restricted access Chapter 3. Poetry Performance and the Reinterpreting of Tradition
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75 Poetry Performance and the Reinterpreting of Tradition The Puzzle The Abbasid court poet ʿ Alī 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 the anthology Muḥāḍarat al-Abrār (Conversing with the Virtuous), attributed to the Sufi master Muḥyī al-Dīn b. al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). he regales his audience with an account of the first encounter between Ibn al-Jahm and al-Mutawakkil. In this anecdote Ibn al-Jahm comes to the court as a simple Bedouin bumpkin bearing the gift of praise for his desired patron.2 he tries to woo the ruler with his poetic offering, only to fail miserably. Ibn al-Jahm naively says, “You are like a dog in maintaining your loyalty. You are like a billy goat in confronting your challenges! / You are like a hide-bucket—may we never do without you as a bucket—one of the biggest buckets! Great in size!”3 three 76 literary Salons: Outlines of a Topic According to court protocol, Ibn al-Jahm’s gauche utterances to the king might have put his life in danger.4 The king, however, is not insulted. To the contrary, he sees promise in Ibn al-Jahm and takes him under his wing. After six months of living under the auspices of the caliph in the metropolis of Baghdad, Ibn al-Jahm returns to the court and delivers a monumental tribute to his patient sponsor. The poem would become his most famous, taking its name, al-Ruṣāfiyya, from a point on the city’s breezy riverfront, al-Ruṣāfa.5 The anecdote is curious first because courtly material is re-presented by a Sufi master; surprisingly, nearly all of Ibn al-Jahm’s extant poetry has come down to us through the Sufi tradition. Second, Ibn al- ʿArabī’s anthology stands as the only known source to report the anecdote . Most anecdotes about poets in the Arabic tradition are corroborated and repeated in other sources, but no other source remotely echoes this bumpkin-in-Baghdad narrative. In effect, earlier sources of biography sketch another persona altogether. They depict Ibn al-Jahm as being of Arab stock but born in Baghdad or Marv, Khurasan (Central Asia), where his family originated. In either case he grew up in Baghdad, so these sources imply that Ibn al-Jahm was neither Bedouin nor provincial. To the contrary, the reports tell us that Ibn al-Jahm’s family were Baghdad insiders. his father, al-Jahm b. Badr, was an officer in the administrations of the caliphs al-Maʾmūn (r. 813–33) and al-Wāthiq (r. 842–47). his elder brother, Muḥammad, was on close terms with the caliphs al-Maʾmūn and al-Muʿtaṣim (r. 833–42). Muḥammad was an accomplished littérateur in his own right.6 Regardless of banal facticity, it is important to note that the earlier sources do establish a common knowledge, and Ibn al-ʿ Arabī’s anecdote seems to countervail it for reasons hitherto unknown. In effect, Ibn al-ʿ Arabī seems to disseminate a narrative about the court that has currency and appeal as Sufi lore. The issue of appeal is far more salient in this case, since the narrative went uncorroborated, because appeal would seem to be the primary source of credibility. Moreover, it appears that the legacy of Ibn al-Jahm had special importance to Sufis. Nearly all of the extant fragments of Ibn al-Jahm’s poetic corpus were preserved in devotional handbooks used by Sufis of the Maghrib. Whereas the culture of the Abbasid court was saturated in earthly glory and luxury, Sufis rejected the same in favor of austerity and the glory of God. One can only wonder how Sufis identi fied with Ibn al-Jahm and his courtly legacy. how does Ibn al-Jahm’s legacy become so immanently Sufi? What about this anecdote was appealing and authentic to this otherworldly audience? From a performance perspective the mujālasāt provide the artistic event, with social and symbolic dimensions, that enable us to examine the ways in which a social group might customize adab according to a...