The Epistle of Forgiveness or A Pardon to Enter the Garden, by Abu l-'Ala' al-Ma'arri, vol. 1 : A Vision of Heaven and Hell Preceded by Ibn al-Qarih's Epistle.

Author:Lange, Christian
Position:Book review

The Epistle of Forgiveness or A Pardon to Enter the Garden, by Abu l-'Ala' al-Ma'arri, vol. 1 : A Vision of Heaven and Hell Preceded by Ibn al-Qarih's Epistle. Edited and translated by GEERT JAN VAN GELDER and GREGOR SCHOELER. Library of Arabic Literature. New York: NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013. Pp. xxxviii + 423. $40.

This translation of the first of two parts of Abu l-'Ala' al-Ma'arri's (d. 449/1057) (henceforth M) celebrated Risalat al-ghufran (henceforth R) appears as a volume in the admirable, bilingual (Arabic-English) Library of Arabic Literature series (Philip L Kennedy, gen. ed.). It is the first complete translation of R in any language. It includes the lengthy discussions about lexicography and poetics in which the protagonist, a grammarian and hadith scholar from Aleppo named Ibn al-Qarih, engages in the course of his wanderings in paradise and hell. The translators' introduction (pp. xv-xxxviii) gives a succinct summary of M's life and oeuvre, and discusses some of the main themes of scholarship on M. This is followed by an edition and translation of the epistle written by Ibn al-Qarih to M (pp. 2-63). The inclusion of this letter is a particularly welcome feature, despite the fact that it is a rambling missive that makes for rather unpleasant reading. Ibn al-Qarih liberally incriminates and anathematizes others, including figures beloved to both M and scholars of Islam, such as al-Mutanabbi and al-Hallaj. Worse, he indulges in a heavy dose of self-pity, adding apologetic passages in which he belittles his own misdeeds, stereotypical phrases of contemptus mundi (dhamm al-dunya), and sycophantic praise of M. All this goes a long way in clarifying what propelled M to write his lengthy response (pp. 66-323). The text of R is followed by notes (pp. 325-69), a glossary of names and terms (pp. 370-91), as well as a thorough bibliography to which a useful list of "Eurther readings" is appended (pp. 392-403). Certain items appear in both the bibliography and the list of further readings, for example, Margoliouth's 1902 article on M's veganism. (The same author's The Letters of Abu l-'Ala' [Oxford 1898], on the other hand, finds no mention in either.) The book is rounded off by a comprehensive index of names and terms (pp. 404-23).

The translation reads exceptionally well. Saj' passages are rendered into exquisite English rhyme prose; a particularly lyrical example occurs toward the end of p. 143 (Ar., p. 142, henceforth only the translation is referenced), when a virtuoso heavenly songstress enraptures Ibn al-Qarih. On the last page of the introduction (p. xxviii), the translators note "how difficult it is to classify" R, a text that lacks "organic unity," seeing that it plugs into so many different discourses. On the one hand, R is a letter addressed to Ibn al-Qarih, whose hypocrisy and lack of sincere repentance M subtly and ironically criticizes. On the other hand, R is "not ... intended to be read only by the addressee," and contains entertaining anecdotes, philological and poetological discussions one would expect to find in the genre of philological "dictations" (amali), as well as witty references to Islamic eschatological teachings, of both the hadith and kalam kind. The latter, eschatological aspect may not be the most important feature of R--in fact, what makes R arguably so wonderful is that it uses an eschatological framework but is blatantly uninterested in religion, except in an accidental and playful way--nevertheless, here focus is paid to the ways in which R relates to Islamic eschatological doctrines. Many readers will likely come to this translation from the...

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