On the Challenges of Translating Ibn Qutaybah, and His Central Place in Western Scholarship

Who would you like to read this? So that was one challenge—working out what he was saying and who he was. Also, in terms of its language, it’s quite a challenge to translate, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge. The main opponent who he names is Abu ʿUbaydah, who dies in 825, and that’s nowhere near his own lifetime. I think they found echoes of their own days. It was only produced in 1998 by Walīd Maḥmūd Khāliṣ in an edition that has both parts. So I think modern scholars were also attracted to the poetry. Why bring it into English? I believe that he’s using the term Shuʿūbī to refer to people he considers bigots. I support that in my other work by looking at definitions of the term Shuʿūbī. So that’s what first attracted me to it, because it was deemed quite important to any discussion of ethnicity and hierarchy. I don’t think—contrary to most scholarship on the phenomenon—that he’s actually dealing with a social movement, a coherent group of people as such. So they thought Arabs were one nation, and Persians another. Why do you think this text became so important for Western Orientalists? Why not, for instance, “Arabophobe”? Some of them are little bits of wisdom. I puzzled over parts of it for a very long time, including why Ibn Qutaybah doesn’t name opponents who are contemporaries in his own time. It’s been brought into discussions of “Who are the Arabs,” “Who are the Persians,” and also anachronistically, “Who are the Iranians?”
It’s also been treated as extremely important in general historiography of early Islam and also the Middle East. The students struggled a bit with the Arabic. This takes us back to the discussion of who were these “Shuʿūbīs” that he mentions. You felt it would be of interest to scholars beyond the field? The (excellent) introduction to Excellence of the Arabs is also available online. By modern standards, we would reckon Ibn Qutaybah an elitist, and so he also quotes lines that this one:
They’re all equal, like the teeth of a donkey:
            The white-haired man is no better than the callow youth! There were a few that really brought the period alive for me. If his opponents aren’t of his time, is there any possibility that he’s boxing shadows? And the Arabs’ elites are as good – or actually, better – as any other elites, especially those of the Persians. So he’s not a simple man, and he was quite fascinating to translate. He is something of a difficult person, from the text, and I hope the tone carries through. And Ibn Qutaybah’s Arab Preeminence was the main source for discussing that problem. I think it’s important that classics—even if created in the modern period—should be known outside of the field. I divide my body among many,
            and I am left with clear, cold water. How do we imagine him as a human being? So for me, I grew up as a scholar reading this, and I wanted to bring it out. It was his treatment that made this book a central focus for any discussions not just of this controversy, the Shuʿūbiyyah controversy, but also really for any historical discussion of ethnicity and hierarchy in Islam. There’s a lot to puzzle over. I would really like to reach anyone interested in questions of identity, ethnicity, and the formation of Muslim thought—this is a class I teach here at the AKU in London, and I’m assigning this text. The first translation challenge was trying to maintain a thread to his argument: to give some coherence to what Ibn Qutaybah was writing. What kind of person was he? This point has been made many times, but they were looking for the equivalent of nations, and they thought that they could find something like nations in Arab Preeminence. I’ve read this book with students of Arabic in Leiden as a guest lecturer, and it was really good fun. At Harvard, we read the first part, although at that time not all of it was available. The second part of this interview will appear next Wednesday. Why did you decide on the translation of Shuʿūbīs as “bigots”? He had some affinity for Iranian history. Roy Mottahedeh had asked the question: What was the Shuʿūbiyyah controversy all about? Not only mine—the first part of this book has been part of the curriculum of American and British Orientalists for at least the last 50 or 75 years. He was very knowledgeable about Persian materials. And a term like “Arabophobe” would be a bit too literary or a bit too academic, and I think he’s blunt. I read Ibn Qutaybah’s book (the Khāliṣ edition), and then I read everything around it, and I began to form opinions about the significance of it. And it’s quite interesting because this term carries through into the modern period, and when you look at people who are defending Arabs, they accuse people who would express any negative opinions about Arabs as Shuʿūbīs. Who is Ibn Qutaybah? I landed on the idea that he’s a cultural conservative who can be a bit humorless at times. There are several texts with similar titles written by authors, but they do not survive anymore. For example, he cites a poet who says:
Oh for a pair of sandals made of hyena hide! It rewards, but it’s difficult, so it’s a good text for teaching. But he also was a man of incredible breadth of knowledge, and if you look at all the other works that he has penned, he was knowledgeable about the Qur’an, about hadith, about literature. Because it conveys the sentiment of how he perceives his opponents. Also, students of Arabic. As you know, there are two parts to this text, and I translated the first. Also, the poetry is quite engaging.             A man with sore feet and no shoes will wear any kind of shoe
The point here is that while some of the Arabs are poor and do things like ride unlawful animals, eat crow-meat, or wear funny shoes, wealthy Arabs are not like this. Advertisements

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I share the broth in my pot,
            but you keep the pot for yourself. Because the opponent isn’t quoted, really. Yes, I do, and I only wish we had more texts from the period that have similar titles so we could better contextualize it in its own times. This was one of the questions planned for my PhD general exams, and I had a year to think about it. I think he found them to be bigoted. Sarah Bowen Savant is Associate Professor at The Aga Khan University, London, the author of The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran (2013), and most recently the translator of the first section of Ibn Qutaybah’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Arab Preeminence.”
For Savant, like many others, her educational biography “very much proceeded with Ibn Qutaybah in tow.” In this first part of a two-part discussion, she talks about Western Orientalists’ focus on Ibn Qutaybah, why bring it into English, and who she’d like to see—beyond specialists—reading this text. I decided, at that point, that I wanted to try to translate Ibn Qutaybah’s book. What were the particular translation challenges? It’s an act of name-calling. So how did you imagine the voice of the opponent? He cites it as part of an argument that we should look at what the well-heeled Arabs do – not the poor – when we think about who the Arabs are. How did you come to translating Ibn Qutaybah’s Arab Preeminence? The other challenge was who he was writing against, and trying to figure that out: What was the voice of the opponent? An argument supported by poetry has some weight, including for modern scholars. I was only familiar, for a very long time, with the first part, and not even all of it. They’re always very similar and repeated, and basically boil down to calling Shuʿūbīs bigots against Arabs. To that end, I spent a lot of time trying to think of the voice of Ibn Qutabyah. The term nationalism is anachronistic, but this text nonetheless also brought specifically into discussions of nationalism. Could you cite a few of your favorites, among the poems? The poem shows the hospitality of the Arabs. I thought scholars beyond the field would be interested in it because of its central place within Western scholarship. As a graduate student working on this book, I was perplexed, and I learned a lot by working on it. The thing that moved me to work on it was that Prof. Do you think the Western focus on this text is justified? Prior to that, this text’s study in the West runs backs to the nineteenth century, in Germany and Hungary, with most notably Ignác Goldziher and his Muslim Studies (1889-1890). And so, my educational biography very much proceeded with Ibn Qutaybah in tow. Ibn Qutaybah follows it by saying that the poet deprived himself and was left with water because he had given his guests the milk that he had. It’s a blunt term. But you never find, either in the classical period or the modern period, anyone saying, “I’m a Shuʿūbī.” It’s not a self-definition. So what’s going on? It’s a term that comes out of the Qur’an, and again I spent quite a long time thinking about these people. Do you, all fat and soft, scoff at me, because you see
            I’ve wasted away by doing right by others?