August 17, 2016

Men who loved women

Most of the desert Arabs - nay, all of them - were impassioned lovers. Among those of frequent mention and widespread fame for passion and love-song were:
Qays Majnun of the Banu Amir, who was the lover of Layla
Qays ibn Dharih, who loved Lubna
Tawba ibn al-Humayyir, who loved Layla al-Akhyaliyya
Kuthayyir, who loved ‘Uzza
Jamil ibn Ma‘mar, who loved Buthayna
al-Mu’ammil, who loved al-Dhalfa’
al-Muraqqish, who loved Asma’
al-Muraqqish the Younger, who loved Fatima bint al-Mundhir
‘Urwa ibn Hizam, who loved ‘Afra
‘Amr ibn ‘Ajlan, who loved Hind
‘Ali ibn Udaym, who loved Manhala
al-Muhadhdhib, who loved Ladhdha
Dhu 'l-Rumma, who loved Mayya
Qabus, who loved Munya
al-Mukhabbal al-Sa‘di, who loved Mayla’
Hatim al-Ta’i, who loved Mawiya
Waddah al-Yaman, who loved Umm al-Banin
al-Ghamr ibn Dirar, who loved Juml
al-Nimr ibn Tawlab, who loved Hamza
Badr, who loved Nu‘m
Shubayl, who loved Falun
Bishr, who loved Hind
‘Amr who loved Da‘d
‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi‘a, who loved Thurayya
al-Ahwas, who loved Salama
As‘ad ibn ‘Amr, who loved Layla bint Sayfi
Nusayb, who loved Zaynab
Suhaym ‘Abd Bani 'l-Hashas, who loved ‘Umayra
‘Ubayd Allah ibn Qays, who loved Kuthayyira
Abu 'l-Atahiya, who loved ‘Utba
al-‘Abbas ibn al-Ahnaf, who loved Fawz
Abu 'l-Shis who loved Umama

These are just a few of the many impassioned lovers. We have limited ourselves to these few in preference to others so as not to go on too long and mar our book. For every one of these men there is a love story, relating the circumstances of their passions, with much to comment upon and describe.

From The Book of Refinement and Refined People
by Muhammmad ibn Ishaq ibn Yahya al-Washsha’

June 20, 2016

The owl according to al-Damiri

Al-Būm ("The Owl") is said for the male bird, and
al-Būma ("The Owless") for the female.
Al-Ṣadā ("The Night Cry") and
al-Fayyād ("The Strutter") are said for the male only.

The female is called by the filionyms:
Umm al-Kharāb ("Mother of Ruins") and
Umm al-Ṣibyān ("Mother of Boys"), and is also called
Ghurāb al-layl ("Crow of the Night").

Al-Jahiz says that along with al-ṣadā, ghurāb al-layl and al-būma,
al-Hāma ("The Vengeful Head")
al-Ḍuwa‘ ("The Night Terror") and
al-Khaffāsh, ("The Bat") are all of a type, i.e. nocturnal flying creatures that leave their homes at night. He goes on to say that some of them feed on mice, sparrows, geckoes and small reptiles, and that others live on tiny insects.

It is in the owl's nature to break into the nests of all other birds, kick them out, and feed on their eggs and chicks. Its powers are greatest by night, when it remains awake. At night, no bird is capable of defending against it. If it is spotted by other birds in the daytime, they will kill it and pluck out its feathers, so great is the enmity between them and the owl. For this reason, hunters will bait their nets with [the carcass of] the owl, as a trap for other birds to fall into.

[In a now-inextant work, perhaps his Book of Problems and Experiences] al-Mas‘udi says that al-Jahiz said that the owl imagines itself to be the most handsome of the animals, and that its high opinion of its own beauty is the reason it is only seen by night: for fear of the evil eye, it refuses to go out by day.

Among the falsehoods spread by the early Arabs is that after the soul of a slain or otherwise deceased person is separated from its body, it takes the form of a bird and screeches from atop that person's grave. The form it takes is that of the owl called the ṣadā, mentioned by the poet Tawba ibn al-Humayyir, one of the great lovers among the Arabs (meter: ṭawīl):

   Though stone and a slab of wood be my covering,
      when I am greeted by Laylā al-Akhyaliyya,
   joyfully I will return her greetings, and if not
      a screeching ṣadā will greet her on my behalf beside my grave.

The story is told that when Laylā passed by Tawba's grave and recited these verses, something like a bird rose from from the earth and startled her camel, which threw her to her death, and that she was buried there by Tawba's side.

There is more than one kind of owl, but they all love privacy and solitude, and are by nature enemies of the crow.

In Ibn al-Najjār's History, it is told that Chosroes ordered his servant: "Hunt down for me the worst of birds, roast it over the worst of firewood, and serve it to the worst of men." So the servant killed an owl, roasted it over a fire of oleander-wood, and fed it to a slanderer.

In chapter 47 of The Lamp of Kings, the imam Abū Bakr al-Turtūshi tells that one night when [the Umayyad Caliph] ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān was unable to sleep, he called for a courtier to help him pass the time in nocturnal conversation. It was in the course of this that the courtier said: "There is a she-owl in Mosul, O Commander of the Faithful, and in Basra there is another. On behalf of her son, the Mosuli owl asked the Basran owl for her daughter's hand in marriage. 'Not unless you pay me a bride-price of one hundred ruined estates,' said the owl of Basra. 'I can't offer you that right now,' the owl of Mosul responded, 'but if our present governor - God save him! - remains in his post for one more year, I will fulfill it.' " At this, ‘Abd al-Malik was brought to his senses, and took a role in hearing criminal cases and rendering justice to the people, and pursued inquiries into his governors' affairs.

In the handwriting of a major scholar I have seen it written in a certain codex that al-Ma'mūn once looked down from his palace and saw a man planted at the foot of the wall, writing on it with a piece of coal. He said to one of his servants, "Go see what that man is writing, and bring him to me." The servant sped down to the man and, seizing him, took in what he had written. It was this (meter: basīṭ):

   O castle, repository of badness and blame,
      when will the owl build its nest in your corners?
   The day when that happens will be my delight:
      among dry-eyed mourners, I will take first place.

"You'll answer to the Commander of the Faithful for this," said the servant. "I beg of you, by God, do not take me to him," said the man. "There is no other way," said the servant, and escorted him off.
      When the man was brought before the king, the servant made known what he had written. "Woe betide you!" said al-Ma'mūn. "What inspired you to write this?" The man said:
      "O Commander of the Faithful, you are well aware of all the wealth your castle's treasurehouses contain, and the clothes and jewelry, the food and drink, the beds and furniture and fine vessels, the slave-girls and eunuchs, and other goods surpassing my powers of description and comprehension. Passing by it in the furthest extreme of hunger and poverty, I fell to contemplating my own state, and asked myself, 'What good is there for me in this lofty castle's prosperity while I starve?' If it lay in ruins, I would not lack for stone and lumber, and firewood and nails that I might sell and have enough to live on by the revenue. Or does the Commander of the Faithful not know the words of the poet (meter: ṭawīl):

   If a man has no stake in another mans's rule, nor shares
      in its benefits, his thoughts will turn to its fall.
   It's not out of hate, only desire for something else,
      that he longs for the the state's overthrow.

Al-Ma'mūn told his servant, "Give him a thousand dinars," then said to the man, "Every year, as long as this castle prospers its tenants, this sum is yours." Here is another pair of verses on the same theme (meter: ṭawīl):

   If you are in government, do a good job of it.
      Soon enough you will pass away and leave it behind.
   How many lords of state have the days swept away
      whose fiefdoms were double your own?

Legal rulings. It is forbidden to eat every sort of owl. Al-Rāfi‘ī said that Abū ‘Āṣim al-‘Abbādī compared owls to vultures in this regard - the ḍuwa‘ [= the curlew?] as well as the būm. Al-Shāfi‘ī, God have mercy on him, said that the flesh of the ḍuwa‘ was not forbidden. The affirmation that ḍuwa‘ and būm are separate species is contravened by [al-Jawharī's dictionary, entitled] the Ṣaḥāḥ (Correct Usage), according to which al-ḍuwa‘ is said for all nocturnal birds, but belongs to the genus of the owl. And al-Mufaḍḍal says al-ḍuwa‘ is a male owl. So whatever one says about the ḍuwa‘ must be true for the būm also. Male and female are of one species, and the same dietary code applies to both, as [al-Nawawī says] in Garden of the Seekers: "The prevailing opinion is that al-ḍuwa‘ belongs to the genus of the owl. We rule that it is forbidden to eat it."

Useful information. Ibn al-Sunnī says [in The Work of Day and Night, no. 623] that al-Hasan ibn ‘Alī ibn Abī Talib (may God exalted be pleased with him) narrated: "The Prophet, God's blessings and peace be upon him, said: 'If a man recites the call to prayer in the right ear of his newborn child, and the iqāma into the left ear, the child will not be afflicted by Umm al-Ṣibyān.'" This was the practice of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz, may God have mercy on him. Opinion is divided on the meaning of Umm al-Ṣibyān here. Some say it is the owl, while others say it is the effect of demonic possession.

Magical properties. When an owl is killed, one of its eyes remains open while the other closes. If the ball of the open eye is placed beneath the gemstone of a ring, anyone who wears the ring will remain awake as long as it is on their finger. And the other eye has the inverse property. "If you cannot tell the eyes apart," al-Tabari says, "put them in water. The wakeful eye will float, and the sleep-inducing eye will sink to the bottom."
      Hermes said that if you take the heart of an owl and put it in the left hand of a sleeping woman, she will begin to speak about everything she did that day. And if the heart is removed from a large owl, wrapped in a piece of wolfskin, and bound to the upper arm, its wearer will be protected from thieves and night-crawlers and will not fear anyone.
      If the bile of an owl is smeared around the eyes, it improves vision. And if the fat of an owl is rendered and smeared around the eyes, night scenes will be viewable as if by day.
      The owl lays two eggs, one fertile and one barren. To tell them apart, prick them with a feather. The fertile egg will be shown by [the movement of?] the feather.

Dream interpretation. The owl seen in a dream indicates a crafty thief, and some say it indicates a fearsome king so dreaded by his subjects that they suffer liver damage. It symbolizes heroism and the cessation of fear, because it is one of the birds of the night. And God knows best.

From The Greater Life of Animals by Kamal al-Din al-Damiri

June 6, 2016

Primus in orbe deos fecit

Primus in orbe color color resize

                  Those in need of visible proof
                  of the power in the sky need only
                  view the effect of the burning bolt
                  when from on high it is flung earthward
                  by an agent of fear and terror and despair
                  and harmful agonies and chills of fright
                  whose rage and fury stoke the dread
                  that turns lost souls into religious ones.

Of the two kinds of fear one ought to have towards God, the first is reverential fear, which is what the angels, the beatified, and the just [have towards Him]. The second is servile fear, which is a posture often assumed towards what is perfect, as we see in the conversion of the Apostle Paul and other saints. Even those who have not received truthful news of God are given pause, just from seeing lightning and hearing thunder, and raise their minds to the fact that there is a first cause that moves and governs the machinery of our world; and with that they are brought to reverence it, and to fear it however they may. To signify this, I have put a lightning bolt of the kind that painters commonly give to Jupiter, with the heading:


It is taken from [the speech of Capaneus at book III, line 661 of the Thebaid of] Statius, the poet of ancient Naples. The word deos means "fear" [in Greek]; written with theta instead of delta [that is, theos] it means "God." The kingly prophet David speaks of lightning as God's missiles, as in Psalm 144:6: "Send out Your arrows and throw the people into turmoil," and Psalm 77:17 and 18: "Your arrows flew all over; the voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind." And at Job 40:9: "Is your arm like God's arm? and is the sound of your voice like His?"

From the Emblemas morales (1610) of Sebastián de Covarrubias y Orozco (Emblem 101).

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 2017 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