Literature, Muslim

Posted on 05/19/2012 by marina

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LITERATURE, MUSLIM Arabic ‘Ilmu ‘l-Adab علم الادب
The oldest specimens of Arabic literature now extant were composed in the century which preceded the birth of Muhammad. They consist of short extemporaneous elegies, afterwards committed to writing, or narratives of combats of hostile tribes written in rhythmical prose, similar to that which we find in the Qur’an.
Baron De Slane says the Hamasah:, the Kitabu ‘l-Aghani, and the Amali of Abu ‘Aliyu ‘l-Kali, furnish a copious supply of examples, which prove that the art of composing in rhythmical prose not only existed before Muhammad’s time, but was even then generally practiced, and had been brought to a high degree of perfection. The variety of its inflections, the regularity of its syntax, and the harmony of its prosody, furnish in themselves a proof of the high degree of culture which the language of the pre-Islamic Arabians had attained. The annual meetings of the poets at the fair of ‘Ukáz encouraged literature, and tended to give regularity of formation and elegance of style to these early poetic effusions.
The appearance of the Qur’an brought about a gradual, but remarkable change in tone and spirit of Arabic literature. An extraordinary admixture of falsehood and truth, it was given to the world by its author as the uncreated and Eternal Word, and as a standing miracle not only of sound doctrine, but of literary style and language. This range strange assertion, of course, deterred nearly every attempt at imitation, although it is related that Ibn al-Mutanabbi, and a few others, of a skeptical turn of mind, essayed in some of their writings to surpass the style of the Qur’an. But as the Muslims in all ages have drawn their principles of grammar and rhetoric from the Qur’an itself, we need not be surprised that these and every other attempt to surpass its excellences have been considered failures.
One circumstance in the earliest history of Islam was of itself instrumental in giving rise to a most extensive literature of a special class. The Qur’an (unlike the Pentateuch and New Testament) was not a narrative of the life of its author. And yet, at tine same time. Muhammad had left very special injunctions as te the transmission of his precepts and actions, [TRADITION.] The study of these traditional sayings, together with that of the Qur’an, gave rise to all the branches of Arabic learning.
The Ahadis, or “the sayings of Muhammad,” were considered by his followers as the result of divine inspiration, and they were therefore treasured up in the memories of his followers with the same care which they had taken in learning by heart the chapters of the Qur’an. They recorded not only what the Prophet said and did, but also what he refrained from saying and doing, his very silence (sunnatu ‘s-s’ukut) on questions of doctrine or rule of life being also regarded as the result of divine guidance. It therefore became of paramount importance, to those who were sincere followers of Muhammad. that they should be in possession of his precepts and practices, and even of the most trifling circumstances of his daily life. The mass of traditions increased rapidly, and became so great that it was quite impossible for any one single person to recollect them.
According to Jalalu ‘d-din as-Suyuti, the first who wrote down the traditional sayings of the Prophet was Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri, during the reign of the Khalifah ‘Umar II. ibn ‘Abdu l-‘Aziz (AH. 99—101), but the Imam Malik (A.H. 95—179), the compiler of the book known as al-Muwatta is generally held to be the author of the earliest collection of Traditions. (See Kashfu ‘z-Zunun, in loco)
So rapidly did this branch of Muslim learning increase, that when al-Bukari (A.H. 194—256) determined to make a careful collation of trustworthy traditions, he found not fewer than 300,000 extant, from which he selected 7,275.
The necessity of distinguishing the genuine traditions from the false gave rise to new branches of literature. A just appreciation of the credit to which each traditionist was entitled could only be formed from a knowledge of the details of his history, and of the moral character of his life. Hence numerous biographical works, arranged in chronological order, containing short accounts of the principal persons connected with the early history of Islam, were compiled. The necessity for tracing the places of their birth and the race from which they sprang. led Muslim critics to the study of genealogy and geography.
The sense of the Qur’an, with its casual references to contemporaneous as well as to past history, was felt to be difficult and obscure, in many places: and this led the learned Muslims to study not only the traditional sayings of Muhammad already alluded to, but any historical or geographical works which would help them in understanding the text of “the Book”.
In the early days of Islam general history was regarded with little favour as a subject fir study, and many orthodox doctors of Muslim law were led by religious scruples to condemn the study of secular history; and the works of Grecian and Latin poets, philologists, grammarians, and historians, only received their approval in so far as they served to explain the text of the Qur’an and tbe traditional records of Muhammad’s followers.
The real attitude of the leaders of Islam was decidedly hostile towards all literature which was not in strict harmony with the teachings of their religion. If in succeeding ages the Saracens became, as they undoubtedly did, the liberal patrons of literature and science, there cannot be a doubt that in the earlier ages of Islam, in the days of the four “well-directed” Khalifahs, not merely the greatest indifference, but the most bigoted opposition was shown to all literary effort which had not emanated from the fountain of Islam itself. And consequently the wild uncivilized conquerors of Jerusalem, Caesraea, Damascus, and Alexandria, viewed the destruction of the literary lore of ages which was stored up in those ancient cities with indifference, if not with unmitigated satisfaction. Everything, science, history, and religion, must be brought clown to the level and standard of the teaching of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet of Arabia, and whatever differed therefrom was from the Devil himself, and deserved the pious condemnation of every true child of the faith.
But the possession of power and. riches gave rise to new feelings, and the pious aversion to intellectual pursuits gradually relaxed in proportion as their empire extended itself. The possession of those countries, which had for so long been the seats of ancient literature and art, naturally introduced among the Muslims a spirit of refinement, and the love of learning. But it was not the outcome of their religious belief, it was the result of the peculiar circumstances which surrounded their unparalleled conquest of a civilized world. Their stern fanaticism yielded to the mild influence of letters, and “by a singular anomaly,” says Andrew Crichto, “in the history of nations, Europe becomes indebted to the implacable enemies of her religion and her liberties for her most valuable lessons in science and arts.” In this they present a marked contrast to the Goths and Huns; and what is most remarkable is, not that successful conquerors should encourage literature, but that, within a single century, a race of religionists should pass from a period of the deepest barbarism to that of the universal diffusion of science. In A.D. 641, the Khalifah ‘Umar is said to have destroyed the Alexandrian library. In A.D. 750, the Khalifahs of Baghdad, the munificent patrons of literature, mounted the throne. Eight centuries elapsed front the foundation of Rome to the age of Augustus, whilst one century alone marks the transition from the wild barbarism of the Khalifahs of Makkah to the intellectual refinement of the Khalifahs of al-Kufah and Baghdad. The Saracens, when they conquered the cities of the West, came into possession of the richest legacies of intellectual wealth, and they used these legacies in such a manner as to earn for themselves the most prominent place m the pare of history as patrons of learning. But the truth is, the literature of the great Byzantine empire exercised a kind of patronage over Saracenic kings. If the Saracens produced not many original works in science, philosophy, or art, they had the energy and good sense to translate those of Greece and Rome. (See tho list of Arabic works in the Kashfu z-Zunun.)
Under the Umaiyah Khalifahs, the genius of Greece began to obtain an influence over the minds of the Muslims.
‘Abdu ‘l-Malik, the fifth Khalifah of the Umaiyah dynasty (A.H. 65), was himself a poet, and assembled around him at his court the rnost distinguished poets of his time. Even the Christian poet, al-Akhtal took his place in the front rank of the literary favorites of the Court.
But it was especially under al-Mansur, the Abbasside Khalifah (A H. 136), that the golden age of Arabian literature in the East commenced. Accident brought him acquainted with a Greek physician named George, who as invited to court, and to whom the Saracens are indebted for the study of medicine.
The celebrated Harunu ‘r-Rashid, the hero of the Arabian Nights, was specially the patron of learning. He was always surrounded by learned men, and whenever he erected a mosque he always established and endowed a school of learning in connection with it. It is related that amongst the presents he sent to the Emperor Charlemagne was an hydraulic clock. The head of his schools and the chief director of the education of his empire, was John ibn Massua, a Nestorian Christian of Damascus.
The reign of Ma’mun (A.H. 198) has been ailed the Augustan period of Arabian liteature. The Khalifah Ma’mun himself was a scholar, and he selected for his companions the most eminent scholars from the East and West. Baghdad became the resort of poets, philosophers, historians, and mathematicians from every country and every creed. Amongst the scholars of his court was al-Kindi, the Christian author of a remarkable treatise in defense of Christianity against Islam, side by side with al-Kindi, the philosopher, who translated numerous classical and philosophical works for his munificent and generous patron, and wrote a letter to refute the doctrine of the Trinity. [KINDI.]. It is said that in the time of Ma’mun, “literary relics of conquered provinces, which his generals amassed with infinite care, were brought to the foot of the throne as the most precious tribute he could demand. Hundreds of camels might be seen entering the gates of Baghdad, laden with no other freight than volumes of Greek, Hebrew, and Persian literature.” Masters, instructors, translators, and commentators, formed the court of Baghdad, which appeared rather to be a learned academy than the capital of a great nation of conquerors. When a treaty of peace was concluded with the Grecian Emperor Michael III., it was stipulated that a large and valuable collection of books should be sent to Baghdad from the libraries of Constantinople, which were translated by the savans of his court into the Arabic tongue; and it is stated that the original manuscripts were destroyed, in order that the learning of the world might be retained in the “divine language of the Prophet!”
The Khalifah al-Wasiq (A.H. 227), whose residence had been removed by his predecessor, al-Mu’tasim, from Baghdad to Saumara, was also a patron of letters. He especially patronised poetry and music.
Under al-Mu’tamid (A.H. 256), Baghdad again became the seat of learning.
Al-Mustansir (A.H 623), the last but one of the Abbaside Khalifahs, adorned Baghdad by erecting a mosque and college, which bore his name, and which historians tell us had no equal in the Muslim world. Whilst the city of Baghdad, in the time of the Abbaside dynasty, was the great centre of learning, al-Basrah and al-Kufah almost equaled the capital itself in reputation, and in the number of celebrated authors and treatises which they produced. Damascus, Aleppo, Balkh, Ispahan, and Samarcand, also became renowned as seats of learning. it is said that a certain doctor of science was once obliged to decline an invitation to settle in the city of Samarcand, because the transport of his books would have required 400 camels!
Under the Fatimide Khalifahs (A.D. 910 to 1160), Egypt became for the second time the asylum of literature. Alexandria had more than twenty schools of learning, and Cairo, which was founded by al-Mu’ izz (A.D. 955), soon possessed a royal library of 100,000 manuscripts. A Daru ‘l-Hikmah, or school of science, was founded by the Khalilah al-Hakim (A.D. 996), in the city of Cairo, with an annual revenue of 2,570 dinars. The institution combined all the advantage of a free school and a free library.
But it was in Spain (Arabic Andalus) that Arabian literature continued to flourish to a later period than in the schools of Cairo and Baghdad. The cities of Cordova, Seville, and Granada, which were under Muslim rule for several centuries (Cordova, from A.D. 755 to 1236; Granada, to A.D. 1484), rivalled each other in the magnificence of their academies, colleges, and libraries. Muslim historians say that Cordova alone has produced not fewer than 170 eminent men, and its library, founded by al-Hakam II (A..D. 961), contained 400,000 volumes; and the Khalifah himself was so eminent a scholar, that he had carefully examined each of these books himself, and with his own hand bad written in each book the genealogies, births and deaths of their respective authors.
Muhammad, the first Kalifah of Granada, was a patron of literature, and the celebrated academy of that city was long under the direction of Shamsu ‘d-din of Marcia, so famous among the Arabs for his skill in polite literature. Kasiri has recorded the names of 120 authors whose talents conferred dignity and fame on the Muslim University of Granada.
So universal was the patronage of literature in Spain, that in the cities of the Andalusian kingdom, there were as many as seventy free libraries open to the public, as well a. seventeen distinguished colleges of learning.
(For an interesting account of the state of literature in Spain under the Moors, the English reader can refer to Pascual de Gayango’a translation of al-Makkarl’s History of the Muslim Dynasties in Spain, London, 1840.)
History, which was so neglected amongst the ancient Arabs, was cultivated with assiduity by the Muslim. There is extant an immense number of works in this department of literature. The compiler of the Bibliographical Dictionary, the Kashfu ‘z-Zunun, gives a list of the names and titles of 1,300 works of history, comprising, annals, chronicles, and memoirs. As might be expected, the earliest Muslim histories were compiled with the special object of giving to the world the history of the Prophet of Arabia and his immediate successors. The earliest historian of whom we have any extensive remains is Ibn Ishaq, who died A.H. 151, or fifteen years after the overthrow of the Umaiyah dynasty. He was succeeded by ibn Hisham, who died A.H 213, and who made the labours of Ibn Ishaq the basis of his history. Another celebrated Muslim historian is Ibn Sa’d, who is generally known as Kitibu ‘l-Waqidi, or al-Waqidi’s secretary, anid is supposed to have even surpassed his master in historical accuracy.
Abu Ja’far ibn Jarir at-Tabari flourished in the latter part of the third century of the Muslim era, and has been styled by Gibbon, “the Livy of the Arabians.” He flourished in the city of Baghdad, where he died A.H. 810. At-Tabari compiled not only annals of Muhammad’s life, but be wrote a history of the progress of Islam under the earlier Khalifahs. Abu ‘l-Faraj, a Christian physician of Malatia in Armenia, Abu ‘l-fida, Prince of Hamah, and Ibn Katib of Granada, are amongst the celebrated historians of later times. The writings of Ibn Husain of Cordova are said to contain l60,000 pages!
Biographical works, and memoirs of men specially distinguished for their achievements, were innumerable. The most notable work of the kind is Ibn Khallikan’s Bibliographical Dictionary, which has been translated into English by De Slane (Paris, 1843). The Dictionary of the Sciences by Muhammad Abu ‘Abdi ‘llah of Granada is an elaborate work. The Bibliographical Dictionary, entitled the Kashfu ‘z-Zunun (often quoted in the present work), is a laborious compilation, giving the names of several thousands of well-known books and authors in every department of literature. ‘Abdu ‘l-Munzar of Valencia wrote a genealogical history of celebrated horses, and another celebrity wrote one of camels. The encyclopedians, gazetteers, and other similar compilations, are very numerous.
Arabic lexicons have been compiled in regular succession from the first appearance of the work supposed to hare been compiled by Khalil ibn Ahmad, entitled Kitibu ‘l-‘Ayn, which must have been written about A.H. 170, to the most recent publications which have issued from the presses of Lucknow, Bombay, and Cairo. [ARABIC LEXICONS.]
Poetry was, of old, a favorite occupation of the Arab people, and was, after the introduction of learning by the Khalifahs of Baghdad, cultivated with enthusiasm. Al-Mutanabbi of al-Kufah, Khalil ibn Ahmad, and others, are poets of note in the time of the Abbasside Khalifahs. So great was the number of Arabic poets, that an abridgement, or dictionary, of the lives of the most celebrated of them, compiled by Abu ‘ l-‘Abbas, son of the Khalifah al-Mu’tasim, contains notices of 180. [POETRY.]
With Numismatics the Saracens of Spain were well acquainted, and Maqrizi and Namari wrote histories of Arabian money. The study of geography was not neglected. The library of Cairo had two massive globes, and the Sharif Idrisi of Cordova made a silver globe for Roger II., King of Sicily. Ibn Rashid, a distinguished geographer, journeyed through Africa, Egypt, and Syria, in the interests of geographical science. But to reconcile some of the statements of Muslim tradition with geographical discoveries must have required a strong effort of the imagination. [QAF.]
To the study of medicine the Arabs paid particular attention. Many of our modern pharmaceutical terms, such as camphor, jalap, and syrup, are of Arabian origin. The Christian physician, George, introduced the study of medicine at the court of Khalifah al-Mansur. [MEDICINE.]
The superstitious feeling of the Muslim as to the polluted touch of the dead, debarred the orthodox from attempting the study of anatomy. The doctrine that even at death the soul does not depart from the body, and the popular belief that both soul and body must appear entire to undergo the examination by Munkar and Nakir in the grave, were sufficient reasons why the dissection of the dead body should not be attempted.
Operation for cataract in the eye was an Arabian practice, and the celebrated philosopher, Avicenna (Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina’) wrote in defense of depression instead of extraction, which he considered a dangerous experiment.
Botany, as subsidiary to medicine, was studied by the Saracens; and it is said the Arabian botanists discovered several herbal remedies, which were not known to the Greeks. Ibn al-Baitar, a native of Malaga, who died at Damascus A.D. 1248, was the moat distinguished Arabian botanist. Al-Biruni, who died A.D. 941, resided in India for nearly forty years in order to study botany and chemistry.
The first great Arabic chemist was Jabir, a native of Haran in Mesopotamia. He lived in the eighth century, and only some 150 years after the flight of Muhammad. He is credited with the discovery of sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and aqua regia. D’Herbelot states that he wrote 500 works on chemistry. The nomenclature of science demonstrates how much it owes to the Arabs—alcohol, alembic, alkali, and other similar terms, being derived from the Saracens.
The science of astronomy, insomuch as it was necessary for the study of the occult science of astrology, was cultivated with great zeal; The Khalifah Ma’mun was himself devoted to this study Under his patronage, the astronomers of Baghdad and al-Kufah accurately measured a degree of the great circle of the earth, and determined at 24,000 miles the entire circumference of the globe. (See Abu ‘l-Fida’ and Ibn Khallikan.) The obliquity of the ecliptic was calculated at about twenty-three degrees and a half, “but,” as Andrew Crichton remarks, “not a single step was made towards the discovery of the solar system beyond the hypothesis of Ptolemy.” Modern astronomy is indebted to the Saracens for the introduction of observatories. The celebrated astronomer and mathematician Jabir (A.D. 1196), erected one at Seville, which may still be seen. Bailly, in his Hist. de l’Astronomie, affirms that Kepler drew the ideas that led to his discovery of the elliptical orbits of planets from the Saracen, Nuru ‘d-din, whose treatise on the sphere is preserved in the Escurial library.
Algebra, though not the invention of the Arabs, received valuable accessions from their talents, and Ibn Musa and Jabir composed original works on spherical trigonometry. Al-Kindi translated Autolycus’ De Sphaera Mota, and wrote a treatise of his own De Sex Quantitatibus.
Architecture was an art in which the Saracens excelled, but their buildings were erected on the wrecks of cities, castles, and fortresses, which they had destroyed, and the Saracenc style is merely a copy of the Byzantine. [ARCHITECTURE.]
To the early Muslims, pictures and sculptures were considered impious and contrary to divine law, and it is to these strong religious feelings that we owe the introduction of that peculiar style of embellishment which is called the Arabesque, which rejects all representations of human and animal figures.
In calligraphy or ornamental writing, the Muslims excel even to the present day, although it is to the Chinese that they are indebted for the purity and elegance of their paper.
Music is generally understood to have been forbidden in the Muslim religion, but both at Baghdad and Cordova were established schools for the cultivation of this art. [MUSIC.]
Much more might be written on the subject of Muslim or Saracesnic literature, but it would exceed the limits, of our present work. Enough has been said to show that, not withstanding their barbarous origin, they in due time became the patrons of literature and science. They cannot, however, claim a high rank as inventors and discoverers, for many of their best and most useful works were but translations from the Greek. Too much has been made of the debt which the Western world owes, or is supposed to owe, to its Saracen conquerors for their patronage of literature. It would have been strange if a race of conquerors, who came suddenly and rapidly into possession of some of the most cultivated and refined regions of the earth had not kindled new lights at those ancient beacons of literature and science which smoldered beneath their feet.
In the Kashfu ‘z-Zunun, it is related that when Sa’d ibn Abu Waqqas conquered Persia, he wrote to the Khalifah ‘Umar and asked him what he should do with the philosophioal works which they had found it the libraries of the cities of Persia, whether he should keep them or send them to Makkah then ‘Umar replied, “Cast them into the rivers, for if in these books there is a guidance (of life), then we have a still better guidance m the book of God (the Qur’an) and if, on the contrary, there is in them that which will lead us astray, then God protect us from them”; so, according to these instructions, Sa’d cast some into the rivers and moms into the fire. So was lost to us the Philosophy of Persia (Kashfu ‘z-Zunun, p. 341.)
Such was the spirit in which the early Muslims regarded the literature of the countries they conquered, and which gave rise to the frequently repeated story that ‘Umar ordered the destruction of the libraries of Alexandria, Caesarea, and Ispahan, while even the enlightened Ma’mun is said to have committed to the flames the Greek and Latin originals of the books he caused to be translated. It therefore seems probable that the world of literature lost quite as much as it gained by the Saracen conquest of the West. What the attitude of the Muslim world now
is towards science and literature, the condition of the Muslim in North Africa, in Turkey, in Afghanistan, and in India, will declare. A condition of things arising from peculiarities of religious belief. It we study carefully the peculiar structure of Islam as a, religious system, and become acquainted with the actual state of things amongst Muslim nations now existing, we shall feel compelled to admit that the patronage of literature by the Muslim Khalifahs of Cordova, Cairo, and Baghdad, must have boon the outcome of impulses derived from other sources than the example and precept of the Arabian legislator or the teachings of the Qur’an.
(See Ibn Kallikan’s Biographical Dict.; Crichton’s Arabia; D’Herbelot’s Bibl. Orient.; Al-Makkari’s Muslim Dynasties in Spain Pocock; Muir’s Mahomet; Abu ‘1-Fida'; Toderini’s Lit. des Turcs; Kashfa ‘z-Zunun; Sir William Jones’s Asiatic Res.; Schnurrer’s Bibl. Arab.; Ibn al-Jazwi’s Talqih; M. de Sacey : Tabaqatu ‘sh-Shafi iyun.).

Based on Hughes, Dictionary of Islam