August 7, 2011

Medieval cat poem

Abū ‘Āmir al-Faḍl ibn Ismā‘īl al-Tamīmī al-Jurjānī (floruit
mid-5th century A.H./11th c. CE) described his cat (meter: khafīf):

    I have a cat whose foot-pads I dye with henna
        before I put henna on my own newborns.
    Then I tie cowrie shells to her collar
        to repel the harm of evil eyes.
    Each day, before I feed my family, I see that she gets
        our choicest meats and purest waters.
    The playful thing. When she sees
        my face contorted in a frown,
    sometimes she sings, sometimes she dances,
        sparing no exertion for my diversion’s sake.
    I care nothing for the fire’s warmth when she lies with me
        in the chill of winter's longest nights.
    When I give her scratches, she gives me licks
        with a tongue toothed like the surface of a file.
    If I avoid her, she fawns on me,
        wheedling with her little high-pitched moans.
    If I give her trouble she will show me her claws,
        a sight that gives the eyes no pleasure.

    When she plays with a mouse, she is at her saltiest
        for she puts him through "humiliating punishment." *
    When he faints from terror, she busies herself
        in batting him awake with a left and a right.
    She teases him with feigned inattention, then
        swoops like a falcon when he tries to creep away.
    Just when he dares hope for peace from her,
        those hopes are dashed with a serpent’s liveliness.

    In this way do the decrees of fate ruin a man
        and finish him with a cut to the aorta,
    just when, amid the lively gathering,
        he takes the cup of destiny from a server.

*Qur'an 2:90, 3:178, 4:14 et passim.

From The Merits of the Housecat by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī

June 7, 2011

Apologia pro libris suis

It has struck my ear from the mouths of those who were at Khwarazm, and from the tongues of those who were passing through, that our master - may God perpetuate his superiority over all who lack his richness of soul, and over the officers who give him counsel - invited a gathering of men to revile me, impelling them to extravagance in their censure and abuse, and that he was deliberate in tearing aside the veiling curtains of gentility, on the charge that my library was wrongly acquired. Does this seem worthy of his merits and his virtue? Is it congruent with his nobility and and gentlemanly character? I am vexed by his dishonesty and injurious slander, which is a calumny against his Muslim brother. By God, when the horn is sounded on the Day of Resurrection, and these worn-out bones are resurrected from their tombs, armored in the clothes of the life to come, and the worshipers of God are gathered in the open spaces, and the record of every deed flies in the face of its doer, and every soul is asked about its acquisitions - on that day, the evildoer will be dragged face-down to the Fire, and the good-doer will be escorted to Paradise at the side of angels. On that frightening occasion, no one will be tugging at the tail of my cloak, asking for the return of any properties which I appropriated, or any wealth I took by force, or any blood that I shed, or any curtain I have torn, or any person I have killed, or any right that I have trampled on. With God's help, I have acquired some 1,000 manuscript volumes of crucial texts and vital writings, and endowed them all to libraries whose construction was ordered by God for the benefit of Muslims in all the countries of Islam. How does a fellow believer allow himself to envy the books of one of knowledge's foremost teachers, who has striven his whole life to obtain some modest papers, when their market value is unequal to the cost of a single feast? By God beside Whom there is no god, I swear that our master - may God perpetuate his superiority – has committed a false calumny against the likes of me, and done a wrong which will tangle his train and cause him to stumble on the Day of Resurrection. Let him fear God, beside Whom there is no god, and let him remember the Day on which the truthful will be repaid for their truthfulness and liars will be punished for their lies, wa-salām.

A letter to al-Qattan al-Marwazi by Rashid al-Din Watwat
(d. 578/1182)

April 30, 2011

Bookmen of Baghdad and Cairo

"Bookmen" [al-kutubiyun] were those who specialized in the sale of books, some of whom also did their own copying by hand. Among those who gained fame in this type of work were Jamal al-Din ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya, known as al-Watwat ["The Bat"], Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Dimashqi, and the poet Ibn Sham'un al-Kutubi. In Damascus, Muhammad ibn Shakir al-Darani al-Dimashqi was renowned. And there were many other bookmen of this class.

"The bookmen" was used to designate the book market generally without the accompanying word suq. We find this usage in a text describing the events of 279/892 when, on assuming the caliphate, Abu 'l-'Abbas al-Mu'tadid ibn al-Muwaffaq forbade the sale of philosophical texts: "In that year, Abu 'l-'Abbas banned the story-tellers and astrologers, and ordered the bookmen to stop selling works of philosophy and dialectic."

With the invention of paper, the markets and shops of stationers and bookmen became conspicuous throughout the Islamic world, and those who practiced the stationer's trade became a prominent class in society. Ibn Khaldun described them as "those who busy themselves with copying and correcting and bookbinding and other matters relating to books," most fundamentally their traffic and sale. Scores of shops began to sell not only books, but the materials necessary for their manufacture, such as paper, ink, and writing implements - the most decisive indicator of the book trade's prevalence. For these had become indispensable to students and the learned alike, who copied what they needed out of books in addition to buying them in great numbers from the stationers' markets.

These shops began to spread through the urban centers of Islam, taking hold to the point that some parts of Arab cities became known as "the district of the bookmen" (or "books" or "stationers"). In Baghdad, seat of the 'Abbasid caliphate, stationers' markets appeared all over, but only one was known as "the stationers' district." This was a large area containing a large number of shops specializing in the sale of books - one hundred of them in the vicinity of the Basra Gate alone. Ibn Nadim gives evidence of one such market in his remarks on Ahmad ibn Abi Tahir: "The son of Khorasani parents, he used to sit in the stationers' market in the southeastern part of Baghdad." Another booksellers' district of renown was in the neighborhood of Taq al-Harrani, on the western side of the new bridge. It is mentioned that on the death of Ja'far ibn Ahmad al-Marwazi in 274/888, "his books were taken to Baghdad and sold in Taq al-Harrani." And Abu 'l-Qasim al-Harith ibn 'Ali, a stationer of Baghdad, is said to have sold and copied books for people in the western neighborhood of Qasr Waddah.

The stationers and bookmen's markets of Cairo are known from the description of al-Maqrizi: "To the best of my knowledge, the market between El Sagha and the madrasa of al-Malik al-Salih emerged around the year 700/1300, in the neighborhood of the mosque-hospital of al-Mansur Qalawun.... For a time, the book market was moved from this location to a roofed esplanade between the poultry market and the market of the mat-weavers, by the anointed pillar of the Grey Mosque. A number of the district's inhabitants joined in the raising of the roof, but the dampness of their cellars proved detrimental to books and some were ruined. So the market was removed to its current location, which is still a habitual gathering place for scholarly types."

"There used to be a book market in Fustat, on the eastern side of the mosque of 'Amr ibn al-'As, next to 'Amr's house in the chandlers' quarter. Its vestiges were still there when I visited in 780/1378, but have since been swept away, and its onetime location is no longer common knowledge."

From The Traffic in Manuscripts by Dr. Abed Suleiman al-Mashwakhi (Cairo: Institute of Arabic Manuscripts, 2011)

March 24, 2011

On the earthquake that struck Syria on the ides
of Sha'bān 744/January 2, 1344

In God we seek refuge from the harm of what runs deep inside the earth and what comes out from it, and we beg Him for success in describing it and escaping from it. We beg for God's help and seek His protection from what has poisoned the current year, it being the 44th [of the eighth century of Islam], in which an earthquake struck Syria, scattering its men and horses and erecting the earth's agency over all that drag a tail across it. May there be no return of earthquakes! They hamper the intellect and halt it, and drive people out to the deserts and the wastes, where they exhaust themselves with constant prayer.

         Time is a deceiver of man.
                  It enfeebles and abases him and does him harm.
         When the Earthquake strikes, how much is left
                  of Ornament that captivated formerly?

Sixty days have passed, and one family is warned by another's example. When I was asked how the wall [of a certain house] could remain standing for two consecutive months, I said: "It is seeking atonement." For on a day of Ramadan it collapsed onto its people.

         In the Merciful we seek refuge from its like:
                  the earthquake which routs all hope of sleep.
         It sprang violently upon the unresistant
                  and condemned the chaste to death by stoning.
         It was the sentence of the Almighty, Powerful and Triumphant,
                  Whose kindliness is unconditional and eternal.

In fear we eyed the shaking stones as they separated from each other. "Some there are that split apart... and some fall down in fear of God" and fly to pieces. How many houses did the carpenter and plasterer enter whose hard stones were freshly spattered, "wherein they found a wall about to collapse"! How many high places brought low, never to be raised! and how many buildings reduced in height, to await the Day of Judgment! How many nights we stayed awake - as on nights of travel - and called on God, praised be He, that there be "peace, until the rising of the dawn"! We ask God for recompense without affliction, and we seek refuge in God from affliction without recompense.
         The refugees avoid the valleys and remain out of doors in January, hobbled by the cold:

         Fear of the heaving earthquake
                  hurled us "onto the open shore"
         of the empty desert, where nothing can land on us
                  but rain from the sky.

The natural philosopher said: "This was caused by vapors of the pent-up wind." The astrologer said: "It was in emulation of the movement of a star." Whereupon the legal scholar declaimed:

         In the agency of God I am the first believer,
                  and the first to disbelieve that this was star-ordained.
         The philosopher is without grace or warrant,
                  as are the star-struck, who have nothing to back them up.

The scholars have a clearer perspective, for God's law is more on point.
         Aleppo prevailed over the disaster. Cracks appeared in its mosque, and its minaret waved and fell to leaning. and had the call been stronger it would have been apocopated. Thanks to God, however, the mosque remained intact and its minaret was spared emasculation, in order that God's word might still resound. But tears for [the neighborhood of] al-'Aqaba flow like water from the sky. "What will make you know what is al-'Aqaba?" Men's and women's quarters were thrown together inside the moving buildings, whose walls came together in a farewell embrace, and many necks were broken and rib cages intermixed, inspiring this couplet:

         The earthquake took a special delight
         in the flesh of the neckbone of the 'Aqabite.

Downcast by the whole catastrophe, Aleppo's provincial deputy left the city. His grief and remorse were evident, as he walked with a copy of the Qur'ān shielding his head.

         I guarantee that if you saw him
                  promenading beneath that Qur'ān
         you would have thought him the very picture of Joseph
                  bearing with him Sūrat Yūsuf.

And if you had seen the citadels and fortresses, when all their guardhouses were brought down:

         The earthquake flew at the Citadel of citadels
                  fearing neither bowman nor hunter.
         When the fortress learned who was the Aimer of the blow
                  it left its foundation and went to its knees before Him.
         Those who escaped the ruin to live on in dread
                  of the joint extinction of novelty and antiquity know that
         the matter belongs to God. And many a speculator
                  does not err until he acts.

The people were reduced to camping next to the sites vacated by their houses when the earthen tide swept them away.
         But if you had seen Manbij, birthplace of streams and source of the early morning's blowing breeze, - Manbij, in the obliterating force's grip, "as if it had not flourished yesterday," and the gloom of the sun and full moon on its rubble!

         Their deaths in the rubble did not fall short
                  of His decree, and they entered the company of martyrs.
         The Creator's might is blameless
                  and there is no disgrace in His creation brought low.

Alas for Manbij, the splendid city! It became a ruin such as it wearies the tongue to describe, enveloped in dust and shadow and ridden by a dark black wind.

         They and their houses perished in an instant
                  as if on schedule.
         May there be a disinterment of their bright faces
                  like swords taken out from their sheaths.

It was told to me that the stones of its minaret flew into the sky like missiles:

         Drunk on the earthquake's wine, it danced
                  like a sportive camel under a hasty rider.
         Its libation set my tears to pouring out
                  for what befell its house and the people in it.

When they heard the horrible sound, "they left their homes by the thousands, fearing death." But their fear was no protection, nor were the tears they shed, nor the porticoes of their kings when their kings lay dead.

         With the walls around our young maids fallen,
                  what can I say to Him? "Be Thou our wall"?

The feebleness of my descriptive powers is too great, and my own greatness is too feeble, and with these verses I conclude:

         The people of Manbij were like silkworms,
                  whose homes turn into graves.
         Blessed were they, whose mulberry tree
                  was a garden paved with silk.

The Epistle of the Earthquake by Zayn al-Din 'Umar ibn al-Muzaffar ibn al-Wardi (d. 749/1349)

March 11, 2011

Allegory of the Violet

Heaving the deep sigh of a distant lover, the violet said: "For those who end a happy life with a martyr's death I pour out my fragrance until I am reduced to ash by cruel fortune. Clad in the garment of emaciation, I am wasted away by the passing days, which admit no stay and dictate my corruption, leaving me no protective wrapper nor withstanding power. How brief a floruit was appointed me! And how long must I go on cut and dried! All the days of my existence I am battered up and down, cut from my roots and prevented from fruiting. The strong take advantage of my weakness, and my delicacy, grace and elegance are no protection against ill use. To enter my presence is to be blessed! and to see me is to marvel at me. But no more than a day or part of a day goes by until I am sold for a pittance, and a minute later I am found blameworthy. By nightfall you see me torn and tousled by the hands of happenstance, a husk hopeless of recovering its bloom.

"I am prized by pharmacists and those who attend to hidden wisdom, for by me are swelling cysts reduced, and violent pains made easier to bear, and recalcitrant bowels made pliant, and pernicious illnesses repulsed. Dried or fresh, I am a source of blessings to the people, who are ignorant of the magnitude of my oration, and the wisdom deposited in me by my Lord. To those who contemplate me attentively I am an exhortation, and an admonition to the mindful. Within me is an oracular indication for those who are attuned, and 'consummate wisdom - but warnings avail not.' " And I exclaimed:

        "I marveled at the violet, when it burst
                  into narration through its petals set on branching stems:
         an army bearing emerald spears, tipped with
                  ruby gems held aloft
         as if confronting an enemy host
                  tall as the tops of high palms."

From Revelation of the Secret Wisdom of the Birds and Flowers by 'Izz al-Din ibn Ghanim al-Maqdisi (d. 678/1279)

March 3, 2011

At ‘Ayn Wabār

Abū Ḥātim said: One of our most dependable elders told of a man of Yemen who saw a camel like a beautiful white star, frisking amid his she-camels until all were mounted. When they had conceived, the he-camel went away and stayed away for one year's time. It was after the man had delivered his camels of their offspring live and kicking that again he saw the he-camel, which stayed among the she-camels until they were fecundated anew. When the camel went away again, its offspring followed it, the man following them whither he knew not until he came to ‘Ayn Wabār. (This is a spring of water belonging to the jinn, and its location is no longer known.) Among the wild camels, asses, gazelles and wild cows he found his flock under palms whose dates reached to their shoulders, such as no man had ever cultivated nor had any knowledge of.

He said: One of the jinn came up to the man and said: "What caused you to alight here?" "I followed these, my camels," the man said. The jinn said: "Finding you here on any day before today, I would have killed you. But go [with your life] and do not return. This he-camel is one of our herd." The jinn rounded up the camel's offspring and drove them out along with the man. From this stock it is claimed that the noble Mahrī camels are descended.

On his return, the man told one of the kings of Kinda about ‘Ayn Wabār. The king wore himself out with long seeking but was never able to find it, and from that time up til now its location has remained unknown. And that is ‘Ayn Wabār.

Similar expressions are mentioned by Abū Zayd and others: "I left him in a country that was tongue-tied," "I left him at the wild cow-licks," "I left him by the fox-ford," "I left him at the pond of last resort," and "I left him in a wasteland that was tongue-tied" are all said as one says "I left him at ‘Ayn Wabār." All are places of which no one has any experience or knowledge.

From The Book of the Palm by Abū Ḥātim al-Sijistānī (d. 869/255)

February 24, 2011

The Rooster and the Crow

Abu Rawq al-Hazzani informed us that [Muhammad ibn Bashir] al-Riyashi said: "We were with al-Asma'i when a Bedouin came up to him and asked: 'You are al-Asma'i?' 'Yes,' he said. 'You are the man of the settled folk who is wise to the speech of the desert Arabs?' 'So they claim,' said al-Asma'i. 'What is the meaning,' asked the Bedouin, 'of the early poem:

        "What's he but the wine-drinking, tavern-loving rooster,
             the one who was companion of the crow?
         When the dawn begins to break, his voice unleashes:
            'Why, O crow, have you not returned my clothes?' " '

"Al-Asma'i said: 'The Arabs used to say that in times past the rooster was possessed of a wing with which it could fly through the air, and the crow had a wing like the wing of a rooster, useless for flying. One night, the two of them were drinking together in a tavern, and when their drink ran out, the crow said to the rooster: 'For the loan of your wing, I will bring you more drink.' So the rooster loaned it to him, and the crow flew away and never came back. They say that when the rooster calls out at daybreak, he is begging the crow for his wing." The Bedouin laughed, and said: 'You are one of the very muses [mā anta illā shaytān].' " The poem is by Umayya ibn Abi 'l-Salt.

From The Classes of Grammarians by Abu 'l-Tayyib al-Lughawi

February 11, 2011


So Glad6 October Bridge, 29 Jan. 2011. Photo by Cameron Hu

February 5, 2011


Looking east from Zamalek on the July 26 Bridge, on Jan. 28, 2011.
Rubber pellets, didn't leave a lasting mark. Still nobody tell my mom :)

February 1, 2011

I am in Dubai

January 25, 2011

The source of the verse quoted lately

Abu 'l-Aswad al-Du'ali sent a messenger to al-Husayn ibn Abi 'l-Hurr al-'Anbari (grandfather of the judge 'Ubayd Allah ibn al-Hasan) and Nu'aym ibn Mas'ud al-Nahshali, who were revenue officers under Ziyad [ibn Abihi]. His hopes for the courtesy of an answer were gratified by al-Nu'aym, but al-Husayn tossed Abu 'l-Aswad's letter over his shoulder. On his return, the messenger informed Abu 'l-Aswad, who said:

        "When my letter came, you thought it was asking
             for charity, but my hopes lay in a different direction.
         My messenger informs me that
             your left hand took the letter,
         and with one look at the address you cast it aside
             like the cast-off, worn-out sole of your shoe.
         Nu'aym ibn Mas'ud is worthy of what came to him
             and you are worthy of what's already yours.
         It attacks and advances without awareness or knowledge:
             what else is stupidity, if not that?"

Muhammad ibn Sallam [al-Jumahi] said: "When a litigant got confused in his speech before [the above mentioned grandson,] 'Ubayd Allah ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Husayn ibn Abi 'l-Hurr the judge of Basra, 'Ubayd Allah quoted to him the verse:

        'He attacks and advances without awareness or knowledge.
             What else is stupidity, if not that?'

The man said: 'If Your Honor will allow me to approach, I have something to say.' 'You may approach,' said 'Ubayd Allah.
         "The man said: 'Of all people, it is you who have the most reason to keep quiet about that poem, for you know about whom it was spoken.' 'Ubayd Allah smiled, and said: 'It is evident to me that you are the wronged party in this case. Return to your home.' He then ordered the man's adversary to approach, and said: 'You are to pay him the full amount demanded.' "

From the Book of Songs of Abu 'l-Faraj al-Iṣbahani

January 24, 2011

On the ignorance of our preceptors

You (may you come to know of the good and by the good!) should know what a grave hazard to humankind it is to have ignorant authorities and misleading sources. Having been humankind's affliction from the earliest and most bygone of eras and days, it is much worse in our own time, in which we have wound up at the pinnacle of confusion and the murkiest extreme of turbidity.

Our learning has come from those without learning - nor judgment, sense or comprehension. Devoid of understanding, they give explanations, and without learning of their own they give instructions. All their learning is forged and feigned, and there is no slander they won't drum up and pass on. Being ignorant, they think themselves learned, and find fault with those whose learning is sound:

        "Busy in all things, he masters none of them.
         His guidance increases in nothing but error."

What is more, without his pretensions to being the wisest of men, his drivel brings him no pleasure. In reality he is a blight on his students, and to those seeking an education he is poison. In his mind, however, even an assembly of his own preceptors would be in need of his instruction. When he narrates, he prevaricates, and when questioned he vacillates. When disputed he yells, when contradicted he brawls, and when the proof against him is decisive he answers with foul language.

        "He attacks and advances without awareness or knowledge.
             What else is stupidity, if not that?"

The ignorance of such preceptors is off the scale established by al-Khalil when he declared the rankings of men, as related by Muhammad ibn Yahya ibn al-'Abbas [al-Suli] on the authority of Abu Ahmad Muhammad ibn Musa al-Barbari, on the authority of al-Zubayr ibn Bakkar [ibn al-'Awwam] who was told by al-Nadr ibn Shumayl:

"I heard al-Khalil say: 'Some people have knowledge, and know that they have knowledge. These are the learned, who should be followed. Some have knowledge without knowing that they have it; such people go astray, and should be led aright. Some do not have knowledge, and know that they lack it. These are the students, who should be taught. And some have no knowledge, and do not know that they lack it. These are the ignorant, and they should be avoided.' "

From The Classes of Grammarians by Abu 'l-Tayyib al-Lughawi

January 20, 2011

Princeton MS Garrett 1156H, fol. 20r

Garrett 1156H, 20r

[Siraj al-Din al-Warraq wrote in answer to a poem by Nasir al-Din al-Hammami:]

   "He summons the village to prayer, and the party
        whose worship is mischief and liquor and cups.
    His magnanimous nature alternates with his jealousy
        and his rival is never allowed to forget it.
    The pleasure he takes in his wives is apparent,
        as are his bright crown and his striped, fringed vestment.
    A heart full of fire in a breast that is slender:
        no better way to describe him than this."

And God, be He praised and exalted, knows best.

Chapter 4: Reports of the attributes of the Rooster of the Throne, peace be upon him, with close attention to the rare words they contain. The Rooster of the Throne is an angel of great magnitude in the form of a rooster. Abu 'l-Shaykh quotes Abu Bakr ibn [Abi] Maryam on the authority of Mughira [that the Prophet said:] "God, be He praised, has an angel in heaven called the Rooster, and when he praises God in heaven the roosters on earth praise Him also. He says: 'Praise be to the Most Holy, the Merciful, Compassionate and Divine King! There is no God but He.' And God will relieve the distress of any sick or troubled person who says the same."

Abu 'l-Shaykh also quotes Yusuf ibn Mahran on the authority of 'Abd al-Rahman that a man of Kufa said: "I have been told that beneath the Throne is an angel in the form of a rooster, with talons of pearl and a breast of green chrysolite. When the first third of the night has passed, it beats its wings and calls aloud, saying: 'Arise, ye wakers!' When half the night has passed, it beats its wings and calls aloud, saying 'Arise, ye watchers!' When the final third of the night has passed, it beats its wings and calls aloud, saying: 'Arise, ye worshipers!' And at the breaking of dawn it beats its wings and calls aloud, saying: 'Arise, ye sleepers,' and they resume their burdens." This hadith is also related with the word ghāfilūn ["heedless ones"] in place of nā'imūn ["sleepers"]. Alternate wordings are heard for the rooster's speech: "Praise be to the Noble and Uncreated!" after the first third of the night, "Praise be to the Generous unto those who disobey Him!" after the second third, and "Awake, ye heedless ones, for the hour before dawn belongs to God!" after the third. Burāthin [the word for “talons”] is pronounced with damma after the initial bā', followed by the letters rā', thā' and nūn

From The Book of Pointers and Indications that Clarify
the Attributes and Merits of the Rooster
by Ahmad ibn Ahmad
al-Fayyumi al-Gharqawi (fl.17th c.)