Al Hariri of Basrah and the Maqamats

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Ilse Lichtenstadter (1907- 1991), a Middle Eastern expert at Harvard wrote: “ Pure entertainment for the masses as well as for a more sophisticated audience formed an important part of the adab (non-religious, entertainment) literature. The two outstanding examples of works addressed to the latter were the socalled maqamat, a literary term usually translated as "assemblies" or "séances." Full of wit and learned allusions, they presupposed a knowledgeable audience that could appreciate them. The creator of this art form - for it was art and not instruction that the author had in mind - was Badi' al-Zamdn, "Wonder of the Age," al-Hamadhdni (359-99 A.H./969-1008 A.D.). The leading character of his work was Abu'l-Fatih of Alexandria, the wandering scholar, the Muslim counterpart of the Fahrende Schüler or Vagans Clericus of medieval Europe, who lived by his wits roving through the land. The narrator of the Maqamat pretends to have encountered this character wherever he went and entertained his audience with Abu'l-Fatih's erudition and the anecdotes he told. [Source: Excerpted from Ilse Lichtenstadter, Introduction to Classical Arabic Literature, (Boston: Twayne, 1974), p. 122, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

“The Maqamat were composed in a style characteristic for this art form, They were cast into the ancient form of saj, "rhymed prose" (the form, as will be remembered, in which the Qur’an was revealed). Each maqamat dealt with a separate topic, the whole being unified by the persons of the narrator and the traveler, Abu'lFatb in al-Hamadhani's Maqamat, Abu Zayd of Saruj in those by the later al-Hariri (446-516 A.H./1054-1122 A.D.), This style enabled the authors to display all the brilliancy of their erudition, their rhetoric, and their wit. The maqdmdt became almost the best known and most highly appreciated literary works of later times among the Arabs; in particular, al-Hariri's Maqamat were praised highly and remained a favorite in the Muslim world. They found imitators all over its sphere of influence, including, in Spain, the Maadmat of the Jewish thinker al-Harizi (thirteenth century).

“Philip Hitti wrote in “History of the Arabs”: Arabic literature in the narrow sense of adab (belles-lettres) began with al-Jahiz (d. 868-9), the sheikh of the Bazrah littérateurs, and reached its culmination in the fourth and fifth Moslem centuries in the works of Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (969-1008), al-Tha'alibi of Naysabur (961-1038) and al-Hariri (1054-1122). One characteristic feature of prose-writing in this period was the tendency, in response to Persian influence, to be affected and ornate. [Source: Philip Hitti, “History of the Arabs,” 10th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1970)]

Cover book of Maqamat of al-Warighi and his his letters by Mahmoud Rebai

The terse, incisive and simple expression of early days had gone for ever. It was supplanted by polished and elegant style, rich in elaborate similes and replete with rhymes. The whole period was marked by a predominance of humanistic over scientific studies. Intellectually it was a period of decline. It supported a literary proletariat, many of whose members, with no independent means of livelihood, roamed from place to place ready to give battle over linguistic issues and grammatical technicalities or to measure poetical swords over trivial matters with a view to winning favours from wealthy patrons. This .period also saw the rise of a new form of literary expression, the maqamah.

“Badi al-Zaman ("wonder of the age") al-Hamadhani is credited with the creation of the maqdamah (assembly), a kind of dramatic anecdote in the telling of which the author subordinates substance to form and does his utmost to display his poetical ability, learning and eloquence. In reality such a form of composition as the maqdmah could not have been the creation of any one man; it was a natural development of rhymed prose and flowery diction as represented by ibn-Durayd and earlier stylists. Al-Hamadhani's work served as a model for al-Hariri of al-Basrah, whose Maqamat for more than seven centuries were esteemed as the chief treasure, next to the Qur’an, of the literary Arabic tongue. In these maqamat of al-Hariri and other writers there is much more than the elegant form and rhetorical anecdote which most readers consider the only significant feature. The anecdote itself is often used as a subtle and indirect way of criticizing the existing social order and drawing a wholesome moral. Since the days of al-Hamadhani and al-ljariri the maqdmah has become the most perfect form of literary and dramatic presentation in Arabic, a language which has never produced real drama.

Websites and Resources: Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ;
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Maqamat (The Assemblies, 1100) by Al Hariri of Basrah

Maqamat Ajnas-Maraghi

Maqamat (The Assemblies, c. 1100) by Al Hariri of Basrah begins:“Preface: O God, we praise thee for what perspicuity thou hast taught, and what enunciation thou hast inspired; as we praise thee for what bounty thou hast enlarged, what mercy thou hast diffused: And we take refuge with thee from the vehemence of fluency and the immoderation of talkativeness, as we take refuge with thee from the vice of inarticulateness and the shame of hesitation. And by thee we seek to be kept from temptation through the flattery of the praiser and the connivance of the favor, as we seek to be kept from exposure to the defaming of the slanderer and the betrayal of the informer. And we ask pardon of thee if our desires carry us into the region of ambiguities, as we ask pardon if our steps advance to the domain of errors. And we ask of thee succor which shall lead us aright, and a heart turning with justice, and a tongue adorned with truth, and a speech strengthened with demonstration, and accuracy that shall keep us from mistake, and resolution that shall conquer caprice, and perception by which we may estimate duly: And that thou wilt help us by thy guidance to conceive, and enable us by thy assistance to express; that thou wilt guard us from error in narration, and turn us from unseemliness in jesting; that we may be secure from slanders of the tongue; that we may be free from the ill of tinseled speech; that we walk not in the road of sin, nor stand in the place of repentance; that we be not pursued by suit or censure, nor need to flee from hastiness to excuse.

O God, fulfil to us this wish; give us to attain to this desire: put us not forth of thy large shadow, make us not a morsel for the devourer. For now we stretch forth to thee the hand of entreaty; we are thorough in humiliation to thee and abasement. And we call down thy abundant grace and thy bounty that is over all, with humbleness of seeking and with the venture of hope. Also approaching thee through the merits of Muhammad, lord of men, the intercessor whose intercession shall be received at the congregation of judgment. By whom thou hast set the seal to the prophets, and whose degree thou hast exalted to the highest heaven; whom thou hast described in thy clear-speaking Book, and hast said (and thou art the most truthful of sayers): "It is the word of a noble envoy, of him who is mighty in the presence of the tord of the throne, having authority, obeyed, yea, faithful." O God, send thy blessing on him and his house who guide aright, and his companions who built up the faith; and make us followers of his guidance and theirs, and profit us all by the loving of him and them: for thou art Almighty, and one meet to answer prayer. [Source: Excerpted from Ilse Lichtenstadter, Introduction to Classical Arabic Literature, (Boston: Twayne, 1974), p. 122, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

“And now: In a meeting devoted to that learning whose breeze has stilled in this age, whose lights are nigh gone out, there ran a mention of the Assemblies which had been invented by Badi'az Zeman, the sage of Hamadan (God show him mercy); in which he had referred the composition to Abu'l Fath of Alexandria and the relation of 'Isa, son of Hisham. And both these are persons obscure, not known; vague, not to be recognized. Then suggested to me one whose suggestion is as a decree, and obedience to whom is as a prize, that I should compose Assemblies, following in them the method of Badi' (although the lame steed attains not to outrun like the stout one). Then I reminded him of what is said concerning him who joins even two words, or strings together one or two verses: and deprecated this position in which the understanding is bewildered, and the fancy misses aim, and the depth of the intelligence is probed, and a man's real value is made manifest: and in which one is forced to be as a wood-gatherer by night, or as he who musters footmen and horsemen together: considering, too, that the voluble man is seldom secure or pardoned if he trips.

But when he consented not to forbearance, and freed me not from his demand, I assented to his invitation with the assenting of the obedient, and displayed in according with him all my endeavor; and composed, in spite of what I suffered from frozen genius, and dimmed intelligence, and failing judgment, and afflicting cares, fifty Assemblies, comprising what is serious in language and lively, what is delicate in expression and dignified; the brilliancies of eloquence and its pearls, and beauties of scholarship and its rarities: besides what I have adorned them with of verses of the Qur'an and goodly metonymies, and studded them with of Arab proverbs, and scholarly elegancies, and grammatical riddles, and decisions dependent on the meaning of words, and original addresses, and ornate orations, and tear-moving exhortations, and amusing jests: all of which I have indited as by the tongue of Abu Zayd of Seruj, while I have attributed the relating of them to Al Harith, son of Hammam, of Basra. And whenever I change the pasture I have no purpose but to inspirit the reader, and to increase the number of those who shall seek my book. And of the poetry of others I have introduced nothing but two single verses, on which I have based the fabric of the Assembly of Holwan; and two others, in a couplet, which I have inserted at the conclusion of the Assembly of Kerej. And, as for the rest, my own mind is the father of its virginity, the author of its sweet and its bitter. Yet I acknowledge withal that Badi' (God show him mercy) is a mighty passer of goals, a worker of wonders; and that he who essays after him to the composition of an Assembly, even though he be gifted with the eloquence of Kodameh, does but scoop up of his overflow, and travels that path only by his guidance.

Maqam bayati and ushshaq turki tone row

“And excellently said one: “If before it mourned, I had mourned my love for Su'da, then should I have healed my soul, nor had afterward to repent. But it mourned before me, and its mourning excited mine, and I said, “The superiority is to the one that is first." Now I hope I shall not be, in respect of the playful style that I display, and the source that I repair to, like the beast that scratched up its death with its hoof, or he who cut off his nose with his own hand; so as to be joined to those who are "most of all losers in their works, whose course on earth has been in vain, while they count that they have done fair deeds." Since I know that although he who is intelligent and liberal will connive at me, and he who is friendly and partial may defend me, I can hardly escape from the simpleton who is ignorant, or the spiteful man who feigns ignorance; who will detract from me on account of this composition, and will give out that it is among the things forbidden of the law. But yet, whoever scans matters with the eye of intelligence, and makes good his insight into principles, will rank these Assemblies in the order of useful writings, and class them with the fables that relate to brutes and lifeless objects. Now none was ever heard of whose hearing shrank from such tales, or who held as sinful those who related them at ordinary times. Moreover, since deeds depend on intentions, and in these lies the effectiveness of religious obligations, what fault is there in one who composes stories for instruction, not for display, and whose purpose in them is the education and not the fablings? Nay, is he not in the position of one who assents to doctrine, and "guides to the right path"?

“Yet am I content if I may carry my caprice, and then be quit of it, without any debt against me or to me. And of God I seek to be helped in what I purpose, and to be kept from that which makes defective, and to be led to that which leads aright. For there is no refuge but to him, and no seeking of succor but in him, and no prospering but from him, and no sanctuary but he. On him I rely, and to him I have recourse.

First Assembly

Maqamat (The Assemblies, c. 1100) by Al Hariri of Basrah reads: “Al Harith, son of Hammam, related: When I mounted the hump of exile, and misery removed me from my fellows, the shocks of the time cast me to San'a of Yemen. And I entered it with wallets empty, manifest in my need; I had not a meal; I found not in my sack a mouthful. Then began I to traverse its ways like one crazed, and to roam in its depths as roams the thirsting bird. And wherever ranged my glances, wherever ran my goings at morn or even, I sought some generous man before whom I might fray the tissue of my countenance, to whom I might be open concerning my need; or one well bred, whose aspect might dispel my pain, whose anecdote might relieve my thirsting. Until the close of my circuit brought me, and the overture of courtesy guided me, to a wide place of concourse, in which was a throng and a wailing. Then I entered the thicket of the crowd to explore what was drawing forth tears. And I saw in the middle of the ring a person slender of make; upon him was the equipment of pilgrimage, and he had the voice of lamentation. And he was studding cadences with the jewels of his wording, and striking hearings with the reproofs of his admonition. [Source: Excerpted from Ilse Lichtenstadter, Introduction to Classical Arabic Literature, (Boston: Twayne, 1974), p. 122, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

Maqamat Al-Adwar, page 14

“And now the medley of the crowds had surrounded him, as the halo surrounds the moon, or the shell the fruit. So I crept toward him, that I might catch of his profitable sayings, and gather up of his gems. And I heard him say, as he coursed along in his career, and the throat of his improvisation made utterance: “O thou reckless in petulance, trailing the garment of vanity! O thou headstrong in follies, turning aside to idle tales! How long wilt thou persevere in thine error, and eat sweetly of the pasture of thy wrong? How far wilt thou be extreme in thy pride, and not abstain from thy wantonness? Thou provokest by thy rebellion the Master of thy forelock; in the foulness of thy behaving thou goest boldly against the Knower of thy secret. Thou hidest thyself from thy neighbor, but thou art in the sight of thy Watcher; thou concealest from thy slave, but no hidden thing is hidden from thy Ruler. Thinkest thou that thy state will profit thee when thy departure draweth near? or that thy wealth will deliver thee when thy deeds destroy thee? or that thy repentance will suffice for thee when thy foot slippeth? or that thy kindred will lean to thee in the day that thy judgment-place gathereth thee? How is it thou hast not walked in the high-road of guidance, and hastened the treatment of thy disease, and blunted the edge of thine iniquity, and restrained thyself—thy chief enemy? Is not death thy doom? What then is thy preparation? Is not gray hair thy warning? What then is thy excuse? And in the grave's niche thy sleeping-place? What dost thou say?

And to God thy going? and who shall be thy defender? Oft hath the time awakened thee, but thou hast set thyself to slumber; and admonition hath drawn thee, but thou hast strained against it; and warnings have been manifest to thee, but thou hast made thyself blind; and truth hath been established to thee, but thou hast disputed it; and death hath bid thee remember, but thou hast sought to forget; and it hath been in thy power to impart of good, but thou hast not imparted. Thou preferrest money which thou mayest hoard before piety which thou mayest keep in mind: thou choosest a castle thou mayest rear rather than bounty thou mayest confer. Thou inclinest from the guide from whom thou mightest get guidance, to the pelf thou mayest gain as a gift; thou lettest the love of the raiment thou covetest overcome the recompense thou mightest earn. The rubies of gifts cling to thy heart more than the seasons of prayer; and the heightening of dowries is preferred with thee to continuance in almsgivings. The dishes of many meats are more desired to thee than the leaves of doctrines: the jesting of comrades is more cheerful to thee than the reading of the Qur'an. Thou commandest to righteousness, but violatest its sanctuary: thou forbiddest from deceit, but refrainest not thyself: thou turnest men from oppression, and then thou drawest near to it; thou fearest mankind, but God is more worthy that thou shouldest fear him.

“Then he recited: “Woe to him who seeks the world, and turna to it his careering: And recovers not from his greediness for it, and the excess of his love. Oh, if he were wise, but a drop of what he seeks would content him. “Then he laid his dust, and let his spittle subside; and put this bottle on his arm, and his staff under his armpit. And when the company gazed on his uprising, and saw that he equipped himself to move away from the midst, each of them put his hand into his bosom, and filled for him a bucket from his stream: and said, "Use this for thy spending, or divide it among thy friends." And he received it with half-closed eyes, and turned away from them, giving thanks; and began to take leave of whoever would escort him, that his road might be hidden from them; and to dismiss whoever would follow him, that his dwelling might be unknown. Said Al Harith, son of Hammam: Now I went after him, concealing from him my person; and followed on his track from where he could not see me; until he came to a cave, and slipped into it suddenly. So I waited for him 'till he put off his sandals and washed his feet, and then I ran in upon him; and found him sitting opposite an attendant, at some white bread and a roast kid, and over against them was a jar of date-wine. And I said to him, "Sirrah, was that thy story, and is this thy reality?" But he puffed the puff of heat and went near to burst with rage; and ceased not to stare at me till I thought he would leap upon me. But when his fire was allayed, and his flame hid itself, he recited:

“I don the black robe to seek my meal, and I fix my hook in the hardest prey: And of my preaching I make a noose, and steal with it against the chaser and the chased. Fortune has forced me to make way even to the lion of the thicket by the subtlety of my beguiling. Yet do I not fear its change, nor does my loin quiver at it: Nor does a covetous mind lead me to water at any well that will soil my honor. Now if Fortune were just in its decree it would not empower the worthless with authority. Then he said to me, "Come and eat; or, if thou wilt, rise and tell." But I turned to his attendant, and said, "I conjure thee, by him through whom harm is deprecated, that thou tell me who is this." He said, "This is Abu Zayd, of Seruj, the light of foreigners, the crown of the learned." Then I turned back to whence I came, and was extreme in wonder at what I saw.”

Second Assembly

Maqamat by Al Hariri of Basrah reads: “Al Harith, son of Hammam, related: Ever since my amulets were doffed and my turbans were donned, I was eager to visit learning's seat and to jade to it the camels of seeking, that through it I might cleave to what would be my ornament among men, my rain-cloud in thirst. And through the excess of my longing to kindle at it, and my desire to robe myself in its raiment, I discussed with every one, great and small, and sought my draught both of the rain-flood and the dew, and solaced myself with hope and desire. Now when I descended at Holwan, and had already tried the brethren, and tested their values, and proved what was worthless or fine, I found there Abu Zayd of Seruj, shifting among the varieties of pedigree, beating about in various courses of gain-getting; for at one time he claimed to be of the race of Sasan, and at another he made himself kin to the princes of Ghassan; and now he sallied forth in the vesture of poets; and anon he put on the pride of nobles. And yet with all this diversifying of his condition, and this display of contradiction, he is adorned with grace and information, and courtesy and knowledge, and astonishing eloquence, and obedient improvisation, and excelling accomplishments, and a foot that mounts the hills of the sciences. Now, through his goodly attainments he is associated with in spite of his faults; and through the largeness of his information there is a fondness for the sight of him; and through the blandishment of his fair-speaking men are loath to oppose him; and through the sweetness of his address he is helped to his desire. Then I clung to his skirts for the sake of his peculiar accomplishments, and valued highly his affection by reason of his precious qualities:

“With him I wiped away my cares, and beheld my fortune displayed to me, open of face, gleaming with light. I looked upon his nearness to me as kinship, his abiding as wealth, his aspect as a full draught, his life as rain. Thus we remained a long season; he produced for me daily some pleasantness, and drove some doubt from my heart, until the hand of want mixed for him the cup of parting, and the lack of a meal urged him to abandon Iraq; and the failures of supply cast him into desert regions, and the waving of the banner of distress ranged him in the line of travelers; and he sharpened for departure the edge of determination, and journeyed away, drawing my heart with his leading cord. After he was gone none pleased me who kept by me, none filled me with affection by urging me to intimacy. Since he strayed away none has appeared to me his like in excellence; no friend has gotten the equal of his qualities. “So he was hidden from me a season: I knew not his lair; I found none to tell of him; but when I had returned from my wandering to the place where my branch had sprouted, I was once present in the town library, which is the council-hall of scholars, the meeting-place of residents and strangers: Then there entered one with a thick beard and a squalid aspect, and he saluted those who sat, and took seat in the last rows of the people. Then began he to produce what was in his wallet, and to astonish those present by the sagacity of his judgment. And he said to the man who was next him, "What is the book into which thou lookest?" He said, "The poems of Abu 'Obadeh; him of whose excellence men bear witness." He said, "In what thou hast seen hast thou hit on any fine thing which thou admirest?" He said, "Yes; the line, As though she smiled from strung pearls or hailstones, or camomile flowers.

“For it is original in the use of similitude which it contains." He said to him, "Here is a wonder! here is a lack of taste, Sir, thou hast taken for fat what is only swollen; thou hast blown on that which is no fuel: where art thou in comparison with the rare verse which unites the similitudes of the teeth? My life a ransom for those teeth whose beauty charms, and which a purity adorns sufficing thee for all other. She parts her lips from fresh pearls, and from hail-stones, and from camomile-flowers, and from the palm-shoot, and from bubbles.

“Then each one approved the couplet and admired it, and bade him repeat it and dictate it. And he was asked, "Whose is this verse, and is its author living or dead? He said, "By Allah, right is most worthy to be followed, and truth is most fitting to be listened to: Know, friends, that it is his who talks with you to-day." Said Al Harith: Now it was as though the company doubted of his fathering, and were unwilling to give credit to his claim. And he perceived what had fallen into their thoughts, and was aware of their inward unbelief; and was afraid that blame might chance to him, or ill-fame reach him; so he quoted from the Qur'an, "Some suspicions are a sin." Then he said, "O ye reciters of verse, physicians of sickly phrase!—Truly the purity of the gem is shown by the testing, and the hand of truth rends the cloak of doubt.—Now it was said aforetime that by trial is a man honored or contemned. So come! I now expose my hidden store to the proving, I offer my saddle-bag for comparison."

Image Source: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Source: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook:

Last updated September 2018

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