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297 297 Popular Science: Two Chapters from al-Damīrī’s Encyclopedia of Animals The term “polythematic” is often used for the Arabic qaṣīdah; it is equally apt for many prose works. Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān al-kubrā (The Great Life of Living Beings), an encyclopedia of animals by the Egyptian author Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Damīrī (742/1341–808/1405), arranged alphabetically, is a useful and often entertaining mixture of popular zoology, folklore, poetry, proverbs, lexicography, religion (especially Islamic law on food regulations: “can one eat it?”), medicine, dream interpretation, and many other topics. Among its striking elements is a potted history of the caliphs, a considerable portion of the whole, by way of digression in the section iwazz, “geese” (geese figure in the story of the murder of ʿAlī, the fourth caliph). I. The Roc958 The roc (rukhkh, ‫�خ‬ �‫ر‬), spelled with a final dotted kh,959 is a bird found on the isles of the Chinese Sea. A single wing may be ten thousand fathoms960 long. Al-Jāḥiẓ mentions it,961 as does Abū Ḥāmid al-Andalusī,962 who says: A certain man, one of the merchants who traveled to China and stayed there for some time, arrived in the Maghreb.963 He had with him the shaft of one of its feathers, which could contain a skinful of water.964 He said that he was once traveling on the Chinese Sea when a storm swept them to a large island. The sailors disembarked and went to the island to get water and firewood. There they saw an enormous dome, higher than one hundred cubits, which shone brightly. Amazed, they approached it and found that it was a roc egg. They began to strike it with sticks, axes, and stones, until it split open, revealing a chick that looked like a mountain. They latched on to a feather on one of its wings and pulled, but it flapped its wing and the feather came loose in their hands, pulled out at the root. It was not yet fully formed. They killed it and carried away as much of its flesh as they could. One of them boiled a cauldronful of its meat on the island, stirring it with a piece of firewood, and they ate it. Some of the ship’s party were old. The following morning their beards had turned black again, and afterward no one who 298 298 298 298 Prose had shared that meal ever grew a gray hair. They said that the stick they had used to stir the cauldron was a piece of the Tree of Youth.965 At sunrise the roc appeared in the air, like a big cloud, carrying in its claws a stone as large as an enormous house, bigger than the ship. When it came alongside the ship it suddenly dropped the stone, but it fell into the sea, because the ship had outrun it. God, blessed and exalted, saved them through His grace and mercy. The roc (rook) is also a chess piece.966 Its plural is rikhākh or rikhakhah. Ibn Sīdah967 says: Sarī al-Raffāʾ968 said it well in his verses: Lads among whom the flower of good manners had blossomed, more splendid and more radiant than flowers of fragrant plants, Who went straight for the wine, like the rook moves, and then left while the wine made them walk like queens.969 Good verses by him are also the following:970 How dear to me, the one to whom I generously give my soul, whereas he’s stingy with his greeting and his salutation! My demise lies hidden in his eyes, just as death lies hidden in the sword’s edge. Dream interpretation: A roc in a dream is an indication of strange news and faraway travels. Perhaps it indicates gibberish in both correct or faulty speech. It is the same with the ʿanqāʾ bird. God knows best. The legal opinion (concerning the legitimacy of eating the roc) will follow under the letter ʿAyn.971 II. The Hoopoe972 This chapter has been chosen because it contains background stories taken from Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr) on the story in Sura 27 about Solomon/ Sulaymān, who in Islam is famous not merely for his wisdom but also for his control over the natural world, including the animals (whose languages he speaks) and the winds. Al-Damīri’s story is one of many accounts; ultimately the content goes...


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