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An allegory from the Arabian nights: the City of Brass

  • Andras Hamori
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1 I am using the Macnaghten text, The Alif laila, Calcutta, 18391842, III, 83115. In some places the Habicht-Fischer edition, Tausvnd und eine Nacht, Breslau, 18251843, vi, 343401, is more complete, notably in the episode of the hill where the Calcutta text promises seven tablets but fails to deliver all of them. Macnaghten's version shows not only more polish but also a sharper sense for dramatic detail. Habicht, for instance, lacks the striking observations about the ladder or the palace halls in the City of Brass. The queen's name is, I think, correct in Habicht's text and garbled in Macnaghten's, cf. p. 18 below. In any ease, the differences between the two versions are not essential to the interpretation I am suggesting. Translators (Burton, Littmann, etc.) have generally followed Macnaghten and used Habicht to fill in lacunae.

The numbering of Qur'ān verses follows Flügels edition.

The ‘City of Brass’ is discussed at some length in Gerhardt, M. I., The art of story-telling Leiden, 1963, 195235, where valuable historical data may be found. The book's author and I are at complete variance in our evaluations of structure, cohesion, and meaning in the story.

2 Macnaghten, 85.

3 Gerhardt, , op. oit., 207.

4 The Faerie queene offers a good parallel. Guyon's progress through Phaedria's Island to Acrasia's Bower works this way, and so does Britomart's from Malecasta's pictures to Busirane's. Prefigurations give direction to our explorers' travels, and the same kind of thing happens to Spenser's protagonists on their rarely differentiated plain. The resulting feeling is described in Spenser's own line: For who can shun the chance that destiny doth ordaineFQ III, i, 37).

5 al-Hamadhānī, Ibn al-Faqīh, al-Buldān, ed. de Goeje, , Leiden, 1885, 90. Quoted in Gerhardt, , op. cit., 219–21.

6 cf. Gittin, 68b. It is debated whether Solomon was king and then commoner, or king, commoner, and king again. Raśhi, ad. loc, explains that only rule over the spirit world is meant. For the flawed figure of Solomon, , cf. Pesiqta rabbati, 6.4, to the effect that Solomon would be one of the kings without a share in the world to come if it were not for his building of the Temple. An early example of the motif of Solomon's decline can be found near the end of the ‘Testament of Solomon’, trans. Conybeare, F. C., JQR, xi, 1, 1898, 45: ‘my spirit was darkened, and I became the sport of idols and demons’;. For a more far-flung instance, cf. Lidzbarski, , Ginzā—der Schatz oder das grosse Buch der Mandäer, Göttingen, 1925, 28 and 46. In the Islamic version, Solomon does very well after recovering his ring, but a shadow remains. Cf.‘;Attār's reminder that Solomon entered paradise 500 years later than the other prophets because of his ring of power, Mantiq al-tair, ed. Gowharin, , Tehran, 1964, 51.

7 Tha‘labi, , Qisas al-anbiyā Būlāq, 1869, 253–6. The story is at times questioned, e.g., Zamakhsharī, . Kashshāf, to wa-la-qad fatannā Sulaimāna (iv, 94, in the Beirut, 1947, ed.). Zamakh-sharī actually implies that it was in some way Solomon's idea to have an image of the girl's father made (v. Tha'labī, where the girl asks for the image which she then secretly worships), but he still finds it difficult to accept the whole affair as moral justification for Solomon's punishment. There are, of course, other available explanations for the verse. Some commentators have no interest at all in the moral reasons for Solomon's fall, cf. Qummī, , ad. loc. (II, 236–7 in the Najaf, ed.).

8 In the quoted passage by Qummī, several rebellious demons are locked into rocks, and several into bottles after this incident.

9 Macnaghten, 101: wa-qad sawwara ’l-dunyā baina ’;ainaih. The phrase is missing in Habicht.

10 Macnaghten, 103.

11 It is interesting to contrast this motif with the belief that it is the bodies of the just which remain uncorrupted. For examples from midrash and hadīth, cf. Maeh, R., Der Zaddik in Talmud und Midrasch, Leiden, 1957, 169.

12 Macnaghten, 109; Habicht, 392–3.

13 Macnaghten, 108.

14 cf. Gerhardt, , op. cit., 216–21.

15 This motif is missing in Habicht's text.

16 Gerhardt, , op. cit., 205, is mistaken in considering the name arbitrary. For Solomon as the builder of Tadmur, cf. Yāqūt, Mu'jam al-buldān, ad. loc. Yāqūt's quotation from Nābigha Dhubyānī is no. 1, 11. 21–3, in Derenbourg's Paris, 1869, edition of the dīwān. Islamic lands may have been acquainted with versions of the Solomon legend in which rule over Tadmur is one of the stages in the shrinking of the king's power. Cf. Aggadat shir ha-shirim, 3.33–1, ed. Schechter, , JQR, VII, 1, 1894, 150. Referred to in Ginzberg, L., The legends of the Jews, vi, Philadelphia, 1928, 301.

The name Tadmura is also important for the provenience of the life-like queen motif, cf. p. 18 below.

17 Gerhardt, , op. cit., 205.

18 Macnaghten, 111, for instance.

19 The idea of spiritual provisions is not, of course, limited to Islam. Cf. Mach, , op. cit., 190–4.

21 For mystical initiation by Khidr, cf. Massignon, L., Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane, Paris, 1954, 131–2.

22 By itself, the death-in-life motif occurs in ethical contexts. Cf. Hujwīrī, , Kash f al-mahjūb, trans. Nicholson, , Leiden and London, 1911, 111: ‘God hath made the pious living in their death, and hath made the wicked dead during their lives’(quoted in Mach, , op. cit., 170). Esoteric uses of the motif are not particularly rare. For the story of the prince who mistakes a corpse for his bride, see p. 18 below. The Ismā'īlī Haft bāb describes the state of those who are not on the right path as ‘non-existence dissembling existence’ (nīstī-yi hastmānī), cf. Abū Ishāq Quhistānī, , Haft bāb, ed. and trans. Ivanow, W., Bombay, 1959, 49.

In an allegorical exegesis that is of some interest for unravelling our story, the same book equates pure food with a ta'wīl of the Qur'ān which is free of confusions caused by literal under-standing, zāhir (p. 56, to IV, 158). Ibn ‘Arabi's Tafsīr interprets the tayyibāt of IV, 158 as divine manifestations.

In Habicht's Karkar, a column of light rises from the sea on the night before Friday, and a man walks on the water, reciting a creed formula. These two motifs are definitely mystical (or theosophic). They are linked in one passage, for example, in the Kitāb al-mashāri‘wa ’l-mutārahāt, cf. al-Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā, Opera metaphysica et mystica, ed. Corbin, H., Istanbul, 1945, I, 505, and the commentary to ‘amūd al-ṣubh in the Kitāb al-talwīḥāt, p. 108 in the same volume.

23 cf. Andrae, T., ‘Der Ursprung des Islams und das Christentum’, Kyrkohistorisk Årsskrift XXIV, 1924, 271–2.

24 I do not mean that the world-renouncing aspect is invalidated, but that it is kept as a first level, while the story implies that one must pass beyond it. To see the world of experience as a sort of shell or model, and to realize that it is to the intelligible world as darkness is to light is the ‘first ascent’ (al-mi'rāj al-avnval) of the man starting out towards the divine presence, cf. Ghazālī, , Mishkāt al-anwār, Cairo, 1964, 50.

25 Ed. cit., 91.

26 cf. Qiṣṣat al-ghurba al-gharbīya, in Oeuvres philosophiques et mystiques de Shihabaddin Yahya Sohrawardi [Opera metaphysica et mystica, II], ed. Corbin, H., Tehran, 1952, 285.

27 Vol. II, pp. 303–5 in the Beirut, 1968, edition.

28 Mantiq al-tair, ed. cit., 35 (1. 612), and Ilāhīnāma, ed. Ritter, H., Istanbul, 1940, 289 (1. 12). Reference to the second passage in Ritter, H., Das Meer der Seele, Leiden, 1955, 625.

29 Ed. cit., II, 356.

30 cf. Goldziher, I., Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung, repr., Leiden, 1952, 244.

31 cf. ma'ād in Rasāil Ikhwān al-Safā, Beirut, 1957, iv, 50; or the Haft bāb, ed. cit., 47, and Dailamī's, Bayān madhhab al-bātinīya wa-butlānih, ed. Strothmann, , Istanbul, 1939, 37 and 78.

32 For the glazed floor, cf. Ibn ‘Arabl's Tafsir, ed. cit., II, 205, or Diyā' al-Dīn Ismā'īl ibn Hibatallāh al-Ismā'īlī al-Sulaimānī, Mizāj al-tasnim, ed. Strothmann as Ismailitischer Koran-Kommentar (Abh. Ak. Wiss. Gött., Phil.-hist. Kl., Dritte Folge, Nr. 31), Gottingen, 1944, 334.

The death of Tālib could be interpreted in various ways. Politically, for Ṭālib wants to earn the Umayyad Caliph's favour by making him a gift of the queen's jewels. Esoterically, if we take the amāna which Tālib breaks as an allusion to Qur'ān xxxni, 72. For amāna = ma'rifa, cf. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, al-Tafsīr al-kabīr, ad. loc. Admittedly, it is an old device of plots that only one of two bold heroes escaped unscathed; in this sense Ṭālib is of the line of Enkidu and Pirithous.

It is perhaps more than an accident that the queen is found in the seventh room of the palace, although the author does not mention the number.

Finally, although the City of Brass is traditionally placed in the Maghrib—which makes arguments about geographical symbolism unsafe—it is tempting to think that the author is telling us something by giving the name Tadmura (or keeping it if there is a separate prototype for her figure) to a Maghribī princess from beyond the desert of Qairawān, even though the name is clearly linked to Palmyra. Qairawān, according to the Burhān-i qāṭi', is among other things a term for the edges of the world; one is tempted to think of Alexander's search for the spring of life in the land of darkness. Quite specifically, in Suhrawardī's Qiṣṣat al-ghurba al-gharbīya, ed. cit., 277, Qairawān is al-qarya al-ẓālim ahluhā ‘the town of iniquitous inhabitants’(Qur'ān iv, 77) where the protagonist is held in captivity. The place is explained by the commentator: Qairawān ya'nī 'ālam va bi-zālim'ālamīyān khvāsta and ‘Qairawān means the world, and the people of the world are meant by “ the iniquitous”’. One wonders whether there is any implication that one must pass through the dark walls of the City of Brass before one may come to the Karkar of the mind. Was the route originally planned at all possible? Corbin interprets the barzakh in Avicenna's Risālat Hayy ibn Yaqzān as such a necessary passage through the dark, cf. Avicenna and the visionary recital, trans. Trask, , New York, 1960, 142 and 159, but against that view cf. Goichon, A.-M., Le récit de Hayy ibn Yaqẓān, Paris, 1959, 8690. The text of the passage in question is in Traités mystiques d'Abou Alî al-Hosain b. Abdallah b. Sînâ, ed. Mehren, M. A. F., Leiden, 1889, fasc. I, p. 8 of the Arabic text.

33 Gerhardt, , op. cit., 210–30.

34 al-Faqīh, Ibn, ed. cit., 8891.

35 Ed. cit., iv, 162–4. The story also occurs in ‘Aṭṭār's Ilāhīnāma, as pointed out by Ritter, , Meer, 47. The basic motif is wide-spread. For a curious example from Europe, cf. Nodier, C., Infernaliana, Paris, 1966, 96–7.

36 Jellinek, A., Bet ha-Midrasch, repr., Jerusalem, 1967, pt. v, pp. 22–6. Referred to in Ginzberg, , Legends, VI, 298.

37 Ed. cit., iv, 59. I think that, considering the Pure Brethren's predilection for allegorical tales, amthāl must mean ‘parables’ or ‘allegories’ here, and not ‘maxims’ (gnōmai). The latter are a means of the rhetorical method of taṣdīq according to Averroes. Cf. Wolfson, H. A., ‘The terms taṣawwur and taṣdīq in Arabic philosophy and their Greek, Latin and Hebrew equivalents’, Moslem World, xxxiii, 2, 1943, 118.

38 The Iranian tradition of the Brazen Hold seems to have no direct bearing on our tale. The travellers'route is unlike the seven stages Isfandiyār must traverse. Sinbādh, (Siyāsatnāma, 45) proclaimed that Abū Muslim, the Mahdī, and Mazdak were waiting to return together from a brazen fort, but our City is anything but Messīanic. On the Iranian motif, cf. Czegledy, K., ‘Bahrām Čōbin and the Persian apocalyptic literature’, Acta Orientalia Acad. Sci. Hung., VIII, 1, 1958, 2143.

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