Maqamah is an old story in prose interspersed with poetry about the hero who is involved in different adventures. Towards the end of the story he disappears to show up in another guise in the next Maqamah (maqamah is singular from maqamat). So Maqamat is the collection of separate stories with unity in subject. Hariri’s Maqamat is one of the outstanding literary works of Arabic literature written in the 5th century.
Hariri, whose full name was Abu Muhammad Al-Qasim ibn Ali Al-Hariri Al-Basri Al-Harami, completed his Maqamat in the year 504/1111. Maqamat then received immediate acceptance when Hariri brought it up from Basra to Baghdad in the same year of the book completion. Nevertheless, Al-Hamadhani is the author of some excellent Maqamat which Al-Hariri took as a model for his. Al-Hamadhani was the true originator of the Maqamat literary genre. On the other hand, Al-Hariri’s Maqamat surpassed Al-Hamadhani’s in quality. The Maqamat genre have only one hero and one narrator (rawi) who are set in an elegant and realistic background that makes Maqamat highly comprehensive. It was meant for wise and eloquent people since the author composed the text using literary stile with rare words and phrases, remarkable idioms, proverbs and poetry.
Since the pre-Islamic period, the Arabs have appreciated true poetry. Some of them knew by heart and could repeat hundreds of poems, whilst could quote verses descriptive of every part of the camel or horse or in praise or defamation of multitudinous tribes. Some others professed to explain the origin of innumerable proverbs and sayings. As it was discussed in the Introduction blog post, this tradition remained and human memories were exercised on a poetic production which formed a mass of literature of vast magnitude.
Al-Hariri produced fifty Maqamat as models of accuracy in series of rhythmical and metrical anecdotes to embody all the refinements of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and tradition which the author’s extensive education could supply. The celebrity of Al-Hariri’s Maqamat is mostly due to its consummate literary form. Hariri’s Maqamat are prized as a unique monument of Arabic language, antiquities and culture.
The historical origin of Hariri’s Maqamat is factual. When the armies of crusaders had forced their way into Syria and carried on war against Muslims, as consequence many people were homeless and driven to exile and poverty. One of them, a stranger of Saruj one day entered the Mosque of Banu Haram in Basra where Hariri was sitting with his companions. The stranger was an old man with old garments and other signs of poverty, but he excited the curiosity of Hariri and his friends by the fluency and eloquence of his address, in which he related the destruction of his city, the loss of his daughter and his own exile. After this, Hariri went home and wrote Al-Maqama Al-Haramiyya.
Few works of Arabic literature occupy such an important place as the Maqamat by Hariri. This Hariri’s masterpiece is the second to the Qur’an in terms of the sheer number of commentaries written on the subject. The literary complexity and trans-textual aspect belong to the main beauties of the Maqamat. These two characteristics can partly be attributed to Hariri’s background as philologist and grammarian.
The literary character of Abu Zayd played a key role in Al-Hariri’s success since it personified the type that assimilated many of the most gifted and cultivated minds of that period in terms of literary taste and virtue.
After publication of Al-Maqama Al-Haramiyya in Baghdad it was read and greatly enjoyed by one of the viziers of Caliph al-Mustarshid Billahi who then commissioned Al-Hariri to write another thirty nine Maqamat. There were so popular in Baghdad that some people rose doubts about their authenticity. As a result Al-Hariri was challenged to write another Maqamah at once, in front of vizier. After forty days in Baghdad he was still unable to write and was withdrawn back to Basra ashamed where he immediately wrote another ten completing the total number of fifty Maqamat.
Each of the Maqamat shares similar premise. Every story begins with the protagonist’s narration of particular incident that he witnessed.
As Al-Hariri himself wrote, Maqamat serve a moral purpose and are as useful and instructive as the tales of Kalila wa Dimna. Nevertheless, Al-Hariri’s writing main purpose was not only to show off potentials of Arabic language, but also to amuse and entertain readers.
Such was the success of Hariri’s Maqamat that they were subsequently translated into Hebrew by the Andalusian poet Judah ibn Shlumu Al-Harizi (1165-1225) as well as into a lot of other languages such as Syriac, Persian, Latin, French, German and English.
After Hariri’s death, his Maqamat became favored mode of belletristic expression in Arabic language. For nine centuries the Maqamat were considered to be the chosen genre by Arab writers looking for a right way for writing about wide range of subjects.
Al-Hariri’s model that is explicitly built upon Al-Hamadhani’s, became the representative model of maqamat to such extent that it pushed aside other models of the maqamah which were neglected and forgotten.
The genre of linked narratives in rhymed prose known as Maqamat was widely imitated throughout the Arabic-speaking world for centuries, till the beginning of 20th century. Al-Hariri’s ornamental style is still appreciated as a masterpiece of classical Arab literature, although no longer being imitated by writers. The issue of fiction associated with the genre of linked stories, and al-Hariri and al-Hamadhani in particular, has taken on a new significance in modern Arab literature. Many critics reject the idea that narrative fiction in Arabic-speaking world is exclusively imported from the West. The classical forms of fiction, especially the orally transmitted Thousand and One Nights and the written genre of linked stories in rhymed prose known as the maqamat, constitute an Arab fiction tradition that is independent from Western influence.
The origin of Kalila wa Dimna is the ancient Indian book called ‘Panchatantra’ which was first translated by a young Indian physician called Borzoyeh Tabib (Doctor) Marwazi commissioned by Anu Sharwān Khosrow the son of Qabād the Sāsāni king but Borzoyeh did add more tales most of them from other Indian legends.
After the islamization of Iran Ibn al Muqaffa translated the book into Arabic and called it the Kalila wa Dimna that was based upon the original Farsi and this Arabic rendition. Out of this translation, the legends were translated into many other languages. During the reign of the Sāmānian, ‘Abu ‘Abdallah Roodaki translated (320 HQ or 900 CE) the Ibn al Muqaffa’s version into versed Farsi poetry. And during the reign of the Bahrām Shah Ghaznavi a writer called Manshā’ again translated the Ibn al Muqaffa’s version into Farsi prose (not versed one).
Kalila wa Dimna were taught from the king’s courts down to the grammar schools indeed as a manual for teaching wisdom and conduct in the society.
There is hardly any other literary work in the World that has penetrated so deeply in many cultures encompassing almost every continent of the World. During last 1500 years there are more than 200 translations of Panchatantra in around 60 languages of the world. ‘Aesop fables’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and great many of Western nursery rhymes and ballads have their origin in Panchatantra and Jataka stories. In European countries there is so much of migration and borrowing of stories over many centuries, making it difficult to finalize their origin at one location in Europe. However, mostly, their Indian origins are not disputable. Traditionally in India it is believed that Panchatantra was composed around 3rd century BC. Modern scholars depending on references to earlier Sanskrit works in Panchatantra assign the period of 3rd to 5th Century CE for its composition in today’s form. The author of Panchatantra is not known.
History and Migration of the Core Set of Stories – Panchatantra
Panchatantra migrated to Iran in the 6th century CE. The story is well known. Burzoe, a physician at the court of Sassanian king Anushirvan (531-571 c.CA), was sent to India in search of Sanjivani herb. In search of this medicine he traveled a lot in India and brought Panchatantra to Iran, which he translated into Pahlavi and entitled it Kalilah wa Dimnah. This is the first known translation of Panchatantra into any foreign language. It is not available now but translation done into old Syrian language in 570 CE made by a Nestorian Christian called Bud, was discovered in a monastery in Mardin, Turkey in 1870 CA. The title of this book is Kalilag andDamanag, which is the Syrian version of Karataka and Damanaka, of the two jackals in the first Tantra of Sanskrit Panchatantra. This Syrian version was edited and translated into German in 1876 CE by Bickell and then again by Schulthess in 1911CE. Syrian translation is very close to Tantrakhyayika in many respects. The next important translation of Panchatantra was done two centuries later in Baghdad, in 750 CE. Abdallah ibn al-Moquaffa a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, working in the court of Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur translated it from Pahlavi. Moquaffa is credited with intellectual and literary development of Arabic prose. His Panchatantra translation enjoyed great popularity and is considered as master piece of Arabic narrative literature. Almost all pre-modern translations of Panchatantra in Europe have their roots in his Arabic translation. From Arabic it was translated again into Syrian language in 10th/11th century CE and into Greek in the 11th century CE. 12th century CE Hebrew translation made by Rabbi Joel was translated into Latin by John of Capua around 1263-1278 CE which got printed in 1480 CE. From this Latin translation Doni translated it into Italian. This book was printed in 1552 CE. La Fontaine’s collection of fables titled ‘Fables of Bidpai’ in French got published in 1678-9 CE in four volumes. In the introduction of his second volume he has acknowledged his indebtedness to Indian Sage Pilpay for inspiration. Many Subhashitas and Jataka stories have migrated to West and have formed an inseparable part of European secular and religious literature including Bible. Panchatantra in its German translation was the first Indian and probably second book after Bible published by Gutenberg press in 1483 CE. Panchatantra had earlier migrated to Tibet, China and Mongolia and almost all South Eastern countries. In Java there are versions available in old Javanese language known as Tantri Kamandaka, composed in 1031 CE. Relatively less work and critical study is available on these works.
Panchatantra has inspired many artists and there are many Persian and Arabic miniatures, wall paintings and Vases decorated with stories from Panchatantra or various versions of Kalilah wa Dimnah. In Sri-Lanka, a fragment of second or third century CE Indian red polished ware exhibiting crocodile-monkey story has been unearthed. 7th century CE Mamallapuram rock relief has Panchatantra stories and tenth century Bengal Temple has them on molded terra cotta plaques. A 12th century CE Vishnu temple ceiling at Mandapur also is decorated with Panchatantra stories. In Central Asia, at Panjikent 7th and 8th century CE Soghdian artists have decorated walls of their houses with Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables. The artistic penetration of Jataka/Panchatantra tales and their translated versions are fascinating and textual and artistic expressions which should be studied together. In the preface of Kalila wa Dimnah, Ibn al Muqaffa mentions that the reasons for paintings in his text was to provide pleasure to the reader and also to make the reader more aware of the book’s value. Another artwork which became very popular was created by Husain bin ‘Ali-al-Waiz al Kashifi, titled Anwar-i-suhaili at Herat in 1504 CE. This work was very popular in Persian intellectual circle then. For some time this Text was taught to British officials of the East India Company at the East India College, Haileybury during the second half of the 19th century. Abul Fazl in 1588 CE under the instructions of Mughal Emperor Akabar produced another Persian version entitled, Iyar-i-Danish (Criterion of Knowledge. 12th century CE Shuka Saptati, another artwork of Katha literature written in classical Sanskrit was adapted into Persian in 1329 CE. Author Ziya al-din Nakhshabi entitled his translation as Tutinamah. It was translated into German in 1822 CE and subsequently into many other European languages including English by F.Gladwin. Cleveland Museum of Art has some of the best paintings of Tutinama manuscript. In India, Panchatantra stories have become the part of temple architecture along with Ramayana and Mahabharata stories.
In the Colonial period Sir William Jones used the Sanskrit text of Hitopadesha for learning Sanskrit and translation practice, as he was familiar with the Turkish version which was translated into French language. He mentions Panchatantra and Niti Shastra in his address given to Asiatic society of Bengal in the year 1786 CE. His translation of Hitopadesha was published posthumously in his Works. However, Wilkins’ English translation of Hitopadesha was published earlier in the year 1787 CE. H.H. Wilson wrote on Hindu Fiction but not on Panchatantra or Hitopadesha specifically. We owe our debt to Max Muller, Buhler, and Kielhorn for their valuable contribution to some facets of this literature and also to Sternbach for his valuable contributions to Subhashitas. Many Indian, German, English and American scholars have critically edited and helped to preserve this voluminous literature for posterity.
However, Panchatantra was translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1570 CE from the Italian translation done by Doni in 1552 CE. Joseph Jacobs in his introduction to North’s English translation mentions about twenty translations of various versions of Panchatantra in Europe. British Library catalog lists about nine popular editions of the Fables of Pilpay published during seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE and only three in the nineteenth century CE indicating decline in its popularity.
Panchatantra was not the only text translated in the sixth century CE. It was the beginning of the translation era. Chess, medical, toxicological and literally many mathematical Sanskrit texts were translated to Persian and Arabic languages. This knowledge enrichment movement lasted till 12th to 13th Century CE. It started in 5th & 6th Century CE at Jundishapur, Iran in pre-Islamic times, continued in Umayyadi Damascus, Syria and further in Abbasid Baghdad in Iraq in 8th to 10th century CE with the formation of Bait al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). Along with Sanskrit texts many Greek texts were also translated into Persian and Arabic. This was a golden period of Islamic civilization while Europe was in dark period. In 14th Century CE at Toledo, Spain started latinization of this knowledge, which helped Europe to launch the scientific revolution in 16th Century CE and also laid the foundation of Renaissance. This was also the beginning of Westernization and Hellenization of Sciences and further of Orientalism. This transfer of knowledge to Europe from India via Persia/Syria/ Iraq route is known, documented but not well communicated or reflected satisfactorily till today. These translations and borrowings were not without additions, deletions and cultural corrections. Today’s insistence on universality or unity of science may be politically correct but such assumptions or presuppositions numb our inquiry apparatus towards earlier non European civilizations. It also blinds us towards cultural moorings of science on which was founded the epistemology of science of those respective cultures. Study of Subhashitas and Panchatantra is no exception to this.
Famous historiographer Ibn Khaldun described Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan’s generosity: One may compare the gifts Ibn Dhi Yazan presented to the Qurashite ambassadors. He gave each of them ten pounds (ritl) of gold and silver, and ten slaves and maidservants and one flask of ambergris. To ‘Abd Al-Muttalib he gave ten times as much. Ibn Dhi Yazan’s realm, as it was located in the Yemen, was under the complete control of the Persians at that time. His generosity, however, was caused by high-mindedness, which stemmed from the royal authority that his family, the Tubba’s, has possessed in the Yemen and from the superiority they had once exercised over the nations of two Iraqs, India and the Maghrib. (Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, I, 360)
Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan (سيف بن ذي يزن), of the Himyarite royal line, played an important role in Arabian history in the expulsion of the Abyssinians from South Arabia when they had held away since the time of Dhu Nuwas. A member of the former royal family of the Yemen, Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, was obliged to expel foreigners from his country and reestablish his ancestors’ dynasty. He started a freedom movement, but when local support proved insufficient for the achievement of his aims, he went to the Persian king in search of military support. Native traditions records that he first sought assistance against the foreign yoke of the Abyssinians at the Byzantine court and later at the court of Persian Khusraw. Khusraw, however, would not risk anything in an enterprise with such hopeless prospects, so he just gave to Sayf a number of criminals out of the jails under a leader whose name was Wahriz in order to assist him. The Abyssinians under Masruk were defeated and driven out of the country and Sayf was installed by the Persians as king.
From this tradition and several Arabic poems, it was concluded that Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan conquered the Abyssinians with the help of the Persian king Khusraw Anushirwan, broke their rule over Yemen and held away over the land of his ancestors under a Persian protectorate. His victory over the Abyssinians may be dated about 570 AD.
After Yazan was installed as king, he was killed by Ethiopian slaves and the Persian army returned bringing southern Arabia under Persian rule and it belonged to the Persian Empire until the time of the prophet Muhammad.
Story of Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan was studied and transmitted among the Muslims from the beginning of the Islamic era. The hero is portrayed as a Muslim warrior of the time before the advent of Islam who fights successfully against pagans establishing the dominion of Islam. He is one of the first genuine Arab heroes. In the romance Sirat Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan the war between the Muslim Arabs and Abyssinians occupies considerable space. The king of Abyssinia, whose conflict with Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan runs throughout the text of the romance, gives a clue of the date of origin of the sirat. In the story he is called Saif Ar’ad and corresponds to the Ethiopian king Saifa Ar’ad who reigned in Abyssinia 1344-72. From this reference it is possible to deduce that the existing versions of the Sirat date from 15th century, during the Mamluk period. However, whole romance did not arose at the same time; some parts were composed and put into circulation earlier. Egypt is the place of origin of the romance or, more precisely, Cairo.
Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan lived in the pre-Islamic period. Like his father Dhu Yazan, he was convicted of the truth of Islam before Muhammad and was won over to the new religion. In place of Muhammad, who had not been yet appeared, in the profession of faith, there is the prophet Ibraheem. In such a way we see that the purpose of the war was the gaining of recognition for the unity of Allah and recognition of the mission of His prophet Ibraheem.
In the romance there are the records of the origins of famous towns, places and buildings, of the bringing of the river Nile into Egypt, numerous travels and adventures, splendid buildings, regions and men that are described in such a picturesque way. Countless are the magic treasures mentioned in the course of the story. The magicians form the greatest obstacle to the believers and Al-Khidr, the helper of Muslims, who regularly overcomes powers of the magicians. This hero and Yemeni ruler traveled throughout ancient Egypt observing the architectural styles and religious rituals. Throughout the romance we find descriptions of ancient Egyptian motifs such as the pursuit for the Book of the Nile as well as the words and names that belong to the pagan Egyptian era, such as that of the sky goddess Nut.
Sirat Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan gives the truthful image of the life in Egypt at the end of Middle Ages and forms valuable historical source.
Sultan Baybars Mosque in Cairo
This was not merely a man, it was the sultan Al-Malik, Al-Zahir Rukn al-Dunia wal-Din Abu l-Fath Baybars whose swords were the keys to kingdoms, whose standards were like hills and the spears that rose above them were like fires whose duty it was command men. ( Les trois vies du sultan Baibars, Imprimerie nationale, “Collection orientale,” Texts chosen and arranged by J. SUBLET (ed.), Paris, 1992, p.124.)
Baybars I (Baybars), full name – al-Malik al-Zahir Rukn al-duniya wa-d-Din Baybars al-Bundukdari al-Salih
(Arabic: الملك الظاهر ركن الدين بيبرس البندقداري
1223 or 1225 – July 1, 1277, Damascus) – Mamluk sultan of Egypt and Syria (1260-1277) from dynasty Bahritov. He is known for his war successes in Palestine and Syria against the Mongol Ilkhanid and European crusaders.
Baybars al-Bunduqdari was very influential leader who established strong foundation for the Mamluk rule in Egypt. He was a successful statesman and warrior. Also, he united Syria and Hijaz with Egypt, conquered important lands from Crusaders, raided Little Armenia, and expanded Mamluk rule to Nubian territory. Ruling from 1260 to 1277, Baybars instituted many reforms, infrastructure projects, and pious foundations that created the groundwork for the Mamluk state.
There is debate on the origin of Baybars. According to the standard version, Baybars was born in the Dasht-i-Kipchak north of the Black Sea. 14th century Egyptian historian al-Aini in his book al-Juman Ikdu fi Tarikh Ahl al-Azman (“Pearl Necklace of the inhabitants of the time”) reports: “Abdullah bin Baybars, nationality Kipshak, belongs to the great Turkic tribe by name Bursch.” According to Al-Nuvayri, Baybars was a Turk, and came from tribe Elbarly.
It is believed that the birthplace of the Sultan were the Crimean steppes. By becoming the Sultan Baybars sent rich gifts in the Crimean city of Solkhat, where he ordered a mosque to be built. The ruins of the oldest mosque in the Crimea, anciently called the mosque of Baybars, are preserved in Old Crimea today. Local legend says that the Sultan thus preserved the memory of himself in his homeland.
In his work ‘Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians’, scientist Lane who explores the phenomenon of the storytellers and who translated one fragment of ‘Sirat Al-Malik Al-Zahir Baybars’, distinguishes three main kinds of storytellers: Sho’ara who were specialized in ‘Abu Zayd’ (Sirat Bani Hilal) recitation, Mohadditeen who were specialized in ‘Sirat al-Malik al-Zahir Baybars’ recitation, and Anatireh or Antereeyeh specialized in recitation of Sirat Antara.
This approach, qualified as historical philology, was represented by majority of 20th century Orientalists.
Sirat Baybars – the story name comes from the main character, Mamluk sultan Baybars 1st. Baybars’ rule lasted from 1260 to 1277 and the Sirat which was written down during 16th century, could be interpreted as sirat of consolation glorifying past events. Whole text was printed in Cairo 1908-1909 in 10 volumes and 1923-1926. The first one was edited in Cairo by writer Gamal al-Ghitani.
In order to establish the time, place and social context of the genesis of a text like it is the Sirat Baybars, we must rely on the indirect evidences provided by the text itself, such as specific references to the social or political points of view of the story creators.
Sirat Baybars is a composite text in which three layers of text development can be distinguished; those layers originated in three different eras and social environments that merged in a process we can no longer reconstruct.
The sirat seems to have been inspired by the spirit of the second half of the thirteenth century, the early period of the Mamluk Empire.
Even though shown as a military slave, Baybars was, according to sirat, born as a Muslim, as a son of the king of Khorosan and he was enslaved after betrayal of his brothers.
Baybars does not stay a slave for a long time. In Damascus a rich widow “adopts” him because he resembles her deceased son. She names him after her son Baybars and makes him the master of her fortune. It is in Damascus that the four aqtab, in Sufi belief the mystical poles of the universe, appear to Baybars and pray for him. It was also in Damascus that during the Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Destiny, in which people believe that God determines the human fate for the following year, the gates of heaven opened to Baybars. He was told that he would become the ruler of Egypt and Syria. After his arrival to Cairo, Baybars’s social ranking quickly rises. First, he becomes commander of a Mamluk regiment and governor of several provinces. Finally, Baybars is “adopted” by the Ayyubid sultan al-Salih and his wife Shajarat al-Durr, in order to recover a double royal descent, that of his father, king of Khorosan, and that of al-Salih Ayyub, the last great Ayyubid on the throne of Egypt.
Al-Zahir Baybars was the true founder of the Mamluk state and one of the most important sultans of Egypt and Syria. That was the reason for him to be treated by many writers through the history who describe Baybars’ life and the character.
In the main official biography, written by Muhyi al-Din ibn ‘Abd al-Zahir, Baybars is presented as a perfect leader. On the other hand, some of the writers from the fourteenth century, such as Shafi ibn ‘Ali, Baybars Al-Mansuri and Al-Nuwayri, emphasize his tyrannical nature. Some of late Mamluk historians like Al-Maqrisi, Al-Ayni or Ibn Taghribirdi present Baybars as great ruler talking, at the same time, about some of his shortcomings.
Ibn ‘Abd al-Zahir, who wrote official ruler’s biography, presented him as an ideal leader and soldier ignoring events that might have tarnished his image. His story about Baybar’s life focuses at military successes and victories, sultan’s piety and his service to Islam.
Ibn Daniyal’s Poem in Response to Sultan Baybars’ Campaign against Vice
Sultan Baybars’ campaign against vice, namely drugs, wine drinking and prostitution, in Cairo (launched in Sha’ban 665/May 1267) is known as one of the most ‘colorful’ episodes of his legacy. Poet Ibn Daniyal versed a famous poem in response to the sultan’s prohibition. Ibn Daniyal was an oculist and entertainer known for his shadow plays and witty poetry.
Sultan Baybars – in the Memory
The madrassa (school) and two mosques were built in Baybar’s name: the mosque at Husayniyya, and another, larger mosque built in southern Cairo in 1273, of which there are no existing remains. In 1267, four years after the construction of the Madrasa in the middle of the old Fatimid city, Baybars began construction on the mosque at Husayniyya, at the northern edge of Cairo. This mosque was the first mosque of the Mamluk period and the first Friday mosque to be built in Cairo in a hundred years. Sultan Baybars was responsible for organising the restoration of Cairo’s al-Hakim mosque after it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1303.
There are several contemporary texts that treat Sultan Baybars’ life. In the story written by Robert E. Howard “The Sowers of the Thunder” (1932), Baybars and other historical figures are presented along with fictional characters.
Emshan – the story by Soviet writer Maurice Simashko was based on Baybars’ life. The same story was the basis for the movie “Baybars – Sultan Baybars” produced in 1989 by Kazakhfilm studio and directed by Tatar director Bulat Mansurov.
Baybars was one of the protagonists of the novels by English writer Robin Young “Secret Brotherhood” (Brethren, 2006), and “Crusade” (Crusade, 2007).
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an belongs today to British Library’s collection of Qur’ans. It is the most magnificent examplar of the collection, in seven volumes, written in gold “…has a superb frontispiece combining intricate geometric patterns with ornamental script.” (British Library: Online Gallery: Sacred Texts)
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an.Calligraphy by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, illumination by Muhammad ibn Mubadir and Aydughdi ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Badri, Cairo, AD 1304
British Library Add. MS. 22406, ff.2v-3
“Achilles of Arab heroic era, author of one of the Seven Muallaqa, Antara Ibn Sheddad, squawks in his poem that anything hasn’t left being not versed by poets before him. This incomparable cavalier of heroic era but also the poet whose poem was ranked as one of the best in the Arab literature history, he was brave enough to sing the poem despite the awareness that virtuous poets had already treated every possible subject. (…) … before him and his poem, there were a lot of poets; his (i.e. Antara’s) own poem, as poetically mature artifact, imply that it was preceded by appreciable poetic proficiency or tradition… In fact, pre-Islamic Arab poetry, according to many philologists is questionable when it comes to its authenticity; a lot of Orientalists worked very hard in order to prove that pre-Islamic Arab poetry had not existed at all.” (‘Prolegomena of Oriental-Islamic Literature History’ by Dr. Esad Duraković, Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at The Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Antara Ibn Sheddad, poet and warrior from the 6th century who was born as the son of a black female slave, became glorified not only by his noble reputation, but also as the symbol of chivalrous honor.
Antara’s biography, as he was a historical figure, if based just upon positive facts is quite deficient. Although his father was one of the most respected people of the Abs tribe, thanks to his mother’s status he spent his childhood as a slave shepherd. He was strong and adroit fighter who dominated the intertribal fights. As a result he gained his freedom and glory. This biographical skeleton got soon clothed with numerous legends about his knightly feats, about his beloved Abla and futile attempts to attract her. Famous by his extraordinary heroism, he became famous by his verses as well. The qasida versed by Antara immediately before the War of Dahis entered the corpus of ‘Muallaqa’, ‘The Seven Golden Odes’ of pre-Islamic Arab literature. Fragments of legends and verses gathered around Antara hero resulted in the formation of a famous epic poem. That was the proof that a man by his own wisdom could overcome all kind of barriers.
Epic Poem about Antara
When it comes to the size and recording of these traditions, there are many different and conflicting opinions. In some editions this epic poem encompasses thousands of pages collected in several volumes. Edition by Yusuf ibn Ismail is the basis for all later editions, which are mostly extracts of Yusuf ibn Ismail’s editions.
Classical epic theme, the war between the tribes, known as Ayyamu al-Arab, qualifies this poem as epics par excellence. This inter-tribal “skirmishes” with the raids, rapine, interception, knightly honor and prey gaining constitute typical epic situation. There is, of course, indispensable a hero’s darling girl; in order to marry her Antara is ready to fulfill all kinds of impossible feats. Besides, we must keep in mind that Antara is neither Achilles, nor Orlando; he inherited particularities of an Arabian way of life, understanding of reality and time, as well as of common social norms, but like any epic character he carries a trace of the community spirit. Subject of tribal warfare for honor is not chosen by accident. An individual, living in such kind of environment, can succeed only by fighting.
The importance of the collective, as the supreme value, to which everything must conform and adapt, is also characteristic of the epic tradition. However, the uniqueness and beauty of this tendency, when it comes to this very epic poem, lie in the fact that nowhere else like in a desert which is Antara’s home, the community is so vitally important, in the literal sense. One excommunicated from his tribe, from the collective, is doomed to failure unless if he manages to be accepted by the other community. Interests and honor of the tribe are the main issues. We can understand the importance of the tribe inside of this context from the fact that the poem begins not with the main character, hero Antara, but by glorification of his tribe:
Abs tribe settlements were stretched widely around the field with running water in the area of Najd, in the heart of Arabian peninsula, northerly from Medina, precisely northeast of Medina. Despite Antara’s wisdom, martial arts and poetic talents, he would never managed to gain the freedom if he did not put all that to service of the tribe and tribal interests. The tribesmen, except a few sincere friends, of the dark-skinned hero Antara suffer just for one reason: he (i.e. Antara) is able to provide the loot, reputation and strength to the tribe better than anyone else.
Focusing at the central epic motifs: war and love, we recognize another epic quality – repetition. Whether we come to numerous duels, seizure, litigations or disagreements with uncle with whose daughter Abla Antara is in love … there are cyclically repeated three types of circumstances and events:
- Antara faces animosity of the tribe; his love with Abla is impossible due to his origin. This by default happens during periods of peace and prosperity.
- The territory, cattle, reputation or safety of the tribe are endangered; tribesmen ask for help from him promising him freedom; his uncle (out of fear or persuaded by others) promises to let Antara to marry Abla.
- With the help Antara tribe Abs wins but the tribesmen fail on promises and uncle conceives a new impossible mission for Antara in order to gain the time to engage Abla with another man.
When it comes to the selection of the main characters, even though Antara and his brother Shaybub are slaves, an epic pursuit of “greatness” is favored. The epic poem about Antara abounds with the adventures whose protagonists are kings, princes, their governors, most prominent heroes, etc. So Antara and his brother, as being the prominent warriors, do not violate this rule.
In addition to the above, morality and knightly honor, codes of conduct that must be respected and that are to be violated only by the traitors, objectivity and depth of the storytelling are the classic components of an epopee that this epic poem, in many ways special and unique, adheres to.
 The qaṣīdaᵗ (also spelled qaṣīda; in Arabic: قصيدة, plural qasā’id, قــصــائـد; in Persian: قصیده or چكامه, chakameh), is a form of lyric poetry that originated in preIslamic Arabia. Well known qasā’idinclude the Qasida Burda (“Poem of the Mantle”) by Imam al-Busiri and Ibn Arabi’s classic collection “The Interpreter of Desires”. The classic form of qasida maintains a single elaborate metre throughout the poem, and every line rhymes. It typically runs more than fifty lines, and some times more than a hundred. It was adopted by Persian poets, where it developed to be some times longer than a hundred lines.
 War of Dahis - famous Forty Years’ War between the tribes of Abs and Dhobyan.
 Ayyam al-Arab - (literally, days of the Arabs), one of the early Arabian epic genres, describes the wars among and within the tribes and the adventures of the heroes. The Ayyam al-Arab were composed by the bedouin of Arabia during the fifth through seventh centuries. Individual chronicles are tales in prose, interspersed with verses attributed to the heroes.
 Par excellence – Being a quintesential example of the kind in question.
 Achilles – In Greek mythology, Achilles (Greek: Ἀχιλλεύς, Akhilleus, pronounced ak’illews) was a Greek hero of the Trojan War and the central character and greatest warrior of Homer’s Iliad.
 Orlando/Roland (Frankish: Hruodland) (died 14 August 778) was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne who became one of the principal figures in the literary cycle as Matter of France.
What do you think about Antara and his adventures?
“The ancient poetry of Arabia; immediately before the advent of Mohammed, is the most delightful wild flower of literature the Eastern world can show. … this has the fugitive beauty of the lily of the field, nay, of something wilder still, the flower of no field at all but of the naked desert, which after the spring rain is clothed for an instant with diminutive strange blossoms peculiar to itself and which are seen no more.“ (‘The Seven golden Odes’ of pagan Arabia, also known as The Moallakat, translated by Lady Anne Blunt and rendered into English verse by Wilfrid Scawin Blunt)
In the West, popular Arab literature, as opposed to the classical literature, is primarily known to the public through ‘Thousand and One Nights’. The main reason is the huge success of the first French translation by Antoine Galland published in Paris between 1703 and 1713 under the title The Thousand and One Nights, Arabic tales. A century later, in 1811, Jonathan Scott offers the public a new English translation, based on the previous one and not on the Arab original. In the following decades, many other translations will emerge, in French and in English again, but also in German and even Danish.
Arab culture covers huge area from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west. It is centered in the Middle East and extents into a significant part of Northern Africa.
There are two important points that must be emphasized when it comes to the Arab literature research. The first point is the fact that in this area lie at least two focal points of global human civilization development, Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, whose cultural sweep was inherited by the successors, namely Arab and Persian culture of today. Another point that must be taken into consideration for this kind of research is the fact that these two cultures, Arab and Persian, have been target to suppression done by European scholarship promoting concept of Orientalism. Talking about this process of ‘orientalisation’ that was accomplished over European western understanding of Arab and Persian world as well as over these two cultures themselves (namely Arab and Persian culture) which began to understand themselves as strange and unworthy, hence talking about that process we must draw reader’s attention to the work of Edward Said, Palestinian-American literary theoretician who successfully uncovered above mentioned trend. At the very beginning of this essay we must accentuate that the roots of today’s Arab and Persian culture go back much deeper into past compared to the roots of European culture (it has been understand, by default, that the roots of European culture and history go back to Classical Greek and Roman culture and civilization).
After we have lighted upon these ‘dark’ zones in understanding of ‘Oriental’ culture and eventually the ‘Oriental’ literature, we must emphasize quite different development of the Arab literature compared to the European literature. While we can follow the development of European literature from the Ancient Hellenic epopee to the ancient tragedy and comedy that later produced all today known literary genres of the Western world, Arab literature of pre-Islamic and early Islamic era had different genealogy.
Arab epic literature encompasses epic poetry and epic fantasy. The Arab epics appear in oral as well as in written medium. In the oral-generated form, the texts are performed by illiterate singers (rawy) often accompanied with rabab, one-stringed violin held upright on the knee. In the semi-literate form the epics are read aloud from written versions by an urban story teller at the public places. The most common written pieces of Arab epics are slim manuscript booklets from which the storytellers read to the audience. In these manuscripts storytellers are presented as authors of the narratives. Whole storytelling performance is presented, it is literally transmitted from the public place into manuscript.
… to be continued
- How Many People Use Arabic Today?
Arabic is the native language of 220 million people living in 22 Arab countries. It was declared an official language of the UN in January 1974. The 6 official languages at the UN are: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Arabic is also the language in which Islam’s holy book, the Quran, was revealed. Hence, it is the liturgical language of the nearly one billion Muslims around the world, who comprise 20% of the world’s population. Muslims today are spread across more than 60 countries.
- What is Classical Arabic?
- What is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)?
- What is Colloquial Arabic?
- What Has Made it Possible to preserve Classical Arabic for so Long?
The fact that a language has survived for fourteen hundred years, over such a vast area of land, and spoken by so many different people is a miracle in its own right.
What has stood against the fragmentation of Classical Arabic into different languages?
The presence of the Classical Arabic ‘model’ document – the sacred Quran. The Quran has driven Muslims to learn Arabic; it has been read, recited, analyzed and studied by all Muslims throughout the centuries. The establishment of codified rules for Classical Arabic and the great emphasis given to mastering these rules were instrumental factors in the continued survival of the language.