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)

November 30, 2020

Alexander the Sleepless

Due to the utter insufficiency of words for this narration, all historians have kept their silence, which has been detrimental for those who wish to rise to his example. It is for their purposes that I—like the traders who cheat death as they rove this world in quest of elusive gains—commit the rashness of setting down this account, seizing the present moment to give his would-be emulators the benefit of a partial description. For a fully proportionate description of this noble athlete's virtues is beyond human telling.

From The Life of Alexander the Sleepless (I.4) by Anonymous

November 10, 2020

Let's have a Qalandar poem

appears in this month's Brooklyn Rail.
Thanks, Anselm

On the left, three kneeling men with shaved heads, bare legs, and capes of fur are singing together. One of them plays a tambourine, and the other two are clapping. Facing them on the right are two kneeling men wearing robes and turbans, one of them holding a tambourine while the other plays an upright stringed instrument.
Detail of a folio from the Divan of Hafez
illuminated by Sultan Muhammad Nur and workshop (ca. 1531-1533),
a joint holding of the Met and Sackler.
Dimensions: Astoundingly small

October 16, 2020

Twilight of the early Abbasids

I was told by Abu 'l-Qasim al-Juhani:

The caliph al-Muqtadir bi-'llah wanted to drink wine amid a bed of narcissus, in a small courtyard of the palace where there was a well-kept garden. One of the gardeners told him, "With narcissus, the trick is to fertilize them several days before your party, so they'll be nice and strong."
    "Don't you dare!" the caliph said. "You would use manure on what I want to sit among and savor the smell of?"
    "That's ordinarily how it's done with plantings, to strengthen them," the gardener said.
    "But what is the rationale?" the caliph asked.
    "Manure protects the plant," the gardener said, "and helps it grow and send out shoots."
    "Then we will protect it with another substance," the caliph said, and gave the order for musk to be pulverized in a sufficient qualntity to manure the whole garden, and this was carried out.
     For one day and one night, the caliph sat there drinking, and when the sun came up he greeted it with another drink. Then he got up and ordered that the garden be sacked, and the gardeners and the eunuchs pillaged the musk from the narcissus bed, leaving the bulbs uprooted from from the soil, until the musk was gone and the garden was a barren waste. The cost of this quantity of musk was enormous.

I was informed by Abu Ishaq al-Tabari, who was the amanuensis of Abu ‘Umar al-Zahid (himself the amanuensis of the grammarian Tha‘lab) and an intimate of the Hamdunid family of caliphal courtiers, that he was told by Ja‘far ibn Hamdun: 

One day, we were drinking with the caliph al-Radi bi-'llah in a courtyard that was shaded by a canopy of choice fruits, until he tired of sitting there and commanded that another seating area be prepared. "Scatter the carpets with fragrant herbs and lotus flowers, without the salvers and the usual arrangements for a smelling party. Do it quickly, now, so we can move our party over there."
    In the blink of an eye, they told him it was done. "Stand up!" the caliph told us, and we followed him. But when he saw the room, it was not to his liking, and he instructed his sommeliers to sprinkle the herbs with powdered camphor to change their color. In they came with golden caskets full of powdered Rubahi camphor, and scattered it over the herbs by the scoopful. The caliph ordered them to add still more camphor, until the herbs were coated white, and looked like a green robe with downy cotton carded over it, or a garden struck by hoarfrost. "That's enough," the caliph said. I estimate the amount of camphor they used at over one thousand dry-weight measures, which is a lot.
    So we sat and drank there with him. Then when the party was over he ordered the room to be sacked. and my servants gathered up many measures of camphor, along with the eunuchs and decorators and servants of the palace who did the same.

From Leavings of the Learned Gathering by al-Tanukhi
a.k.a. Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge

September 22, 2020

Let's have a cat poem

Concerning mice and cats, Abu 'l-Shamaqmaq said (meter: khafīf):

   On the occasion of the emptiness of my home, 
       and sacks and jars where meal should be, this is my poem.
   Formerly, it was not desolate but guest-friendly,
       prosperous, and in a flourishing state.
   But now it seems that mice avoid my house
       to refuge in a nobler steading.
   The flies of my house and the crawling bugs
       all beg to hit the road, away from where
   the cat abides, and looks from side to side,
       and no mouse does it spy the whole year through.
   Its head swims up and down from extremity of hunger,
       and a life of bitterness and vexation.
   I said to the cat, when I saw its head hanging,
       downcast with its gut aflame,
  "Hang in there, kitty! best cat by far
       my eyes have ever seen!"
  "How can I hang on?" said the cat. "I cannot stay
       in a house that's empty as a wild ass's belly."
   I said, "Go on to the neighbor’s house,
       the one who brings home the fruits of commerce."
   Meanwhile, spiders fill my pots and pans
       and all my vessels with their spinning,
   and off with the dogs, in the grip of dog-fever, 
       my dog runs mad astray.

From the Book of Animals of al-Jahiz

September 10, 2020

From The Book of Verses with Unclear Meanings

We are informed by Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-ʿArudi that Ahmad ibn Yahya attested these verses on the authority of al-Bahili (meter: kāmil):

خِدْنَانِ لَمْ يُرَيَا مَعًا في مَنْزِلٍ         وَكِـلاهُما يَسْــرِي بِهِ المِقْدَارُ          
 لَوْنَـانِ شَـتَّى يُغْشَيَـانِ مُلاءَةً          تَسْفِي عَلَيْها الرِّيحُ والأَمطَارُ             

                 Two confederates never seen together in one house,
                     each in movement for a set length of time.
                 Two separate colors in one sewn wrapper,
                     buffeted by winds and rains.

          This describes Night and Day.

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

September 5, 2020

‘Abīd 1:21-26

    Live by what you will. Weakness does not preclude success.
        A man of expertise can still be duped.
    A man who cannot learn from fate cannot be taught by people,
        not even if they take him by the scruff.
    What are hearts but inborn tempers?
        How many hate their former friends?
    Lend a hand in any land while you sojourn there.
        Never say: "But I am alien to this place."
    In favor of alliance with a stranger from afar,
        nearby relations are sometimes severed.
    And as long as a man may live, he is in denial.
        Long life is his punishment.

From the Mu‘allaqa of ‘Abīd ibn al-Abraṣ

August 31, 2020

A floating bridge of Baghdad

A Bedouin passed by a pontoon bridge, then gave a versified description of it unlike anything by anyone I know (meter: basīṭ):

   Along the corniche, friends linger and disperse
       by the Tigris post where the flood is spanned by a bridge of boats.
   Viewed from one side, it's like a string of Bactrian camels
       flanking each other crosswise in their tethers,
   some followed by their young, some adolescents
       treading dung, and some that are fair old milchers.
   No coming home from travels for these camels.
       Any time they move, their steps are short,
   bound by ropes of palm dyed different colors
       and fixed with pegs of iron in their sides.

One of the Unparalleled Poems from the Book of Prose and Poetry by
Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur (d. 893 CE)

August 22, 2020

Origins of the fold-in

On the poet Abu 'l-‘Ibar al-Hashimi (d. 866 CE), by Sinan Antoon,
The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic Poetry: Ibn al-Hajjaj
Sukhf (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40:

The image is of printed text that reads: There are two other points of commonality that Ibn al-Hajjaj and Abu 'l-‘Ibar share, and these are the studied and deliberate inclusion of vulgar and colloquial registers into poetry and the desire to effect confusion into accepted norms. When asked about the sources of his <i>muhal</i> (absurdities) Abu 'l-‘Ibar said: 'I wake up early and sit on the bridge with paper and pen and write all that I hear from the speech of those who come and go, the boatmen and the watercarriers, until I fill both sides of the paper. Then I cut it in half and paste it the other way and get speech that is unparalleled in its folly.'
189  From the Book of Songs

August 16, 2020

From the Epistle of the Two Luminaries

In his Epistle of the Two Luminaries, which is [subtitled] "From a dejected lover, to one whose love is reciprocated by another," and begins with the words: "The earth lies before the merciful king, the sultan of beauty, the lion of combat...." ‘Ala’ al-Din [Taqi al-Din] ibn al-Mahgribi said (meter: majzū’ al-ramal):

   The Nile comes and goes.
       My love goes on and on.
   Nothing I say tomorrow will be enough.
       Sometimes love is too much.
   Every heart but mine
       gets the love it wants.
   I am the lone unfortunate
       going steady with rejection.

Then ‘Ala’ al-Din [Taqi al-Din] said: "I am the lone unfortunate who pissed on a plate of fried doughnuts, letting out a dribbling vinegar stream. I crucified Iblis with his own hammer, and left him sagging and singing "Tra-la-la-la!" as he flapped his wings like a chicken (meter: majzū’ al-ramal):

   Tra-la-la-la, tra-la-la!
       You, with the eyes of a little gazelle!
   God have mercy on my slayer.
       Me it is no boast to kill.

From The Record of Ardent Love by Ibn Abi Hajala

August 10, 2020

Thieves who were poets

‘Arqal was a famous thief of the Banu Sa‘d. Along with Abu Hardaba and Mālik ibn al-Rayb, he was a thief who was a poet. His name comes from the verb ta‘arqala, which means "to be thrown into chaos," and in vulgar speech it is much in use; ‘irqāla is "one who sows chaos."

In the early Islamic period, there was an Arab highwayman of the desert called ‘Ujayl ("Speedy"), for his callousness. By my estimation, he was active when Ziyad was governor.

From The Book of Name Derivations by Ibn Durayd

August 2, 2020

The strongman and the felt

Zaveh, a village in Khorasan, was home to the famous Qotb al-Din Heydar, a most remarkable man. In summertime he would walk through fire, and in winter plunge himself in ice, and throughout the surrounding territories people came to observe these marvels. All who beheld him in the act were struck by a compulsion to renounce the world, and adopted felt clothes and went barefoot. It often happened, I have heard, that lords and princes would come, and hurl themselves from their horses at the sight of him, and put on felts. And I have seen Turkish soldiers in the flower of their fighting strength who wore the felt and went barefoot, and called themselves companions of Heydar.

Some Sufis say the shaykh was seen one day atop a high dome, too high to be scaled, and how he had climbed it was baffling to everyone. Then, on making his descent, he simply walked down as if treading level ground.

At the time the Tatars came to Zaveh, in the year 618 (= 1221 CE), the shaykh was still alive.

From The Monuments of Inhabited Lands of al-Qazwini

July 23, 2020

San Diego memories

Several bunches of grapes hang from leafy vines along a high trellis. Behind them is a sunny blue sky that fades to misty white at the horizon, with some faraway houses among the trees in the middle distance.
Photo by Stephen Beachy

July 9, 2020

The asceticism of Dawud al-Ta’i

I am informed by my father that ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Ya‘qub related on the authority of Abu Hatim that Muhammad ibn Yahya ibn ‘Umar was informed by Muhammad ibn Bashir that Hafs ibn ‘Umar al-Ja‘fi said:

Dawud al-Ta’i inherited nearly four hundred dirhams from his mother, and lived on them for thirty years. When this fund was exhausted, he began dismantling his house, and sold off its bricks and timbers and woven floor-mats until a fragment of the roof was all that remained. The wall surrounding his house was of the same ‘Azrami brickwork as the market of Kunasa, and the door in it was low and irregularly-shaped.
       A young man came to Dawud's house by leaping over the wall. "Give these to me," he said, "for my friend and I to sell on your behalf. The proceeds could be helpful to you." He kept this up until Dawud let him have them. But after thinking it over, Dawud went out after evening prayers to confront him. "Give them back to me," he said. "But why, brother?" the young man asked. "I fear their sale will be fraught with unlawful gain," said Dawud, and took them back.


We are informed by ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad [ibn Ja‘far?] that ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn al-‘Abbas was informed by Salama ibn Shabib that Sahl ibn ‘Asim reported that ‘Uthman ibn Zufar said:

I was told by a cousin of Dawud al-Ta’i that he inherited twenty dinars from his father, which he spent on food and almsgiving at the rate of one dinar per year for twenty years. And he inherited a house, whose maintenance he disregarded. When one part of it fell in, he would move to another, until a corner of the house was all that remained.

We are informed by Abu Muhammad ibn Hayyan that Ishaq ibn Abi Hassan reported on the authority of Ahmad ibn Abi 'l-Hawari that Abu Sulayman al-Darani said:

Dawud al-Ta’i inherited from his mother a sum of money and a house, and he moved from room to room inside it as they fell apart around him, paying no heed to their maintenance, until every room in the house was used up. Of the money he inherited from his father, he spent all but one dinar, which paid for his winding sheet.

We are informed by Ibrahim ibn ‘Abd Allah that Muhammad ibn Ishaq said: I heard Muhammad ibn Zakariya say: I have heard it said by one of our companions that

Dawud al-Ta’i inherited twenty dinars from a patroness of his, which sufficed him until his death twenty years later.

We are informed by Ahmad ibn Ishaq that Muhammad ibn Yahya ibn Mandah reported that

‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Amr said: I was asked by Muhammad ibn ‘Amir whether he ought to abandon the merchant's trade. Muhammad ibn Nu‘man and I advised that it would be better for him not to. He then wrote to his brother in Baghdad, telling him of our advice. His brother wrote back, saying:
      "Your confrères have advised you poorly. When Dawud al-Ta’i sold a piece of property that belonged to him, he was told: 'If you invested the proceeds in commerce, then something would accrue to you.' Dawud declined, saying: 'The income would run out before I do, or my life would run out before it.' So he spent the money dinar by dinar, and at his death just one dinar was left, which paid for his winding sheet."

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad that Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Hadhdha’ was informed by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Dawraqi that 

‘Abd Allah ibn Salih ibn Muslim al-‘Ijli said: I paid a call on Dawud al-Ta’i as he was suffering from the illness he died of, and in his house was nothing but an earthenware crock lined with pitch, containing some dry bread. He had another vessel for his ablutions, and lying in the dust was a large brick of Shahanjani mud. This was his cushion and his pillow, and in his house was not one woven mat of any size.

From the Ornament of God's Friends of Abu Nu‘aym al-Isbahani

June 18, 2020

Public Service Announcement

القناع من سيما الرّؤساء

"The face mask is a badge of superb people."


June 10, 2020

Qual nave smarrita

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah that his father was informed by ‘Abd Allah ibn Numayr that al-A‘mash was told by Khaythama and Hamza that Shahr ibn Hawshab said:

The Angel of Death paid a call on Solomon. During his visit, he fell to staring at a man of Solomon's court. After he left, the man asked, "Who was that?"
    "That," said Solomon, "was the Angel of Death, peace be upon him."
    "He seemed to be staring, as if it were me he sought!"
    "What do you desire, then?" asked Solomon.
    "I want the wind to carry me away and set me down in India!" he said. So Solomon called for a wind to whirl the man there.
     [A little later,] the Angel of Death came back to Solomon, peace be upon him. Solomon said to him: "You sure were staring at one of my courtiers!"
     The Angel of Death said, "But I was surprised at seeing him here with you! when I was on my way to snatch his soul from him, in India."

 From The Book of Asceticism by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (cf.)

June 3, 2020

Quiet is the howl

We are informed by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn ‘Asim that al-Zubayr ibn ‘Abd al-Wahid reported that al-Rabi‘ ibn Sulayman said: I heard al-Shafi‘i recite these verses (meter: basīṭ):

     I wish I had dogs for neighbors
         instead of everyone I see.
     Dogs in their packs accept guidance.
         Human badness will never be tamed.
     Tend your soul and keep it secluded.
         Life in seclusion can only be praised.

An eminent jurist of our age says something similar, God have mercy on him (meter: basīṭ):

     From predations of wild beasts there is refuge.
         From human predation, nowhere to flee.
     Wild beasts don't bother most people.
         From human harm, no mortal is free.

       Al-Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad said: "If you see a lion, don't let it alarm you. If you see a son of Adam, hike up your robes and flee."

We report these words on Qubaysa's authority, and also that al-Shafi‘i said: "What do our times resemble, if not the verse by Ta’abbata Sharran (sic)" (meter: ṭawīl):

     When the wolf howls, my feelings are friendly.
         What startle me are human voices.

‘Ubayd ibn Ayyub al-‘Anbari said something similar after he was pursued by the law for a capital crime he had committed, and fled until he reached a territory unknown to him (meter: ṭawīl):

      I was so awake to danger that when a dove flew by,
         I said, "Is that a single enemy, or a scouting party?"
     If I hear: "It gets better," I say: "It's a trick!"
         If I hear: "It gets worse," I say "True! Better get ready!"

I have it on al-Aburi's authority that the jurist Mansur ibn Isma‘il said (meter: mujtathth):

     People are the deep sea
         Distance from them is a boat
     I advise you to look
         After your miserable soul

From The Book of Isolation by Abu Sulayman al-Khattabi

May 16, 2020

From the Book of Isolation and Seclusion

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah on the authority of al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali that Ahmad ibn Yunus said:

       I heard Sufyan al Thawri say: "The best thing for a person is a burrow to retreat into."

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah on the authority of Ishaq ibn Ibrahim that Muhammad ibn Abi ‘Adiyy was told by Yunus on the authority of al-Hasan that

       The Messenger of God, God's blessings and peace be upon him, said:
"For hermitages, Muslims have their homes."

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah on the authority of Ishaq ibn Isma‘il, that Waki‘ was told by Isma‘il ibn Abi Khalid on the authority of Qays that

       Talha ibn ‘Ubayd Allah said: "The most blameless thing a man can do is sit in his home."

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah on the authority of Ishaq ibn Ibrahim that Yahya ibn Sa‘id  was told by Thawr ibn Yazid  that Sulaym ibn ‘Amir said:

       Abu 'l-Darda’ said: "An excellent hermitage for a Muslim man is his home, [wherein] he curbs his tongue, his sex, and his gaze. Beware of social gatherings and marketplaces, with their frivolity and nonsense."

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah that Muhammad ibn Abi Hatim al-Azdi said: I heard ‘Abd Allah ibn Dawud mention that al-Awzai reported that

       Makhul al-Shami said: "If society is where one gains distinction, then peace is gained in isolation."

We are informed by ‘Abd Allah on the authority of Hamza ibn al-'Abbas al-Marwazi that 'Abdan ibn 'Uthman said: It was reported to us by 'Abd Allah ibn Mubarak that Ibn Lahi'a said: This is what I was told by Bakr ibn Sawada: 

       Abu 'l-Darda’ encountered a man who had withdrawn from humanity and lived completely by himself. "God be implored," he exclaimed, "on your behalf! Whatever induced you to withdraw from human society?"
      "My terror lest my faith be stripped from me, without me knowing," said the man.
       Abu 'l-Darda’ said, "In all the host of Muslims, are there a hundred who fear like you?" He went on [repeating the question, each time] lowering the number until he got to ten. At this, the man said:
      "There is one man, in Syria." That man was Shurahbil ibn al-Simt.

From the Book of Isolation and Seclusion by Ibn Abi 'l-Dunya

May 6, 2020

Week Seven

It is said that Rabi‘a fasted for seven nights and days without sleeping, engrossed in prayers all night long. Her hunger had passed all limits, when through the door of her house came someone with a dish of food. Rabi‘a accepted the dish and went to get a lamp. When she came back, the cat had spilled the dish. "I'll go get a jug," she said, "and break my fast [with water]." But when she came back with the jug, the lamp was out. Her next intention was to drink water in the dark. Then the jug slipped from her hand and broke.
      Rabi‘a let out such a groan that it was feared lest fire would consume half the house. She said: "Dear God, in my helplessness, what are you doing with me?"
      Into her hearing came a voice: "Beware! lest you wish Me to confer the world's blessings on you, and empty your heart of desperate care for Me. Desperate care and worldly blessings can never come together in the same heart. You, O Rabi‘a, have your will, and I have Mine, and in one heart your will and I can never come together."
      Rabi‘a said: "On hearing these words pronounced, I cut short my hopes, and turned my heart so far from this world that, for thirty years, I have carried out each prayer as if I knew it were my last. And ever since that day, I have cut my head off from Creation, for fear lest someone come to distract me from Him.
     "I said: 'God, be You my occupation, that I may be occupied by no one else.'"

From the Memorial of the Saints of Farid al-Din ‘Attar

April 22, 2020

Asceticism of the Shelter People

We are informed by Abu Muhammad b. Hayyan that ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad b. Salm was informed by Hannad b. al-Sari that Abu Mu‘awiya narrated on the authority of Hisham that al-Hasan said:

The Messenger of God, upon whom be God's blessings and peace, called on the People of the Shelter. "How are you this morning?" he asked. They replied that they were fine. "Today you are fine." he said. "In the future, you'll each take one dish in the morning and another at night, and you will drape your homes in fabrics like the Ka‘ba."
     "Will we stay true to the faith, O Messenger of God, when all this comes to us?" they asked.
     "Yes," he said.
     "Then on that day we will be fine indeed. We will give alms, and pay for slaves to be emancipated!"
     "On the contrary," said God's Messenger, God's blessings and peace be upon him. "You are better off today, for on that day you'll all fall prey to envy and resentment, and be parted from each other."

Abu Mu‘awiya's narration is incompletely sourced, [lacking as it does an informer between al-Hasan (d. 50/670) and Hisham (b. 61/680),] but we are informed by Abd Allah b. Muhammad that Abu Yahya al-Razi said that Hannad b. al-Sari was informed by Yunus b. Bukayr that Sinan b. Saysan al-Hanafi reported that al-Hasan said:

I constructed a shaded portico for indigent Muslims. Other Muslims began contributing whatever they could for their benefit, and God's Messenger, God's blessings and peace be upon him, used to visit them. "Peace be upon you, O People of the Shelter!" he would say. "And upon you be peace, O Messenger of God!" they would reply.
     "How are you this morning?" the Prophet asked. "We're fine, O Messenger of God!" they said.
      He said, "Today you are better off than that day when each of you will take one dish in the morning and another at night, and you will wear one garment in the morning and a different one that night, and you will drape your homes in fabrics like the Ka‘ba."
     "We will indeed be fine that day!" they said. "God be thanked for what He gives us."
     "On the contrary," said God's Messenger, God's blessings and peace be upon him. "You are better off today."

The Shelter had different numbers of people living there as conditions varied throughout the year. When Medina was visited by fewer strangers in need of hospitality, their numbers would disperse and dwindle. But as delegations increased, and more visitors showed up in town, some would go to the Shelter and swell the numbers of its people.
      Their fame was for their most distinguishing characteristic, namely, the total poverty they elected and accepted as their inheritance. Not one owned more than a single garment, nor ate but the simplest foods. This we know from hadith:

We are informed by Abu Bakr b. Malik that Abd Allah, the son of Ahmad b. Hanbal, was told by his father that Waki‘ was informed by Fudayl b. Ghazwan that Abu Hazm reported that Abu Hurayra said: 

I saw seventy People of the Shelter making their prayers, each clad in single robes, some reaching no lower than their knees, and each of them clutched his robe as he bowed in prayer, for fear of exposing his privates.

From The Ornament of God's Friends by Abu Nu‘aym al-Isbahani

April 1, 2020

Ten+ Days of DJ Screw

          A drawing on antique paper shows a shirtless, bearded figure with bare feet and red trousers supporting a large, rainbow-colored boulder on his shoulders. Above this figure, the words 'Self-Soothing Ain't Easy' are written in black magic marker.
The giant ‘Uj ibn ‘Anaq, as seen in a MS of Qazwini’s
Aja’ib al-makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation)
from a workshop of Palestine in the 2nd half of the 18th c.
Bavarian State Library Cod. arab. 463, fol. 295v (30 x 20.5 cm)

March 24, 2020

Stay inside

One springtime, Rabi‘a was in her house with her head bowed low. Her servant said to her: "Come out, my lady, and look what God created!"
    Rabi‘a said: "Why don't you come inside to see the Creator, instead? My job is to observe Him, not scrutinize His creation."

From the Memorial of the Saints of Farid al-Din ‘Attar

March 15, 2020

At Wadi ‘Abqar

‘Abqar means "hail," which is the fall of frozen water from a cloud. They say that ‘Abqar is a land inhabited by demonic spirits (jinn), as in the proverbial expression "like the jinns of ‘Abqar."
    Al-Marrār al-‘Adawī said (meter: ramal):

    Do you recognize the abode, or do you know it not
        between Tibrāk and the stonefields of ‘Abaqurr?

It is explained [by al-Azharī that the place-name in this verse is altered]: The vowel after the b in ‘Abqar is inserted for metrical reasons, and the final is redoubled for these same reasons. The vocalic shift of a > u in the last syllable is to avoid the form *‘Abaqarr, which corresponds to no existing morphological template in Arabic. So the poet devised an analogy to words like qarabūs (the pommel of a saddle), which poets are licensed to shorten to qarabus; and the redoubled r is a fine compensation for this imaginary shortening of the vowel.
    Al-A‘shā (sic) said (meter: ṭawīl):

    ...young and old fighting men, like jinns of ‘Abqar

And Imru’ al-Qays said (meter: ṭawīl):

    The sound of the gravel kicked up [by my camel]
        is like the clink of coins subject to scrutiny at ‘Abqar

And Kuthayyir said (meter: ṭawīl):

    May your stars repay your kindness to your friend with a happy life.
        May my Lord rank you with His highest and His nearest.
    On whatever day you come upon [a certain foe]
        you'll find their ingrained quality superior to other people's.
    They are like the wild jinn haunting the sands
        at ‘Abqar, who, when confronted, do not disappear.

Commentators on these verses say that ‘Abqar is a place in Yemen, which would make it an inhabited area, known apparently for its money-changers. And where there are money-changers, there must be people involved in other trades. Perhaps it was an ancient town, since destroyed, and colorful textiles of unknown make have subsequently been attributed to the jinn of the place? God knows best.
    Genealogists say that Hind bt. Mālik b. Ghāfiq b. al-Shāhid b. ‘Akk was married to Anmār b. Arāsh b. ‘Amr b. al-Ghawth b. Nabat b. Mālik b. Zayd b. Kahlān b. Sabā’ b. Yashjub b. Ya‘rub b. Qahṭān, and bore him a son named Aftal, who came to be called Khath‘am. Khath‘am went on to marry Bajīla bt. Ṣa‘b b. Sa‘d, and the son she bore him was named Sa‘d - but was nicknamed ‘Abqar, because he was born near a mountain called ‘Abqar, somewhere in Arabia where patterned cloth was woven.
    ‘Abqar is also said to be a location in central Arabia. Those who say it is a land of jinns point to the verse by Zuhayr (meter: ṭawīl):

    On horses ridden by ‘Abqarī demons, they are
        prepared to seize the day of battle, and overcome.

    One opinion has it that ‘Abqarī is, at bottom, a descriptor for anything the describer is fascinated by. It derives from ‘Abqar, where carpets and other things were once woven, and consequently any well-made thing was said to be from there. Al-Farrā’ said: ‘Abqarī is a kind of velveteen with a thick pile. Mujāhid said: ‘Abqarī is brocade. Qatāda said: ‘Abqarī is carpet for lying down on, and Sa‘īd b. Jubayr concurs, adding that it is carpet of ancient make. Not one of these definitions is in reference to a particular place. But God knows best.

From The Dictionary of Countries by Yāqūt

March 6, 2020

October memories

Barkhamsted, CT, 2019. Music by Windhand

February 16, 2020

What the parakeet said

The peacock minded the jasmine, lamenting the lengths his crime had driven him, when along came the parakeet, virginal and green, saying:
     "Fie on the peacock of the birds! The only good peacock is on a plate served. O fugitive peacock, outcast, reject! Your bad interior is betrayed by your conduct. But outer appearance is not that which God, Who sees into hearts, looks at.
     "How come you among us, the picture of a bride—when the meaning of the picture is a widow inside? Why not quit your parks and gardens and tend elsewhere to your distress, and shed your pride and fancy dress, that God might pardon your past offense? You were expelled from the Garden along with Adam, and shared his sorrow. So join him in repentance and the forgiveness that follows! You might make it back there. Adam will, in spite of his Antagonist's guile and envy and bile, return to the happy state he was forced out of, after reaping at the end of days what he sowed in their beginning.
     "Humanity, O peacock, is in my view the noblest of animate beings, on whom the Lord's honor and favor are impressed, and for whom He created everything in existence. And their talkative blue-eyed fellow am I! Fellowship with the blessed is no reason to cry.
     "Praise be to Him Whose hand holds the Good, for bringing together human and bird. I'm not a strong flyer, and I don't vie for power with humanity. But silence is praised in everyone but me."
     [Then the parakeet said (meter: majzū’ al-ramal):]

     Unseen, but Present in the secret.
          Breaker of the hard, and its Resetter.
     So great my dread of His reproach is
          that my heart is sent aflutter.
     What I boast of is the Beloved.
          You would out-boast me? Then step up.
     My quality is essential
          and a gemstone was my mold.
     I am the parakeet! I know how high
          my worth is when I'm sold.

From the Discourse of the Birds of Ibn al-Wardi

January 16, 2020

A wise man of Basra

It was in the palace known as his Ja‘fari Palace that the caliph al-Mutawakkil received a visit from Abu 'l-‘Ayna’. This was in the year 246 (860 CE). He asked him, "What do you say about my house?"
      Abu 'l-‘Ayna’ said, "People have constructed houses in this world, but you have constructed a world in your house." The caliph appreciated this remark, and said, "How would you like an alcoholic beverage?"
      Abu 'l-‘Ayna’ said, "Against a small amount, I am powerless, and a large amount gives me away."
     "Cut it out and drink with us," said the caliph.
     "I am a blind man," Abu 'l-‘Ayna’ said, "and the blind are prone to flailing gestures and moving off in the wrong direction. When the attention of others is distracted from a sightless man, it is by something he cannot see. And while all your courtiers are at your service, I lack anyone to assist me.
     "What's more," he continued, "I can never be sure if your approving demeanor masks an angry heart, or if an angry demeanor masks your approval. Failing to tell these apart could get me killed! Rather than expose myself to such hazard, I prefer to beg your pardon."
     "Your reproofs have been reported to me before," al-Mutawakkil said.
     "O Commander of the Faithful," Abu 'l-‘Ayna’ said, "God, be He Exalted, is a dispenser of both praise and blame. In one place, hallowed be His mention, He says: "What an excellent servant! ever returning," and in another: "The backbiter, who goes about with slander." There is no evil in reproof when it is not [indiscriminate,] like a scorpion that would sting a prophet as soon as it would sting a dhimmi. A poet said (meter: ṭawīl):

     If I were devoid of trustworthy knowledge,
        or insensible of blameworthy fault,
     to what purpose would I know the words good and bad?
        To what purpose would God give me ears and a mouth?"

     "Where are you from?" asked al-Mutawakkil. "From Basra," he said. "What do you have to say about it?" the caliph asked.
      Abu 'l-‘Ayna’ said, "Its water is caustic, and its heat is torment. Basra will turn pleasant when Hell does."

From The Meadows of Gold of al-Mas‘udi
cf. The Passings of Eminent Men by Ibn Khallikan

January 6, 2020

Some Palmettes V

Some Palmettes V sm
From a terracotta neck-amphora (ca. 330-300 BCE) attributed to
the APZ Painter. Metropolitan Museum of Art (06.1021.231).