Part 55

Poetry and prose work with words, and not with ideas

December 26, 2021

Both poetry and prose work with words, and not with ideas.

The ideas are secondary to the (words). The (words) are basic. The craftsman who tries to acquire the habit of poetry and prose uses words for that purpose. He memorizes appropriate words from Arab speech, so as to be able to employ it frequently and have it on his tongue. Eventually, the habit of the Mudar language becomes firmly established in him. He becomes free from the non-Arab (linguistic habits) in which he was reared among the people of his race.

He considers himself like a (half-breed) child who grows up among Arab Bedouins and learns their language as a child learns it. Thus, eventually, he becomes like one of them, as far as their language is concerned. 1513

Language is a habit concerned with speech. One tries to acquire it by repeated practice with the tongue, until one has acquired it, as is the case with (all other) habits. 1515

Now, tongue and speech deal only with words. Ideas are in the mind. Furthermore, everyone may have ideas. Everyone has the capacity to grasp with his mind whatever (ideas) his mind wants and likes. No technique is required for their composition. 1516 But the composition of speech, for the purpose of expressing (ideas), requires a technique, as we have stated. 1517 (Speech) is like a mold for ideas. The vessels in which water is drawn from the sea may be of gold, silver, shells (mother-of-pearl), glass, or clay. But the water is one and the same.

The quality of the vessels filled with water differs according to the material from which they are made, and not according. to the water (in them). In the same way, the quality of language, and eloquence in its use, differ according to different levels (of attainment) in the composition of speech, depending on the manner in which an utterance conforms to (the situation) that it wants to express. But the ideas are one and the same.

A person who is ignorant of the composition of speech and its methods, as required by the (Arabic) linguistic habit, and who unsuccessfully attempts to express what he wants to express, is like an invalid who attempts to get up but cannot, because he lacks the power to do so.

56.The (linguistic) habit is obtained by much memorizing.

The good quality of (the linguistic habit is the result of) the good quality of the memorized material.

Those who want to learn the Arabic language must memorize much material. The quality of the resulting habit depends on the quality, type, and amount of the memorized material. Those who memorize the poetry of Arab Muslims or 1520 the poetry of Habib (Abu Tammam), al-‘Attab1, 1521 Ibn al-Mu’tazz, 1522 Ibn Hani, 1523 or ash-Sharif ar-Radi, 1524 or the Rasa’il (prose letters) of Ibn al-Mugaffa’, 1525 Sahl b. Harun, 1526 Ibn azZayyat, 1527 al-Badi, 1528 or as-Sabi, 1529 will acquire a better habit, of a higher order of eloquence, than those who memorize the poetry of such recent poets as Ibn Sahl 1530 or Ibn an-Nabih, 1531 or the prose correspondence of al-Baysani 1532 or the ‘Imad al-Isfahani,1533 because they are inferior to the (older writers).

This is obvious to the intelligent critic who has (literary) taste.

The quality of a person’s own later use (of the language) depends on the quality of the material learned or memorized. After (a person has improved his material and his use of it), he can improve his habit.1534 By raising the level of the memorized literary material, the resulting level (of one’s habit) 1535 becomes higher, since nature takes (habit) as its model 1536 and the powers of a habit grow through nourishing it. This comes about as follows.

The soul is one in species according to its natural disposition. It differs in human beings depending on (its) greater or lesser intensity in connection with perceptions. 1537 This difference of the (soul) is the result of the differing perceptions, habits, and colorings that condition the soul from the outside. (Such conditioning) causes its existence to materialize and transforms its form from potentiality into actuality.

The habits obtained by the soul are obtained only gradually, as we have mentioned before. 1538 The poetical habit originates with the memorizing of poetry.

The habit of secretary-ship originates with the memorizing of rhymed prose and prose correspondence. The scientific habit originates in contact with the sciences and with various perceptions, research, and speculation. The juridical habit originates in contact with jurisprudence and through comparing the problems and considering them in detail and through deriving special cases from general principles.

The mystical habit originates through worship and dhikr exercises 1539 and through inactivation of the outward senses by means of solitude and as much isolation from human beings as possible, until (the person who does that) acquires the habit of retiring to his inner sense and his spirit and thus becomes a mystic. The same is the case with all the other (habits).

Each one of them gives the soul a special coloring that conditions it.

The good or bad quality of a particular habit depends on the (condition) under which the habit originated. A highclass habit of eloquence results only from the memorizing of high-class language material. This is why all jurists and scholars are deficient in eloquence. The sole reason is in the original character of the materialthey memorize, in the scientific rules and juridical expressions of which (their material) is full and which deviate from the proper method of eloquence and are inferior (to it).

The expressions used for rules and sciences have nothing to do with eloquence. (Now,) when such memorized material is the first to occupy the mind and is large and colors the soul, the resulting habit comes to be very deficient and the expressions connected with (that material) deviate from the methods of Arab speech. This, we find, applies to the poetry of jurists, grammarians, speculative theologians, philosophers, and others who are not saturated with memorized knowledge of the purest and noblest (most genuine) Arabic speech. 1540 Our excellent colleague, Abul-Qasim b. Ridwan, 1541 the writer of the ‘alamah 1542 of the Merinid dynasty, told me the following story. “One day, I had a conversation with our colleague Abul-‘Abbas b. Shu’ayb, 1543 the secretary of Sultan Abul-Hasan, who was the leading philologist of his time. I recited to him the beginning of a qasidah by Ibn anNahwi, 1544 without mentioning him as the author. (The qasidah runs:)

I did not know when I stood near the traces of the abandoned dwelling places What the difference was between the new ones and those that were almost effaced.

(Ibn Shu’ayb) said to me immediately, ‘That is a poem by a jurist.’ I asked him how he knew that. He replied= ‘Because he says= “What the difference was.” That is a juridical expression and does not belong to the methods of (proper) Arab speech.’ Full of admiration, I told him that it was indeed a poem by Ibn an-Nahwi.” Secretaries and poets are not like that. They choose carefully the material they memorize. They have contact with the methods of Arab speech with regard to prose correspondence. They select the good material from (Arab) speech.

One day, I had a conversation with Abu ‘Abdallah b. alKhatib,1545 the wazir of the rulers of Spain. He was the leading authority on poetry and secretaryship. I said to him, “I find it difficult to compose poetry when I want to, despite my understanding of (poetry) and my knowledge of the good language material in the Qur’an, the traditions, and the various (other) branches of Arab speech, although I know little by heart. It may be that I am affected by my knowledge of scientific poems and the rules of (literary) composition. I have memorized the large and the small poem by ashShatibi on Qur’an readings and Qur’an orthography, 1546 and I know them by heart.1547 I studied the two works of Ibn alHajib on jurisprudence and the principles of jurisprudence, 1548 the Jumal on logic by al-Khunaji, 1549 and many of the rules of scientific school instruction.

That has filled my memory and harmed the habit for which I was prepared 1550 through the good material from the Qur’an, the traditions, and (other documents of) Arab speech. It prevented my talent from developing.” (Ibn al-Khatib) looked at me in amazement for a while. Then he said, full of admiration= “Would anyone but you say a thing like that?” The remarks made in this section explain another problem. They explain why both the poetry and the prose of the Muslim Arabs are on a higher level of eloquence and literary taste than those of pre-Islamic Arabs.

We find that the poetry of Hassin b. Thabit, 1 551 ‘Umar b. Abi Rabi’ah, 1552 alHutay’ah, 1553 Jarir, 1554 al-Farazdaq, 1555 Nusayb, 1556 Ghaylan Dhur-Rummah, 1557 al-Ahwas, 1558 and Bashshir, 1559 as well as the literary products of the ancient Arabs of the Umayyad dynasty and the early years of the Abbasid dynasty, (including) their sermons, theirprose correspondence, and their discussions with the rulers, are on a much higher level of eloquence than the poetry of an-Nibighah, 1560 ‘Antarah, Ibn Kulthum, Zuhayr, ‘Alqamah b. ‘Abadah, and Tarafah b. al’Abd. (They also are on a higher level) than the prose and discussions of pre-Islamic (authors). A sound taste and a healthy natural disposition 1561 will confirm the (correctness of this observation) to the intelligent critic of eloquence.

This is because the authors who lived in Islam learned the highest form of speech (as it is found) in the Qur’an and in the traditions, which for human beings is inimitable. It entered into their hearts. Their souls were brought up on the (linguistic) methods (of this kind of speech). As a result, their nature was lifted, and their habits with regard to eloquence were elevated, to greater heights than had ever been reached by their pre-Islamic predecessors, who had not learned the (highest) form of speech and had not been brought up on it. Therefore, their prose and poetry were better in texture and of a purer brilliance than their (predecessors’). They were more solid in construction and more even in execution, because their (authors) had learned the high-class speech (of the Qur’an and the traditions). When a person thinks this (explanation) over, his literary taste will attest to its correctness, if he has taste and understands eloquence.

I once asked our shaykh, the sharif Abul-Qasim, 156 2 the (chief) judge of Granada in our day, why the Muslim Arabs were on a higher level (of eloquence) 1563 than the pre-Islamic Arabs. (Abul-Qasim) was the chief authority on poetry.

He had studied (it) in Ceuta with certain 1564 shaykhs there who were pupils of ash-Shalubin.1565 He had (also) made a profound study of philology and acquired a more than perfect knowledge of it. Thus, he was a man who, with his taste, could be expected not to be ignorant of (this question). He remained silent for. a long while.

Then he said to me, “By God, I do not know.” Whereupon I said, “I shall suggest to you (an idea) concerning this problem that has come to my mind. Perhaps, it explains it.” And I mentioned to him what I have noted (here). He was silent in amazement.

Then, he said to me= “Doctor (faqih), this is a remark that deserves to be written down in gold(en letters).” After that, he (always) treated me with deference. He listened to what I had to say in class and acknowledged my excellence in scholarship.