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Abbasid Belles Lettres
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    Campbell, Ian 2018. Arabic Science Fiction. p. 77.

    Sizgorich, Thomas 2017. The Dancing Martyr: Violence, Identity, and the Abbasid Postcolonial. History of Religions, Vol. 57, Issue. 1, p. 2.


Book description

This volume of The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature covers artistic prose and poetry produced in the heartland and provinces of the 'Abbasid empire during the second great period of Arabic literature, from the mid-eighth to the thirteenth centuries AD. 'Abbasid literature was characterised by the emergence of many new genres and of a scholarly and sophisticated critical consciousness. This volume deals chronologically with the main genres and provides extended studies of major poets, prose-writers and literary theorists. It concludes with a comprehensive survey of the relatively unknown literature of the Yemen to appear in a European language since the manuscript discoveries of recent years. To make the material accessible to non-specialist readers, 'Abbasid authors are quoted in English translation wherever possible, and clear explanations of their literary techniques and conventions are provided. With chapters by leading specialists from the Middle East, Europe and America, the volume represents a wide cross-section of current academic opinion.


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  • 1 - Adab and the concept of belles-lettres
    pp 16-30
  • View abstract
    Adab, the general term used in modern Arabic for literature or belles-lettres, is often also applied by Arab and western scholars to a body of medieval writings which is regarded as constituting a specific literary genre. The medieval dictionaries list a considerable variety of meanings for the term adab: 'disciplines of the mind', 'good qualities and attributes of the mind and soul', and 'good breeding'. Adab in a literary context may refer to literary creativity, or else to literature as an object of philological study or to knowledge of literature as a mark of erudition. The definitions of adab as a genre put forward by historians of Arabic literature are far from uniform. This chapter focuses on eloquence, a section on adab to illustrate social and moral precepts. To Usamah, clearly, adab was a concept, which probably meant quotations of a certain literary merit, but in terms of the work's content, it referred to the socio-ethical meanings of the term.
  • 2 - Shuʿūbiyyah in Arabic literature
    pp 31-47
    • By H. T. Norris, School of Oriental and African S tmlies, London
  • View abstract
    One of the most striking movements in Arabic cultural history and literature is that assertive movement, collectively known as Shuubiyyah, which represented a powerful, sometimes extreme, backlash amongst the conquered peoples against the Arabs of Arabia. The Abbasid age supposedly marked the end of the period in Islamic history where a clearly defined distinction was drawn between Arab and mawali. The Arab claim to excellence in rhetoric and oratory was baseless, so it was argued, nor was there evidence to support their claim to an intuitive flair and native genius for the Arabic language. The Shuubis, more especially those familiar with Sasanian chivalry, mocked the Arabs for their deficiency in the military art and their vain b.
  • 3 - Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and early ʿAbbasid prose
    pp 48-77
  • View abstract
    In the annals of Arabic literature Ibn al-Muqaffa occupies a central position. For it is with his work that the history of Abbasid prose literature begins; it is he who opens the door to the golden age of Arabic prose writing; and a wide humanistic concept of letters is introduced to the Arabs. From the Pahlavi, comes the Arabic title by which Ibn al-Muqaffa's work is best known: Kalilah wa-Dimnah. In addition to the "Book of Kings", the nature of the Kitab Mazdak is held to be deducible from the contents of certain later Perso-Arab writings in which material borrowed from the work has either been detected or deemed to be such with a degree of probability verging on certainty. The significant product of Ibn al-Muqaffa's translational activities was the so-called 'Letter of Tansar/Tosar', a Sasanian political treatise. This chapter examines Risalah with considerable historical interest.
  • 4 - Al-Jāḥiẓ
    pp 78-95
    • By C. Pellat, Institut d’Études Islamiques, Paris
  • View abstract
    Abu Uthman Amr b. Bahr b. Mahbub al-Kinani al-Basrl, known as al-Jahiz, is one of the best-known and most prolific of early Abbasid prose writers and Mutazili theologians, and also one of the most controversial. Jahiz writings can be classified as follows: political and religious works; works modelled on, or developing out of, conventional scholarship; and adab. Jahiz's scholarly works are more mixed in form, some making sparing use of quotation while others rely heavily on secondary material, but all can be viewed as marking a transition between conventional scholarship and Jahiz's own branch of adab. In al-Hayawan and al-Bayan Jahiz acted as a compiler, arranging notes and using his own personal observations to link them, but in the shorter treatises he emerges as a constructive critic. Moral decline and neglect of customary practices are recurrent themes both of paraenetic and of professional adab.
  • 5 - Al-Ṣaḥib Ibn ʿAbbād
    pp 96-111
    • By C. Pellat, Institut d’Études Islamiques, Paris
  • View abstract
    Ibn Abbad was an able politician and administrator and a great patron, a katib who for more than eighteen years successfully held office as vizier to a branch of the Buwayhid family. Ibn Abbad claims to have composed the work to put his verbal criticisms into writing, and denies that it was written in a spirit of denigration. Ibn Abbad's poetry was collected into a diwan which is referred to by medieval and later sources, but the only surviving manuscript is a copy, of what is clearly only a selection, containing fifty-five pieces of varying length. Ibn Abbad prose is highly allusive and erudite; but it was the practice of using saj-rhymed and rhymically balanced prose-to enhance elegance, for which he was most noted. He was also a competent versifier and talented epistolographer, who came into his own at a time when rhymed prose was first becoming what it was long to remain, the favoured medium of administrative scribes.
  • 6 - Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī
    pp 112-124
  • View abstract
    Abu Hayyan Ali b. Muhammad b. al-Abbas al-Tawhidi was born, in either Iraq or Fars. He is a Muslim humanist who, in seeking to understand both God and man, expresses and defines a human ideal, though well aware of the difficulties of achieving it. Tawhidi's writings offer insights both into the thought and background of some of the leading figures of his day and into more general aspects of Islamic culture. Religion is the major force in society, Tawhidi quotes the Buwayhid amir Adud al-Dawlah's maxim that religion is the foundation of the state and the secular arm its guardian. Tawhidi's intellectual gifts were bound to make him seek out the great and powerful, for this was a period in which viziers, as well as holding high office, were often highly cultivated. Tawhidi's chief motive in accepting Ibn Abbad's protection was his belief that their relationship would be one of mutual respect and intellectual equality, since both men were adibs.
  • 7 - Al-Hamadhānī, al-Ḥarīrī and the maqāmāt genre
    pp 125-135
  • View abstract
    In the second half of the fourth/tenth century, a young man from Hamadhan in western Persia, Ahmad b. al-Husayn al-Hamadhani, set out to make an impression on the literary world, and in particular to challenge the position of al-Khwarazmi. Al-Hamadhani's Maqamat comprise several pieces: the three main editions each have a total of fifty-one maqamahs, but the Cairo and Istanbul editions have one that is not in the Beirut edition. A feature of the social scene in Hamadhani's time was a slightly prurient fascination with the seamy side of life, perhaps a reaction from the overrefined and over-sophisticated society of the great cities in Abbasid times. Hamadhani's Maqamat was reserved for an author after Hamadhani, namely Abu l-Hasan al-Qasim b. Ali Ibn al-Hariri, usually known as al-Hariri. Hariri's Maqamat had tremendous influence in following centuries, and inspired imitators, including a seventh/thirteenth century Spanish Jew, Judah ben Solomon Harizi, who wrote a collection of Haririan maqamahs in Hebrew.
  • 8 - Fables and legends
    pp 136-145
    • By H. T. Norris, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
  • View abstract
    The Abbasid period was the golden age of Arabic story-telling. This chapter examines whether a version of a legend or romantic tale originated in Abbasid Iraq or Syria or was composed much later in Mamluk Cairo. The Umayyad caliph Muawiyah was supposedly the recipient of the earliest collection of tales about legendary South Arabia, the Akhbar of Ubayd b. Sharyah al-Jurhumi. Abbasid story-telling introduced into Arabic written literature two main forms of composition, which were in turn to influence the art of the popular story-teller and the repertoire of the oral bard. Ibn al-Muqaffa was the translator and part author of the most famous and distinguished work of animal tales in Arabic literature, his rendering into Arabic of the "Fables of Bidpai", Kalilah wa-Dimnah. Abbasid story-telling introduces two main forms of composition into Arabic written literature: namely the frame story and the narrative form. The Abbasid age was an age both of belles-lettres and of 'oral literature'.
  • 9 - ʿAbbasid poetry and its antecedents
    pp 146-166
  • View abstract
    The difference between the formal ode and the occasional poem seems to have been already fairly well established in pre-Islamic poetry. The pre-Islamic qasidah was the product of a tribal desert society with its own ethos and values. It was created to celebrate these values, and by a ritualistic catharsis to enable its hearers to face issues of life and death in a usually harsh environment. This chapter considers the main differences between the Primary and Secondary Qasidah. The element which led critics to identify modernism with Abbasid poetry was thematic. Humour is evinced, in which poets used poetic tradition, either turning a convention upside down in order to poke fun at it while at the same time exploiting it, or manipulating it for their own purposes. In both cases, poets managed to produce poetry of supreme irony. Al-Buhturi is generally regarded as the skilful descriptive poets in an age which witnessed remarkable developments in the descriptive genre.
  • 10 - Hunting poetry (ṭardiyjāt)
    pp 167-184
  • View abstract
    Pre-Islamic poetry, records ample vivid descriptions of the oryx hunt to find the origins of the hunting-poems of the late Umayyad and Abbasid eras. This chapter explores the Umayyad era to find the true beginnings of the tardiyyat, short poems devoted to the single theme of hunting. Abu Nuwas is undoubtedly the major figure in Abbasid hunting poetry. Tardiyyat show such a predilection for metonymy, the omission of the noun and substitution of a characteristic adjective or descriptive phrase. It deals with the hunters in the tardiyjat with greater or lesser prominence. The goshawk is depicted in other Arabic hunting literature as the worthy hunter of the crane. The reader of the hunting-poems of this period can expect to encounter the full range of the poetic devices usually employed in Arabic. The formulaic structure of the tardiyyat not only reflects the unvarying technicalities of the hunt.
  • 11 - Political poetry
    pp 185-201
  • View abstract
    The poetry in which the beliefs or acts of the leaders of a particular sociopolitical system are supported or opposed can be defined as political poetry. Fresh impetus was given to politico-religious poetry by the murder of the third caliph, Uthman, which inaugurated a series of internecine wars. The Khariji movement was a schism which arose in Ali's camp after the battle of Siffin as a result of his acceptance of arbitration over the murder of cUthman and his own succession to the caliphate. Like the poetry of the Kharijis, Shii poetry drew its first inspiration from the events of the Umayyad period, but Shicism, unlike Kharijism, continued to be a disruptive element and to generate a poetic literature throughout the Abbasid caliphate. The accession of the Abbasids, who, having seized power with the aid of the Shii sects, had disappointed their expectations by opting, once in power, for the continuation of Sunnism, further stimulated Shfi polemic.
  • 12 - Love poetry (ghazal)
    pp 202-218
  • View abstract
    This chapter introduces the qasidah, the nasib, where the poet conjures up lost love through a variety of conventional motifs. In the ancient Arabian poems paired memories of good and bad often express stoical endurance in the face of the world's changes. In the Hijazi love-poem, language is incomparably simpler than in pre-Islamic verse. In the second/eighth century, the 'new poets' or 'moderns' of the cities of Iraq developed a rhetorically sophisticated style which, beginning with Bashshar ibn Burd, came to dominate the love lyric. Love poetry was at once an expression and confirmation of a soul with style. The books on love and on elegantiae know that refined love is something of a construct and limited to high society. The basic mode of Abbasid love poetry is paradox. The principal paradoxes, the lover's choice of pain over indifference, and his submission to a person weaker and of humbler rank, are clearly stated.
  • 13 - Wine poetry (khamriyyāt)
    pp 219-234
  • View abstract
    Wine poetry is found in all periods of Arabic literature, though with fluctuating frequency, and variation between incidental references and pieces devoted wholly to wine; in some periods, the theme of wine dominated poetic production. Wine drinking was current among all classes in pre-Islamic Arabia, but it was the particular boast of chieftains. Early Islamic poetry and the anecdotes surrounding it show a picture of poets openly disregarding the Islamic prohibition of wine, despite repeated floggings. Umayyad descriptions of wine conform to the earlier models of concrete imagery. One can find both occasional pieces and longer poems devoted to wine, and the names of some Abbasid poets are indissolubly associated with the theme, above all that of Abu Nuwas. Abu Nuwas's was the decisive influence on the subsequent development of the khamriyyah genre. The most famous of all Sufi wine-songs is that by Umar b. Ali Ibn al-Farid, throughout which wine terminology is used with the technicalities of Muslim mysticism.
  • 14 - Mystical poetry
    pp 235-264
  • View abstract
    The word sufi, usually derived from suf, supposedly in reference to the coarse woollen garments of the early Muslim mystics. Sufi poetry is centred, explicitly or implicitly, on the eternal and infinite source from which the soul of the poet originated and to which it seeks to return. One of the earliest great Sufi poems that have come down is the well-known quatrain generally ascribed to Rabiah al-Adawiyyah of Basra. Ibn Arabi is said to have been the first to write Sufi poetry in the form of the muwashshah, the lyric in stanzas with a change of rhyme and sometimes with a refrain. This chapter demonstrates the poetry of the mystics reveals certain aspects of their spirituality more clearly than any other source is capable of doing. This chapter explores Sufi poetry in the Abbasid period, where literary interests have taken precedence over other consideration.
  • 15 - Ascetic poetry (zuhdiyyāt)
    pp 265-274
  • View abstract
    Many zuhdiyyat are built on specific motifs, dwelling on mortality and the vanity of human wishes. The literary history of many of these motifs goes back to the pre-Islamic age. The Muslim zuhdiyyat inherited but rethought the old preoccupation with death and mutability. The prehistory of the zuhdiyyat also includes a pre-Islamic poet of the sixth century who devoted entire poems to meditation on the fugitive nature of life and human achievement. The zuhdiyyat, is most profoundly rooted in the Quran. Islam had always had room for asceticism; several of the Prophet's Companions are known for their self-denying ways. A poet of the Umayyad age, Sabiq b. Abdullah al-Barbar, is the earliest Muslim writer to whom a significant body of zuhdiyyat is ascribed. On the whole, zuhdiyyat tend to be extremely conventional in theme and simple in language. The zuhdiyyat deals with the emotions with which man looks to the Last Judgement: fear, and hope in God's mercy.
  • 16 - Bashshār b. Burd, Abū ʾl-ʿAtāhiyah and Abū Nuwās
    pp 275-299
  • View abstract
    Abu Muadh Bashshar b. Burd al-Muraath, Abu Ishaq Ismail b. al-Qasim, nicknamed Abu l-Atahiyah and al-Hasan b. Hani al-Hakami, known as Abu Nuwas are among the earliest and most important representatives of a group of poets whom medieval Arab critics describe as "moderns". Bashshar was certainly a Shuubi: in his poems he very frequently plays off the glorious past of the Persians against the Bedouins' alleged lack of culture. The Arabs regard Abu l-Atahiyah as the poet of renunciation par excellence. Abu Nuwas is undoubtedly one of the most versatile of the early moderns, indeed one of the most versatile of all Abbasid poets. Abu Nuwas is the most celebrated and heavily imitated writer of khamriyyat in Arabic. According to Arab tradition, the chief influence on Abu Nuwas as a wine-poet was Abu I-Hindi though his later life was spent in the eastern part of the Islamic Empire.
  • 17 - Al-Mutanabbī
    pp 300-314
  • View abstract
    Abu l-Tayyib Ahmad b. al-Husayn, known as al-Mutanabbi, was born in 303/915 into a poor Kufan family. The poetic persona of the early fakhr may tempt the reader to see the stamp of personality elsewhere in Mutanabbi's poetry. In his sensitive but deeply Romantic work, Taha Husayn writes of the panegyric to Badr al- Kharshani. In an anecdote of Mutanabbi's recital of the qasidah written to thaw a chill between himself and Sayf al-Dawlah, Abu Firas throws, line after line, accusations of plagiarism and ill-decorum at the poet. One text, in which Mutanabbi gives his version of a check to a planned raid into Byzantine territory, is an instructive example of poetic power as a means of managing the news. Mutanabbi himself oversaw a recension of the poems he wished preserved and helped his scholarly admirers on difficult points.
  • 18 - Abū Firās al-Ḥamdānī
    pp 315-327
  • View abstract
    Abu Firas al-Harith b. Sacid was a grandson of Abu l-Abbas Hamdan b. Hamdun al-Taghlibi, founder of the Hamdanid dynasty. The early poetry of Abu Firas and most of the Rumiyyat carry strong echoes of al-Mutanabbi. Unlike his teacher Ibn Khalawayh, Abu Firas seems to have developed during the period of his captivity a more genuine understanding of al-Mutanabbi and a more sympathetic admiration for his poetry. Abu Finis's mother died before his return from captivity, and he wrote an elegy for her in which he borrowed many ideas and themes from al- Mutanabbi. The fatherless Abu Finis's attachment to his mother is illustrated in a poem he wrote on hearing how she had implored Sayf al-Dawlah to raise his ransom and had fallen ill from disappointment at receiving an unfavourable answer. Abu Tammam's younger contemporary, al-Buhturi, whose panegyrics were greatly admired for their purity of diction was a lesser influence on Abu Firas.
  • 19 - Abū ʾl-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī
    pp 328-338
  • View abstract
    This chapter addresses many aspects of al-Macarri's thought. Abu l-Ala Ahmad b. Abdullah b. Sulayman al-Macarri was a member of the tribe of Tanukh, and was born into a learned and distinguished family at Macarrat al-Nucman. His father supervised his studies, he was taught the Quran by some of the leading shaykhs of Macarrah. In the first shock of his father's death, al-Macarri had thought of going to Baghdad, in fact it took him three more years to make up his mind to leave his mother and two brothers and chance his luck in cosmopolitan society. Al-Macarri's works demonstrate the validity of the notion of a writer's being a recluse whose isolation and imprisonment allow him to battle for human freedom more effectively than those competing on the world stage. Freedom, though the anti-thesis of bondage, is nevertheless, as al-Macarri realized, a heavy burden of trust.
  • 20 - Literary criticism
    pp 339-387
  • View abstract
    The Abbasid poet and literary theorist Ibn al-Mutazz explores a new territory of literary enquiry by identifying a new 'poetics' which had emerged with the 'modern' poets of the second and third centuries of Islam. Writing on aspects of language and balaghah in general was, however, very much in evidence from the end of the second/eighth century; but the works produced were either outside the domain of poetry, or treated of poetry externally, in ways which had little bearing on the development of poetics, literary theory or literary criticism. The issue of the inimitability of the Quran, which was to be of central importance for literary criticism, was not an external one, since ijaz was proclaimed by the Book itself. This chapter deals with specific aspects of the work of five major figures, placing emphasis on features which constitute each one's individual contribution. They are Ibn Tabataba, Qudamah b. Jafar, al-Amidi, Al-Qadi l- Jurjani, and Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani.
  • 21 - Ibn al-Muʿtazz and Kitāb al-Badīʿ
    pp 388-411
  • View abstract
    Kratchkovsky made a significant attempt to shed light on the early history of Arabic rhetoric. A further contribution by Kratchkovsky dealing with the terminology of Ibn al-Mutazz and the history of Arabic rhetoric in general was published posthumously in 1960. Jafar al-Baghdadi, whom he describes merely as a contemporary of Ibn al-Mutazz and the author of a work on rhetoric entitled Naqdal-shfr. Kratchkovsky himself admitted that the influence of Qudamah's Naqd al-shir was at least equal to that of Kitab al-Badi. The modern critic Muhammad Mandur seems to believe that it was the controversy over the appreciation of Abu Tammam's poetry which was Ibn al-Mutazz's principal motive in composing Kitab al- Badi. Arabic literature as the first critic to deal with literary theory and criticism in all its aspects. It must be admitted that, if these were Qudamah's intentions, he was to a large extent successful; his Naqd al-shir is quoted hardly less frequently than Kitab al-Badi.
  • 22 - Regional literature: Egypt
    pp 412-441
  • View abstract
    This chapter discusses some significant dates in Egyptian history which serve as appropriate terms of reference for the discussion of Egyptian literature. The existence of a genuinely regional literature, which in literary terms show no particular characteristics that would differentiate them from the common tradition of political poetry in the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods. The first two centuries of the Islamic era witnessed the growth of two main literary activities, in which Egypt played an important role: the sirah and fiqh. Historiography has always been the handmaid of politics, but contains, as well, the two basic elements of all literary production: entertainment and edification. From the third/ninth century, four trends combined, with varying emphasis, in shaping the poetic production of Arab Egypt. They are 'licentious' manner, the asceticism, the descriptive poetry, and panegyric. The long, turbulent years of the Crusades and the Tatar invasions is commemorated within the recognized forms of Arabic literature.
  • 23 - Regional literature: the Yemen
    pp 442-468
  • View abstract
    This chapter explores the Yemeni literature with the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. It shows how to identify dynasties, the main centres of their power and, where known, their politico-religious persuasions of early Yemeni history. From the third/ninth century onwards three main groupings, minor sects, heresies or splinter groups apart, began to take shape: Sunnis, Zaydis and Ismailis. The Yemen being a land of tribes unendingly engaged in warfare, verse from the Jahiliyyah onwards has a heroic quality and reflects the ethics of tribal concepts of honour. Humayni a term of unknown origin, comprises all popular verse on a wide range of themes, namely love poetry, Sufi mystical poetry, humorous poetry, and the zamil. A1i b. Muhammad al-Sulayhi tried to unite and stabilize the Yemen and conquered most of the petty sultanates. The chapter reviews the foreign intervention with the invasion of the Ayyubid Turanshah from Egypt and concluding with the fall of the Rasulid dynasty.
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