Purposes of Arabic Eloquence: Sincerity, Fun, Edification, and Competition
Session VIII-16, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am
In the first several centuries of Islam, writers and poets used the literary register of the Arabic language to increase their own prestige and those of the subjects of their discourse, as well as to entertain and educate their audiences. Even before Abū Nuwās, poets such as Ḥumayd b. Thawr al-Hilālī and ʿUmar b. Abī Rabīʿa described love in light-hearted and humorous ways. Later on, poems containing sincere expressions of love, those by the ʿudhrī poets and their interpreters and imitators, secular and Ṣūfī alike, enjoyed great popularity, and the idea arose that some types of love, as well as some ways of speaking about it, can be morally ennobling.
Meanwhile, Arabic men of letters competed for wealth and prestige in courtly circles. The practice of using invective poetry to damage another person’s reputation, which had begun in pre-Islamic times, continued into the Abbasid era and beyond. Likewise, writers commented on the sources of a person’s virtue, such as whether it derived from his ancestry, his own actions, his wisdom, or even his own skill with the Arabic language.
The writers discussed in this session include poets, anthologists, and polymaths from inside and outside the system of courtly patronage. They harnessed their command of Arabic to express their love in playful and serious ways, talk their way out of trouble with a witty response, and to criticize their rivals or those who disagreed with them. The poets Ḥumayd b. Thawr, Kuthayyir ʿAzza, al-Ḥusayn b. Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj, Ibn al-Rūmī, and Khālid al-Kātib, and the prose writers Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, Ibn Durayd, Ibn Qutayba, and al-Jāḥiẓ, among others, represent a sampling of the diverse ways that writers used their excellence with the Arabic language for their own social and moral improvement and that of their audience.
This topic is of interest because pre-modern texts are underrepresented in contemporary scholarship on the Arab World, and yet these texts offer a rich and nuanced picture of the individuals and societies who produced them. The individuals referenced in this panel are only a few of the many Arabic writers whose works warrant much more scholarly attention than they have received.
Khālid al-Kātib, whose lengthy poetic career reached its peak during the caliphate of al-Muʿtaṣim, wrote nearly 600 surviving poems, almost all of them four-line ghazal. He allegedly suffered from madness later in life, spending his last years riding through the streets of Baghdad on a walking stick, pretending it was a horse, while the townspeople heckled him. Despite occasionally acting as a nadīm to several notables, he never earned a living as a court poet and remained employed as a kātib; according to Kitāb al-Aghānī, Khālid did not possess the mindset of a panegyrist.
Khālid’s mediocrity is a recurring theme in the biographical anecdotes; the rewards he received from patrons were meager, and he is only ever able to win the favor of young men he admired through the intercession of friends. In fact, the biggest financial reward he ever received for his eloquence was not for a poem; Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī gave him enough money to buy a house as a reward for Khālid’s apparently sincere statement that, instead of panegyrics or satires, he writes poems about his own emotions.
Kitāb al-Aghānī mentions several invective poems, albeit brief ones, by Khālid against former friends of his. One of the two explanations Kitāb al-Aghānī gives for Khālid’s descent into madness is that he exchanged invective poems with Abū Tammām when the two poets vied for the affections of a youth called ʿAbdallāh. Abū Tammām’s poem referred to Khālid as “cold Khālid,” and thus people taunted him with this nickname until he went mad, and even after.
There may be more subtext to the rivalry between Abū Tammām and Khālid al-Kātib than simply a competition for the affections of a handsome youth; the two poets are foils to each other in several ways. Abū Tammām, although he also wrote ghazal, was one of the most celebrated panegyrists of his time, admired by all three Muʿtazilite caliphs, whereas Khālid’s poems suited the tastes of singers, even those of royal blood, like Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī. Abū Tammām was an intellectual heavyweight who categorized the motifs of the old Arabic poetic tradition in his Ḥamāsa before repurposing them in his own poems. Khālid was an Arabized Persian kātib the likes of whose knowledge al-Jāḥiẓ considered shallow. Meanwhile, one anecdote shows Abū Tammām acknowledging that one of Khālid’s poetic motifs outshines the old masters.
The last five years have seen exciting advancements in scholarship on medieval Arabic anthologies. A significant handful of studies have provided productive techniques for both appreciating the coherence and logic of individual works and accessing the concerns and agendas of their author-compilers. This paper points to the insights to be gained by recognizing the narrative art in certain anthologies, especially on the level of individual chapters. In particular, attending to narrative features within anthologies allows us to account for coherence and agendas in a way that goes beyond straightforward correspondences. This paper looks at the narrative features in the Kitab al-Aghani chapter dedicated to Kuthayyir ʿAzza in order to appreciate the complexity of its internal logic and its complier’s concerns and agendas. In the Kuthayyir ʿAzza chapter of the Aghani, the author-complier Abu ‘l-Faraj al-Isfahani entertains his audience with a selection of akhbar (reports) that presents the poet as disingenuous and transgressive of social norms. The akhbar also target his appearance and intellect—he is mocked for his ugliness, short stature, foolishness and stupidity. After encountering seemingly incessant derision of Kuthayyir, however, we learn from the akhbar Isfahani presents at the very end of the chapter that nearly the entire city of Medina attended his funeral despite the fact that it coincided with the funeral of the famed Quran and legal scholar Ikrima. The people of the city flocked to mourn Kuthayyir’s death and celebrate his poetic legacy. This transition from criticism to veneration in Isfahani’s arrangement of akhbar is categorical and, on the surface, may also seem jarring. However, attending to the narrative art of this chapter and comparing it to the other Aghani chapter dedicated to Kuthayyir provides a picture of a specific kind of logic and set of concerns on the part of Isfahani.
The word for tongue, lisān, has featured prominently in the Arabic language for centuries; however, since its earliest uses, this word connotes significantly more than its anatomical definition. Its multiple meanings appear throughout the Quran. This word features in the title of Ibn Manẓūr's renown dictionary of the Arabic language, Lisān al-’Arab. Jāḥiẓ has a segment dedicated to the tongue (lisān) in his book Kitāb al-Bayān wa-l-tabyīn. Quoting Al-A’ūr Al-Shanna: “The tongue comprises half of a man, and his heart the other half. Nothing remains save for flesh and blood.” These proverbs and texts signify the tongue as a metonym for the intellectual makeup of an individual and as such, lay the groundwork for reflecting on the tongue as carrying a greater significance and function than that of speech and language.
Against this backdrop, the poetry of Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (d. 922) highlights a function for the tongue within the context of Sufi thought and literature. Although Ḥallāj is perhaps most famous for his shaṭḥāt, and his historically gruesome death, his diwan provides insight into his unique Sufi theology. In his poetry, Ḥallāj establishes a connection between human and the Divine by recasting parts of the human body as conduits of or witnesses to Divine love and knowledge. Drawing on specific poetic examples and comparing them with contemporary love poetry, I argue that throughout Ḥallāj’s poetry, we see an articulation of the tongue as a conduit between the speaker and the Divine and as an experiencer of Divine knowledge. Not only does Ḥallāj show Divine revelation as experienced by the tongue, but in his development of this dynamic, he sets a precedent for and enhances the Sufi concept of dhawq, or taste, of the Divine that connects love, language, and revelation.
main premise of this presentation is that the long poem by early Islamic poet Ḥumayd b. Thawr al-Hilālī (d. ca. 68-70/688-690) has a dual function. One is expressive and poetic — striving for elegant and affective verses mainly related to love. The other is humoristic, and attempts to amuse. The poem’s humour appears predominantly in the passages describing a corpulent bride, and the failure of two go-betweens to set up a meeting between lovers, with the narration of multiple love affairs further contributing to its comedy. In this presentation, I will shed light on the use and techniques of humour in classical Arabic love poetry, a topic neglected in modern research. We do not have many examples of poems from the pre-Islamic and early Islamic period in which humor plays a significant role, but this presentation argues that one of the rare early Islamic poems which combine both love and humor is this mīmiyya by Ḥumayd b. Thawr. The presentation sheds light on the humoristic passages in this poem.