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The Maqámát of Badí‘ al-Zamán al-Hamadhání, tr. W.J. Prendergast [1915] at


IN the first century of Islám there were scarcely any books and knowledge was handed down orally. In fact there was, till well

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within the second century of the Hijra, a decided antipathy towards the written word 1 and those who desired to learn the traditions of the Prophet were obliged to travel. 2 Indeed the only way knowledge could be had was by travelling.

Those who wished to study Arabic philosophy, poetry, legend and the idiom of the desert were obliged to pursue their researches and investigations among the Bedawín tribes. 3

Travel in search of knowledge thus rendered necessary at first by circumstance became the fashion not only for the acquisition of knowledge, but also for the dissemination and display thereof. It thus led to the evolution of the vagabond scholar, a kind of knight-errant of literature and the prototype of the medieval wandering man of learning.

Inspired by such examples of peripatetic scholars as well as by his own wanderings and varied experience, 4 Hamadhání imagined a profoundly clever and witty but unscrupulous improvisor wandering from place to place, appearing in a variety of disguises unexpectedly, but always opportunely, in the gatherings of the great and the literary assemblies of the learned and living on the rich presents, 5 the display of his erudition rarely failed to produce from the generous and the cultured, and a ráwí, or narrator, a man of means of mature age, of a grave and generous disposition with a penchant for learning who should continually meet him and relate his learned compositions.

Abú’l-Fatḥ, therefore, represents the vagabond scholar of Hamadhání's own day, and, one is inclined to believe, occasionally the author himself relating his own experiences or personal adventures. 6

The conception was an advance to the dramatic style which, on account of the religious objection to the portrayal or realistic representation of life or the human form, had hitherto been wanting in Arabic literature. 7

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According to the Zahr al-Adáb the occasion of the composing of the Maqámát was as follows: Abú Isḥáq, 1 surnamed al-Ḥuṣrí, or the maker or seller of mats (ob. at Qairawán A.H. 413). contemporary with Hamadhání, after referring in the most flattering terms to the unique appropriateness of the author's name and appellation, Abú’l Faḍl and Badí ‘al-Zamán, the 'Father of Excellence' and the 'Wonder of the Age' respectively., writes: 'When al-Hamadhání observed that Abú Bakr ibn Duraid the Azdite (A.H. 223-321) had composed forty rare stories on a variety of subjects expressed in strange sounding speech and obsolete and incongruous words, such as men's natures would shrink from and their ears be closed against, which he said he had produced from the springs of his breast, extracted from the mines of his thought and exposed to public view and perception, Hamadhání met him with four hundred Maqámát on mendicity.' 2 These are instinct with interest and beauty and between no two of them is there the slightest resemblance, either as regards words or ideas. He attributes the composition and narration of them to two persons. 3 One of them he called ‘Ísá ibn Hishám and the other he named Abú’l-Fatḥ al-Iskanderí. These two he made to exchange pearls of thought and to give expression to bewitching language such as would cause the sorrowful to laugh and the staid to become excited. 'In these compositions he, acquaints us with every kind of pleasantry and informs us of every species of subtlety. Generally, one of the characters is made the author of the story and the other the narrator of it.' 4

Ibn Khallikan makes no mention of these stories in the list of works ascribed to Ibn Duraid 5 nor is there any reference to them in that cited by Yaqút. 6 The nearest approach to a work of this kind by that author is the Kitáb al-Lughát on the dialects or idiomatic expressions of the Arabs. 7

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If, therefore, the stories were what they were represented to be by al-Ḥuṣrí they were probably written in a dialect which had become obsolescent.

It is interesting to observe that Hamadhání's compositions had reached and were known in Qairawán, the sacred city of Islám in Tunisia, at this early date, and that we have from the pen of another contemporary a criticism, which probably expressed the opinion of the learned world as to the literary merits of the Maqámát.

The triple aim of Hamadhání appears to have been to amuse, to interest and to instruct; and this explains why, in spite of the inherent difficulty of a work of this kind composed primarily with a view to rhetorical effect upon the learned and the great, there is scarcely a dull chapter in the fifty-one maqámát. There is little evidence that the story or the adventure is subordinated to the style.

When the author essayed, in the course of these dramatic discourses, to illustrate the life and language both of the denizens of the desert and of the dwellers in towns, to give examples of the jargon and slang of thieves and robbers as well as of the lucubrations of the learned and the conversations of the cultured, and to show the use of strange and obsolete words and phrases, such as are found in the proverbs--probably the oldest forms of the Arabic language and the earliest utterances of the Arabian people--difficult and obscure passages were inevitable. On page 10 of the text the author asserts that one of his objects was to capture these rare words and strange sayings. In fact the collection of nawádir, or recondite expressions, was a favourite pursuit. 1

In electing to do this in rhymed prose he imposed upon himself all the limitations of a style which, in any but the hand of a master, tends to become oppressively monotonous and depressingly dull. 2

In pleasing contrast, however, to the numerous obscurities, intentional and otherwise, the hypocritical and dishonest Qádí, the Bedawín robber, the simple rustic, the eloquent and fearless

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preacher, the garrulous trader, the miserly merchant, and the loquacious barber with his amazing malapropisms containing cleverly concealed allusions, are portrayed with all the graphic skill of a master of the art of description.

The commentator in referring to the author's descriptive power says: 'He combines the accuracy of the idiom of the dwellers of the desert with the refinement and taste of the people of the towns, so that the reader imagines himself to be now among the hair tents of a Bedawín encampment and anon amidst the stately buildings of a city.' 1

The second point of importance in this extract from the Zahr al-Adáb is the reference to the number of the compositions. Al-Huṣrí must have had the Maqámát and the Letters before him, because he gives copious extracts from both in the work above mentioned, and if there had not been four hundred he would, in all probability, have alluded to the fact when mentioning their number. We have, therefore, in the printed text about one-eighth of the original work.

The question, as to whether the maqámát are impromptu compositions, as they were represented to be, may be disposed of by a consideration of the maqámát themselves. They bear evident trace of scholarly preparation and literary finish, and I think the author himself, unconsciously, furnishes the explanation. In the fortieth maqáma he says: 'I wrote elegantly by virtue of much reading. I passed on from reading to investigation and from investigation to composition.' 2

Again, on page 389 of the Letters, in replying to certain strictures passed on the maqámát and to the taunt by his great rival, Abú Bakr al-Khwárazmí, that he was unable to produce any more, he writes: 'Now if that savant were just he would have endeavoured to produce five maqámát, or ten original compositions, and submitted them to the judgement of the cultured and then, if they approved and did not reject them, he might have adversely criticized us. Now let him understand that, while I have dictated four hundred maqámát on mendicity, between no two of which is there any resemblance, either as regards words or ideas, he is unable to produce a tenth of a maqáma, and, therefore, he deserves to have his faults exposed.'

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It seems reasonable to suppose that his modus operandi was the plan which he suggested that al-Khwárazmí should have adopted, namely, to first submit a few maqámát to the learned for their opinion.

The author's boast that 'between no two maqámát is there any similarity, either as regards words or ideas,' is not consistent with fact, and if the entire work had been known to al-Khwárazmí in A. H. 383, it is very doubtful if such a statement would have been made. Al-Ḥuṣrí reproduces the assertion without comment.

There are several cases of resemblance and not a few of repetition, both in regard to words and ideas.

For example, the line on page 13, 'In the evening they are Arabs, in the morning Nabateans ', reappears, with a very slight variation, on page 88 of the text. The themes of the twenty-fifth and the thirty-fourth maqámát are identical. The fourth and the thirty-seventh have much in common.

The fifteenth and the fortieth have similar concluding verses. The forty-fourth is a variation and largely a reproduction of the twenty-eighth. Other instances of resemblance are recorded in the notes.

Each maqáma is complete in itself and generally consists of a mélange of prose and verse. 1 It usually concludes with some clever verses in which the improvisor administers a sharp rebuke, or explains, or justifies his conduct to the narrator.

The maqámát vary in length. Some of them extending over several pages 2 while others are limited to a few lines. 3 In some both persons of the drama are not introduced, and the narrator, who is, of course, the author himself, speaks in his own character. 4 In others one is left to conjecture as to the identity of the improvisor. 5

As regards the style of the work, its distinctive feature is parallelism, which consists in making the second part of a

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sentence balance with the first, either by way of antithesis, or by expressing the same idea in different words, thus producing, as it were, a rhyme of the sense as well as of the sound. 1

The Maqámát did much to fix a style of composition in which Persian and Greek ideas could make little inroads. Still there is more of the foreign element than the purist would approve. More than sixty such words have been collected and traced, as far as possible, to original sources.

The copious notes and numerous references essential to the elucidation of the text afford in themselves abundant evidence of the difficult nature and comprehensive character of the Maqámát. The sources the author has drawn upon for his materials are, as might be expected, exclusively Muslim. They consist of the comparison of the poets, an important branch of belles-lettres (), the relative merits of Jarír and Farazdaq, a question the Arabs never seemed able to decide; incidents from the lives of Dhúr’l-Rumma and Farazdaq; tests of acquaintance with the principal poets and their poetry; 2 polemical questions such as the Mu‘tazilite heresy, the doctrine of free will and the dogmas of predestination and the uncreate Qur’án.

There are examples of the proverbial generosity of the Ḥamdánid prince Saif al-Daula and the Arab's knowledge of the points of the horse, popular superstitions such as the belief in charms, pulpit oratory, the dangers of the desert, apt quotations from the Qur’án, popular sayings and customs illustrative of Bedawín life, insolence of the servants of the great, flattering and faithless friends and their treatment, 3 eulogy of the patron, satirizing of the Qáḍí and the convivial assembly. Others might be mentioned, but these are sufficient to show the subjects Hamadhání laid under contribution, and the versatile character of the Maqámát.

The question as to whether Hamadhání owed anything, directly or indirectly, to Greek scholarship or Byzantine models is an extremely difficult one upon which to venture an opinion.

In the matter of the lavish display of erudition, intentional obscurities, and the use of words of doubtful meaning, the

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[paragraph continues] Maqámát may be compared with the Cassandra, or Alexandra of Lycophron (285-247 B.C.).

It is highly improbable, however, that the author derived any inspiration from this product of antiquity. But the similarity suggests that the same demons of difficulty, obscurity, and pedantry, entered the orators and poets of both nations at different periods.

For instance, Hamadhání boasts of his ability to employ no less than four hundred artifices in writing and composition, 1 such as the writing of a letter which, if read backwards, furnishes the required reply, or an epistle containing no dotted letters, or without using the letters (ﺍ) or (ﻝ), or a letter which if read one way constitutes a eulogy, and, if taken in another, is a satire; feats which, when they were proposed to Abú Bakr al-Khwárazmí as literary tests, he denounced as the tricks of a juggler. 2

He shows little disposition, however, to make use of such artifices in the Maqámát, but the suggestion was not lost upon Ḥarírí, who frequently employed them for the display of his superior skill and learning. 3

In point of literary style and in regard to the manner of describing in an amusing way the occurrences of everyday life there is a closer resemblance between the Maqámát and the Satires of Horace (65-8 B.C.). Here again the resemblance is accidental rather than essential.

There is, however, a far closer resemblance between the Maqámát and the Greek Mimes. The similarity is indeed so striking that one is almost forced into the belief, either that they must have had a common origin or that the same informing spirit speaks to the nations irrespective of race, time, or place.

So far as we know the Mime commences seriously with Sophron (about 430 B.C.), whose Mimes, unlike those of Herondas, which we have, were in prose. 'These dialogues contained both male and female characters. Some were serious and some were humorous in style. They portrayed the daily life of the Sicilian Greeks, and were written in pithy, popular language full of proverbs and colloquialisms.' 4

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Almost every word of this description of the Mimes might, mutatis mutandis, be applied to the Maqámát. According to Reich the Mime influenced the thought of early ecclesiastical writers, and was a subject of considerable concern and controversy with the Christian Fathers. 1 It found its way to India and flourished in Syria, Palestine, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. 2 It would be strange indeed if the Arabs alone remained ignorant of its existence. That the term Mime was known to them appears from the word and it is conceivable that the practice of composing humorous or entertaining dialogues passed from Greek to Syriac and from Syrian to Arabic.

Once having received the impulse or inspiration the Arabs would, in accordance with their national genius, develop the idea on their own lines, as they did in the case of law and grammar. This is, of course, mere conjecture, but the outstanding fact of the striking resemblance remains a problem upon which investigation and research may some day shed new light.

Finally, the practice of making one person the hero of a series of adventures has been tried by some modern writers. In Grant Allen's An African Millionaire Colonel Clay has much in common with Abú’l-Fatḥ al-Iskanderí, the hero of the Maqamát.


15:1 De Slane's Introduction to Ibn Kallikan, p. xxiii.

15:2 Ibid., p. xxxi.

15:3 See Ibn Khallikan i, 102.

15:4 See Letters, pp. 101-2.

15:5 Numerous examples of these rich rewards, out of all proportion to the performance, might be quoted, e.g. Abú’l-‘Anbas, the hero of the forty-second maqáma, received from the Khalífa Mutúwakkil 10,000 dirhems for a few verses. (See Yaqút, Dictionary of Learned Men, vi. 406). Several instances are mentioned by Ibn Khallikan in his life of Saif al-Daula, ii, 334-7.

15:6 See Letters, pp. 104-5 and Text, pp. 187-8.

15:7 See Qur’án, v. 92 and Hermann Reich, Der Mimus, p. 80.

16:1 Ibn Khallikan, i, 34.

16:2 On p. 49 of the Letters, Hamadhání taunts Abú Bakr al-Khwárazmí with having persistently practised mendicity and condemns the practice as a degrading one!

16:3 Ḥarírí says: 'Both these are obscure persons not known.' Ḥarírí, p. 6.

16:4 Zahr al-Adáb, i, pp. 254-5.

16:5 Men of learning said of Ibn Duraid that he was the most learned among the poets and ablest poet among the learned. Ibn Khallikan, iii, 38.

16:6 Dictionary of Learned Men, vi, 489.

16:7 Ibn Khallikan, iii, 38.

17:1 See collection of nawádir in Mabadi al-Lughat by Shaikh ‘Abdulláh (ob. A. H. 421) pub. A. H. 1325.

17:2 See Ibn ‘Arabsháh, Life of Timúr.

18:1 Introduction to the Text, p. 1.

18:2 Text, pp. 203-4.

19:1 There are more than a hundred pieces of poetry distributed throughout the Text.

19:2 The Maqámát of Maḍirah, pp. 101-15 and Ṣaimara, pp. 207-16.

19:3 The Maqámát of Knowledge, p. 202 and Advice, p. 204 and the Yellow, 13.229.

19:4 The Maqámát of Baghdad, Ṣaimara and Bishr.

19:5 The Maqáma of the Nájim.

20:1 See Chenery's Introduction to Ḥarírí, p. 45.

20:2 The Kitáb al-Aghání, which the author was able to consult, contains numerous references to these four themes.

20:3 Taken from Abú‘l-‘Anbas.

21:1 Letters, p. 74.

21:2 Ibid., p. 76,

21:3 See Ḥarírí, vi, xv, xvi, xviii, xxix, xliv, etc.

21:4 Encyclopædia Britannica, xxv, 429.

Next: V. Hamadhání and Ḥarírí Compared