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

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.

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.

As you worked on this, reading in and around it, what were the areas you thought deserved additional attention and interest from scholars?

I’m particularly interested in the intertextual elements of the tradition. The third/ninth century is very early in the tradition. It’s not absolutely early—others were writing much earlier, but still quite early in the total of the span of the written tradition. 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. And I’m quite interested in chasing them up, and trying to see exactly how he’s putting together the book. 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.

The other issue is the reception of both parts of this book. 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. 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.

Do we know how his work was received by the so-called Shuʿūbīs, his opponents?

The people he was accusing were dead.

But do we have a response to him? Potentially. 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. 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.

In terms of other reception, we don’t really know. To me, the elephant in the room is the Turks. You can speak, probably with some safety, about the values of Arabs in this period against the Persian bureaucracy and Persian courtiers. But you really can’t do the same with regards to Turks. 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.

So I do think there is a bit of indirect critique in this book.

Was it translated into any other languages in its time or soon after, for instance Persian?

We don’t know, but I would guess not.

I don’t think it was as well-received as his other works. I have text reuse data now, because I have digital files of those books. We know there are commentaries, for instance, on Adab al-Kātib. But we don’t have that sort of trace of reception now for this book. We may find it when we get it digitized and compared against the other works.

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. 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.

Do you have any guess as to a reason for this smaller reception?

It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say for any reception history for a book from this period. There are accidents, of course, of what passes through manuscripts, and texts were fragile. Otherwise, it wasn’t encyclopedic. It was an argument, and it was written in a specific time period.

The others of his works—and in fact works by other authors that were reused frequently—tend to be more encyclopedic. And by encyclopedia I mean, of course, things like the ʿUyūn al-Akhbār. Even, in a certain way, you can reuse and take apart materials from the Tafsīr. But it’s not the same with an argument like Arab Preeminence.

The second part of the book may have an entirely different reception history.

Why pen this shorter argument, when he’s already written a longer work on this topic?

You’re referring to the part of the book where he mentions he’s treated this elsewhere, in his ʿUyūn al-Akhbār?

That’s the one.

There are parts of the books that overlap, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not that ʿUyūn al-Akhbār contains a longer version of the same argument. 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.

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.

So what was really important to him?

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’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. his use of clichés and stock language in circulation?

In terms of language, his language belongs in its day.

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. That they’re stingy. These are obviously, in his view, insults being targeted at Arabs. He clarifies by saying that every group has the poor, and they shouldn’t be mistaken for the greater part of the Arabs.

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. The person who’s citing them is distorting the sayings or poems, he suggests. They’re blind to the real meaning.

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. But it’s not meant to be an indication that all Arabs like to eat date stones, or that they’re cheap.

He also seems to use frequent exaggeration. For instance, that some people delight in the smells of sewage over and above aloe wood.

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. On the other hand, we see that manifestly people are not equal. How do we explain this as just? His point is that humanity is varied, it takes all types. Just as there are different colors of the earth, so there are different types of people. 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.

In a way, it’s a justification for hierarchy.

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. I don’t think it’s a major concession on his part that the Arabs have bigots.

He wasn’t himself Arab, so would he have felt the importance for making a space for himself?

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. Importantly, the idea of Iran in this period is rooted in a pre-Islamic past and is not part of his vocabulary. 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. He himself had roots in Khurasan, and also the elites in the period were very much connected to Khurasan. Ibn Qutaybah’s books subsequently survive and circulate within Khurasan. So there’s an important connection between Iraq and Khurasan that he is defending. And the distance separating Khurasan from what he’s calling Persia is important.

Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, the late Umayyad and early Abbasid translator and prose writer, was from Persia. Ibn Qutaybah is from a very different region and a different orientation. Ibn Qutaybah goes to some length to make the Khurasanians the equivalent of the Ansar to the Arabs.

This is a shared opinion?

I think it firmly reflects a very widely held position among elites in his day.

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. These, he would like to distinguish. 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.

Why capitalize “Proponents of Equality” in your translation? Were they a separate faction?

There was a paper given a few years ago, suggesting they might be a separate faction from the Shuʿūbīs. I am not of that opinion. I think that it’s just another way that he’s referring to them. Both terms are actually also used in the ʿIqd synonymously.

I capitalized it, however, because just as we say these are the “Bigots,” he’s using a parallel phrase. And again, it’s not a coherent group, it’s an epithet. He might be saying, They claim they’re proponents of equality, but they’re really not. And that’s his point, too. So there’s a bit of sarcasm.

So is there sarcasm or irony, or forms of humor that he’s using, that are difficult for the contemporary reader to parse?

There might be. I’ve really tried to find some humor in him, but I find him humorless.

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. I suspect he’s taking poetry that had a lively humor, and he’s strong-arming it into his argument. We can still get echoes of the original context sometimes, but it can be very difficult.

What do you see as Ibn Qutaybah’s raison d’être?

He was a man of the court, very familiar with the literary scene of Baghdad. He could be quite creative in thinking about poetry. He worked in the same period as the codification of different sorts of knowledge, including hadith. This is the period from which we have, eventually, some of the most authoritative works on hadith. 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.

That being said, when he turns to the topic of identity or ethnicity, he’s a cultural conservative. He’s nostalgic. 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 not as if, in his period, it was a time for nostalgia. The Abbasids, at least as far as I read them, had nostalgia from the minute of their birth. This may be true of empires—that in the periods that were retrospectively their golden ages, they were already longing for the past. There might be something about the search for permanence that is embedded within empires, and in their literary sources.

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. As I mentioned, you have the Turks, who he doesn’t address, and his opponents are all dead.

So he’s not engaging with what’s going on around him?

It’s at an angle.

We could probably productively re-read all of Ibn Qutaybah’s works thinking about the Turks as a specific question.

This interview also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature blog.


Categories: Library of Arabic Literature

2 replies


  1. When Arabophones Weren’t Arabs: Ibn Qutaybah and Identity Formation During the Early Period of Islam – Arabic Literature (in English)

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