‘A Treasury of Virtues’: Ali’s Influence on Contemporary Arabic Literature

I recently interviewed Tahera Qutbuddin — editor and translator of  A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of Ali, with the One Hundred Proverbs for the Library of Arabic Literature blog. She talked about the way in which Ali b. Abi Talib’s sermons, proverbs, and poetry influenced the course of Arabic literature.

From the interview:

9780814729144How did Ali’s work influence later Arabic sermons, proverbs, poetry, and prose writing – all the way to the current time?

Ali’s sayings and sermons were recorded in many early literary and historical texts, and in very early individual compilations. Their influence goes back several centuries before the Treasury of Virtues was compiled. It was the texts’ enormous presence in his world that led al-Qadi al-Quda’i, the compiler of the Treasury of Virtues, and other compilers like him, to bring them together in one place.

I mentioned in my introduction to the Treasury of Virtues that Ali influenced Abdel Hamid al-Katib, who was the chief chancery official for the Umayyads. The risalah [epistle] is at the head of the written Arabic prose tradition, and Abdel Hamid is credited with being the founder of Arabic prose, being the author of many of the earliest Arabic epistles aspiring to high style. After he became famous, Abdel Hamid was asked, what was your training in eloquence and how did you become eloquent? He said: I memorized the words of Ali.

The influence of Ali’s words is widely acknowledged by scholars, but this is something that has not been documented carefully in Western academia. In Arabic-language materials and in Persian and Urdu, some work has been done tracing the influence of Ali’s words on the development of Arabic literature. Mutanabbi, for example, who is considered one of the greatest Arabic poets, was famous for his gnomic verse, and Abdel Zahra’ al-Husayni al-Khatib has published a book tracing the themes of Ali’s sayings in Mutanabbi’s poetry (titled Mi’at shahid wa-shahid).

Abdel Hamid al-Katib and Mutanabbi are two very telling examples, but they’re not the only ones. The tenth century Syrian preacher Ibn Nubatah is yet another example of famous adeebs [authors] being influenced by Ali’s words. And there are many more, poets, litterateurs, orators, and preachers who acknowledged the words of Ali—their style, their themes, their actual phrases—as being foundational in their own training and output.

Mutanabbi has been called – by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra – the “brother of Shakespeare.” Do you think there is a metaphor that works with Ali, that would help English-language audiences to understand his importance?

It’s hard to name a single person in the Western canon who embodies the multiple aspects of Ali’s appeal. Like Shakespeare’s importance for English drama, Ali had a seminal influence on Arabic literature, but he was also a spiritual leader, a wise teacher, a dynamic orator, a jurisprudent and judge, a political ruler, and a military commander.

Can you tell us about Ali’s influence on contemporary literature?

Modern Muslim preachers regularly study Ali’s words and cite them; the Shia all the time, but Sunnis frequently as well. Because Ali’s words reflect fundamental values of the Qur’an and core teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and they do so in such beautifully persuasive language, Muslim religious scholars draw upon them as a key resource when putting together their own sermons.

Speaking in terms of the genre of oratory: The oratorical tradition, of which Ali’s words were a key component, influenced the risalah [epistolary] genre, and then the risalah—particularly in terms of its style—influenced a genre of fiction that came a little later, which is that of the maqamat, which are kind of quasi-picaresque novelettes or short stories with an anti-hero. The influence of Ali’s oratory —principally the parallelism, the rhythm, the rhyme—trickles down into the various genres of Arabic prose. Scholars have shown that the maqamat genre had its own influence on modern literature. Modern Arabic literature drew a lot on European forms, but for the traditional aspect, the modern novel, short stories, and drama often looked back at the maqamat for inspiration.

You can read the whole interview on the Library of Arabic Literature blog.