La Pensee d'Ibn al-Muqaffac': Un dans le monde persan et arabe. By ISTVAN T. Kristo-Nagy. Studia Arabica, vol. 19. Paris: Editions de Paris, 2013. Pp. 605. 34 [euro] (paper).
Kalila wa-Dimna is the first work of Arabic prose fiction. Containing entertaining stories of wise animals and foolish humans, the tales have delighted countless readers. Yet it was not simply a work of entertainment--its focus on the relationship between the ruler and courtiers made it a touchstone for Islamic political thought. The most remarkable feature of Kalila wa-Dimna, however, is that despite its cultural importance in Arabic, it is a translation of the Sanskrit Pancatantra composed in northern India in the fourth century C.E.
The Arabic translation appears to have been made from the Middle Persian version of the sixth century. In its Arabic clothes, Kalila wa-Dimna went from alien wisdom to a centerpiece of the learned canon. Some three centuries later, the maqama writer Ibn Naqiya (d. 485/1092) alluded to animal fables such as those found in Kalila wa-Dimna as precedent for writing his fictional stories of rogues in Baghdad.
The translator Ibn al-Muqaffa' (d. 137/755 or 139/756) was a figure who traversed cultural worlds. Born of a noble Iranian father who had served the Umayyad administration, Ibn Muqaffa' began his life in Basra. His prodigious Arabic skills appear to have been gained from study with variously named Bedouin teachers. He spent much of his adult life in Iran serving various governors in the administration as secretary, including, by the end of his life, the uncle of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 136-58/754-75), 'Isa b. 'All. For a man who lived only to the age of thirty-six, he witnessed a moment of great political and cultural change from within the circles of power.
Ibn al-Muqaffa' himself was a transformed figure who saw the new possibilities in the age in which he lived. His accomplishment was to adorn the wisdom literature of the past in the language of the current rulers. Later authors were suspicious of Ibn al-Muqaffa's religious beliefs, accusing him of being a zindiq; yet his works had a major impact upon his contemporaries. Ibn al-Muqaffa' is the translator, traditor of early Islam, a purveyor of borrowed wares of uncertain provenance.
Istvan Kristo-Nagy's volume under review explores how "the works of Ibn al-Muqaffa' reveal the reawakening of conscience (le reveil de la conscience) of Iranian intellectuals and their search to redefine...