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

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. 

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.

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.

Poetry is a key part of Ibn Qutaybah’s proof-making. Not only does he say the Arabs were the best of all poets, he supports his claims about astronomical and meteorological knowledge with poetry. Can you talk a bit about the cultural authority of poetry?

Peter Webb: Very early on, Arabs became associated with being producers of poetry. The fact that Arabs have a mastery of poetry is something that distinguishes them as a unique quality of their learning.

By Ibn Qutaybah’s time, it was firmly established that poetry was a very, very special mark of the Arabs. They had the ability to compose good poetry, and they had put their knowledge in poetry. 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. They have an interest in poetry, a broad knowledge of poetry, and a nostalgic love of poetry. 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.

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. 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.

Ibn Qutaybah’s audience collectively knew tens of thousands of lines of poems. 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.

One of the things that Ibn Qutaybah makes a very strong point of is that the Arab excellence is based on their wonderful vocabulary. 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. 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.

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.

Poetry was evidence of obscure words, which was associated with the greatness of the Arabic language. Poetry was also associated with the knowledge and the history and the tales of the Arabs.

The prose sections are also short, easy-to-memorize bits that feel very much tied to an oral tradition.

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. Some of these maxims were connected with memories of Arab history. 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. 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.

There’s a nice example in a book written by al-Tanūkhī, who wrote a large collection of tales, Nishwār al-Muḥāḍar. 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. 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. The story ends with an Arabic maxim that says the exact same thing in about four or five words.

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.

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. So Arabic must be the world’s best language, the fastest and most efficient.

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. For instance, his respectful discussion of fortune-telling and then telling us to reject it.

PW: The overall question is about ways in which Muslims have regarded Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. The easy answer would be they reject it as a Dark Ages before Islamic enlightenment.

But of course Ibn Qutaybah, in this book, shows this really isn’t the case. Because the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia were the first people to join Muhammad’s message, you need them to be useful people. These are the people who brought Islam to the rest of the world, so it’s important that they’re okay. 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.

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.

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. 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.

So they have this difficulty of needing to praise pre-Islamic times whilst at the same time recognizing that Islam had replaced it. But there are all sorts of different takes on pre-Islam. I think Ibn Qutaybah has a very middle-of-the-road one. There were some people, especially writing in the generations before him, who really tried to give a positive spin to pre-Islamic Arabia.

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. So it would have behooved them to show how great their ancestors were. 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. The rush to repudiate pre-Islamic Arabia was certainly not there at all.

Women appear, in his discussion of pre-Islamic times, in very empowered positions. 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. Are certain forms of women’s power placed in an unattainable past? How do you see the book’s relationship to creation of gender ideas and ideals?

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. And there are examples of warrior queens of pre-Islamic Arabia that pop up, Zenobia of Palmyra is a famous example.

In the early period of Islam, from a genealogical perspective, there was a change, for a number of reasons. Several things happened to shift the status from matrilineal genealogy towards a more patrilineal genealogy.

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. 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. There are also examples where eloquent women are speaking, but you can also find men giving very similar speeches. Poetry was another realm in which women were remembered.

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. 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.

Can we talk about horses, and the work they do? Is his other work on horses still extant?

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.

There are a lot of monographs about horses that survive as well. Not by Ibn Qutaybah, but by his contemporaries. You had the genealogy of horses, or knowing the pedigree of horses. One of those that survived is by Ibn al-Kalbi. 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.

Most importantly, the Muslim conquerors used horses in their conquest wars. Their ability to cover ground quickly, and to use horses to their advantage in battle, is very important. So I think the notion of an Arab in early Islam, in the late seventh and eighth centuries, was a horse-mounted warrior elite. So horses were something that was very important to them, and it was basically the object that enabled them to make these conquests. And as the Arabs articulated their genealogy, they wanted a prophetic lineage for their horses as well.

So horses have a political and cultural importance. But at the same time, the horse poetry has an enormous array of extremely rare and difficult Arabic words. 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. And even though they, for instance, hadn’t written books on horses, they had developed this great horse vocabulary.

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.

Did you have a horse expert read the text?

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. The terminology goes quite far beyond what can be translated into English. 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.

Beyond horse terminology, what were the other translation challenges?

PW: Making sense of the poetry. 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. As we mentioned earlier, the readers of this book would’ve known this context, because these poems were circulating in an oral format everywhere.

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. When one line comes at you out of context, you need to go back to the original, read the whole poem. 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.

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.

But you enjoyed it.

PW: It was fun! 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. One of the advantages is that, in other projects that I’m working on, I’m seeing many of these poems coming back. 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. They’re part of a known body of work?

PW: It’s a bit of both. I don’t think there’s any poem in here that is not recorded anywhere else. I do believe I found all of them somewhere. So that does imply that there is a relatively well-known shared body of poetry. Whether a reader would’ve known all of those lines—I doubt it. But I think most readers would’ve known most of the lines. There would’ve been some people, among Ibn Qutaybah’s contemporaries, who would’ve known all of them. But I think even the non-poetry specialists would’ve known quite a few of them.

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Categories: Library of Arabic Literature

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