Irony, Archeology, and the Rule of Rhyme: Two Readings of the Tasmu Luzumiyya of Abu l-'Ala' al-Ma'arri.

Author:Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney
Position:Critical essay


The poet, man of letters, and scholar, Abu l-"Ala' al-Ma'arri, was in his lifetime already--and continues to be--regarded as an outstanding but extremely controversial poet, largely due to the religious and "philosophical" ideas and the mordant criticism of politics, religion, and humanity in general that he airs in his poetry. Some celebrate him as a free and independent mind, and yet a believing Muslim; others condemn him as a heretic and free-thinker (zindiq) or atheist (mulhid). The body of scholarly and popular work on him is vast, repetitive, and often polemical.

Born in 363/973 to a prominent family of judges and poets in Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, southwest of Aleppo, Abu l-'Ala' Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sulayman al-Tanukhi al-Ma'arri was blinded by smallpox at the age of four. As a young man he garnered the reputation of a highly regarded provincial poet, writing socially and politically engaged qasidas--poems of praise, blame, boast, elegy--and ikhwaniyyat (poems exchanged with fellow poets) as well as shorter pieces of ghazal and description in the high classical Abbasid style. The years 399-400/1009-1010 mark his sojourn in Baghdad and the major turning point in his career. He traveled there in the hope of establishing himself in the literary circles of the cosmopolitan capital, where the eviscerated Abbasid caliphate was under Buyid control and the literary scene dominated by the two 'AlawI Sharifs and poets al-Radl and al-Murtada.

Having failed to make his way in the capital, he returned, disheartened and embittered, to Ma'arrat al-Nu'man. His poetic career up until this point comprises most of the poems of his first diwan, Saqt al-zand (Sparks of the Flint). From 400/1010 until his death he lived a life of self-imposed seclusion and asceticism in his house in Ma'arrat al-Nu'man. He adopted the sobriquet rahin al-mahbisayn (inmate of two prisons)--that is, his blindness and his house (or, as he added later, reflecting his disgust with life in general, three prisons--his blindness, his house, and his body). It was also a period of astounding literary productivity: commentaries, epistles (most famously his Risalat al-ghufran [Epistle of Forgiveness]), poetry collections, and teaching, counting among his many students the celebrated philologist Abu Zakariyya' al-Khatib al-Tibrizi (d. 502/1109). This is also the period in which he abjures Saqt al-zand and undertakes his second great poetic project, Luzum ma la yalzam (Requiring What Is Not Obligatory), commonly known simply as al-Luzumiyycit (The Compulsories)--the subject of the present study. He died in his home after a short illness in 449/1058. (1)

Although al-Macarri is renowned for his pessimism and ironic play with the religious and "philosophical" ideas of his day, particularly in his programmatically double-rhymed second diwan, the ironic distance achieved in his Luzumiyya rhymed in--smu, which opens "People will ask, What is Quraysh and what is Mecca?// Just as they now ask, What is Jadis? What is Tasm?," (2) nevertheless strikes us as quite extraordinary for the classical Islamic period. If, as I have argued elsewhere, the poems of Saqt al-zand are derived from the template of the high Abbasid qasida, whose structure, themes, and motifs are then recast to create original poetic responses to personal and political challenges and obligations--performative responses to real-life challenges or situations (what I have termed "the poetics of engagement")--how then are we to understand the creative process in a poetry of withdrawal and seclusion, the "poetics of disengagement"? (3)

In the hope of revealing how al-Ma'arri's creative process might have worked in al-Luzumiyyat, this study will explore two possible--and competing--avenues of poetic production, or inspiration, for the Tasmu Luzumiyya, which is rare among the 1,600-odd poetic pieces of this diwan in that the Arabic literary tradition has preserved an intriguing account that purports to relate the "occasion" that inspired the poem's composition. The first avenue of approach, set out below in PART I, is based on this anecdote; the second, discussed in PART II, is based on the prosodic and lexical requirements imposed by al-Ma'arrrs idiosyncratic programmatic project. The study will conclude by suggesting a hermeneutics that might help us in achieving a modern literary critical interpretation and evaluation of al-Ma'arri's acclaimed but confounding doubled-rhymed, alphabetized diwan, Luzum ma la yalzam.


The anecdote that purports to record the incident that prompted al-Ma'arris spontaneous composition of his Luzumiyya with rhyme word Tasmu is itself of curious--not to say suspicious--origin. All known versions refer to a single source, Jalal al-Din Ibn al-Qifti (d. 646/1248). Born in Qift in Upper Egypt, Ibn al-Qiftl spent his career as an official in Aleppo, gaining the honorific titles al-qadl l-akram and al-wazir al-akram, as well as being a prolific writer. Of particular note in the present context is that there he was the patron of the celebrated traveler and scholar Yaqut al-HamawI (d. 626/1229), who sought refuge with him in Aleppo in flight from the Mongol advance, and whom Ibn al-Qiftl aided in the compilation of his renowned geographical dictionary, Mu'jam al-buldan. (4)

Ibn al-Qiftis account is found in his entry on al-Ma'arri in his biographical dictionary of grammarians, Inbah al-ruwah 'ala anbah al-nuhah:

It was mentioned that one day in [Abu 1-Ala's] presence someone read that [the Umayyad caliph] al-Walld, when he commissioned the construction of the Mosque of Damascus, ordered those commissioned to build it not to build any wall except on bedrock [lit., a mountain, jabal]. They obeyed, but they had difficulty finding bedrock for a wall in the direction of Jayrun, so they kept digging in compliance with [al-Walld's] orders until they found the top of a well-built wall, made of a lot of stones, that interfered with their work. They informed al-Walld about it, saying, "We'll use the top of it as the base." "Leave it," he replied, "and dig in front of it to see whether its base was built on bedrock or not." They did this, and they found in the wall a gateway (bab) over which was a rock inscribed in an unknown script. They washed the dirt from it and put dye on the inscription so that the letters became clear. Then they called for someone to read it, but they couldn't find anyone who could. So al-Walld sought translators from far and wide, until there came a man who knew the script of the first Greek, called Latin (litin), and read the writing on the stone, which read: "In the name of the First Creator I pray. When the world was created, in order for the characteristics of coming into being to attach to it, there had to be a creator who was not like those [created things]--as Dhu 1-Sunnayn and Dhu 1-Lihyayn and their followers said. So, it was necessary to worship the creator of all creatures. At that time, the Lover of Horses (khayl) (5) ordered the construction of this edifice, with his own money, in the year 3700 of ahl al-ustuwan [lit. the people of the columns]. (6) So, if he who enters it sees fit to make good mention of its builder to his creator, let him do so. Peace." When he heard this, Abu 1-Ala' bowed his head in silence, and the whole group began to express their amazement at the matter of this edifice and [the people of the] columns by which it was dated, and the time-period that it was from. And when they were done. Abu 1-Ala' raised his head and recited: [phrase omitted]

People will ask, What are the pilgrims? What is Mecca?

Just as they once asked, What is Jadis? What is Tasm?

He ordered that this account be written down, so it was written on the back of a part of [his book] Istaghfir wa-staghfiri, by the hand of Ibn Abi Hashim, his secretary, and most of those who copied the book have transcribed this account as it is found in the part where it was written down. (7)

This particular account of al-Walld's excavation, which in all cases is traced back solely to Ibn al-Qifti, occurs, with the exclusion of the Abu l-'Ala' elements, under the Dimashq (Damascus) entry of Yaqut's Mu'jam al-buldan, where it follows the more familiar and historically well-attested account of al-Walld's building the Umayyad Mosque on the site of the Church of John the Baptist. It is only in Yaqut's version that we find an identification of ahl al-ustuwan as "a nation of ancient sages (qawmun min al-hukama' al-uwali) who were in Ba'labakk." (8) An abbreviated and corrupted version of this account occurs in 'Abd al-Qadir al-Nu'aymI al-Dimashqi's (d. 927/1521) al-Daris fi tarikh al-maddris. It traces the source to a book composed by al-wazir al-akram (i.e., Ibn al-Qifti) and offers a charming variant: After the translation of the inscription is read to him,

Abu l-'Ala' is asked: "Who are ahl al-ustuwan?" I don't know," he replies and recites: A people will ask: What are the pilgrims and what is Mina? Just as a people have said, Who were Jadis and who were Tasm?" (9) Although Ibn al-Qifti's detailed account of excavations for the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus has no known provenance earlier than his seventh/thirteenth-century work, in its general outlines it is in fact not entirely incompatible with the Arab-Islamic sources or, broadly speaking, with current archeological-historical evidence, despite some apparent confusion with and corruption in related, derivative, accounts. (10) It is above all noteworthy that the fifth-century CE Byzantine cathedral of St. John the Baptist (Yahya ibn Zakariyya') itself was a rebuilding and transformation of the second- to third-century Roman-period Temple of Jupiter of the Damascenes, the successor to the Semitic storm-god, Hadad. Furthermore, the eastern propylaea (that is, monumental gateway--the bob of our text?) of the Roman temple are in Jayrun, east of the Great Mosque. Also...

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