‘Excellence of the Arabs’: Ibn Qutaybah and the Cultural Authority of Poetry

Peter Webb: Very early on, Arabs became associated with being producers of poetry. Sometimes, he would just cite lines of poetry to show an existence of a word in the past, and you’re to infer from this that the word could not have existed unless the Arabs had been thinking about language in a very serious way and had developed a very perfect language system. One of the advantages is that, in other projects that I’m working on, I’m seeing many of these poems coming back. In the early period of Islam, from a genealogical perspective, there was a change, for a number of reasons. So Arabic must be the world’s best language, the fastest and most efficient. And even though they, for instance, hadn’t written books on horses, they had developed this great horse vocabulary. That book connected horses with prophecy, because it said the Arab horses either originated as the horses of Suleiman or as the horses of Ismail. PW: From a historical perspective, one of the things that seems somewhat clear was that we had a matrilineal society in pre-Islamic Arabia—you established your identity on the genealogy from the direction of your mother. So that does imply that there is a relatively well-known shared body of poetry. And there are examples of warrior queens of pre-Islamic Arabia that pop up, Zenobia of Palmyra is a famous example. What’s important for Ibn Qutaybah in early Islam is this mastery of language, this ability to observe nature, observe the signs, and produce poetry, and I don’t think he would consider gender to be a barrier to that. Are certain forms of women’s power placed in an unattainable past? So when he was saying that the diviner girl who’s predicting the deaths of different people—you could also find examples where men were doing that job. Did you have a horse expert read the text? They have an interest in poetry, a broad knowledge of poetry, and a nostalgic love of poetry. PW: No—but in order to figure out how to translate some of these words, I had to read up on the anatomy of horses in much greater detail than I ever thought I would. So one of the jobs was to figure out where the poems came from, and to look at the bigger context, in order to figure out how to translate the poem. Not only does he say the Arabs were the best of all poets, he supports his claims about astronomical and meteorological knowledge with poetry. These are the people who brought Islam to the rest of the world, so it’s important that they’re okay. And in order to make this story, the Indian writer who originated it related a fairly long fable, and it took a couple pages to come to the point that a usurper king can become legitimate. I don’t think there’s any poem in here that is not recorded anywhere else. There was a story within that about kingship, and I think the moral of the story was that, although a king’s legitimacy based on his ancestry, all kings originate with some usurper, at some point in time. The terminology goes quite far beyond what can be translated into English. And what I quite liked about it is that it was tremendously educational, and it compelled me, in having to translate these poems, to really figure out what they said, and to participate in the intellectual culture of ninth-century Iraq. And, when they were articulating arguments about the Arabs, or about certain forms of cultural endeavor, these lines would materialize, and they would use them to help their argument. For instance, there is the Bedouin woman who tells off those ogling her with poetry, and the girl soothsayer who can not only predict the deaths of others, but can even suggest how to avoid them. As a result, poetry became not only an art form, but it was so closely identified with Arab identity, history, and knowledge, that quoting poetry was essentially about finding facts. Not only were the poems challenging in that respect, the manuscript itself had quite a lot of variations in the way the poems were narrated. Whether a reader would’ve known all of those lines—I doubt it. But you enjoyed it. So in Ibn Qutaybah’s time, women were not given much political importance, but stories were remembered about women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and these formed a body of knowledge, which he drew on. This is tied to the idea that the Arabic of the Qurʾan is God’s language, and therefore Arabic is the world’s greatest language, and therefore the greatness of the Arabs is revealed in the breadth of their vocabulary. By Ibn Qutaybah’s time, it was firmly established that poetry was a very, very special mark of the Arabs. One of the things that Ibn Qutaybah makes a very strong point of is that the Arab excellence is based on their wonderful vocabulary. How do you see the book’s relationship to creation of gender ideas and ideals? Beyond horse terminology, what were the other translation challenges? But at the same time, the horse poetry has an enormous array of extremely rare and difficult Arabic words. The easy answer would be they reject it as a Dark Ages before Islamic enlightenment. Women appear, in his discussion of pre-Islamic times, in very empowered positions. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Sunday Submissions: PEN Translation Prize Open NowCategories: Library of Arabic Literature Can you talk a bit about the cultural authority of poetry? So there was plenty of scope in which Ibn Qutaybah to imagine that women also embodied an eloquent Arabic ideal, which is something that the men had as well. Once again, the maxims show that Arabs are participating on a philosophical or an intellectual level equal to other peoples, and perhaps they’re even doing it better, because the other people need to tell long-winded stories. I do believe I found all of them somewhere. Because the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia were the first people to join Muhammad’s message, you need them to be useful people. Poetry was also associated with the knowledge and the history and the tales of the Arabs. PW: The overall question is about ways in which Muslims have regarded Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. So I think the notion of an Arab in early Islam, in the late seventh and eighth centuries, was a horse-mounted warrior elite. The prose sections are also short, easy-to-memorize bits that feel very much tied to an oral tradition. There are also examples where eloquent women are speaking, but you can also find men giving very similar speeches. The rush to repudiate pre-Islamic Arabia was certainly not there at all. But there are all sorts of different takes on pre-Islam. For instance, his respectful discussion of fortune-telling and then telling us to reject it. Several things happened to shift the status from matrilineal genealogy towards a more patrilineal genealogy. Ibn Qutaybah’s audience collectively knew tens of thousands of lines of poems. Their ability to cover ground quickly, and to use horses to their advantage in battle, is very important. They’re part of a known body of work? So horses were something that was very important to them, and it was basically the object that enabled them to make these conquests. Thus, you see, the Indians had to tell a whole story in order to make a point, but the Arabs were able to sum it up in a couple words. People writing two or three generations before Ibn Qutaybah, when Arabs really were a powerful faction across the caliphate, wrote all sorts of very nice things about pre-Islamic Arabia. Learning the poetry by heart, being aware of its obscure words and obscure meanings, was one of the most important things you needed to do in order to participate as a cultured member in Ibn Qutaybah’s urban Iraqi society. And as the Arabs articulated their genealogy, they wanted a prophetic lineage for their horses as well. But of course Ibn Qutaybah, in this book, shows this really isn’t the case. They had the ability to compose good poetry, and they had put their knowledge in poetry. The story ends with an Arabic maxim that says the exact same thing in about four or five words. But I think most readers would’ve known most of the lines. Can we talk about horses, and the work they do? As you note, many of these sources are from early in the formation of an Arab identity, or even before such a conception, and so much of it pre-Islamic. Also, the aphorisms were important because they show that the Arabs were clever, and they were able to think in a conceptual way just like everybody else. The fact that Arabs have a mastery of poetry is something that distinguishes them as a unique quality of their learning. I think Ibn Qutaybah has a very middle-of-the-road one. Not by Ibn Qutaybah, but by his contemporaries. Is his other work on horses still extant? An example of this is when a really weird word appears—a word that Ibn Qutaybah, or you and I, don’t know—but it’s in a pre-Islamic poem, and that shows the Arabs had developed a very advanced vocabulary. It’s very difficult to translate some of them without knowing the context, because you don’t know who the pronouns are referring to, or where the actions are going. One of those that survived is by Ibn al-Kalbi. As we mentioned earlier, the readers of this book would’ve known this context, because these poems were circulating in an oral format everywhere. In Ibn Qutaybah’s imagination, he would probably have thought that, in pre-Islamic Arabia, people sat around a campfire and used all these very complex words for horses when talking about horse husbandry. They understood pre-Islamic Arabic as a linguistic ideal, with a climax in the Qurʾan, and therefore there was a respect for pre-Islamic Arabian language, because there was a respect for the language of the Qurʾan. Ibn Qutaybah takes an even-handed middle ground, where he praises what they did in pre-Islamic times, yet admits that maybe we won’t continue with all those things. Poetry was another realm in which women were remembered. So they have this difficulty of needing to praise pre-Islamic times whilst at the same time recognizing that Islam had replaced it. But I think even the non-poetry specialists would’ve known quite a few of them. You had the genealogy of horses, or knowing the pedigree of horses. There’s a nice example in a book written by al-Tanūkhī, who wrote a large collection of tales, Nishwār al-Muḥāḍar. You could pick out a line or two, that had a point that was relevant to some cultural argument that you wanted to make, and the poetry would be considered proof of that. I think Ibn Qutaybah would be extremely happy to hear that, because he could then point to the fact that Arabic is much more advanced in its horse vocabulary than the European languages, proving his point—the Arabs think about horses more. Also, there’s a connection with the way in which Muslims thought about the Arabic language and Islam: They needed pre-Islamic times to be an era of good Arabic. The mere fact that Arabs had all this jargon for horses was, to Ibn Qutaybah, proof that their language was amazing, that they had sat down and thought about horses in a serious way. There are a lot of monographs about horses that survive as well. Ibn Qutaybah was interested in the most difficult of Arabic poems, because he wanted the ones with the most obscure words, and then he was often quoting the poems out of context. Poetry is a key part of Ibn Qutaybah’s proof-making. PW: Here, you have two kinds of prose: one is sajʿ, a rhyming prose, and the other is the prose maxims, another cornerstone of what would’ve been considered quintessentially Arab culture. Poetry was evidence of obscure words, which was associated with the greatness of the Arabic language. In the second part of this discussion, Webb talks about poetry as proof, the roles of women in proving Arab excellence, and the translation challenges — including the varied horse terminology. PW: Making sense of the poetry. When one line comes at you out of context, you need to go back to the original, read the whole poem. In the first part of a two-part discussion with Webb, he talked about the construction of Arab identity during the early period of Islam, the importance of translating Ibn Quataybah, and why this book should be interesting to those who study medieval history. So horses have a political and cultural importance. So you have all these urban Iraqis in the ninth and tenth century, singing poems about the desert, and they’d never even visited it! But they loved the idea of using desert imagery in poetry. PW: It’s a bit of both. Very frequently, when we look at tales of history of pre-Islamic Arabia, these aphorisms appear in them, and they’re intimately connected with stories of pre-Islamic heroes. PW: It was fun! There would’ve been some people, among Ibn Qutaybah’s contemporaries, who would’ve known all of them. Most importantly, the Muslim conquerors used horses in their conquest wars. The way in which pre-Islamic jāhilīyah is articulated in Arabic writing by Ibn Qutaybah and many other people exhibits this plus and minus, hot and cold, where there is a tremendous effort to rehabilitate pre-Islamic Arabia, while, at the same time, a certain unease at those things that were going on in pre-Islamic Arabia that should be repudiated. There were some people, especially writing in the generations before him, who really tried to give a positive spin to pre-Islamic Arabia. So it would have behooved them to show how great their ancestors were. Peter Webb, a lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at the University of Leiden, is author of Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (2016), and editor-translator of the entertaining second part of the Library of Arabic Literature’s   The Excellence of the Arabs, “Excellence of Arab Learning.”
In a two-part discussion with Webb’s co-translator Sarah Savant (one, two), we talked about the challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah, his central place in Western scholarship, and his apparent incapacity for humor. And now I have a much more personal relationship with the poetry. So these aren’t obscure poems, that only Ibn Qutaybah would’ve known. Some of these maxims were connected with memories of Arab history. We can understand this from a very practical perspective: The early Muslim elite had come from pre-Islamic Arabia, and these were their ancestors, and they were now in charge of the caliphate. Horses formed a chapter in one of his books, Jāmi‘ al-Nah w al-Kabīr, which is a two-volume work in the modern Arabic edition, which is just an absolute maze of poetry.