Teaching Religion with the Library of Arabic Literature

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 11:57 am

Elias G. Saba writes about his experience teaching religious studies at Grinnell College using books from the Library of Arabic Literature, from al-Shāfiʿī’s Epistle on Legal Theory to Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq’s Leg over Leg.

I have been teaching religious studies at Grinnell College for the past four years. As I develop my courses, texts from the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) have become key components of many of my syllabuses. I have used some of the paperback editions and made extensive use of the digital editions of these texts, available through Grinnell’s library. In this post, I will discuss the various ways these texts have enriched my classes, some obvious and some less so. I hope that by providing an overview of how I have used these texts in class, I will start a conversation about how these books may serve other scholars in teaching classes for undergraduates.

In my entry-level course “Traditions of Islam,” we read from three different LAL texts. Early in the class, we focus on the figure of the Prophet Muḥammad. This section of the course ends with three selections from Maʿmar ibn Rāshid’s The Expeditions (translated by Sean W. Anthony). The stories “Those Who Emigrated to Abyssinia,” “The Story of the Slander,” and “The Marriage of Fatimah” (more…)

Lemon-Pistachio Stuffing: A Recipe from Scents and Flavors

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019 10:05 am

Image credit: CC0 via Pixabay.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, allow us to suggest this flavorful stuffing recipe from the 13th-century Syrian cookbook Scents and Flavors, with pistachios, lemon juice, and a variety of herbs and spices including parsley, mint, caraway, thyme, and cinnamon. Of course, there were no turkeys in 13th-century Syria, but we think substituting turkey for chicken in this recipe will work just fine.

Here’s what you’ll need: (more…)

Join us at MESA and AAR!

Wednesday, November 13th, 2019 10:43 am

Image credit: “Plane Flying” by Fuzz. CC0 via Pixabay

We’re headed to New Orleans for MESA this week and to San Diego for AAR next week! If you’ll be at either conference, please come say hello to us at our booth in the exhibit hall. We’ll have tote bags, mugs, and of course lots of books.

At MESA, from November 15 to 17, we’ll be at booths 57 and 58. If you can’t make it to the conference, you can browse the books we’ll have at the conference (and find a special discount code) here.

At AAR, from November 23 to 26, we’ll be at booth 1007. For a preview of the books that will be available at the booth, click here.

See you soon!

Teaching the Global Middle Ages: Reading ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs in a Medieval Survey Class

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019 9:55 am

Patrick DeBrosse, a PhD student in History at Fordham University, writes about his experience teaching withʿAntarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs in his course “HIST 1300: Understanding Historical Change – Medieval Europe.” This article expands on some of the ideas he shared on Twitter here

One of the challenges of teaching a survey history class for the first time is the task of finding the right primary sources to assign to your students. You want to choose authors whose voices reveal the complexities of a historical period, but who also strike a balance between approachable and mysterious. Your students must, in short, enjoy the challenge of reading the primary source, and walk away with more questions than they had when they began.

As a graduate student preparing for my first semester of teaching the history of medieval Europe, I had to think long and hard about the best primary source options available for each class topic. The part of the course that gave me the most pause was the week where I stepped away from Europe to teach the early history of Islam. I decided that covering the beliefs of Muhammad and his followers, the creation of the caliphates, and the flourishing of culture in Abbasid Baghdad would help my class reflect upon the general perspective of our course, as well as upon the similarities of (and connections between) “the West” and “the Islamic World.”

Experts on what is increasingly being referred to as the Global Middle Ages have pointed out that teachers who focus exclusively on Europe in their classes leave their students with a sense of empathy for medieval Europeans, but with a hostile and distorted view of non-Europeans. Such an outcome is tragic in and of itself, while also being exclusionary for students from minority backgrounds who might otherwise found medieval studies attractive. That outcome is also dangerous for society—since white supremacists often use distorted images of the Middle Ages in their propaganda. Many medieval historians now recognize the need to devote time and attention to people who lived outside of Europe—the urgency of which is reflected in the fact that the Medieval Academy of America dedicated this year’s conference to the Global Middle Ages. But what, then, to give the students as a primary source? My own research focuses on the crusades, and although I find the Islamic accounts of that period fascinating and moving, I did not want to introduce the students to Islam through the lens of holy war. As my advisor has often warned me, such an introduction to Islam feeds straight into discredited models of “a clash of civilizations” between East and West. Much better to find a source that lets the students see the Islamic world on its own terms. (more…)

Announcing Our New Podcast

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019 10:21 am

LAL Podcast on SoundcloudWe are excited to announce the launch of the Library of Arabic Literature podcast! Wherever you may be, and whatever you find yourself doing—walking, driving, flying, cooking—steal a moment and listen to the episodes on SoundCloud, featuring conversations with our LAL fellows as they discuss their upcoming projects.

Episodes are available in English and Arabic. Click here to listen now, and don’t forget to subscribe to our SoundCloud channel!

Opposites Attract: An Excerpt from The Philosopher Responds on the Nature of Affection

Wednesday, October 9th, 2019 10:42 am

cover of The Philosopher RespondsIn this excerpt from The Philosopher Responds: An Intellectual Correspondence from the Tenth Century, the litterateur Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥidī asks the philosopher Abū ʿAlī Miskawayh why opposites seem to attract, and Miskawayh offers a response on the nature of and reasons for affection.

 On why friendship arises between apparently dissimilar individuals—a volitional and ethical question

Why does reciprocal affection arise between two individuals who do not resemble each other in external appearance, are dissimilar in physical build, and do not dwell in physical proximity, so, say, one hails from the city of Farghānah, the other from Tāhart, one is tall and well-built, the other short and unattractively diminutive, one is lean and meager, the other sturdy and tough, one is hirsute and covered in thick hair, the other smooth and with very little hair, one is more tongue-tied than Bāqil, the other more eloquent than Saḥbān Wāʾil, one is more generous than a rain cloud after a lightning storm, the other more avaricious than a dog nursing a fleshless bone it toiled to secure, so that the divergence and discordance between the two provoke the spectator and inquirer to wonder? (more…)

The Excellence of the Poets: Poetry and the Shaping of History in Ibn Qutaybah’s Excellence of the Arabs

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019 9:10 am

In this guest post, Jonny Lawrence, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, considers the powerful role of poetry in The Excellence of the Arabs by Ibn Qutaybahtranslated by Sarah Bowen Savant and Peter Webb. “How mighty the pen, how feeble the sword,” he writes.

cover of The Excellence of the ArabsIf a tree falls in the forest and there is no poet to record it, did the tree really fall?

In The Excellence of the Arabs, Ibn Qutaybah, a third/ninth-century polymath and Arabophile, frames much of the titular excellence around the Arabs’ innate claim to fields of knowledge not shared by other cultures, notably, for him, that of the Persians. Poetry and a few other arts and sciences—pre-Islamic methods of divination, the art of horse-husbandry, and the Islamic fields of jurisprudence (fiqh) and grammar (naḥw)—are “particular to the Arabs. Non-Arabs can master them only by learning and parroting; the Arabs alone possess the brilliance and glory of having developed them,” as Ibn Qutaybah writes. All the other branches of knowledge are “common to all peoples,” including the Arabs. But it is poetry which truly sets the Arabs apart: theirs is the knowledge of prosody, rhyme, and description.

Poetry is at the heart of Arab Excellence: technically brilliant and aurally stunning, pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabic poetry also serves as the very record of that Excellence. It is both a technical and narrative wonder, appreciated both by Ibn Qutaybah and by his readers, contemporary and modern. Most strikingly in the first, more polemical, section of The Excellence of the Arabs, poetry serves as evidence for the general statements about Arab Excellence that Ibn Qutaybah makes. (more…)

War Songs longlisted for the National Translation Award

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019 10:01 am

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) announced the longlists today for the 2019 National Translation Awards in Poetry and Prose. Included on the longlist for poetry is War Songs by ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad, translated by James E. Montgomery with Richard Sieburth!

Fall 2018 PaperbacksThe National Translation Award, now in its 21st year, is the only national award for translated fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction that includes a rigorous examination of both the source text and its relation to the finished English work. Featuring authors writing in 13 different languages, this year’s longlists expand the prize’s dedication to literary diversity in English. The selection criteria include the quality of the finished English language book, and the quality of the translation. ALTA will highlight each book on the longlists with features written by the judges on the ALTA blog: https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/

The Complete 2019 National Translation Award Longlist in Poetry:

War Songs
by Antarah ibn Shaddad
translated from the Arabic by James E. Montgomery with Richard Sieburth
(Library of Arabic Literature/NYU Press)

Architecture of Dispersed Life: Selected Poems
by Pablo de Rokha
translated from the Spanish by Urayoán Noel
(Shearsman Books)


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.)  (more…)