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Mamluk Arabic Literature, or New Wine in Old Bottles

Panel I-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
In this panel, we explore how and why Arabic authors of the Mamluk period (ca. 1250-1517) revised, revamped, recast, and otherwise reshaped old discourses to fit new contexts. Those authors spoke of changing politics and fashions, greeted publics beyond the town and chancery, blurred literary language to court the everyday, and made private life an open affair, all trends noted by leading Mamlukist Thomas Bauer. Many people collected or replied to words from the past even while trying out their own poetry—with mixed results, it must be said. Sometimes this meant obedience to custom, but often it meant bursting old bottles of language and literature to convey new ideas. This was accomplished in numerous ways by writers of the period, and yet as Bauer points out, Mamluk literature still needs serious in-depth studies of authors and texts in previously neglected timeframes. With our panel, we take a step toward achieving this goal.
  • Dr. Li Guo -- Presenter
  • Prof. Jeannie Miller -- Discussant, Chair
  • Dr. David Larsen -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Prof. Kevin Blankinship -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Mr. Ghassan Osmat -- Presenter
  • Prof. Kevin Blankinship
    Does classical Arabic literature have “organic unity”? Do poems or prose hang together with integrity and wholeness, or are they “orient pearls at random strung,” in the words of Sir William Jones’s rendering of Hāfiẓ’s “Shīrāzī Turk” ghazal? Once hotly debated in the 20th century, the question of unity has waned in the last twenty years, that is, except for Qurʾānic Studies, where proof of unity within a given sūra continues to mount. In literature, scholars now set aside unity and probe questions of power and society instead. In this paper, I revive debates about unity by asking not whether we moderns think it exists in premodern Arabic belles lettres, but on whether premodern Arabic critics thought so. To do this, I explore the section on ḥusn al-khitām, “seemly endings,” from Khizānat al-adab wa-ghāyat al-arab, a commentary-plus-anthology by Mamluk poet and state secretary Ibn Ḥijja al-Ḥamawī (d. 837/1434). There, one finds what Ibn Ḥijja calls a risāla mujassada, a “personified letter,” which is full of puns on human body parts and which mimics a brief section from “al-Maqāma al-Baghdādiyya” by Abū al-Qāsim al-Ḥarīrī (d. 1122). Ibn Ḥijja built a whole career upon besting his alleged rivals, including rivals of a different era. No wonder, then, that the ghost of al-Ḥarīrī haunts him here and elsewhere. As to the letter itself, Ibn Ḥijja describes it using the word mujassada, “personified” or “incorporated,” in a strikingly modern way that is rare for classical Arabic. Moreover, the letter tries to show, by invoking the human body and structuring itself as such, that the best way to end a text is by linking it naturally—organically, like a body—to its beginning. Therefore this letter, which to my knowledge is unstudied and untranslated, is one of the clearest examples that premodern Arabic critics had some concept, if unstated or unpacked, of organic literary unity.
  • Dr. Li Guo
    A new reading of a rarely examined medieval Arabic text, Ibn Dāniyāl’s (d. 1310) shadow play titled “The Enchanted and the Enchanter (al-mutayyam wa-l-yutayyim),” suggests that the farcical comedy contains significant elements of the author’s own life story. On close examination, the cautionary tale, infamous for its outlandish depictions of a garden variety of “repulsive” sexual acts, manages, or pretends, to stay within the boundaries set forth by the premises of classical Islamic sex discourses. With an all-male cast, the beauty lauded, sexual fantasies projected, and desires produced illuminate a peculiar kind of aesthetics in erotica, created by, of, and for the segment of society that dominated sex discourses: free adult Muslim men. A sometime court jester and a popular entertainer, Ibn Dāniyāl’s hilarious yet sharp voice betrays an acute awareness of the constant shifts in attitudes and mores regarding male-male relationships at a pivotal time of the Mamluk Sultanate. Key words: Ibn Dāniyāl (d. 1310), Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517), the Qalāwūnids, medieval Cairo, Arabic shadow theatre, homosocial entertainment, androgenous beauty
  • Mr. Ghassan Osmat
    In this presentation, I examine the late-Mamluk epic song Madīḥa ʿalā jabal Lubnān (In Praise of Mount Lebanon) authored by the Maronite-Franciscan Jibrāyil Ibn al-Qilāʿī (d. ca. 1516). The Madīḥa draws on historical events to tell a semi-legendary story of the Christian mountain’s past. Modern authors consider it as a foundation of Lebanon’s national historiography due to its original historical components. However, since it follows Syriac syllabic metre rather than classical prosody, and because it was written by a Mamluk-era Christian author, beyond its apparent importance for the field of Christian Arabic studies, scholars have overlooked it as a literary project in context. This is despite the fact that it is one of the first works ever to be written in Mount Lebanon and stands as a witness to the popularization of Arabic culture and its expansion in the Mamluk Sultanate’s Syrian province. Drawing on recent studies by Thomas Herzog, Hilary Kilpatrick, and Zayde Antrim, I approach the Madīḥa as a Mamluk sīra (popular epic)-inspired Arabic poem from the rural Christian milieu. The text reads like sīra because of its popular appeal, heroic tone, and the association it makes between homeland and political allegiance. My study thus expands medieval Arabic literature to include pioneering writings from confessional and provincial communities. I explain that the poet adjusted the popular epic genre to the taste of his audience by writing his narrative in a verse widespread in the Syriac church and by using Mount Lebanon’s pastoral imagery, Biblical tropes, folk tales, and collective memory. The liturgical form and culture-specific references broke with the episodic structure of Arabic narrative and made way for a meditative epic formed of cycles of sin and repentance, which builds the community’s imagined past while urging the public to reflect on the consequences of sin and heresy. Ibn al-Qilāʿī wrote his song to counter his party’s religious rivals, the Miaphysites, who were gaining ground in the mountain. The poem’s objective, I argue, is to stimulate the historical consciousness of largely illiterate 15th-century farmers and sheepherders who sought an explanation for their era’s unprecedented inter-confessional tensions.
  • Dr. David Larsen
    The major works of Zayn al-Dīn ʿUmar ibn al-Muẓaffar, known as Ibn al-Wardī (d. 749/1349), present as derivatives, commentaries, and supplements to other texts. His Tārīkh¸ for example, is avowedly the tatimma (completion) of the Mukhtaṣar fī akhbār al-bashar of Abū l-Fidā (d. 732/1331). A different kind of intertextuality affecting his corpus is persistent confusion with a later Ibn al-Wardī, Sirāj al-Dīn (d. after 822/1419), whose popular, widely-copied Kharīdat al-ʿajāʾib has long been considered (fairly or not) an outright plagiarism of the Jāmiʿ al-funūn of Ibn Shabīb al-Ḥarrānī (d. 695/1295 or 732/1331). One place in Zayn al-Dīn’s corpus where the intertextuality of a derivative work has been mistaken for the intertextuality of plagiarism is his Manṭiq al-ṭayr fī irādat al-khayr. This prosimetrum text has been called an uncredited mukhtaṣar of the Kashf al-asrār fī ḥikam al-ṭuyūr wa-l-azhār of Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī (d. 678/1279), but is better described as a line-by-line muʿaraḍa (response/rewrite) to the earlier text, whose structure and sequence it follows closely. But even if no mention of Kashf al-asrār can be found in Manṭiq al-ṭayr (which is unedited still), it does not follow that Ibn al-Wardī’s appropriation of the earlier text was concealed. Through side-by-side readings, this paper considers the dependent relationship between Manṭiq al-ṭayr and Kashf al-asrār as a creative feat of language art, and a particularly Mamlūk form of virtuosity in which secondary and derivative works are elevated to primary achievements.