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Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages

Poetry, Public Performance, and the Presentation of the Past

Samer M. Ali

Publication Year: 2010

Arabic literary salons emerged in ninth-century Iraq and, by the tenth, were flourishing in Baghdad and other urban centers. In an age before broadcast media and classroom education, salons were the primary source of entertainment and escape for middle- and upper-rank members of society, serving also as a space and means for educating the young. Although salons relied on a culture of oral performance from memory, scholars of Arabic literature have focused almost exclusively on the written dimensions of the tradition. That emphasis, argues Samer Ali, has neglected the interplay of oral and written, as well as of religious and secular knowledge in salon society, and the surprising ways in which these seemingly discrete categories blurred in the lived experience of participants. Looking at the period from 500 to 1250, and using methods from European medieval studies, folklore, and cultural anthropology, Ali interprets Arabic manuscripts in order to answer fundamental questions about literary salons as a social institution. He identifies salons not only as sites for socializing and educating, but as loci for performing literature and oral history; for creating and transmitting cultural identity; and for continually reinterpreting the past. A fascinating recovery of a key element of humanistic culture, Ali’s work will encourage a recasting of our understanding of verbal art, cultural memory, and daily life in medieval Arab culture.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

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pp. ix-xii

The publication of this book has been a goal for many years, and in that duration a number of individuals and institutions have provided material and moral support. Without them, this book simply would not be, and it is a joy to record my gratitude to them. The project began as a Ph.D. dissertation at Indiana University under the supervision of Suzanne Stetkevych, who has been an ...

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pp. 1-10

Judging by the number of American universities that have added faculty and courses in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies to their curricula since September 11, 2001, many educators have come to the realization that Middle Eastern cultures and Islamic societies ought to be part of a liberal arts education. In addition, the most foresighted among policy makers have long held the view that the United States cannot ...

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Chapter 1. Literary Salons: From Ancient Symposion to Arabic Mujālasāt

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pp. 13-32

In the year 750, at a time when North America’s redwoods and sequoias were seedlings and sprouts, a revolution was taking place seven thousand miles away in the Middle East as a new dynasty, the Abbasids, came to power. Although governed by Muslims, Abbasid society would enable Arabs and non-Arabs, as well as Muslims and non-Muslims, ...

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Chapter 2. Adab Principles for Artistic Speech in Assembly

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pp. 33-74

The concept of adab is central to Arabo-Islamic cultural analysis. It denotes, on the one hand, a corpus of varied literary knowledge (e.g., poetry, charming anecdotes, even historical narratives) that a young littérateur must know—akin to the Greek concept of paideia. On the other hand, adab refers to the constellation of courtly manners and tastes to ...

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Chapter 3. Poetry Performance and the Reinterpreting of Tradition

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pp. 75-118

The Abbasid court poet ʿAlī b. al-Jahm (d. 863) is most famous for his Ruṣāfiyya ode extolling the virtues of his generous patron, the caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861).1 The original functions of his praise verse were to give legitimacy to the caliph and his dynasty. However, one of the most entertaining anecdotes about Ibn al-Jahm comes to us in ...

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Chapter 4. The Poetics of Sin and Redemption: Performing Value and Canonicity

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pp. 119-152

The caliph al-Mutawakkil ʿalā llāh reigned for fourteen years (r. 847– 61) as head of the Abbasid state. In winter 861 he unexpectedly withdrew his approval from the heir apparent, al-Muntaṣir billāh (d. 862), in favor of his youngest son, al-Muʿtazz billāh (r. 866– 69). Shortly thereafter, al-Mutawakkil was murdered in his palace by his ...

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Chapter 5. Al-Buḥturī’s Īwān Kisrā Ode: Canonic Value and Folk Literacy in the Mujālasāt

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pp. 153-170

The murder of Caliph al-Mutawakkil in winter 861 figured as the first patricidal regicide of Islamic history and forced the umma—ostensibly sacred—to recall the profaning traumas of the first and second civil wars (fitan; sg. fitna).1 Sometime later, during the post-Mutawakkil period, the court poet al-Buḥturī (d. 897) composed an unusual but ...

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Chapter 6. Singing Samarra (861–956): Poetry, Reception, and the Reproduction of Literary Value in Historical Narrative

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pp. 171-188

In the century after the patricide of caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861), historiography of the event evolved in written form from an early stage of simple description to a more influential one of mythohistorical narrative. el-Hibri’s important analysis of Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭabarī’s (d. 923) narrative demonstrates this latter stage well. He argues that ...

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pp. 189-196

This book began in response to the need to place Arabic literature in conversation with the humanities, to make each more relevant to the other. From academics in the humanities (and from the educated public), I have at times encountered a dismissal of Arabic literature’s value to learning and self-cultivation. Usually, however, academics and the ...

Appendix of Arabic Poetry

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pp. 197-209


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pp. 210-253


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pp. 254-280


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pp. 281-294

E-ISBN-13: 9780268074654
E-ISBN-10: 0268074658
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268020323
Print-ISBN-10: 0268020329

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: NA
Publication Year: 2010