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‘ul. 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 Language by Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Khatị̄b al-Iskāfī

May 26, 2013

The voice of Misunderstanding (a comic prologue)

[In a wood of Corinth there lay exposed
a baby boy and girl, 'til an old woman
passing by came to their rescue.
Unable to care for both, she took the girl's
raising upon herself] most willingly,
and gave the boy to the mistress of this house,
who was a wealthy dame devoid of children.
That's how it all began. Then, some years later,
with ills of war and Corinth's troubles
mounting, the old woman fell destitute.
Her girl, nearly grown (just now you saw her),
had attracted an impassionate suitor.
To the care of this young man, of a family
of Corinth, she committed the girl,
as though she were the mother. Already advanced
in wasting away, and looking to life's katastrophē
as a nearby thing, she disconcealed unto the girl
her fortune: to have been a foundling, found
swaddled in this cloth - and at that, produced it
to her - and identified her unsuspected brother,
reasoning that in case of need
for mortal assistance, her only natural bond
was to him, and fearing lest some mishap
befall the two through me, [the goddess Agnoia, viz.]
Misunderstanding. A rich party-boy is
how she saw the brother, and none too steady
the army officer who was the pretty young thing's suitor.
With that, she died, and [sure enough,] the officer's
just bought the house next door. Neighbor now
to her brother, the girl's revealed nothing, hating
to mar his bright outlook on what Fortune
gave him to enjoy. But chance observation
soon showed her his impetuous nature,
as well as a habit of wandering round her house
with an intent. One night at dusk she was
sending her maid out for something, when he
happened to spy her at the gates, and hastened
up to her with hugs and kisses. Knowing him
for her brother she did not flee - but the snoop who came
upon them saw, and told of how he went off saying
he wanted to see her at greater leisure, and of her tears,
standing there wailing that she wasn't free
to act that way. The upshot's blazed up to
the present moment, stoking his rage
to such a height - 'twas I who stoked it
past his nature, in order that secrets start to
open up in what follows, and everyone's true family
be revealed. So if anybody find this in bad taste
or a source of scandal, save it.
Through a god do evils turn out good.
To you who favor us with spectatorship
I bid farewell. Let what follows not be lost on you.

Menander, The Girl With Close-Cropped Hair 117-171

May 24, 2013

Al-Zahiriyya Library, Damascus (undated)

April 22, 2013

Madmen who were poets 6

Abu 'l-Bakhtarī said: The tales I used to hear of Abū Fahma, a madman of Baghdad with a gift for poetic improvisation, led me to seek him out. Our meeting came about in a lane of the city, where I said to him, "How are you today, Abū Fahma?" He replied in verse:

  "I have reached the edge of my precipice. Through you
      the way lies open to the wellsprings of my ruin.
   I see you turning, but not toward me.
      Whose heart is least corrupt you least attend.
   O you whose estrangement prolongs my pining:
      may you be struck with pining worse than mine!"
Abu 'l-Bakhtarī said: At this I withdrew from my sleeve a small bouquet of narcissus, and pressed it on him with my wishes that God prolong his life. He stood smelling them for a time, then delivered these verses:

  "On my wedding day, there came from the South hard-spattering,
      rain-wreathed, black and brilliant [clouds].
   Then kicked in the East Wind with its fecundating showers,
      and the curtailment of our nuptials was hard to bear.
   Our babe was born still. Labor pains came on,
      and there was parturition, and that was the issue.
   Springtime wove a shroud, and as one hand
      the dew and breeze gave color to its fabric.
   It was [this] flower's composite yellow, white petals
      cupping ornaments of unsmithed gold 
   on emerald columns raised aloft with the morning,
      like unto the sun in eye-like splendor."

Al-Hasan ibn Hāni' [better known as Abū Nuwās] said: I paid a call on Mānī al-Muwaswas, who delivered these verses:

  "A live man's poem is uttered to you by a dead man.
      Stuck between death and life, he stands [right here].
   Vicissitudes have whittled his frame, and at his end
      he stays in hiding from the rest of creation.
   To look me over, inspecting my persona,
      is to find not one iota of my former charm."

I then went on [continued Abū Nuwās] until I met Ju'ayfirān al-Muwaswas, an elder of the Banū Hāshim with a speech impediment. Around his neck he wore a golden collar with a silver chain. He asked me: "Where did you crawl out of, Hasan?" "Mānī's house," I answered. "Here's one for Mānī's mother's vulva," he said and, calling for pen and paper, told me to write this down:

  "Under cover of the night, the rooster makes no sound
      - except on nights I strive along the pathway to your door.
   Not every eyeful leads the peeper to delight! 
      At night, the joys of bed-rest are what's best,
   - except on nights I mount the dark,
      desiring you. Braving a pair of linked shackles,
   I am playing with my life when I come to you. 'Sweet Hope!'
      I am calling out, amid the night's black suit,
   to the stoker of the flames licking [this] wretch's heart,
      taking no care for his welfare nor his reputation.
   For treachery and fickleness your nature is unsurpassed
      by all the djinn and mortal men living put together now."

With that [continued Abū Nuwās], he told me to tear up what I had from Mānī, which I did.
      I went on until I encountered 'Adrad the Afflicted. Ringed by a crowd of boys, he was slapping his face and weeping as he wailed aloud: "O people! Bitter is the taste of separation!" So I asked him, "Abū Muhammad [which was 'Adrad's kunya], where are you coming from?" "Seeing off the pilgrims bound for Mecca," he said. "What makes it so hard to bear?" I asked.  "Some of my kinsmen travel with them," he said. "Did you deliver a poem on the occasion?" I asked. He responded that he had done, and recited:

  "They departed Thursday morning, and I bid them farewell
      when, taking up their burdens, they took their leave.
   As they turned to go, my soul turned with them.
     'Come back!' I said. 'Come back to where?' said she.
   To a rattling skeleton empty of blood,
     and bare of flesh but for a pair of eyes
   washed by grief, and the shell of an ear
     defiant in its deafness to all blame."

Continued from The Necklace Without Peer of Ibn 'Abd Rabbih

March 15, 2013

News of the pillar-priesthood of old Syria

The temple occupies a hill at the very center of Bambyce. Two walls run round it, one of them ancient and the other one dating to a little before our time. The temple's gateway is placed so as to admit the northern breeze and measures 100 fathoms [~182 meters]. Within these gates stand the pillars [Gk. phalloi] erected by Dionysus, rising to 300 fathoms [a fabulous height which some editors emend to 30 fathoms without troubling over the no-less-fabulous 100-fathom gate]. Twice a year, a man ascends to the top of one of these pillars and dwells there for seven days. The cause for his so doing is variously explained. Majority opinion has it that he converses with the gods on high, asking for blessings on behalf of all of Syria, and that the gods attend his prayers from up close. Others take it for a commemoration of the disaster that struck in Deucalion's day, when the flood sent people fleeing to the mountains and the tree-tops. I find this explanation unbelievable. I think these rites are performed in adoration of Dionysus, and I explain them thus: When they parade the phalloi in honor of Dionysus, they seat wooden figurines on them. The reason for this custom I will not mention - but I will give my opinion that the man who mounts the pillar does so in emulation of those little wooden men.

His method of ascent is this. Looping a cord around himself and the pillar snugly, he goes up it, following a path of wooden toe-holds. As he climbs, he cinches the cord higher, flipping it upward like a pair of reins. (Those who have seen palm trunks scaled in Arabia, Egypt or anywhere else will be able to picture what I'm talking about.) On completing his ascent, he lets down a second, longer cord that he has with him, in order to haul up whatever he pleases in the way of lumber, blankets and other gear, out of which he fashions a nest-like hut in which to sit out the above-mentioned duration. When devotees visit, they cast coins of gold, silver, and sometimes coppers into a container, saying their names as they do so. A man stationed at the pillar's bottom announces them to the man at its top, who says a prayer on behalf of each person named, amplifying his prayer with a brass noise-maker that he rattles loudly.

The man atop the pillar is barred from sleep. If sleep overtakes him, a scorpion climbs up and rouses him with a nasty sting - or so it is said in pious legends of the cult, for whose strict truth I shall not vouch. To me, the fear of falling would seem to suffice as a sleep deterrent. And with that I conclude my account of the pillar-climbers.

Lucian, On the Syrian goddess 28-29.

February 16, 2013

Madmen who were poets 5

Abu 'l-'Abbās [al-Mubarrad] attributes these verses to al-Mānī al-Muwaswas:

   The cheeks on him are white and red:
      red in their middles and white at the rim.
   Thin but dewy, like a cup's glass walls
      streaked by swirling wine within.
Muhammad ibn Yazīd al-Mubarrad said: I got caught in a rainstorm, which quickly abated. When along came Mānī al-Muwaswas, who said:

  "Don't mistake for a real rain
      the rain that fell just now.
   A single tear from my eye 
      flows more freely, when
   assailed by the gloom
      of my worried thoughts.
   This is what it's like to watch
      the change of heart inside a friend's bosom."

Mānī al-Muwaswas went up to Abū Dulaf [al-'Ijlī] and said:

  "The look in your eye 'mid the enemy host
      saves you the trouble of taking out swords."

"By God," said Abū Dulaf, "no poet has ever praised me so well," and ordered ten thousand dirhams be given to him. But Mānī declined to take them. "It's all the same to me as half a dirham's worth of harisa," he said.

Also by Mānī al-Muwaswas:

   Grazing on hearts, some gazelles are preoccupied
      with necklaces. And in my heart there is just grass.
   My life is forfeit to gazelles. Instead of antlers
      they are rubied and empearled with bangling gold.
   O beauty that stole mine eye unwittingly,
      seldom though the stolen glance unwitting be!
   The beauty of her eyes elicited my heart from me,
      and I gave it ovcr, little heeding its acceptability.
   If they do not look my way, the attraction's finished.
      What good are eyes to me if she declines?
   A thief and his hand are soon separated,
      but hearts are for stealing at no such penalty.

'Alī ibn al-Jahm rode up on a man in the grip of a brain-fever who was encircled by a hostile crowd. On spotting him, the man took hold of his horse's bridle and said:

  "Do not swell the company of
      wastrels before me. I swear by the prerogative
   of the One Who aggrieves my life with them,
      and the One Whose forgiveness I beg for them:
   compared to the fallen of their own number,
      these are fallen further still."

His rolling gaze then fixed on a shapely boy with a handsome face, and he rent his tunic, saying:

  "This one, their most nobly favored,
      now treats me with surpassing baseness!"

Continued from The Necklace Without Peer of Ibn 'Abd Rabbih

January 31, 2013

The dawn of fabric

Whatever tale of origins persuades you, the world's first man was surely naked and unclothed when his Potter threw him, before the untimely and unlicensed hold he took of knowledge. But enough of esoteric lore. Let's have one of yours instead - the Egyptian narrative set down by Alexander for his mother to read about the age of Osiris, back when Ammon, rich in sheep, came out of Libya. It was in their company, the Egyptians declare, that Mercury chanced to brush his hand over a ram, and was so pleased by its softness that he separated a little sheep from its skin. The material's pliancy moved him to keep working it, and at his continued pinching a thread streamed forth. This he wove using a technique he had practiced on strips of linden-bark. But Minerva is credited by you with all wool-craft and construction of looms, even though the work at Arachne's shop was better done.

Tertullian, On the philosopher's cloak 3.4-5