how to earn a living writing poetry

A man finds himself in Hell.  “Who are you?” asks the devil.  The man responds:

I am ʻAlī ibn Manṣūr ibn al-Qāriḥ, from Aleppo.  I was a man of letters by profession, by which I tried to win the favor of rulers. [1]

Writing to please the ruler is a difficult business plan.  Ibn al-Qāriḥ declared:

I was always wretched when I pursued a literary career.  I never profited from it.  I tried to curry the favor of leading persons but I was milking the udder of a bad milch-camel and was exerting myself with the teats of a slow cow.

Judging by the way ibn al-Qāriḥ fertilized his statement with agricultural metaphors, he probably would have been better off being a farmer.  But family farms, like small telephone companies, have always struggled.

French bull

Poets and other literary writers need a broad market of persons willing to pay a high price for poetry.  Wine poems (khamriyyāt) were a saturated market in the early Islamic world for centuries.[2]  But what about poems for drunk husbands trying to appease their angry wives?  A small fee for a poem surely beats getting beaten by one’s wife.  Consider this poem:

If you, fault-finding woman, would drink wine
till all your fingers tingled,
You would forgive me, knowing I was right
to squander all my money. [3]

That might just bring a smile to an angry wife’s face, especially if the meter was playful.  It could be worth big money, if the drunk husband had any.

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[1] Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 273.  The subsequent quote is from id. p. 272.  Al-Maʿarrī was a Syrian who died in 1057.  His Risālat al-ghufrān, which imagines a journey to Heaven and Hell populated with historical persons, may have contributed to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Poetry played an important role in the pre-modern status economy of the Islamic world.  Arabic poetry was functional:

Much of Arabic poetry — most, in fact — was produced for a special occasion, when the poet responded to a specific event or to the needs of a particular person.

Id., introduction, p. xiv.

[2] van Gelder (2013) pp. 40-2 provides two of Abū Nuwās’s wine poems in English translation.  Abū Nuwās is widely regarded as the greatest wine poet in Arabic.  He wrote more than four hundred wine poems.  Id. p. 40.

[3] Poem attributed to Iyās ibn al-Aratt, quoted in Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 276.


Gelder, Geert Jan van. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Le vilain mire parodied Saint Blaise’s fishbone cure

Blaise, a Christian bishop in central Anatolia probably during the fourth century, reportedly cured a boy who had a fishbone stuck in his throat.  The cure occurred while Blaise was being led to prison and subsequent martyrdom.  Blaise became a highly popular saint widely celebrated for curing illnesses of the throat.[1]

Saint Blaise, who cured boy with fishbone stuck in throat

Contrasting vibrantly with the story of Saint Blaise is a thirteenth-century Old French fabliau, Le vilain mire.  In this fabliau, a king’s daughter was gravely ill from a fishbone stuck in her throat.  A peasant, mistakenly regarded as a better doctor than Hippocrates, promised to cure the girl in order to get royal officials to stop beating him.[2]

The peasant treated the king’s daughter with his laughable beastliness.  The peasant shrewdly reasoned:

If she’d just laugh — I know I’m right –
with all her force and all her might,
it would be coughed up and discharged,
because the bone’s not deeply lodged. [3]

The peasant arranged for an erotic setting: he was secluded with the girl in a room with a blazing fire.  Erotic cures feature in medieval poetry and ancient novels.  Here the peasant made a spectacle of his body:

The peasant takes off all his clothes –
even his britches — then he goes
and sits beside the fire and scratches
and roasts himself while the girl watches.
He’d long nails and thick hide; I’m sure
any man twixt here and Saumur
who scratching of that sort received
would find his itching well relieved. [4]

The king’s daughter burst out laughing at the naked peasant’s itching.  Her laughter expelled the fishbone stuck in her throat and cured her grave illness.   This un-erotic erotic cure turns on bringing together the laughably incongruous.

The peasant doctor did not become a celebrated saint.  But he did receive a large income from the king, never needed to farm again, and went on to live happily with his wife.[5]

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[1] Aetius of Amida, a Christian physician active in Anatolia about 530, mentioned Saint Blaise’s cure. See Aetius of Amida, Sixteen Books on Medicine, 2.4.50, in Corpus Medicorum Graecorum VIII 1.  The means of Saint Blaise’s cure was his holiness and his holy prayer to God.

[2] In Le vilain mire, the royal officials had been searching for a doctor to treat the king’s daughter.  The peasant’s wife, seeking to get him beaten, told the officials that the peasant is a better doctor than Hippocrates, but only acts as a physician after being beaten.  The officials carried off the peasant against his will to the king.  There the peasant protested that he knows no medicine.  The royal officials then beat him.  The peasant stopped the beating by promising to cure the girl.

[3] Le vilain mire (The Peasant Doctor), trans. Dubin (2013) p. 205.

[4] Id.

[5] The peasant later cured a crowd of sick persons who had gathered at the royal court.  The peasant stated that he would first sacrifice one sick person in a fire, then use the immolated person’s ashes to cure the rest.  Seeking a sick person to immolate, the peasant found no one willing to admit to being sick.  All left claiming that they felt well.  The Sermons of Jacques de Vitry (c. 1200) includes a similar account of a priest’s cure of a crowd of sick persons.  Clark (1990) no. 254, summarized pp.  241-2.  The Sermons of Jacques de Vitry also includes an account of wife who falsely described her husband as a great physician in order to get royal officials to beat him.  Id. no. 237, summarized pp.  231-2.  The sermons don’t include the unerotic-erotic cure of a girl with a fishbone stuck in her throat.

[image] Saint Blaise. In Book of Hours, Use of Sarum; Netherlands, S. (Bruges); c. 1500. British Library, King’s 9, ff. 2v-255v.


Crane, Thomas Frederick Crane, ed.. 1890. The exempla or illustrative stories from the Sermones vulgares of Jacques de Vitry. London: Pub. for the Folk-lore Society, by D. Nutt.

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.


Jesus the good physician amid bad ancient medicine

medieval physician performing blood-letting

According to Christian scripture, Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were popularly acclaimed healers within a highly competitive medical services market.  A Syriac Christian text, probably from no later than the early fifth century, addressed Jesus as “Jesus, the Good Physician.”  The epithet “the Good Physician” was not just abstract spiritual praise.  In the Roman Empire, bad physicians traded on complex, intellectually prestigious, costly, and dangerous treatments to amass great wealth for themselves.  Jesus the Good Physician healed without cost through a word or a touch.

Bad physicians converted medical knowledge into prestigious professional secrets.  Once upon a time, persons grateful for cures inscribed those cures on the walls of the temple of Asclepius (Asculapius), the god of medicine.  Hippocrates copied the inscribed cures into books.  After the temple of Asclepius burned down, these once-public inscriptions became the Hippocratic school’s professional trade secrets.  The public came to attach great intellectual prestige to Greek learning.  Greek medical treatises and Greek doctors then dominated the Roman medical business.  That is the professional history of medicine according to the Roman statesman and encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, writing about the time of Jesus.[1]

Bad physicians were avaricious.  Pliny explained:

there was no limit to the profit from medical practice, for one of the pupils of Hippocrates, Prodicus, born in Selymbria, founded iatraliptice (“ointment cure”), and so discovered revenue even for the anointers and drudges of the doctors.

According to Pliny, no art brings greater monetary profits to practitioners than does medicine.  Pliny explained that some believe nothing is beneficial unless it is costly.  Pliny described physicians receiving huge incomes and amassing enormous wealth from serving emperors.

Bad physicians favored false knowledge.  Pliny deplored bad physicians’ irresponsibility:

their out-of-the-way use of hot water in sickness, their strict fasts for patients, who when in a fainting condition are stuffed with food several times a day, their thousand ways of changing their minds, their orders to the kitchen, and their compound ointments, for none of life’s seductive attractions have they refrained from incorporating. … There is an elaborate mixture called theriac, which is compounded of countless ingredients, although Nature has given as many remedies, anyone of which would be enough by itself.  The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, and some are prescribed at one sixtieth part of one denarius.  Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions?  No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science. And not even the physicians know their facts.  I have discovered that instead of Indian cinnabar there is commonly added to medicines, through a confusion of names, red lead, which, as I shall point out when I discuss pigments, is a poison.

Pliny described one physician as successfully gaining a large following by combining medicine with astrology.  A competing physician responded by substituting cold baths for hot baths “even during the winter frosts.”  Such innovations did not serve sick patients:

There is no doubt that all these, in their hunt for popularity by means of some novelty, did not hesitate to buy it with our lives.  Hence those wretched, quarrelsome consultations at the bedside of the patient, no consultant agreeing with another lest he should appear to acknowledge a superior.  Hence too that gloomy inscription on monuments: “It was the crowd of physicians that killed me.” Medicine changes every day, being refurbished again and again, and we are swept along on the puffs of the clever brains of Greece.

Physicians came not just for the sick, but also for the healthy.  Physicians determined:

the practices to which we submit when in health — wrestlers’ ointments, as though they were intended to treat ill health; broiling baths, by which they have persuaded us that food is cooked in our bodies, so that everybody leaves them the weaker for the treatment, and the most submissive are carried out to be buried; the sips taken fasting; vomitings followed by further heavy drinks; effeminate depilations produced by their resins, and even the vaginas of women exposed to public view.

The problem is not just bad physicians, but also human nature:

the medical profession is the only one in which anybody professing to be a physician is at once trusted, although nowhere else is an untruth more dangerous. We pay however no attention to the danger, so great for each of us is the seductive sweetness of wishful thinking.

Within common understanding of the physician’s heart is personal care.  The sick and the well yearn for a good physician.

Ancient followers of Jesus understood Jesus to be a good physician in ways that contrast specifically with Pliny’s description of bad physicians.  In the Gospel of Mark, a woman suffering from an issue of blood for twelve years received no benefit from the services of other physicians:

She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was not better, but rather grew worse. [2]

She was healed just by touching Jesus’ clothes.

Jesus and other outstanding physicians were believed to be capable of raising the dead.  In the ancient medical business, what made Jesus distinctive as a good physician was more than a reputation for raising the dead.  In a Syriac text probably from no later than the early fifth century, Abgar, the King of Edessa, wrote to Jesus:

Abgar Ukkama, to Jesus, the Good Physician, who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem. My Lord: Peace. I have heard of you and of your healing, that it is not by medicines and roots that you heal, but by your word you open the eyes of the blind, you make the lame to walk, you clean the lepers, and you make the deaf hear.  And unclean spirits and lunatics, and those tormented, them you heal by your word.  You also raise the dead. [3]

In this text, raising the dead is a supplementary medical capability.  King Abgar had a physical illness.  His first interest was in the sort of healing usually done with medicines and roots.  Jesus could heal with just words: “only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”[4]  Abgar requested Jesus to come and heal him.  Jesus, focused on his primary mission in Jerusalem, promised to send one of his disciples to Edessa to heal Abgar.  The disciple who went to Abgar was Addai the Apostle.  Addai was one of the seventy-two first apostles of Jesus.  Addai, with a touch of his hand, healed Abgar instantly.  Addai then refused to take any gold and silver for his healing service.  Instead, he proclaimed publicly the new knowledge of Jesus.  Simple, costless healing, without effort to conceal professional knowledge, characterized Jesus and his apostle Addai as good physicians.[5]

Many good physicians today draw upon deep medical knowledge and complex medical procedures.  Nonetheless, what makes a good physician today has important commonalities with what made a good physician in Jesus’ day. The good physician does only what is truly necessary to make the patient well and shares with others knowledge to heal.

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[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. from Latin in Rackham, Jones & Eichholz (1949), Bk. 29, sec. 2.  Pliny’s history appears to be similar in form to recent scholarly work on discrimination against men on sinking ships.  Nutton (2013), p. 168, describes Pliny as having provided a “magnificently malicious account of the crimes and follies of the medical profession.”  The dominance of Greek medicine was real.  More than 95% of doctors known to have worked in Italy or the western Latin provinces of the Roman Empire before 100 GC had Greek names.  Id.  All the subsequent references and quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Pliny, Natural History, Bk. 29, secs. 1-9.  I’ve made minor stylistic changes to some of the quoted translations for ease of reading.

[2] Mark 5:25-29.  Luke, a physician according to Christian tradition, omits that the woman had endured much {suffering} under physicians’ treatments and had only gotten worse.  Luke 8:43.  Matthew omits all reference to physicians in this story.  Matthew 9:20.

[3] The Doctrine of Addai, trans. from Syriac in Phillips (1876).  I’ve modernized the English of the translation.  The subsequent account above is from the Doctrine of Addai.  Abgar’s letter to Jesus probably isn’t historical.  In any case, it contains an early Christian understanding of Jesus.  Subsequently Addai refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ, the Physician of troubled souls, and the Saviour of future life, the Son of God.”  The context backgrounds mundane healing practice and highlights Christian doctrine.  For a general review and analysis of the Doctrine of Addai, see Griffith (2003).  On the rise of Christianity in Edessa and Syria, El-Badami (2006).

[4] Matthew 8:8.

[5] In a medieval Jewish story, a demon at a heathen (Christian) medical shrine says to a Jew who came there for healing:

If you are Jewish, why have you come here?  Can a Jew traffic in idolatry?  Don’t you know that heathen rites have nothing real in them?  It is for this reason that I am misleading them, so they will cling to error, and they’ll have no portion in the world to come.  But you, why have you run to alien worship instead of standing up to pray before the Holy One, blessed be He, who is the one to cure you?  You should know that by tomorrow your time had come to be healed, but because you have done this, you will never find a cure.  Therefore, do not trust in any mortal being, but rather in the Holy One, blessed be He — for He, this kingly God, is a physician who heals for free!

Trans. Rosenberg (1998) p. 97 (on 2nd commandment).  Despite Jesus healing for free, the sale of blessings and unctions for the sick became deplorably prevalent in the medieval Christian church.


El-Badami, Emran.  2006. “Tales of King Abgar: A Basis to Investigate Earliest Syrian Christian Syncretism.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies v. 20, n. 2.

Griffith, Sidney H. 2003. “The Doctrina Addai as a Paradigm of Christian Thought in Edessa in the Fifth Century.” Hogoye Journal of Syriac Studies 6.2: 269-292.

Nutton, Vivian. 2013. Ancient medicine. 2′nd ed. London: Routledge.

Phillips, George, ed. and trans. 1876. The doctrine of Addai, the Apostle: now first edited in a complete form in the original Syriac, with an English translation and notes. London: Trübner.

Rackham, H., W.H.S. Jones and D.E. Eichholz. 1949-54. Pliny the Elder. Natural history. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Rosenberg, Joel.  1998.  “Midrash on the Ten Commandments.”  Ch. 5 (pp. 91-120) in Stern, David, and Mark Mirsky. 1998. Rabbinic fantasies: imaginative narratives from classical Hebrew literature. New Haven: Yale University Press.

sea of ink: writing across Eurasia for millennia

While humans are thought to have invented writing only about 5000 years ago, human oral verbal communication is surely much older.  Important recent research indicates that humans across a wide expansion of Eurasia shared present-day sound-meaning verbal forms about 15000 years ago.[1]  Writing was not necessary historically to support widely dispersed, specific verbal forms that have endured for 15000 years.

Linguistic units evolve less rapidly the more frequently that they are used.  While particular frequently used words have less than a 50% likelihood of being replaced in 10000 years, most words, including important words like mother and man, have a half-life of 2000 to 4000 years.[2]  Large-scale word replacement has occurred within historical language families within the time horizon of the invention of writing.

A rhetorically complex “sea of ink” writing figure has nonetheless been conserved in specificity across a wide expanse of Eurasia for at least 2000 years.  A classical Sanskrit text records the rhetorical figure.  In English translation it is:

if the whole sea were filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only employed in writing, that would not suffice to give an exact account of all the miracles Krishha has performed [3]

That “sea of ink” figure probably occurred in Sanskrit more than 2000 years ago.  It also occurred in Hebrew in the middle of Israel about 2000 years ago.  A rabbi then declared:

If all the skies were parchment, and if all the oceans ink, and the wood of all the trees were filed down to pens, it would hardly suffice to imprint, not my wisdom, but the wisdom of my teachers. [4]

The metaform of the figure invokes the expanse of the natural world as an imaginary measure of possible writing.  That metaform is the same in the Sanskrit and Hebrew texts.  The Sanskrit and Hebrew texts also share the highly specific reference to the oceans/seas being ink.  The rabbi’s parenthesis, “not my wisdom,” suggests a specifically constructed contrast within a well-known figure.  Faint echoes of the writing figure can heard in the ending of the Christian Gospel of John:

But there are also many other things Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Given that this writing figure was known across western Eurasia 2000 years ago, it probably was created considerably earlier.

The “sea of ink” writing figure has been conserved to the present in a wide variety of cultures.  The Qur’an, which was received in Arabia in the seventh century, contains two instances of the figure:

If the ocean were ink (wherewith to write out) the words of my Lord, sooner would the ocean be exhausted than would the words of my Lord, even if we added another ocean like it, for its aid.

And if all the trees on earth were pens and the Ocean (were ink), with seven oceans behind it to add to its (supply), yet would not the Words of Allah be exhausted (in the writing): for Allah is exalted in power, full of wisdom. [5]

In the eleventh century, the rhetorical figure appeared in a liturgical poem that a rabbi composed in Aramaic for the Jewish holiday Shavous.[6]  By the thirteenth century, the figure was known across western Eurasia in a wide variety of languages.  Although rarely occurring relative to words like “mother,” the figure has been conserved to the present in a wide range of contexts.[7]

Professional self-understanding and self-interest of writers probably helps to explain the “sea of ink” figure’s longevity.  Religiously important writings conserve common culture.[8]  After the rhetorical figure was included in Jewish religious writings and the Qur’an, it would last as long as these religions.  But the earlier history of the figure, and its geographically widespread instantiations in non-religious contexts, still needs explanation.  The figure presents writing as an important function within the natural world.  It describes writing as a natural measure of great acts.  The figure is thus suited for scribes affirming, with the solidarity of a common form, their professional importance.

girl in room covered with hand-written notes

A late nineteenth-century American public intellectual wrote an insightful parody of this figure.  He dropped the object of praise to reveal self-interest:

If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all the earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink. [9]

That’s a biting satire on the still prevalent scholarly practice of concluding a scientific journal article or research report with a call for more research.  Professional self-interest in writing goes all the way back to the origins of writing.  Yet alternatives remain: curiosity, entertainment, whimsy, and hope.

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[1] Pagel et al. (2013).

[2] Id. p. 1.  Pagel, Atkinson & Meade (2007).

[3] From the Sanskrit legend of the Ten Avatars (Malabar version), concerning Vishnu in his eighth avatar appearing as Kishna, cited in translation, Linn (1938) p. 952.  I’ve made minor stylistic adaptations.  A similar figure exists in the Vasavadatta, the oldest known romantic novel in Sanskrit. Id. p. 953.

[4] Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, founder of the religious academy at Jabneh, cited in translation, id. p. 954.  Nearly the same saying is attributed to Rabbi Jochanan in the Talmud, Tractate Sabbath, fol. 11.  Id.

[5] Qur’an, Surah 18:109, Surah 31:27, text above, in lineated form, from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an.

[6] The poem is the Akdamut.  Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak (“Nehorai”) composed it in Worms, Germany, in the eleventh century.  Hoffman (2009) provides historical context and an English translation of the Akdamut.

[7] Linn (1938) documents instances in a wide variety of languages.

[8] Eliot (1942/1949), written around World War II, pushes that point further than most.

[9] Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr. “Cacoethes Scribendi,” in Holmes (1890), cited in Lin (1938) p. 965.  Foolscap is paper of a particular size.

[image] Visitor to Hirshhorn Museum exhibit, Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913-present, inside Ann Hamilton’s installation Palimpsest, 1989.


Eliot, Thomas Stearns. 1942, rev. ed. 1949. Christianity and culture: the idea of a christian society and notes towards the definition of culture. London/New York.

Hoffman, Jeffrey. 2009. “Akdamut: History, Folklore, and Meaning.” Jewish Quarterly Review. 99 (2): 161-183.

Holmes, Oliver Wendall, Senior. 1890.  “Over the teacups.” Column.  Atlantic Monthly. Mar.

Linn, Irving. 1938. “If All the Sky Were Parchment.” PMLA (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association). 53 (4): 951-970.

Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, and Andrew Meade. 2007. “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history.” Nature. 449 (7163): 717-720.

Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. 2013. “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia.” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). Published online before print May 6, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218726110


illustrated books pervasive in 18th-century Japan

Japanese scroll showing women airing books

A large, silk scroll with a lavish patterned-gold border hangs at the entrance to a current Sackler Gallery exhibit.  The scroll is from late eighteenth-century Japan.  It shows four women and a boy engaged in mushiboshi for a large number of books — cleaning and airing the books to avoid their being damaged from mildew and insects.   One woman, neglecting the task, is engrossed in reading one of the books.  Another woman adjusts her hair-piece.  A third, assisted by the boy, hangs a book on a line like the laundry hanging on another, nearby line.

This sumptuous scroll hangs at the entrance to the exhibit Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books.  The exhibit shows cheaply bound, woodblock-printed illustrated books that became pervasive in Japan from about 1600.[1]  Most owners of these books probably did not treat them as precious objects to be carefully preserved.  The scroll reflects passively on the stark new order of communications.  Perhaps the scroll offered pleasure like that of elegy.  Perhaps it was commissioned for a publisher who got rich from the new, cheap, popular illustrated books.[2]

Japanese publishers by the eighteenth century used a variety of means to sell books widely.  Publishers vertically integrated from the commissioning and production of books to their retail marketing.  That business integration diversified book sales risk and allowed rapid response to popular tends.  Woodblock printing and cheap-quality bindings reduced book cost, while the development of cheap color printing increased the attractiveness of books.  Book illustrators created illustrations that crossed book gutters and openings as if those physical features did not exist and the book was like a more expensive scroll.  Chinese books were augmented with phonetic Japanese characters to make the books more accessible to persons without extensive eduction.  Publishers marketed sexually explicit content, which has always had popular allure.

Another marketing technique was serialization and encouraging collecting.  One publisher from 1836 to 1841 produced a series of 75 cheap, illustrated volumes.  The publisher also sold a roughly made bookcase for storing the whole collection.[3]  The bookcase emphasized that these books, pushed out at the amazing rate of 15 a year, should not be regarded as ephemera.  Marketing genius is being able to figure out how to deny the obvious.

While Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books concerns popularization of media in Japan, it’s not a popularly welcoming exhibit.  The exhibit encompasses about 120 books, frozen open in glass cases.  That gives the exhibit the feel of a nineteenth-century display of stuffed animals.  Browsing the books in an active way is impossible.  The exhibit does not even allow non-flash photography.  The most attractive aspect of the exhibit arrangement is viewing the display cases from an oblique angle and seeing the books like a flock of butterflies.   That view invokes a feeling that was probably like early popular joy in the numerous, widely accessible illustrated books that the exhibit displays.

Pulverer collection of Japanese illustrated books

The Sackler Gallery is developing new media for access and interaction with the Pulverer Collection.  The online, scrolling display of a three-book series from the Collection is beautiful and insightful.  But that’s just a small taste of what’s to come.  The Sackler Gallery is working to make the entire Pulverer Collection available online with cover-to-cover images, detailed data and analysis.[4]  Incorporating such access technology with display of the physical objects would make for a much better exhibit.

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Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books is on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, from April 6 to August 11, 2013.  Entrance is free and open to the public.

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[1] The Japanese term for such books is ehon.  The Charles Nelson Spinks Collection at American University includes a substantial number of Edo-period ehon.  Wide circulation of ehon and other printed material in Edo-period Japan contributed to a unified Japanese body of public information.  See Berry, Mary Elizabeth. 2006. Japan in print information and nation in the early modern period. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.  Here’s an insightful review and response.  The scroll above shows books without illustrations.  Surely the scroll’s illustrator was aware of the prevalence of ehon.  The depiction of books without illustrations complicates interpretation of the scroll, but the fundamental idea seems clear.

[2] Included at the top of the scroll is a cuckoo flying (not shown above).  According to the Sackler’s description of the scroll:

The cuckoo flying overhead is often associated with images of courtesans or with poetry expressing love and longing.

The cuckoo seems to me to favor the elegiacal interpretation.

[3] Ehon tsuzoku sangoku shi, illustrated by Katsushika Taito II, 1836-1841.

[4] Other interesting new-media projects in which the Freer/Sackler is participating include The Story of the Beautiful: Peacock Room Website, and the virtual Dunhuang exhibit.

[images] Women Airing Books and Clothes (cropped slightly), Katsukawa Shunsho (Japanese, 1726-1792), created in the late 18th century, color and gold on silk, H: 201.5 W: 113.1 cm, Japan F1905.309; Hand-Held exhibit case photograph.

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Bar Sauma and Rubruck’s experiences of learned religious debate

In the thirteenth century, Rabban Bar Sauma, a Christian monk from China, served as an ambassador from the western Mongol empire to the Roman Catholic pope.  Bar Sauma debated Christian cardinals in Rome. About the same time, Friar William of Rubruck, a Christian monk from the western edge of Eurasia, traveled with letters from the French King to the Mongol capital in central Eurasia.  Rubruck debated Buddhists and Muslims at the great khan’s court.  Both Bar Sauma’s and Rubruck’s experiences underscored the fruitlessness of learned religious debate.


Bar Sauma was born in the Chinese city now called Beijing.  He was the son of an eminent and wealthy Christian family.  Following an honored Chinese practice, he withdrew from society and became a monk.  He moved to an isolated place to pursue a life of poverty, study, and contemplation.  After more than seven years, news of his wisdom became known.  People began to honor him and visit him to hear his words.  After several more years, he set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  A long journey and intervening events, including his elevation to an episcopate of the eastern Christian church, led him to meeting with Roman Catholic cardinals in Rome in 1287.[1]

Bar Sauma and the cardinals in Rome engaged in sophisticated discussion of the precise relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.  When asked to expound his creed, Bar Sauma provided a philosophical description of God’s nature.  The cardinals then initiated a dialectic focused on the Holy Spirit:

The cardinals asked:  “The Holy Spirit, does He proceed from the Father, or from the Son, or is it separate? ”

Bar Sauma replied:  “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, are They associated or separate in regard to Nature?”

The cardinals: “They are associated in Nature but separated in Individualities.”

Bar Sauma: “What are their Individualities?”

The cardinals: “Of the Father, begetting; of the Son, being begotten; of the Spirit, proceeding.”

Bar Sauma: “Which of Them is the cause of the other?”

The cardinals: “The Father is cause of the Son, and the Son is cause of the Spirit.”

Bar Sauma: “If They are equal in the matter of Nature and operation and power and authority, and They are just Three Persons, how can one of Them be the cause of the other? [2]

Bar Sauma thus brought the reasoning to a contradiction.  They continued to argue respectfully through many more arguments about the same issue.  Bar Sauma then declared:

I have come from far lands not to dispute nor to expound the themes of the Faith; but to receive a benediction from the Reverend Pope and from the shrines of the saints, and to declare the business of the King and the Catholicos.  If it be agreeable to you that we leave the discussion and you make arrangements and appoint some one who will show me the churches here and the shrines of the saints, you will confer a great favor upon your servant and disciple. [3]

Traveling across the former Roman Empire, Bar Sauma was deeply moved by the vast array of holy religious relics shown to him, wildly implausible to reason though those relics were.  Bar Sauma also marveled at the magnificent churches.  Things, not arguments, moved Bar Sauma.

The Christian ritual of communion was also important for Bar Sauma in building relationships in the foreign land of the former Roman Empire.  Bar Sauma traveled from Rome to visit Edward I, King of England, who was in the French province of Aquitaine-Gascony.  Bar Sauma celebrated the Eucharist in King Edward’s presence and served King Edward communion.[4]  Back in Rome, Bar Sauma received permission to celebrate the Eucharist there.  A large congregation gathered to see how the Christian ambassador from the Mongols, born in China, would celebrate the Eucharist.  Seeing Bar Sauma’s priestly acts, the congregation rejoiced and declared, “The language is different, but the rite is one.”[5]  Actions communicated more effectively than words.

Friar William of Rubruck had a similar experience of learned religious debate at the Mongol court in central Asia.  Rubruck was probably born in French Flanders.  He apparently spoke French in addition to Latin and was familiar with Paris.  He journeyed to the Mongols as a missionary and as an unofficial envoy carrying letters from the French King Louis IX.  He knew little about the Mongols and did not speak their language.  After a long, arduous journey, he arrived at the court of the Great Khan Möngke Khan in Karakorum in Central Asia in 1254.  Möngke Khan ordered representatives of Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists to engage in a public debate about the truth of their beliefs.  Rubrick spoke as a representative of Christians.[6]

The debate before Möngke Khan was formally serious.  Möngke Khan ordered each party to write before the debate a statement of its beliefs.  Rubruck and other Christians at the Mongol Court, whom Rubruck called Nestorians, plotted strategy before the debate.  The Nestorians wanted to debate first the Muslims, but Rubrick wisely explained that the Muslims would serve as their allies in debating against the polytheistic Buddhists.  The Christians together shrewdly decided to have Rubruck speak first for them, since Rubrick required an interpreter.  The Nestorians could join in subsequently with more agility and more rapid responses.  Rubruck proposed to his fellow Christians a debate rehearsal in which he would play the part of the Buddhists.  Rubrick, playing the role of a Buddhist, acted like a good medieval Christian philosopher.  He asked the Nestorians to prove the existence of God.  Rubrick recorded:

But at this point the Nestorians were incapable of proving anything, but could only relate what Scripture tells. ‘They do not believe in the Scriptures,” I said: “if you tell them one story, they will quote another.” [7]

As Rubruck acknowledged, holy scripture is not suitable for learned debate with non-believers.

Rubruck kept the actual debate with the Buddhist to philosophical-theological issues.  The Buddhist proposed debating matters of cosmological narrative: “how the world was made or what becomes of souls after death.”  Rubruck countered:

that ought not be the starting-point of our discussion.  All things are from God, and He is the fountain-head of all.  Therefore we should begin by speaking about God, for you hold a different view of Him from us and Mangu {Möngke Khan} wishes to learn whose belief is superior.

Rubrick shrewdly invoke Möngke Khan’s interest, but not in a way that reasonably discriminated between the possible opening questions for dispute.  The debate umpire ruled in favor of Rubrick.  Rubrick then declared to the Buddhists:

We firmly believe in our hearts and acknowledge with our lips that God exists, that there is only one God, and the He is one in a perfect unity.  What do you believe?

The Buddhist debater responded:

It is fools who claim that there is only one God.  Wise men say that there are several.  Are there not great rulers in your country, and is not Mangu Chan {Möngke Khan} the chief lord here?  It is the same with gods, inasmuch as there are different gods in different regions. [8]

The Buddhists had probably lost at this point.  Möngke Khan, as the Great Khan, regarded himself as Son of God and Lord of all the earth.  Before the debate, Möngke Khan, in imposing rules of civilized debate, asserted his exclusive claim to the authority of God:

The following announcement was made: “This is Mangu’s decree, and let nobody dare claim that the decree of God is otherwise.  He orders that no man shall be so bold as to make provocative or insulting remarks to his opponent, and that no one is to cause any commotion that might obstruct these proceedings, on pain of death.” [9]

After several turns of debate, Rubruck pressed home the winning question to the Buddhist: “{do} you believe that any god is all-powerful?”  In the presence of Möngke Khan, the Buddhist, not surprisingly, was reluctant to answer.  The Buddhist after some time answered that no god was all-powerful.  The Muslims responded with loud laughter.  Möngke Khan did not object to that commotion.  Rubruck pressed the point further and the Buddhist was rendered silent.  Rubruck then started to argue for “the unity of the Divine essence and for the Trinity.”  The Nestorians wisely silenced him.  They turned to begin debate with the Muslims.  However, according to Rubruck’s account, the Muslim conceded the truth of Christianity and declined to debate.  The Nestorians then engaged in a long, apparently friendly discussion with an old priest of a Uighur sect, whom Rubruck regarded as monotheistic, non-Christian idol-worshippers.  No one challenged a word of the Nestorians’ account of Christian salvation history and beliefs.

The result of the debate was only superficially a Christian victory.  Rubruck observed:

for all that no one said, “I believe, and wish to become a Christian.” When it was all over, the Nestorians and Saracens {Muslims} alike sang in loud voices, while the tuins {Buddhists} remained silent; and after that everyone drank heavily. [10]

Learned religious debate did little to bring together persons with different religious beliefs.  Singing and drinking was the superior practice.

The results of the debates in which Bar Sauma and Rubrick engaged were not idiosyncratic.  Across the first millennium after the birth of Jesus, Christian intellectual leaders engaged in learned debates about the nature of God.  How to describe precisely the relationship between God and man in Jesus Christ was an issue of bitter intellectual dispute.  That dispute led many Christians living in Eurasia northwest of Syria to condemn Christians in the rest of Eurasia as heretical Nestorians.[11]

Another issue of bitter intellectual dispute was how to describe precisely the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and to the Son.  Christians reciting the Nicene Creed in Latin declared (in approximate English translation), “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Christians reciting the Nicene Creed in Greek declared (in approximate English translation), “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.”  The presence or absence of the clause “and the Son” prompted holy wars.[12]

Not participating in learned religious debate is not necessarily anti-intellectualism.  Not participating in learned religious debate is not necessarily the thinking position of a ghetto believer.  It may be a wise judgment based on broad historical evidence of human understanding.

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[1] The facts in this paragraph are from The History of Yaballaha III and of his Vicar Bar Sauma, trans. Montgomery (1927) and Budge (1928).  Bar Sauma meant in Syriac “son of fasting.”  Montgomery (1927), Introduction, p. 19, n. 4.  Syriac was the liturgical language of early Chinese Christians.  Rabban was an honorary title meaning “master.”  Bar Sauma journeyed with his disciple Markos, a younger Uighur monk also from an eminent Christian family in China.  Markos became Patriarch Yaballaha III.  Murre-Vand Den Berg (2006) provides an insightful overview of the History and suggests that its author was Mar Yosep of Arbil, who became Patriarch Timothy II.  Pilgrimages westward were common among Chinese Buddhists.  In seventh-century China, the Buddhist pilgrim Yijing wrote a book containing biographies of 56 eminent Chinese Buddhist monks who traveled to India during the Tang Dynasty.   See Lahiri (1986).

[2] Trans. adapted from that of Montgomery (1927) p. 58 and Budge (1928) Ch. 7.  The technical name of the issue under dispute was the matter of the filioque.  A letter that Patriarch Yaballaha III sent to Pope Benedict IX in 1304 illustrates the complexity of the issue.  The Latin translation of Yaballaha’s letter has him including the filioque.  The Arabic original is more subtle.  Teule (2003) pp. 113-6.

[3] Trans. Montgomery (1927) p. 59.

[4] Id. p. 65.

[5] Id. p. 68.

[6] The facts in this paragraph are based on The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, trans. Jackson (1990).  On Rubruck’s origins, see id., introduction, p. 40.  The earlier translation of W.W. Rockhill, updated, is available online as William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols.  Jackson (2011) provides an overview of the text.

[7] Rubruck, 33:11, trans. Jackson (1990) p. 232.

[8] Id. pp. 232-3.

[9] Id. p. 231. Christians and Muslims viciously insulted each other within the Mongol court.  Id. p. 225.  The Buddhists in turn were accustomed to highly confrontational debates:

Ritualized exercises in dialectics (sometimes involving magic), accompanied by all the pomp of a medieval duel or joust, were a common feature of Tibetan monastic life (and continue to be in the Geluk-pa order). The questioner faced his seated opponent in an aggressive posture, squaring his shoulders, raising his rosary and rolling up the sleeves of his gown, accentuating the final word of each question, stamping his feet, and clapping his right hand on his left in the other man’s face. The opponent might leap to his feet and reply with a question of his own. Colleagues of the winner would carry him on their shoulders in a victory procession, or he might sit on the loser’s back as if riding a donkey.

Young (1989) pp. 112-3.

[10] Id. p. 235.  Rubruck seems to have been highly intelligent and well-educated in Christian theology.  Yet he also had a keen sense for ritual and liturgy.  When he entered the Mongol leader Baatu’s court, he was instructed to kneel on both knees and then told to speak.  He recalled:

reflecting to myself that I could be at prayer, seeing I was on both my knees, I took my first words from a collect {ab oratione}, saying: “My lord, we pray God, from whom all good things do proceed ….

Id. p. 133.  When he entered a chapel, before he greeted an Armenian monk sitting there he prostrated himself and chanted the Ave regina celorum.  Id. p. 174.  He entered Möngke Khan’s presence in distinctive Franciscan habit, clasping a bible to his breast and singing.  Id. p. 190.  He and other Christians paraded about the Great Khan’s camp holding a cross aloft and singing.  Id. p. 199.  He made careful, eager preparation to have communion for Christians excluded from the eastern Christians’ communion service.  Id.  pp. 213-216.   Over time Rubruck raised his status among the Mongols by emphasizing his priestly role.  Watson (2011).

[11] Positions in these disputes have been labeled monophysitism, miaphysitism, and Nestorianism.  Brock (1996) points out the inappropriateness of labeling all Christians of the eastern churches as Nestorians.

[12] The clause “and the Son” is known as the filioque.  The Greek and Latin words translated into English as “proceeds” have subtle differences.  Linguistic misunderstanding played an important role in the dispute.

[image] Andrei Rublev, Angels at Mamre (Holy Trinity), 1410, in Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Brock, Sebastian P. 1996. “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 78(3):23-35.

Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans. 1928. The Monks of Kûblâi Khân, Emperor of China, or, The history of the life and travels of Rabban Ṣâwmâ, envoy and plenipotentiary of the Mongol khâns to the kings of Europe, and Markôs who as Mâr Yahbh-Allâhâ III became Patriarch of the Nestorian Church in Asia. London: Religious Tract Society.

Jackson, Peter, trans. 1990. Willem van Ruysbroeck. The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253-1255. London: Hakluyt Society.

Jackson, Peter. 2011.  “The Itinerarium of Friar William of Rubruck.”  Seoul National University, Center for Central Eurasian Studies, Archive of Central Eurasian Civilizations.

Lahiri, Latika. 1986. Yijing. Chinese monks in India: biography of eminent monks who went to the western world in search of the law during the great Tʻang dynasty. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Montgomery, James A., trans. 1927. The history of Yaballaha the Third, Nestorian Patriarch, and of his vicar Bar Sauma, Mongol Ambassador to the Frankish courts at the end of the 13th century.

Murre-Vand Den Berg, Heleen (H.L.).  2006. “The Church of the East in Mesopotamia in the Mongol Period.”  Pp. 377-394 in Malek, Roman, and Peter Hofrichter, eds. 2006. Jingjiao: the Church of the East in China and Central Asia. Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica.

Teule, Herman.  2003. “Saint Louis and the East Syrians, the Dream of a Terrestrial Empire: East Syrian Attitudes to the West.” Pp. 101-122 in Ciggaar, Krijna Nelly, and Herman G. B. Teule. 2003. East and West in the Crusader states: context, contacts, confrontations. III, Acta of the congress held at Hernen Castle in September 2000. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters.

Watson, A.J. 2011. “Mongol inhospitality, or how to do more with less? Gift giving in William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium.” Journal of Medieval History, 37:1, 90-101.

Young, Richard Fox. 1989.  “Deus Unus or Dei Plures Sunt? The Function of Inclusivism in the Buddhist Defense of Mongol Folk Religion Against William of Rubruck (1254).” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 26:1 (Winter) pp. 100-137.


Bābak and the Khurramī revolt according to Wāqid’s account

Wāqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamīnī’s account of Bābak and the Khurramī revolt against the Abbasid caliphate is formally like news or history.  Yet surviving excerpts are obviously derogatory representations often implausibly knit together.  Wāqid’s account probably had value as entertainment.  It probably had value as support for the dominant Abbasid ideology against that of Bābak and the Khurramīs.  It also served as a source of information for those who had no other.  These same textual economics probably support much of news and history right up to the present.

Bābak led the major Khurramī uprising against the Abbasid caliphate from 817 to 837.  The Khurramīs lived in the Azerbaijan region of the far northwest of present-day Iran.  They had close ties to the pre-Islamic religion of Mazdakism.  Culturally Iranian, Bābak and his fellow Khurramīs were hostile to Muslim Arabic colonists who settled in their region.

Abbasid caliphs numerous times directed generals to suppress the Khurramī revolt.  Again and again Abbasid forces suffered great loses in attempting to attack Bābak’s mountainous strongholds.  In 837, a large, well-supplied, and well-paid Abbasid army finally managed to capture Bābak and put down the Khurramī revolt.

Bābak’s execution underscored the public importance of these events.  Bābak was brought as a captive to the Abbasid capital of Samarra:

To give the populace an exemplary lesson, a parade was held … in which Bābak, clad in an embroidered cloak and capped with a miter, was made to ride on an elephant …. The whole length of the street to the Bāb al-ʿĀmma was lined on both sides with cavalrymen and foot soldiers and huge numbers of people.  Then {Abbasid Caliph} al-Muʿtasim ordered the executioner to proceed.  First Bābak’s hands and feet were cut off, then at the caliph’s command his mangled body was strung on a gibbet in the outskirts of Sāmarrā.  According to some sources his head was later sent around for display in other cities and in Khorasan. [1]

The general and soldiers who overcame Bābak and the Khurramīs were lavishly rewarded.  Court poets celebrated the victory.  The events were what today would be called headline news.

Bābak and the Khurramī revolt remained a popular subject into the tenth century.  Probably in the mid-tenth century the Abbasid author Wāqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamīnī wrote a book about Bābak.  Wāqid’s book was called Events in the Life of Bābak.  That book name translated more literally and anachronistically means news about Bābak.[2]  Just as newspaper forerunners in sixteenth-century England greatly sensationalized events, so too did Wāqid’s book about Bābak.

Wāqid deployed a dense array of derogatory representations in describing the events of Bābak’s life.  According to Wāqid, Bābak’s father was from the area that had been the capital of the Sassanid Empire.  However, Bābak’s father was not a man of princely status.  Bābak’s father was an cooking-oil peddler who carried his oil on his back.  That would have been a well-recognized figure of a pack animal like a donkey or a camel.  According to Wāqid, Bābak’s mother was a one-eyed woman who was caught fornicating in a bush with Bābak’s father.  Wāqid added the telling detail that while fornicating in a bush Bābak’s mother and father were singing in Nabataean.  A book written early in the tenth-century celebrated the Nabataeans and their hostility to the Arab invaders of Mesopotamia.  Wāqid thus depicted Bābak’s parents as alien, primitive, and hostile to the Arab colonists of his region.[3]

Wāqid added further demeaning descriptions of Bābak’s parents.  According to Wāqid, Bābak’s father died after being attacked “from the rear.”  That suggests either his fleeing from an attacking foe or suffering homosexual violence.  After Bābak’s father’s death, Wāqid reported that Bābak’s mother “started to serve the people for wages as a wet nurse.”  She lived in destitution and poverty.  The rebel king Bābak thus appears to have come from a most un-royal family.

According to Wāqid’s account, Bābak gained his kingship through chance, adultery, and treachery.  Jāvīdān, a Khurramī chief, was driving 2000 sheep to market.  He stopped in a village for lodging.  Despite all Jāvīdān’s animal wealth, his host judged him to be an unimportant person.  Jāvīdān’s host thus directed Jāvīdān to lodge with Bābak’s mother.  She, destitute, could offer Jāvīdān no food or drink.  That a chief driving 2000 sheep to market would be judged as unimportant and directed to lodge with Bābak’s mother is wildly implausible.  These events are most plausibly interpreted as meaning the cosmic righteousness of insulting Jāvīdān.

From Wāqid’s perspective, the righteousness of insulting Jāvīdān is that Jāvīdān took Bābak into his household.  When Jāvīdān came to Bābak’s mother’s lodgings, Bābak took care of Jāvīdān’s servants and animals.  That’s a lowly task.  Jāvīdān also observed that Bābak’s language was “indistinct, a crude vernacular.”  In other words, Bābak didn’t speak Arabic.[4]  Nonetheless, Jāvīdān saw that Bābak was “crafty and clever.”  Jāvīdān then incomprehensibly offered Bābak’s mother fifty silver coins a month for taking Bābak and making him guardian over Jāvīdān’s lands and possessions.

Bābak subsequently had sex with Jāvīdān’s wife and caused Jāvīdān to die.  Jāvīdān left his mountain castle to do battle with a rival chief.  Jāvīdān’s wife, “passionately in love with Bābak,” repeatedly had sex with Bābak.  Jāvīdān returned to his castle victorious, having killed in battle his foe.  But Jāvīdān was suffering his own wound.  Within three days of his return home, Jāvīdān died.  According to Wāqid, Jāvīdān’s wife said to Bābak:

You are hardy and clever; he has died!  I won’t raise my voice about this to any of his companions {Jāvīdān’s loyal warriors / comitatus}.

Those words suggest that Bābak slyly caused Jāvīdān’s death.  Especially contrasted with Jāvīdān’s action in battle against his foe, Bābak engaged in unmanly, profoundly treacherous behavior against his master Jāvīdān.  Jāvīdān’s wife instructed Bābak on his great purpose, in addition to being able to have sex freely with her:

Get ready for tomorrow!  I’ll have a gathering of them {Jāvīdān’s companions} for you and tell them that Jāvīdān said, “I wish to die during this night, so that my spirit will go forth from my body and enter the body of Bābak, associating itself with his spirit.  He will accomplish for himself and for you something which no one else has ever accomplished and no one will accomplish after him.  For he will rule the earth, slay the oppressors, and restore the Mazdakiyah {Mazdakism}.  By him shall you abject {people} become mighty and by him shall your lost be uplifted.

That abstract political mythology contrasts jarringly with the story-facts of the lowly Bābak’s treachery toward his generous master Jāvīdān.

Bābak restoring Mazdakism is best interpreted as Wāqid’s parodic sarcasm.  Mazdakism urged non-violence.  Bābak historically was associated with waging two decades of very bloody war.  According to Wāqid, one day Bābak’s mother found Bābak asleep under a tree, with blood all over his body.  She concluded that Bābak “would have a brilliant mission.”   His bloody mission failed.  It ended with him dying, covered in blood, before a large crowd in the Abbasid capital.  Wāqid’s account surely is fabricated with keen awareness of those historical facts.

Wāqid’s account included a parody of Christian communion.  The morning after Jāvīdān’s death, his wife informed his companions of his alleged death wish.  They accepted Bābak as the bearer of Jāvīdān’s spirit and authority.  Jāvīdān’s wife immediately arranged for a ceremony to confirm ritually that fidelity:

she called for a cow and ordered that it be killed and flayed with its skin spread out.  Then she placed on the skin a vessel full of wine, beside which she broke bread, placing it in the bowel.  Then she called upon one man after another, saying, “Step on the skin with your foot, take a piece of bread, dip it into the wine, eat it, and say, ‘I have placed my faith in thee, oh, spirit of Bābak, as I had faith in the spirit of Jāvīdān.’  Then take the hand of Bābak, do obeisance to it and kiss it.”

Other peoples may have used rituals similar to Christian communion.  However, Bābak was politically associated with the Byzantine Christian foe of the Abbasid caliphate.[5]  Moreover, Wāqid also described Jāvīdān’s wife as publicly enacting a marriage ceremony between her and Bābak the same day after Jāvīdān’s death.  In the marriage ceremony, Jāvīdān’s wife and Bābak publicly sat together on bedding.  Jāvīdān’s wife then gave Bābak a sprig of basil.  Basil was a Christian symbol of kingship.  To Muslim readers, these rituals and symbols emphasized Bābak’s status as an alien, morally outrageous other.

The Abbasid caliphate encompassed cultural battle between Arabic Islamic culture and non-Arabic pre-Islamic cultures.  Wāqid’s account of events in Bābak’s life was a blow within that conflict.[6]  It denigrated Bābak’s non-Arabic pre-Islamic culture in factually implausible ways.  Factual implausibility, however, seems to have been relatively unimportant in accounts of Bābak and the Khurramīs over more than a millennium.[7]

Bābak joker mosaic

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[1] Yūsofī (1988).

[2] All the details of Wāqid’s account cited in this post are from the excerpts of it preserved in al-Nadim’s Fihrist, Part IX, trans. Dodge (1970) pp. 818-822.  Yūsofī (1988) reports the book’s name as Akhbār Bābak.  Akhbār is transliterated Arabic for “news.”  Nothing is now known about Wāqid other than that he wrote that book.  Wāqid’s book has survived only in others’ excerpts of it.  Wāqid, like most journalists today, probably had a low position in the authorial status hierarchy.  A variety of other historical sources also provide some, often conflicting, information about Bābak and the Khurramīs.  Wāqid refers to Bābak’s parents singing in Nabataean.  Ibn Wahshiyah’s Nabataean Agriculture, which would have given considerable force to that reference, is dated to 930.  Al-Tabari’s History for the year 223 (837) includes a fanciful story describing Bābak as the bastard son of a vagabond desperado.  It also refers to Bābak’s mother as one-eyed.  Trans. Bosworth (1991) pp. 90-1.  Al-Tabari died in 923.  Wāqid seems to have amplified al-Tabari’s tale about Bābak’s parentage.  Wāqid’s book is thus plausibly dated to the mid-tenth century.

[3] According to Wāqid, Bābak’s father was born in al-Mada’in, which is the cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.  That was the capital of the Sassanid Persian Empire.  Ibn Wahshiyah’s Nabataean Agriculture celebrated pre-Islamic, pre-Arabic life in ancient Iraq.

[4] Bābak lived near Ardabil, in the mountains of al-Badhdh.  Arabic was uncommonly spoken there.  The Islamic encyclopaedia-writer Yaqut (d. 1229) reported that persons in that area spoke Adhriyah, a Medo-Persian language.  Wright (1948), p. 44.

[5] Bābak was in contact with the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus.  Yūsofī (1988).  When Bābak was captured, a large number of his warriors converted to Christianity and aligned themselves with Theophilus.  Venetis (2005).

[6] Conflict between pre-Islamic Iranian culture and Islamic Arabic cultural was even more starkly represented in the subsequent treason trial and punishment of the Iranian general, Khaydār b. Kāvūs Afshīn, who captured Bābak.  Wright (1948) pp. 56-59, 124-131.

[7] Readers of Wāqid’s account haven’t treated it as mainly ideology or entertainment.  Yūsofī (1988) notes:

statements about his {Bābak’s} parentage and background are unclear and inconsistent, sometimes fantastic and incredible.  … In most of these accounts, other than Dīnavarī’s, a note of sarcasm and hostility can be perceived.

That’s an understatement.  In her “Bābak” entry for the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Patricia Crone seems to have interpreted Wāqid’s account as factual history.  Bābak, associated with Mazdakism and proto-socialism, was celebrated as a hero in the Soviet Union’s Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.


Bosworth, Clifford Edmund, trans. 1991. al-Ṭabarī.  Storm and stress along the northern frontiers of the Àbbāsid CaliphateHistory of al-Ṭabarī, v. 33.  Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge, trans. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Venetis, Evangelos. 2005. “ḴORRAMIS IN BYZANTIUM.” Encyclopædia Iranica, online.

Wright, Edwin M. 1948. “Bābak of Badhdh and Al-Afshin During the Years 816-841 A.D.: Symbols of Iranian persistence against Islamic penetration in North Iran.” Muslim World 38:1 (Jan.) pp. 43-59 and 38:2 (Apr.) pp. 124-131.

Yūsofī, Ḡ. -Ḥ.  1988.  “BĀBAK ḴORRAMĪ.” Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. III, Fasc. 3, pp. 299-306, and online.


al-Nadim’s Fihrist provides insights into popular book demand

The tenth-century Baghdad-based court companion and bookseller al-Nadim wrote an extensive catalog of books, the Fihrist.  Although the Fihrist is a subject-based catalog, al-Nadim cataloged not books but authors.  All the books that an author wrote are listed in the Fihrist under the name of the author.  Within subjects, the Fihrist often groups students, disciples, and peers with an important author.[1]  As a court companion and a bookseller, al-Nadim understood that social relations are more important than impersonal knowledge for popular interest in books.

propeller statue

Al-Nadim explicitly described the Fihrist’s broad scope.  The Fihrist begins with a prefatory summary.  In it, Al-Nadim declares:

This is a catalog of the books of all peoples, Arab and foreign, existing in the language of the Arabs, as well as of their scripts, dealing with various sciences, with accounts of those who composed them and the categories of their authors, together with their relationships and records of their times of birth, length of life, and times of death, and also of the localities of their cities, their virtues and faults, from the beginning of the formation of each science to this our own time {c. 987}. [2]

Being written in Arabic was the most important delimiting factor for books included in the Fihrist.  The authority of a book depended on social valuation of its author’s person.  Science for al-Nadim included books about persons’ beliefs, opinions, and practices.

The Fihrist’s formal organization and associated page counts indicate al-Nadim’s concern for social relations.  Among the Fihrist’s ten primary divisions (parts), the first is “language and scripture,” and the last, “alchemy.”  A simple, plausible interpretation of the Fihrist’s ordering is that its parts are in order of declining importance.  Such an order implies that “history, belles-lettres, biography, genealogy” (part 3) is less important than only “language and scripture” (part 1) and “grammar” (part 2).  “Philosophy and the ancient sciences” (part 7), which includes arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and medicine, is relatively close to “alchemy” (part 10).  Token frequencies in Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah’s thirteenth-century History of Physicians, in contrast, indicate greater importance for philosophy, astronomy, logic and other ancient sciences relative to rhetoric, eloquence, and theology.  In the Fihrist, the part “history, belles-lettres, biography, genealogy” encompasses government officials and courtiers.  That part has the largest page count among the Fihrist’s parts.   Its page count is about 50% greater than the middle-sized parts “law and legal scholars” and “language and scripture.”  History, biography, and genealogy mainly concern persons and their social relations.

Books can substitute for social relations and ease loneliness.  Al-Nadim included within the Fihrist a statement declaring books preferable to personal friends:

The book, he is a companion who does not bother you at the time of your work, nor call you away when you are preoccupied, nor demand that you treat him with courtesy.  The book, he is the comrade who does not flatter you too much, the friend who does not tempt you, the companion who does not weary you, the counselor who does not mislead you. [3]

This statement figures the book as a good companion, comrade, friend, and counselor.  Unlike such persons, a book can easily be put down or exchanged for a better one.  Dealing with friends is more difficult.

Entertainment is the skill of literary men within the Fihrist’s organizational scheme.  Literary men are in the chapter (sub-part) concerning “boon-companions, table-companions, belletrists {literary men}, singers, slaptakers, buffoons, and comedians.”[4]  Literary men thus appear as courtly entertainers like slaptakers and buffoons.  An example from the Fihrist is Abu al-Anbas al-Saymarī.  He was the highest-ranking judge in a district near Basr.  He was also a close associate of ninth-century caliphs in Baghdad.  Al-Nadim notes of al-Anbas:

Although he was one of the jesters and clowns, he was also a man of letters, familiar with the stars, about which he wrote a book; I have observed that it was praised by the leading astrologers. {Caliph} al-Mutawakkil included him in the group of his court companions, giving him special attention. [5]

Among books that the Fihrist lists for al-Anbas are:

  • Aids to Digestion and Treacles
  • Refutation of Abu Mikhail al-Saydanani in Connection with Alchemy
  • Interpretation of Dreams
  • Rare Anecdotes about Pimps
  • Superiority of the Rectum over the Mouth
  • The Surnames of Animals [6]

Al-Anbas, who wrote about forty books, seems to have been capable of writing about anything.  Reportedly he favored obscene topics and burlesque.[7]

Books can provide pleasing, imagined social relations.  They can provide courtly entertainment at popular scale.  Such services have been central to book demand for millennia.

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Data: Page counts for parts and chapters in al-Nadim’s Fihrist (Excel version)

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[1] Toorawa (2010) p. 226.  Fihrist is an Arabic word for catalog.  Id. p. 240 states that the Fihrist is “fundamentally a catalogue of titles and not a biographical work.”  That seems to me to understate the importance of social relations in the Fihrist.  The Fihrist is a catalog of authors and titles.  It emphasizes authors writing about persons — history, biography, genealogy.

[2] Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970) pp. 1-2.  Wellisch (1986) provides an accessible overview of the Fihrist from a bibliographic perspective.

[3] Id. p. 20.  Al-Nadim attributes the statement to Nattahah Abu Ali Ahmad ibn Isma’il (died in 903), who worked as a secretary.  The statement is within a group of statements headed “Remarks about the Excellencies of Books.”  Al-Nadim notes that he included this subject and similar ones in another book that he wrote.  Id. p. 21.

[4] Quoting here the close translation of Toorawa (2010) p. 225.  Al-Jahiz, a leading literary figure in ninth-century Baghdad, is not included in this section.  Al-Jahiz is in the Fihrist in part 5, chapter 1 (theologians of Mu’tazilah and Murji’ah).  Al-Nadim reports an account of al-Jahiz’s erudition:

Abu Hiffan said: I have never seen or heard of anyone who loved books and studies more than three men: al-Jahiz, al-Fath ibn Khaqan, and Isma’il ibn Ishaq, the judge.  Whenever a book came into the hands of al-Jahiz he read through it, wherever he happened to be.  He even used to rent the shops of al-warraqun {booksellers}, remaining in them for study.

Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970) p. 255.  Abu Hiffan ‘Abd Allah ibn Ahmad ibn Harb al-Mihzami was a secretary and poet who died in Baghdad in 871.  Id. p. 398 gives an abbreviated account of the above statement and attributes it to Abu al-Abbas Muhammad ibn Yazid al-Mubarrad, a grammarian who died in Baghdad about 898.  Although al-Jahiz’s work is outrageously entertaining, al-Nadim may have regarded him as too erudite to be associated with literary entertainers.

[5] Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970) p. 332.  In the ancient Islamic world, astrology ranked with medicine as an important area of knowledge.

[6] Id. pp. 332-3.

[7] See Pellat, Charles. “Abu ’l-ʿAnbas al-Ṣaymarī.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2013.  Toorawa (2010), p. 243, insightfully observes that for al-Nadim, the ability to write books on any subject was a sign of adab.


Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Toorawa, Shawkat M. 2010. “Proximity, Resemblance, Sidebars and Clusters: Ibn al-Nadīm’s Organizational Principles in Fihrist 3.3.” Oriens. 38 (1/2): 217-247.

Wellisch, Hans H. 1986. The first Arab bibliography: Fihrist al- ʻulum. Champaign: University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library and Information Science.


Abdullah ibn Abbis, Ka’b al-Ahbar, and the origin of writing

Scientific archeology and secular history finds that writing developed with new accounting techniques about five thousand years ago.  Religious traditions centered on sacred scripture include stories that place writing much earlier in the history of the world and humans.  In the first century of Islam, Abdullah ibn Abbas and Ka’b al-Ahbar confronted a wide variety of Jewish and Christian stories about the origin of writing.

newspaper rock petroglyphs

In Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i, written about 1200 GC, writing is the first thing that God created.  The cited authority for this story is Abdullah ibn Abbas (died c. 687), a highly respected Qur’anic exegete.  Ibn Abbas conversed with the Companions of the Prophet.  He also conversed with Ka’b al-Ahbar (died c. 652), a Yemenite Jew who converted to Islam.  The story of the tablet and the pen occurs as the first tale in the Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i:

Ibn Abbas said:  The first thing that God created was the Preserved Tablet, on which was preserved all that has been and ever shall be until the Day of Resurrection.  What is contained thereon no one knows but God.  It is made of white pearl.

A tablet made of white pearl is even more sumptuous than books made of ivory.  The tale continues:

Then, from a gem, He created a Pen, the length of which would take five hundred years to traverse.  The end of it is cloven, and from it light flows as ink flows from the pens of the people of this world.  The Pen was told, “Write!”  And, as the Pen trembled because of the awesomeness of the proclamation, it began to reverberate in exaltation, as thunder reverberates.  Moved by God, it flowed across the Tablet, writing what is to be until the Last Day, whereat the Tablet was filled and the Pen ran dry.  And he who is to be happy shall be, and he who is to be wretched shall be. [1]

In Genesis, the first command of God is “Let there be light.”  Here it is “Write!”  The writing is performed with light.  Ancient audiences were likely to be enthralled with the sensuous description of the Pen trembling and reverberating in exaltation “as thunder reverberates.”  A translator of the tales of al-Kisa’i observed:

whereas the prophetic tales have their pious and devotional aspect, al-Kisa’i's version is basically designed for popular entertainment and should ideally be recited by a professional raconteur. [2]

The tale of the pen is attention-grabbing and entertaining.  But it also underscores a core imperative of Islam: submit to God’s will of what is to be.

The Book of Adam and Eve, in its Latin corpus, describes Eve’s strategy of technological diversification for the first writing.  The Book of Adam and Eve isn’t actually a single book, but a corpus of thematically related manuscripts in ancient western Eurasian languages and medieval vernaculars.[3]  According to surviving Latin texts from the tenth century and later, after Adam died, Eve recognized her impending death.  Eve gathered all her sons and daughters and said:

Hear me, my children, and I will tell you what the archangel Michael said to us when I and your father transgressed the command of God.  The archangel Michael said, “On account of your transgression, Our Lord will bring upon your race the anger of his judgement, first by water, the second time by fire; by these two will the Lord judge the whole human race.”  But listen carefully to me, my children.  Make tablets of stone and others of clay, and write on them all of my life and all of your father’s life, all that you have heard and seen from us.  If by water the Lord judges our race, the tablets of clay will be dissolved and the tablets of stone will remain; but if by fire, the tablets of stone will be broken up and the tablets of clay will be baked hard. [4]

Eve seems to have misinterpreted the archangel Michael’s sequence of judgments as alternate possibilities.  However, modern academic scholarship has established that blaming women is wrong, and that lack of attention to this story is part of a broader patriarchal plot to oppress women.[5]  On the other hand, diversification in storage media is currently recognized as a best practice for secure archiving.  The text written on tablets of stone should have survived the judgment by water (flood) that Hebrew scripture describes.

In his extensive book catalog, the learned bookseller al-Nadim recorded in tenth-century Baghdad a story associating Adam with the first writing.  The form of writing is important in Arabic culture, as in many other cultures around the world.  Al-Nadim began his book catalog, the Fihrist, with a section describing ways of writing.  He began that section with discussion of the origin of Arabic script.  Al-Nadim recorded:

Ka’b said, and before Allah I am not responsible for his statement, that the first to originate the Arabic and Persian scripts and other forms of writing was Adam, for whom be peace.  Three hundred years before his death he wrote on clay which he baked so that it kept safe even when the Flood overflowed the earth.  Then each people found its script and wrote with it. [6]

Writing on clay is less costly than writing on stone.  Moreover, by correctly anticipating the flood and baking the clay, Adam avoided losing the text.  Ka’b's account makes reasonable corrections, within its own context, to Eve’s account of writing in the Book of Adam and Eve.

Unlike its apparent accounting source, writing has great creative potential.  People enjoy telling stories.  A vast array of stories are attributed to ibn Abbas and Ka’b in the Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i.  Al-Nadim did not mention the tale of the tablet of pearl, attributed to ibn Abbas.  Al-Nadim explicitly distanced himself from responsibility for Ka’b statement about the origin of Arabic and Persian scripts.  Early Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) indicates deep respect for both ibn Abbas and Ka’b.[7]  Neither ibn Abbas nor Ka’b could control others’ attribution of stories to them.  Writing can be pious, devotional, and entertaining.  Accounting for writing requires good faith and good judgment from the reader.

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[1] Trans. Thackston (1978) p. 5.

[2] Id., introduction, p. xxiv.  Visual story-telling has been popular across Eurasia for millennia.

[3] Murdoch (2009) Ch. 1.

[4] Vita Adae et Evae, 49:3-50:2, trans. Charles (1913), slightly modernized.  A variant of this particular motif appears in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk 1, Ch. 2, sec. 3.  Antiquities of the Jews is a first-century work in Greek.  Judgment of the world by water (flood) occurs in Genesis 6-9.

[5] Jager (1996).

[6] Trans. Dodge (1970) p. 7.  Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i doesn’t include this story.  It includes a story of Adam writing on tanned sheepskins an acrostic poem encompassing the letters that are in the “Torah, Gospel, the Psalms and the Qur’an.”  Trans. Thackston (1978) no. 32, pp. 74-75 (“Adam’s Mission”).

[7] Twakkal (2008).  Ka’b was a key Islamic source for information about Jewish and Christian traditions prior to the Qur’an (Isra’iliyyat).  Id. provides extensive support for the statement of eminent hadith scholar Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi (d. 1348):

O God! Verily Ka‘b has been wronged by his accusers, and I cannot say anything regarding him other than that he is trustworthy and reliable, a scholar whose name was exploited and had many narrations attributed to him, most of which were fables and falsehoods, only to be circulated amongst the common masses and accepted by the aged from amongst the uneducated.

[image] Photo of Newspaper rock, Utah, showing petroglyphs from roughly 2000 to 650 years ago.  Dave Jenkins generously made the image available under a Creative Commons license.


Charles, Robert Henry. 1913. The apocrypha and pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jager, Eric. 1996. “Did Eve Invent Writing? Script and the Fall in ‘The Adam Books’.” Studies in Philology. 93 (3): 229-250.

Murdoch, Brian. 2009. The apocryphal Adam and Eve in medieval Europe: vernacular translations and adaptations of the Vita Adae et Evae. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. 1978. Muḥammad Ibn-ʻAbdallāh al-Kisā’ī. The tales of the prophets of al-Kisa’i. Boston: Twayne Publ.

Twakkal, Abd Alfatah. 2008. Ka’b al-Ahbar and the Isra’iliyyat in the Tafsir literature. McGill University.


Aquila and his Islamic doppelganger translate Hebrew scripture

Group identity interacts closely with the form and content of communication.  Consider Aquila, a Greek-speaking Roman from Pontus.  He probably was a relative of the second-century Roman Emperor Hadrian.  A Jewish biblical interpretive text (midrash) transmits a dialogue between Aquila and Hadrian:

Aquila once said to Hadrian the King: I wish to convert and become a Jew.

Hadrian said:  Do you really want to join this people?  How much have I humiliated it!  How many of them I have killed!  You would get mixed up with the very lowest of nations?  What do you see in them that makes you wish to become a proselyte?

Aquila said:  The least among them knows how the Holy One created the world, what was created on the first day and what was created on the second day, how long it is since the world was created and on what the world is founded.  Besides, their Torah is the truth.

Hadrian said:  Go and study their Torah, but do not be circumcised. [1]

Aquila learned Hebrew, studied the Torah, and got circumcised.  He became a proselyte to Judaism and conversed with leading Jewish sages.  Seeking knowledge and truth led him into a new group identity.

Solomon reading Hebrew scripture

Aquila translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek.  Aquila’s translation was not into his native Greek.  Aquila’s Greek translation closely followed the verbal sense of the Hebrew Bible.  Aquila translated the Hebrew into Greek “syllable by syllable and letter by letter,” capturing Hebrew linguistic particles and Hebrew etymologies within individual words.[2]  Aquila’s Greek translation is difficult to read and not pleasing by ancient standards for Greek style.  Aquila’s Greek translation probably was meant to be read under the guidance of an expositor who knew the Hebrew source text.[3]

Aquila’s translation encouraged personal intimacy with Jews.  The Torah was translated into Greek about four centuries earlier than Aquila’s translation as part of what’s come to be known as the Septuagint.  The Septuagint was probably made for Jews in Alexandria who could not read Hebrew.  The Christian New Testament, written in Greek hundreds of years after the Septuagint, incorporated text from versions of the Septuagint.  Compared to the Septuagint, Aquila’s translation brought Greek readers much closer to the Hebrew.  Like the Septuagint, Aquila’s translation served Jews who could not read Hebrew.  Aquila’s translation also served non-Jews who sought Jewish knowledge through becoming closer to the Jewish people.  Aquila’s translation strengthened the division between Jewish and Christian peoples and led readers of Hebrew scripture in Greek toward the Jews.

Another conversation between Aquila and Hadrian highlighted the importance of common life-forms in conveying the meaning of a text.  The importance of form appears in Hebrew from the beginning:

the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while ruah {wind/spirit} of God swept over the face of the waters [4]

The “face of the deep” and the “face of the waters” are images difficult to imagine.  Moreover, the Hebrew word ruah ranges in meaning from the physical movement of air in a living being’s breathing to an abstract cosmological spirit.  Leading Greek intellectuals of the time probably would have associated the latter portion of meaning with a Platonic demiurge.  Aquila described the meaning of ruah to Hadrian through specific, detailed action:

Hadrian asked Aquila the proselyte:  Is it true that you {plural form, probably but not necessarily meaning Jews} say that the world is sustained by ruah?

Aquila said to Hadrian: Yes.

Hadrian said to Aquila: Based on what do you say this?

Aquila said to Hadrian: Bring me camels.

Hadrian brought Aquila camels.  Aquila loaded the camels with burdens, stood the camels up and made them kneel, and then took the camels and strangled them.

Aquila said to Hadrian: Here are your camels, make them stand up.

Hadrian said to Aquila: After you strangled them?!

Aquila said to Hadrian: I have taken nothing from them; is it not ruah that I took from them? [5]

Many descriptions of a camel apply equally well to a recently strangled camel.  Signs of missing breath aren’t easy to perceive.  An animated form is a work of art that isn’t easy to translate.  Aquila’s response was to stay close to the animated form, which for Aquila meant Hebrew scripture in Hebrew.

Overlapping, encompassing, and enduring group identities make translation necessary though treacherous.  A text-based group identity requires at least interpretative translation of the text through the group’s changing linguistic practice over time.  The constellation and boundaries of groups are also dynamic.  The new Christian way incorporated Hebrew scripture, which has to be translated for Christians who cannot read Hebrew.  In Islam, the Qur’an revealed God’s message specifically in Arabic.  The Qur’an itself recognizes God speaking through Jewish and Christian scripture, but expresses concern about Jews and Christians corrupting God’s message:

there are among them illiterates, who know not the Book, but (see therein their own) desires, and they do nothing but conjecture.  Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say, “This is from Allah.”

They change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them [6]

Corruption is always a risk in human communication.  Yet staying close to an animated form isn’t the same as preserving a textual artifact.  Without translation or extensive cross-linguistic description, a sacred text may die.

Translation technique alone does not necessarily have any implications for group identity.  Al-Nadim’s Fihrist, a learned, extensive book catalog from late tenth-century Baghdad, transmits from an ancient source a description of translations from Hebrew.  The translator was Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam.  The Fihrist describes Ahmad as a “protegé” of Caliph Harun al-Rashid.  Ahmad’s name describes him as a son of the Jewish convert to Islam, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Salām, who was a celebrated companion of the Prophet of Islam.  Ahmad describes his translations as being like Aquila’s translations:

I have translated the beginning of this book {the book of a righteous follower of Abraham in pre-Islamic times}, and the Torah, the Gospels, and the books of the prophets and disciples from Hebrew, Greek and Sabian, which are the languages of the people of each book, into Arabic, letter for letter.  In so doing I did not wish to beautify or embellish the style for fear of inaccuracy.  I added nothing to what I found in the book which I was translating and I subtracted nothing, unless there were words presented by the language of the people of that book with meanings which could not be clearly translated into Arabic except by transposing.  Thus something coming last may not be clear unless it is placed first, so as to be understood in Arabic.  For example, the {Hebrew} words of one who says at maym tan I have translated into Arabic as ma’ hat, only I have placed ma’ (water) last and hat (bring) first.  So in translating these languages correctly into Arabic I seek the protection of Allah lest I add or subtract, except in the manner which I have recorded and explained in this book. [7]

Translation from Hebrew “letter for letter” is the type of translation Aquila did.  Ahmad’s claim that he did not add or subtract is consistent with imperatives in Deuteronomy.[8]  It would also seem to foreclose, like Aquila’s translation technique, Islamic concerns about corruption of Jewish scripture.  While sharing patterning in closeness to high authority, religious conversion, knowledge of ancient scripture, and translation technique, Aquila and Ahmad had much different positions relative to the Jewish people.  Aquila was a second-century convert to Judaism.  Ahmad was a Muslim from a Jewish family that had converted to Islam.

Ahmad as a translator of Hebrew scripture seems to be not a historical figure but an Islamic literary doppelganger of Aquila.  Specific biographical chronology is an important organizing principle within al-Nadim’s Fihrist.[9]  The biographical chronology that the Fihrist provides for Ahmad is meager and incoherent.  The Fihrist records Ahmad describing “People of the Book who became Muslims, among whom were ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam, ….”[10]  ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam died in 663/4.[11]  Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam means Ahmad, son of ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam.  That filial relation is inconsistent with Ahmad being a protegé of Caliph al-Rashid, who reigned from 786-809.  Moreover, al-Nadim in the Fihrist provides a folkloric context for Ahmad’s statements:

I once read a book which fell into my hands, and which was an ancient transcription, apparently from the library of al-Ma’mun.  In it the copyist mentions the names and numbers of the scriptures and revealed books, with their scope and with the things which most of the common people and the populace feel sure of and believe. [12]

Credible sourcing in the Islamic world typically meant a chronological list of respected scholars transmitting a text across time.  Al-Nadim provides, in contrast, a vague, abstract chronology (“once” upon a time; “an ancient transcription”) and a reference to common belief.  Moreover, al-Nadim records Ahmad declaring that the total number of books that God revealed was 104, with 100 books revealed from the time of Adam to that of Moses.  According to Ahmad, Adam wrote 21 books.[13]  A non-biblical Adam literature undoubtedly was in circulation, but it probably fell well short of 21 books.  Moreover, the Christian Gospels, the Christian epistles, and the Christian books of Acts and Revelation seem to add up to more than three books, even with Islamic combinations and discounting.[14]  Some Jews were renowned for multilingualism in the ancient Islamic world.[15]  But Ahmad translating from Hebrew, Greek, and Sabian seems like a construct created from the Qur’anic description of the People of the Book.  While the Fihrist is an expansive, detailed book catalog, it doesn’t seem to take seriously cataloging Jewish and Christian scripture.[16]  The most plausible explanation for the Fihrist‘s lack of care in cataloging Jewish and Christian books is that al-Nadim believed Jewish and Christian books were not credibly transmitted.  Abbasid courtly literature parodically inventing Ahmad as Aquila’s Islamic doppelganger is consistent with al-Nadim’s approach to cataloging Jewish and Christian books.

Human symbolic forms are not easily to control.  Horace, who was an eminent poet close to the Roman Emperor Augustus, wrote, “Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium.”  But Horace wrote of Greek culture in Latin, the language of imperial Rome.  Jerome, a Christian translating Hebrew scripture and Greek Christian gospels and epistles into Latin about three hundred years later, wrote, “What harmony can there be between Christ and the Devil? What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospels, and Cicero with the Apostle?”[17]  By Jerome’s time, Horace, Virgil, and Cicero were models of elegant Latin style.  They were ghostly figures that could influence Jerome’s translation of the bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  The treachery of translation is mainly in over-interpreting intentionality in human symbolic action.

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[1] From Exodus Rabba 30:12, trans. Seidman (2006) p. 87, adapted slightly.  The text is probably from the 11th or 12th century, and may reflect significant editing over time.  See Labendz (2009) pp. 354-5.  Seidman (2006), p. 87, observes that various sources describe Aquila as a relative of Hadrian, usually his nephew.  According to Epiphanius of Salamis, a fourth-century Christian bishop, Aquila first converted to Christianity.  However, Aquila’s devotion to astrology prompted him to renounce Christianity.  Epiphanius stated that Aquila was a relative to Hadrian by marriage and from Sinope in Pontus.  Epiphanius, On Weights and Measures, para. 14-15, trans. Dean (1935).

[2] From Jerome, Letter LVII. To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating, para. 11, trans. Fremantle (1892) (NPNF2-06).

[3] Brock (1979) pp. 74, 79.  The Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud), redacted sometime between late in the fourth century and early in the fifth century, indicates that translating Hebrew Scripture into Greek was acceptable to Jewish rabbis, in particular Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, about 2000 years ago.  Yerushalmi Megillah 1:8, 71a-b, trans. Labendz (2009) 358-9.  Id. p. 354 for dating.  Aquila’s translation was included in Origen’s Hexapla along with the Hebrew-Greek translations of Theodotion and Symmachus.  Among the three, Aquila seems to have attracted the most attention.  These three Hebrew-Greek translations were carried forward subsequently across 1500 years of Jewish life.

[4] Genesis 1:2.

[5] Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1, 77a, trans. Labendz (2009) p. 357, adapted slightly.  The text’s original language is Aramaic.  I’ve used above the Hebrew word ruah for the closely related Aramaic word ruha.  See Seidman (2006) p. 111.

[6] Qur’an 2:78-79, 5:13, described in English by ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ali.  Here’s more on this issue (tahrif) in Islamic thought.

[7] Fihrist, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 1, p. 42.  As-Safadi (d. 1363) described two methods of translation among (mainly Christian) translators from Greek and Syriac into Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad.  These methods were word-for-word translation and translation of the sense of whole sentences.  He declared that the second method of translations is superior.  Trans. Brock (1979) pp. 74-5.  In fact, a variety of translation styles existed.  Translations into Arabic in the ninth century did not develop chronologically from “crudely literal translations” to “polished, free translations.”  Gutas (1998) pp. 142-4

[8] Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32.  The phrases “nothing added” / “nothing subtracted” were also used in ancient Greek treaties.  Brock (1979) p. 76. They are sensible phrases for early contracts that were recopied.  Literal translation more generally was a defense against charges of changing the text or responsibility for heresies within the text.  Id.

[9] Stewart (2007).

[10] Fihrist, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 1, p. 42.

[11] On ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam, see Horovitz, J. “ʿAbd Allāh b. Salām.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition; Steven M. Wasserstrom. “ʿAbd Allāh ibn Salām.” Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World.

[12] Fihrist, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 1, p. 41.  Al-Maʾmun was caliph from 813 to 833.

[13] Id. p. 42.

[14] Based on Ahmad’s count, God revealed four books after Moses.  From an Islamic perspective, the Qur’an was one.  That leave three others.  The three remaining must include at least the Christian scripture that the Qur’an explicitly recognizes.

[15] E.g. Sallām at-Turjumānī.

[16] The Fihrist‘s relevant section first presents a Muslim forerunner (a pre-Islamic believer in Abraham) and a Muslim convert from Judaism (Ahmad).  The section then presents information from Jewish and Christian informants that al-Nadim consulted.  The sub-section on Christian books begins:

I asked Yunus the priest, who was an excellent man, about the books translated into Arabic language which they expounded and according to which they act.

Trans. Dodge (1970) p. 45.  The Fihrist‘s list of Christian books includes:

The Gospel of Matthew; The Gospel of Mark; The Gospel of Luke; The Gospel of John.  Book of Disciples, known as Fraksis {Acts}; Paul the Apostle, twenty-four epistles

Id. The Christian New Testament includes four gospels, Acts, twenty-one epistles (of which thirteen are under the name of Paul), and the Book of Revelation.  Thus the above count for Paul the Apostle appears to be inconsistent with any reasonable counting of the New Testament canon.  An accurate catalog of the New Testament canon should have been relatively easy for al-Nadim to acquire from the still vibrant Christian church under the early ‘Abbasids.  Al-Nadim seems to distance himself from his catalog of Jewish and Christian books.  The Fihrist describes the relevant section as “about titles of the books of the laws revealed to the sects of the Muslims and the sects of {other} peoples.” Dodge notes that the meaning of this phrase isn’t entirely clear. Id p. 2 (text translation from al-Nadim’s “Summary of Book”), p. 2, n. 6 (comment).  Al-Nadim’s position seems to be that Jewish and Christian scripture is encompassed historically within Islam, but not credibly transmitted.

[17] Horace, Epistles 2.1.156; Jerome, Epistle 22, To Eustochium, sec. 29.   At the time of Jerome’s Latin translation, existing Latin translations of Hebrew scripture (Vetus Latina) apparently had been made from the Septuagint.  Tertullian exclaimed:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy in common with the church?

Tertullian, On the prescription of heretics, Ch. 7.  The Christian New Testament has been transmitted in Greek.  Paul of Tarsus, a Jewish Christian, wrote his epistles in Greek and was highly learned and polished Greek rhetorician.

[image] Solomon studying Torah.  From the thirteenth-century Northern French Miscellany, British Library Additional 11639, folio f. 116.


Brock, Sebastian. 1979. “Aspects of Translation Technique in Antiquity.”  Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20, 1: 69-87.

Dean, James Elmer Dean, trans. 1935.  Epiphanius’ Treatise on weights and measures; the Syriac version. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gutas, Dimitri. 1998. Greek thought, Arabic culture: the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in Baghdad and early ʻAbbāsid society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries). London: Routledge.

Labendz, Jenny R. 2009. “Aquila’s Bible Translation in Late Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Perspectives.” The Harvard Theological Review. 102 (3): 353-388.

Seidman, Naomi. 2006. Faithful renderings: Jewish-Christian difference and the politics of translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stewart, Devin. 2007. “The Structure of the Fihrist: Ibn al-Nadim as Historian of Islamic Legal and Theological Schools.” International Journal of Middle East Studies. 39 (3): 369-387.

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