The Assemblies of al-Hariri


This manuscript preserves what is arguably the most valuable copy in existence of al-Maqāmāt al-ḥarīriyah (The assemblies of al-Hariri). The author, Abu Muhammad al-Qasim ibn 'Ali al-Hariri (1054–1122), was an Arab philologist, poet, and man of letters who was born near Basra in present-day Iraq. He is best known for his maqamat (literally: settings, often translated as assemblies or séances), a collection of 50 short narratives that blend social and moral commentary with dazzling expressions of the Arabic language. The genre of maqamat was initiated by Badiʻal-Zaman al-Hamadhani (969–1008), but it was al-Hariri’s assemblies that came to define it best. Written in a style of rhymed prose called sajʻ, and interlaced with fine verse, the stories are meant both to entertain and to educate. Each of the anecdotes takes place in a different city around the Muslim world of al-Hariri’s day, and each is an encounter, typically at a gathering of urbanites, between two fictional characters: the narrator al-Harith ibn Hammam and the protagonist Abu Zayd al-Saruji. The work was copied and commented on numerous times throughout the centuries, but only 13 extant copies are known to have illuminations of scenes from the stories. The present manuscript, completed in 1237, is both copied and illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, often called the first Arab artist. It contains 99 miniatures of outstanding quality. No other known copy of the work has as many such illustrations. The miniatures are praised for their vivid depiction of 13th-century Muslim life and are considered the oldest Arabic paintings created by an artist whose identity is known. Al-Wasiti, the founder of the Baghdad school of illustration, was also an outstanding calligrapher, a fact evident in his beautiful naskh style. The almost-immediate popularity of the maqamat reached as far as Arab Spain, where Rabbi Judah al-Harizi (circa 1165–circa 1225) translated the assemblies into Hebrew under the title Mahberoth Itiel, and later composed his own Tahkemoni, the so-called Hebrew maqamat. The work was also translated into many modern languages.

Last updated: February 28, 2017