Al-Ma`arri's Menagerie in the Maghreb

By Kevin Blankinship
Submitted to Session P4775 (Literary Genealogy in Medieval and Modern Iberia and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Up to now, studies on the legacy of Syrian poet Abu al-`Ala' al-Ma`arri (d. AD 1058) have understandably fixated on Luzum ma la yalzam (Self-Imposed Necessity), a collection of difficult, gloomy, and skeptical poetry whose impression on readers through time can hardly be overstated. But the Luzum is only one episode in the tale of al-Ma`arri’s literary afterlife. Another is his Risalat al-sahil wa l-shahij (The Epistle of the Horse and the Mule), a winding prosaic meditation on contemporary Aleppo told by animals. The Risalah has historically been one of al-Ma`arri’s more popular texts in the Maghreb. Indeed, the work itself was brought back to modern scholarship from two manuscripts at the Royal Hasaniyyah Archives at Rabat, Morocco, and in pre-modern times it inspired creative responses by at least two authors with an impact in the Islamic West: Iraqi poet Ibn al-Habbariyah (d. AD 1116) and Andalusian vizier Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Ghafur al-Kala`i (d. AD 1237). My paper addresses the former, since his relationship to both al-Ma`arri and the Maghreb is not entirely clear and, therefore, all the more interesting.

Although Ibn al-Habbariyah does not say so directly, his rajaz-verse collection of animal fables, Kitab al-sadih wa l-baghim (The Epistle of the Cock and the Gazelle), is in my opinion a response to al-Ma`arri’s Risalah, given a shared title structure and a direct reference to al-Ma`arri in Ibn al-Habbariyah’s Fulk al-ma`ani (The Firmament of Meaning) on a second animal-related topic — al-Ma`arri’s veganism. Regarding the Maghreb, manuscript copies of the Sadih wa l-baghim are held in most major Moroccan archives, which in addition to textual data indicates widespread transmission within the Islamic West itself. This makes sense given a general appetite in the Maghreb for literary animalia, like Ibn Zafar al-Qastilli’s Sulwan al-muta` fi `udwan al-atba` (Consolation for the Ruler During the Hostility of Subjects) or `Izz al-Din al-Muqaddisi’s Kashf al-asrar fi hukm al-tuyur wa l-azhar (Revealing Secrets of Rule From the Birds and Flowers), not to mention the dissemination of Kalilah wa-Dimnah throughout Iberia. While details are still emerging about why an obscure Iraqi figure like Ibn al-Habbariyah became so popular far to the west, they do add to our knowledge of textual movement from Mashreq to Maghreb. They also highlight a crucial yet overlooked element of al-Ma`arri’s oeuvre, namely animals, assuming that Ibn al-Habbariyah’s Kitab al-sadih wa l-baghim was indeed a response to al-Ma`arri’s Risalat al-sahil wa l-shahij.