al-Harīrī Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.