November 8, 2011

The Diwan

Al-Waleed ibn Ubaidillah Al-Buhturi (821–97 AD; 206–48 AH) was a leading Arab poet who was born in Manbij, in present-day Syria, and lived in the early Abbasid dynasty. He was a companion of the Abbasid caliph, Al-Mutawakil, whom Al-Buhturi saw murdered before his eyes in 861. The violent incident weighed heavily on the poet’s psyche, sending him into self-exile and a period of seclusion. Often mentioned in connection with two other preeminent poets of the Abbasid era, Abu Tamman who preceded him and Al-Mutanabbi who succeeded him, Al-Buhturi is considered the most poetic of the three. While the poetry of the other two was more philosophical, Al-Buhturi’s was decidedly lyrical and emotional, prompting the literary critics of his time to dub his work “the necklaces of gold.” In addition to typical poems full of praise for the caliphs and emirs, Al-Buhturi’s work includes some of the most tender poetry on the theme of love ever written in Arabic. The title of the work refers to the term “diwan,” from the Persian word for writer or scribe, which has come to mean a collection of poems, usually by a single author.

The Book of Misers

Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani (776–869 AD; 163–255 AH), nicknamed Al-Jahiz for his bulging eyes, was a leading literary figure who lived during the early Abbasid era. He was born and died in Basra, Iraq. It was said that his grandfather was a slave from East Africa. Al-Jahiz was a prolific writer on subjects ranging from theology, to politics, to manners, who left many highly significant works. He is credited with having profoundly shaped the rules of Arabic prose. Al-bukhalaa (The book of misers) is considered a scientific, literary, social, historical, and geographic encyclopedia, in which al-Jahiz told stories about tightfisted people, whom he encountered, although some of his characters are thought to be imaginary as well. In vigorous comic prose, he ridiculed the greed of schoolmasters, singers, scribes, and beggars. Taking a nonjudgmental attitude, he described his characters in a realistic, astute, and humorous way, portraying them as good-natured but naive.

Smoothing the Basis for the Investigation of the Meaning of Transits

Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni (also known by the Latinized version of his name, Alberonius, 973–1048 AD; 362–440 AH) was an 11th-century Muslim polymath whose works and scholarly interests spanned the physical and natural sciences, mathematics, astronomy, geography, history, chronology, and linguistics. Al-Biruni was born in Kath, Khuwarazm, in present-day Uzbekistan, and died in Ghazni, in what is today east-central Afghanistan. He wrote more than 120 works and is considered the founder of Indology for his detailed description of 11th-century India. The crater Al-Biruni on the moon is named after him. Tamhīd al-mustaqarr li-taḥqīq maʻná al-mamarr (Smoothing the basis for the investigation of the meaning of transits) is a treatise dealing with the subject of light rays and shadow lengths. It was al-Biruni who discovered that light traveled more quickly than sound.

The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems

Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas'udi (circa 896–956 AD, 283–345 AH) was an Arab historian and geographer, known as the "Herodotus of the Arabs." He was one of the first scholars to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work. Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawhar (The meadows of gold and mines of gems) is a book of world history that combines rewritten versions of two of al-Masudi’s earlier works. The first half of the book is of enormous value, although somewhat sprawling and confused in its design. It starts with the creation of the world and Jewish history. Next follow chapters describing the history, geography, social life, and religious customs of non-Islamic lands, such as India, Greece, and Rome. The work continues with accounts of the oceans, the calendars of various nations, climate, the solar system, and great temples. Unusual and interesting sections are devoted to pearl diving in the Persian Gulf, amber found in East Africa, Hindu burial customs, the land route to China, and navigation, with its various hazards, such as storms and waterspouts. The relative positions and characteristics of the seas are also explained.

The Book of Songs

Abu Al-Faraj Al-Isbahani (or Al-Isfahani, 897–967 AD) was a literary scholar, poet, and genealogist who was born in Isfahan, in present-day Iran, but lived much of his life in Baghdad and Aleppo. Kitab al-Aghani (The book of songs) is often considered his masterpiece. A dozen or more other works by him are known. Most of them describe the indulgent social life of his times, a topical choice that prompted considerable criticism especially from clerics, some of whom went as far as to question his scholarly rigor and authenticity. Al-Isbahani named his work The Book of Songs because he based it primarily on 100 songs, originally selected by renowned musician and singer Ibrahim Al-Mosili, to be sung for his patrons, the Abbasid caliphs Harun Al-Rashid and Al-Wathiq. It was said that it took Al-Isbahani 50 years to complete the book, before he dedicated it to Seif ud-Dawla, the emir of Aleppo. The book consists of three parts: a selection of songs that Al-Mosili performed for his caliph patrons, stories of caliphs and their relatives who composed song melodies, and other songs of Al-Isbahani’s own selection.

The Philosophy of ibn Tufail and His Treatise the Self-Taught Philosopher

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufail (also known by a Latinized version of his name, Abubacer Aben Tofail, 1105–85 AD) was an Andalusian Muslim polymath who was born near Granada, Spain, and died in Morocco. Apart from fragments of poetry, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive, son of awake), also called Philosophus Autodidactus (The self-taught philosopher), is his only surviving work. Considered the first philosophical novel, it is often seen as an earlier Arabic version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The book had much influence in the West. It takes place on an isolated and uninhabited island, where the orphaned Hayy is suckled by a deer and comes to manhood, reason, and an understanding of science and religious truth.