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. (more…)

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?

Mohammed Rustom

Library of Arabic Literature Fellow Mohammed Rustom

‘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. (more…)

“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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

Upcoming Events for War Songs in the UK

Thursday, November 8th, 2018 5:00 am
James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event

James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event in New York City. (c) Ariel Roberson

James Montgomery will speak about the poetry of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad and read from his new translation War Songs at three events in London and Cambridge this month. We hope to see you at one of them! All three events are free and open to the public, but please RSVP where requested.

•   Friday 23 November, at the Poetry Cafe in London:  RSVP here.

•   Wednesday 28 November, at Trinity Hall, Cambridge:  Claim a free ticket here. This event is organized by Heffers Bookshop.

•   Thursday 29 November, at SOAS in London:  See more details on the SOAS website.

If you attend any of these events, we’d love to hear from you! Tweet at us @LibraryArabLit or use the hashtags #WarSongs or #Antarah.

James Montgomery on Listening to the ‘Antarah in His Bones

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018 11:17 am

With ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs, the Library of Arabic Literature has launched its first-ever collection of classical Arabic poetry. The collection brings together poetic works composed by the ‘Antarah of the sixth century and poems from the ‘Antarah-inspired epic composed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE.

All the works are edited and translated by James E. Montgomery, an LAL executive editor, the author of Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books, and Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. To craft a vibrant and resonant translation, Montgomery worked with Richard Sieburth, an award-winning translator of works by Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris, Walter Benjamin, and Friedrich Hölderlin.

In this second of a two-part conversation, which took place in New York City just after the book’s September 21 launch, Montgomery and ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey talked about this seminal pre-Islamic poet and how to translate his work in a way that captures its vibrant, shape-shifting, qasida-ripping grotesquerie and in a way that brings pleasure to a twenty-first century English-language audience.

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Photo by Jerry Avenaim. CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons.

In the book Loss Sings, where you translate the sixth-century Arabian poet Al-Khansāʾ, you talk about how you came to her poetry from a particular emotional ground, at a particular point in your life. We know, from the introduction to War Songs, how ‘Antarah came to the Library of Arabic Literature: that, in early 2012, “Philip Kennedy received an invitation from a production company that was looking to make an English-language movie of the adventures of ʿAntarah, possibly to star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the title role.”  

But what about you? How did you meet Antarah? From what associational ground?

JEM: If it hadn’t been for that conversation between Philip and the production company, if LAL had approached me independently and asked me to do a pre-Islamic poet, I wouldn’t have done ‘Antarah.

I‘ve always been fascinated by his mu’allaqa, but it wouldn’t have been ‘Antarah I’d have chosen. I think I probably would have chosen Tarafah, or maybe ‘Alqamah, because there’s a fascinating archaism, a feel of real antiquity about the latter, and there’s something so attractive and romantic about Tarafah’s doomed youth. I first read the pre-Islamic poets when I was in my early twenties, and first encounters are when you make your first emotional attachments. ‘Alqamah was as close as I could hear to Pindar, who was one of my poetic heroes at the time, and Tarafah had the glow of a life lived large and fast, like a James Dean character.

So I might either have proposed either of those poets as a volume for LAL, or I might have answered, we have to translate the mu’allaqāt as a collection in itself. But I’m more hesitant about thinking that’s an answer I would have given, as it’s quite a terrifying prospect to think about tackling all of the mu’allaqāt. (more…)

Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Shines “Publisher Spotlight” on LAL

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 11:04 am

Epistle of Forgiveness coverThe Global Literature in Libraries Initiative strives to raise the visibility of world literature for adults and children at the local, national, and international levels. Today the Library of Literature is proud to be featured on their blog as a “Publisher Spotlight.” The feature highlights three LAL books:

  • The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu l-‘Ala al-Ma’arri, translated by Geert Jan van Gelder, “showcases the maverick writer’s wit and radical thinking in the first complete translation of the work into any language.”
  • What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us by Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, translated by Roger Allen, is “an important work for a number of areas” that “take[s] a long, hard look at the changes enacted in society during the 19th and early 20th century.”
  • Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, also translated by Geert Jan van Gelder, is “a delectable selection of words that illustrate areas of the Arabic literary pantheon that are sometimes overlooked.”

Click here to read the full Publisher Spotlight on the Global Literature in Libraries Inititative’s website.