al-Harīrī Essay - Critical Essays



al-Harīrī 1054-1122

(Full name Abū Muḥammad al-Qāsim ibn ‘Alī al-Harīrī) Iraqi poet, grammarian, and scholar.

Al-Harīrī is recognized as one of the greatest practitioners of the maqāmat, a literary genre characterized by use of anecdotal form to recount, in clever and complex wordplay, dramatic tales of rogues and their adventures. Al-Harīrī's Maqāmāt (c. 1108), most often rendered in English as Assemblies, consists of fifty stories featuring the exploits of the vagabond Abū Zayd as-Sarūjī. Zayd is a trickster who delights in demonstrating his unparalleled vocabulary and his prowess at composing elegant poetry. Al-Harīrī's linguistic achievements were such that for several hundred years the Maqāmāt was considered one of the greatest examples of Arab literature, second only to the Quran.

Biographical Information

Little is known of al-Harīrī's life. He was born in Basra, Iraq, in 1054, probably to land-owning parents. After receiving his education in Basra, he attained a government position as chief of intelligence. His duties required extensive travel but still allowed him sufficient time to write poetry. Al-Harīrī died in Basra in 1122.

Major Works

Al-Harīrī's master work is the Maqāmāt. The stories are narrated by al-Harith ibn Hammām, a creation of al-Harīrī, and revolve around the rascal Abū Zayd al-Sarūjī. The Maqāmāt was composed at the request of Anushirwan b. Khalid, a Persian statesman, and al-Harīrī stressed that he wrote it for a moral, and not a frivolous, purpose: in the last tale Zayd undergoes a religious conversion. The Maqāmāt is written in rhymed prose, called saj', in an ornate style replete with puns, allusions, and similes. Additionally, al-Harīrī wrote a book on the misuse of certain expressions, Durrat al-ghawwāṣ fī awhām al-khawa,ṣṣ and a lengthy poem on grammar, Mulḥat al-i ‘rāb fī annaḥw., but the date of these works are not known.

Critical Reception

Appreciation of al-Harīrī's writing is difficult for Westerners unfamiliar with Arabic language and literature. Numerous instances of linguistic skill are impossible to render in translation—for example, tales composed wholly with letters that do not join each other when written, or composed wholly with letters that do not have dots. Although such virtuoso displays have been appreciated by Arabs for centuries, Western critics level the charge that al-Harīrī's work is too much concerned with form, too little with content. D. S. Margoliouth and Ch. Pellat, for example, assert that al-Harīrī's success can only be explained by a decline in literary taste, and that his Maqāmāt are no more than pale reflections of those of his predecessor, Ahmad al-Hamadhānī. Other critics take a more favorable view; G. E. von Grunebaum explores the question of how the spirit of Islam is manifested in Arab literature and explains that some literary characteristics that are particularly favored by Arab readers are not aspects that tend to be highly valued by Western critics and authors. A. F. L. Beeston examines the maqāmāt genre and its principal writers, and speculates that al-Harīrī's use of puns indicates that his writings were chiefly intended for pedagogical purposes. Geert Jan van Gelder examines rhyme in the Maqāmāt, focusing on the differences between rhyme in poetry and rhyme in prose. Van Gelder also compares the techniques of rhyme employed by al-Harīrī with those used by his predecessor al-Hamadhānī. Other close analyses are those by Reynold A. Nicholson and Abraham Lavi. Nicholson discusses the protagonist of the Maqāmāt, Abū Zayd, and offers translations of three poems he recites in the text, while Lavi studies the Mahberot Ithiel, the Hebrew translation of the Maqāmāt, which constitutes the most widely disseminated translation of al-Harīrī's work. Beeston also notes that the Maqāmāt exerted tremendous influence on Arab writers for centuries.

Principal Works

Maqāmāt (fiction) c. 1108

Durrat al-ghawwāṣ fī awhām al-khawaṣṣ (treatise) date unknown

Mulḥat al-i ‘rāb fī annaḥw. (poetry) date unkown

The Assemblies of Al-Harīrī (translated by Thomas Chenery) 1867-98

The Assemblies of Al-Harīrī: Fifty Encounters with the Shayck Abū Zayd of Seruj (translated by Amina Shah) 1981


Reynold A. Nicholson (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: Nicholson, Reynold A. “Poetry, Literature, and Science in the 'Abbásid Period.” In A Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 285-364. Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1907, Nicholson discusses al-Harīrī's heroic character Abū Zayd.]

Less original than Badí‘u 'l-Zamán, but far beyond him in variety of learning and copiousness of language, Abú Muḥammad al-Qásim al-Harírí of Baṣra produced in his Maqámát a masterpiece which for eight centuries “has been esteemed as, next to the Koran, the chief treasure of the Arabic tongue.” In the Preface to his work he says that the composition of maqámát was suggested to him by “one whose suggestion is a command and whom it is a pleasure to obey.” This was the distinguished Persian statesman, Anúshirwán b. Khálid,1 who afterwards served as Vizier under the Caliph Mustarshid Billáh (1118-1135 a.d.) and Sultán Mas‘úd, the Seljúq (1133-1152 a.d.); but at the time when he made Harírí's acquaintance he was living in retirement at Baṣra and devoting himself to literary studies. Harírí begged to be excused on the score that his abilities were unequal to the task, “for the lame steed cannot run like the strong courser.”2 Finally, however, he yielded to the request of Anúshirwán, and, to quote his own words—

“I composed, in spite of hindrances that I suffered
From dullness of capacity and dimness of intellect,
And dryness of imagination and distressing anxieties,
Fifty Maqámát, which contain serious language and lightsome,
And combine refinement with dignity of style,
And brilliancies with jewels of eloquence,
And beauties of literature with its rarities,
Beside verses of the Koran wherewith I adorned them,
And choice metaphors, and Arab proverbs that I interspersed,
And literary elegancies and grammatical riddles,
And decisions based on the (double) meaning of words,
And original discourses and highly-wrought orations,
And affecting exhortations as well as entertaining jests:
The whole of which I have indited as by the tongue of Abú Zayd of Sarúj,
The part of narrator being assigned to Harith son of Hammám of Baṣra.”(3)

Harírí then proceeds to argue that his Maqámát are not mere frivolous stories such as strict Moslems are bound to reprobate in accordance with a well-known passage of the Koran referring to Naḍr b. Hárith, who mortally offended the Prophet by amusing the Quraysh with the old Persian legends of Rustam and Isfandiyár (Koran, xxxi, 5-6): “There is one that buyeth idle tales that he may seduce men from the way of God, without knowledge, and make it a laughing-stock: these shall suffer a shameful punishment. And when Our signs are read to him, he turneth his back in disdain as though he heard them not, as though there were in his ears a deafness: give him joy of a grievous punishment!” Harírí insists that the Assemblies have a moral purpose. The ignorant and malicious, he says, will probably condemn his work, but intelligent readers will perceive, if they lay prejudice aside, that it is as useful and instructive as the fables of beasts, &c.,4 to which no one has ever objected. That his fears of hostile criticism were not altogether groundless is shown by the following remarks of the author of the popular history entitled al-Fakhrí († circa 1300 a.d.). This writer, after claiming that his own book is more useful than the Hamása of Abú Tammám, continues:—

“And, again, it is more profitable than the Maqámát on which men have set their hearts, and which they eagerly commit to memory; because the reader derives no benefit from Maqámát except familiarity with elegant composition and knowledge of the rules of verse and prose. Undoubtedly they contain maxims and ingenious devices and experiences; but all this has a debasing effect on the mind, for it is founded on begging and sponging and disgraceful scheming to acquire a few paltry pence. Therefore, if they do good in one direction, they do harm in another; and this point has been noticed by some critics of the Maqámát of Harírí and Badí‘u 'l-Zamán.”5

Before pronouncing on the justice of this censure, we must consider for a moment the character of Abú Zayd, the hero of Harírí's work, whose adventures are related by a certain Hárith b. Hammám, under which name the author is supposed to signify himself. According to the general tradition, Harírí was one day seated with a number of savants in the mosque of the Banú Harám at Baṣra, when an old man entered, footsore and travel-stained. On being asked who he was and whence he came, he answered that his name of honour was Abú Zayd and that he came from Sarúj.6 He described in eloquent and moving terms how his native town had been plundered by the Greeks, who made his daughter a captive and drove him forth to exile and poverty. Harírí was so struck with his wonderful powers of improvisation that on the same evening he began to compose the Maqáma of the Banú Harám,7 where Abú Zayd is introduced in his invariable character: “a crafty old man, full of genius and learning, unscrupulous of the artifices which he uses to effect his purpose, reckless in spending in forbidden indulgences the money he has obtained by his wit or deceit, but with veins of true feeling in him, and ever yielding to unfeigned emotion when he remembers his devastated home and his captive child.”8 If an immoral tendency has been attributed to the Assemblies of Harírí it is because the author does not conceal his admiration for this unprincipled and thoroughly disreputable scamp. Abú Zayd, indeed, is made so fascinating that we can easily pardon his knaveries for the sake of the pearls of wit and wisdom which he scatters in splendid profusion—excellent discourses, edifying sermons, and plaintive lamentations mingled with rollicking ditties and ribald jests. Modern readers are not likely to agree with the historian quoted above, but although they may deem his criticism illiberal, they can hardly deny that it has some justification.

Harírí's rhymed prose might be freely imitated in English, but the difficulty of rendering it in rhyme with tolerable fidelity has caused me to abandon the attempt to produce a version of one of the Assemblies in the original form.9 I will translate instead three poems which are put into the mouth of Abú Zayd. The first is a tender elegiac strain recalling far-off days of youth and happiness in his native land:—


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G. E. von Grunebaum (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: von Grunebaum, G. E. “The Spirit of Islam as Shown in Its Literature.” In Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, pp. 95-110. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1955, von Grunebaum considers how the spirit of Islam appears in Arabic literature, including the writings of al-Harīrī.]


The search for reflections of the spirit of Islam in literature will be meaningful only when it is interpreted as the search for such character traits as are readily derivable from or co-ordinable with essential elements of Islamic doctrines or outlook. Two methodological...

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D. S. Margoliouth and Ch. Pellat (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Margoliouth, D. S., and Ch. Pellat. “Al-Harīrī.” In The Encyclopedia of Islam: New Edition, edited by B. Lewis, V. L. Ménage, Ch. Pellat, and J. Schacht, pp. 221-22. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1971.

[In the following essay, Margoliouth and Pellat provide an overview of al-Harīrī's works and his importance.]

al-Harīrī (sometimes Ibn al-Harīrī in Yākūt), Abu Muḥammad al-Kāsim B. ‘Alī B. Muḥammad B. ‘Uhtmān B. al-Harīrī al-Baṣrī, Arabic poet and philologist known principally for his Makāmāt. Born in 446/1054, probably to a landed family living at al-Masān, near Baṣra, where he spent his childhood, he commenced his...

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Abraham Lavi (essay date January 1984)

SOURCE: Lavi, Abraham. “The Rationale of Al-Harīzī in Biblicizing the Maqāmāt of Al-Harīrī.” The Jewish Quarterly Review n.s. 74, no. 3 (January 1984): 280-93.

[In the following essay, Lavi examines Judah al-Harīzī's Hebrew translation of the Maqāmāt.]

Sometime between the years 1213 and 1216 the Spanish-Jewish scholar Judah al-Harīzī translated al-Harīrī's Maqāmāt into Hebrew. This translation is now known under the title Maḥberōt Ithiel. Unfortunately only twenty-five complete Maḥbarōt—II-XXVI—the last part of I, and the beginning of XXVII are in our possession. The others, and the preface with which al-Harīzī, in...

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A. F. L. Beeston (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Beeston, A. F. L. “Al-Hamadhānī, Al-Harīrī and the Maqāmāt Genre.” In ‘Abbasid Belles-Lettres, edited by Julia Ashtiany, T. M. Johnstone, J. D. Latham, R. B. Serjeant, and G. Rex Smith, pp. 125-35. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Beeston examines the Maqāmāt genre and al-Harīrī's contribution to it.]

The telling and hearing of anecdotes has been a favourite pastime in all ages and places: round the bedouin camp-fire, in the literary salons of ‘Abbasid Baghdad, in the English public house and over the after-dinner port. The nature of an anecdote varies enormously. In length it may...

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Geert Jan van Gelder (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: van Gelder, Geert Jan. “Rhyme in Maqāmāt or, Too Many Exceptions Do Not Prove a Rule.” ,Journal of Semitic Studies 44, no. 1 (spring 1999): 75-82.

[In the following essay, Van Gelder examines the nature of the rhymes in the works of two practitioners of Maqāmāt: al-Hamadhānī and al-Harīrī.]

Rhyme is ubiquitous in classical Arabic literature, obligatory in poetry and often employed in forms of more or less ornate prose. The rules of rhyme in poetry and rhymed prose (saj‘) are not wholly identical, since, as is well known, pausal forms may differ, prose normally requiring final short vowels to be dropped, whereas they are mostly...

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Further Reading


Ebied, R. Y., and M. J. L. Young. “Some Verses in Praise of Al-Harīrī.” Journal of Semitic Studies 19, no. 1 (spring 1974): 76-81.

Provides Arabic texts of several verses concerning the Assemblies.

Additional coverage of al-Harīrī’s life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3.

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