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Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, [1881], at


DURING most part of the first century after the rise of Islām, the successors of Muhammad were too much engrossed in extending their dominions to bestow any patronage on science and literature. The standard of pure Arabic had been early fixed by the grammarians of Bussora and Kūfa, who, for this purpose only, collected fragments of the pre-Islāmite poetry that still lived in the hearts of the people of Yaman and Hijāz; but under the dynasty of ’Umayya, Arabian literature was confined to commentaries on the Qur’ān and poetry in the native language. "But," says Abū-’l-Faraj, "when God called the family of

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[paragraph continues] Hāshim [i.e., the house of ‘Abbas] to the government, and surrendered to them the command, the hearts returned from their indolence, the minds awoke from their torpor." Under the patronage of El-Mansūr, the second Khalif of the house of ‘Abbas, the study of profane science was begun, and his zeal for the advancement of learning was imitated by his successors. Indeed it is usually said that Arabian literature arose, as well as flourished and decayed, with this dynasty, which continued from a.d. 749 till 1258. The literary treasures of Ancient Persia that had escaped destruction at the hands of the early Muslim conquerors were now even more esteemed than they were formerly despised. It was during the reign of El-Mansūr (a.d. 754-775) that the Pahlavi version of the celebrated Hindu Fables of Vishnūsarman was translated into Arabic, under the title of Kalīla wa Dimna—a work which has since been rendered into more languages than any book extant, with the sole exception of the Bible. In the same century, El-Asmā‘ī, the famous philologer and poet, wrote the great chivalric romance of ‘Antar. Early in the ninth century, El-Ma‘mūn, the seventh Khalif of the family of ‘Abbas, founded academies at Bagdad, Bussora, Kūfa, and Bukhārā, and caused the writings of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Theophrastus, Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy to be translated into Arabic. "He was not ignorant," remarks Abū-’l-Faraj, "that they are the elect of God—His best and most useful

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servants—whose lives are devoted to the improvement of their rational faculties. . . The teachers of wisdom are the true luminaries and legislators of a world which without their aid would again sink into ignorance and barbarism." About this period also were erected at Bagdad and Damascus observatories for the study of astronomy. And a generous vazīr built, at the cost of 200,000 pieces of gold, a magnificent college at Bagdad, and endowed it with a yearly income of 15,000 dinars. At this establishment, it is said, several thousands of students, from the sons of noblemen to the sons of mechanics, were at the same time instructed in all the learning of the age; the professors were in the receipt of adequate stipends, and ample provision was made for indigent students.

From Samarkand and Bukhārā to Fez and Cordova, the entire Muslim empire was full of song: intellectual life was healthy and vigorous. Poetry, although it had lost the freshness of the desert, now took a wider range, and, no longer dwelling solely in the present, became reflective, and ultimately philosophical. * The

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courts of the Khalifs at Bagdad were adorned with a brilliant constellation of men of learning and genius, drawn thither from all parts of the world. Nor were these princes merely the liberal and enlightened patrons of science and literature: many were themselves poets of very considerable genius, and proficients in the theory and practice of music. The descendants of the fanatics who ruthlessly destroyed the famous library at Alexandria, and all but annihilated the ancient literature of Persia, became, during the Dark Ages of European history, the zealous and intelligent conservators of the remains of the learning of antiquity. And at a period when a single copy of the Bible was valued at a sum equivalent to the cost of building an ordinary church, and when many of the Christian priests of Europe mumbled over masses which they could not understand, the library of the Muslim Kings of Spain contained 600,000 volumes, and there were 70 public libraries in the cities of Andalusia; while the library of the Egyptian Sultans comprised 100,000 manuscripts,

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beautifully transcribed and elegantly bound, which were freely lent to the scholars of Cairo. *

The false sciences of astrology and alchemy, to which the Arabians (and, in imitation of them, European dreamers) were so long ardently devoted—fondly hoping, by means of the first, to read the secrets of futurity in the movements of the planets, and, by the latter, to discover the arts of transmuting the baser metals into pure gold and of indefinitely prolonging life—these, it is well known, led to most important discoveries, and finally to the exact sciences of astronomy and chemistry.

To the descendants of the enlightened Muslims who settled in Spain early in the eighth century are Europeans indebted for not a few useful arts and appliances of daily life; among others, for the art of making paper from cotton, which rendered practicable the noble art of printing—the cheap multiplication of books. And the Arabic decimal system of numerical notation (for which the Arabians themselves were indebted to the Hindūs) was introduced into Europe by Gilbert of Aurillac, afterwards Pope

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[paragraph continues] Sylvester II., who studied at the Muslim university of Cordova in the tenth century. It was moreover through Arabic versions in Spain that the attention of the schoolmen was first drawn to the writings of Aristotle.

But especially in European literature is the influence of the Arabians to be clearly traced. The Trouvères of northern France and their tuneful brethren the gay Troubadours of sunny Provence, whose genius kindled the torch of Italian literature, were largely indebted to the wondrous fictions and the brilliant poetry of the East for the groundwork of their Fabliaux and the fanciful allusions in their Lays. In short, the fascinating fictions of the Arabians had permeated the literature of Europe from a very early period; and the worthy ecclesiastic, who read to his congregation the "moral tales" of the Gesta Romanorum, little dreamt that he was repeating the ingenious inventions of the hated Muslims and of the despised race of Abraham;—for many of the stories in that famous mediæval collection are derived from Arabian and Talmudic sources.


It is usual for a sketch of Arabian literature to conclude somewhat in this manner: "On the fall of the Khalifate, a.h. 656 (a.d. I258), literature rapidly declined in the East: it was still cultivated, however, under the rule of the Sultans of Egypt, but with indifferent success; and on the eruption of the Turks, the sun of Oriental learning was virtually

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extinguished." But it is utterly false to say that Arabian literature was extinguished (or "irrecoverably blighted," as Dr. Carlyle expresses it) by the Turks. "Tīmūr and his successors in the East," writes Mr. Redhouse, the greatest living authority on this vast subject, "as the Osmanlis in the West, were patriotic enough to love their own beautiful language and to use it for all daily and literary purposes; but they patronised crowds of Persian poets and of Arabian grammarians, legists, &c. Arabic, being no longer dominant, had now only a share of attention, but this was a very large share—the scientific; as Persian had the ornamental, and Turkish the useful. Colleges innumerable were founded, for Arabic, in Turkey, in India, in Persia, in Russia—all by Turks. The Softas of Constantinople are all collegians, studying Arabic alone."

A popular English history of Arabian literature is a great desideratum. Germans have long had the rich stores of Arabic Poetry laid before them by the zeal and industry of Von Hammer-Purgstall and later scholars, among whom Ahlwardt, Von Kremer, and Rükert are pre-eminent. Yet England can at the present day boast of a trio not less distinguished for ripe scholarship, in Chenery, Palmer, and Wright: may we hope that these great Arabists will, at no distant date, open up for their unlearned countrymen the treasures of Arabian literature?


lxviii:* The sentiments expressed in the Arabian didactic poetry are always just; being based on an intimate acquaintance with human nature, and an accurate observation of the course of life. The subjects are necessarily those which have formed the chief themes of moralists from Solomon downwards: they "lament the deceitfulness of hope, the fugacity of pleasure, and the frequency of calamity; and for palliatives of these incurable miseries, they recommend kindness, temperance, and p. lxix fortitude." But these familiar lessons of life have an additional force when they are accompanied, as in many of the Arabian poems, by illustrations which attract by their novelty, and interest and impress the heart by their beauty and appositeness.—Not less striking are the similitudes employed in the lighter effusions; as, for example, the comparison of the blue eyes of a beautiful woman weeping to violets dropping dew; or of wine, before it is mixed, to the cheek of a mistress, and, after the water is added, to the paleness of a lover.

lxx:* Yet such was the extreme scarcity of books in England at a later period, that a manuscript, dated 1250, which is still preserved, containing the Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, and Wisdom (one of the books of the Apocrypha), bears the following inscription: "This book belongs to the monastery of Rochester; given by the prior John. If any remove it, or conceal it when taken away, or fraudulently efface this inscription, let him be anathema, Amen."

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