The sixth-/twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he is known in Latin, cites the following early Islamic-era verse in his commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. In it, the poet describes having a conversation with his fellow caravan travelers (or beloved) on camelback on their way home after they have fulfilled their pilgrimage duties in Mecca:
أَخَذْنا بأطرافِ الأحاديث بيننا وسالتْ بأعناقِ المَطِيِّ الأباطحُ
We took to the choicest of speech between us
as the broad valleys flowed with the necks of camels
~ Kuthayyir ʿAzza (d. 105/723)
Ibn Rushd cites this verse as an example of rendering poetic the simple idea of “we spoke and we traveled.” While it might seem intuitively obvious in this case that one way of expressing the idea is more poetic than the other, this book seeks to explore the theoretical reasoning classical Arabic literary theory provided for poeticity. The question is not what defines poetry as verse, the answer to which entails a description of the formal structure of a poem, its rhyme and meter. Rather, the inquiry of this study is what defines language as poetic or eloquent, whether in the form of verse, prose, or the Quran. The answer to this question is an aesthetic one and requires an understanding of the criteria employed in classical Arabic theory when evaluating poetic speech.
This leads us to a less obvious question: On what basis did medieval Arabic critics evaluate the relative merit of two poetic statements? ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, the great fifth-/eleventh-century literary theorist, for example, compares the following two verses by two preeminent Abbasid poets. Both verses describe a similar battle scene, observing the shining flashes of metal in the dust of combat.
يزورُ الأعادي في سَماءِ عَجاجَةٍ أسِنَّتُهُ في جانِبَيها الكَواكِبُ
He visits the enemies in the dust-clouded sky
his spears stars in its midst
~ al-Mutanabbī (d. 354/965)
كأنَّ مُثارَ النَّقْعِ فوْق رُؤوسِنا وأسْيافَنا ليْلٌ تَهاوَى كَواكِبُهْ
The dust, stirred up over our heads,
and our swords [in its midst] were like a night with shooting stars
~ Bashshār ibn Burd (d. c. 167/784)
Al-Jurjānī found Bashshār ibn Burd’s verse superior to al-Mutanabbī’s. How and why does he come to this conclusion? To what does he attribute the aesthetic superiority of Bashshār’s rendering of the image? Is there a universal aesthetic sensibility that governed his and other critics’ judgments of poetic beauty at the time or is it simply a matter of personal taste? In sum, what criteria did medieval Arab thinkers consider when evaluating literary quality?
While Ibn Rushd, the philosopher, and al-Jurjānī, the literary theorist, wrote in different disciplines, in disparate corners of the Islamicate world, and lived a century apart, I believe they shared a common aesthetic outlook drawn from the same literary heritage that shaped their ideas about poetry. In this book, I argue that this aesthetic outlook is defined by a statement’s ability to evoke wonder in the listener. By analyzing the explanations they offer for the capacity of speech to arouse wonder, a sophisticated theory of aesthetic experience comes to light. This theory begins to be articulated at the turn of the fifth/eleventh century, marking a major paradigm shift from earlier Arabic criticism and representing an adaptation to the stylistics of muḥdath poetry, the “modern” style of the early Abbasid period (late second/eighth and third/ninth centuries).
The application of the concept of aesthetics to medieval Arabic thought is anachronistic. Aesthetics as a branch of philosophy that looks into the nature of art and beauty is a modern concept that developed in Europe in the eighteenth century. However, as José Miguel Puerta Vílchez has shown in his Aesthetics in Arabic Thought, there is no paucity of discussions of beauty in the medieval Arabic context. Nevertheless, the goal of this study is not merely to determine what they perceived as beautiful, but to investigate their justifications for this perception as well. As such, our inquiry touches on three central aspects of aesthetics as a philosophical inquiry: aesthetic judgment, aesthetic experience, and the aesthetic object. The three are intertwined in classical Arabic discussions of poetic excellence: The effect of poetic speech on the listener’s emotions (aesthetic experience) is regularly cited as the reason for their evaluation of something as beautiful (aesthetic judgment). The causes they cite for this emotional reaction, in turn, identify what aspects of poetic speech (the aesthetic object) render it beautiful (i.e., enable it to move the listener).
Arabic sources do not identify and classify these various aesthetic aspects as such. However, by gauging the kinds of characteristics they typically find commendable in poetry and the reasons they give for this, in addition to their general descriptions of poetic beauty and eloquence, the various pieces of the puzzle begin to expose a picture of classical Arabic literary aesthetics. I contend that this aesthetic is centered on an experience of wonder. In exposing the ways in which they explain the production of wonder through language, an aesthetic theory becomes visible, which identifies the principles that render the aesthetic object (which is poetic/eloquent speech in this case) worthy of being deemed beautiful.
Discussions of the aesthetic in the European context typically revolved around conceptions of the beautiful and the sublime. Before the eighteenth century, sublimity was assumed to be “either complementary to or identical with beauty.” In the eighteenth century, however, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant distinguished between the two aesthetic qualities, which Alan Singer and Allen Dunn describe as follows: “Beauty is the product of harmony, symmetry and wholeness, while sublimity is generated by the experience of power and magnitude. Beauty is usually credited with producing feelings of pleasure, well-being, and integration with nature and society, while sublimity is said to inspire feelings of empowerment, autonomy, and even isolation.” Some studies have identified classical Arabic conceptions of beauty in the sense of “harmony, symmetry, and wholeness.” While these characteristics may contribute to the pleasure of poetic speech, I argue that wonder was the aesthetic on which classical Arabic criticism was anchored, at least after the fourth/tenth century. Wonder does not depend on characteristics of harmony, symmetry, and wholeness; neither is it an experience generated by power and magnitude. It is an aesthetic that is altogether different from the European conceptions of beauty and the sublime.
Classical Arabic texts abound with statements that credit a verse or a phrase’s excellence to its ability to “move the soul.” Medieval authors use a wide range of terms to describe this “movement to the soul.” Among these, one finds explicit descriptions of the effect of poetic speech as one of wonder (taʿajjub), strangeness (istighrāb), and finding it novel (istiṭrāf). However, medieval authors also describe the poetic effect as one of splendor (rawnaq), pleasure (ladhdha/iltidhadh), ṭarab, which roughly translates as delight resulting particularly from music, or simply as the effect of being moved (hazza/ihtizāz), and cheerfulness/liveliness (aryaḥiyya), among many others. Despite the wide range of adjectives used to describe the effect of poetic speech, the explanations they give for the arousal of all these various kinds of pleasurable emotions are consistent with those that lead to an effect of wonder. (This is true at least in post-fourth-/tenth-century criticism.) The various descriptions of the effect of poetic and eloquent speech on the listener, therefore, can be collectively characterized by wonder. It is important to note that this inquiry does not simply look for moments where the term wonder (taʿajjub) is employed in medieval texts when describing poetry. Rather, it seeks to expose the presence of wonder as an aesthetic underlying Arabic criticism. This aesthetic is implicit in the logic of their explanations of poetic beauty and eloquence.
Wonder has a complex and variegated global history. One must be cautious in assuming that it is a universal singular human experience. Nevertheless, there seem to be certain basic ingredients that one consistently finds in relation to wonder in terms of its triggers and the ensuing consequences: (a) It is an experience evoked by matters that are judged to be novel, strange, out of the ordinary, and/or inexplicable, which (b) consequently provide the impetus to search for a clarification. Attitudes toward this two-layered experience of wonder have varied across time and place. While it is an emotional experience that can be delightful, it can also involve pain and fear. While it can be associated with knowledge, it can also be associated with ignorance. Wonder can be a positive incentive to contemplate and reflect and advance human knowledge. It could also play out negatively as a desire to control and dominate. In the Islamic Middle Ages, wonder was largely spoken of as a positive experience triggered by the strange and mysterious, which also drove one into an intellectual search to discover the meaning behind such matters. This meaning could be religious, involving the mysteries of God’s creations; or, it could be poetic.
Much modern scholarship on wonder has rightly highlighted the negative aspects of wonder, especially with respect to the age of exploration and discovery of the New World and the beginning of Enlightenment. As Caroline Bynum has delineated in her presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1997, modern scholarship has described wonder in three main ways: as the impulse to collect and control, serving as an agent for colonial appropriation; as associated with ignorance that can be eliminated through rational thought; or as a purely physiological Darwinian startle response to the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous. Bynum, however, calls for reclaiming a more positive view of wonder and reaches back to medieval European understandings of the concept for inspiration. She reminds us that the capacity to wonder at that which cannot be explained is a proof of our humanity and that, rather than being appropriative, wonder can also simply signal one’s amazement at the inimitable and the singular. Wonder, therefore, has the potential to be a magical, respectful, and humbling experience of matters that are beyond our grasp, rare, and unfamiliar.
In the medieval Islamic world, wonder also had positive connotations. In fact, marveling at God’s creations was a spiritual duty. Everything in the world, from the most despicable to the most marvelous, was considered a sign of God deserving our wonder. This was one of the factors motivating encyclopedic writing as early as al-Jāḥiẓ’s (d. 255/868–9) Kitāb al-ḥayawān (Book of the Living). Encyclopedic descriptions of the world and its creations were also the subject of a number of later works sometimes described collectively by modern scholars as a genre of ʿajāʾib (marvels). In one of the most prominent examples of this genre, ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾib al-mawjūdāt (The Wonders of Created [Things] and the Oddities of Existing [Things]), Zakariyyā al-Qazwīnī (d. 682/1283) exclaims that the world is filled with wonders. The only reason we are not constantly in awe is that “wonder fades […] as a result of familiarity and frequent observation.”
Wonder is therefore an emotional reaction that is triggered by unfamiliarity and infrequent observation, as we learn from al-Qazwīnī. A near contemporary of his, Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1311), the author of one of the most comprehensive medieval Arabic dictionaries, Lisān al-ʿArab (The Tongue of the Arabs), lists the factors that trigger wonder in his definition of the term as: (a) being in denial of an occurrence due to its infrequency (qillat iʿtiyadih); (b) seeing that which is rare (yaqill mithluh), unfamiliar (ghayr maʾlūf), or unusual (lā muʿtād); (c) being in awe of that whose cause is hidden (khafiya sababuhu) and unknown (lam yuʿlam); or (d) being in awe of something if its stature is great (ʿaẓuma mawqiʿuhu) and its cause hidden (khafiya sababuhu). Wonder is therefore defined as the reaction of awe and disbelief one experiences as a result of seeing something unexpected, rare, unfamiliar, unusual, mysterious, magnificent, or obscure whose cause is unknown. In short, wonder is an emotional reaction triggered by the strange and inexplicable.
Yet, wonder is also a cognitive experience. The endeavor to document the marvels of the world in the Arabic ʿajāʾib genre was not motivated by a desire to give the reader the thrill of witnessing the strange and the rare, but it was a call to contemplate God’s creations. Ultimately, the disparate features listed by Ibn Manẓūr as triggers of wonder represent only part of the story. Wonder is an intellectual search for an explanation of the extraordinary and for the hidden through what is visible, as Fāṭima Mubārak has argued. God’s creations are things medieval authors like Zakariyyā al-Qazwīnī and al-Jāḥiẓ believed we ought to wonder at in order to contemplate God and his munificence. Even those man-made marvels of past civilizations left behind in ruins were wonders to medieval Islamic geographers and travelers to be reflected upon and learned from.
“Wonder,” as John Llewelyn explains, “is one of those wonderful words that face in opposite directions at one and the same time.” While it results from a state of ignorance, it is “not any absence of knowledge, but an ignorance that challenges us to dispel it […].” It is due to wonder, after all, that Man began to philosophize, as Aristotle tells us. The elimination of this ignorance through discovery is also part of the experience of wonder. Linking wonder to learning, Fisher describes this moment of discovery as “the moment when the puzzling snaps into sharp focus and is grasped with pleasure.” The strange, unusual, and extraordinary, the unexpected, the inexplicable and puzzling, and the unfamiliar, and the rare all entail a kind of ignorance that leads us to pause, examine, and contemplate in order to grasp and bring to light the unusual or unclear meaning. While ignorance might be the impetus for wonder initially, it is the eventual discovery of the meaning and its clarification that also evokes wonder. As such, wonder is an emotional experience that is highly cognitive in nature.
The literary arts can also have the capacity to evoke wonder. In this case, the conditions that lead to wonder in nature are reproduced through language. Characteristics such as strangeness, unexpectedness, and obscurity in language can evoke wonder in the listener. Significantly, what renders it wonder in the full sense, however, (rather than mere surprise or shock and awe) is the consequent search for and discovery of the meaning hidden behind the strange, unexpected, and obscure. What these conditions look like in language, according to classical Arabic literary theory, and how they lead to an experience of discovery is the subject of this study.
The role of wonder and strangeness in classical Arabic literature has received some attention in modern scholarship as a narrative technique in the tales of the Thousand and One Nights and anecdotal literature. The place of wonder in classical Arabic literary theory, however, remains largely overlooked. While its significance in the philosophical understanding of the function of poetry is acknowledged, its role in nonphilosophical literary theory, instead, has been at best relegated to being of “an anecdotal nature,” describing the “reaction of the listener to a poem.” As I hope to show, the triggers of wonder coupled with the ensuing experience of discovery form the basis of a sophisticated aesthetic theory evident in medieval Arabic explanations of the reaction poetic speech produces in the listener.
It is important to note some caveats here. This study is not an inquiry into the artificial expression of wonder in poetry, which the Arabic critical tradition identified as a type of rhetorical figure known as taʿajjub (amazement). Rather, I focus on wonder as an effect of poetic speech on the listener, whether it happens by means of the literary figure of taʿajjub or otherwise. Furthermore, I would also like to emphasize that this study is not an inquiry into medieval discussions of the nature of wonder itself. Rather, it is an inquiry into the nature of the aesthetic experience resulting from poetic speech. This aesthetic experience, it is worth reiterating, is not described exclusively using the word for wonder (taʿajjub). Rather, I use wonder as an umbrella term to incorporate a variety of adjectives medieval literary theorists used to describe the listener’s experience of poetic speech. It is a notion implicit in their writings. This study brings it to light by showing that the aspects of poetic speech to which they attribute poetic excellence involve a process that can be described as an experience of wonder, as I have described it here. That is, poetic speech is described in classical Arabic texts as having the capacity to arouse intellectual curiosity through strangeness, unexpectedness, or obscuration, which leads the listener to reflect and search for the meaning, allowing him to go through an experience of discovery.
Furthermore, the focus of this study is not the expression of awe and admiration at a poet’s skill and ability. Rather, it is the production of an experience of wonder through language; that is, an experience of having one’s curiosity aroused because of some strangeness (or unexpectedness or unclarity) in the language that leads to one’s search for the meaning. While this leads to a value judgment of a work that calls for its admiration, the experience of wonder as an aesthetic experience results from the impetus to contemplate and the ensuing discovery that the poetic language accomplishes in the listener through its particular formulation. Wonder may also result from one’s admiration of the poet’s ability to produce such language. This wonder, however, is external to the poetic process itself and can be the result of nonpoetic factors, such as the poet’s status and one’s expectations in a particular context.
For example, one of the earliest elaborations on the emotional impact of speech on the listener is given by al-Jāḥiẓ in his work on eloquence entitled al-Bayān wa-l-tabyīn (Elucidation and Exposition). Al-Jāḥiẓ relates that Sahl ibn Hārūn (a literary personality often cited by him) said that if two people spoke equally as eloquently, but one donned elegant expensive clothing and the other was in rags, people would be much more in awe of the speech of the one in rags because it is unexpected:
the beauty of his speech would double in their hearts and increase in their eyes. This is because that which is outside of its element is stranger. The stranger something is, the further it is from one’s imagination. The further it is from the imagination, the more novel (aṭraf) it seems. The more novel something is, the more wonderful (aʿjab) it is. The more wonder-evoking, the more eloquent/innovative (abdaʿ) it is. […] People are inclined to exalt the strange and find novel the far-fetched […]
Although al-Jāḥiẓ identifies several elements that explain the arousal of wonder, namely, the unexpected, the strange, the novel, and the far-fetched, he places these factors outside the realm of speech itself. We will be looking at how these elements can be created within speech. Before we embark on this journey, let me first give a brief sketch of classical Arabic literary theory, its main strands and actors, the literary canon that was subject to their criticism, and the literary units that were subject to their analysis.
Classical Arabic Literary Theory
Wonder was not always a defining criterion of poetic beauty in classical Arabic literary theory. The first two centuries of criticism primarily evaluated poetry based on its truthfulness and naturalness. I describe this early approach as the “old school of criticism.” This framework began to be replaced with an aesthetic of wonder around the turn of the fifth/eleventh century. This “new school of criticism” was spearheaded by ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 471/1078 or 474/1081). His theories formed the basis of what al-Sakkākī (d. 626/1229) and al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī (d. 739/1338) standardized as a “science of eloquence” (ʿilm al-balāgha) in the seventh/thirteenth and eighth/fourteenth centuries. This new school of criticism was inspired by purely poetic concerns, but was also concerned with the discussions of eloquence more generally, the miraculousness of the Quran, and was influenced by Aristotelian Arabic poetics. The treatment of Aristotle’s Poetics in Arabic philosophy, in turn, also exhibited the same aesthetic of wonder.
One can identify four different clusters of critical texts that developed in the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries, each with its own foci and motivated by its own questions: (1) Poetic criticism was concerned with the debates about the new style of poetry that developed in the early Abbasid period and its use of rhetorical figures (badīʿ). (2) Discussions of Aristotle’s Poetics, which took place in philosophy, were concerned with making sense of poetry as part of logic. Their discussions focused primarily on simile and metaphor. (3) Works on eloquence more generally, driven by the question of bayān (elucidation) or how meaning is made manifest, incorporated discussions of figurative expressions and implicit meaning. Their approach to such rhetorical figures as simile, metaphor, and metonymy was distinct from that of poetic criticism. (4) Works concerned with showing the miraculousness of the Quran, in turn, added to the discussion the effect of sentence construction (naẓm) on eloquence.
In the fifth/eleventh century, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī took elements from each of these approaches in his two monumental works, Asrār al-balāgha (The Secrets of Eloquence) and Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz (The Signs of the Inimitability [of the Quran]). These two works went on to form the basis of what became a formal discipline known as the “science of eloquence” (ʿilm al-balāgha). Its three branches cover the following aspects of language: (i) The science of meanings (ʿilm al-maʿānī) focuses on sentence construction and the impact of syntactical choices on the meaning; (ii) the science of elucidation (ʿilm al-bayān) focuses on figures that signify their meaning indirectly, including metaphor and metonymy, as well as simile; (iii) the science of rhetorical figures (ʿilm al-badīʿ) focuses on rhetorical figures.
The philosophical engagement with Aristotle’s Poetics, which developed its own unique vocabulary to describe poeticity, also betrays an underlying aesthetic of wonder. Rather than representing unrelated disciplines, Aristotelian Arabic poetics and balāgha together reflect what we could describe as a “new school of criticism.” Despite their different approaches, they both develop theories of poeticity and eloquence based on an aesthetic of wonder.
Poetic Criticism and Badīʿ
The use of Arabic as a literary language dates back to pre-Islamic Arabia, when by the sixth century ce, a well-established poetic form was already in place. After the rise of Islam and the expansion of the Islamic Empire, pre-Islamic poetry became an important lexical and grammatical resource for the new empire that very quickly incorporated large areas of non-Arabic-speaking territories. This primarily oral pre-Islamic tradition began to be collected and recorded systematically in the second/eighth century, as a writerly culture began to develop. While these anthologies do not represent treatises on poetics per se, they do fashion a classical canon, which came to constitute the yardstick by which poetry was evaluated. Moreover, they represent some of the earliest recorded statements in Arabic about poetry.
As poetry connoisseurs were collecting old poetry, a new style of poetry started to develop. With the rise of the Abbasid Empire in Iraq in the mid-second/-eighth century, poets like Bashshār ibn Burd (d. c. 167/784) and Abū Nuwās (d. c. 198/813) began to innovate in their poetic style. This new style, known as muḥdath (modern) poetry, poked fun at and reinvented old Arabian poetic conventions, and used more ornate language, rhetorical figures, and imagery. It was not to the liking of everyone, however, and sparked a debate between those who preferred the classical style of the “ancients” and those who defended the new style of the “moderns.” The star poets of the third/ninth century, al-Buḥturī (d. 284/897) and Abū Tammām (d. c. 232/845), engendered further debate about the comparative merits of the old and new as the two poets exemplified a more classical style and a more modern one respectively. The controversy culminated with the rise of another star poet in the fourth/tenth century, al-Mutanabbī (d. 354/965), whose poetry provided fodder for much discussion.
This tension between the old and the new was a fruitful one in terms of the development of critical ideas, as medieval scholars began to articulate more elaborately their views on poetic ideals. Because one of the main features of the new style of poetry was a more deliberate use of rhetorical figures, one of the first major treatises written on poetics dealt precisely with these literary devices. Written in 274/887, this treatise by Ibn al-Muʿtazz, entitled Kitāb al-badīʿ (The Book of Rhetorical Figures), identified these rhetorical figures as “innovations” (badīʿ). This work provided for the first time a taxonomy of such figures and it established badīʿ figures as a unit of analysis. This initial attempt included seventeen figures, which in later works continued to increase in number. These include figures familiar to the Western context such as metaphor, paronomasia, antithesis, and simile, as well as less familiar ones, such as “affirming praise with what resembles rebuke” (taʾkīd al-madḥ bimā yushbih al-dhamm), “feigned ignorance” (tajāhul al-ʿārif), and having the end of a verse echo the beginning (radd al-ʿajuz ʿalā al-ṣadr).
The debate about the new style continued in the fourth/tenth century with a major treatise written by Abū al-Qāsim al-Āmidī (d. 370/980 or 371/981) dedicated to the comparison of the two star poets of the preceding century, entitled al-Muwāzana bayn shiʿr Abī Tammām wa-l-Buḥturī (The Weighing of the Poetry of Abū Tammām and al-Buḥturī). This was followed by another major treatise dedicated to al-Mutanabbī by al-Qāḍī al-Jurjānī (d. 392/1002), entitled al-Wasāṭa bayn al-Mutanabbī wa-khuṣūmih (The Mediation between al-Mutanabbī and his Opponents). Other noteworthy works on literary criticism from the fourth/tenth century include Ibn Ṭabāṭabā’s (d. 322/934) ʿIyār al-shiʿr (The Standard of Poetry) and Qudāma ibn Jaʿfar’s (d. 337/948; other earlier dates also reported) Naqd al-shiʿr (The Assaying of Poetry). Whether directly or not, the concern with the old and new styles is evident in many of the critical works of this period.
The main criteria on which this early criticism based its judgment of poetry were its truthfulness and naturalness. The degree of a poet’s employment of rhetorical figures was one of the main reasons critics deemed poetry “natural” or “artificial.” How far these rhetorical figures took the poetry away from literal accuracy, whether through hyperbole or fantastic imagery, determined the poetry’s “truthfulness” or “falsehood.” Caught up in the debate about muḥdath poetry, therefore, critics were either proponents of truthfulness and naturalness, characteristics exemplified by the pre-Islamic “ancient” poets (al-mutaqaddimūn), or proponents of falsehood and mannerism, typified in the badīʿ-filled style of the new poets (al-muḥdathūn). Despite difference in opinion, the underlying framework that both sides relied on was essentially a classical aesthetic of truthfulness and naturalness. The ideals of this classical aesthetic informed what came to be known as the “the fundaments of poetry” (ʿamūd al-shiʿr), which were most explicitly formulated by al-Marzūqī (d. 421/1030) in the introduction to his commentary on Abū Tammām’s well-known anthology of early Arabic poetry called al-Ḥamāsa (Bravery). No sooner did al-Marzūqī outline these fundaments than a new aesthetic framework began to take hold. As we will see in Chapter 1, “Wonder: A New Paradigm,” instead of truth and naturalness, this “new school of criticism” based its evaluation of poetic speech on the ability of badīʿ figures to evoke wonder in the listener.
Aristotelian Arabic Poetics
Another arena that witnessed discussions about the poetic presented itself in philosophy with the translation of Aristotle’s Poetics in the third/ninth century. Philosophers of the Islamicate world were interested in the work from the perspective of logic, however. This was because they understood Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric as belonging to the logical sciences, a classification they inherited from late antiquity. Like their predecessors writing commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus in Greek and Syriac, philosophers writing in Arabic tried to explain poetry and rhetoric as forms of syllogistic reasoning. As a result, they had their own unique concerns (and vocabulary) when it came to describing what renders speech poetic. Nevertheless, as we will see in Chapter 2, “Wonder in Aristotelian Arabic Poetics,” their solution to the problem of fitting poetic speech into the logical sciences echoes developments in Arabic literary criticism at the time. Early solutions to the philosophical problem distinguished poetic speech from other forms of syllogistic reasoning based on a truth scale in which the poetic was defined by its falsehood, paralleling debates in the old school of criticism that evaluated poetry based on its truthfulness or falsehood. However, like in the nonphilosophical critical tradition, this framework was soon replaced by another, which defined the poetic by its ability to evoke wonder.
The earliest commentaries on the Poetics dating from the third/ninth century have not survived. Some short commentaries by Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 339/950, known as Alfarabius or Avennasar in the medieval Latin West) give us a glimpse of early attempts to describe poetry from the point of view of logic. However, the discussion of the Poetics reached a new height with Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 428/1037) in the early fifth/eleventh century and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 595/1198), a century later. A strand of philosophical literary theory continued to develop in the centuries that followed in the West of the Islamicate world with the Andalusian Ḥāzim al-Qarṭājannī (d. 684/1285) and the Moroccan al-Sijilmāsī (d. after 704/1304) in the seventh/thirteenth and eighth/fourteenth centuries respectively.
The philosophical strand did have its own idiosyncratic way of describing poetic speech. Nevertheless, their take on Greek poetics was very much influenced by the conventions and concerns of Arabic poetry and poetics. While Aristotle primarily discusses the dramatic genres of tragedy and comedy, the Arab philosophers base their analysis on Arabic poetry. Instead of being concerned with the literary units that Aristotle discusses in his Poetics such as a plot and characters, Aristotelian Arabic poetics focused on simile and metaphor, even applying the fundamental Aristotelian concept of mimesis to these figures, as we will see in Chapter 2.
Eloquence and Bayān (Elucidation)
Alongside poetic criticism and philosophy, there was also a concern with eloquence more broadly: in poetry, but also in prose, oratory, and the Quran. One of the earliest works to take such a broad view of eloquence and communication was al-Jāḥiẓ’s al-Bayān wa-l-tabyīn (Elucidation and Exposition). His concern lay in the capacity of all sorts of matters to make something manifest. Bayān (lit. elucidation) thus came to refer to the various ways in which meaning is conveyed whether through speech, writing, gesturing, counting, or God’s creations. This line of thinking continued in the fourth/tenth century, in a slightly modified way, with Isḥāq ibn Wahb (d. after 335/946–7) in his Kitāb al-burhān fī wujūh al-bayān (The Book of the Demonstration of the Aspects of Bayān). Eventually, this bayān focus narrowed to language in works such as Kitāb al-ṣināʿatayn: al-kitāba wa-l-shiʿr (The Book of Two Arts: [Prose] Writing and Poetry) by Abū Hilāl al-ʿAskarī (d. after 395/1005), who also saw himself as building on al-Jāḥiẓ’s work on bayān.
What was significant about the bayān approach to language was that it highlighted the communicative aspects of certain rhetorical figures, which were otherwise treated as ornamental in poetic criticism. By addressing the difference between literal and figurative forms of expression, figures like metaphor were approached from the perspective of the semiotic processes they entail, as we will see in Chapter 4, “Metaphor and the Aesthetics of the Sign.” Simile also came to be treated from the angle of how it makes meaning manifest, as we will see in Chapter 3, “Discovery in Bayān.” This discussion is most elaborately forged by ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī and later developed in the science of eloquence by al-Sakkākī and al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī. Bayān works were also concerned with how sentence construction influences the communication of meaning. This became one of the focuses of works on the miraculousness of the Quran.
The Miracle of the Quran
The Quran was another major catalyst of critical discussions of eloquence. The Quran was the miracle that proved Muhammad’s prophethood. The proof of its miraculousness (iʿjāz) came to be understood as lying primarily in the inimitability of its eloquence. By the third/ninth century, arguments for its inimitability began to be articulated. The earliest treatises dedicated to the topic that have survived, however, date from the fourth/tenth century and were written by religious scholars, namely, al-Rummānī (d. 384/994), al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 386/996 or 388/998), and al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013). They nevertheless were also interested in discussing poetry seeing that it represented the highest degree of eloquence attainable by humans, in contrast with the eloquence of the Quran, which is humanly unattainable.
Unsurprisingly, early works on the inimitability of the Quran were influenced by the poetic criticism that was vibrant at the time. The literary units they analyzed included badīʿ figures. However, they were not concerned with the poetic debates of the period (e.g., about muḥdath poetry). Rather, their objective was to show the uniqueness of the Quranic text. This led to the incorporation of literary aspects that were largely ignored in the poetic context, namely, discussions of composition and sentence structure (naẓm). These were influenced more by the equally vibrant discussions of grammar that were taking place at the time as well. As we will see in Chapter 5, “Naẓm, Wonder, and the Inimitability of the Quran,” the way a sentence is constructed and the way it conveys a given idea or meaning became the central aspect in which they located the inimitability of the Quran.
Al-Jurjānī and the Science of Eloquence (Balāgha)
Influence from all the preceding approaches to eloquence and poeticity is evident in the works of ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī. His comprehensive theory addresses badīʿ and the question of truth and falsehood in poetry in his Asrār al-balāgha, which also contains an extensive analysis of simile, as well as metaphor and figurative speech. In Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz, he develops a theory of sentence construction (naẓm), as well as indirect signification in metaphor (istiʿāra) and metonymy (kināya). It took several attempts at reorganizing al-Jurjānī’s ideas before its different components became compartmentalized into the three branches of the science of eloquence (balāgha). The first notable attempt was by the renowned theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) in his Nihāyat al-ījāz fī dirāyat al-iʿjāz (The Utmost Brevity in Understanding Inimitability). Though the field was very much influenced by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, it was al-Sakkākī in his Miftāḥ al-ʿulūm (The Key to the Sciences) who laid the foundation of ʿilm al-balāgha. The part on the “science of eloquence” (ʿilm al-balāgha) in the Miftāḥ inspired many commentaries, most notably that of the preacher (khaṭīb) of Damascus, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Qazwīnī, in his Talkhīṣ al-Miftāḥ (A Resumé of the Miftāḥ) and its expanded version, al-Īḍāḥ fī ʿulūm al-balāgha (The Clarification of the Sciences of Eloquence).
Al-Sakkākī divides the “science of eloquence” into two subfields: (1) the science of meanings (ʿilm al-maʿānī), which focuses on the conveying of meaning through syntax and sentence construction, and (2) the science of bayān, which focuses on simile, figurative expressions (including metaphor), and metonymy. Al-Sakkākī also includes a relatively brief overview of literary figures (badīʿ), although he does not establish it as a “science.” Al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī more clearly defines the boundaries between the two sciences of bayān and maʿānī and establishes the study of rhetorical figures as the third subfield of the science of eloquence, greatly expanding the last. Al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī’s organization leaves us with what became the standard tripartite division of the science of balāgha as consisting of: ʿilm al-maʿānī (the science of meanings), ʿilm al-bayān (the science of elucidation), and ʿilm al-badīʿ (the science of rhetorical figures).
These works were not the only word on the topic and certainly not the last. Al-Jurjānī’s influence is visible in numerous other works starting from the sixth/twelfth century, including exegetical works such as al-Zamakhsharī’s al-Kashshāf and al-Muṭarrizī’s commentary on al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt. Moreover, while al-Sakkākī and al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī’s configuration of balāgha became popular, it was not adopted by all their successors. Different systems of organizing discussions on eloquence and poeticity and with different scopes were also forged. An important example includes Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn Ibn al-Athīr’s (d. 637/1239) al-Mathal al-sāʾir fī adab al-kātib wa-l-shāʿir (The Current Model on the Discipline of the Scribe and the Poet), which itself was influenced by a contemporary of al-Jurjānī’s, Ibn Sinān al-Khafājī (d. 466/1074) in his Sirr al-faṣāḥa (The Secret of Articulateness).
However, al-Sakkākī’s and al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī’s works had a major impact on creating a standardized version of the science in terms of its scholastic organization, which was adopted for centuries to follow. Their works were the subject of numerous commentaries up to the twentieth century. Some notable commentaries, which I consult throughout this book, include al-Taftāzānī’s (d. 793/1390) al-Muṭawwal fī sharḥ Talkhīṣ Miftāḥ al-ʿulūm (The Long Commentary on the Abridgement of the Key to the Sciences), which is a commentary on al-Khaṭīb al-Qazwīnī’s short commentary (Talkhīṣ) of the Miftāḥ, and al-Sayyid al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī’s (d. 816/1413) Ḥāshiya (Marginal Glosses) on al-Taftāzānī’s work, as well as his own direct commentary on the Miftāḥ entitled al-Miṣbāḥ (The Lamp).
The New Aesthetic
A comprehensive aesthetic theory, therefore, begins to emerge with the works of al-Jurjānī and the science of eloquence (balāgha). This theory centered around four linguistic units: (1) sentence construction; (2) simile; (3) metaphor and metonymy; (4) rhetorical figures. Eloquence and beauty in each of these units depend on their ability to move the soul. The explanations given for this movement to the soul are based on the capacity of these linguistic units to convey information in (summarily) an indirect way, requiring the listener to deduce the meaning. This allows the listener to go through an experience of discovery, which speech would otherwise not have the capacity to produce. This experience can be enhanced, as we will see, through characteristics such as farfetchedness, strangeness, rarity, and unexpectedness.
While the old school of criticism evaluated badīʿ, including metaphors and similes, based on their closeness to the truth and literal accuracy, the new school justified the beauty of badīʿ figures, as we will see in Chapter 1, through their inherent capacity to produce an unexpected discovery of meaning and hence an experience of wonder. This capacity to evoke wonder was also the distinguishing characteristic of poetic speech in Aristotelian Arabic poetics. As we will see in Chapter 2, the beauty of simile and metaphor was variously attributed in philosophical works to their rarity, capacity to defamiliarize language, and simulate an experience of discovery. Discovery is also elaborately theorized in bayān, especially with regard to simile. As we will see in Chapter 3, the beauty of simile is attributed to its ability to make something hidden manifest. Metaphor and metonymy are also ways of making meaning manifest (bayān). Their beauty and emotional impact go back to the fact that they signify their intended meaning indirectly, as we will see in Chapter 4. As a result, they require the listener to search for and deduce their meaning, allowing him to go through an experience of discovery. Finally, eloquent, moving sentences are ones that are constructed in a way that conveys further meaning about the context or addressee implicitly. As we will see in Chapter 5, here again, the emotional impact is due to discovering this added meaning after reflection.
The focus of medieval criticism on small linguistic units rather than the complex structures of a poem as a whole has led some modern scholars to describe classical Arabic literary theory as “molecular” or “atomistic” and deem this a “deficiency.” Far from being a deficiency, however, the discussions of literary figures and linguistic structures constitute a sophisticated theory of aesthetic experience. As I hope to show in this book, literary figures and phrasal constructions are the very elements through which speech evokes wonder. In addition, post-Jurjānian literary theory is often described as ossified and rigid, not producing any new ideas. As I hope to show, quite to the contrary, these later works provide sophisticated advancements to al-Jurjānī’s thinking and to classical Arabic literary theory. Finally, the Aristotelian Arabic tradition of philosophical poetics is often treated as an exceptional anomaly in the critical tradition. While it is idiosyncratic in its approach to poetics, it shares a common aesthetic of wonder with the balāgha tradition, as I hope to show.