Ibn Hazm Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Ibn Hazm 994-1064

(Full name Abū Muhammad ‘Alī ibn Ahmad ibn Sa‘īd ibn Hazm) Spanish (Andalusian) theologian, historian, poet, philosopher, and critic.

An eminent humanist and prose writer of eleventh-century Muslim Spain, Ibn Hazm was a controversial figure. A polymath whose encyclopedic knowledge reached across all major intellectual disciplines of the era—from logic, ethics, theology, literature, history, and law to medicine and the natural sciences—Ibn Hazm was an innovative scholar and outspoken proponent of radical views that often prompted harsh criticism. Credited with the composition of an estimated 400 literary and scholarly works, Ibn Hazm's crowning achievement is usually considered to be his uniquely realized treatise on love, the Tawq al-hamāma fī al-ulfah wa al-ullāf (c. 1027; The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love), regarded as one of the finest compositions of Arabic belles-lettres. Ibn Hazm's other exceptional works include a history of religion, Kitāb al-fasl fi al-milal wa al-ahwā' wa al-nihal (c. 1027-38), and the legal treatise al-Ihkam li-usul al-ahkam (c. 1035-64). A master scholar of the Arabic holy books the Qur’ān and Hadīth, Ibn Hazm was also the outstanding figure of the Zāhirī school of theology, proponents of which have offered literal interpretations of Islamic scripture as the foundation of a system of Muslim jurisprudence. One of the greatest and most recognizable Arab authorities of his age, Ibn Hazm also stands alone among his Islamic contemporaries in his vast knowledge of Christian and Jewish theology and scripture.

Biographical Information

Ibn Hazm was born in 994 Islamic Cordova to a respected and affluent family, descendants of Persian émigrés who had converted from Christianity and resettled in Andalusian Spain. His father, Ahmad, an erudite scholar and devout Muslim, served as a high functionary to al-Mansūr and to his son and successor, al-Muzaffar, regents to caliph Hishām II of al-Andalus. His father's connections to the Umayyad dynasts offered Ibn Hazm access to the finest education available. Taught by the women of the caliph's harem, the boy spent the first fourteen years of his life in comfort and seclusion absorbing knowledge of the Qur’ān. He composed verse in his youth, but none of his early writings have survived. The demise of al-Muzaffar in 1008 roughly coincided with the rise of political unrest in Cordova. Civil war raged between rival dynasties and competing ethnic groups—including the Spanish, Berbers, Slavs, and Arabs—for more than two decades, signaling the brutal and drawn out end of Umayyad rule. Ibn Hazm's father died in 1012 and the following year Berber rebels sacked Cordova, forcing Ibn Hazm to flee to the city of Almeria. ’Ali ibn Hammud's 1016 usurpation of the caliphate did little to restore order, and Ibn Hazm was expelled from Almeria by its governor, who was sympathetic to the Hammudid cause. He subsequently traveled through al-Andalus during the years of his banishment, returning to a Cordova still controlled by the Hammudid in early 1019. Power shifted back to the Umayyads in 1023 with the rise of ‘Abd-er-Rahmān V al-Mustazhir to the position of caliph. Ibn Hazm was appointed his vizier, a position he held for only seven weeks before the new ruler was assassinated and his regent jailed. In about 1027, after his release from a subsequent term of imprisonment, Ibn Hazm settled in Játiva. He is generally thought to have completed his The Ring of the Dove there during this period. In 1030, the epoch of violent conflict precipitated by the struggle between the Hummudid and Umayyad families for the throne of Cordova subsided with the complete dissolution of the caliphate, which was replaced by a conglomeration of cities and small republics independent of any centralized authority. Ibn Hazm never renounced his support for the displaced Umayyad but moderated his public sponsorship of the doomed cause. For the remainder of his life he attempted to detach himself from contemporary politics, residing at his family estate in Manta Līsham and concentrating on writing and scholarship. Ibn Hazm remained a controversial and outspoken figure, however, and an assortment of his works were publicly burned by al-Mu‘tadid in nearby Seville. His reputation survived intact and when he died at Manta Līsham in August 1064, he was already viewed as one of the greatest Muslim intellectuals of the age.

Textual History

Of Ibn Hazm's four hundred reputed volumes containing approximately eighty thousand pages of text, less than forty are extant. Of these, most exist only in Arabic redactions, save for the The Ring of the Dove. Based upon a manuscript codex of the work dated 1338 and preserved in Leiden, modern versions of the The Ring of the Dove. owe their existence to Russian scholar D. K. Pétrof, who emended its corrupt text in his 1914 Arabic edition. Since Pétrof's work was published, translations of Ibn Hazm's literary masterpiece have appeared in the major languages of Europe, the most acclaimed version being E. García Gómez's well-regarded 1952 Spanish edition. A. J. Arberry's The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love, published in 1953, has remained the standard English translation in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Major Works

Scholars have found more than approximate dates for Ibn Hazm's works difficult to ascertain, though some have observed a somewhat generalized break by around 1035, after which the writer is thought to have devoted himself almost exclusively to juridical and theological matters. Thus, Ibn Hazm's belletristic works were most likely completed before this time. Generally considered his literary masterpiece, The Ring of the Dove is a compelling book on the psychology of love in which Ibn Hazm analyzed its symptoms, conventions, causes, methods, and spiritual aspects. Comprised of thirty chapters that detail the nature of love viewed in relation to such subjects as compliance, secrecy, accident, correspondence, fidelity, and separation, The Ring of the Dove features delightful narratives drawn from Ibn Hazm's own experience. The work additionally contains many examples of Ibn Hazm's poetry, including verses inspired by passion, ecstasy, and despair. Chief among Ibn Hazm's critical works devoted to the history of literature, Risāla fī fadā il al-Andalus wa-dhikr rajaliah (c. 1031) offers a guide to Andalusian authors studied within the traditions of Arabic and Islamic writing. The collection is the only surviving text of five literary histories he wrote. Representative of Ibn Hazm's historical works, Kitāb nuqat al-‘arus fi akhbar al-khulafa’ bani Umayyah fi-l-Andalus (c. 1035) catalogues the events and individuals associated with the Umayyad dynasty that dominated Andalusian Spain in the ninth century before collapsing during the span of Ibn Hazm's lifetime. Al-Imamah wa-l-mufadalah (c. 1035), another of Ibn Hazm's historical works on the caliphate of Cordova, documents the lives of the Umayyad caliphs, while examining bureaucratic orders and court policies. Two apposite works of genealogy, Jamharat ansāb al-‘Arab (c. 1035) and Nasab al-Barbar (c. 1035), detail the ancestral lines of these ethnic groups and their impact on medieval Spanish history. The crowning achievement of Ibn Hazm's combined interest in history and religion, Kitāb al-fasl fi al-milal wa al-ahwā' wa al-nihal is a groundbreaking comparative study of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Unlike this thoroughly ambitious work, Ibn Hazm's other historical writings tend to be more limited and focused on the Islamic experience. His Kitāb al-īmān (c. 1035-64) defines the differences between belief, tasdīq,) and faith, (īmān,) exploring the spiritual bonds that join members of the Muslim community. As it exists in surviving manuscripts, Ibn Hazm's Jawāmi‘al-sīrah (c. 1035) is an abridgement, with scholars insisting that much of the text has been corrupted by careless editors. A companion piece, Hijjah al-wada' (c. 1035) concentrates on the last ten days of Muhammad's final journey to Mecca and is informed by Ibn Hazm's vast knowledge of the Islamic book of Traditions. A somewhat notorious attack against Judaism, the al-Radd ‘alā Ibn al-Naghrīlah al-yahūdī (c. 1056) assails one of Ibn Hazm's principal political, religious, and intellectual adversaries. More generally, the work is thought to be representative of his polemic writings on religion. Other works in this vein contain Ibn Hazm's reasoned, if highly opinionated, critiques of Judaic and Christian theology, scripture, and religious practice. Central among Ibn Hazm's legal texts, al-Ihkam li-usul al-ahkam examines the traditions and methods of Islamic law, while al-Muhalla bi-al-āthār fu sharh al-mujalla bi-al-ikhtisar (c. 1035-64) contains a comparative study of Islamic jurisprudence. Turning to philosophy, al-Takrīb li-hadd al-mantiq (c. 1023-34) is Ibn Hazm's fundamental treatise on logical argumentation. In it, the writer explains his disagreements with Aristotelian norms on the subject and illustrates the everyday uses of logic, as well as its applications in science, rhetoric, and religious polemic. Probably written near the end of his career, al-Akhlaq wa'l-siyar (c. 1035-64) is a collection of maxims on personality and ethics that presents Ibn Hazm's distilled thought on such subjects as social behavior, friendship, love, and practical morality. A similar but shorter work, Mudāwāt al-nufūs wa tahdhīb al-akhlāq (c. 1035) contains more of Ibn Hazm's insightful reflections on morality and human behavior. Other volumes by this versatile author include ten books on medicine, many of them commentaries on important texts from classical antiquity.

Critical Reception

While there exists little doubt of Ibn Hazm's controversial and provocative status during his own lifetime, contemporaneous assessments of this eminent Muslim thinker also suggest much of his subsequently recognized greatness. His works were widely read and esteemed, eliciting considerable, if sometimes strident, commentary. Jailed three times for his outspoken political beliefs, Ibn Hazm lived through one of the most chaotic periods in Spanish history, an epoch that is in many ways stamped with the remnants of his thought and methods of argumentation. Innumerable Arabic scholars refer to Ibn Hazm's works, listing him as an authority on the full range of intellectual endeavor. He has been acknowledged for his consuming thirst for knowledge and prolific creative output, as well as praised for his candidness, dignity, and directness. Commentators have acknowledged his immense artistic sensitivity comfortably existing alongside a rare intellectual audacity. His writings, both literary and scholarly, have been lauded for their lucidity and spontaneity. Concerning Ibn Hazm's individual works, critics have remarked that his al-Takrīb li-hadd al-mantiq was responsible for a sizeable controversy in its own day due to its deviations from Aristotle. Modern scholars have since recognized the fundamental differences between Ibn Hazm's philosophical orientation and that of the influential Greek thinker. Kitāb al-fasl fi al-milal wa al-ahwā' wa al-nihal continues to be considered a work of monumental significance in comparative religion, the first of its kind to systematically study the religious doctrines of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Spanish scholar E. García Gómez has called the The Ring of the Dove Ibn Hazm's “best work and the best in all Hispano-Arabic literature.” Many other critics have been inclined to agree. Indeed, a good deal of contemporary scholarly attention to Ibn Hazm has been devoted to the The Ring of the Dove, his only book to have been adequately translated from Arabic. Despite a preponderance of approval for Ibn Hazm in the contemporary period, however, admiration for his ideas has been far from universal. Several commentators have pointed out inconsistencies in his work, particularly as they arise in the contradiction between his Zāhirī critical principles and the practical exigencies of literary composition. Others have questioned Ibn Hazm's negative attitudes toward Judaism and Christianity. Allowing these reservations, however, modern critics have tended to hold Ibn Hazm in very high regard, characterizing him as one of the outstanding minds of the Islamic tradition and as a writer and thinker possessed of an energy, talent, and erudition unsurpassed among his contemporaries.