12TH-Century Scholars In The Library Of A Mosque Credit: Bridge man art.com
Two years ago, al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebels beheaded a statue of Abul Ala al-Maarri. Apparently they disliked the 10th-century blind poet’s sceptical attitude towards religion: he mocked people who believed in miracles and scorned resurrection after death. He was also a vegetarian who urged his audience “not to grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking their eggs”, and to “spare the honey which the bees get by their industry”. Al-Maarri’s posthumous decapitation provoked a backlash among Syrians on social media. Like many revered masters of Arabic literature, though, he is almost unknown in the West, where the region is better known for violent extremism and oppressive dictatorship than atheist vegetarian poets. This is something that Desert Songs of the Night, an admirable new anthology of Arabic literature over the past 1,500 years, tries to rectify.
In their introduction, the editors Suheil Bushrui and James M Malarkey stress that Arabic does not necessarily mean Islamic. As well as freethinkers such as al-Maarri, this anthology includes Jews, Christians and pre-Islamic poets. Of course, the Koran takes its place as the book that still today defines the vocabulary and grammar of literary Arabic. But the Koranic chapters that Bushrui and Malarkey select hark back to the scripture of the “People of the Book”. We read of Moses engaging in “mystic communion” with God on Mount Sinai. In the chapter entitled “Mary”, the mother of Jesus gives birth to him under a palm tree that miraculously drops ripe dates for her sustenance.
After the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, the Arabs conquered large swathes of land, and the elites moved from small towns like Mecca and Medina to important cities like Damascus and Jerusalem. Nostalgia for the desert led to the valorisation of pre-Islamic poetry.
Just as Greek myths allowed medieval Christians to explore pagan ideals, so the Arabs could indulge in wine-quaffing and women-admiring when it was set safely before the Prophet’s time. In the “Ode of Imru Al-Qais”, a beloved’s bosom is – in a simile that I hope catches on – like “the pure egg of an ostrich”. In a lament for his absent lover, Kab Bin Zuhair comforts himself with a bracingly physical tribute to his camel: “Big in the neck, fleshy in the hock… thick-necked, full-cheeked, robust, masculine, her flanks wide, her front (tall) as a milestone…” And so it continues for many more lines.
A different kind of poetry emerged in the eighth century – and its foremost practitioner was a woman. Rabia al-Adawiya from Basra was one of the earliest Sufi mystics. She wrote verse that communed with God on a personal level: “On my joy and my desire and my refuge, / My friend and my sustainer and my goal, thou art my intimate, / and longing for thee sustains me.”
Shortly afterwards one of the most revered – and reviled – Sufi poets began addressing God with even greater intimacy. Mansur al-Hallaj tried to bridge the gap between the self and the divine: “You are the distance I must go / My spring of springs, / My reasoning, my words.” Al-Hallaj’s identification with God became so absolute that he infamously claimed: “I am the Truth.” This was too much for the caliph who imprisoned him for 11 years before having him executed.
His words remain controversial: puritan wahabis scorn his memory, but Sufis say that he was not blasphemously claiming to be God, but had attained a level of spiritual exaltation that the narrow-minded caliph could not understand.
The theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was a champion of religious orthodoxy who also had Sufi inclinations. Unfortunately, he is represented here by some dry devotional writings and not something from his fascinating memoir Deliverance from Error, one of the earliest pieces of autobiographical writing in Arabic.
Al-Ghazali was a leading professor in Baghdad when he had a spiritual crisis and abandoned worldly success for the life of a wanderer. He felt Islam had been infected by an overly rational Aristotelianism. He outlined his critique in The Incoherence of the Philosophers. His opponent, Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), wrote a response with the splendid title The Incoherence of the Incoherence. He defended philosophy, arguing that the Koran ordered men to “Reflect, since you have vision”. Their battle between revelation and reason continues to this day within Islam.
Aside from poetry and philosophy, there is also much down-to-earth prose. Abd al-Hamid al-Katib, secretary to Marwan II (744-750), wrote a letter of advice to civil servants that could be applied today. “Should some praise come in the course of his work, he should ascribe the merit to his colleague; any blame he should bear all by himself.” When promoted to a position of authority, you should be “kind in milking the land tax and calling in outstanding claims”. Wise advice, though perhaps it would have been better directed at his boss: the unpopular Marwan was overthrown, and was the last Umayyad caliph to rule from Damascus.
The Umayyad dynasty re-emerged in Spain where it presided over a cultural renaissance. Al-Andalus was a meeting point of East and West in which Jews and Christians could practise their religion with (relative) freedom. The universal ideal of Muslim Spain was embodied by the mystic poet Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia in 1165: “My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, / And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaaba and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.”
His near-contemporary, Ibn Maimon, the Jewish sage better known as Maimonides, wrote his influential treatise A Guide for the Perplexed in Judeo-Arabic. Ibn Maimon had a complex relationship with his Muslim masters: he was persecuted by the extremist Almohads and forced to leave Spain, but also worked as the personal physician for Saladin.
Most of this collection covers the seventh to the 15th century. Under Ottoman rule the Arab tongue went into decline. When Arab nationalism returned in the early 20th century, the literary heritage revived. The Egyptian novelist Taha Hussein wrote a dissertation on the sceptical poet al-Maarri (like him, Hussein was blind) and a book on pre-Islamic poetry. Western influences began to affect Arabic prose. Hussein lived in Paris and the extract from his memoir An Egyptian Childhood (1932) reads like he knew his Proust. Similarly, his fellow Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab to have won the Nobel Prize, took Tolstoy as a model. Adonis, the Syrian poet often regarded as the greatest living Arab writer, has created a vivid mixture of Sufism and surrealism.
Dipping into this enchanting anthology one is struck by the sheer variety of voices that have emerged from the Arab world – and are still emerging. If I had one caveat, it is that the poetry translations can sound stilted to modern ears. Often they are tantalising shadows of the original Arabic. Hopefully, Desert Songs of the Night should inspire more English-speakers to study this wonderful language and render afresh its magnificent literary heritage.