In Islam life and religion had drama, but literature had none; it is a form apparently alien to the Semitic mind. And as in other medieval literatures, there was here no novel. Most writing was heard rather than silently read; and those who cared for fiction could not rise to the concentration necessary for a complex and continued narrative. Short stories were as old as Islam or Adam; the simpler Moslems listened to them with the ardor and appetite of children, but the scholars never counted them as literature. The most popular of these stories were the Fables of Bidpai and the Thousand Nights and a Night. The Fables were brought to Persia from India in the sixth century, were translated into Pahlavi, and thence, in the eighth century, into Arabic. The Sanskrit original was lost, the Arabic version survived, and was rendered into forty languages.

Al-Masudi (d. 597) speaks in his Meadows of Gold96 of a Persian book Hazar Afsana, or Thousand Tales, and of its Arabic translation, Alf Laylah wa Laylah; this is the earliest known mention of The Thousand Nights and a Night. The plan of the book as described by al-Masudi was that of our Arabian Nights; such a framework for a series of stories was already old in India. A great number of these tales circulated in the Oriental world; various collections might differ in their selection, and we are not sure that any story in our present editions appeared in the texts known to al-Masudi. Shortly after 1700 an incomplete Arabic manuscript, not traceable beyond 1536, was sent from Syria to the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. Fascinated by their whimsical fantasy, their glimpses of intimate Moslem life, perhaps by their occasional obscenity, he issued at Paris in 1704 their first European translation—Les mille et une nuits. The book succeeded beyond any expectation; translations were made into every European language; and children of all nations and ages began to talk of Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin’s lamp, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Next to the Bible (itself Oriental), the Fables and the Nights are the most widely read books in the world.

Literary prose, in Islam, is a form of poetry. The Arabic temperament was inclined to strong feeling; Persian manners made for ornate speech; and the Arabian language, then common to both peoples, invited rhyme by the similarity of its inflectional endings. So literary prose usually rhymed; preachers and orators and storytellers used rhymed prose; it was in this medium that Badi al-Hamadhani (d. 1008) wrote his famous Maqamat (Assemblies)—tales told to various gatherings about a wandering rapscallion with less morals than wit. The peoples of the Near East were ear-minded, as were all men before printing; to most Moslems literature was a recited poem or narrative. Poems were written to be read aloud or sung; and everyone in Islam, from peasant to caliph, heard them gladly. Nearly everyone, as in samurai Japan, composed verses; in the educated classes it was a popular game for one person to finish in rhyme a couplet or stanza begun by another, or to compete in forming extempore lyrics or poetic epigrams. Poets rivaled one another in fashioning complex patterns of meter and rhyme; many rhymed the middle as well as the end of a line; a riot of rhyme scurried through Arab verse, and influenced the rise of rhyme in European poetry.

Probably no civilization or period—not even China in the days of Li Po and Tu Fu, nor Weimar when it had “a hundred citizens and ten thousand poets”—ever equaled Abbasid Islam in the number and prosperity of its bards. Abul-Faraj of Isfahan (897–967), toward the end of this age, collected and recorded Arabic poetry in his Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs); its twenty volumes suggest the wealth and variety of Arabic verse. Poets served as propagandists, and were feared as deadly satirists; rich men bought praise by the meter; and caliphs gave high place and fat sums to poets who turned for them a pleasant stanza, or celebrated the glory of their deeds or their tribe. The Caliph Hisham, wishing to recall a poem, sent for the poet Hammad, who luckily remembered it all; Hisham rewarded him with two slave girls and 50,000 dinars ($237,500);97 no poet will believe the tale. Arabic poetry, which once had sung to Bedouins, now addressed itself to courts and palaces; much of it became artificial, formal, delicately trivial, politely insincere; and a battle of ancients and moderns ensued in which the critics complained that there were great poets only before Mohammed.98

Love and war outbid religion as poetic themes. The poetry of the Arabs (this would not be true of the Persians) was seldom mystical; it preferred songs of battle, passion, or sentiment; and as the century of conquest closed, Eve overcame both Mars and Allah as the inspiration of Arab verse. The poets of Islam thrilled with autointoxication in describing the charms of woman—her fragrant hair, jewel eyes, berry lips, and silver limbs. In the deserts and holy cities of Arabia the troubadour motifs took form; poets and philosophers spoke of adab as, in one phase, the ethic and etiquette of love; this tradition would pass through Egypt and Africa to Sicily and Spain, and thence to Italy and Provence; and hearts would break in rhyme and rhythm and many tongues.

Hasan ibn Hani won the name of Abu Nuwas—“Father of the Curl”—from his abounding locks. Born in Persia, he found his way to Baghdad, became a favorite of Harun, and may have had with him one or two of the adventures ascribed to them in theThousand Nights and a Night. He loved wine, woman, and his songs; offended the Caliph by too conspicuous toping, agnosticism, and lechery; was often imprisoned and often released; came by leisurely stages to virtue, and ended by carrying beads and the Koran with him everywhere. But the society of the capital liked best the hymns that he had written to wine and sin:

Come, Suleiman! sing to me,
And the wine, quick, bring to me! …
While the flask goes twinkling round,
Pour me a cup that leaves me drowned
With oblivion—ne’er so nigh
Let the shrill muezzin cry!99

Accumulate as many sins as thou canst:

The Lord is ready to relax His ire.

When the Day comes, forgiveness thou wilt find

Before a mighty King and gracious Sire;

And gnaw thy fingers, all that joy regretting

Which thou didst leave through terror of hell-fire.100

The minor courts had their poets too, and Sayfu’l-Dawla provided a place for one who, almost unknown to Europe, is reckoned by the Arabs as their best. His name was Ahmad ibn Husein, but Islam remembers him as al-Mutannabi—“the pretender to prophecy.” Born at Kufa in 915, he studied at Damascus, announced himself as a prophet, was arrested and released, and settled down at the Aleppo court. Like Abu Nuwas, he made his own religion, and notoriously neglected to fast or pray or read the Koran;101though he denounced life as not quite up to his standards, he enjoyed it too much to think of eternity. He celebrated Sayfu’s victories with such zest and verbal artifice that his poems are as popular in Arabic as they are untranslatable into English. One couplet proved mortal to him:

I am known to the horse-troop, the night, and the desert’s expanse;
Not more to paper and pen than to sword and the lance.

Attacked by robbers, he wished to flee; his slave inopportunely reminded him of these swashbuckling verses; al-Mutannabi resolved to live up to them, fought, and died of his wounds (965).102

Eight years later the strangest of all Arab poets, Abu’l-’Ala al-Ma’arri was born at al-Ma‘arratu, near Aleppo. Smallpox left him blind at four; nevertheless he took up the career of a student, learned by heart the manuscripts that he liked in the libraries, traveled widely to hear famous masters, and returned to his village. During the next fifteen years his annual income was thirty dinars, some twelve dollars a month, which he shared with servant and guide; his poems won him fame, but as he refused to write encomiums, he nearly starved. In 1008 he visited Baghdad, was honored by poets and scholars, and perhaps picked up among the freethinkers of the capital some of the skepticism that spices his verse. In 1010 he went back to al-Ma’arratu, became rich, but lived to the end with the simplicity of a sage. He was a vegetarian à l’outrance, avoiding not only flesh and fowl, but milk, eggs, and honey as well; to take any of these from the animal world, he thought, was rank robbery. On the same principle he rejected the use of animal skins, blamed ladies for wearing furs, and recommended wooden shoes.103 He died at eighty-four; and a pious pupil relates that 180 poets followed his funeral, and eighty-four savants recited eulogies at his grave.104

We know him now chiefly through the 1592 short poems called briefly Luzumiyyat (Obligations). Instead of discussing woman and war, like his fellow poets, al-Ma’arri deals boldly with the most basic questions: Should we follow revelation, or reason?—Is life worth living?—Is there a life after death?—Does God exist? … Every now and then the poet professes his orthodoxy; he warns us, however, that this is a legitimate precaution against martyrdom, which was not to his taste: “I lift my voice to utter lies absurd; but speaking truth my hushed tones scarce are heard.”105 He deprecates indiscriminate honesty: “Do not acquaint rascals with the essence of your religion, for so you expose yourself to ruin.”106 In simple fact al-Ma’arri is a rationalist agnostic pessimist.

Some hope that an Imam with prophet’s gaze
Will rise and all the silent ranks amaze.

Oh, idle thought! There’s no Imam but Reason

To point the morning and the evening ways….

Shall we in these old tales discover truth,
Or are they worthless fables told to youth?

Our reason swears that they are only lies,

And reason’s tree bears verity for truth….

How oft, when young, my friends I would defame,
If our religious faiths were not the same;

But now my soul has traveled high and low;

Now all save Love, to me, is but a name.107

He denounces the Moslem divines who “make religion serve the pelf of man,” who “fill the mosque with terror when they preach,” but conduct themselves no better than “some who drink to a tavern tune.” “You have been deceived, honest man, by a cunning knave who preaches to the women.”

To his own sordid ends the pulpit he ascends,

And though he disbelieves in resurrection,

Makes all his hearers quail whilst he unfolds a tale

Of Last Day scenes that stun the recollection.108

The worst scoundrels, he thinks, are those who manage the holy places in Mecca; they will do anything for money. He advises his hearers not to waste their time in pilgrimage,109 and to be content with one world.

The body nothing feels when soul is flown;
Shall spirit feel, unbodied and alone? …110

We laugh, but inept is our laughter;

We should weep, and weep sore,

Who are shattered like glass, and thereafter

Remolded no more.111

And he concludes: “If by God’s decree I shall be made into a clay pot that serves for ablutions, I am thankful and content.”112 He believes in a God omnipotent and wise, and “marveled at a physician who denies the Creator after having studied anatomy.”113 But here too he raises difficulties. “Our natures did not become evil by our choice, but by the fates’ command….”

Why blame the world? The world is free

Of sin; the blame is yours and mine.

Grapes, wine, and drinker—these are three;
But who was at fault, I wonder—he

That pressed the grapes, or he that sipped the wine?

“I perceive,” he writes with Voltairean sarcasm, “that men are naturally unjust to one another, but there is no doubt of the justice of Him Who created injustice.”114 And he breaks out into the angry dogmatism of a Diderot:

O fool, awake! The rites ye sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,
Who lusted after wealth, and gained their lust,
And died in baseness—and their law is dust.115

Offended by what seemed to him the lies and cruelties of men, al-Ma’arri became a pessimist recluse, the Timon of Islam. Since the evils of society are due to the nature of man, reform is hopeless.116 The best thing is to live apart, to meet only a friend or two, to vegetate like some placid, half-solitary animal.117 Better yet is never to be born, for once born we must bear “torment and tribulation” until death yields us peace.

Life is a malady whose one medicine is death….
All come to die, alike householder and wanderer.
The earth seeketh, even as we, its livelihood day by day
Apportioned; it eats and drinks of human flesh and blood….
Meseemeth the crescent moon, that shines in the firmament
Is death’s curved spear, its point well sharpened,
And splendor of breaking day a sabre unsheathed by the Dawn.

We cannot escape these Reapers ourselves; but we can, like good Schopenhauerians, cheat them of the children we might have begotten.

If ye unto your sons would prove
By act how dearly them ye love,
Then every voice of wisdom joins
To bid you leave them in your loins.118

He obeyed his own counsel, and wrote for himself the pithiest, bitterest epitaph:

My sire brought this on me, but I on none.119*

We do not know how many Moslems shared the skepticism of al-Ma’arri; the revival of orthodoxy after his time served as a conscious or unconscious censor of the literature transmitted to posterity, and, as in Christendom, may mislead us into minimizing medieval doubt. Al-Mutannabi and al-Ma’arri marked the zenith of Arabic poetry; after them the supremacy of theology and the silencing of philosophy drove Arabic verse into the insincerity, artificial passion, and flowering elegance of courtly and trivial lays. But at the same time the resurrection of Persia and its self-liberation from Arab rule were stirring the nation to a veritable renaissance. The Persian tongue had never yielded to Arabic in the speech of the people; gradually, in the tenth century, reflecting the political and cultural independence of the Tabirid, Samanid, and Ghaznevid princes, it reasserted itself as the language of government and letters, and became New or Modern Persian, enriched itself with Arabic words, and adopted the graceful Arabic script. Persia now broke out in magnificent architecture and lordly poetry. To the Arab qasida or ode, qita or fragment, and ghazal or love poem, the poets of Iran added the mathnawi or poetic narrative, and the rubai (pl. rubaiyyat) or quatrain. Everything in Persia—patriotism, passion, philosophy, pederasty, piety—now blossomed into verse.

This efflorescence began with Rudagi (d. 954), who improvised poetry, sang ballads, and played the harp at the Samanid court of Bokhara. There, a generation later, Prince Nuh ibn Mansur asked the poet Daqiqi to put into verse the Khodainama, or Book of Kings, wherein Danishwar (c. 651) had gathered the legends of Persia. Daqiqi had written a thousand lines when he was stabbed to death by his favorite slave. Firdausi completed the task, and became the Homer of Persia.

Abu’l-Qasim Mansur (or Hasan) was born at Tus (near Mashhad) about 934. His father held an administrative post at the Samanid court, and bequeathed to his son a comfortable villa at Bazh, near Tus. Spending his leisure in antiquarian research, Abu’l-Qasim became interested in the Khodainama, and undertook to transform these prose stories into a national epic. He called his work Shahnama—book of the shahs—and, in the fashion of the time, took a pen name, Firdausi (garden), perhaps from the groves of his estate. After twenty-five years of labor he finished the poem in its first form, and set out for Ghazni (999?), hoping to present it to the great and terrible Mahmud.

An early Persian historian assures us that there were then “four hundred poets in constant attendance on Sultan Mahmud.”120 It should have been an unsurpassable barrier, but Firdausi succeeded in interesting the vizier, who brought the immense manuscript to the Sultan’s attention. Mahmud (says one account) gave the poet comfortable quarters in the palace, turned over to him reams of historical material, and bade him incorporate these in the epic. All variations of the story agree that Mahmud promised him a gold dinar ($4.70) for each couplet of the revised poem. For an unknown time Firdausi labored; at last (c. 1010) the poem reached its final form in 60,000 couplets, and was sent to the Sultan. When Mahmud was about to remit the promised sum, certain courtiers protested that it was too much, and added that Firdausi was a Shi’ite and Mutazilite heretic. Mahmud sent 60,000 silver dirhems ($30,000). The poet, in anger and scorn, divided the money between a bath attendant and a sherbet seller, and fled to Herat. He hid for six months in a bookseller’s shop till Mahmud’s agents, instructed to arrest him, gave up the search. He found refuge with Shariyar, prince of Shirzad in Tabaristan; there he composed a bitter satire on Mahmud; but Shariyar, fearful of the Sultan, bought the poem for 100,000 dirhems, and destroyed it. If we may believe these figures, and our equivalents, poetry was one of the most lucrative professions in medieval Persia. Firdausi went to Baghdad, and there wrote a long narrative poem, Yusuf and Zuleika, a variant of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Then, an old man of seventy-six, he returned to Tus. Ten years later Mahmud, struck by the vigor of a couplet that he heard quoted, asked the author’s name; when he learned that it was by Firdausi he regretted his failure to reward the poet as promised. He despatched to Firdausi a caravan carrying 60,000 gold dinars’ worth of indigo, and a letter of apology. As the caravan entered Tus it encountered the poet’s funeral (1020?).

The Shahnama is one of the major works of the world’s literature, if only in size. There is something noble in the picture of a poet putting aside trivial subjects and easy tasks, and giving thirty-five years of his life to telling his country’s story in 120,000 lines—far exceeding the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Here was an old man mad about Persia, enamored of every detail in its records, whether legend or fact; his epic is half finished before it reaches history. He begins with the mythical figures of the Avesta, tells of Gayamurth, the Zoroastrian Adam, and then of Gayamurth’s mighty grandson Jamshid, who “reigned over the land 700 years…. The world was happier because of him; death was unknown, neither sorrow nor pain.” But after a few centuries “his heart was lifted up with pride, and he forgot whence came his weal…. He beheld only himself on the earth, called himself God, and sent forth his image to be worshiped.”121 At last we come to the hero of the epic, Rustam, son of the feudal noble Zal. When Rustam is 500 years old Zal falls in love with a slave girl, and through her gives Rustam a brother. Rustam serves and saves three kings, and retires from military life at the age of 400. His faithful steed Rakhsh ages as leisurely, is almost as great a hero, and receives from Firdausi the affectionate attention bestowed by any Persian upon a fine horse. There are pretty love stories in the Shahnama, and something of the troubadour’s reverence for woman; there are charming pictures of fair women—one of the Queen Sudaveh, who “was veiled that none might behold her beauty; and she went with the men as the sun marches behind a cloud.”122 But in the case of Rustam the love motif plays a minor part; Firdausi recognizes that the dramas of parental and filial love can be more affecting than those of sexual romance. Amid a distant campaign Rustam has an amour with a Turkish lady, Tahmineh, and then loses track of her; she brings up their son Sohrab in sorrow and pride, telling the youth of his great but vanished father; in a war of Turks against Persians son and sire, neither knowing the other, meet spear to spear. Rustam admires the courage of the handsome lad, and offers to spare him; the boy disdainfully refuses, fights bravely, and is mortally wounded. Dying, he mourns that he has never yet seen his father Rustam; the victor perceives that he has slain his son. Sohrab’s horse, riderless, regains the Turkish camp, and the news is brought to Sohrab’s mother in one of the finest scenes of the epic.

The strong emotion choked her panting breath,
Her veins seemed withered by the cold of death.
The trembling matrons hastening round her mourned,
With piercing cries, till fluttering life returned.
Then gazing up, distraught, she wept again,
And frantic, seeing ’midst her pitying train
The favorite steed—now more than ever dear,
Its limbs she kissed, and bathed with many a tear;
Clasping the mail Sohrab in battle wore,
With burning lips she kissed it o’er and o’er;
His martial robes she in her arms compressed,
And like an infant strained them to her breast.123

It is a vivid narrative, moving rapidly from episode to episode, and finding unity only from the unseen presence of the beloved fatherland in every line. We—who have less leisure than men had before so many labor-saving devices were invented—cannot spare the time to read all these couplets and bury all these kings; but which of us has read every line of the Iliad, or the Aeneid, or The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost? Only men of epic stomach can digest these epic tales. After 200 pages we tire of Rustam’s victories over demons, dragons, magicians, Turks. But we are not Persians; we have not heard the sonorous roll of the original verse; we cannot be moved as Persians are, who in a single province have named 300 villages after Rustam. In 1934 the educated world of Asia, Europe, and the Americas joined in commemorating the millennial anniversary of the poet whose massive book has been for a thousand years the bulwark of the Persian soul.

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