The Maqámát of Badí‘ al-Zamán al-Hamadhání, tr. W.J. Prendergast  at sacred-texts.com
‘ÍSÁ IBN HISHÁM related to us and said: I travelled about the world till I reached ‘Iráq. I had turned over the pages of the díwáns of the poets until I thought to myself I had not left in my quiver a victorious shaft. And I alighted at Baghdad. 3 Now, while I was on the river bank, there suddenly appeared before me a youth in worn-out garments begging from the people who disappointed him. Now his eloquence astonished me, so I arose, went to him and asked him of his origin and home. So he said: 'I am of ‘Abs 4 origin, and Alexandria is my home.' I said: 'What is this language and whence this eloquence?' He replied: 'From knowledge whose refractoriness I have subdued and into whose seas I have plunged.' I asked: 'With which of the sciences art thou adorned?' He said: 'I have an arrow in every quiver. Which of them dost thou like best?' I replied: 'Poetry.' He said: 'Have the Arabs uttered a verse which cannot be paraphrased? Have they composed a eulogy whose subject is unknown? Have they a verse unseemly in original intent but is made proper by punctuation? What
verse is it whose tears cease not to flow? What verse is it whose fall is heavy? What verse is it the last foot of whose first half verse wounds, and the final foot of whose second half heals? What verse is it whose intimidation is formidable and whose subject is insignificant? What verse is more sandy than the desert? What verse is like the mouth of the person with pearly teeth and a serrated saw? What verse is it whose beginning pleases and whose end displeases thee? What verse is it whose interior slaps thee and whose exterior deceives thee? What verse is it whose hearer is not sure until the whole of it is mentioned? What verse is it that cannot be touched? What verse is it whose transposition is easy? What verse is longer than its fellow, as though it were not of its kind? What verse is rendered contemptible by a letter and established by the omission thereof?' Said ‘Ísá ibn Hishám: 'By Heavens! I did not venture to reply to him 1 and I was not guided to a right answer other than 'I know not.'
He said: 'And what thou knowest not is yet more.' So I said: 'How is it that with this excellence thou consentest to this base livelihood?' He recited:--
Then I caused my eye to move over him and I looked again at his face and lo! it was Abú’l-Fatḥ al-Iskanderí. I said: God prosper thee! and raise thee up when thou fallest! 3 If thou dost think fit to oblige me with a commentary on what thou hast sent down, 4 and with a full explanation of what thou hast epitomized, thou wilt do so.' He said: 'This is the
explanation: As for the verse that cannot be paraphrased 1 there are many. An example of it is the verse of al-A‘ashá 2:--
As for the eulogy, whose subject is unknown, there are many. An example of it is the saying of Al-Hudhallí:--
But as for the verse which is unseemly in its original intent 5, but is made proper by punctuation, it is the verse of Abú Núwás 6:--
But as for the verse whose tears cease not to flow, it is the verse of Dhú al-Rumma
For it comprehendeth either water, or an eye, or pouring, or urine, or a cloud, or the bottom of a provision bag, or a split, or a torrent.
But as for the verse whose fall is heavy. It is like the verse of Ibn al-Rúmí 1:--
But as for the verse the last foot of whose first half verse wounds, and the final foot of IN hose second half heals. It is like the verse of the poet:--
But as for the verse whose intimidation is formidable, but whose subject is insignificant. An example of it is the verse of ‘Amr ibn Kulthúm 5:--
But as for the verse which is more sandy 7 than the desert. It is like the verse of Dhu al-Rumma
But as for the verse which is like the mouth of the person with pearly teeth 2 or a serrated saw. It is like the verse of al-A‘ashá:--
But as for the verse whose beginning pleases but whose end displeases thee. It is like the verse of Imr al-Qais:--
As for the verse whose interior slaps thee, and whose exterior deceives thee. It is like the verse of the poet
But as for the verse whose hearer is not sure until the whole of it is mentioned. It is like the verse of Ṭarafa
For the hearer imagines thou art reciting the verse of Imr al-Qais.
But as for the verse that cannot be touched. It is like the verse of Al-Khubzuruzzí 7:--
And also like the verse of Abd Núwás:--
But as for the verse whose transposition is easy. It is like the verse of Ḥassán 3:--
But as for the verse which is longer than its fellow as though it were not of its kind. It is like the folly of Al-Mutanabbí 5:--
But as for the verse which is rendered contemptible by a letter and established by the omission thereof. It is like the verse of Abú Núwás:--
Or, like the verse of another:
Said ‘Ísá ibn Hishám: 'By Heavens! I was astonished at his discourse and I gave him what would assist him against his changed condition. Then we separated.'
113:2 ‘Iráq: the name applied since the Arab conquest in the seventh century to designate that portion of the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates known in older literature as Babylonia. With the advent of the Arabs ‘Iráq entered on a new period of prosperity, several important new cities were founded Kúfa, Baṣra and Baghdad which became under the ‘Abbásid Khalífas not only the capital of ‘Iráq, but, for a time, the metropolis of the world. Encyclopaedia Britannica, xiv, 740; Yaqút, iii, 628.
113:3 I alighted at Baghdad: Literally, Baghdad caused me to alight.
113:4 ‘Abs: ‘Abs the name of the tribe to which the poet ‘Antara belonged. This is the first time the improvisor mentions his tribe.
114:1 I did not venture to rely to him: Literally, I shuffled not a gaming arrow. An allusion to the well-known game of meisar (…) forbidden by Islám. See Qur’án, v. 92.
114:2 A plague on this for an age: Metre, munsereḥ.
114:3 When thou fallest: Literally, thy falling.
114:4 What thou hast sent down: That is what thou hast revealed like, as it were, the Qur’án which is also called Tanzíl (…), the downsending.
115:1 The verse that cannot be paraphrased: The point is that there is no way wherein the first three words can be twisted so as to alter the metre e.g.:
See p. 225 of the text.
115:2 Al-A‘ashá: The 'sweet singer of the Arabs' (…) was a contemporary of Muḥammad (ob. A.H. 6 or 7). A life of this poet will be found in De Sacy, Chrestomathie Arabe, ii, 471. See also Aghání, viii, pp. 74-84.
115:3 All our dirhems are good: Metre, mutaqárib.
115:4 I know not who threw his cloak over him: Metre, tawíl.
Abú Khirásh al-Hudhallí, the author of the elegy from which this line is quoted, flourished during the Khalífate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭáb. Ḥamása, (edited by Freytag) pp. 365-6.
115:5 The verse which is unseemly in its original intent: That is, if we take the verse to the end of the sentence, as far as 'wickedness' it is unseemly, but it is rendered seemly by the additional words, 'and no boast'.
115:6 Abú Núwás: born at Ahwaz A.H. 145 and died at Baghdad A.H. 195, the well-known witty and talented but profligate court poet of Harún al-Rashíd. Ibn Khallikan, i, p. 391.
115:7 And we passed tine night: Metre, tawíl.
115:8 What aileth thine eye: Metre, basít.
116:1 Abú’l Ḥasan ‘Ali ibis al-Rúmí was born at Baghdad A.H. 221. This celebrated poet's verses are admirable for their beauty of expression and originality of thought. He was poisoned in A.H. 283, or 284 at Baghdad at the instance of al-Qasim ibn ‘Ubeidalláh The Wazír of al-M‘utaḍid (A.H. 279-89). Ibn Khallikan, ii, 297.
116:2 … When he gives: The point as to weight is the repetition of the word mann (…) which means 'he bestowed', and a certain weight which is generally considered as equal to two pounds troy. Metre, tawíl.
116:3 I advanced with a glittering mashrafi sword: Metre, wáfir.
116:4 Mashrafi: Belonging to Mushárif the name of a collection of Arab villages near the cultivated part of ‘Iráq. It is said that … was a blacksmith who made swords (Lane). I think the word should be vocalized … See Yaqút, iv, 538.
116:5 ‘Amr ibn Kúlthúm: The author of one of the Mu‘allaqát (No. 6 in Lyall's edition).
116:6 As though our swords, ours and theirs: Metre, wáfir.
116:7 More sandy than the desert: The point here is the play on the word … literally sand, and technically 'poetry lacking beauty and containing words which arc not pleasing to the ear.' (Freytag's Arabische Verskunst, p. 530.) Note the collection of ḍáḍs (ﺽ), the most difficult letter to pronounce in the whole alphabet, in the first half verse.
116:8 … venturing upon: Metre, basít. Literally, riding barebacked. In this verse the poet refers to the insect called Jundak, a species of locust.
117:1 Revolves: The sun does not seem to be inclining towards the horizon.
117:2 Like the mouth of the person with pearly teeth: I have given preference to the meaning derived from …, It glistened, e.g. … the front teeth glistened, to that adopted by 'the commentator, namely, 'the teeth of the oppressed', which does not yield a satisfactory sense. The point lies in the repetition of the letter six times with its implied primary meaning, a tooth.
117:3 I went betimes to the wine-shop: Metre, basit. Ibn Qutaiba criticises the poet for introducing in this verse four synonyms for the word active. Sh‘ir wa Shu‘ará, p. 12.
117:4 … Like a mass of rock hurled from a height: The criticism is that the second half of the verse does not suggest a horse under control ready 'to attack, retreat, advance, or retire.'
117:5 I reproached her: Metre, kámil.
117:6 My companions stopping their camels near me: Metre, tawíl.
117:7 Naṣr al-Khubzuruzzi (d. A.H. 317) the rice-bread baker was a native of Baṣra. This poet could neither read nor write. He baked rice-bread in a shop p. 118 situated at the Mirbad of Baṣra and he used to recite there to crowds of enthusiastic admirers, verses of his own, all of them amatory. Ibn Khallikan, iii, 530; Yatíma, ii, 132.
118:1 The cloud of separation: Metre, tawíl.
118:2 The saffron scented breeze: Metre, tawíl.
118:3 Ḥassán: (ibn Thábit) d. A.H. 54 was one of the poets that espoused the cause of Muḥammad. He belonged to a family of poets and is said to have lived to the great age of 120 years. His Diwán has been published by the Trustees of the Gibb Memorial. Ibn Khallikan, iv, 259.
118:4 Of fair countenances: Metre, kámil.
118:5 Like the folly of Mutanabbí: Twenty-three imperatives in two lines! See diwan of Mutanabbí, ed. by Dieterici, p. 495, and for an example of another collection of fourteen imperatives, p. 493.
Mutanabbi: (A.H. 303-354). The well-known court poet of Saif Al Daula is generally admitted to be the greatest of all Islámic poets. As the poets of the Mu‘allaqát illustrated the spirit of the sons of the desert, so does Mutanabbí represent the sentiments of the Muslim Arabs. See Yatíma, i, 78; Browne, Lit. Hist. of Persia, i, 369; Nicholson, Lit. Hist. of the Arabs, p. 304; Ibn Khallikan, i,102.
118:6 Enjoy, live on, etc.: Metre, ṭawíl.
119:1 My verse is lost upon your door: Metre,. mutaqárib.
119:2 Khaliṣa: An extremely ill-favoured damsel of whom Harlan al-Rashid was passionately fond. To compensate for her natural defects the Khalífa furnished her with rich apparel and costly jewels. Abú Núwás became aware of this and wrote these lines over her door. The damsel complained to Harún and Abú Núwás was summoned to the presence of the Khalífa to explain his presumptuous conduct. On his way to the audience-chamber he passed the door over which the offending lines were written and erased the lower curve of the ‘ain so that only the upper one (ﺀ) the sign for hamza, remained, so that the word read shone, instead was lost. (Núfḥat al-Yemen. Story 13.)
119:3 Verily the sentence: Metre, basít. The letter ‘ain is manipulated in a similar manner in this line. See note 2 on Kháliṣá.