- The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction by Muhsin J. al-Musawi
Muhsin al-Masawi’s book provides an engaging exploration of Arabic letters in the ‘post-classical’ period, which covers the twelfth to eighteenth centuries. The book clearly demonstrates how the term ‘Republic of Letters’, most often associated with Enlightenment France and the city of Paris, can be equally applied to contemporary Arabic literary movements, stretching from North Africa to India, with the city of Cairo emerging as an important literary centre under the Mamluks (1250–1517). Al-Masawi directly challenges influential modernists of the twentieth century, such as Ṭaha Ḥusayn (1889–1973), who dismiss the literary output of medieval Islamic and Muslim nation–states as ‘ineffectual’.
Al-Masawi seeks to demonstrate the diversity and dynamism of literature in the post-classical era, a time when Mongol and Turkic forces achieved substantial victories in Central Asia, Iran, the Levant, and Egypt. Although the scholarly output of the late Ummayad (first half of the eighth century) and Abbasid dynasties (750–1258 ce) has traditionally been viewed as the ‘Golden Age’ in Arabic literature, al-Masawi argues that the post-classical period was no less fruitful. The two most important factors contributing to this process, he writes, are related to people and place, in his words, ‘human agency’ and the ‘sites and methods of conversation, discussion, compilation, and writing’. As an opening example, al-Masawi cites the now famous conversation conducted over thirty-five meetings between the Turco-Mongol conqueror, Tīmūr (Tamerlane; d. 1405), and the Tunisian scholar and jurist, Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406), which took place outside Damascus in 1401. With the use of a translator, Tīmūr questioned Ibn Khaldūn on the intellectual life and resources of the Arab–Islamic world and Muslim Spain; Ibn Khaldūn himself wrote of these meetings as evidence of his social theory on the principle of ‘group solidarity’. In this meeting, we have the most vivid proof of the process al-Masawi seeks to illustrate, namely a sustained and open conversation between diverse peoples with Arab–Islamic culture as the unifying medium.
Al-Masawi covers a wide variety of literary genres including rhetoric, encyclopaedism, epistolary writing, travel accounts, lexicography, Sufi poetry, and what he terms ‘street poetry’, exemplified in the writings [End Page 135] of Ṣafi al-Dīn Al-Ḥilli (second half of the thirteenth century), one of the leading poets of the post-classical era. Al-Ḥilli’s poetry covers a wide range of themes including homoeroticism. In one poem, Al-Ḥilli bemoans the fact that a young boy is demanding money from him: ‘I have a lover who acts as a brick builder [demanding money, not bricks] and I am the supplier of gold [not brick or clay] | whenever he turns around and sees me, he’ll reiterate: give me.’ Other popular poetic themes included khamriyyah (wine poetry), craftsmen’s poetry, and erotica.
The poets themselves were equally diverse. Al-Masawi cites the great Persian poet, Al-Ḥafiz (1325/26–1389/90), a master of the ghazal, a poetic form used to express the pain of love and loss, along with female poets, such as Faṭimah al-Jamīlliyah (sixteenth century), a prominent Sufi from Cairo, whose poems covered topics such as Sufism as a practice, education, and a girl’s success in a craft.
The book’s title is appropriate and what emerges is the importance of diversity in the post-classical Muslim world for the development of literature. This region was no longer, nor indeed had it ever been, a purely Arabic speaking environment. The amorphous Muslim empire was a ‘massive conversation site’ where the interlocutors included Arabs, Berbers, Mongols, Persians, Turks, and Indians. Al-Masawi describes this as a ‘rattle of languages’, prompting the prominent Tunisian lexicographer, Muḥammad b. al-Mukarram ibn Manẓūr(d. 1311), to bemoan the ‘decreasing interest in Arabic among the learned’. Particularly at...