The Book of Songs: a rebel's perspective

April 19, 2004 12:00 A

It would be difficult for someone watching the news coming from the Middle East today to believe that one of the most authoritative books recording the region's socio-political history was called The Book of Songs.

Abu Faraj al-Isfahani, the author of the book, lived from 897 to 967. This was the golden era of Arabic literature in Baghdad. Isfahani was either born in the great city of the Abbasids or in Isfahan shortly before his family moved to Baghdad, where he received his education. According to his contemporaries, he was an extraordinary character, strangely rejecting the dictates of his society. He was an Umayyad; that is, he belonged to the royal family that ruled the Islamic empire throughout the 8th century and was then overrun by the Abbasids. His great grandfather was actually the last of the Umayyad caliphs in the Arab East. Yet, Isfahani used to dress almost like a beggar; he never combed his hair or washed his turban. He was a revered scholar with hundreds of students traveling on camels from places as far as Spain and China, but he would not adhere to any of the straitjacket attitudes of gray scholars. He called things by their own names, and never refrained from discussing the most shameful and scandalous aspects of the lives of great men and women. Finally, while Isfahani's family, the Umayyads, built their empire on the blood of the Shiite imams, and are therefore loathed and condemned to eternal doom by Shiites, Isfahani embraced Shiism, and wrote a majestic book about the crimes of the Umayyads and the martyrdom of the Shiite imams.

In his introduction to The Book of Songs, Isfahani wrote that he was asked by a Baghdad notable to write a book on Arabic music, since the book that was widely circulated at that time, supposedly written by the great Abbasid singer Ibrahim al-Mawsili, was erroneous and insufficient. The Book of Songs, thus, starts with recounting the incident when the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid ordered three of his greatest singers, Ibrahim al-Mawsili, Fulaih ibn al-Awraa, and Ismail ibn Jamii to choose the best 100 songs ever written in Arabic. According to the classical tradition of Arabic music, the lyrics of songs were never written with the intention that they be sung. All songs were originally classical poems or parts of poems which the singers chose to transform into songs. Therefore every song of the chosen 100 was associated with at least one singer and one poet. Isfahani would then go on to tell everything he and his contemporaries knew about the poet or the singer or both, from how he used to trick his debtors, to his glorious moments in the presence of princes and caliphs.

Poets have tribes and tribes have histories, and Isfahani would not let that slip away from his book; the lives of poets and singers became only pretexts to draw a universal image of Arab history. Yet the author does not stop at that; not only poets and singers have tribes and families, poems and songs have ones of their own, as well. Isfahani would tell the story of the melody, what inspired the singer who made it, when and how he presented it, what similar melodies he had in mind, who his students and his rivals were, and what the story of rivalry and apprenticeship was.

In modern print the book comes in 24 huge volumes, with the biographies of around 300 poets and 60 singers. The structure of the book is that of a tree; it is random, yet there is some sort of a scheme. The poets are not arranged chronologically nor are they arranged according to rank, significance or mastery. Isfahani simply lets each poem lead him to the other, so that poets seem to be talking to one another in his book. Even the sudden breaks he makes as he moves, for examples, from telling a story about a massacre to telling one about a drunken singer playing tricks on the sultan, seem to have hidden meanings and bitter judgments. Some of the more conservative scholars look at The Book of Songs as an unreliable source of information; like its author, the book contains a lot of unorthodox ideas and language. Caliphs, sultans, princes and men of power appear to be irresponsible drunkards that are funny but deadly. Some scholars even tried to rewrite the book, omitting every scandal, dirty word and unorthodox idea. But this usually deprived the book of its unique genius. After all, the book is a historical document telling us how a rebel, a scholar who seems never to have taken tyrants seriously, viewed the world.

It is said that one of the most prominent ministers in the Buaihid Persian Court used to carry his library with him wherever he traveled, and that the books were so many that 30 camels were needed to carry it. Once it was written, the minister would only take the Book of Songs with him, for he claimed that the book was more useful and enjoyable than all the rest.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::