May 7, 2016

Names of the Undershirt

Ibn Khālawayh said: There are no names for the undershirt besides al-ṣudra, al-mijwal, al-baqīr, al-‘ilqa, al-shawdhar, al-ṣirār, al-qid‘a, al-itb, al-khay‘al and al-uṣda. All mean the same thing, which is "undershirt." And al-maḥjana (?) in Hebrew scripture is an undershirt which Moses wore, God’s blessings and peace be upon him and our Prophet.

[Qid‘a is related to the verbs qada‘a "to restrain a horse" and qadi‘a "to assume a fixed position." The latter is heard in the expression] Qadi‘at nafsī minka mudh zamān ("My soul has long been haltered, concerning you"). This means "My soul was deceived about you" and "My opinion of you was invalid," and "I did not form a judgment of your intelligence or stupidity, nor of your good and harmful qualities."

Al-mimashsh is a towelette, and so is al-mashūsh. [These words derive from the verb mashsha, meaning "to wipe the hands," as in the verse by Imru’ al-Qays, meter: ṭawīl]:

   Namushshu bi-a‘rāfi 'l-jiyādi akuffanā
       idhā naḥnu qumnā ‘an shiwā’in muḍahhabi

   Arising from a meal of roasted kid,
       we wipe our hands on the manes of fast horses.

From part 5 of The Book of "Not in the Speech of the Arabs"
by Ibn Khālawayh

March 25, 2016

Palmette III

From the neck of an Athenian rhyton (ca. 460 BCE) attributed to Douris.
Art Institute of Chicago (1905.345).

March 5, 2016

Comic Tales of Sayfawayh

The preacher Sayfawayh was a byword for dull-wittedness. Muhammad ibn al-‘Abbas ibn Hayyawayh said:

Sayfawayh was asked: "You who instruct the people, why do you not relate hadith?"
     He said: "Write this down: 'I was informed by Shurayk on the authority of Mughira on the authority of Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdallah likewise, with the same wording.' "
     "Likewise to what?" they asked him.
     "That's how I heard the hadith," he said, "and that's how I relate it."

Ibn Khalaf said: One day, a man was coming from a wedding, and Sayfawayh asked him what he'd had to eat. In the middle of the man's description, he said: "If only I could swallow the contents of your stomach!"


Abu 'l-‘Abbas ibn Mashruh tells that Sayfawayh bought a quantity of flour and took it home for his breakfast, then went out to seek his evening meal. "We baked no bread," [his patrons told him], "for lack of firewood."
     He said: "So did you bake any pies?"

Abu Mansur al-Tha‘alibi narrated that a man asked Sayfawayh the meaning of al-ghislīn ["suppuration"] in God's Book. He said: "God only knows. One time I put the same question to an elderly legal scholar whose family were from the Hijaz, and could not get the slightest bit from him."

Sayfawayh stopped at a graveyard while mounted on his ass. From one grave in particular the ass shied away, and he said: "This man must have been a veterinarian."

[Incorrectly,] Sayfawayh recited the Qur'anic verse (69:32): "Then set him in a chain of ninety cubits' length."
     "You added twenty cubits," they told him.
     "This chain was made for harlots and full-grown reprobates," he said. "For you, a ten-penny length of ribbon will suffice."

In his presence, the Qur'anic verse (10:27) was recited: "As if their faces were overshadowed by pieces of the night." Sayfawayh said: "This, by God, is what happens to people who indulge in night prayer!"

When the verse (55:58) was recited: "As if they were ruby or coral." Sayfawayh remarked: "Not like the shameless womenfolk of today!" [as if in response to 55:56 two verses prior].

Sayfawayh was asked: "When the inhabitants of Paradise crave asida, what do they do?" He said:
     "God sends them rivers of syrup, wheat and rice, and they are told: 'Make it and eat it, and excuse Us from your repast.' "

Ibn al-Jawzi, Reports of Imbeciles and Simpletons, ch. 20.

February 25, 2016

Names of Simpletons

Names of simpletons whose comic tales have been written up as books by unknown authors:

Comic Tales of Juha
Comic Tales of Abu Damdam
Comic Tales of Ibn Ahmar
Comic Tales of Sawra the Bedouin
Comic Tales of Ibn al-Mawsili
Comic Tales of Ibn Ya‘qub
Comic Tales of Abu ‘Ubayd al-Hazmi
Comic Tales of Abu ‘Alqama
Comic Tales of Sayfawayh

(Ibn) al-Nadim, Fihrist VIII.3 (circa 987 CE)

February 2, 2016

Attributed to al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad (2011 throwback)

Attributed to Khalil ibn Ahmad resized for blog

January 22, 2016

A latter-day Pentheus

I am not fond of myth, because its concerns are bound up with those of theology. To investigate the beliefs and myths of the past is a necessity for religious studies, due to the ancients' habit of airing their cognitive impulses in the form of riddles and putting myth before science. To unravel all their riddles, and to do it accurately, is no easy thing, but if a statistically significant corpus of mythic productions were to be assembled, including not just those that agree with each other but those that are in disagreement, then one might arrive more readily at a picture of the truth.

For example, in mythic narration the wilderness retreats and ecstasies of religious devotees are combined with wilderness tales of the gods themselves. This probably happens for the same reason that the skies are thought to be inhabited by gods with altruistic foresight that they manifest through signs. Now there are life-sustaining enterprises, like mining and hunting, that obviously have things in common with wilderness retreats, but ecstatic worship and mantic prognostication are more of a matter for mountebanks and charlatans, as are all the clever arts - above all, the arts of Dionysian rite and Orphic song.

Strabo, Geography X.3.23

December 21, 2015

This is happening

An excerpt from my translation of the Names of the Lion 
by Ibn Khālawayh will appear in the expanded 2016 edition
of Technicians of the Sacred, ed. Jerome Rothenberg.
Thanks, Jerry!

November 30, 2015

A letter for ‘Umar

No mortal [eye] ever beheld a letter like the one that came to me
      full of camphor, musk and ambergris.
Candied in black and yellow, the letter was redolent
      with blond-red musk imbued by a [smoky] censer.
It was written on a sheet of Quhistani [silk], and its tie-cord
     was bedolled with a limpid ruby. The seal upon it
was pressed in gold dust instead of clay, and the embossment 
     read: "I pledge to you my life and the lives of my whole family."
Inside, the greeting [said]: "To you from me,
     the long-distracted by my memory and pining for you."
And the address: "To one who is [no less] love-crazed,
     The heart of an infatuate [is here enclosed]."

A poem by ‘Umar ibn Abī Rabī‘a

October 20, 2015

Guest lecture by Martin Schwartz

September 29, 2015

Al-Jahiz on pre-Islamic prayer for rain

In time of severe drought, the early pagan Arabs used fire to beg for for rain. When their tribulations multiplied without abating, and they were obliged to resort to rain-supplication, they would get together and round up as many cattle as they could. To their tails and between their hamstrings, they lashed [sticks of] sala' and 'ushar, and then drove them up to the mountain wastes, where they set fire to them, raising a din with their prayers and entreaties. Their belief was that rain would be induced by this procedure. This is what the poem by Umayya [ibn Abi 'l-Ṣalt, fl. early 7th c.] is about (meter: khafīf):

   Out in the thorn-trees, the folk you see, they of the droning clamor,
         have suffered visitation by a year of biting [drought].
   They who, in times gone by, did not [condescend to] eat
         unleavened things now gobble dry flour.
   Out of the flatlands and up the mountain's side they drive
         emaciated cattle, harrying them with fear of their demise,
   with burning torches tight in the short hairs of their tails,
         tied there so that “seas” be stirred [out of the skies]
   - until they are roasted through, and a cloud rears up above them,
         and another upward-rearing cloud is driven to its side,
   and the divinity sees it mark [the earth] with precipitation
         when a rain-bringing South wind finally blows up for [the tribe].
   The lofty cloud pours down its water – a rain to put
         an end to great [suffering], now averted
   by a quantity of sala'-wood, and 'ushar-wood to match it:
         no easy burden for the cattle burdened with it.

The Book of Animals IV.466-7.

September 17, 2015

If in Berkeley

Lyric genres poster

September 1, 2015

Buddhist Nights

Once there was a young nobleman of uncommon beauty, who fashioned the image of a girl out of gold. He said to his mother and father: "I will marry a girl like this, if she can be found."

At this time, in another kingdom, there was a girl as beautiful as he, who fashioned the image of a man out of gold. She said to her mother and father: "I will marry a man like this, if he can be found." Both sets of parents made inquiries, and across the distance they contracted a marriage between the two, and solemnized their union as husband and wife.

It happened after this that, clutching a mirror, the king of the realm demanded of his ministers: "In all the world, is there a man whose face rivals mine?" They responded: "We who are your subjects have heard it said that there is another man in the kingdom whose beauty surpasses all others." At once the king dispatched a messenger in search of him.

On finding him, the messenger said to the young man: "The king desires the benefit of your wisdom." Straightaway the young man prepared his chariot, and had already set off for the palace when the thought hit him: "It is for my intelligence that the king summons me." To gather the teachings he thought he would need from his books, he therefore returned to his home, - where he found his wife in a state of abandon with a complete stranger. The emotional distress this caused in him had an altering effect on his face, producing an extraordinary physiognomic change for the worse that only worsened as time went on.

[Outside the palace,] the young man's reduced state did not escape the notice of the king's minister, who thought the rigors of the journey were what had thinned his face. And so he had a place set aside for him in a stable, - where, in the middle of the night, the young man spied the king's own consort entering the stable and joining one of the grooms in illicit union. His heart at once was lightened: "If this is how the wife of a king conducts herself?" he thought. "No wonder my wife does the same." At this, his worries evaporated and his face regained its former beauty.

The time came for his interview with the king, who asked: "Why have you lodged outside the palace for the past three days?" The young man responded: "After setting off with your messenger, I thought I had forgotten something, and went back along the road to my house in order to get it. There I found my wife in a state of abandon with a stranger. It pained me sharply, and in my extremes of pathos and rage, my face became altered. For three days I rested in a stable, O King, - where I saw your consort in illicit union with one of the grooms.

"If this is how your wife conducts herself," the young man continued, "then no wonder my own wife does the same. My worries have evaporated, and my face has regained its composure."

"If this is what my own wife is like," said the king, "then how much more so ordinary women!"

Thereupon, both men took off to the mountains together. They cut their beards and shaved their heads and became ascetic devotees. Adopting the view that the company of women makes sacred occupations and devotions impossible, their progress toward excellence was uninterrupted, and both men attained the way of the Pratyekabuddha.

From the Jia za pi yu jing (Ancient Book of Various Metaphors) attributed to Kang Senghui (d. ca. 280 CE), and included in the Taishō ed. of the Chinese Buddhist canon; French tr. by Édouard Chavannes, Cinq cents contes et apologues extraits du Tripiṭaka chinois (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1910-34), vol. 1, 374-6.