By the time I was asked to review Alexander Key's Language between God and the Poets, I thought I had advanced too far in my career as an Arabist to admit that I did not know what maʿnā meant. It was a relief to discover that as a modern English speaker, I had good reason not to understand the full meaning of this word (which is typically translated as "meaning"), and then to experience its meaning gradually dawn on me. This work is essentially a thought experiment, which asks the question, what if we translate maʿnā as "mental content" when reading four important authors from four different genres of 11th-century Arabic literature? The assumption here is that although the texts in question use maʿnā as the centerpiece of four different types of arguments (lexical, theological, philosophical, and poetical), the word has a stable set of meanings and can be used as a focal point for understanding the intellectual environment that these scholars inhabited. Whether "mental content" is really the "correct" translation of maʿnā is far less important than the many illuminating moments that this thought experiment produces. My review will necessarily focus on its interactions with my own research interests, but this book could serve many different readers in very different ways.
It begins with a theory of translation. Key sets out to understand the world of 11th-century scholars who share with us the "experience of having a mind, using language, and enjoying poetry, but this shared experience is impaired by the absence of shared vocabulary" (1). That lack of shared vocabulary leads us to "[slice] the original vocabulary into new divisions" and "[domesticate] that alien conceptual vocabulary to our own" (57). Therefore he decides that instead of imposing his conceptual vocabulary on these scholars and translating them into words that modern English speakers might typically use when talking about theology, philosophy, or poetics, he will consistently translate maʿnā as "mental content," creating deliberately awkward moments for his readers which are designed to remind us "that we are dealing with conceptual vocabulary that is not our own" (2).
Chapter Two, "Precedents," looks at the way that the words ma'nā and ḥaqīqah (which he translates as "accurate") were used before the 11th century, including an interesting account of which words were used to translate key Greek terms in famous 9th-century adaptations of Galenic medicine. (This theme returns in chapter six, where he charts the use and translation of terms in Greek, Latin, Persian, and Arabic discussions of philosophy, to fascinating effect) (155-158).
Early in chapter two, Key also reveals more of what he means by translating maʿnā as "mental content": "maʿnā was the word used to describe what happened in people's heads when they were faced with language" (34). Throughout the book, the author has a slightly teasing way of repeatedly making you think that the maʿnā-related concept currently under discussion could not possibly be translated as "mental content," and then making you realise that it can. The experience is revelatory. This happens repeatedly in his discussion of the use of maʿnā by Sībawayh, Abū Hilāl al-ʿAskarī, al-Jāḥiẓ, the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, and other foundational figures mentioned in this chapter. While he is thus repeatedly and masterfully disorienting and then reorienting the reader into the correct position, Key makes a point that is essential not only to understand his argument, but to understand all Arabic writing of this time period, which is that unlike modern English writers, these Arabic writers shared a technical vocabulary. So while modern English speakers might expect a doctor, a philosopher, and a linguist each to work with their own highly specialised and often mutually incomprehensible vocabulary, in the world that Key describes, all of these people were playing different but comparable language games, and the ball they were using was called maʿnā (48, 56).
Chapter Three, "Translation," explains why Ludwig Wittgenstein's theory of language was so essential to this translation experiment, despite the fact that "Wittgenstein would have hated the Arabic assumptions about maʿnā [because] they represent exactly the kind of stable structure that he thought did not exist" (58). Wittgenstein's theory remains nevertheless useful mainly for its articulation of the way that human beings use language, or "play language games" that adhere to certain rules; the metaphor of maʿnā as a ball in the language game continues throughout Key's work. He explains that he chose to regard maʿnā as having a stable, unambiguous meaning, and to assume that the texts in focus did "make sense" for their authors (an assumption with which not all of his fellow Arabists have agreed, as he reveals) (62, 70) . "I do not think," he writes, "that Abū Hilāl's use of maʿnā was confusing to Abū Hilāl" (78).
It was initially difficult for me to accept this assumption because of the time I have spent lost in the world of mujūn (topsy-turvey) literature, which I have characterised elsewhere as a "crazy game" played with nonsense (in my chapter "Mujūn is a Crazy Game"). This has left me with less faith in the intended clarity of any given text, but I was reassured when Key suggested that his translation theory was designed specifically for texts that offer "a theory about language and cognition" and specifically not designed for "the translation of literature" (80). He offers a range of more idiomatic translations and paraphrases of maʿnā in his conclusion, including, "we think of this as," or "the concept here is," or "there is a certain content to that argument," or "this fits into the mental pigeonhole of," or "this word calls up a bundle of ideas" (234).
In the "Translation" chapter he also explains that he is examining the way that maʿnā was used in "eleventh-century Arabic conceptual vocabulary" and "not necessarily questioning the reality that this vocabulary sought to describe" (83). Key shows concern throughout his work over disentangling our modern preoccupations about the relationship of language to reality (or lack thereof) from those of the 11th-century scholars that he studies; this is no easy task, and the problem arises again and again, becoming an important strand of thought in his argument.
The following four chapters deal in turn with four foundational scholars. Chapter Four, "The Lexicon," is about al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. c. 1018), whom Key regards as providing a "Catholic synthesis" in his writings that placed him at the "center ground of Islamic theology and politics" (12). This is why the discussion begins with al-Rāghib, whose work on the lexicon provides an excellent starting point from which to consider the following three scholars, all of whose thinking returns repeatedly to the questions of language and lexicon that it raised. Crucially, this chapter argues that "whether lexical accuracy relies on divine precedent or human reasoning, the lexicon is still the place that connects specific vocal forms to mental contents, thereby enabling us to understand what God meant" (94) (in reference, for example, to al-Rāghib's highly influential Quranic glossary. He translates alfāẓ here as "vocal forms").
Chapter Five, "Theology," is about Ibn Fūrak (d. 1015), remembered as a foundational thinker in the development of the Ash'arī School of theology. This chapter introduces another way of thinking about maʿnā that I found particularly helpful: maʿnā is "a set of ontological and cognitive pigeonholes" (134). Moreover, these mental categories reflect the world in a way that is "perhaps, by definition true," so although we may have "false cognitions" of maʿnā, (147) accurate accounts of ma'nā provide a method of seeking to understand God and his creation (and this is "Theology," or ilm al-kalām ("the science/discipline/knowledge of speech.")) (111)
Chapter Six, "Philosophy," deals with the famous Ibn Sīna (Avicenna, d. 1037). Because philosophy has always been a weak subject for the present reviewer, I will only note here that Key's method of dividing the dense, brain-teasing subject matter of his book into short sections is extremely helpful, and that despite these divisions, his argument unfolds in a beautifully ordered development. Therefore like al-Jurjānī's (d. 1078 or 1081) Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz (Indications of Quranic Inimitability, the main subject of Chapter Seven, to which I will now skip), Key's work is best read "from start to finish." As al-Jurjānī delightfully puts it in Key's translation: "I am not prepared to tell you, here at the beginning, what will happen at the end of the book, or to name for you the chapters that I intend to compose if God allows me. I do not want you to know what will happen before it does. Know instead that there are chapters that will follow each other, and that this is the first" (209). Key always provides the Arabic of his translated passages in footnotes, which is an excellent practice that could easily and profitably be adopted by all Arabists.
This final chapter of the book is titled "Poetics," and deals with one of the most influential and innovative thinkers about language in human history. This chapter explains how through the process of reading a poem, and reasoning through its metaphors and the connections that they make between mental images, new forms of mental content are created. The poem therefore has the power to create; "a thing that does not exist is being reasoned into existence" (209).
Key focuses on the manneristic tendencies of Arabic poetry in his analysis, thereby allowing himself to insist that "Within the triad of language, mind, and reality, poetry is concerned only with language and mind" (197). My own recent research interests, which centre on the magical power of poetry and the poetic power of magic, led me to question this premise. Key even quotes al-Jurjānī's description of the function of the definite article as "the ineffable magic of clarity" (min siḥr al-bayān). As Johann Bürgel is at pains to prove in The Feathers of Simurgh: The "Licit Magic" of the Arts in Medieval Islam (New York University Press, 1988), with particular reference to the theories of al-Jurjānī's Asrār al-balāghah (Secrets of Eloquence), such references to poetry as "licit magic" (as-siḥr al-ḥalāl) are not metaphors: "the label of licit magic for poetry meant much more than mere word-juggling, mere display of rhetorical devices. It meant, at least for many of those who used it, transmuting reality" (70). This is to say, Bürgel suggests, that al-Jurjānī is not interested only in the new forms of mental contents that poetic metaphor creates, but in the way that these changing forms can affect real life situations. The magic of poetry that al-Jurjānī repeatedly refers to is this power not only to understand God's creation but to interact with and influence it, and in much the same way that a magician does--through making microcosmic connections and analogies in charismatic speech. This might add another dimension to Key's ongoing wrangle with the complex relationship of language, mind, reality, humanity, and divinity that he so masterfully accomplishes in this work.
This is truly an inspired and impressive book, rigorously researched and deeply heartfelt, illuminating some of the most arcane corners of Arabic writing with warmth and humanity. It answered many questions that I had struggled even to articulate. It is essential reading for any scholar with even a peripheral interest in the magic of the Arabic language and the globally significant work of these four giants of the 11th century.