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Autobiography is a literary genre which Western scholarship has ascribed mostly to Europe and the West. Countering this assessment and presenting many little-known texts, this comprehensive work demonstrates the existence of a flourishing tradition in Arabic autobiography.
Interpreting the Self
discusses nearly one hundred Arabic autobiographical texts and presents thirteen selections in translation. The authors of these autobiographies represent an astonishing variety of geographical areas, occupations, and religious affiliations. This pioneering study explores the origins, historical development, and distinctive characteristics of autobiography in the Arabic tradition, drawing from texts written between the ninth and nineteenth centuries c.e.

This volume consists of two parts: a general study rethinking the place of autobiography in the Arabic tradition, and the translated texts. Part one demonstrates that there are far more Arabic autobiographical texts than previously recognized by modern scholars and shows that these texts represent an established and—especially in the Middle Ages—well-known category of literary production. The thirteen translated texts in part two are drawn from the full one-thousand-year period covered by this survey and represent a variety of styles. Each text is preceded by a brief introduction guiding the reader to specific features in the text and providing general background information about the author. The volume also contains an annotated bibliography of 130 premodern Arabic autobiographical texts.

In addition to presenting much little-known material, this volume revisits current understandings of autobiographical writing and helps create an important cross-cultural comparative framework for studying the genre.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520226678
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/18/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Dwight F. Reynolds is Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Coauthors: Kristen E. Brustad, Michael Cooperson, Jamal J. Elias, Nuha N. N. Khoury, Joseph E. Lowry, Nasser Rabbat, Devin J. Stewart and Shawkat M. Toorawa

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Read an Excerpt

Interpreting the Self

Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition

University of California

Copyright © 2001 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22667-4


When the Egyptian scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti sat down to pen his autobiography in about 1485, he began by situating his text within what was for him a recognized tradition of Arabic autobiographical writing. In the preface to his work he first considers the Qur'anic injunction that one should speak of the blessings one has received from God ("And as for the bounty of your Lord, speak!" [Q 93:11]) and draws on traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) and Qur'anic commentaries to demonstrate that to speak of God's blessings, indeed to enumerate them in detail, is a means of expressing gratitude to God and thus a duty incumbent on every Muslim. He therefore titles his autobiography al-Tahadduth bi-ni mat Allah (Speaking of God's Bounty) and closes his preface by noting both laudable and blameworthy motivations for writing an autobiography. He concludes by carefully identifying his own motivations as the former:

Scholars from ancient to modern times have continually written biographical accounts of themselves [yaktubuna li-anfusihim tarajim]. They have done so with praiseworthy intentions, among which is "speaking of God's bounty" in thanks, and also to make known their circumstances in life so that others might emulate them in these, so that those who do not know of these circumstances should learn of them, and so that whosoever might later wish to mention them in works of history or in biographical dictionaries might draw upon their accounts.

Among those who have done so before me are: [1] the Imam 'Abd al-Ghafir al-Farisi [d. 1134], who was a gifted memorizer of the traditions of the Prophet; [2] al-'Imad al-Katib al-Isfahani [d. 1201], who wrote an account of himself in an independent work which he titled al-Barq al-shami [The Syrian Thunderbolt]; [3] the jurist 'Umara al-Yamani [d. 1175], who wrote an account of himself in an independent work; [4] Yaqut al-Hamawi [d. 1229], who wrote an account of himself in his Mu'jam kuttab [Biographical Dictionary of Writers]; [5] Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib [d. 1374], who wrote an account of himself that occupies a half-volume of his book Ta'rikh Gharnata [The History of Granada], the whole work being eight volumes long; [6] the pious ascetic and accomplished legal scholar Abu Shama [d. 1268], who wrote an account in his book [The Sequel to the 'Two Gardens'] in several fascicles; [7] the scholar of Prophetic traditions, Taqi al-Din al-Fasi [d. 1429], who wrote an account of himself in his book, Ta'rikh Makka [The History of Mecca], in several fascicles; [8] the scholar of Prophetic traditions, Ibn H. ajar [d. 1449], who wrote an account of himself in his book Tarikh qudat Misr [The History of the Judges of Egypt]; and [9] the Imam Abu Hayyan [d. 1344], who devoted to himself an account in an independent book which he titled al-Nudar [The Book of al-Nudar], a weighty volume.

I have emulated them in this and have written this book in order to speak of God's bounty and to thank Him, not out of hypocrisy, nor for my own credit, nor out of pride. God is our source of help and to Him we entrust ourselves.

In this simple preamble, al-Suyuti alludes to an entire world of literary conventions and traditions. He is, first of all, fully aware of a centuries-old tradition of autobiography in the Arabic language to which he was adding his own comparatively lengthy work (the Arabic printed text is two hundred fifty pages). Al-Suyuti's various autobiographical works (he wrote at least three versions of his life) and similar introductions written by other autobiographers demonstrate that the genre of autobiography was clearly established in the Arabic literary tradition no later than the early twelfth century, although the earliest examples of Arabic autobiography can be traced back at least as far as the ninth century.

A second point of interest lies in al-Suyuti's list of previous autobiographies, for the texts cited are quite disparate. Some are short accounts of barely two pages that give scarcely more information than a curriculum vitae and are embedded in, or appended to, larger works on various topics; others are independent volumes of hundreds of pages devoted entirely to the author's life and works. Not only is al-Suyuti aware of this diversity, but he persistently calls our attention to it by singling out these very characteristics in his enumeration of predecessors. On the one hand, he is interested in, and carefully notes, the varying length and status of these texts; on the other, it is clear that he is primarily interested in earlier scholars, politicians, and religious figures who engaged in the act of writing about their own lives, regardless of the type of text produced. It is the act of writing an account of one's life and not the formal characteristics of the resulting text that defined autobiography for al-Suyuti and his contemporaries. In fact, al-Suyuti does not use a noun for the concept of autobiography but rather a verbal expression, tarjama nafsahu or tarjama li-nafsihi, which, among several interrelated meanings (see below), signifies "to compile a titled work/ entry on oneself" or "to translate/interpret oneself," in the sense of creating a written representation of oneself, hence the title of this volume.

Al-Suyuti also allows us a glimpse of the rather ambiguous moral nature of the autobiographical enterprise, first in the four motivations he cites in the opening of this passage and then, more revealingly, in the personal disclaimers he presents to the reader at its close. The first motivation derives from the Qur'anic injunction to speak of God's blessings in thanks; the importance al-Suyuti attaches to this motive is seen in the very title of his work, Speaking of God's Bounty. The second motivation is to provide an account of an exemplary life that can lead others to emulate one's virtues and meritorious acts, an idea found in many areas of Islamic intellectual and spiritual life. It springs, at least in part, from the idea of the Prophet Muhammad as an exemplar (qudwa), as the ideal human being whose life and acts (sunna) are to be imitated by believers.

These motivations for presenting one's life-as an act of thanking God and for others to emulate-stand in marked contrast to the confessional mode of some medieval and premodern European autobiographies that emphasize the public recognition ("confessions") of one's faults, sins, and shortcomings as a warning to others. One tradition seems to be framed to make the statement, "These are the ways in which I have enjoyed a moral and productive life-imitate me in them," while the other seems to imply, "These are the ways in which I have been deficient or in error-beware of similar pitfalls!" Each frame produced its own moral tensions and anxieties of representation, as well as literary strategies for resolving those issues. Although this comparison is a very broad one, and these general orientations certainly did not fully dictate the content of autobiographies in either context, it serves as a useful background against which to read contemporaneous autobiographies from European and Islamic societies in earlier periods.

Al-Suyuti's third motivation is the basic informational value of such accounts: they allow others to learn of one's life and conditions. And, finally, he presents a scholarly argument that these self-authored (and therefore presumably reliable) texts will be available to later writers who may use them in their biographical and historical works.

At the same time, al-Suyuti seeks to fend off potential criticism of his work by stating that he is not motivated by hypocrisy, self-interest, or pride. Herein lies a thread that wends its way through centuries of Arabic autobiographical writing: the tension between the portrayal of the self and self-aggrandizement, between recounting personal achievement and piously accepting the gifts bestowed on one by God that are to be publicized only for His greater glory. In al-Suyuti's case, this tension is in part alleviated by his strategy of linking his own book to a chain of works by pious and scholarly figures of the past: if such prominent men of the past have engaged in this act, then why should not he as well? To do so is thus framed as emulation of the actions of righteous men of the past, precisely one of the positive values al-Suyuti attributes to the act of autobiography itself: to write an autobiography is both an emulation of earlier respected figures and an act that will enable later generations to emulate the autobiographer. This strategy was successful enough to be copied by a number of later Arabic autobiographers, including Ibn Tulun of Damascus (d. 1546); al-Sha'rani, the Egyptian Sufi mystic (d. 1565); al-'Aydarus, the Arabo-Indian religious scholar (d. 1628); Ibn 'Ajiba, the Moroccan Sufi shaykh (d. 1809); al-Mu'askari (d. 1823), the Algerian religious scholar; and even the Druze Pan-Arabist thinker and literary critic Amir Shakib Arslan (d. 1946), all of whom included similar lists of predecessors in the opening or closing passages of their autobiographies.

Al-Suyuti's emphasis on passing on knowledge of his "circumstances," "conditions," or "states" (ahwal or atwar), words commonly used by medieval Muslim scholars to describe the contents of autobiographies, reflects a widespread conceptualization of life as a sequence of changing conditions or states rather than as a static, unchanging whole or a simple linear progression through time. A life consists of stages dictated not merely by one's progression from childhood through youth to adulthood and old age but also by one's changing fortunes, which were often contrasted to those few areas of life in which genuine accrual over time was thought possible: the acquisition of knowledge and spiritual understanding, the creation of scholarly and literary works, and the fostering of offspring and students.

When al-Suyuti begins to recount his life, he presents it not in a chronological narrative but rather in categorized accounts describing different aspects of his identity and intellectual activity. Consecutive sections discuss his genealogy, his geographic origin, his emulation of pious figures who had written about their own geographic origins, legal opinions of his father with which he disagreed (to demonstrate his independence of thought), his birth, the works he studied as a youth, the transmitters (more than six hundred, nearly a quarter of whom were women) from whom he collected hadith, the "rare" hadith he collected as an adult scholar, his pilgrimage to Mecca, his other travels, his teaching positions, the full text of one of his lectures, a list of his published works (283 of them), praise of his publications by contemporaries, the spread of his writings outside of Egypt, the description of a lengthy, bitter rivalry with an unnamed contemporary, his claim to have reached the level of "independent legal theorist" (mujtahid) in Islamic law, and finally his claim to the title Renewer of the Faith (mujaddid) for the tenth Islamic century.

This is clearly an account of an extremely rich and productive life; it is also presented as a comprehensive portrait of that life. However, it is an account that follows no pattern common to western autobiography. Although it is filled with narratives of differing lengths, the work as a whole rejects the concept of ordering a life into a single narrative, a life "story" in the literal sense. Rather, it derives from an intellectual methodology in which classification, categorization, and description were the ultimate tools for the acquisition and retention of knowledge. Whereas western autobiography achieved its greatest popularity as a genre in tandem with its fictional counterpart, the novel, the threads of the pre-twentieth-century Arabic autobiographical tradition were spun from the raw material of historical inquiry. It is fact and specificity, along with a fascination for individual accomplishments and intellectual production, that most interested and most commonly structured biographical and autobiographical texts of the Islamic Middle Ages. The organizing structure of al-Suyuti's text, however, in no way impedes the expression of his personality: no reader could leave this work with any doubt about al-Suyuti's vision of himself as a unique individual or the sheer force of his at times overweening personality.

Al-Suyuti's self-narrative represents but one of several distinct strands of Arabic autobiographical writing that emerged over the centuries. These strands derived from different models of intellectual endeavor and often stemmed from particularly influential works by specific writers. The diversity of literary form demonstrated by Arabic autobiographies from different time periods obviates the possibility of a single, simple description of the genre in formal terms, a situation similar to that which has emerged in the study of western autobiographical traditions.

Al-Suyuti's work does serve, however, to alert us from the outset that in exploring self-narratives of different historical periods and different cultures, we shall encounter not only different ideas about the self and about the structure of a human life but also a wide range of differing literary conventions and discourses in which these selves and lives are represented. These encounters should provoke a series of complex questions concerning any specific culture or time period: What were considered the fundamental elements of a human individual? What were the purposes and motivations for the written representation of an individual life? Was the individual self deemed more truly represented by an account of an individual's personality (a set of psychological idiosyncrasies, habits, and internal emotions) or by an account of a person's acts and works? Indeed, did an individual indeed even possess a "personality"-a concept rooted in a model of malleability, development, and transformation? Or did an individual instead possess "character"-a concept that stresses continuity and a typical "manner of being" (cf. Greek bios)? Were those elements similar or different from the western concepts of individual, self, soul, mind, personality, and character?

The greatest challenge in reading and understanding Arabic autobiographical writings from different times and places is to distinguish the historical figures from their textual representations, and the textual representations from the consciousnesses that produced them, when all of these elements may or may not differ significantly from modern western models.


Excerpted from Interpreting the Self Copyright © 2001 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction 1

A Thousand Years of Arabic Autobiography
The Fallacy of Western Origins 17
The Origins of Arabic Autobiography 36
Toward a History of Arabic Autobiography 52
Arabic Autobiography and the Literary Portrayal of the Self 72
Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873 or 877) 107
Al-Tirmidhi (d. between 905 and 910) 119
Al-Mu'ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 1077) 132
'Imad al-Din al-Katib al-Isfahani (d. 1201) 145
'Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 1231) 156
Ibn al-'Adim (d. 1262) 165
Abu Shama (d. 1268) 179
Al-Simnani (d. 1336) 188
'Abd Allah al-Turjuman [Fray Anselmo Turmeda) (d. 1432?) 194
Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505) 202
Al-'Aydarus (d. 1628) 208
Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1772) 216
'Ali Mubarak (d. 1893) 224
Conclusion 241
Annotated Guide to Arabic Autobiographical Writings 255
Glossary 289
References 295
List of Contributors 311

Index 313

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