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13 Literary Salons From Ancient Symposion to Arabic Mujālasāt SALonS: HierArcHicAL verSuS egALitAriAn in the year 750, at a time when northAmerica’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, to interact and influence each other in unprecedented ways. Abbasid society (A.d. 750–1258), centered in iraq, would sustain a golden age of islamic civilization, which thereafter Muslims and Arabs would consider a model for organized communal life.1 not only did this era produce a canonical literature, its triumphs fostered the ideals of cultural exchange, leadership, and civic participation. one of the primary mechanisms for forming Abbasid society and literature was the literary gathering or salon. these mujālasāt enabled people in new venues and ways to inherit, borrow, adjust, and share one 14 Literary Salons: outlines of a topic cultural knowledge. the types of knowledge that were most relevant to these mujālasāt were specifically in the Arabic language. Although particular literary ideas could originate from greek, Syriac, indian, or Armenian, they would be dubbed “Arabic” fields of knowledge (ʿulūm ʿarabiyya) if their ultimate language of composition and recitation wasArabic.2 According to the historian ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), the de- fining feature of Arabic knowledge was not merely language, but the norm-driven imperative to perform it and teach it to the young, to learn it by heart, and to recite it in assembly. in contrast to Arabic knowledge , if any “foreign” fields of knowledge (ʿulūm ʿajamiyya)—which included greek, indian, and Persian sciences (such as philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, pharmacy, and astronomy, as well as dream interpretation)—were forgotten or became extinct, they could be rediscovered by intellect. in this way they were viewed as perennially deducible. Arabic studies were viewed as cultural and thus set by communal convention, sentiment, attitude, and belief. the Middle east scholar george Makdisi notes, as further indication of this distinction, that foreign knowledge was sometimes referred to as “reasoned” (ʿilm maʿqūl), whereas Arabic knowledge was “personally transmitted” (ʿilm manqūl).3 in ibn Khaldūn’s view, if Arabic knowledge was lost, sheer intellect could not regain its form or substance.4 it would die out along with the vast majority of cultural knowledge, such as family experiences , traditions, and lore, that ceases to hold meaning. Arabic knowledge comprises two subtypes of heritage: religious knowledge (dīn) and humanistic knowledge (adab).5 those aspiring to good repute would learn from dīn the various transmissions of the Qur’an and reports by or about the Prophet Muhammad (known as Hadith) by heart. From adab, they would memorize classical proverbs (amthāl) and public speeches (khutab), inherited (qadīm) and “modern ” (muḥdath) poetry, as well as charming or historical narratives (akhbār).6 Whereas dīn guided the faithful to the path of god’s deliverance in the hereafter, adab delivered a person from isolation, trauma, and grief in the here and now. Whereas dīn taught mortals what god expects, adab taught them the manners, sensitivities, and verbal arts of charm (ẓarf ) and sociability (muʾānasa) that human beings expect. this humanistic knowledge—not of divine but of social salvation—is the focus of this book, along with the social practices that surround its performance in mujālasāt. Mujālasāt were one of the many social institutions that promoted in varying degrees humanistic edification, which produced generations of professional and amateur humanists or littérateurs (adīb; pl. udabāʾ). Makdisi, in his important study of the rise of humanism in medieval islamic culture and later in christian europe, notes that students could acquire this knowledge in several venues. Wealthy patrons endowed institutions, the most important of which was the mosque. Beginning with the advent of the islamic polis, master teachers, poets, and scholars used the Friday mosque (jāmiʿ) throughout urban centers and the neighborhood prayer-nook (masjid) for regular study circles.7 in tenthcentury iraq, patrons established elementary and secondary schools, called kuttāb or maktab, where the young gained a foundation in foreign and Arabic knowledge. these schools often served as a gateway to higher education.8 A century later, students could gain competence in privately endowed seminaries (madrasa; pl. mad...


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