Juia Bray

title.none: Allen and Richards, eds., Arabic Literature (Juia Bray)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.019 07.01.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Juia Bray, Université Paris 8-Saint Denis, bray,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Allen, Roger and D.S. Richards, eds. Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 481. $190.00 (hb) ISBN 10: 0521771609, ISBN 13: 9780521771603. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.19

Allen, Roger and D.S. Richards, eds. Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 481. $190.00 (hb) ISBN 10: 0521771609, ISBN 13: 9780521771603. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Juia Bray
Université Paris 8-Saint Denis

This is the last volume of the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, whose planning began in the 1970s (see the Editorial Introduction of the first volume, xvi). The series now consists of six volumes: Arabic literature to the end of the Umayyad period (1983), which goes up to the mid-eighth century A. D. with some overspill into later centuries; 'Abbasid Belles-Lettres and Religion, learning and science in the 'Abbasid period (both 1990), which distinctly favour the eighth to tenth centuries over the last 250 years of the period 750-1258; Modern Arabic literature (1992); The Literature of Al-Andalus (2000); and the present volume, Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period, covering roughly the twelfth to early nineteenth centuries, whose belated appearance--the series was meant to come out in chronological order--bears witness to the difficulty of enlisting contributors to carry out the very basic research needed to document, let alone shape a narrative of, an ill-defined and underrated epoch (underrated in literary terms, that is: in terms of political and social history, its reappraisal has been well under way for about a decade.)

Although publication has stretched over more than twenty years and a total of seventeen editors have been involved, there has been little change in either format or approach. Each volume consists of a collection of extended essays by specialists from Europe, the United States and the Middle East on loosely-defined themes or genres or, sometimes, on noteworthy figures. This formula was intended to remedy the defects of the short, single-author overviews then available in English, and to provide English-speaking students and scholars alike with an engaged, and engaging, read, as well as with an up-to-date reference work. The ambitions of Cambridge Histories of course reach further than this: they aim not merely to provide reliable syntheses, but to mark out future lines of enquiry. This project has, however, been so long on the stocks that it no longer has the field to itself, as it still did when the first volumes appeared, nor is it a guide to the state of the art. The two-volume Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature edited by Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (London and New York, 1998), for example, deals, in two volumes, with authors, genres and concepts of all types and periods, contains several important essays on major topics, and with its uniform layout for names, dates and bibliographies and its tables of dynasties is a much more usable reference tool. Meanwhile periodicals which have come into being since the Cambridge History was launched, such as the Mamluk Studies Review, and numerous joint publications, have begun to remap periods and topics. Viewed in this context, all the volumes of the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, and this last one especially, are of, or slightly behind, their time in an unintended way: they trace a kind of tide-mark of the difficulties which Arabic literary history has gone through in asserting itself as a discipline and in coming to terms with its subject matter. It is useful to reflect upon the trajectory of the past quarter-century which the series embodies. During that time, pre-modern Arabic literature has (perhaps) gained in status in western universities by becoming an independent research discipline, but it now has much less space allowed to it on the average undergraduate curriculum. Far fewer Islamicists and historians than formerly are really familiar with the literary culture with which any person with claims to literacy was imbued until fairly recently--religious scholars included (see, e.g., 236-237 of the volume under review)--while in the Middle East, the status of literature in the universities has slumped. Presenting the history of Arabic literature therefore has, more than ever, an important role to play in the dialogue of disciplines and, indeed, academies.

But throughout the series, the notions of both literature and literary history have remained problematic. Many, though not all, of the contributors, in the series as a whole and in some chapters of the current volume, equate literary history with literary criticism, in the distinctly old-fashioned sense of being reluctant to devote space to works which they do not find aesthetically or ethically worthy. Hence the thinness of content and concept of the two first chapters of this volume, overviews of poetry by the veteran critic and poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi and by Muhammad Lutfi al-Yousfi. Yet the post-classical period was immensely productive, over a wide geographical area; a non-judgemental description of what was produced, where, when, by whom and for what discernible purposes, should have been the primary task of this first attempt to view it as a whole. The sources for such an exercise are particularly abundant for the period discussed by al-Yousfi, the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, in the form of group biographies or anthologies of contemporary poets and men of letters; but the single, apparently pared-down, list quoted by him (62) is downloaded, unaccountably, from a website (no URL provided), instead of being compiled from the printed source cited in the bibliography, and nothing is done with it.

The "history" component of literary history has also proved problematic throughout the series; within chapters there may be a greater or lesser element of chronological listing of names and examples, but the chapters do not dovetail. There is often little sense that history and culture have anything to do with each other. Often, too, as in the present volume, whose focus is mainly on Egypt and Syria, and which makes no mention of the Arabic literature produced in, say, Mughal India and the Ottoman Balkans, and has relatively little to say even about North Africa, place seems to matter as little as time. Yet place mattered a great deal to literati who were citizens of empires and were often forced by their careers as international merchants or imperial functionaries to travel not only within but between empires. It is striking that a hard core of contributors to Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period seem quite unaffected by the changes in the ways the political, social and, not least, intellectual history of the Middle East in their period has come to be thought about.

The volume is divided into six parts, prefaced by an introduction ("The post-classical period: parameters and preliminaries") by one of the editors, Roger Allen, and contains nineteen chapters, as follows: Part I: Elite poetry: [1] Arabic poetry in the post-classical age (Salma Khadra Jayyusi); [2] Poetic creativity in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries (Muhammad Lutfi al-Yousfi); [3] Arabic religious poetry, 1200-1800 (Th. Emil Homerin); [4] The role of the pre-modern: the generic characteristics of the band [a type of post-classical verse] ('Abdullah Ibrahim). Part II: Elite prose: [5] Pre-modern belletristic prose (Muhsin al-Musawi); [6] The essay and debate (al-risala and al-munazara) (Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila); [7] The maqama (Devin Stewart); [8] Mamluk history and historians (Robert Irwin); [9] Historiography in Arabic during the Ottoman period (Michael Winter). Part III: Popular poetry: [10] Popular poetry in the post-classical period, 1150-1850 (Margaret Larkin). Part IV: Popular prose: [11] Popular prose in the post-classical period (Dwight F. Reynolds); [12], also by Reynolds, A Thousand and One Nights: a history of the text and its reception; [13] Sirat 'Antar ibn Shaddad (Remke Kruk); [14] again by Reynolds, Sirat Bani Hilal; [15] Other siras and popular narratives (Peter Heath); [16] Popular religious narratives (Kamal Abdel-Malek). Part V: Drama: [17] Drama in the post-classical period: a survey (Rosella Dorigo Ceccato); [18] Pre-modern drama (Philip Sadgrove). Part VI: Criticism: [19] Criticism in the post-classical period: a survey (William Smyth).

Homerin's analyses [3] are based on well-chosen, well-translated quotations, and deftly suggest the depth of literary tradition drawn upon by religiously-inspired poetry. His short but unhurried survey works in a wealth of particulars. It includes concrete historical contextualisations and illuminating cross-references to Persian poetry of the period and to the shadow play, examples of Christian Arabic poetry and of the verse of a popular woman hymnist whom it has become fashionable to refer to but who is seldom quoted, 'A'isha al-Ba'uniyya (d.1516): all pertinent reminders that the "high" Arabic literature of this period was part of a wider cultural system and that its "elite" status is often debatable. Upbeat, informed by recent scholarship on social trends and, like Homerin's chapter, careful not to confuse language with audience (learned language does not imply an exclusively learned audience, any more than the reverse, cf. 118, 120, a theme taken up more fully by Larkin, [10]), Musawi's contribution [5] glances on many good ideas but does not provide enough explanations and connections. Its main topic is of fundamental importance: the pervasive role of the Ayyubid and Mamluk chanceries in forming post-classical Arabic literate culture. It is in this chapter, however, that the worst flaw of the volume becomes apparent: the chaos of its bibliographies and of its critical apparatus generally. Musawi discusses works untraceable in his chapter's bibliography (though as against this, he does follow the good practice of translating nearly all of the titles he mentions). The other chapter bibliographies give author's names--even those of modern authors--in different forms (e. g. Bakri, al-Shaykh Amin, 421; but: Shaykh Amin, B., 425), and innumerable other inconsistencies and inaccuracies vitiate what should have been a valuable reference tool. (This has nothing to do with the problem of contributors who do not have access to the same editions of Arabic texts; here, it is references to the same editions that take widely differing forms.) Just as annoyingly, the next chapter, [6], on the badly under-researched topic of essay and debate literature, does little to distinguish similar-sounding authors ('al-Jurjani (d.816/1413), 134, is not the same as the undated 'Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani, 135) or to identify obscure ones (Tashkubrizade, 135), to the bafflement of non-initiates; in the latter case, the index clarifies matters; in the former, it adds to the confusion. To a greater or lesser extent, such irritations continue throughout the volume.

One is often inconvenienced (if a non-specialist) by the editors' failure to provide translations or brief explanations of terms and concepts, or of key persons or works of earlier periods, and I am puzzled by what seems to be a policy of not providing cross-references to earlier volumes in the series in which some of these are treated at length. The second half of the volume (from Part IV) combines this with the opposite problem: duplication. One or more case studies are accompanied by a survey chapter, which either cannibalises the case studies or delves back into earlier periods of Arabic literature to set the scene for post-classical developments. Topics treated in earlier volumes are unnecessarily rehashed, or, in one instance, an earlier lacuna is plugged (Reynolds' to my mind over-long discussions of the picture of popular literature afforded by the tenth-century Ibn al-Nadim's Fihrist, 249-252, 270-272). Added to this there is too much overlap-without-enrichment not only between surveys and case studies, but also between chapters in different sections of the volume.

Some chapters must have been put on ice during the volume's long gestation and their authors not given the chance of last-minute revision. [12] is much behind the times on Thousand and One Nights scholarship, which has developed on all fronts in recent years. It does not reflect this, and its bibliography unaccountably lacks such basic items as Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nights. A Companion, first published as long ago as 1994, and Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen's The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia, of 2004. Similarly, [7] somewhat wearily surveys the beginnings of the maqama, picaresque narrative, the problem-genre of Arabic literature (treated in an earlier volume in the series and also overviewed in this volume by Musawi, 114-115). For later developments, it follows the superficially descriptive, largely enumerative method of Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila's Maqama: A History of a Genre (Wiesbaden, 2002), and does not connect with the wider functional context suggested by Musawi for an understanding of the genre (116-117). [1] It also skips over some points; e .g. it is not always clear which of the maqamat referred to in medieval biographies of their authors are extant (those of "the King of Grammarians," for example, 154, are not, so far as I know), and we are not told if the "Christian Maqamat" of Yahya ibn Sa'id ibn Mari, d.1193, mentioned by his contemporary, the bio-bibliographer Yaqut, have been edited; no references are provided. (Yaqut actually speaks not of "Christian" Maqamat, as apparently do other sources, but of "his altogether excellent Sixty Maqamat," Irshad ed. 'Abbas (Beirut, 1993), VI, 2835, s. n. Yahya ibn Yahya ibn Sa'id; publication details of one of the sixty are in Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, Vatican City, 1944-51, II, 211). Graf stresses that these narratives "are entirely lacking in any Christian content," which raises questions about literary and religious identities. Here the author of the chapter might usefully have cited the Physicians' Dinner Party of Ibn Butlan (d.1066, and like Ibn Mari a Christian physician), which has long been likened to a maqama: some if not all of the physicians satirically presented are presumably Christians, but they are not overtly identified as such, unlike the priests of the Priests' Dinner Party, also attributed to Ibn Butlan.

The most successful chapters are those written with didactic zest. Irwin [8] gives a succinct account of the different attitudes and working methods of Mamluk historians. His thumbnail sketches of their loyalties, intellectual predilections and relationships are a delight, and though free of any taint of jargon are a tacit warning of the pitfalls attendant on culturally uninformed, hence theoretically naive readings. Winter [9] performs a similar labour of love, if less elegantly, for their Ottoman successors. Larkin's masterly essay--almost a monograph--on popular poetry [10] is equally strong on literary and on social analysis. It draws together what have until now been disparate threads and covers a huge amount of ground with a learning and sensitivity that will make it required reading for years to come. Overall, it is the chapters on historiography, and some of those on popular literature (Larkin; Kruk [13] and Reynolds' [14] detailed, in-the-round discussions of two families of siras, popular epics; Sadgrove [18] on popular drama, with a wealth of concrete information) which reconfigure existing knowledge, put new research authoritatively before the public and suggest future paths of enquiry.

How to sum up this very uneven production, the keystone of a Cambridge History of Arabic Literature? It is a brave undertaking: popular Arabic literature has been of sporadic interest to scholars since the end of the nineteenth century, but largely for linguistic and anthropological reasons--the tradition of literary scholarship is fairly recent; there is virtually no body of western critical scholarship dealing with the "high" literatures of the post-classical period. The editors of and contributors to this volume have therefore had to try to define a field. Many topics have been left untreated: for example, the scientific and philosophical or theosophical thought systems that pervade the high culture of the period; others have too little space allotted to them: biographical literature, encyclopaedias and anthologies require far more discussion than they receive here. But at last we have an overview and a starting point; all in all, we are lucky to have this volume.

1. Musawi's functional analysis marries up very well with Philip Kennedy's close readings of narrative and rhetoric in his "The Maqamat as a nexus of interests: reflections on Abdelfattah Kilto's Les Sèances' in Julia Bray (ed.) (2006), Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam. Muslim Horizons (London and New York), 153-214, which is the fullest literary as opposed to enumerative survey of the genre.

2. See Felix Klein-Franke (trans.), Ibn Butlan. Das Ärtzbankett aus arabischen Handschriften übersetzt (Wiesbaden 1984), and Joseph Dagher and Gèrard Troupeau (transs.), Ibn Butlan. Le Banquet des prêtres. Unemaqamachretienne du XIe siécle (Paris, 2004).