Sarah Savant on Ibn Qutaybah’s (Probable) Raison D’être, His Lack of Humor, and Directions for Future Study

And I’m quite interested in chasing them up, and trying to see exactly how he’s putting together the book. It’s at an angle. But you really can’t do the same with regards to Turks. That they’re stingy. It was an argument, and it was written in a specific time period. Do you have any guess as to a reason for this smaller reception? Do we know how his work was received by the so-called Shuʿūbīs, his opponents? And during his lifetime, as we write about in the introduction, this is really where the threat to the stability of the caliphate is coming from. It is true that you can find parallel passages between the books, and for that reason it was very useful to us, when we were editing this text. Ibn Qutaybah is dealing with, in one case, a poem where the poet described his guest as follows: “They spent the night crowded around a basket filled with choice dates,/ fingernails dug in like knives./ Next morning the date stones were piled high, where they had slept:/ poor men don’t throw the stones away.”
The point of the poem is, as he says, that some people eat the stones, and this is meant to be an indication of how poor they are. It’s not as if, in his period, it was a time for nostalgia. So I’m quite curious to get a sense of Ibn Qutaybah as a total literary figure in later periods, how he was received, and what parts of his corpus was received. The third/ninth century is very early in the tradition. We may find it when we get it digitized and compared against the other works. I think that it’s just another way that he’s referring to them. On the other hand, we see that manifestly people are not equal. There might be. I have text reuse data now, because I have digital files of those books. But at least from what we can see, it doesn’t seem to have had the same impact as his other works, or the same wide reception. So there’s a bit of sarcasm. There are accidents, of course, of what passes through manuscripts, and texts were fragile. That’s what makes this text very important, because you don’t often find that kind of clarity in our sources, where scholars are making these distinctions. Both terms are actually also used in the ʿIqd synonymously. Ibn Qutaybah is from a very different region and a different orientation. And the distance separating Khurasan from what he’s calling Persia is important. Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, in al-Andalus, has a section where he has a statement that he credits to Shuʿūbīs; he then cites from our book here, and then includes what he labels as a response by the Shuʿūbīs. Just as there are different colors of the earth, so there are different types of people. But do we have a response to him? Why capitalize “Proponents of Equality” in your translation? The second part of the book may have an entirely different reception history. His point is that humanity is varied, it takes all types. The person who’s citing them is distorting the sayings or poems, he suggests. And by encyclopedia I mean, of course, things like the ʿUyūn al-Akhbār. So I do think there is a bit of indirect critique in this book. In terms of language, his language belongs in its day. To me, the elephant in the room is the Turks. He was a man of the court, very familiar with the literary scene of Baghdad. There might be something about the search for permanence that is embedded within empires, and in their literary sources. He’s nostalgic. This may be true of empires—that in the periods that were retrospectively their golden ages, they were already longing for the past. It’s hard to say for any reception history for a book from this period. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, the late Umayyad and early Abbasid translator and prose writer, was from Persia. He might be saying, They claim they’re proponents of equality, but they’re really not. So what was really important to him? Potentially. I am not of that opinion. 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.”  
The first part of the interview ran last week on ArabLit and on the Library of Arabic Literature website. I’m particularly interested in the intertextual elements of the tradition. And at the very end of the book, he also makes a small stand against the Arabs “whose own bigotry matches the Bigots’.”
I think in the total context of the book, it’s a small part. It’s hard to say. But it’s not meant to be an indication that all Arabs like to eat date stones, or that they’re cheap. When he is speaking negatively about Persia, he’s speaking about those who are championing a heritage, as he sees it, that is pre-Islamic, that’s rooted in Fars—so a different part of the Iranian territory—that has a whole different set of histories, mythologies. We know by citations that it was received in al-Andalus, and we can see also that Ibn Qutaybah’s other books, although I don’t know yet for this one, were received widely in Iran. This is a shared opinion? That is one of the interesting elements of this text, that there’s this nostalgia written through it, and it’s not necessarily conversant with what’s going on in his day. For instance, that some people delight in the smells of sewage over and above aloe wood. The section on Khurasan is fascinating, and that was one of the passages that struck my eye very early, in that he distinguishes between Khurasan and Persia. This nostalgia is wired into the Abbasids, going back to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ himself, who in his al-Adab al-Kabīr begins with a comment about the good old days. It’s also interesting to see what’s really important to an author, because generally if an author uses materials more than once, they’re important to them. As I mentioned, you have the Turks, who he doesn’t address, and his opponents are all dead. He evokes negative points his opponents are meant to have made about Arabs, including, for example, that they drink camel’s blood and stomach juices. Ibn Qutaybah’s books subsequently survive and circulate within Khurasan. So for him, the operative ways of referring to territory within Iran would instead be regional, or they would include this notion of Persia, which is a substitute or an alternative to Iran but more restricted in territory. In this second part of the interview, Savant talks with ArabLit about fresh ways to read this text and additional directions for scholarship, Ibn Qutaybah’s (lack of) humor, and the scholar’s probable raison d’être. He clarifies by saying that every group has the poor, and they shouldn’t be mistaken for the greater part of the Arabs. That’s part of a polemic as well, because he’s trying to explain that he’s dealing with a problem—you referred to it as trying to thread a needle—that, from his perspective, on the one hand Islam would seem to say that all people are equal. And that’s his point, too. We know there are commentaries, for instance, on Adab al-Kātib. So he’s not engaging with what’s going on around him? In a way, it’s a justification for hierarchy. I think sometimes he cites poetry that came from a context that had lots of humor, originally, in the way the poetry was used—but he’s taken it out of that context. Otherwise, it wasn’t encyclopedic. I don’t think it was as well-received as his other works. So he goes through lots of differences of people, as for instance men who are attracted to old women instead of the young, the fleshy instead of the thin. We don’t know, but I would guess not. I think it firmly reflects a very widely held position among elites in his day. I suspect he’s taking poetry that had a lively humor, and he’s strong-arming it into his argument. Was it translated into any other languages in its time or soon after, for instance Persian? He worked in the same period as the codification of different sorts of knowledge, including hadith. his use of clichés and stock language in circulation? The Abbasids, at least as far as I read them, had nostalgia from the minute of their birth. A lot of the arguments are like that—where he’s taking what someone has apparently said, something that is negative about the Arabs, and he tries to explain why they’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood what apparently were well-known sayings or poems. If you look at a lot of the evidence that he marshals, when he cites poetry, you can find it throughout the written tradition—these same pieces. We can still get echoes of the original context sometimes, but it can be very difficult. But we don’t have that sort of trace of reception now for this book. He could be quite creative in thinking about poetry. They’re blind to the real meaning. Ibn Qutaybah goes to some length to make the Khurasanians the equivalent of the Ansar to the Arabs. You can speak, probably with some safety, about the values of Arabs in this period against the Persian bureaucracy and Persian courtiers. Importantly, the idea of Iran in this period is rooted in a pre-Islamic past and is not part of his vocabulary. This is the period from which we have, eventually, some of the most authoritative works on hadith. So there’s an important connection between Iraq and Khurasan that he is defending. It’s not absolutely early—others were writing much earlier, but still quite early in the total of the span of the written tradition. That being said, when he turns to the topic of identity or ethnicity, he’s a cultural conservative. The defense of Arabs and Arab values at a time when he perceived them to be under threat, when he perceived the caliphate perhaps to be losing focus on its origins. There are parts of the books that overlap, but it’s not as simple as that. He himself had roots in Khurasan, and also the elites in the period were very much connected to Khurasan. So is there sarcasm or irony, or forms of humor that he’s using, that are difficult for the contemporary reader to parse? The people he was accusing were dead. We now have methods to do this, and this is part of my current research, working on how texts are reused, using algorithms to do that. So he’s working in an extremely important period for knowledge-creation, and he’s part of it, he’s right in the thick of it. And we don’t have everything that survives, we only probably have something like 10-20 percent of the literary tradition as it once existed. In terms of other reception, we don’t really know. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ For #WorldRefugeeDay, Four Poems and an InterviewCategories: Library of Arabic Literature We could probably productively re-read all of Ibn Qutaybah’s works thinking about the Turks as a specific question. As you worked on this, reading in and around it, what were the areas you thought deserved additional attention and interest from scholars? I don’t think it’s a major concession on his part that the Arabs have bigots. Were they a separate faction? What do you see as Ibn Qutaybah’s raison d’être? These, he would like to distinguish. He also seems to use frequent exaggeration. This interview also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature blog. Why pen this shorter argument, when he’s already written a longer work on this topic? There’s definitely a Golden Age articulated by him, which is why I used the term “cultural conservative.”
In terms of his language, what do we know about his originality vs. I’ve really tried to find some humor in him, but I find him humorless. Even, in a certain way, you can reuse and take apart materials from the Tafsīr. You’re referring to the part of the book where he mentions he’s treated this elsewhere, in his ʿUyūn al-Akhbār? And again, it’s not a coherent group, it’s an epithet. It’s not that ʿUyūn al-Akhbār contains a longer version of the same argument. The others of his works—and in fact works by other authors that were reused frequently—tend to be more encyclopedic. I capitalized it, however, because just as we say these are the “Bigots,” he’s using a parallel phrase. Whether these are in fact original literary pieces that were actually written in response to each other, or whether he has assembled something of his own, I don’t think is quite clear. But it’s not the same with an argument like Arab Preeminence. How do we explain this as just? He wasn’t himself Arab, so would he have felt the importance for making a space for himself? These are obviously, in his view, insults being targeted at Arabs. That’s the one. There was a paper given a few years ago, suggesting they might be a separate faction from the Shuʿūbīs. The other issue is the reception of both parts of this book.