Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Two medieval novels from the Islamic tradition

Professor Joseph Lowry of the University of Pennsylvania generously replied to my inquiry regarding Arabic novels about life in a theocracy:

I can at least suggest two medieval philosophical novels from the Islamic tradition. Although they are not about life in a theocracy per se, they certainly both contemplate, in their various ways, life under a government that sees maintenance of a particular religious faith as a duty. Medieval Islamic government was not really a theocracy in the narrow sense, except briefly perhaps during and shortly after the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed (d. 632).

They are both beautifully translated by Professor [Lenn] Goodman of Vanderbilt University and have excellent introductions and notes and will be immediately appealing--I hope--to non-specialists. I am reading them with my Islamic philosophy class this semester.

These are:

Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, tr. Lenn Goodman (Los Angeles: gee tee bee press)

The Case of the Animals vs. Man before the King of the Jinn, tr. Lenn Goodman (Los Angeles, gee tee bee press)
There is an article in the Guardian about Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan that should be well worth your time; click here to read it, and here are the opening paragraphs to tickle your interest:

There is a tale for our troubled times about a man on a desert island, who keeps goats, builds a shelter and finally discovers footprints in the sand. But it is not called Robinson Crusoe. It was written by a wise old Muslim from Andalusia and is the third most translated text from Arabic after the Koran and the Arabian Nights.

It is called Hayy ibn Yaqzan or "Alive, Son of Awake", and it was a sensation among intellectuals in Daniel Defoe's day. As has happened before during times of tension between Islam and the west, it is again emerging from the shadows and that is a matter for celebration, whether in New York or Baghdad.

The Case of the Animals vs. Man before the King of the Jinn is the subject of a graduate seminar in Arabic at UCLA this spring. As the course listing summarizes it:
an allegorical story in which the animals complain to the just king of the jinn about the cruel treatment meted out to them by human beings. The debate--a satire on Men and Animals--in addition to theological disputes reflects fascinating psychological and ecological themes. In the course of the debate, the animals refute man’s claim of superiority over them by denouncing the rampant injustice and immorality of human society. The fable is a good example of [the author] Ikhwan’s socio-political criticism of Islamic society couched in animal characters without offending the sensibilities of their readers.
Both books sound fascinating to me.

Joseph Lowry is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Penn. His recent publications include: Law and Education in Medieval Islam: Studies in Memory of George Makdisi, eds. J. Lowry, D. Stewart and S. Toorawa. Cambridge: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 2005; "The Legal Hermeneutics of al-Shafi‘i and Ibn Qutayba: A Reconsideration," Islamic Law and Society 11:1 (2004); "Ritual Purity," Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, v. 4 (Leiden: Brill, in progress); "Histories and Polyphonies: Deep Structures inal-Tayyib Salih’s Mawsim al-hijra ila al-shamal," EdebiyĆ¢t 12 (2001); co-author, Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition, D. Reynolds, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Thanks to Joe Lowry for the stimulating suggestions.

--Marshal Zeringue