09.02.10, Bray, Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam

Main Article Content

John Tolan

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.010


Bray, Julia, ed.. Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam: Muslim Horizons. Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures. New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xiv, 266. ISBN: 978-0-415-38568-7.

Reviewed by:
John Tolan
Université de Nantes

This book brings together six articles on texts and their writers from the medieval Muslim world, principally from Abbasid Iraq. While the articles vary considerably in scope, style and object, together they raise interesting questions about the nature and audience of medieval Arabic texts and about the insufficiencies in standard scholarly classification and interpretation of these texts.

The first article, by Robert Irwin, examines Ibn Zunbal's 16th-century Kitab infisal dawlat al-awan wa ittisal dawlat bani uthman ("The Departure of the Temporal Dynasty and the Coming of the Ottomans"). This work has often been seen by earlier scholars as chronicle written by a nostalgic former Mamluk official in the decades following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt (1517). Irwin shows how in fact the text totters precariously between our categories of "chronicle" and "fiction," and indeed calls those categories into question. Ibn Zunbal was probably in fact far too young ever to have served under the Mamluk administration. Irwin sees the Infisal as "historical fiction": his subject is indeed the fall of the Mamluks, and much of what he relates no doubt corresponds to historical events of the Ottoman conquest. Yet Ibn Zunbal seeks to portray the events as part of a drama of a heroic but doomed Mamluk chivalry fighting valiantly against destiny. In one scene, a Moroccan advisor arrives in Cairo with a gun, which he shows to the Mamluk sultan Qansawh al-Ghawri: unless the Egyptians adopt such modern weapons, they are doomed, he says. Yet the sultan refuses the monstrous Christian device and vows to follow the ways of the Prophet. This scene, probably apocryphal (as Irwin argues) highlights the quixotic heroism of the Mamluks and the inevitability of their fall. Many of the speeches that Ibn Zunbal puts into the mouths of his protagonists are rhetorical gems no doubt meant to be read aloud: here too, it is clear that the Ibn Zunbal's goal is to heighten the drama of the narrative. Hence he ignores historically important subjects (such as the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, related by contemporary chronicler Ibn Iyas), keeping clearly focused on his plot.

This exploration of the boundaries between history and fiction continues in chapter two, Robert Hoyland's essay on "History, fiction, and authorship in the first centuries of Islam." Like Irwin, Hoyland notes that much historiography has tended to posit a clear distinction between "historical" writing on one hand and "literature" on the others. This distinction is of course problematic for many modern critics, who have stressed that historians craft narratives just as novelists do, even if the rules of the game are not the same. The distinction is even more problematic when we try to impose it on medieval Muslim authors: Hoyland cites the example of Andalusian jurist Abd al-Malik ibn Habib's Tarikh (History), which, in narrating the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula, includes stories that for us are clearly legendary (a siege of a copper fortress, the discovery of sealed vessels containing sprites captured by Solomon...). Neither form nor content of most medieval Arabic narratives allow us to make easy distinctions between "fiction" and "non-fiction"; yet this distinction remains central for several recent surveys of the field, such as the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature or the Grundriss der arabischen Philologie. Hoyland prefers to examine the medieval Arabic terms used to refer to different categories of texts--categories with their own problems, clearly, but which allow us to reflect on the audiences and purposes of the texts. Compilers of hadith sought to accurately report the words or deeds attributed to a prominent figure (often Muhammad or one of his companions), accompanying the words with an isnad, a chain of oral transmission that insured its authenticity. Innovation was anathema: the author was merely the passive transmitter of tradition. Compilers of akhbar (historical reports), in contrast, sought to construct coherent and plausible narratives of past events based on different (and sometimes contradictory) sources. Compilers of hadith looked askance at the liberties that authors of akhbar took with their sources: yet the purpose of both was 'ilm, religious knowledge. The perspective of the adib (translated by Hoyland as "gentleman scholar") is different: he seeks to construct narratives in keeping with logic and with human nature. The goal is to instruct and edify: the moral education of the reader and his entertainment are central. In this he is similar to the qass (storyteller), who seeks to entertain and instruct, drawing material more or less indifferently from what we call history and legend. While various medieval authors produced chronicles, there were no professional historians per se: chroniclers generally also wrote in a wide range of areas, from fiqh (jurisprudence) to poetry. Hoyland looks at how chroniclers, such as Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah al-Azdi (in his Conquest of Syria) skillfully (and unabashedly) wield the tools of the poets and storytellers: creating tight narrative, dramatized dialogues, and exciting action. When seeking to place such texts on a meaningful place along the historical/fictional continuum, we should not be blinded by "fetishism for facts," but rather guided by the aims and audience of the text.

In chapter three, "Writing medieval women: representations and misrepresentations," Julie Scott Meisami examines three books from the 1990s on the place of women in Islamic societies: Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Fedwa Malti-Douglas' Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing, and Denise Spellberg's Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: the Legacy of 'A'isha bint Abi Bakr. Meisami shows how each construes "Islam" as essentially misogynist and traces this misogyny to canonical texts of the Middle Ages. For Ahmed, it was the Abbasids who systematically excluded women from positions of prestige and authority, relegating them to the harem. Yet, as Meisami shows, Ahmed depends largely on secondary works and is familiar with only a small range of original texts; in fact, a number of women played a prominent role in Abbasid cultural (and at times political) life. Malti-Douglas examines a broad, heterogeneous collection of medieval Arabic prose texts and concludes that the medieval Arabic world is an idealized "homosocial" world which relegates women to the private sphere. Yet her choice of texts is arbitrary, and seems a function of her pre-formed conclusion (rather than the other way around): she ignores (among other things) Hadith, hagiography, romance, and poetryin all of which women frequently play an active role. Spellberg's study is focused on traditions surrounding 'A'isha (wife of Muhammad and daughter of the first caliph, Abu Bakr): in particular the story of her defeat against Ali in the battle of the camel, after which she was made to promise never to meddle in war or politics. For Spellberg, the battle of the camel marked the end of Muslim women's involvement in politics: she cites various medieval authors who describe the battle and who conclude that women should not meddle in public affairs. But here again, Meisami shows that things are more complex: 'A'isha's story is ambivalent, and was not always interpreted as showing that women should never play a role in politics. On the contrary, medieval Arab chroniclers tended to treat powerful women the way they treated powerful men: lambasting them when their actions were seen as deleterious, praising them when their actions were beneficial: there is no clear consensus among medieval Arabic authors concerning whether or not women could legitimately wield power. The problem with all three authors, for Meisami, is that the texts they purport to analyze are not read critically, "but merely sifted to provide evidence for a narrative plotted in advance: the narrative of Islamic misogyny" (65). Meisami's article is heuristic in several important ways: it undermines a sort of neo-orientalist feministic discourse on Islam, showing how such issues need to be approached through close readings of texts and careful attention to historical context and authorial intentions. Meisami does not clearly say so, but such essentializing discourse on the role of women in "Islam" is actually rather close to much contemporary fundamentalist doctrine. The best way to combat fundamentalists' antifeminism is not to tell them that they are right, but rather to show that their ideas are based on a partial and biased reading of the fundamental texts.

The following two articles are longer and denser than the first three, and will present a bit of a challenge to the purported readership of this "introduction to classical Islamic thought" (p. i.). James Montgomery, in chapter four, examines al-Jahiz's Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin ("Treatise on Clarity and Clarification"). Montgomery, like Irwin and Hoyland, questions the validity of "the anachronistic artificiality of the distinction between literature and thought" (91) still operative in such works as the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Jahiz's Bayan is a case in point of a text that cannot be fully understood if pigeonholed as "literary": it needs to be placed in the context of the history of rhetoric, of the sacred status of Arabic as language of the Qur'an, and of the development of Mu'tazilism in ninth-century Abbasid Iraq. The ninth century saw, of course, the large-scale translation of Greek thought (including Aristotelian rhetoric) into Arabic, so Montgomery begins by examining the role of rhetoric (and linguistic prowess in general) in forging identities of educated elites, from Isocrates' Athens to the Byzantine Church. He then examines the translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric into Arabic in the early ninth century and the contemporary speculations on the sacrality of Arabic. This contextualization allows him to show that Jahiz's speculation on the nature of "clarity" (bayan) is not merely "aesthetic," but comprises a reflection on the maintenance of religious orthodoxy and avoidance of error. The highest form of bayan is expressed by God in the Qur'an; to strive for bayan is hence more than a literary conceit: it is a political and religious duty.

In chapter five, Philip Kennedy offers a reflection on the genre of maqamat, which he defines as collections of loosely-related "picaresque" tales. His essay is also loosely structured and may prove difficult for the uninitiated reader, though it is not without interest. It is presented as an appreciation of Abdelfattah Kilito's 1983 book Les Séances: récits et codes culturels chez Hamadhani et Hariri, with excurses on scholarship subsequently published in the field. Kennedy offers interesting reflections on the imaginary geography and temporality of Hamadhani's Maqamat. Of particular interest is his analysis of Abu al-Fath, Hamadhani's narrator/protagonist "a protean figure," "the personification of spatial and temporal wandering" (160)whom he compares to Muqaddasi, the Baghdadi polymath and geographer who describes his travels, trials and tribulations in search of knowledge and enlightenment. Abu al-Fath is a sort of anti-Muqaddasi, a parody of the traveling sage, who demonstrates his prowess in drinking, orgies, and vulgar bouts of insults. Yet a tighter structure and clearer argument, perhaps focusing more on Hamadhani than on Kilito, would no doubt have made this interesting material more accessible to his readers.

The final chapter, by Julia Bray, examines stories about illness and cures in the works of al-Tanukhi (940-994). Al-Tanukhi's al-Faraj ba'da al-shidda ("Deliverance from Evil"), is a collection of stories or exempla meant to show how man can achieve deliverance from his tribulations through divine grace. Of particular interest here is the tenth chapter, which contains a collection of medical stories, involving, for example, Siamese twins, a girl deathly ill because a tick had crept into her vagina, a boy who had accidentally swallowed a tick, a sick boy who was so despondent that he took a poison which inadvertently cured him, etc. In many of these stories, the hero is the physician who brilliantly diagnoses the disease and skillfully effectuates a quick cure. As Bray emphasizes, these stories enshrine a new kind of "secular miracle" (perhaps better would be "merveilleux," to borrow a term from medievalists dealing with European literature): if the overarching theme of the Faraj is God's deliverance of humans from evil fate, here clearly active human agency is seen as part of God's action. This is all quite different, even diametrically opposed, as Bray notes, to contemporary attitudes towards illness found in pious texts (hadith, for example), which urge believers to patiently bear illness and to seek solace above all in prayer: for these texts (as in similar Christian texts), illness and suffering carry a positive spiritual value. This is not the case in the Faraj, where such ideas are not even evoked and where all actively seek to find cures to their illnesses and those of their loved ones.

Together, the articles show the need to nuance reductive explicative schemas of the nature of Islamic thought and to question the pertinence of our own disciplinary and literary categories. It is heuristic to remember that the age of compilation of the hadith also was that of al-Tanukhi's Faraj and of Ibn al-Mu'tazz's treatise on the benefits of wine; the age of Muqaddasi is also that of Hamadhani's Maqamat. One of the best ways to combat reductive stereotypes of "Islam," whether proffered by Islamists, by post-modern neo-orientalists, or by others, is to offer such nuanced and richly contextualized studies of the literary activities of Medieval Muslims.

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John Tolan

Université de Nantes