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Classical Arabic Literature

Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology

selected and translated by Geert Jan van Gelder
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    Classical Arabic Literature
    Book Description:

    A major achievement in the field of translation, this anthology presents a rich assortment of classical Arabic poems and literary prose, from pre-Islamic times until the 18th century, with short introductions to guide non-specialist students and informative endnotes and bibliography for advanced scholars. Like many pre-modern Arabic anthologies it aims at being both entertaining and informative. It ranges from the early Bedouin poems with their evocation of desert life to refined urban lyrical verse, from tender love poetry to sonorous eulogy or vicious lampoons, and from the heights of mystical rapture to the frivolity of comic verse. The prose contains anecdotes, entertaining or edifying tales and parables, a fairy-tale, a bawdy story, samples of literary criticism, and much more. With this anthology, distinguished Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder brings together well-known texts as well as less familiar pieces that will be new even to scholars in the field. Many recent studies and anthologies of Middle Eastern literatures are primarily interested in Islam and religious matters - an emphasis that leads to the common misconception that almost everything in the region was and is dominated by religion. Classical Arabic Literature instead brings to life the rich variety of pre-modern Arabic social and cultural life, where secular texts happily coexisted with religious ones. This masterful anthology, in English only, will introduce this vibrant literary heritage to a wide spectrum of new readers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4511-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxv)

    Many ancient Arabic Bedouin or quasi-Bedouin poems begin with the exclamationkhalilayya, “My two friends!” According to a literary convention, never fully explained,¹ the poet, who is supposed to be traveling in the desert when he spots a place that reminds him of past pleasures, asks two companions to sympathize with his feelings of loss, or at least to wait for him until he has poured out his elegiac verse. The poet, or rather his persona, does not keep his private feelings to himself, silently or soliloquizing: he must have an audience. whether the feelings are real or imagined, whether...

  6. Notes to the Introduction
    (pp. xxvi-xxviii)
  7. Verse

    • A Qaṣīdah by ‘Abīd ibn al-Abraṣ
      (pp. 2-3)
    • A Qaṣīdah by ‘Alqamah ibn ‘Abadah
      (pp. 4-7)
    • A Qaṣīdah by al-Muthaqqib al-‘Abdi
      (pp. 8-11)
    • An Elegy (Marthiyah) by al-Khansā’
      (pp. 12-14)
    • Polemics in Verse: An Invective Qaṣīdah by al-Akhṯal and a Reply by Jarīr
      (pp. 15-20)
    • Love in the Desert: A Qaṣīdah by Dhū l-Rummah, “To Mayyah’s Two Abodes, a Greeting!”
      (pp. 21-26)
    • An Umayyad Ghazal Poem, Used as an Abbasid Song Text
      (pp. 27-28)
    • ‘Udhrī Ghazal: a poem attributed to Majnūn Laylā
      (pp. 29-30)
    • Umayyad Ghazal: A Poem by ‘Umar ibn Abī Rabī‘ah
      (pp. 31-32)
    • A Love Poem by Umm Khālid
      (pp. 33-33)
    • Anti-Arab, Pro-Iranian Lampoon (Hijā’), by Bashshār ibn Burd
      (pp. 34-36)
    • A Muḥdath (“Modern”) Ghazal Epigram by Abū Nuwās
      (pp. 37-37)
    • A Ghazal by Abū Nuwās: On a Boy Called ‘Alī
      (pp. 38-39)
    • Two Wine Poems by Abū Nuwās
      (pp. 40-42)
    • A Lampooning Epigram (Hijā’) by Abū Nuwās
      (pp. 43-43)
    • A Ghazal Poem by al-‘Abbās Ibn al-Aḥnaf
      (pp. 44-45)
    • Three Love Epigrams by ‘Ulayyah bint al-Mahdī
      (pp. 46-48)
    • A Zuhdiyyah (“Poem of Asceticism”) by Abū l-‘Atāhiyah
      (pp. 49-50)
    • Ibn al-Rūmī: On His Poetry
      (pp. 51-52)
    • A Qaṣīdah by Ibn al-Rūmī: A Party at ‘Abd al-Malik ibn ṣāliḥ al-Hāshimī’s
      (pp. 53-57)
    • A Panegyric Qaṣīdah by al-Buḥturī
      (pp. 58-60)
    • A Victory Ode by al-Mutanabbī: The Qaṣīdah on Sayf al-Dawlah’s Recapture of the Fortress of al-Ḥadath in 343/954
      (pp. 61-64)
    • Nature Poetry: Two Epigrams by Ibn Khafājah
      (pp. 65-66)
    • Strophic Poem: A Muwashshaḥah by al-A ‘mā al-Tuṭīlī
      (pp. 67-68)
    • An Anonymous Muwashshaḥah from Spain
      (pp. 69-72)
    • “There Descended to You”: A Philosophical Allegory by Ibn Sīnā
      (pp. 73-74)
    • Five Epigrams on Death and Belief, by Abū l-‘Alā’ al-Ma‘arrī
      (pp. 75-78)
    • Mystical Ghazal: A Poem by Ibn al-Fāriḍ
      (pp. 79-82)
    • A Mystical Zajal by al-Shushtarī
      (pp. 83-84)
    • Two Elegies on the Death of his Concubine, by Ibn Nubātah al-Miṣrī
      (pp. 85-88)
    • A Zajal: An Elegy on the Elephant Marzūq
      (pp. 89-92)
    • Rajaz
      (pp. 93-108)
  8. Prose

    • Examples of Early Rhymed Prose (Saj‘)
      (pp. 110-113)

      Not everything that rhymes is verse: only metrical, rhymed speech is considered poetry according to traditional Arabic opinion. Non-metrical, rhymed prose is calledsaj’. In pre-Islamic and early Islamic times it was used for special occasions and genres: pithy sayings, maxims, proverbs, speeches of heightened emotion or for solemn occasions, and for the oracular, often enigmatic, mantic utterances of soothsayers and diviners (kuhhān, sg. kāhin). The early suras of the Qur’an also use rhyme or assonance that resembles the soothsayers’saj‘, and the Prophet took pains to make it understood that he was neither a poet (shā‘ir) nor a soothsayer...

    • A Pre-Islamic Tale: The Princess on the Myrtle Leaf (Three Versions)
      (pp. 114-116)

      Three different versions of the same tale are given; there are many more in Arabic.³³⁸...

    • How the Queen of Sheba Became Queen
      (pp. 117-118)

      Zuhayr ibn ‘Abd Shams, of the Banu Ṣayfi ibn Saba’ al-Aṣghar: he was killed by Bilqis, daughter of Ṣayfi.³⁶³ The cause of this was that he was a king who ruled despotically and overbearingly; he used to deflower women before their husbands, just as ‘Imliq had done.³⁶⁴ But when Bilqis reached adulthood, she said to her father, “This man has dishonored your women! Go to him and say, ‘I’ve got a daughter who has become nubile. There is nobody among the people like her in beauty and attractiveness!’ Then, if he says to you, ‘Send her to me!’ you must...

    • Two Stories from al-Mas‘ūdī’s Meadows of Gold
      (pp. 119-122)

      Murūj al-dhahab(Meadows of Gold), by Abū l-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Masʿūdī (ca. 282/896–345/956), one of the most entertaining works in Arabic, is a combination of geography and history. A large part of the work is devoted to people other than the Arabs; the historical part begins at the creation of the world and runs to al-Masʿūdī’s own time. It is enlivened by many anecdotes and stories....

    • Lives of The Poets: al-Farazdaq Tells the Story of Imru’ al-Qays and the Girls at the Pond
      (pp. 123-126)

      Al-Farazdaq (d. ca. 110/728), one of the greatest poets of the Umayyad period, here figures as a storyteller, relating in prose his adventure with some bathing girls, an encounter which reminded him of a similar story (but erotic rather than burlesque) connected with the most famous poem in Arabic, the Muʿallaqah by the pre-Islamic Imruʾ al-Qays (first half of sixth century ad). Several verses from the poem may be found in the passages from Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’sRisālat al-ghufrān, below. For Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī and his Book of Songs, from which this and the following story have been taken, see...

    • Bedouin Romance: The Unhappy Love Story of Qays and Lubnā
      (pp. 127-165)

      Qays and Lubnā are a famous couple known for their sad love affair (though Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, the compiler of theBook of Songs, also gives an alternative, happy ending). Their story is told in simple prose, but not in a straightforward manner: it is somewhat rambling and repetitive, with a number of digressions. One could leave out all the chains of authorities and digressions, to make the text more unified and “literary,” as has been done for example by Max weisweiler in his German translation (Arabesken der Liebe, pp. 78–90), and long before him by Ibn wāṣil al-Ḥamawī (d....

    • A Parable: The Human Condition, or The Man in the Pit
      (pp. 166-167)

      when 1⁴³² thought about the world and its affairs and considered that a human being is the noblest and most excellent part of creation, but only led from one evil and worry to the next, I was amazed. I realized that there could be no human being with understanding who, knowing this, would not seek to save himself and find an escape. Anyone falling short in this respect is, in my opinion, weak and lacking in insight and ambition regarding his situation.

      Then I looked about and saw that all people fall short and are oblivious of their situation. I...

    • Mirror for Princes (and Others): Passages from Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s Right Conduct
      (pp. 168-175)

      Al-Adab al-kabīr(The Large [treatise] on Good Conduct) by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, is, likeKalīlah wa-Dimnah, a work of practical rather than religious or ethical wisdom, not addressed to “princes” or rulers only. The sections following the present selection, for example, are about how one ought to behave toward one’s superiors and one’s equals. The present selection is a translation of the Introduction and the first section: a “mirror for princes.”...

    • Al-Jāḥiẓ on Flies and Other Things
      (pp. 176-194)

      Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Baḥr, known as al-Jāḥiẓ (“Pop-eye”), who died well into his nineties in 255/868–69, was one of the most versatile writers in Arabic. He wrote in a personal style, characterized by digressions, a mixture of seriousness and jesting, and by long, cumulative sentences, on an astounding range of subjects. His major work,al-Ḥayawān(Living Beings) deals, among many other things, with zoology, popular lore, poetry, language, and theology. One of the aims of the book is to show how God’s providence may be discerned in everything, including insignificant or abhorrent creatures. He belonged to the “rationalist,” Muʿtazilite...

    • Essayistic Prose: Al-Tawḥīdī on the Superiority of the Arabs
      (pp. 195-207)

      Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī’sal-Imtāʿ wal-muʾānasah(Enjoyment and Geniality) presents discussions conducted in Baghdad at the court of the vizier Ibn Saʿdān al-ʿĀriḍ, who was executed in 374/984 after a short period in office. They are wide ranging, dealing with philosophy, religion, poetry, language, and various other topics. The following text illustrates the debates and polemics regarding the movement called Shuʿūbiyyah, which claimed cultural equality or superiority for the Persians over the Arabs.⁵⁰¹ It is unknown whether al-Tawḥīdī (who died at an advanced age after 400/1010, perhaps as late as 414/1023) was himself ethnically an Arab or a Persian, but culturally...

    • History as Literature: Al-Amīn and al-Ma’mūn, the Sons of Hārūn al-Rashīd
      (pp. 208-217)

      Abū Ḥanīfah al-Dīnawarī’s (d. 282/895) history, calledThe Long Stories, unlike that of his great successor al-Ṭabarī (d. 311/923), does not present individual reports each with their isnād (chain of transmitters) but gives a series of longer, continuous narratives, making the work more accessible to modern readers. The conflict between the two brothers presented here is a kind of moral tale in terms of the clear contrast it makes between the bad Muḥammad al-Amīn (who succeeded his father Hārūn al-Rashīd as caliph in 193/809) and the good ʿAbd Allāh al-Maʾmūn (who, after a bloody civil war, reigned from 198/813 until...

    • Moral Tales and Parables: Passages from Rasā’il Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’ (The Epistles of the Sincere Brethren)
      (pp. 218-224)

      The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (The Pure, or Sincere, Brethren) were a society of writers and propagandists apparently associated with the Ismāʿīliyyah (a Shīʿah sect), active in the fourth/tenth century. The names of some of them are known but much else is uncertain. Their Epistles, a rare example of collective authorship in Arabic (unless they were all written by one of them), is a kind of popular encyclopedia, dealing with mathematics, natural science, the humanities, religion, ethics, and the occult, often in combination. It is written in a relatively easy style, often addressing the reader whom they hope to convert to their...

    • Prose Narrative: Four Stories by al-Tanūkhī
      (pp. 225-244)

      Al-Faraj baʿd al-shiddah(Relief after Distress or All’s Well That Ends Well) is a collection of stories with happy endings, compiled by Abū ʿAlī al-Muḥassin ibn ʿAlī al-Tanūkhī (329/940–384/994), a judge from Baghdad....

    • The Isfahan Maqāmah by Badī‘ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī
      (pp. 245-247)

      Amaqāmah(literally, “place or occasion where one stands,” sometimes translated as “assembly”) is a short, usually narrative “picaresque” text in ornate rhymed prose, often with interspersed poetry, involving a fictional narrator and a fictional vagabond-like character, who reappears (in a series of individually independentmaqāmahs) in various disguises, usually swindling or coaxing people (including the narrator) to part with their money. The term is also applied more loosely, for non-narrative didactic or moralistic pieces employing rhymed prose.⁶⁹⁶

      ‘Īās ibn Hishām and Abū l-Fatḥ al-Iskandarī are the two fictional personages who occur in mostmaqāmahsby al-Hamadhānī, as narrator and...

    • The Debate of Pen and Sword, by Aḥmad Ibn Burd al-Aṣghar
      (pp. 248-254)

      The “literary debate” in which objects or concepts are personified and boast of their superiority is already found in Sumerian literature. In Arabic it occurs sometimes in verse but mostly in ornate prose, in a style not unlike that of themaqāmah, withsaj‘ and the inclusion of some verse.⁷⁰⁵ The most common of several terms for the genre ismunāẓarah(which is also used for the scholarly or religious dispute). A popular theme is the debate of pen and sword, which stand metonymically for civil administration and military rule, respectively, or civil servants and soldiers, literature and warfare, civilization...

    • A Visit to Heaven and Hell, by Abū l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arrī
      (pp. 255-276)

      The maverick Abū l-ʿAlāʾ (d. 449/1057) has already appeared as poet, above. His prose works are no less remarkable than his verse. In hisRisālat al-Ghufrān(The Epistle of Forgiveness) he mockingly imagines how a contemporary of his, the philologist Ibn al-Qāriḥ, has entered (not without difficulty) Heaven. There he converses with colleagues and poets, and during an excursion to Hell he meets further poets and heretics from the past. The story satirizes not only the protagonist but apparently also some popular conceptions of the Hereafter (as well as what seems to be medieval bureaucracy). It is set in the...

    • Poetics: Ibn Rashīq on the Definition and Structure of Poetry
      (pp. 277-280)

      Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawānī (390/1000–456/1065 or 463/1071) was a poet active in North Africa (present-day Tunisia) and Sicily. He also wrote several works on poetry, the most famous of them beingal-ʿUmdah(The Support), a kind of encyclopedia of poetry and poetics....

    • Literary Criticism: From The Secrets of Eloquence by ‘Abd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī
      (pp. 281-296)

      Abū Bakr ʿAbd al-Qāhir ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, a Persian from Jurjān (or Gurgān, at the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea), died in 471/1078 or 474/1081. He wrote some works on Arabic grammar, but became famous with his two very influential books on literary style.Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz(Proofs of the Inimitability [of the Qur’an]) explores how syntax contributes to meaning and to stylistic excellence, not only in the Qur’an but also in artistic prose and especially in poetry. Imagery is the main subject ofAsrār al-balāghah(The Secrets of Eloquence), in which he offers a perceptive and penetrating analysis of...

    • Popular Science: Two Chapters from al-Damīrī’s Encyclopedia of Animals
      (pp. 297-304)

      The term “polythematic” is often used for the Arabicqaṣīdah;it is equally apt for many prose works.Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān al-kubrā(The Great Life of Living Beings), an encyclopedia of animals by the Egyptian author Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Damīrī (742/1341–808/1405), arranged alphabetically, is a useful and often entertaining mixture of popular zoology, folklore, poetry, proverbs, lexicography, religion (especially Islamic law on food regulations: “can one eat it?”), medicine, dream interpretation, and many other topics. Among its striking elements is a potted history of the caliphs, a considerable portion of the whole, by way of digression in the sectioniwazz, “geese”...

    • A Section from an Adab Encyclopedia: The Chapter on Stinginess from The Precious and Refined in Every Genre and Kind by al-Ibshīhī
      (pp. 305-317)

      Al-Mustaṭraf fī kull fann mustaẓraf, by the Egyptian author Bahā’ al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Ibshīhī (sometimes called al-Abshīhī, 790/1388–ca. 850/1446), is a popular example of a genre that flourished since the ninth century, when Ibn Qutaybah (d.276/889) provided a model with his ‘Uyūn al-akhbar.Al-Mustaṭrafis one of many thematically arranged anthologies with sayings, anecdotes, stories, and poetic quotations on a wide range of topics, religious and secular, serious and jesting, mostly dealing with the humanities and ethics but also including popular science, all designed to entertain, inform, and edify: in short,adab. For almost all anecdotes and verses...

    • A Fairytale: The Tale of the Forty Girls
      (pp. 318-332)

      This tale (Ḥadīth al-arba‘īn al-jāriyah) is taken from an anonymous manuscript dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, featuring “wonderful Tales and Strange Stories” that are akin to those in theThousand and One Nights. The story, about a prince who plays Goldilocks to forty girls, eating from their plates and sleeping in their beds (though not alone), is not known from other sources, although its various motifs are well known in Middle Eastern and European folktales. The tale (which I confess I find rather silly and which suffers from a surfeit of girls) resembles several stories of theThousand...

    • Erotica: The Young Girl and the Dough Kneader, from al-Tīfāshī’s The Old Man’s Rejuvenation
      (pp. 333-338)

      The Egyptian writer al-Tīfīāshī (580/1184–651/1253) is famous for his work on mineralogy and precious stones,Azhār al-afkār fī jawāhir al-aḥjār,and infamous for his erotological workRujū‘ al-shaykh ilā ṣibāh fī l-quwwah ‘alā l-bāh (The Old Man’s Rejuvenation in His Powers of Copulation). Most of it is concerned with aphrodisiaca: endless lists of recipes and recommendations to enhance one’s sexual prowess and both sexes’ enjoyment of sex, and descriptions of sexual techniques, without any literary elements. However, the author also includes a chapter with stories. They are obviously meant to entertain, but their purpose is practical, not literary: like...

    • Two Burlesque Stories from Brains Confounded by al-Shirbīnī
      (pp. 339-344)

      Al-Shīrbinī, who completed hisHazz al-quḥūfin 1097/1686, is the author of a remarkable work, entitled (in the recent editor’s translation)Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded(elsewhere I have myself rendered the somewhat ambiguous wordsHazz al-quḥūfasThe Nodding Noddles, or Jolting the Yokels).¹⁰⁹⁹ It describes the Egyptian fellahin in an endless array of anecdotes, stories and poems, mocking them as brutish and stupid yokels (but at the same time exposing their pitiful circumstances to such an extent that one modern Arab scholar has interpreted the book as aJ’accusedirected at the Ottoman rulers)....

    • Lyrical Prose: A Visit to the Bath, by al-Ḥaymī al-Kawkabānī
      (pp. 345-351)

      The Yemenite author al-Ḥaymī (d. ca. 1151/1738) modeled his collection ‘Iṭrnasīm al-ṣaba (The Perfume of the Zephyr’s Gentle Breeze)onNasim al-ṣaba (The Zephyr’s Gentle Breeze)by Ibn Ḥabīb al-Ḥalabī (d. 779/1377). Both works consist of lyrical “sketches” in rhymed, poetic, “euphuistic” prose, with a slight narrative element, interspersed with verse quotations, always without attribution; the authors say in their introductions (Nasīm,p.35, ‘IḤrp. 19) that the prose is theirs, the verse by others (I have not been able to identify all the poets). Though akin to themaqāmātof al-Hamadhānī and al-Ḥārīrī, they are obviously different and not...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 352-425)
  10. Chronology
    (pp. 426-428)
  11. Glossary of Names and Terms
    (pp. 429-431)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 432-451)
  13. Further Reading
    (pp. 452-456)
  14. Index
    (pp. 457-465)
  15. About the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute
    (pp. 466-466)
  16. About the Typefaces
    (pp. 467-467)
  17. About the Translator
    (pp. 468-468)