09.02.12, Gully, The Culture of Letter-Writing

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Anna Klosowska

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.012


Gully, Adrian. The Culture of Letter-Wrinting in Pre-Modern Islamic Society. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Pp. 212. ISBN: 978-0-7486-3373-9.

Reviewed by:
Anna Klosowska
Miami University

This book, the fruit of over a decade of labor, involving very abundant and challenging sources, is not a good introduction to the subject; however, it presents a wealth of material that has not, to this date, been the object of a monograph. The sources are treatises on formal and "informal" letter writing and biographies of "secretaries" ranging from the 7th to the 19th c., with the focus on the 11th-15th c. The book culls these sources to define and study the evolution of the theory and practice of the formal and "informal" letter writing; "informal" in the sense of "not related to the business of the state," but rather addressed to private individuals; however, by "informal" letters are understood letters that are public, not private in nature, and governed by very strict and well developed sets of rules, which vary with the author and period.

One symptom of the groundbreaking nature of this monograph is that it presents itself as a complement not to other monographs but to an article by Klaus Hachmeier (2002) on 4th-10th c. sources, an article that defined "the development of epistolography" (vii) for an earlier period than that treated by Gully. If, as I understand, this is the first attempt at defining the field of Classical Arabic medieval epistolography of the very rich period of the 10th-15th c., the task is monumental.

However, mostly facsimiles and editions, not manuscripts, were used; only one manuscript is listed in the bibliography. Moreover, there is virtually no description of manuscripts or their transmission. The editions range from 1890s to 1980s (Beirut) and 1960s-70s (Cairo).

The author of Grammar and Semantics in Medieval Arabic (2005) and Modern Written Arabic: A Comprehensive Grammar (2004), and several articles on grammar, semantics, and prose rhythm patterns of Classical Arabic, Gully undertakes a monumental task in bringing the source texts together, considering the dazzling range of their geographical, historical and political contexts, from Iberia to Persia. Alas, he deals with this monumental difficulty by keeping the discussion of these contexts to a minimum. The narrative is not historical/linear, but dictionary-like and category-bound. As a result, the book would be best read (by someone like me, who does not know the discipline) almost as an index, with each entry (or each major text evoked) preceded by a thorough course of reading in reference works. For instance, someone who is not familiar with the dynasty designations, would be lost with Gully's diachronical descriptions of the evolution of epistolography which rely heavily on the assumed knowledge of historical and cultural connotations that each dynasty name represents (simply remembering their dates and place, as we bounced between them, led by the main topic of defining patterns in the evolution of epistolography, was plenty of challenge). Along the same lines of reader's lament: Gully often refers to "two and a half centuries earlier" (102). Using a concrete date, place, titles and names would be best: the antecedent of "earlier" (102) is in the previous chapter.

The book is divided into eight short chapters. The first difficulty for an outsider to the field is that the conclusions of the work are presented before the supporting evidence, i.e., a list and brief description of the specific texts and their authors, showing to what extent Gully relies on which source, and to what end. It would be immensely helpful, too, to get an idea of the specificity of these sources. Are they all equally extensive? --That seems impossible, but Gully does not mention how long any of these texts are, and he does not compare them with each other. What length are they? What distinguishes them from one another: the amount of details, the structure? Is it possible to say or speculate what was the nature of their impact (Gully mentions the importance of some of them) and what, if any, are the connections between them?

Instead, the book opens by discussing diachronically the five words used for letter or correspondence (3-5) and sketching Persian vs. Greek and Latin theory of the letter (7-9). Following the preface, some highlights include the discussion of the Persian preference for prose vs. Arabic predilection for poetry (33). Some interesting details on ink/saliva and pen/tongue of the hand are included in the discussion of the pen/sword debate and the fetishization of script (chapter three, 50-71). I also noted interesting references to Euclid in the sources (61). With the exception of two exciting pages on codes and secret ink from al-Qalqashandi (1355-1418; 124-125), there is little on material culture (or so configured within the text as to be inaccessible, even with the book's index). These forays into material culture are exceptional. Led by his sources, of which he presents a succinct account, Gully does not stray at length into the discussion of cultural or material details.

It could be said that the book itself serves almost as an index to the rich world it represents, and each intriguing reference which Gully brings up in passing could be a beginning of another article or monograph (for example, the mention, drawn from an important secondary source, of just one, striking name for a particular rhyme pattern in a list, tarsi/gem setting, embroidery, 143; or the different terminology for turban-wearers, i.e. sadr vs. al- qadi/judge and faqih/jurist, depending on the area: Levant and Iraq vs. Egypt, respectively, 183). The book becomes easier to follow for an outsider to the discipline when the author takes a more linear, descriptive approach in chapters 4 and 5 (biographies and ideal qualities of secretaries, focusing on two or three main sources at a time, and centered on Ibn al-Athir, al-Fadil and al-Qalqashandi). The author follows these longer texts more closely and fleshes out the details in short discussions. The book concludes with two more utilitarian chapters that list and give examples (transliterations and literal translations) of the parts of the letter, as defined by letter writing manuals.

With such a monumental task accomplished, it is only to be expected that the book has weaknesses. The book does not cite source texts (only English translations), although short expressions and terms are provided in transliteration. Gully notes, rather than engages, other disciplines and approaches, instead of including more substantial, if fewer, discussions. The comparatist gestures (for instance, to Europe's secretarial, rhetorical, and epistolary tradition, mostly papal) are so brief that they undermine the book rather than enrich it, for example the one-paragraph reference to Saussure, Condillac and Derrida (62). Stylistic infelicities are frequent (ex., "Although maybe unaware, Perelman speaks with further relevance in this connection to the situation in Islamic society," 10). Some terms (remit, specialism, in chapters 4 and 5) seem specific to the author; they increase, rather than resolve, the complexities of the subject matter.

Further, the author does not reflect on the way he summarizes the sources. The wealth of material is poorly organized and, to an outsider to the discipline, still inaccessible: there is no coherent narrative that summarizes the book. Theory and methodology are not an explicit concern. That is a pity, because Gully's hypotheses in this groundbreaking monograph could have become essential part of the discipline's understanding of the topic and the period. They could have, in fact, provided the basic narrative that is absent from this book. What Gully says about the difference between the Arabic (poetry) and the Persian (prose) traditions, the role of the secretary vs. the chamberlain and the vizier, the difference between the confidential and the composition secretary in two geographical and historical contexts (Damascus vs. Cairo), the place of the Islamic law and the Qur'an in the secretarial/epistolary tradition, could have led to a synthesis and drawing of a landscape of the topic he surveys. Since the wealth of information is presented without any theoretical underpinnings or historical anchoring, general statements are given in passing; the hypotheses listed here are throwaway observations, rather than the backbone of the book.

I was troubled by some of the statements, for instance, this comment: "leaving aside the cultural question of whether nepotism in a Western sense is equivalent to similar behaviour in more tribal cultures, there seems little doubt that some form of nepotism did occur in the secretarial profession" (79). Can one use the word "tribal" and "Western" in this sense, in scholarship on Classical Arabic? Are premodern Damascus and Cairo tribal, or is their secretarial class collaborating with the state against nomadic interests?

On the whole, this very learned and complex book may be just the first, though considerable, step towards a synthesis of the subject matter. I am truly chagrined to dwell on weaknesses, when I could be instead praising the book for what it offers: a glimpse into a universe so untired of words that falling into a privy does not cure a courtier of speaking in rhyming prose (82), where a typology of writers sorts them into "speechless," "patchers," "muddlers" (mixing pearls and dung), and "taciturn...last horse in the race; that is to say, he will eventually reach his goal, but after much exertion" (111), and where authors ponder the respective merits of composing at the break of dawn vs. in the middle of the night (113). We can be thankful to Gully for the material he makes accessible, and I hope he will expose it further in follow-up books.

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Anna Klosowska

Miami University