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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