Patronage and Poetry in the Islamic World: Social Mobility and Status in the Medieval Middle East and Central Asia.

Author:Beelaert, Anna Livia
Position:Book review

Patronage and Poetry in the Islamic World: Social Mobility and Status in the Medieval Middle East and Central Asia. By JOCELYN SHARLET. Library of Middle East History, vol. 24. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011. Pp. x + 326. 62.50 [pounds sterling], $105.

The title of the book under review whets the appetite, as do the laudatory blurbs of Dick Davis and Margaret Larkin; yet the volume only discusses, however, a very limited aspect of the system of patronage. Its thesis is that poets used "refined rhetoric," or "elaborate rhetoric," "to get ahead" in patronage (e.g., p. 235) and "to work with a network of like-minded people" (p. 237), and that it is by the use of this "elaborate rhetoric" that "poetry about patronage articulates its uncertainty and flexibility" (p. 2). Thus, in the end the study unfortunately falls far short of expectations.

The book has nine chapters. After a general survey of attitudes, religious and otherwise, to panegyric and patronage (chap, one) and a presentation of various strategies adopted by poets in the course of their careers to gain and keep patrons (chap, two), the third chapter traces the biographies of the poets whose qasldas are discussed--two third/ninth-century Arab poets, Abu Tammam and al-Buhturi, both of Syrian origin and panegyrists in, primarily, 'Abbasid Baghdad, and two fifth/eleventh-century Persian ones, 'Unsuri and Farrukhi, both panegyrists at the Ghaznavid court in what is now Afghanistan. Chapters four and five examine the motifs, syntax, rhetorical devices, and figurative language that these poets use; chapters six and seven treat what the poems reflect of the poets' portrayal and evaluation of their patrons and the interaction between poets and patrons, respectively; and the final two chapters are devoted to the "cosmopolitan professional poet" and the "socially mobile professional poet."

Readers reaching the end of the book might well be numb from having the author's thesis about patronage hammered in: the phrase "refined rhetoric," for instance, is used on sixty-six pages of the book, sometimes up to six times on a single page, while its equivalent, "elaborate rhetoric," up to four times a page on thirty-three pages; sometimes both constructions are found on the same page. Despite the reiteration of these phrases, they are never precisely defined. Other distinctions, such as that between "cosmopolitan" and "socially mobile," are never set out, and the two final chapters cover much the same...

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