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119 The Poetics of Sin and Redemption Performing Value and Canonicity The PRoblem of ConTRadiCTion and liTeRaRy Value 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 personal guards, in a plot that implicated al-muntaṣ’s court poet,abū ʿubāda al-Walīd b. ʿubayd al-buḥturī (d. 897), rose to the occasion by voicing his loyalty to al-mutawakkil and his outrage about the assassination. in a vehement elegy (rithāʾ) al-buḥturī extolled his late patron, cursed and accused al-mutawakkil’s son of patricide , and vowed vengeance—according to one version of the historical events.1 The poet not only stigmatized al-muntaṣir; he also urged members of the court to support a worthier candidate for the caliphate (in lines 32–33 of the elegy).2 The court did not follow the poet’s four 120 The Mujālasāt as forum for literary Reception political guidance, however. in effect the new caliph was stigmatized and damaged. abbasid literary sources indicate that al-buḥturī then left Samarra for the hajj, and two months later he returned to praise none other than al-muntaṣir.3 in a second poem, a praise hymn, the poet now salutes al-muntaṣir as the hero who thwarted disaster and renewed the majesty of the caliphate.4 The two poems have elicited admiration from medieval scholars in both literary and historical sources, but the odes stand in puzzling contradiction.5 in the first poem the poet stigmatizes the heir; in the second he valorizes him. at first al-buḥturī clearly withholds his support, but later he finds it plausible to reverse this stance. despite the major strides that meisami, Gruendler, Sperl, and S. Stetkevych make to reframe the simplistic issue of sincerity, by positing practical functions for praise in a social context, al-buḥturī’s two odes remain a puzzle because they stand at cross-purposes.6 Putting aside the question of sincerity, if al-buḥturī is effective in the first ode, how can he be effective in the second ode? Recently, critics have attempted to address this question but have ascribed evaluations (in this case, negative) intrinsic to the poet and the text. Their analyses have disregarded the pair of odes by attributing them to frantic opportunism .7 What is at stake here is not whether one’s evaluations are favorable or unfavorable but whether one’s method of evaluation rests in the pragmatics of social reception or in putatively universal, unpragmatic (usually ideological) qualities or properties inhering to the poet or the text universally. according to Shawqī Ḍayf, for example, the poet created a problem for himself by criticizing al-muntaṣir and thus needed to excuse himself.8 attitudes that dismiss poetry and poets in this way bring scholarly investigation to a dead end, for they fail to explain the value of these poems as art to their immediate audiences and their canonicity for generations. if Ḍayf can dismiss these odes, he ignores the rousing reception they received. one would still have to ask, why would these odes be appealing at the time and canonical for generations? The issue of appeal and canonicity rests on the emotional and aesthetic effects of these odes on people, as well as long-term use and benefit to society. one cannot presume that al-buḥturī presented the praise hymn to al-muntaṣir solely to compensate for an “error,” be- cause even a preliminary reading of the text shows the absence of any formal features of apology or self-redemption.9 To the contrary, almunta ṣir himself treats the poem as a needed favor. he reciprocates with an extraordinary prize sum, a completely uncharacteristic act.10 Whatever function the praise might have served, it did more than turn a profit or appease an angry patron. The most problematic aspect of Ḍayf’s approach, however, is his assumption that court poets were in effect weaklings. This assumption underestimates the pride with which many medieval scholars and littérateurs viewed the verbal and thus political power of al-buḥturī. This “poet’s greed” theory...


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