The author and the maqamat genre
Abu Muhammad al-Qasim ibn Ali Muhammad ibn Uthman al-Hariri was born in Basra, today in Iraq, in 1054-55 AD. The name Hariri was likely connected with the profession of his father, who used to trade in silk (harir). Coming from a wealthy family, with extensive possessions around Meshan, he was a pupil of al-Fadl al-Kasbani and later became a government official assuming the title of Sahib al-Khabar (Chenery 1867, p.11). Along with his masterpiece Maqamat, he is also the author of two treatises on grammar which both show his magnificent talent and knowledge of the Arabic language (Chenery 1867, p.12).
The word maqama means ‘setting’ or ‘session’ and the Maqamat presents itself as a collection of stories, all linked by a common narrator. This genre was not new to the Arabic literature and, although there is no consensus on the father of this genre, Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani is surely the most illustrious predecessor (for a extensive discussion on the matter and additional information of Hamadhani, please see the Encyclopaedia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/badi-al-zaman-hamadani-abul-fazl-ahmad-b). Hamadhani’s Maqamat was a collection of stories narrated in rhymed prose (sajʿ), and according to the legend, his Maqamat contained more than four hundred stories, although today’s version has only fifty-two chapters. Hamadhani's text was considered a model for al-Hariri’s.
The text is composed of fifty short stories, each identified by a name of a city of the Muslim world in which the main characters, al-Harith and Abu Zayd, meet. The narrator is al-Harith, who tells the adventures of the peripatetic Abu Zayd. Abu Zayd is an incredible orator and survives thanks to his rhetoric, a quality which enables him to persuade and evade punishment when in need. Only in the last maqama does Abu Zayd repent and admit his sins.
The corpus is notable for the language used, the different rhetorical styles and al-Hariri’s genius and ability to work with the Arabic language. As noted by Allen, “Al-Hariri provides examples of linguistic virtuosity that is unparalleled in Arabic literature” (Allen 2000, p.164). Each maqama is an example of his ability with language. In the sixth for example, these is a section in which the author alternates lines with words with dots with words without dots. The sixteenth maqama has examples of palindromes, the seventeenth riddles and so on. “There are sections composed exclusively of words with double meanings, series of sentences ending in rhyming syllables or with regular combinations of consonants throughout, and poems utilizing only certain letters of the alphabet” (Kritzeck 1964, p.180).
The margins of our volume are dense in commentaries. Written in a beautiful naskh in oblique lines, these commentaries are by the same hand of the main text and provide explanation to the corpus. As noted by Irwin, “it is impossible to understand Hariri’s Maqamat without a commentary, and indeed after the Qur’an this book has attracted more commentaries than any other Arabic book” (Irwin 1999, p.188).
After the death of al-Hariri, the Maqamat genre became incredibly popular although few dared to replicate the same structure with a character travelling around the world. Worth mentioning is al-Saraqusti (d.1143 AD) from Saragossa, Spain, who wrote a compilation similar in structure but not as elaborate stylistically. Al-Hariri’s legacy and influence carried on in the following centuries and was widely commended and imitated (among the most illustrious followers of the genres were Shihab al-Din al-Khafaji (d.1653) and Shaykh Hasan al-Attar (d.1835). For an extensive discussion on the evolution of the genre see Allen 2000 pp.162-7.
The first illustrated copies of al-Hariri’s Maqamat were produced in the beginning of the thirteenth century, and six copies dated to this period survive, two of which are attributed to Syria in the first quarter of thirteenth century, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (one undated - Arabe 3929 and one dated 1222 AD -Arabe 6094). Two other illustrated manuscripts were made in Baghdad and are attributed to the 1230s (one attributed to 1225-35 AD is now in St Petersburg, Academy of Sciences, inv.no.s23; one in the Bibliothèque National, Paris, dated 1236-37 AD, Arabe 5847) and two copies produced towards the mid-thirteenth century (one is in Suleymaniye Library, Istanbul, in.no.2916 and one in the British Library, London, Or.1200).
On page 191a of the present volume, to the lower left-hand corner, there is a short note scribbled in an ink similar to that of the main text. The note reads: Tarikh … min ghurrah … rabi’ al-akhir sana sab’a wa sab’in wa sittami’a ila sanah arba’ah shahra sittami’a qad khatama ‘ala yaddihi mas’ud
‘The date of … (?) was from the first of Rabi’ II, the year 677 AH (23 July 1278 AD) until 14 of [the same] month [of the same year] (5 August 1278), and finished by Mas’ud’
This date can be taken as a terminus ante-quem for when the manuscript was written. The hand of our current manuscript is quite exceptional, and recalls that of the Paris manuscript dated 634 AH/1236-37 AD, Arabe 5847 (available here https://archivesetmanuscrits.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cc328777). Another Maqamat by al-Hariri, attributed to thirteenth-century, Baghdad, was sold in these rooms, 15 October, 1984, lot 289.
A note in the margin near the title page of the thirteenth maqala states that it was copied from the original text. This lot is also accompanied with a carbon dating certificate confirming a date of 1210-70 with 95.4% probability.
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