The Life and Times of Abu Tammam (Library of Arabic Literature)

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By: Abu Bakr al-Suli
Beatrice Gruendler, Editor

New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015. 424p. $40.00. ISBN: 978-0 814760406. Ebk: 336 pp. Library of Arabic Literature; Bilingual edition (December 1, 2015). ASIN: B010VIKVTA.

Volume: 3 Issue: 12

December 2015

Review by:

Issa J. Boullata, PhD

McGill University

Montreal, QC, Canada

Entitled Akhbār Abī Tammām in Arabic, this book by al-Sulī (d. c. 946 A.D.) is translated into English for the first time; in addition, it has an edition of the original Arabic text on opposite pages of the translation. It is an important book, not only because it treats of the great poet Abu Tammam (died c. 846 A.D.) and his times during the Abbasid period, but also because it is a book which offers a unique insight into the formative phase of literary criticism of Arabic poetry.

The Akbar still exists in a unicum manuscript at the Suleymāniya Library in Istanbul; it was published in a well-edited book in Cairo in 1937, and reprinted in Beirut in1956. Beatrice Gruendler, Professor of Arabic at the Freie Universität Berlin, makes good use of this earlier edition in editing this manuscript and presents her own with minor emendations.

The book and its preceding epistle offer a good picture of the vitality of poetry and of its importance in the culture of the times, especially at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, as well as in the other regions of the empire. Abu Tammām was rewarded generously by his patrons for his orally presented poems, not only in appreciation for his novelty and inventiveness, but also — surely — for his enhancement of the rulers’ public image and political prestige. Some of his patrons were generals in the Caliph’s army, regional rulers, influential government scribes, and high-ranking civil servants. Under Caliph al-Mu’tasim (r. 833-842 A.D.), his career reached its peak with memorable poems such as the one celebrating the Abbasid victory over the Byzantines at Amorium in 838 A.D.

Abu Tammam excelled in panegyrics but composed poems in other genres too. His style was one that abounded with rhetorical figures of speech and he was noted for his use of what came to be called the New Style (badī’ …. ) which involved a lot of “play on words.” With logical twists, paradoxes, antitheses, metaphors, and personification of abstract ideas, Abu Tammam’s poetry was difficult but became popular nonetheless, for he remained master of the classical lexicon of older poetic motifs. Al-Suli gathered many events from Abu Tammam’s life and organized them with related poems, abridged for the most part by being made up of selected verses only. He showed the significance of Abu Tammam’s innovations; and thus, he enhanced the growth of Arabic literary criticism by defending the new style, though he tried to be even-handed between ancient and contemporary poets.

At the beginning of the book, Professor Gruendler has a 13 page introduction, a 2 page note explaining her method of editing and translating, and 3 pages of ample endnotes to the introduction. At the end of the book, she offers 25 pages of detailed endnotes to her edition, a 32 page glossary of names and terms used in the text of the book, a 7 page up-to-date bibliography, and a 3 page list of publications for further reading. The book ends with a 4 page concordance of verses quoted in the main text, and a 20 page detailed index. All this effort in the service of scholarship will make readers appreciate her work and better understand her edited Arabic text and its English translation, both of which have their own footnotes on various readings as well as numerical references in the side margins to the folios of the original Arabic manuscript in Istanbul.

I mention all these details for readers of this journal who may not have been exposed to this kind of academic work. I should add that Beatrice Gruendler’s edition is a superb example of European scholarship in Arabic and Islamic studies, and that her English translation is an excellent rendering of the Arabic original.

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