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.

August 16, 2015

A Bacchic scene by ‘Ali ibn al-Jahm

A flute pours out its woes with a plaintive sob, to the
     tumult of bows and strings. And the rose is laughing.
It is a breezy day's debut into the bloom of spring,
     highlit like a bride's outfit in pearls and gold.
The revels of night become day-drinks. Frivolity keeps
     [the cup] going round in the same order, whether
          willed [by the drinker]
or pressed upon him. Were we heated! I swear, it was
     the sun's own beams that poured from our cup and
          heated us.
The people were a brotherhood of truth. The tie uniting
     them was a love surpassing kinship by descent.
Nursed together on the squirting stream of a pale pink
     [quantity of wine], each gave his fellow nursling
          his due,
and the drunken man's offense was not held against him.
     No doubt about their character need trouble you.
The best teachers are the days themselves, and time's
          long periods, and those
     moments when defects of fortune are overturned.

January 26, 2014

Shame and fear

In Aristotle's book of Problems, we find it written [fragment 243]: "Why is it that, despite the similarity between shame and fear, those who feel the former turn red, but those who feel the latter turn pale? It is because the blood of the ashamed is diffused from the heart to the other parts of the body, and so to the body's surface; the blood of the fearful, meanwhile, abandons the other parts of the body and gathers in the heart."

I was in the company of our own Calvisius Taurus at Athens when I read this, and I asked how much sense he thought it made. He said: "As an account of what happens when the blood is diffused or concentrated, it is accurate and true. But he has not said why these things happen. The question of cause is still open: why does fear concentrate the blood, and shame scatter it? After all, shame is a sub-category of fear, as the philosophers define it: 'Shame is the fear of deserved blame.' "

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 19.6

December 26, 2013

Diet of words

Ambrosius, whose supply of parchment, funds and copyists enabled our Adamantius des entrailles de bronze to produce his innumerable commentaries, remarks to Origen in a letter he wrote from Athens that he had eaten no meal in his company without something being read aloud, nor lain in his guest-bed unaccompanied by a reading from Scripture by one of the brethren, whose readings and prayers were made to follow each other day and night.

We creatures of the belly, did we ever thus? We, who can't manage more than one hour's reading without yawning and rubbing our eyes, our annoyance barely contained? Then, as if after some great task, we go back to troubling ourselves with the business of the world. Of the heavy meals that depress our faculties I say nothing, and am ashamed to mention the time lost every day to anticipation of visitors, or to social calls we pay on others. Straightaway the prattle starts, and our words are wasted on tearing apart third parties. Sounding the lives of others, we bite and in turn are bitten, and even as we take our leave we are busy chewing.

The friendly gathering dispersed, our reckoning continues. Resentment makes a lion's face to flash across our own, and forward-looking plans run through our minds in obsessive bursts, heedless of the Gospel's warning: "Tonight your dumb ass will be stripped of your soul. And what you've stored up will belong to whom, exactly?"

Jerome, Letter 43 (to Marcella)

December 23, 2013

Palmette II

From a terracotta bell-krater (ca. 465-460 BCE) attributed to the Altamura Painter. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara
 (currently on loan to the Met).

December 19, 2013

From A Long Gay Book (1909-1912)

Page 65 of Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein (Dover, 2000).

November 30, 2013

Deliberative measures

Between judgment by analogy [al-qiyās] and independent reasoning [al-ijtihād], the difference is as follows. Analogy is the act of holding one thing against another in view of some likeness adjudged between them. Others say that it is the imposition of one's judgment of the former thing upon the latter by virtue of a perceived likeness. Abū Hāshim [‘Abd al-Salām al-Jubbā’ī], may God have mercy on him, defined it as "holding one thing against another and imposing one's judgment of the latter upon the former," explaining that a standardized measurement is for this reason called an "analogical implement" [miqyās]: whatever one wants measured must be held against it. In this way, the shoemaker's template used for matching soles to one another is called a miqyās.
       Al-qiyās therefore refers exclusively to the use of one thing in order to make a judgment about another thing, and its root verb qāsa yaqīsu is used in this same sense. Mere likeness between two things is not analogy; qiyās is not said unless the two are correlated such that a judgment incumbent upon one is applied to the other. In this sense, God (be He exalted) might well be called al-Qāyis ["The Analogist"], for the likeness He enforces between the unbelieving and the dead (35:22), the believer and the living (36:70), unbelief and darkness (6:122) and belief and light (61:8).
       Whoever defines analogy as "the abstraction of what is true from what is invalid" is way off. This may define something, but it can't be called analogy. Here is an example of analogy: "If a good person is susceptible to committing an offense that a wise man is not, then the good person is liable to a penalty that the wise man is not." In the parlance of legal scholars, it is to hold a "branch" [i.e. the case under consideration] against a "root" [a precedent case whose judgment is secure] in order that the rationale of the latter ruling be applied to the former.
       The original meaning of ijtihād is "utmost exertion." One can be said to "exert one's utmost" in carrying a stone, but in carrying a date pit there is no exertion. Theologians define it as the process that determines the preponderance of one opinion [above all others] in matters that call for judgment, such that all who practice it will reach the same conclusion. And their reference to statements by "the people of qiyās" and "the people of ijtihād" proves that these methods are not the same. Analogy is more specialized than ijtihād, which includes analogy and other methods besides. [Even so,] al-Shāfi‘ī says that ijtihād and analogy are the same thing; according to his definition, al-ijtihād means applying the rationale of legal precedent to the exclusion of all else. Legal scholars define it as exerting one's utmost in figuring out how the law applies to a given situation, in a way that is neither obvious nor coeval with the law's original intent.
      This is what Mu‘ādh [ibn Jabal] meant by saying: "I will exert my utmost to reach an opinion [ajtahidu ra’yī] in those cases wherein I find no answer in the Qur'ān nor sunna." "Opinion" [al-ra’ī] here is the outcome of deduction and analogy applied toward legal judgment. ‘Umar [ibn al-Khaṭṭāb once reprimanded a scribe who concluded a legal brief with the words: "This is the opinion of God and ‘Umar." Seizing the document, he crossed them out and] wrote: "This is the opinion of 'Umar." And ‘Alī, peace be upon him, once said: "My opinion and the opinion of 'Umar is that [slave women who have borne children to their masters] must not be sold." Those who denigrate opinion are refuted by these statements, which uphold the validity of rulings based on rationale and report, when these have been tested against an opposing view.
      Ijtihād is said only for reasoning applied to legal matters. [...] The study of physics cannot be spoken of as a form of ijtihād in the way that ijtihād is applied to inheritance law. Nor is ijtihād applicable to calculations like how many five-dirham shares are in a hundred dirhams, where there is no difference of opinion. Qiyās, on the other hand, is applicable to a variety of intellectual pursuits. The difference between them is therefore clear.

Abū Hilāl al-‘Askarī, The Book of Lexical Distinctions

November 22, 2013

Some Palmette

From an Apulian pelike in the style of the Underworld Painter
(ca. 330-310 BCE), Metropolitan Museum of Art (06.1021.228).

November 2, 2013

Night and Day

A young man from the alpine community between Dīnawar and Nahāwand asked me to compose something reliable on the subject of Night and Day, and whether one might justly be preferred to the other. So I improvised this short text in order to gratify his wishes, and it begins with the speech of

THE PARTISAN OF NIGHT: When God, be He magnified and exalted, says: "We made the night and day to be two signs" (17:12), and opens Sūrat al-Layl with the words: "By the night when it covers up / And the day when it comes to light" (92:1-2), it is night that He mentions first, making day subsequent to it. And in any case [of their being mentioned together] the night takes precedence.
        ("Give precedence to Quraysh," said the Prophet, God's blessings and peace be upon him, "and do not seek precedence over them.")
        "Night He made for you to be at rest within it, and day to enable sight," says God (10:67), magnified be His adoration. And, blessed be His name, [He instructs His Prophet to] "Say: 'Do you see? Were God to give your night no end until the Day of Resurrection, what divinity could bring you brightness, other than God?' " (28:71). And this [sequence] is attested in abundance throughout the Qur'ān.

THE PARTISAN OF DAY: Mentioning something first dictates neither preference nor virtue. Do you not see that He also says, magnified be His adoration, that He "created death and life" (67:2), when the preferability of life is so well known? And, be He magnified and exalted, He also says that He "created jinn and humankind for no reason other than to serve Him" (51:56). And humankind is without doubt the preferred category.
        Along with this we find that day is in fact given precedence over night in Sūrat al-Shams, be He magnified and exalted: "By the day when it brings [the sun] to light / And the night when it covers up" (91:3-4).
        He also says, magnified be His adoration: "The likeness of the two parties [disbelievers and believers] is like the blind and the deaf and the sighted and the hearing" (11:24), on which interpretive consensus holds that the blind are contrasted to those with sight, and the deaf to those with hearing. What is preferable about coming first in this case? Nothing whatsoever.

THE PARTISAN OF NIGHT: But it is night's innate merit that gives it precedence. God, be He exalted, says: "Do disbelievers not see that the heavens and earth were [formerly] conjoined, and that We separated them?" (21:30). Now there is no disputing that this conjoined pair was in darkness. When He effected their separation, He brought about a new state of affairs. Darkness therefore precedes light, by nature and in order of creation; this being so, night comes before day.

THE PARTISAN OF DAY recited [line 8 of poem 16 by Ḥassān ibn Thābit]:
    "When [the caravan of Quraysh] makes for Ḥawrān
       across the sandy bottoms, tell them: The way lies not thither!"
By my life, the matter's not the way you think it is. Light came before darkness. "God is the Light of the heavens and earth" (24:35), says God, exalted be His every mention. This means that He illuminated both, with a light He Himself kindled, magnified be His adoration. So you've goofed in this. You base your judgments on the world that we inhabit. But He says, be He magnified and exalted: "It is He who made the sun to be a brightener and the moon to be a light" (10:5). And by these lights He shed brightness on what was conjoined. Only then did He divide brightness from darkness. And day is what is bright, as you must know.

THE PARTISAN OF NIGHT: It is well known that time consists in movements of the sphere in its rotation, and [is measured in] years and months and weeks. When does the new month come into being? Between the beginning of the night and the beginning of the day is when it is proclaimed. The month would begin at daybreak, if day were preferred. But no - its beginning is on the first night of the month.

THE PARTISAN OF DAY: This point is not in your favor but against you. Etc., etc., etc.

From Night and Day by Abu 'l-Ḥusayn Aḥmad ibn Fāris

July 24, 2013

Names of the Hyena

Al-Ḍabu‘ is the female; the male is called al-ḍib‘ān and al-dhaykh. Among its other names are:

Haḍājir   "Whose Gut Is Huge"
Jay’al      "The Female Hulk"
Ja‘āri       "Craps-a-Lot"
Qasāmi   "Divider-up [of Carcasses]"
Naqāthi  "Bone-Sucker," from its [habit of] extracting marrow from
     bones, as in the anonymous rajaz verse:

      Jā’at Naqāthi taḥmilu 'l-birdhawnā
     "Along came Bone-sucker, carrying [part of?] an old horse."

al-‘Arfā’, for the length of its ‘urf [which is its mane], 
al-‘Athwā’  "The Bearded Lady," for the denseness of its hair,
al-‘Arjā’  "Whose Gait is Limping"  
al-Khāmi‘a  "Whose Gait is Loping"
Umm Hinbir  "Exemplar [lit. Mother] of the Flesh-Tearer"
Umm Khannūr  "Exemplar [lit. Mother] of the Anus,"
     also Umm Khunnūr

The baby hyena is called al-fur‘ūl. The hyena's den is a wijār.

The offspring of hyena and the wolf is called al-Sim‘ [“The Sharp-Eared”] and Abū Sabara ["Father to the Wound-Prober"]. Dissenting opinion holds that al-Sim‘ is a cross between wolf and dog, and that the offspring of wolf and hyena is called al-‘Usbūr.

From The Rudiments of Lexicography by Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Khatị̄b al-Iskāfī