific, which is part of what makes the stories so attractive.

Tanūkhī was a favourite of my undergraduate teacher supervisor, Freddie Beeston, who also supervised my thesis, and Beeston had been taught by D.S. Margoliouth, who did the first edition of Tanūkhī’s Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, or what survives of it, and translated it into English. His translation sets the benchmark. As it happens Beeston didn’t teach Tanūkhī to my cohort, so I can’t recall how I came across Deliverance. When I did, I was lucky enough to read it in Shāljī’s edition. Before that, there was only a version based on a rather garbled manuscript, which is surprising, given that there are so many manuscripts of Deliverance to choose from. Shāljī used as many manuscripts as he could, and his restoration work makes the stories sharp and fresh.

I eventually got to meet Shāljī in London shortly before his death, and told him I wanted to translate Deliverance. He literally gave me his blessing, which is something I’m very conscious of. Editing Tanūkhī had been his life’s work and he had a great affinity with him. He’d been a lawyer, like Tanūkhī, and he’d lived in the same places as Tanūkhī before modernization changed them completely. He put some of his memories of them into the footnotes of his edition. He edited Tanūkhī in his spare time, or when his differences with the authorities kept him from practicing, an act of defiance which gives added poignancy.

Once I started reading Tanūkhī, I realized that practically everything I was interested in was there. I’d sum it up as “lived literature”. All the stories in Deliverance (and Table-Talk) meant something personally to Tanūkhī, and they are, to put it simply, about life as lived, and about lived ideas and literature as part of life.


Where does this translation build to, for your work and that of others? You say for instance: “This technique, applied to a range of sources—the Qurʾan, histories, life writing, letter writing, and Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī’s Book of Songs are just a few—makes Deliverance a pattern book of Arabic storytelling and a virtual motif index of one of the richest periods of Arabic writing. It has been used as such by folklorists, but it ought to be used much more widely as a guide to plots, themes, and materials that occur across Arabic genres.”

How are some ways you see it ought to be used, beyond of course its enjoyment?

JB: Tanūkhī had a brilliant analytical mind. In Deliverance, he did something very simple and very powerful: he identified a set of core narrative motifs and schemes and organized his materials under that umbrella. Whenever I read medieval Arabic, I’m struck by how often motifs and story types recur, in history, in hadith, literature, and so on, across genres. They’re not always pinned to the same people, which means that they need to be identified by their outline rather than by named characters. Quite often people working in different disciplines don’t realize that a narrative that they’re familiar with is actually one that occurs in other places where their discipline wouldn’t normally take them. As academics, we’ve imposed modern disciplinary barriers where they didn’t exist in the culture, and a motif index like Tanūkhī’s, but on a wider scale, would help us to see over those barriers. This is something that Philip Kennedy and I used to talk about doing, and he has done it now for the motif of recognition in his book which just won the Shaykh Zayed Book Award. I’ve done it too in various articles. A good example is the medical stories that have a chapter to themselves later in Deliverance. They have motifs and plot situations that connect them to a string of different genres and traditions. They can be read in a much more informed way through that multiple literary prism, and paradoxically tell us far more about the social reception of medicine, than if they’re read simply as medical anecdotes. Given that medieval writers were mostly experts in several fields across a range which modern academics usually are not, a tool that would make it easier for us to read across disciplines would be a great help in meeting the culture on its own terms. The tool Tanūkhī has given us is certainly a start, not least in this first part of Deliverance, much of which doesn’t fit with pre-postmodern ideas of what’s literary, which is why a lot of this part got dropped from the French and Italian translations. Now that we’re postmodern, we’re geared to take on the literariness of Deliverance as a whole.

Another thing a motif index does is make it easier for us to notice the details of how a story is told, and compare different tellings. Comparing is vital for developing an understanding of register and artistry. For example, the first part of Deliverance has stories in a mix of styles and registers, including some hadith that are quite elegant narratives and others that are quite disjointed, and some stories that look like folk tales or fairy tales. There’s the story of the three travellers who get trapped in a cave by a rockfall and gain release by each reminding God of a good deed he’s done, and the story of the snake which is hidden from a pursuer by a holy man and wants to kill him instead of thanking him.

Excerpt from Stories of Piety and Prayer

Tanūkhī gives us several versions of these stories with different degrees of polish, rather like the Grimm brothers’ successive versions of their fairy tales, but even when they’re polished in places, overall I think comparison shows they remain archaic and naïve. Then there’s the story of the shipwrecked man and woman, the demon, and the treasure. I think this is faux-naif, at least in its present setting, which gives it a pedigree that allegedly makes it a sort of caliphal heirloom. The giveaway for me is when the couple find the castle stocked with enough food for their evening meals. In a real fairy tale we’d expect this to go unquestioned or to have a magical explanation. Perhaps anticipating skeptical readers, the man asks where the food came from and the woman just says it was there already. Very unfairytale-like. I suspect we should really view this more as a lightweight philosophical tale.


You must have spent quite a lot of time with Tanūkhī over the years, and, although he doesn’t foreground his own story, he is not shy of inserting himself or his life. How would you describe him? At one point you call sections of his reminiscences “unabashedly self-pitying,” and indeed he doesn’t seem ashamed to feel sorry for himself. 

JB: Self-pity isn’t unique to him. In stories told to him by his contemporaries there’s a lot of it, and a lot of open weeping and trembling and beseeching. Evidently stoicism was admired, and Tanūkhī gives us examples of it, but they’re mostly in the past. So self-pity is part of the emotional culture of Tanūkhī’s time, I suppose, and it’s part of a complex set of emotions surrounding fear and fear of suffering that we haven’t even begun to map—fear of death, torture, poverty, sickness, injustice, and damnation (though damnation seems to be mentioned only once in Deliverance, interestingly). When it comes to other emotions, in spite of being so clever and learned, and worldly and sophisticated, I don’t think Tanūkhī’s religious feelings are very mature. He knows what he ought to believe and spells it out in his introduction, and he recognizes the sublime and heroic and so on in other people’s religious sentiments and gives us plenty of examples of it, but on the evidence he gives us about himself he’s no spiritual athlete. He seems to have spent a lot of his life in fear of things that never actually happened, whereas he was really quite lucky by the standards of his day. After what we can piece together as having been an enriching childhood, with privileged, kind, and entertaining relatives, I think he was rather spoiled and expected everything to be easy, but then his father died when he was in his teens, and even though he had friends who smoothed his career path, when anything went wrong he took it to heart, whereas his father, who led an adventurous life, seems to have been a risk-taker of imperturbable resilience. Tanūkhī was the opposite of imperturbable. I suppose that’s what gives him empathy with such a range of unheroic personalities who would never have made it into a book about divine deliverance written by anyone else.


How do we know that Deliverance was written (or finished) in the final stage of his life, in Baghdad, after his disgrace? (Was this text his deliverance?) 

JB: It’s the scholarly consensus, based on internal evidence, that Table-Talk came first, but before he finished it, he seems to have begun Deliverance. In his preface, Tanūkhī says the composition of Deliverance stretched over years, so it probably spanned different phases of his career. There’s no sign that he wrote it to win sympathy or favor in high places. The spur seems to have been the theme itself, and to show he could go one better than his predecessors in the genre. I’ve no idea whether writing it brought him peace of mind, if you mean deliverance in the emotional or spiritual sense. From what he says in his introduction, he seems to have found writing and rewriting Deliverance absorbing and frustrating in equal measure. But he clearly got great satisfaction from knowing he’d outdone his predecessors with their paltry few pages of jottings. When things got him down, I should think he enjoyed gloating over that.


How many manuscripts of Faraj do you estimate are out there, how widely distributed? What do we know about this book’s popularity, vs. other books of its type, for instance those he cites in his introduction? Why do you think this particularly resonated, above other semi-autobiographical scholarly self-help manuscripts of the time?

JB: I haven’t even a rough estimate of how many manuscripts of Deliverance there might be, or where, or produced over what length of time. There are certainly a lot. The public, online surveys of, and access to, digitized Arabic manuscript collections that are being launched quite widely now keep changing the picture of what’s out there in general, and will certainly help in plotting the type and distribution of manuscripts of Deliverance, but there are still a lot of major public libraries that aren’t in this loop, and of course private ones too. So the questions of Deliverance’s popularity in its own time and afterwards still depend very much on tracing quotations and references in other works. That’s a major task in waiting. As for how Deliverance may have compared in its own time with rival works, other than the books or booklets about deliverance that Tanūkhī cites in his introduction and quotes from, I don’t think there were any other books of exactly this type, and I don’t know of any other semi-autobiographical self-help writings at this time. So Deliverance really needs to be compared with non-autobiographical books of moral, philosophical, or mystical self-cultivation, or with career-orientated books of cultural self-improvement, or with the scholarly tools that were available for improving one’s knowledge of a given field, or with histories and whatever they wanted to suggest to readers about human destiny in general. Your question brings it home to me that Deliverance really is a very unusual book.


How much do we know about how people used this book? It seems, as you say, to most lend itself to an audience of elites who have fallen on (or might soon be falling on) hard times. Do we have any idea of whether people would have read it alone or with others, in sequence or picking out sections, whether it was owned or borrowed? You suggested that “al-Tanūkhī and his contemporaries would have read aloud to themselves.” In company? I don’t suppose we know anything about how women might have read it.

JB: I think you have to read most medieval Arabic narratives aloud, or at least under your breath, to catch who’s saying what and in what tone of voice, and grasp the sequence of the narrative. In these particular stories, in the Arabic, you notice that in narrating sequences of action, things are often said proleptically, the thing with the most impact first, “he slammed the door and left”, meaning, “slamming the door, he left”, to make up an equivalent English example, which is a bit puzzling if you don’t say it aloud and see why it’s said that way round. The hadiths that Tanūkhī quotes would have had an oral circulation as well as a written one originally. A lot of the items that are literary set pieces he would have taken down by ear in lectures, and the stories about statesmen cry out to be spoken aloud with the tones and gestures the protagonists would have used when they allegedly told them to confidants. I think they’re all meant to come off the page as they got on to it, as though spoken. The two versions of the story about the old Arab servant woman of the Prophet’s wives who was accused of stealing, which simulate her artless speech and subaltern triumph at having the men and great ladies of the tribe grovel to her, are standout examples of this way of writing, which demands a corresponding way of reading. This being said, I have no evidence at all for how the book would originally have been read or used by men or by women. I expect they would have cherrypicked and browsed, as modern readers do, and indeed as Tanūkhī says in his introduction he meant his readers to. He makes it easy for them to locate congenial reading by setting out a typology of situations in his chapter headings: so, if you’ve ever been thwarted in love, go to chapter thirteen; if you’re interested in encounters with wild beasts, go to chapter nine; and so on. As for who owned the book or borrowed it and how literate the people were who used it, we have the evidence of the diction and accuracy of the manuscripts. For example, the Manchester John Rylands manuscript is something of a folk product, with the names in the isnāds and even the names of characters in the stories unrecognized and distorted by the scribe, and happy-ever-after additions to the endings. I’ve noted a few similar passages from other manuscripts that I used in this volume. When more manuscripts go online and we can see all the marginalia and scribbles on the endpapers, which, when we’re lucky, tell us a lot about ownership and circulation, we’ll have a much better idea how Deliverance was used and perceived and by what kinds of people. For women we sometimes get lucky, for example with al-Sarrāj’s Doomed Lovers, an all-time blockbuster (to which Tanūkhī’s only son was an important contributor), one version of which has a famous woman hadith teacher named as its transmitter in one manuscript. We can but hope.


Speaking of women: There are a few women characters in the foreground of events, although generally not the adventurous sort. There’s the woman in the sea tale, who was pawed by the demon and becomes co-owner of a business; the woman whose crops were destroyed by hail; the slave-woman who was going to be killed by her jealous owner; the woman whose vagina was going to be searched for a sash. I was most surprised that a “holy woman of Basra” was imprisoned with a group of men. There are few named women; I noticed Asmāʾ bint ʿUmays. What did you particularly notice about the lives of women through al- Tanūkhī’s eyes? What can we learn about their lives?

JB: I don’t know whether we can learn much directly about women’s lives from Stories of Piety and Prayer, but we can learn a lot of new things about how people, men, that is, thought about women and used women to think with, and about the kinds of setting and situation they imagined for women when they wanted to think about them. (There are plenty more women later in Deliverance, in fact, and some of them are very exciting.) As for the “holy woman of Basra”, Basra was famous for early women mystics. This nameless one is generic and emblematic, and that’s as much as I can say. I don’t think that any of these stories are unmediated slices of life that directly document women (or anyone else), except in a few respects, for example sometimes, but only sometimes, in what they suggest about material culture, “things”, daily objects, on the assumption that, in basics, stories close in time to Tanūkhī must somehow reflect what people ate and wore and so on at that time; but similar details in what I’d call historical dramas may well be reconstructions (which is interesting in itself). Prisons, like the one where the anonymous holy woman of Basra was an inmate, are one of those historically ambiguous “things” we’d like to know a lot more about as social realities and part of the arm of the state. Tanūkhī’s stories open up fascinating perspectives on ideas about prison culture (on prisons as being somewhere decent people unjustly treated might impart spiritual lessons to each other, for example), and on the symbolism of imprisonment, arising from the fact that spending time in prison was a fairly frequent event in many people’s lives, accepted and not viewed as a stigma. Rather than being the end for the people involved, as it often was in reality, prison is a positive turning point in the stories where it occurs in this part of Deliverance. Joseph and Daniel were examples of unjust imprisonment earning spiritual and even worldly rewards, and Tanūkhī cites them here, but, interestingly, none of the people in these prison stories invoke them.


How has reception of Deliverance changed over time? You noted that printed versions became “blurred and generic.” Are there landmarks in the life of this text that we can point to?

You also suggest there’s a view that it’s “optimistic” which isn’t how I read it at all. I read it in a positive way, although less optimistic and more like, “the world is crazy, you’re not in control, accept that and things will be better.” I suppose that’s my contemporary lens.

JB: I think your contemporary lens is an accurate reading lens. Tanūkhī, I think, would dearly have liked the world to be rational and fair, and therefore manageable by people making responsible, rational choices, both because he was born and brought up a Muʿtazilī and that’s how he was taught to see the world, and because he clearly yearned for security. Storytelling with its managed outcomes made it possible for him to give the edge to rational providence over randomness, so collecting stories that showed that trusting to luck can have a providential outcome, deserved, and coherent rather than capricious, was a way of coming to terms with insecurity. That’s why he wrote Deliverance. It helped him to manage his confusions, but only to some extent. One example of how he tries to deal with inconsistency without being able to resolve it is the story of silly Abū Ayyūb who makes a written petition to God against his persecutor. Abū Ayyūb wins out, and this is good for Tanūkhī’s deliverance storytelling paradigm, but he still feels confused, because what happens is irrational in its premise but logical in its process: as his informant tells him, “by coincidence, Abū Ayyūb was delivered in pretty much the time that it takes for the depositions in a lawsuit to be processed.” Tanūkhī admits that “I myself have witnessed something similar,” but declares that “it never entered my mind to appeal for deliverance to a higher power!”. If anything, he’s rather indignant at the outcome. Twentieth-century western readers tended to see this kind of story as optimistic, and overlooked the confusions, which Tanūkhī in fact spells out—he deconstructs the stories himself and doesn’t sweep the problems under the carpet. Deliverance is more complicated than it looks, and in our increasingly complicated twenty-first century circumstances, I think we can recognize that Tanūkhī is raising problems, not solving them.


The second part of this discussion is available here.


The Story of the Snake: An Excerpt from Stories of Piety and Prayer

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019 4:51 pm

Stories of Piety and PrayerOne of the most popular and influential Arabic books of the Middle Ages, al-Tanukhi’s Deliverance Follows Adversity is an anthology of stories and anecdotes designed to console and encourage the afflicted. Stories of Piety and Prayer consists of the first three chapters of Deliverance Follows Adversity and features stories that show how God’s providence works through His creatures to rescue them from tribulations ranging from religious persecution to romantic woes, and in this case, an encounter with a treacherous serpent. The story begins:

[…] I have also heard the story told differently, though with the same meaning, as read back for verification to the Baghdadi Qurʾan scholar, Abū l-ʿAbbās the Gap-Toothed, whose name is Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Ḥammād ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Thaʿlab, in his house in Basra in Jumada I 335 [December 946] in my presence and hearing, as follows: You cite ʿAlī ibn Ḥarb al-Ṭāʾī of Mosul, who heard it from Jaʿfar ibn Mundhir al-Ṭāʾī the holy man in Mahrūbān, who said: I was with Sufyān ibn ʿUyaynah when he turned to a Hadith scholar who was present and said, “Tell us the story of the snake!” The man said, citing ʿAbd al-Jabbār:

Ḥumayd ibn ʿAbd Allāh had gone to the place where he practiced his devotions, when suddenly a snake appeared and said to him, “Protect me, that God’s shadow may protect you!”

“From whom am I to protect you?” he asked.

“From a murderous enemy,” the snake replied.

“Where shall I hide you?”

“In your belly.”

He opened his mouth, and no sooner had the snake slipped inside than up came a man with a drawn sword, saying:

“Ḥumayd! Where’s the snake?”

Ḥumayd replied, “I see nothing,” and the man went away again.

The snake poked out its head and asked, “Is he still there?”

Ḥumayd said, “No, he’s gone. You can come out.”

The snake said, “I give you a choice. I can either kill you by felling you with a single bite, or I can pierce your liver and make you excrete it in little bits.”

Ḥumayd said, “By God, that’s not a fair exchange!”

Photo by Foto-Rabe. CC0 via Pixabay.

The snake replied, “You well know the old enmity that is between me and your father, Adam. And in any case, I’ve no money to press on you or horses to reward you with.”

Ḥumayd said, “Give me time to go up on to the mountain and dig my grave.”

“Very well,” said the snake; and Ḥumayd set off; but on the way he was met by a comely youth, sweetly perfumed and handsomely dressed.

“Old man!” said the youth. “Why do you despair of life and yield yourself up to death?”

Ḥumayd said, “Because there is an enemy in my belly who means to destroy me.”

The youth took something from his sleeve and gave it to Ḥumayd, saying, “Swallow this.”

Ḥumayd takes up the narrative:

I took it, and my bowels churned. Then the youth gave me something else to take, and I vomited up the snake from my belly in little bits.

“Who are you?” I asked the youth. “May God keep you in His mercy! Never was I so deeply indebted to anyone.”

The youth said, “I am Benevolence. In heaven they saw how treacherously this snake treated you, and supplicated God, Mighty and Glorious, to keep you from harm. God Exalted said to me: Benevolence, go to My servant; for what he did, he did for My sake.”

General Editor Philip Kennedy Profiled in The National

Friday, April 26th, 2019 2:18 pm

UAE’s The National recently published a profile of our general editor Philip Kennedy, who was recently awarded the prestigious Sheikh Zayed Book Award for his book Recognition in the Arabic Narrative Tradition (Edinburgh University Press, 2016). The article begins:

Philip Kennedy accepts his award during a ceremony at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

“Writing academic books is a very private affair,” says Philip Kennedy, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and comparative literature at New York University Abu Dhabi. “I feel lucky when a book is published, lucky if someone in my field notices it and writes a review, lucky if a student takes it up for a class.”

So you can probably imagine how Kennedy felt when he discovered earlier this year – via text message – that he had won a Sheikh Zayed Book Award for his 2016 work, Recognition in the Arabic Narrative: Tradition: Discovery, Deliverance and Delusion. “I thought I was dreaming and then realised I wasn’t,” he says.

Read the full article here.

The Quintessence of Reality: An Interview with LAL Fellow Mohammed Rustom

Thursday, March 21st, 2019 9:02 am

Two Library of Arabic Literature Fellows, Mohammed Rustom and Bilal Orfali, recently sat down together to discuss the edition and translation projects they’ve been working on this year at NYU Abu Dhabi. Here, Bilal Orfali interviews Mohammed Rustom about his work on ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s Zubdat al-Haqa’iq (The Quintessence of Reality).

Who was ‘Ayn al-Qudat, and why was he so important in the Islamic tradition?

‘Ayn al-Qudat was a major theologian, philosopher, jurist, and Sufi who died in the middle of the 12th century CE. The Seljuq government had him put to death because he was a critic of their corrupt administrative practices and they feared his influence among his students, many of whom worked for the Seljuqs.

‘Ayn al-Qudat was the disciple of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ghazali, who was of course the brother of the famous Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. ‘Ayn al-Qudat is significant because he wrote in both Arabic and Persian, and was equally influential on both the Arabic tradition and the Persian tradition. Many of the important Sufi authors writing in Persian after him were influenced by him, such as Farid al-Din ‘Attar, Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Mahmud Shabistari. They drew on his writings, especially his original discussions on love and the imagery of the lover and the beloved, the moth and the flame, etc. The authors writing in Arabic, such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and Mulla Sadra were also influenced by his theoretical discussions on God, the nature of knowledge, and the path to acquiring true knowledge.

Among his books is the Zubdat al-Haqa’iq (The Quintessence of Reality) that you are translating and editing for the Library of Arabic Literature. How did you discover this book?

Mohammed Rustom

Library of Arabic Literature Fellow Mohammed Rustom

I had seen references to the Quintessence in books by modern scholars, and read a couple of useful articles on it as well. So I was aware of its importance, but when I began to read this book and all of ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s other works, I was able to see what he was doing in the Quintessence that was so unique. There have often been discussions about what text in the Islamic tradition was the first to merge philosophy and Sufism, and people often point to books by Ghazali and sometimes even Avicenna as examples. But it is clear from the Quintessence that this book deserves that honor—it is the first clear-cut exposition of Sufi metaphysics and epistemology, using the language of philosophy and theology. At the same time, ‘Ayn al-Qudat shows how philosophy can help mysticism, and how philosophical methods of argumentation can pave the way for demonstrating the supremacy of mystical knowledge.

But in order to appreciate what ‘Ayn al-Qudat is doing in the Quintessence that is so unique, one has to be familiar with the other works written before him which seem to do the same thing, that is, merge philosophy with mysticism. Compared to the Quintessence, these works, such as the Mishkat al-Anwar (The Niche of Lights) of Ghazali, do not try to present what it is about Sufi metaphysics that makes it so unique. That is, they are not arguments in favor of the science of philosophical Sufism as much as they are particular applications of this science to specific intellectual and text issues and questions.

What are the Quintessence’s most important ideas?

The Quintessence theoretically exposits a number of philosophical and theological doctrines that are characteristic of the later Islamic intellectual tradition. It contains, amongst other things, remarkably lucid expositions of the problem of the eternity of the world; the fact that there is a discernable order of causation in creation, but that God is the only real cause; the manner in which concepts such as “before” and “after” are accidents of time; and how existentiation is a process of continuity, and results from divine self-intellection.

In the Quintessence, ‘Ayn al-Qudat also demonstrates the level of his indebtedness to Ghazali when he argues against the Avicennian notion of God’s inability to know particulars except in a universal way, and the idea that the universe is eternal. ‘Ayn al-Qudat also takes up the familiar line of argumentation in Ashari rational theology against the notion that the divine names are somehow superadded to God’s Essence. He maintains that they inhere in God’s Essence, but in a way that does not make God more than one. Rather, the names are not God and are not not God.

‘Ayn al-Qudat also makes a unique argument for divine simultaneity, which is the view that God is with things but that nothing is with God. All of these discussions are then seamlessly tied into ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s most important argument in the Quintessence (partly taken from Ghazali), namely that the knowledge of the mystic stands beyond the scope of the intellect, and is the result of dhawq or “tasting.” This knowledge is different from normal, rational knowledge, which always keeps God separate and distinct, treating God like an “object” of knowledge. ‘Ayn al-Qudat says that God is not only to be known by the mind, but to be experienced by the heart and tasted by the soul—and the only way this can be done is if one trains one’s mind until it cannot go any further. Then, one has to devote oneself to prayer and the remembrance of God (dhikr) until one attains proximity to God, and can thereby come to have a more intimate knowledge of Him. This is why this kind of special knowledge is called “tasting,” since when you taste something, its reality is made much more clear to you than if you had only theoretical knowledge of it.

How historically significant has the Quintessence been?

The Quintessence was historically very significant. Already within thirty years of ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s death, it was taught in the curriculum at the famous Madrasa Mujahidiyya in Maragha (in Western Iran), and it was therefore read by the many influential scholars who came out of this school, such as Suhrawardi and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. The great Spanish Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi also cites the Quintessence in one of his works which he wrote when he was still in the Maghrib—this indicates that the Quintessence travelled from Iran to the Maghrib in a very short period of time. We also know that the famous philosopher and scientist Nasir al-Din Tusi translated the Quintessence into Persian, but this text does not seem to have survived. The Quintessence was also influential on later early modern authors, such as ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nablusi, who also discusses its main ideas, especially the entire question of “tasting” and ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s emphasis on the stage beyond the intellect. Even today, the Quintessence is taught and read in places such as Turkey and Iran.

What can the Quintessence tell us today, as modern readers?

The greatest teaching in this book for modern readers is that they should not feel so sure of the things that they know. This is because the nature and even structure of reality is often very different from what can be known by the human mind. Look at the domain on contemporary physics: you have, on the subatomic level, an entire universe that is hidden to the naked human eye, but which contains the building blocks of our physical world. On that level, the structure of things appears to be quite contrary to what we take for granted as the constitutive “stuff” of the comic order. For example, we think that light has one kind of nature, but quantum mechanics has demonstrated clearly that it can behave like a wave and a particle. Indeed, the entire quantum world shows us how unstable our cosmos is, and it therefore throws our own certainties about the world into question.

This is what ‘Ayn al-Qudat wants to do in the Quintessence, but he does not take recourse to physics: he makes the simple observation that if you want to know what life is all about, the only way you can do it is to hang up your reliance on your own intelligence and try to cultivate humility and a good heart through prayer and invocation. This will allow you to see the underlying structure of things, and will also cause you to fall in love with both the Creator of all things and all things themselves. As I see it, that is the heart of the matter, for there is no greater teaching for our time than the importance of true love and respect for the divine, ourselves, and every other sentient being.

For more discussion, including how Mohammed Rustom chose the title “The Quintessence of Reality,” watch the video below:

“Some Works Just Capture You”: An Interview with LAL Fellow Bilal Orfali

Thursday, March 14th, 2019 2:54 pm

Two Library of Arabic Literature Fellows, Mohammed Rustom and Bilal Orfali, recently sat down together to discuss the edition and translation projects they’ve been working on this year at NYU Abu Dhabi. Here, Mohammed Rustom interviews Bilal Orfali about his work on the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī and other projects.

What are the books that you are working on for the Library of Arabic Literature?

I just completed with Maurice Pomerantz an edition of al-Hawamil wa-l-shawāmil by al-Tawḥīdī (d. ca. 1023) and Miskawayh (d. 1030) which was translated by Sophia Vasalou and James E. Montgomery. This edition-translation will be published in two volumes in Fall 2019, under the title The Philosopher Responds: An Intellectual Correspondence from the Tenth Century. I am currently working with Ramzi Baalbaki and Maurice Pomerantz on an edition and translation of ʿUqalāʾ al-majānīn of al-Naysābūrī (d. 1014), and with Maurice Pomerantz on an edition and translation of the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī (d. 1008). I have also prepared a short anthology, which is illustrated, from Tanukhī’s (d. 994) works al-Faraj baʿd al-shiddah (Relief after Hardship) and Nishwār al-muḥāḍara (Table Talk) for school children.

From wise fools to beggars and tricksters, tell us more about the Maqāmāt.

Bilal Orfali

Library of Arabic Literature Fellow Bilal Orfali

The Maqāmāt, refers to a form of fictional Arabic prose literature that has played an important role in Middle Eastern and global literary history. Invented in Arabic in the 4th/10th century in Eastern Iran, maqāmāt works are collections of picaresque tales that narrate the various adventures of a trickster’s travels across cities of the medieval Islamic world. They cast the exploits and speech of its characters in flowery prose. The tales are often ironic, parodic, and darkly humorous. They often mock aspects of the society or the reader’s knowledge and perception of literature, religion, science, and philosophy. Over the centuries, the genre has exhibited remarkable capacity to travel and transform. Maqāmah writing spread to most regions of the Muslim world and traversed linguistic, religious, and cultural boundaries, as writers composed maqāmāt collections in Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Ottoman Turkish, and Hausa.

The first person to compose a maqāmah was Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī. In creating the maqāmah form, al-Hamadhānī adapted many pre-existing features of the Arabic courtly literary tradition before him. However the works are innovative in several respects, such as his use of rich textures of rhymed prose that accentuated the speaker’s performances, and the distinctive style of narrative poetics, the maqāmah form.

In the maqāmah of Mosul, for example, a mad healer prophet and his partner ʿĪsā ibn Hishām intervene in a funeral claiming to be able to revive the dead man. In the course of the story, this prophet figure transforms the somber scene of mourning into a comedy where baffled onlookers from the town are seized by the possibility of the miracle. Will this stranger bring the corpse back to life? Is he truly a healer or a prophet? Is the man truly dead?

Those familiar with Hamadhānī’s Maqāmāt will suspect that this stranger is the protean hero Abū l-Fatḥ al-Iskandarī in another disguise. And according to plan, after receiving food and gold from the townspeople, his powers prove unable to revive the corpse. Abū l-Fatḥ and his companion, exposed as frauds, exit the town dodging the slaps and blows of the angry townspeople.

The two heroes then travel to a new location where Abū l-Fatḥ promises to save a group of villagers from an impending flood. Assuming the guise of the prophet Moses, Abū l-Fatḥ commands the villagers to slaughter a golden heifer, and further, asks to deflower one of the village’s virgin girls. The episode comes to a close when, in the midst of the very prayer act that was designed to save the inhabitants from the flood, Abū l-Fatḥ and ʿĪsā flee the scene.  Abū l-Fatḥ describes how he has exchanged his false words for charity at the close of the maqāmah.

Why are you working on the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī and not al-Ḥarīrī’s for example?

One very good reason perhaps is that our colleague Michael Cooperson has completed translating the Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī. But you know, some works just capture you. I first read the Maqāmāt of Hamadhānī as an undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut, and it was love at first sight. Hamadhānī created a text that is in dialogue with most Islamic disciplines, but at the same time the text seems irreverent. Ḥarīrī does something similar, but with him the genre is more fixed. His Maqāmāt are overly concerned with literary form in my opinion. With Hamadhānī you can feel the freshness of the genre, the search for a form, linguistic register, and characters. Ḥarīrī’s text became more popular and enjoyed a rich tradition of commentaries. The text however is more stable—likely because of the large numbers of students who purportedly studied with the author. Hamadhānī’s text on the other hand is a challenge and many questions pertaining to its history remain to be answered.

You are writing a book on the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī—what is the subject of the book?

After several years of working on the text of al-Hamadhānī, Maurice Pomerantz and I recognized that despite the fame and importance of the text, basic questions about the circumstances of the text’s authorship, collection, and transmission still remain to be answered. It is the regrettable common practice in studies and translations of Hamadhānī’s Maqāmāt to refer to the seriously defective “standard” editions of the late 19th century, the best of which is prepared by the esteemed scholar and reformer Muḥammad ʿAbdu. ʿAbdu not only censored the text to meet the norms of a conservative audience but also relied on later Ottoman manuscripts replete with errors. Relying on these defective editions not only compromises the results of modern scholars’ investigations of Hamadhānī’s text, but also prevents them from appreciating the literary culture that created this work. How were the individual maqāmāt composed? How were they performed? How were they recorded, lost, found, collected, and transmitted? How did they gain their titles and various readership notes and commentaries? These are only some of the questions that our book addresses.


To see Bilal Orfali discuss more of his projects, watch the video below:

General Editor Philip Kennedy Reads from Consorts of the Caliphs

Monday, March 4th, 2019 10:00 am

“ʿInān was the first poet to become famous under the Abbasids and the most gifted poet of her generation…”

In this video produced by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, the General Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature Philip Kennedy discusses Consorts of the Caliphs and reads an entertaining excerpt from the book. Watch the video here:

“The Secretarial Art Is a Noble Craft”: An Excerpt from The Sword of Ambition

Monday, February 25th, 2019 8:00 am

The Sword of Ambition

In this excerpt from The Sword of Ambition: Bureaucratic Rivalry in Medieval Egypt, translated by Luke Yarbrough, the unemployed bureaucrat ‘Uthman ibn Ibrahim al-Nabulusi describes what he believes are essential qualifications for being a good secretary. The work as a whole makes a polemical argument against the employment of non-Muslims as secretaries and offers us “an unusual opportunity to situate virulent religious polemic in the particular historical context that generated it,” as Yarbrough writes in his introduction. “The author’s patent desperation and autobiographical candor make it clear that the project was not suggested to him by sacred texts or abstract reflection alone, but instead was inspired by historically specific, self-interested motives.”

A Description of the Secretarial Art

Since the subject of the secretarial art has been broached, and since we have had occasion to mention those who unworthily don its robes and thereby encroach upon its sublime offices, it is fitting that I describe what it is. Indeed, it is appropriate that I bedeck the end of this book with a description of those men whom the secretarial art has adorned and that I offer a sample of their merits.

Therefore I would state clearly that the secretarial art is a noble craft, a splendid and lofty rank for those who master it. He who is ignorant of its excellence has surely never known one of its true practitioners. As for those secretaries worthy of the name, they are in truth the very meaning of existence; they are the kernel within the shell of this present world, the spirit in the body of this creation and the sheen upon its mirror, which reveals all excellence in its perfect clarity.

An Account of Those Men Who May Properly Be Called Secretaries, along with Some of Their Achievements in Prose, Though It Be but a Single Phrase to Demonstrate the Excellence of Each One

“Cairo from the Mosque of Ibn Touloun.” Public domain via the Library of Congress.

I am of the view that the only men who may properly be called secretaries are those who combine knowledge of divers sciences and who comprehend every branch of knowledge. The true secretary will have recited the Illustrious Qur’an, spent time in the study of religious law, heard and narrated hadith and understood its principles and fine points, studied inheritance law, mastered Arabic, scaled the twin summits of poetry and prose, gained complete command of epistolary style, recounted poems and aphorisms, read the epic tales of old, and understood the nuances of poetry and its varieties and forms. He will have committed to memory a great many poems, by Arabs and non-Arabs alike, and studied their battles, their speeches, their biographies, their historical chronicles, and the record of all events concerning them. He will have learnt a goodly amount of arithmetic. Indeed, he will have entered into every arena of learning by the widest gate. Refined literature holds a singular place in his preparation; it is his special adornment, for the Muslim community knows nothing more lovely, nor is there any garment more comely for ambition to wear. It frees the tongue of any hobble and allows men to speak with supreme eloquence. Only he may be associated with its refinement whose brilliant light shines forth, whose excellence glitters, and whose character is ennobled to such a degree that he gives rest to souls and joy to spirits. Neither does his flowing stream of excellence dry up, nor does any impurity cloud the clear pool of his learning. Fate is moved to rejoice by such men, and in them she displays her kindness. By them the spark of Destiny is kindled; from them the star of Fortune is never concealed. God, glorified be He, has said concerning those angels who in all nobility and knowledge play the part of secretaries: «Yet there are over you watchers noble, scribes who know whatever you do.»

One of the most renowned secretaries and noted men of culture was ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ibn Yaḥyā, the secretary of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwān, who was killed at Būṣīr Sidr in the vicinity of Giza. ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd was the first to elucidate the proper methods that guide the secretarial art and the use of the pen, and to formulate the conventions of composition and rhetoric. He has many well-known epistles and many praiseworthy virtues as well.

It has been said concerning him, “The secretarial art began with ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd and ended with Ibn al-ʿAmīd.”

Among his excellent sayings are, “The pen is a tree the fruit of which is meaning, and the heart a sea the pearl of which is wisdom.” And also, “Practice forgiveness, that the grace of your power may endure.” And, “Do not let your share in this world cause you to forget your share in God’s mercy.”

Here follows an instance of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd’s loyalty that history has preserved for us so that the ignoble might feel shame and the honorable might follow in his steps. When his master Marwān realized that his rule was coming to an end with the rebellion of al-Saffāḥ, he said to ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, “This authority shall surely pass from us and revert to those people,” meaning the Abbasid caliphs, who are of the Prophet’s family. “I advise you to transfer your allegiance to them, for they shall advance you in their service because of your estimable qualities. It may even be that you shall still do me some good by serving those whom I leave behind.” But ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd replied, “How shall the people know that this is your command? If I obey you, the people will curse me!” Then he recited these verses:

Am I to be loyal in secret and flaunt perfidy?

what excuse could I give to convince people?

Thereafter ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd stayed at Marwān’s side until he was slain by Ṣāliḥ ibn ʿAlī.

For more stories of the best—and worst—secretaries in history according to Ibn al-Nabulusi, check out The Sword of Ambition, newly published in paperback.

Boss Moves Are Bloody Moves

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 6:00 am

In this article, Rachel Schine, author of the blog “Lyric Poets,” writes about ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād and what his poetry has in common with the lyrics of Cardi B. She notes: “The artist and essayist Max King Cap has said that one’s identity is ‘neither prescriptive nor proscriptive; it doesn’t dictate or disallow.’ Thoughtful art, according to him, embodies this principle, yet, when I was invited to write a comparison between the half-black (hajīn) ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād and a contemporary rapper (more likely than not to be a person of color), I was initially apprehensive that I would be making it look like ‘Antarah’s identity was indeed prescriptive, and that it dictated his comparability with other literary figures. I hope to convince you otherwise and show some of the uses of comparing Classical Arabic poetry with contemporary rap.”

According to legend, when the pre-Islamic warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād ran into his first battle, he did so screaming “I am the half-blood ‘Antarah!” He has since earned a reputation as the epitome of the underdog hero. If we believe his semi-fantastic biography, ‘Antarah metamorphoses through sheer grit and prowess from a half-Ethiopian slave spurned by his free Arab father and tribe into an elite warrior, bringing his kin sizeable quantities of booty in war and a commensurate profusion of honor. ‘Antarah’s empowerment is, of course, staked on his extreme capacity for violence, making unambiguous the connection between bloodshed and socioeconomic gain in his world. Once socially redeemed, though, violence still never leaves ‘Antarah—he keeps fighting until old age and infirmity set in, which, according to the Kitāb al-Aghānī, made for thin final years because he could no longer go on raids.

For ‘Antarah, violence is no simple means to an end. His pugnacity not only bootstraps him out of his birth station but also becomes his noble prerogative once he has become well-to-do. This emerges in lines from his diwan like, “Clad in the garb of Yemen’s kings, a long coat of mail, rippling like the sea, I wielded a keen white blade, answering War’s touch with slash and cut […],” and is distilled in a sentence from ‘Antarah’s biography, which asserts “slaves don’t attack,” because it is the honor and privilege of the free. War-making is also the focal point of the conspicuous consumption in ʿAntarah’s  poetry through which he signals his material success, as he accouters himself only with the finest swords and armor, the sturdiest steed whom he feeds with rich milk (much to the chagrin of his wife with a camel-milk craving, in one poem), and imported spears, even as he lives the otherwise sparse life of a desert-wearied soldier. This is, of course, because in ‘Antarah’s context amid the pre-Islamic Bedouin culture of the Najd highlands, warfare and raiding was not only necessary but also glorified. Folks accessorized accordingly.

"I'm invincible!" gif

‘Antarah’s attitude toward violence is rather similar to one of the credos that repeats itself often in rap: you have to scrap to get to the top, and once you’re there, the use of violence and aggression endures as a divine mandate of the elect—it’s a way of preserving one’s status, to be sure, but also something the successful use and flaunt because they can. This is a powerful symbolic inversion of the deprivation that the black artists who dominate the genre experienced before they attained high status, and moreover it often harkens to the collective oppression experienced by black Americans across history. In this vein, wealth sometimes itself becomes a metaphor for violence and exploitation: in Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire,” the line “[a] brand new whip for these n****s like slavery” plays on the double meaning of “whip” as both a lash and a luxury car, and renders his ostentatious display of wealth a historically poignant cudgel against those beneath him.

The biggest and most buzzed-about rap anthem of 2017 deals cleverly with the overlap between violence and status. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” chronicles her journey from working as a stripper to becoming a reigning queen of hip-hop. The video for the song (perhaps not coincidentally) is one of the most Orientalist music videos I have ever had the perverse delight of watching, but there isn’t room to discuss it here. Reading Cardi’s lyrics alongside ‘Antarah’s verses, violence emerges in the two as tightly linked with material gain in a complex and often ambivalent way, echoing the privileges and burdens of upstarts. The lucre described in Cardi’s lyrics drips with figurative blood, both a marker of triumph and of warning. Meanwhile, ‘Antarah’s verses are frequently caught between a soldier’s austerity and a braggart’s lavishness, and at times the two mingle together in eerie ways, such that in almost the same breath, ‘Antarah’s hand brings both rain, that is charity, and death. All of this conveys much about ‘Antarah and his society, in which men were expected to be both resolute and open-handed, and in which the link between the two was consummated through ghazwah, or inter-tribal raiding.


I’m a Boss, You a Worker

        Here’s the video for Cardi’s song—if you haven’t seen it yet (and seriously where have you been?), you should watch it now:  

And here are the lyrics:

Cardi B, née Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, grew up poor in the Bronx, and is now one of the most successful female rappers currently in the game (“I used to live in the P’s, now it’s a crib with a gate”). Apropos of this, Cardi’s song is a boastful ode (fakhr, if you’ll indulge me) to her own class ascent—she no longer needs to “dance,” which is to say strip, because now she has a real cash flow and can pursue her own financial interests freely, also known as making “money moves.” The oblivion this produces sets in immediately—now that Cardi’s on top, she looks down her nose at those beneath her, guarding her property from them (“you can’t f*ck with me if you wanted to, these expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes”) and putting them in their place (“I’m a boss, you a worker, b*tch, I make bloody moves”). A similar sort of denial of double consciousness comes through in ‘Antarah’s poems, in lines where he speaks admiringly of a foe by remarking on how they do not comport themselves like slaves, calls one of his enemies a bastard child (ibn laqīṭah), or boasts of serving up wine to people who have never shown weakness or false pretense, i.e. the “high-born and brave” (laysū bi-ankās wa-lā awghāl). It is hard not to see a vision of a champagne room, or perhaps a scene of palatial ṭarab, in Montgomery’s rendering,

I’ve served wine

        To high-born and brave

At dawn,


Pert-breasted girls

        With a flicker of shyness

In their eyes,

        White as the marble

Effigies of goddesses

Both Cardi and ‘Antarah treat their lowly pasts with a similar disinterest, evincing little sympathy for the folks who fail to pull themselves up out of similar conditions. They transform words like “worker,” “slave,” and “bastard,” their own former labels, into watchwords for their superiority. For ‘Antarah, this is especially embodied in his ability to woo white-skinned women, previously precluded by his slave status; the first line of poetry he recites about his future wife, ‘Ablah, in his sīrah speaks of her fairness (wa-bayḍā’) before all else.

The premising of this fresh superiority on the capacity to do harm to others is patent in Cardi’s lyrics, as when she switches from the refrain “I make money moves” to “I make bloody moves.” For Cardi, the use of violent language is part of a performance of power that relates not only to her class, but to her gender, and she playfully dresses up her threats in feminine attire while also mainly addressing female competitors throughout the song. Such maneuvers are far from new among female rappers. In his essay, “Caricature and Obscenity in Mujūn Poetry and African-American Women’s Hip-Hop,” Adam Talib amply demonstrates that male rappers (and their medieval Arab counterparts) have no monopoly on the obscene, and that women rappers will intentionally appropriate the language of masculine prurience—which tends to idealize uneven, violent, or humiliating sexual relationships—to articulate their own desires, wearing terms like “b*tch” and “hoe” as badges of honor and fantasizing openly about sexually dominant men, thus, “parody[ing] the mainstream, hypersexual male paradigm” of the genre; this is no less true with violence. In the song’s most recurrent image, Cardi makes a particularly eloquent parodic stroke, taking something typically viewed as an extremely feminine accessory—high-heeled shoes, which in the music video are an especially vertiginous and glossy pink confection, with the classic Louboutin cherry-red sole—and imbues it with violent significance. The shoes are “bloody,” a reference not only to their famous red-lacquered bottom but also to the pools of blood Cardi stands in after besting her competition. In another line, Cardi parrots a masculine articulation of sexual desire, reframing it as a violent assertion, saying, “if you a p**** you get popped,” in reference to 2 Live Crew’s song, “Pop that P****.” Reformulated as an if-then statement and voiced by a woman, though, the meaning of p**** morphs here from female genitalia into a weak man, and “pop” transforms from a thrusting motion into a fatal gunshot wound. No longer a stripper, Cardi won’t be popping her p**** any more, instead, she can now credibly threaten to cut down any man–or woman–she likes.

gif of Cardi B saying "I ain't about to sleep on my dreams for no man!"

Iced-over watches and designer shoes may not be staples of ‘Antarah’s knightly stomping grounds, but his poetry nonetheless plays similarly with the relationship between extravagance and violence, often in the reverse direction—rather than lucre being coated in blood, his gored military accoutrements and the bodies of his enemies instead evoke finery, as in,

I turned my wounded horse

        His flanks shredded by arrows

His halter red with blood

        Like the fringes of a rug.

The mount’s bloodied halter here here seems like the fringes of a qirām, a type of red wool textile that famously appears in the following hadīth: ‘Ā’isha puts up a qirām embellished with figures (fīhā tamāthīl) in a place that is in Muḥammad’s line of sight during prayer, and he asks that it be removed (whereupon she makes a few cushions out of it). Elsewhere, ‘Antarah’s sword glitters with such radiance that women would forget to ornament themselves when faced with its luster,

My soul has been mired

        In battlemurk—

The blade’s glister

        Would make you forget

All your henna

        And your kohl

In yet another line, the gored head of a fallen enemy has hair that appears darkened as if dyed with indigo; rivers of blood streaming from enemies’ chests resemble jiryāl, a reddish-gold dye. In an earlier blog for the LAL site, Paul Cooper comments on the starkness of ‘Antarah’s world, a desert awash in flame. And yet, verses such as those indicated above ironically transform ‘Antarah’s unforgiving battlefield into an almost lush space, well-appointed with vividly-colored, gleaming objects—true to Montgomery’s idea that in the diwan reality is constantly being “transformed and mutilated and metamorphosed.” The transformation of weaponry into an adorned bride or of guts into bright tinctures play on the finer things (including lovely ladies) that ‘Antarah and his men have left behind during their raiding, and perhaps also on the ennobling, fruitful nature of raiding itself. Moreover, these references render ‘Antarah as a regal figure in his desert domain—a sovereign of the battlefield, per the earlier reference to his chain mail being like that of Yemen’s kings. That wealth is only ever vaguely hinted at in scenes otherwise dominated by war and struggle permits very little luxuriating on ‘Antarah’s part. Instead, the hustle always continues: he satirizes his brothers for getting fat while their true instruments of power and prestige—their camels—grow thin. The reward of choice food comes to ‘Antarah only after “nights twisted in hunger.” Despite her comparative density of references to enjoying things like diamonds, designer clothes, and fancy cars, Cardi echoes ‘Antarah’s sentiments about hard work, saying that her hard-earned wealth is a cut above the money given to other women by their “baby fathers.” Cardi has “no time to chill,” using her wealth to pay her family’s bills and continuing to produce music at a pace few can match. Rather than stopping to bask, ‘Antarah and Cardi revel in the crucible of their respective labors.

gif of Cardi B saying "I make money moves."

In keeping with this work ethic, ‘Antarah visibly grapples in his poetry with the extent to which he cares for the things money and prestige can afford—in his “golden ode,” or mu‘allaqah, he elaborately describes the bottle of fine wine he drinks at twilight, “paid for with minted gold” (bi-l-mashūf al-mu‘lam), and sipped “from a streaked yellow glass/strained from a gleaming jug/held fast in my hand.” And yet, when battle comes a few lines later, he declines the spoils, motivated only by the fight itself. He affirms elsewhere he’s no slave to desire. Nonetheless, grand displays of generosity—which necessarily require having a surplus of things to give—remain of immense value to ‘Antarah, and act as one of his answers to anyone who would denigrate him for his blackness:


Fools may mock my blackness

        But without night there’s no day!

Black as night, so be it!

        But what a night

Generous and bright! (khaṣā’ilī bayāḍun wa-min kaffayya yustanzalu al-qaṭru)

        All the paltry ‘Amrs and Zayds

My name has eclipsed.

        I am the Lord of War!

‘Antarah’s whiplash-quick transition from impressing with his bounteousness to impressing with his pugnacity—he is the Lord of War!—serves as a reminder that ‘Antarah affords others wellbeing through two major means, proffering his possessions and defending with his sword. In so doing, he also dwarfs the efforts of others (all the ‘Amrs and Zayds), imperiling their pride of place. This hearkens to a similar statement made by Cardi B towards the end of her song (balāghah nerds, take note of the jinās tamm):

I need to fill up the safe,

I need to let these hoes know

That none of they n****s is safe

Here, money and security are intertwined at a few different levels: Cardi mentions needing to “fill up her safe,” placing her wealth in a guarded place. Cardi shoring up her own wealth has an inversely proportional effect on the comfort of others—she threatens that nobody’s man is safe, because her wealth has made her a threat to would-be emcees and has afforded her the liberty to use and pursue people and pleasure as she wishes. Articulating this idea in terms of a general lack of male safety reverses the dynamics of Cardi’s prior work as a stripper, in which one lives or dies by how well they compete for wealth given predominantly by male patrons. True to this reversal, Cardi’s whims are fleeting. If we recall the chorus, she states that she’s quick to cut people off, and cautions them not to “get comfortable” in their relationships with her. In a testament to their respective power, both ‘Antarah and Cardi assure us that they can give, but they can also take away.



In a recent essay, feminist writer and culture critic bell hooks warns against the glorification of violent acts in popular culture, even if they come from an unexpected and often subjugated source, saying: “Contrary to misguided notions of gender equality, women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts. Female violence is no more liberatory than male violence.” And yet, the appeal of violence-as-vindication is unmistakable, and its luster is an ancient one. We might say that the same, somewhat lizard-brained impulse to exult in depictions of gleeful vengeance is a big part of the positive reception enjoyed by the legendary warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād, in whom we find the ultimate narrative of vindication against haters as he goes from a shunned figure to one universally recognized, admired, and feared.

        For ‘Antarah and Cardi B alike, such prestige is a thing that must be earned and aggressively maintained. However, it’s not until ‘Antarah and Cardi begin winning victories—be they in war or in the studio—that their threats start to acquire real significance. In this fashion, literal and figurative bloodlust pave the path of their social ascent and become their recognized purview once they have “arrived.” This arrival entails a certain amount of other benefits, too—the luxury of arrogance, of wealth, of being able to threaten and to take and to control with relative impunity. Perhaps this is all deserved, and perhaps we should yield to our impulses and let ourselves fall in love with what Peter Cole calls the “action-hero or rapper-like over-the-topness” of ‘Antarah’s boasts (I know I have). But perhaps we can also hold in mind the classed and/or raced anxiety that dogs both Cardi’s and ‘Antarah’s works and that is betrayed by their pretensions to limitlessness—an anxiety that Peter Cole points out in his beautiful introduction to War Songs. To again paraphrase bell hooks, both texts, in their own way, glamorize harsh and often contradictory worlds in which high status is at worst unattainable and at best ephemeral for the preponderance of folks that start out where ‘Antarah and Cardi did. This truth can only deepen our appreciation for the fact that ‘Antarah, ever exceptional, has had a unique capacity to transcend, to illuminate, and now, to get stuck in all of our heads (once you unstick “Bodak Yellow,” of course—sorry, not sorry).


Rachel Schine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Her current research focuses on the relationship between race and the representation of black heroes in the popular sīrahs, a corpus of medieval legendary conquest literature in which ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād receives what we might call the Hollywood treatment (absent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, though, who nearly brought ‘Antarah to the silver screen). When she is not writing her dissertation, she’s tweeting about it here. She also muses occasionally about the connections between Classical Arabic poetry and contemporary hip-hop/rap on her blog.