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Book: “Literature and the Islamic Court”

This book is based on a Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation completed in 2009 under the advice of professor Wolfhart Heinrichs (d. 2014).

An erudite work of exemplary scholarship, it deals with the court of the vizier al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ‘Abbād (938-995 A.D.), who was the agent of the Buyids in western Iran and who was of Shi‘i and Mu‘tazili persuasion. The book also deals with the courtiers and the literary activity that the court witnessed, mostly in Arabic and occasionally in Persian. Since there were no publishing houses in medieval Islamic civilization as in modern times, courts were the ideal place for litterateurs to make public their product and receive evaluation from a patron and sometimes from peers present at the court, and to get a reward from the patron. Patrons vied with one another to attract the best poets, writers, and other intellectuals of the day to their courts in order to gain prestige and enhance their position and legitimacy, and –understandably—there was competition too among their courtiers.

It may be no exaggeration to say that Erez Naaman, Assistant Professor of Arabic at American University in Washington, DC, left no stone unturned in his effort to study the subject. He had recourse to a large number of primary medieval Arabic sources as well as to numerous modern works in several languages on literature and the Islamic court, and on al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ‘Abbād and related topics. His ample footnotes, often giving additional facts or interesting arguments, as well as his comprehensive bibliography are evidence of his indefatigable endeavor to meet the highest standards of scholarship; furthermore, his commendable acumen in historical and literary criticism is, indeed, remarkable.

From Naaman’s research, one learns that the vizier spent more than 100,000 dinars per year on patronage and philanthropy, and in Ramadan more than in all other months combined. Aside from gifts of money and/or garments, rewards to courtiers for their literary contributions could include profits from the land tax of an estate in the area under his control. The vizier encouraged adherence to the Shi‘a and Mu‘tazila but did not require it as a necessity for his courtiers. A poet and prose writer himself, his literary predilections influenced the courtiers seeking his rewards, the court’s literary field eventually leaning to his own stylistic preferences—a “natural” style perfected by artifice in poetry, and an “artful/artificial” style in prose. Erez Naaman devotes a large section of the book analyzing, in exquisite detail and with relevant examples, the genres and styles of the poetry and prose used by courtiers in their public recitals at the vizier’s court in order to earn his generous rewards.

Professor Naaman explains the dispositions that the courtiers had to have and to develop in order to succeed in the vizier’s court. He refers to these dispositions as “habitus,” using the term as defined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, although the concept has been known as early as Aristotle; in medieval Arabic philosophical works, it was referred to as malaka or qunya. Before being accepted at court, the courtiers had to be subjected to screening by the chamberlain and then to auditioning by the knowledgeable vizier himself. For their own advantage, the courtiers had also to differentiate between his formal sessions, when official state matters were the subject, and his informal sessions, in which restrictions were “dimmed” or relaxed, and they were freer to interact with the vizier and the other courtiers.

Several courtiers and their court literary participation are studied by Professor Naaman, some more successful than others in their habitus; but he devotes one whole chapter, Chapter 5, the last in his book, to Abū H̱ayyān al-Tawhīdī (d. 1023 A.D.), a distinguished essayist and prose writer, who was a courtier for three years at Ibn ‘Abbād’s court and earlier at that of his predecessor, Ibn al-‘Amīd. Al-Tawhīdī is shown to have been totally out of place at al-Ṣāḥib’s court, not having successfully negotiated courtly interaction. Cantankerous as he was, his book Mathālib al-Wazīrayn: Akhlāq al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ‘Abbād wa Ibn al-‘Amīd is a devastating report expressing his view of the two viziers which, with his other works, Professor Naaman used to show al- Tawhīdī’s criticism of the court’s literary taste and his aversion to its literary proceedings and its general moral ambience that was not above the scatological sometimes.

I believe that Professor Naaman has admirably described and analyzed the Islamic court as an institution, not only as an indispensable part of political and administrative structure in medieval Islamic life but also as a vital locale for the history of Arabic literature. He has written extensively elsewhere on the concept of habitus and on other Islamic courts, including that of another Ibn ‘Abbād, al-Mu‘tamid ibn ‘Abbād, King of Seville (1069-1091). His writings should be consulted by interested students and scholars of Arabic literature, Islamic history, and medieval studies.

Writer, Erez Naaman, is Assistant Professor of Arabic at American University in Washington, DC. His research focuses on medieval Arabic literature and culture, and intellectual Islamic history.

Table of Contents


A: The court as an institution

B: al- Ṣāḥib Ibn ‘Abbād his court

-The sources and the current state of research

-Description of the chapters


Al- Ṣāḥib: a Potentate and Patron

-The patron and his political power

-The court: terminology and usage

-Benefit for gratitude

-Poetry as a commodity and the court as a market

-Co-coptation of protégés and terms of patronage


The courtiers

-Why courtiers

-The courtly habitus

-Screening and auditioning

-Frameworks and structures of the literary activity


The literary field of the court: representative genres

-The generic repertoire of the literary field

-Types of poetry

-Types of artistic prose


The hegemonic taste in the literary field

-Poetry recited at the inauguration event as a rest-case

-Metaphors in al-Rustami’s Mansion Ode

-Analysis of the metaphorical evidence

-The literary taste of al- Ṣāḥib

-The response of the court poets to al- al- Ṣāḥib’s taste


Al-Tawhidi at al- Ṣāḥib’s court: what went wrong?

-The unsuccessful interaction

-Explanations for the failure

-Al-Tawhidi, his philosophical background and the habitus concept

-incompetent and out of place at the court

-Transgression as a component of the curtly habitus

-Al-Tawhidi’s criticism of the hegemonic literary taste in prose

-Reasons precluding adaption to courtly habitus

-Al-Tawhidi’s subsequent failure with the vizier Ibn-Sa’dan

-Al-Tawhidi’s performance in the scholarly circle

-Al-Tawhidi’s ineptitude expressed by Abul-Wafa’



-Appendix: Al-Rustami’s Mansion Ode


Bibliographic information

Title: Literature and literary people at the court of Al-Sahib Ibn `Abbad

Author: Erez Naaman

Publisher:  Routledge

Language: English

Length: 332 pages

ISBN: 978-1138945258

Pub. Date: 17 Feb 2016,

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