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Orientalisches Mittelalter.

The old edition of the Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft was published in twenty-two volumes from 1923 to 1938. It included volumes on Indian, Japanese, Ancient Hebrew, Babylonian-Assyrian and ancient Egyptian literature, but, surprisingly, none on the literatures of the medieval Middle East. So the volume under review is a welcome and necessary innovation in the new edition, of which vols. 1-3 and 6-23 have already appeared since 1972. On the dust jacket three more volumes are promised, one of them on (presumably modern) Near Eastern and Central Asian literatures.

The titles both of the volume and of the series demand some clarification. Here, "Orientalisch" does not mean "Oriental"; it is an infelicitous equivalent of Middle Eastern (including, of course, Arab Spain and North Africa). "Mittelalter" or Middle Ages is a problematical term when applied to the Middle East. Here it extends from several centuries before the coming of Islam until c. 1500 A.D., or, in the case of Ottoman literature, c. 1600, in some respects rather arbitrary dates for the literatures under discussion. The editor of the volume cannot be blamed for these decisions; he explains the strictures imposed on him in an introductory chapter. Originally, the title of the volume was to be Islamisches Mittelalter; this was abandoned in favor of a regional designation, in accordance with other volumes in the series. Non-Islamic literatures are represented, yet as a whole the volume is Islamocentric. Thus the chapters dealing with Syriac and Iranian literature before Islam are conceived primarily as pointing toward Islam, a procedure that may not be quite palatable to specialists in these fields. However, the four chapters by Carsten Colpe, on Hellenization and de-Hellenization, the Iranian tradition, Judaeo-Christian literature and Gnosticism are, as far as I am able to judge, very competent.

The presence of these chapters, and that on Jewish literature within the context of Islam (by Johann Maier, pp. 524-45), excellent though they may be, makes the volume rather heterogeneous, through no fault of the authors or the editor. It is not merely a result of the greater cultural unity of Islam as set against other Middle Eastern traditions, but is also connected with the term Literaturwissenschaft of the series title. The chapters on Islamic literatures (Arabic, Persian and Turkish) restrict themselves largely to what may be called belles-lettres, excluding religious and scientific literature, whereas in the non-Islamic sections "literature" is given a much broader sense.

The word "Literaturwissenschaft" in the title is in fact misleading: "Literatur" would have done. Middle Eastern literary theory is not given its due, although the editor of the volume would have been pre-eminently qualified to do so. All we have now are his all-too-brief remarks in his introduction. If there are chapters on the theory of love (by J. Christoph Burgel, pp. 482-98) and a detailed one on prosodic systems, showing all five Khalilian circles (by Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr., pp. 409-22), why not one on rhetoric and poetics? Only on the literary conceit in Islamic literatures is there a long and fascinating chapter (by Benedikt Reinert, pp. 366-408), which connects literature and calligraphy in a stimulating manner. One misses, however, a reference to emblematic poetry (the "pattern poem"). The kind of calligraphy in which the angle of writing is varied is said to have no equivalent in poetry, but the pattern poems do precisely and literally this (early examples are found in the 9th century in Ibn Dawud's Zahra). In any case, the concetto is but one aspect of what has been called mannerism, which in turn is but one aspect of literary style; and it is stylistics (the subject of ilm al-balagha "the science of eloquence, rhetoric") more than anything else which is the criterion of "literariness" in the medieval Middle Eastern tradition.

Another basic concept, adab (the word stands in fact for more than one concept) is the subject of a chapter by Hartmut Fahndrich. I have only two minor criticisms. Al-Jahiz's essay "On Seriousness and Jesting" is not devoted, as is suggested, to the opposition of jest and earnest. The diagram on p. 338, which shows adab in a configuration between knowledge/ignorance and seriousness/jesting, suggests, surely unintentionally, that the four components contribute to adab in equal measure, and that seriousness is equidistant between knowledge and ignorance.

In the term adab, literary and ethical connotations are inextricably intertwined. It is fitting, therefore, that Fahndrich's chapter is followed by that of Dimitri Gutas, on ethical writings in Islam. It concentrates on prose, perhaps underplaying the role of poetry (not only hikma and zuhd but other modes as well) as a vehicle of ethics. The reader will learn about the existence of zuhd in Arabic only from Reinert's article on the Persian qasida.

Poetry, however, is given its due in the rest of the volume. Literary prose, on the other hand, is dealt with in a rather scattered fashion, not wholly inappropriate considering both its nature in the Islamic literatures and the literal meaning of the Arabic word for prose, nathr. Prose is the main subject of the chapters by Fahndrich, Gutas, W. M. Thackston Jr. (on legends and mythology, pp. 186-201) and Peter Heath (on Arabic folk literature, pp. 423-39). Koran and Hadith are briefly and ably presented by William A. Graham (pp. 166-85; the Koranic fragment on p. 167 is taken from the sura "The Pilgrimage" rather than "The Prophets").

Some prose genres are, surprisingly, wholly or nearly absent. Historiography and biography belonged, to a large extent, to belles-lettres, according to traditional Middle Eastern standards, as did epistolography. The brief passage on "adabicized" genres in Fahndrich's article cannot do full justice to their importance. Insufficient space too is given to the role of saj ("rhymed prose") in Arabic literature, as used in genres as divergent as the oracles of the old soothsayers, the epistles of the chancery scribes, and the maqamas of prose writers. It is true, as the editor explains in his introduction, that the traditional Middle Eastern concept of literariness should not be adopted too rigorously in a volume like this, for that would mean that some genres (e.g., popular fiction such as The Thousand and One Nights) would have to be excluded; but a more inclusive compromise between the different approaches, Western and Middle Eastern, would have been desirable.

Separate chapters are given to specific poetic genres or kinds: excellent chapters on the qasida in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, by Renate Jacobi (whose contribution supersedes part of Ilse Lichtenstadter's survey of pre-Islamic literature in the same volume), Bededikt Reinert and Barbara Flemming, respectively; on the ghazal in Persian and Turkish (Burgel and Flemming); the quatrain (Reinert); the epic in Persian and Turkish (Burgel and Flemming); on the literatures of Sufism (Annemarie Schimmel); Persian and Turkish folk literature (J. T. P. de Bruijn and Flemming); and Arabic strophic poetry, an article with a forcefully presented thesis on the influence on troubadour poetry, by Gregor Schoeler. Other articles dealing with East-West influence are those by Dieter Kremers, on the Islamic background of Dante's Commedia, and by Annemarie Schimmel, on oriental influences on German literature (pp. 546-62; note that on p. 548 "bibliozentrisch" does not mean book-centered but Bible-centered). At the end of her essay she concludes, interestingly, that German literature, thanks to people like Goethe and Ruckert, succeeded better than English or French in the adopting and adapting of oriental forms and concepts.

The volume is provided with two indexes, of persons and titles, the latter incorporating only anonymous works. Regrettably there is no index of subjects and technical terms, which, it seems to me, is indispensable in a work like this to specialist and outsider alike. A pleasing feature of the impeccably produced volume are its illustrations. In spite of the heterogeneity and omissions I have mentioned (some of them unavoidable), Orientalisches Mittelalter is an impressive work of scholarship.
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Author:Gelder, Geert Jan van
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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