May 6, 2021

Alexander the Sleepless VI

For two days, he journeyed off into the desert until he reached a bandits' refuge, where thirty pernicious characters came under the authority of an arch-bandit, and not one city or country district was left unspattered by iniquity at their hands. The blessed Alexander had heard this from many people, and called on God's aid in presenting Him with the souls of these villainous men as tribute.

God knew how good Alexander's intentions were, and granted his request. For when he got together with the arch-bandit, and made known to him the word of faith, the bandit was moved to astonishment and sincere belief, and he accepted and was honored with the grace of holy baptism.
       After had risen from the sacred font, the blessed Alexander said to him, "Did you ask for anything, as you went before the sacred font?"
     "Yes," he said.
     "What did you ask for?" responded Alexander.
      To which the bandit: "I asked the Lord to take my life quickly." And he lived for one week longer, repenting of the deeds he had committed, and on the eighth day his Lord took him.

The bandit's thirty men were witness to this incredible marvel, and begged the blessed Alexander that they too might be honored with the gift of Christ. So they went through holy baptism, believing sincerely in our lord Jesus Christ. They were so hot to enter the faith that they converted their robbers' den into a monastery, wherein to stay and serve the Lord with all their hearts. It was not long before God deemed them worthy men, and the blessed Alexander saw their potential in the faith, and their power to build it up in others. He appointed one to serve as abbot (having made sure of the man's amplitude of faith), and bid them farewell, rejoicing and praying for them as he went back on the road. 

For two days he journeyed, up to the Euphrates River and across it, a Jacob in spirit. And he found a large storage jar sunk in the earth, and spent his days praying in the wilderness, and by night he would stay in this jar.

From The Life of Alexander the Sleepless (III.24-6)

April 23, 2021

By goats are tents unmade

The verb bahiya yabhā, verbal noun bahā’, is said of a tent when it rips and become useless. Active participle bāhin describes a tent that is ill furnished. The transitive verb abhā, formed on the same root, means to rip something up—as heard in the saying: Al-mi‘zā tubhī wa-lā tubnī (Tents are unmade by goats, not made). This is because goats climb on top of tents, and rip their fabrics, and as the rents in them grow wider,  the tent becomes unfit for habitation.
     Conveyed along with this is the idea that goat hair is not suitable for spinning, and this is why tents are not made of their hairs, but from camel hair and sheep's wool. Abū Zayd said: "The meaning of lā tubnī in the saying is that tents are not fabricated from goat's wool. If this were possible, then tents would [in a metonymical sense] be 'made by' goats."
     In Rectifying the Errors of Abū ‘Ubayd, Ibn Qutayba says: "In many places I have seen well-built Arab tents of goat hair." And then he said: "The meaning of lā tubnī in the saying is that goats are no good for a tent's roof (binā’)."
     Al-Azharī says: "The Bedouin have two kinds of goat. One is hairless, like the goats of the Hijaz and the lowlands [of the Tihama region], and goats such as are pastured in the uplands [of Central Arabia], far from arable terrain. The other kind of goat has long hair [suitable for spinning and weaving], and arable lands are its terrain, as it roams the outskirts of settled areas where water-sources are plentiful, like the goatkind of the Kurds in the mountains, and in the territories of Khorasan.
     "The saying 'Tents are unmade by goats, not made' would seem to be local to nomads of West Arabia and the Central Arabian plateau. Abū Zayd is correct in what he said." 

Ibn Manẓūr, The Tongue of the Arabs, art. bhw

April 18, 2021

Alexander the Sleepless V

Rabbula spent a whole week with the blessed Alexander after witnessing this miracle, receiving instruction in the word of truth in strictest terms. Being convinced of all these matters, he begged for enlightenment about everything else. [....] The men of the city were also witnesses to the miracle, and on seeing the totality of Rabbula's conversion, they came with their wives and children to believe in our lord Jesus Christ—so hot to enter upon the faith that before they had even heard the word of God, they raced to receive the seal of holy baptism.

But the blessed Alexander, desirous of ascertaining the rigor of their belief, told them, "To receive the seal of baptism, first you must demonstrate your faith through works. Therefore if idols are being kept in anyone's house, let them be brought into the open and liquidated by their keepers' hands." Hearing this, everyone hastened to be the first to demonstrate their zeal by pulverizing their own idols. The mysterious ways of God were evident on that day, in that no one wishing to hide their idols under a false show of faith was able to do so, for everyone in the city knew each others' secrets, and so they raced to bring them out under threat of denunciation. In this way, the people were purified together with their homes, and in short order they were made rigid in their faith, and proved themselves worthy of the grace of holy baptism. 

[....] Alexander was himself the father of a rational flock, and seeing Rabbula well established in his post, and knowing him to be capable of leading others to God, such that all would come to follow him in due time, he exulted in his heart, fully satisfied by these accomplishments that "for one who believeth, all things are possible," and that Master God is disposed to give the right things to those who ask Him. And he considered what else he might request of the complaisant Christ.
     The people of the city loved Alexander so exceedingly, desiring him to be their pastor, that they set in motion every tactic of keeping him with them. Knowing this, he made plans to leave the city in secret. But the people found this out, and so as not to lose their true father, they surveilled him night and day and posted guards at the city gate. So the blessed one, being unable to talk his way out of the city, had his disciples lower him from the wall in a wicker basket, just like the blessed Paul who exited the city [of Damascus] in the same way. 

From The Life of Alexander the Sleepless (II.14, 16-7, 23)

March 17, 2021

Ars poetica

A wide array of poetry is esteemed by those who speak it.
    Some is garbage. Some is soundly proverbial,
and some is lunatic discourse coating its reciter in a pall.
    Some is easy-going, and some is bombast. There are quiescent endings
        and there are lines that ramble on and on.
In poetry, there are refuse-flingers, plagiarists
    and imitators, and there are some who make it new.
Leave that! and tend the verses of your own weaving.
    Some are bound to be noble, after you have journeyed through.

Lines 55-58 of a 97-line poem by Nabighat Bani Shayban (meter: basīṭ)

February 23, 2021

Two new articles

1. "Night and Day in Islamicate Literary Dispute" appears in Disputation Literature in the Near East and Beyond, ed. Enrique Jiménez and Catherine Mittermayer (de Gruyter, 2020), 191-213. Thanks to Enrique, and to Geert Jan for the connect.

The title of the collected volume 'Disputation Literature in the Near East and Beyond' appears on the book's cover, printed in white letters on an orange background, along with the names of the editors, the publisher, and the series title 'Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records'.The title of the collected volume 'Approaches to the Study of Pre-modern Arabic Anthologies' appears on the book's cover, printed in white letters on a red background, along with the names of the editors, the publisher, and the series title 'Islamic History and Civilization: Studies and Texts'. At the center of the cover is the photograph of a contemporary art quilt that seems to depict a large blue-green face with a yellow nose, framed by the spines of books along all four of the quilt's sides.

2. "Towards a Reconstruction of Abū Naṣr al-Bāhilī’s Kitāb Abyāt al-ma‘ānī" appears in Approaches to the Study of Pre-modern Arabic Anthologies, ed. Bilal Orfali and Nadia Maria El Cheikh (Brill, 2021), 37-83. (This is the forthcoming article mentioned in Larsen 2018, p. 210, note 78.) Thank you to the editors, especially Bilal who put me on the path to abyāt al-ma‘ānī in 2015.

February 15, 2021

Gem therapy

Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Ḥusayn ibn Ahmad ibn al-Jaṣṣaṣ was a superlative individual in several respects. One was his eye for gemstones, in which his connoisseurship was unsurpassed. Another was the opulence of his lifestyle, for which he was called the "Croesus of the Faithful."
    Al-Munajjim sent an epistolary poem to the judge ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz with these verses (meter: khafif):

     Not everyone endowed with wealth, O Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz,
         obliges those endowed with [only] hopes.
     Please take away the likes of Ibn al-Jaṣṣaṣ.
         Instead, give me the likes of Ibn Barmak.

The verses cost Ibn al-Jaṣṣaṣ his freedom, and a fortune worth 10 million dinars was seized from him. On his release, he saw a hundred camels being led from his estate to the public palace, loaded with bales of canvas. At this he appealed to the caliph's mother, who secured their restoration to him, for she had been much pained by the jeweler's punishment. These camels had just arrived from Egypt, [loaded with two bales apiece,] and the merchandise in each bale was worth a thousand dinars. And on the spot he turned a profit on the confiscated items.
    Ibn al-Jaṣṣaṣ kept a selection of precious stones in a compact case that he would reach for any time he was anxious, and revolve them in his chambers until his worries went away. This is what he was doing, in his seat by the pool in his cloistered garden, when at the time of his arrest he leapt up and strewed the stones amid the aromatic plantings.
    After his release from carceral inquisition, Ibn al-Jaṣṣaṣ went back to his garden. All the plantings had withered away, but his despair was for the lost stones. Then he began looking around the place, and discovered beneath the withered vegetation that the stones were still there, untouched by human hands, birds' beaks, or the predation of rodents. And as Ibn al-Jaṣṣaṣ gathered up the precious stones, his injured spirits recovered their strength.

From the Book of Precious Stones of al-Biruni

January 28, 2021

The Mu‘allaqa of ‘Abīd ibn al-Abras

appears in translation with an introduction by me

The title of the book 'The Mu‘allaqat for Millenials: Pre-Islamic Arabic Golden Odes' appears on the book’s cover in English and Arabic, as if written on an antique scroll.

A public-access publication 
of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), 
in cooperation with Al Qafilah magazine, 
produced by Saudi Aramco (Dhahran, 2020)

I would not have missed the chance to work with this team of editors and translators for the world. Many thanks to Hatem Alzahrani and Bander Alharbi. This is my first commissioned translation. My fee went to Climeworks.

January 21, 2021

Our poems are the best and travel far

I am told by Muhammad ibn Yahya [Abu Bakr al-Suli] that Muhammad ibn Sallam said: I was told by ‘Umar ibn Shabba that Muhammad, the son of Bashshar ibn Burd said:

Marwan ibn Abi Hafsa was reciting his poems before my father. He said, "If I could add some of your verses to mine I would be rich." At this, my father invited his rhapsode to recite them. So he recited a poem of Bashshar's rhymed in lām, and, when he got to the verses (meter: ṭawīl)—

    A depiction of you has been sent abroad by me.
      Off [my poem] went, and did not fail to arrive at inhabited areas.
    To the East and West I cast it, and the land swarmed
      with its reciters and travelers [who recited it elsewhere]

—Marwan said, "O Abu Mu‘adh! [That is, Bashshar.] Other poets are storks, but you are a falcon."

And Muhammad ibn Yahya said:

Bashshar's verse was imitated by Muhammad ibn Hazim al-Bahili (meter: wāfir):

    The meaning I intend forbids I make my poem long.
        My expert sense of [formal] correctness does the same.
    By making a short selection, and employing brevity,
        I shall curtail the length of my answer,
    and when I perform it for parties of travelers
        rhapsodes and riders will say it back to one another.

From The Ornament of the Learned Gathering by
Abu ʿAli Muhammad al-Hatimi

December 28, 2020

The Poem of the Bow

by Ma‘qil ibn Dirar, called al-Shammakh
(floruit 1st half of the 1st century A.H.),
appears in the current issue (no. 29) of A Public Space.
Thanks to the editors

Three onagers (wild asses) run in a rightward direction across a plain that is dotted with stylized flowers. The onager in the lead looks back over its shoulder at the other two, and the rearward onager opens its mouth as if braying aloud. Below them, a verse of Persian poetry is written in black ink on a golden background.
Detail from a folio of the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi,
illuminated by Mir Sayyid Ali and workshop (ca. 1530-1535).
Previously owned by Shah Tahmasp I, now at the Met

December 22, 2020

Alexander the Sleepless IV

Then he heard of a city ruled by activity of the Evil One, where adoration of idols was a non-stop festival and the people rejoiced in sacrilege. Alexander braced his loins with the preparation of the Gospel, charged up to their celebrated temple and set fire to it, and pulled it down with godlike power. The prize was his, nor did he decamp from it, but made his seat there in the temple.

The people of the place were apoplectic, and they raced up to put him to death, but at a blast of discourse from the man their tempers withered, and they retreated. The protecting grace of God was at work, as Alexander let out the apostolic cry: "I am a man who suffers as you do, and have wasted time like you on useless things. Flee eternal damnation. I recommend to you the kingdom of heaven." And things went on like this, and from all harms that they attempted the noble athlete was safe.

Then citizen Rabbula—a city father, thanks to his powers of wealth and rhetoric, who went on to become a denouncer of idols and a herald of the truth, but was then a raving idolater and a henchman of the Devil—addressed the mob in a loud voice: "Brothers! Fathers! Abandon we not the gods of our fathers, but let us complete our sacrifices according to tradition. The gods remain aloof from this Galilean who damages them. If they do not defend themselves, it is due to humanitarian reasons, or to the greatness of the Christians' god."

Encouraged by his mastery of the mob, and benighted by the Devil's every wile, Rabbula told them, "I shall go up to him by myself, and purge our temple of his magic and deceit, and right the wrongs he has done to our gods and to all of us." And he went up full of bluster, and engaged Alexander in dialogue. [....] He said, "I am eager to learn the full extent of your mania. What impels you to keep up this abuse of our gods? It has us dumbfounded."

The blessed Alexander heard his words, and said, "Listen to the power of our God and the mystery of our faith."  He went on to speak of God's good will toward men, and the power of the holy scriptures, beginning from the creation of the universe up until the investiture of the cross. All that day and all that night, the dialogue went back and forth between them, and they kept themselves from food, and did not give themselves to sleep....

Rabbula chortled and said to the blessed Alexander, "If these things are true, and your God is, as you describe him, so attentive to his servants, then pray to him for fire to come down right in front of us. If that happens, I will declare that there is no god but the god of the Christians—since, as you say, you are his servant. But your scriptures are in truth falsehoods."

The blessed Alexander had no doubt that God would assent to his request, since it is written that "All things are possible to one who believes." He said to Rabbula, "Call on your gods, since there are so many of them, for fire to come down. I too will call on my god for fire to come down, and set alight the woven mats that lie before us."
   "I lack the authority to do so," said Rabbula. "You go ahead."
    At this, the holy Alexander arose, boiling over with the spirit, and said, "Let us pray." Facing east, with his hands outstretched, his prayer was such that Creation was set in motion, and fire came down and ignited the mats placed round the temple, just as the noble athlete had said. The men were unharmed, but Rabbula was overcome with wonder, and, thinking he would be ignited also, fell to the blessed Alexander's feet and did not let go until the fire had subsided, saying then in a loud voice: "Great is the god of the Christians!"

From The Life of Alexander the Sleepless (II.9-11, 12, 13)

December 14, 2020

Alexander the Sleepless III

Alexander spent four years in Syria, fighting the good fight, and his progress in the Lord was substantial. Although he adhered to every rule, he remained keenly attentive to whether monastic life were lived in accordance with holy scripture, and found that it was not. As devotees well know, the renunciation of wealth and care for the future enjoined in holy Gospel is not maintained in cenobitic life, where it is someone's job to provide for the brothers and attend to their needs. But Alexander was a slave of God, boiling over with the Spirit, and the words of the Master—"Take therefore no thought for the morrow" and "Ye are of more value than many sparrows"—were forever in his ears, and his inner turmoil could not be contained. [....]

With the Holy Gospel in his hand, he strode up to the abbot and asked, "The things that are written in the Holy Gospel, father—are they true?"
    Now Father Elias was a father indeed, and the shepherd of an inference-making flock, and on hearing the blurted question he surmised that the Evil One had led this brother away from faith. Straightaway he fell with his face to the floor, and said nothing to Alexander but called to the others, "Come pray for this one, who struggles in the Devil's trap!" And for two full hours all the brothers wailed over him, begging God for aid.
    The abbot then got to his feet and said, "How comes this question to you, brother?"
    Alexander was undeterred. "Are the things in the Holy Gospel true, or are they not?" he asked.
   "Yes," they all replied, "because they are the words of God." 
   "Then why do we not carry them out?"
   "Because no one is able to." they said.

At this, Alexander's outrage was unrestrained. To be cheated into wasting all that time! He took his leave of the entire community and, clutching the Holy Gospel, set out to follow what is written there in imitation of our holy fathers. Hereupon, the prophet Elijah became his model, and he made his home in the desert, where he spent the next seven years heedless of earthly cares, living as the Holy Spirit dictated.

From The Life of Alexander the Sleepless (I.7, 8)

December 7, 2020

Alexander the Sleepless II

The blessed Alexander was an Asiatic Greek from a noble family of the Aegean Islands. He studied the full course of literary sciences at Constantinople, and this was a complement to his moral education, which had developed his Christian piety and honest virtues to their full extent. His training complete, he entered government service, where he soon discovered how corruptible and fickle life is, and that "like a flower of grass" earthly glory too is fleeting. He came to despise his mundane existence and resolved upon a better way of way of life. He put the Old and New Testaments through rigorous philological inquiry, finding in the Gospels a treasure beyond assail for those who go forth trusting in the one who said: "If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and your treasure will be laid up in heaven. Then come follow me."

When Alexander heard this, his conviction was total, and straightaway he took his share of inherited capital along with his earnings as prefect (an office he had discharged with fairness and nobility), a substantial sum, and gave it all to the poor and needy. His hope was then to isolate himself from friends, family and fatherland, and for Christ alone to be his intimate and lord. And he heard that communities of holy men were reverently pursuing this way of life in certain parts of Syria.

From The Life of Alexander the Sleepless (I.5-6)