Stasis and Stagnation : The Seventh to Fourteenth Centuries
In the 7th/13th century, the Mongols were ravaging the Islamic heartland, eventually sacking Baghdad and destroying many of its books in 656/1258. Around the same time, the western realms witnessed the decline and defeat of many Muslim states in seventh-century Spain. Andalusian poet Salih al-Rundi (d. 684) wrote a famous elegy to his homeland, the opening lines of the poem saying,
For everything, once it has reached is peak, there’ll be decline,
Let not the human be beguiled, then by a lifestyle fine.
Similarly and perhaps not entirely coincidentally, for balagha the seventh and eighth centuries brought a crowning synthesis, but also the onset of decline.
The crowning systematization occurred in Central Asia, at the hands of Yusuf al-Sakkaki (d. 626/1229), a Khwarazmi scholar of the Arabic language. Sakkaki wrote a compendium of the major disciplines of Arabic entitled Miftah al-`Ulum (‘The Key to the Disciplines’), which he divided into three sections: morphology (sarf), syntax (nahw) and balagha respectively. The balagha section was a digest of Jurjani’s work on ma`ani and bayan, plus a section on badi` (rhetorical embellishments). Jurjani himself had discussed some rhetorical embellishments, but had not treated badi` as a separate sub-discipline. It was thus Sakkaki who pioneered the division of balagha into three sub-disciplines, which after him became the standard taxonomy, and his book became a standard reference. Jalal al-Din al-Qazwini (d. 739/1338, ‘the orator of Damascus’) wrote an abridgement of it (Talkhis al-Miftah, ‘The Summary of the Key’) which along with his al-Idah fi `Ulum al-Balagha (‘The Elucidation of the Disciplines of Balagha‘, intended as a commentary on the Talkhis), came to be widely studied and taught. Many subsequent scholars wrote commentaries on the Talkhis, one prominent example being Taftazani’s (d. 793/1390) Mutawwal (“The Protracted”). Suyuti’s (d. 911/1505) 1,006-line didactic poem `Uqud al-Juman fi `Ilm al-Ma`ani wal-Bayan was a versification of the contents of the Talkhis, and is still taught today in some traditional seminaries in the Muslim world.
Notwithstanding the achievements in consolidation and epitomization, balagha in the post-Zamakhshari era generally entered a stage of stasis, and even stagnation, with many later writers effectively trying to reduce it to a set of mechanical rules similar to grammar, and continuing to parrot the illustrative examples mentioned in the seminal works, without attempting to apply the principles to other texts. Scholarly efforts were mostly confined to summarizing earlier works, which is not without benefit, but with little new ground being broken, balagha lost its dynamic character. This retreat of scholarly endeavor into preservation mode is certainly comprehensible in light of the socio-political upheavals that affected much of this period, and indeed it was prominent across other Islamic disciplines at the time. While the summary-text (mukhtasar) was not a new phenomenon (in fiqh, for example, they existed as early as the 3rd century, with Muzani’s summary of Shafi`i’s legal rulings being an early example), it was in the 7th – 8th centuries that the art of synopsis and condensation reached its peak. While the resulting texts certainly demonstrate that a lot of time and skill were expended to produce them, and they can serve as valuable memory aids for the contours of a discipline, nevertheless, there were debates over the value of such super-summaries. The Mukhtasar Khalil, a Maliki summary text by the erudite Maliki jurist Khalil ibn Ishaq (d. 776) is particularly notorious for the terseness of its language, often to the point of opacity. The Mukhtasar Khalil contains 400,000 legal determinations condensed into less than 300 pages, and it remains a central pedagogical work for Maliki law, but it is not easily decipherable without explanation, and many commentaries have been written for it. A translation of the first few lines is presented below, and it is clearly not a “short and easy introduction to the Islamic rules on purification.” Hattab (d. 954), a famous commentator on Khalil’s mukhtasar, devoted several pages to unpacking and explaining these few lines:
“Lesser intangible impurity, and the legal ruling of tangible impurity, are lifted by al-mutlaq (unqualified) [water], which is that to which the name “water” applies without any stipulation, even if it be collected from dew, or it melted after having been frozen, or was the left-over after drinking by a animal or ritually impure woman or man, or the left-over after the washing of the latter two, or a large quantity contaminated by filth that does not change it[s characteristics] or is such that one is uncertain whether the agent of change is detrimental [to purity], or….”
– Khalil ibn Ishaq (d. 776), Mukhtasar
Ibn Khaldun, the famous Sevillian historian and sociologist (d. 808/1406) was among those who were critical of the mukhtasar enterprise, expressing his thoughts in a chapter of his Muqaddima (Prolegomena) entitled, “Excess of Summarized Texts in the Disciplines is Detrimental to Learning”.
We do find breaths of fresh air in this period, with scholars whose works are exceptions to the norm of stasis and stagnation. Thus, even though Razi did merely summarize Jurjani’s books, the latter were difficult to approach, and so his summary was useful. Razi himself was a polymath and independent thinker, whose own tafsir explores many of the subtleties of Quranic diction. Another refreshingly non-typical figure in the Zamkhsharian legacy is the Zaydi imam Yahya ibn Hamza al-`Alawi (d. 745/1344), whose work al-Tiraz li-Asrar al-Balagha wa `Ulum Haqa’iq al-I`jaz (‘The Embroidery in the Secrets of Eloquence and the Disciplines of the Realities of Inimitability’) was intended to refine the material and present it in easily-accessible explanation and arrangement. His work is also unique in that he illustrates the principles of balagha with many text-snippets beyond the handful of examples that most writers were simply echoing from one another.
The 7th century also witnessed the emergence of the poetic genre of Badi`iyyat, poems that praised the Prophet Muhammad, but at the same time incorporated rhetorical embellishments, with each line typically illustrating a different rhetorical device. The most prominent pioneer of the genre was `Ali ibn` Uthman al-Arbili (d. 670). Other famous badi`iyyat included those by Safiyy al-Din al-Hilli (d. 750), Suyuti (d. 911) and Aisha al-Ba`uniyya (d. 922), and poems in the genre continued to be written into the modern era.
— Suheil Laher
PHOTO CREDIT: Martina Neugebauer-Renner, https://pixabay.com/en/boot-ebb-rest-stop-on-the-dry-1253982/