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Orthodoxy and Literary Innovation: Science, Religion, and Poetry

Panel V-22, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • The Umayyad era (41-132 AH/661-750 CE) witnessed the rapid popularization of the classical Arabic genre of qaṣīda known as naqāʾiḍ. Naqāʾiḍ (flytings or invective; lit. “contradictions”) are most closely associated with the Umayyad period thanks to the fame they garnered in the hands of the poets Jarīr (d. 111/729), al-Farazdaq (d. 110/728), and al-Akhṭal (d. 92/708). While the naqīḍa genre is attested both in the pre-Islamic period and in later eras, its period of rapid growth and development was in the first Islamic century. I argue that the prevalence and popularity of the naqīḍa in the Umayyad era occurred for two main reasons: the sociopolitical functions of the naqāʾiḍ in the early Islamic period; and the particular suitability of the genre for balancing the numerous temporalities and changing poetics of a society undergoing a profound transformation. The seemingly-chaotic, multi-thematic nature of the naqīḍa poem, far from being proof of its inferiority in comparison with other poetic genres like panegyric, gave poets like Jarīr and al-Farazdaq the ability to reconstruct and debate the many facets of their lives in a poetic form that could be used to mirror their changing world and weave threads in the direction of both the pre-Islamic past and the expectations of an evolving Islamic future. In my paper, I will analyze the temporalities and sociopolitical indices of an exchange of two naqīḍa poems composed by al-Farazdaq and Jarīr during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Sulaymān b. ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 96-99/715-717) and discuss the significance of these features with respect to the popularity of naqāʾiḍ poetry during the Umayyad period. My aim is to show that the naqīḍa genre did not reach its apogee of popularity during the first Islamic century merely because it was a form of entertainment, a pathway to personal prestige, or an “inferior” and “un-unified” poetic genre of mass rather than high aesthetic appeal; instead, the naqāʾiḍ witnessed such success during this period because they reflected the political and temporal flux of the rapidly developing Islamic society and empire and embodied both continuity with the pre-Islamic poetic past and the evolving Arabic poetics that would eventually find its full expression among later poets.
  • The third ʿAbbasid caliph, al-Mahdī (r. 775–785), held a complex relationship with religion and theology. On the one hand, he made strives to heal divisions between the ʿAbbasids and ʿAlids. On the other hand, he promoted orthodoxy by suppressing, and at times even attempting to eradicate, heresy. As al-Mahdī worked to promote unity within Islam while oppressing heresy, how did Christians view his rule in Baghdad? While al-Ṭabarī (839–923) recorded a detailed account al-Mahdī’s reign, he gave few glimpses into his interactions with Christians in Baghdad. Further, how can Christian sources inform the modern study of the early ʿAbbasid period? In this paper, I argue that although Islamic sources presented al-Mahdī as a zealous defender of orthodoxy, Christians from Baghdad presented the caliph as a benevolent and just ruler in pursuit of truth. Two Christian sources in particular—the Disputation with the Caliph of Timothy I, Patriarch of the Church of the East (ca. 740–823) and the Martyrdom of Habo, the Perfumer from Baghdad—depicted events in Baghdad during his reign. In Timothy’s Disputation, which appears to preserve some elements of a verifiable dialogue between Timothy and al-Mahdī, the caliph is presented as a just ruler genuinely in pursuit of truth. While the Syriac version (published by Alphonse Mingana) and early Arabic translation (published by Samir Khalil Samir and Wafik Nasry) of this text hold significant differences, they both contain these positive depictions of al-Mahdī. The Martyrdom of Habo is an eighth-century Georgian text which recounted the conversion of Habo, a Muslim perfumer from Baghdad during the reign of al-Mahdī. The perfumer resolutely faced martyrdom under the reign of al-Mahdī’s son Musa al-Hādī (r. 785–786). Although a hagiographical and embellished account, this work praised the rule of al-Mahdī even while showing animosity to lower-level Muslim magistrates. This study seeks to inform broader discussions on religious tolerance and the boundaries between Christianity and Islam during the early ʿAbbasid era. In this it seeks to contribute to foundations established by Robert Hoyland (Seeing Islam as Others Saw It), Michael Philip Penn (Envisioning Islam), and Jack Tannous (The Making of the Medieval Middle East), adding that these two sources can help to show the multifaceted nature of early Muslim-Christian relationships.
  • As hadith, which records words and actions attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad, became a scriptural source in Muslim legal-ritual discourses, hadith criticism, which examines the authenticity of a hadith and the reliability of narrators involved in its transmission, flourished in the ninth century, when hadith critical works were written or compiled. Among the ninth-century contributors to hadith criticism, Ibrāhīm b. Yaʿqūb al-Saʿdī al-Jūzjānī (d. 259/873?) authored the first work exclusively dedicated to evaluation of hadith transmitters, but remains obscure and understudied in modern hadith scholarship. By closely analyzing the organizational structure of his surviving work, Aḥwāl al-rijāl, his use of hadith critical terminology, and his methodological innovation, this paper suggests that al-Jūzjānī’s approach to hadith criticism can be characterized as unconventionally intolerant of non-Sunnī sectarians but paradoxically influential on hadith scholarly literature. Departing from the earlier hadith critics, who did not consistently consider extrinsic factors such as sectarian tendencies in their evaluation of hadith transmitters, al-Jūzjānī systematically integrates “religious orthodoxy” into the framework of hadith criticism by employing morally judgmental terms and impugning hadith transmitters’ credentials on account of their religious “deviation”, which is presented by al-Jūzjānī as equally detrimental as mendacity to the preservation of authentic hadith. Although al-Jūzjānī’s harsh judgments on hadith transmitters with mild Shīʿī tendencies were often rejected by later hadith critics and led to the Nāṣibī accusation, this paper argues that his approach nonetheless informs the disciplinary development of hadith criticism and even precipitates the introduction of “moral uprightness” (ʿadāla) into its conceptual framework.
  • Co-Authors: Carlos Balhana
    As with other pre-modern Islamic movements, a significant temporal gap separates the hypothesized origins of Sufism in the mid-9th century from the establishment of an extensive documentary record in the late 10th c. This situation raises equally significant historiographical questions as to whether later Sufi literature reflects the biases of later generations rather than genuinely early doctrines (Mojaddedi 2001; Knysh 2017; Salamah-Qudsi 2018). This paper proposes a method to analyze the transmission of early Sufi doctrines by applying computational techniques of textual analysis to a corpus of the teachings of the leading figure of Baghdadi Sufism, Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d. 910–11). The record of Junayd's teachings provides a case study of the difficulties associated with the early Sufi textual tradition. Whereas the contents of seven of his treatises (ed. 1969) advance bold mystical theses and evince a highly abstract style, the hundreds of sayings ascribed to him in biographical works (Sulami 1953; Abu Nu'aym 1932–38) often depict a more cautious, "sober" epistemology and mundane phraseology. Moreover, several scholars have noted that doctrines expressed in both the epistles and late biographical literature are clearly fabricated (Arberry 1953; Radtke 2005). Absent the discovery of new textual evidence, insight into the history of Junayd's doctrines must be gained through novel means. Topic modeling——the analysis of the distribution of lexical and syntactic patterns within and across groups of texts——provides the requisite framework for this inquiry. Theoretically, if the corpus of Junayd's doctrines genuinely originated with him, the results of stylometric analysis would reflect uniform distributions of textual patterns; conversely, individual alterations to Junayd's doctrines would yield notably differing distributions. In order to evaluate the corpus of Junayd's doctrines, I first partition it into individual textual units including: (1) each of the aforementioned treatises; or (2) the teachings in the biographical works transmitted along a uniform "citation pathway" (Ar. isnad). A preliminary assessment of this latter group indicates that nearly 80% of the teachings attributed to Junayd were transmitted through 10 such isnads. Methodologically, after preprocessing a digital edition of the relevant text(s) for each unit, I train a series of topic models through Bayesian Optimization and create a matrix of similarity scores using the Octis package for Python (Terragni 2022). The proposed research not only sheds new light on the development of early Sufi doctrines, but contributes to the growing field of computational analysis of premodern Arabic-language texts.
  • One of the most influential books in the history of Arabic Botany and Medicine was Galen's "On the Powers [and Mixtures] of Simple Drugs (De Simplicium Medicamentorum)" which presented both his theory of pharmacology as well as a practical part that provided information on various simple drugs. Along with Dioscorides "Materia Medica" those texts were foundational to Arabic Botany and medicine. Powers of drugs expressed how they influenced the balance of the human body, and determining those powers became a central aspect in the formulation of the theory of mizāj/mixtures. But it also emerged as an essential theme in the overlap between medicine and philosophy. It embodied a set of epistemological questions that tested the boundaries of these disciplines and in many ways defined relations between them. The central question of this inquiry of How to determine the power of a simple drug was a question of scientific methodology that drew on the foundations of Epistemology: Reasoning (Qiyas) and Experience (Tajruba). In my paper, I examine how those epistemic categories were developed and expanded in the Arabic literature of Materia Medica during the 10th-11th Century through the works of several physicians and botanists, including Ibn Abi al- Ash'ath (d.c. 970), Ibn al-Jazzar (d. 979), Al-Majusi (d. 994) and Avicenna (d. 1037). I argue that those categories developed in innovative ways that borrowed from methodologies beyond Medicine and Natural philosophy.
  • In multiple places in the Qur’an, we encounter the story of Moses in Sinai returning to his fellow Israelites after having received from God the “tablets” (al-alwāḥ). He returns with anger, however, as he learns that many of his fellow Israelites have taken to worshiping a golden calf. Moses condemns the practice, and in just one version of the story, in Qur’an 2:54, he issues a peculiar command: “So repent to your creator and kill yourselves” (fa-tūbū ilā bāri’ikum fa-qtulū anfusakum). This Mosaic directive appears at first blush to parallel the biblical version of the story, specifically Exodus 32:27, where Moses commands the Levites to kill many of their fellow Israelites. Although the details are disputed, this general conception of a large-scale execution was adopted by many Muslim exegetes. This interpretation is congruous with certain controversial hadith but stands in stark contrast to various Qur’anic directives pertaining to Muḥammad’s community. The latter include the prohibition, “Do not kill yourselves” (wa-lā taqtulū anfusakum) (Qur’an 4:29). Numerous exegetes explain Qur’an 2:54 by invoking abrogation (naskh): the Mosaic law (shar‘) was somewhat different from the final law revealed to Muḥammad. But not every exegete took the Mosaic command in Qur’an 2:54 to be confirmation of the biblically supported notion of mass execution, preferring instead to emphasize the coherence and consistency of the Qur’anic message. A minority of influential rationalist (mutakallim), Sufi, and modernist exegetes imagined alternative “killings,” for instance, a “killing” of the ego or a “mortification.” These exegetes include, among others, al-Qāḍī ‘Abd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī (d. 736/1335), and Muhammad Asad (d. 1992). I will argue that the most compelling and coherent dissenting view among prominent premodern exegetes is that presented by the influential Ḥanafī theologian, Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944) of Samarqand. Invoking other Qur’anic versions of the same Mosaic narrative, al-Māturīdī challenges the prevailing reading of the “kill yourselves” command on the grounds that, contrary to the biblical version, the Qur’an presents the command as having been issued after the guilty ones repented and reverted to the unadulterated worship of God. Furthermore, al-Māturīdī demonstrates problems with the abrogation claim and, through linguistic and thematic analyses of certain key Qur’anic terms and notions appearing elsewhere (including Qur’an 2:84, 4:66, and 9:111), presents compelling hermeneutic reassessments of the “kill yourselves” command. Finally, al-Māturīdī shows how even a literal reading of the command need not suggest consummated killings.