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Workshop: Wisdom literature in the Islamicate Middle Ages

Thursday 9 February 2023
University Library Leiden
Witte Singel 26-27
An Arabic drawing dating back to the year 1220 AD, depicting both “Kalila” and “Dimna”


9:00 Opening with coffee and tea

9:30-10:15  Gabrielle van den Berg (Leiden University)

The genre of pandnama or “book of advice” in early New Persian literature

Several works in Persian bear the title pandnama , literally “book of advice.” A famous example is the Pandnama-yi Anushirvan, which lists the words of wisdom of  the Sasanian king Anushirvan the Just.  In this presentation I will discuss the nature and background of this genre, and how the genre relates to other forms of wisdom literature in Persian.

10:15 -11:00 Bilal Orfali (American University of Beirut/NYU Abu Dhabi)

Zandawīstī’s Book of Wisdom

This talk presents an unpublished book on Sufi wisdom by a little-known author, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Zandawīstī (d. 400/1010). The talk will introduce the uses of ḥikma (wisdom) in Sufism and present some of the topics addressed in the book.

11:00-11:30 Coffee break

11:30-12:15 Peter Webb (Leiden University)

Wisdom in History: Wise Sayings in Ibn Nubātah’s Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn

Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn is a collection of biographies of celebrated historical figures in Arabic culture, most of whom are luminaries from the pre-Islamic past famed for their military exploits and political leadership. While each biography in Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn recounts anecdotes about the characters’ exploits, there is also a significant structural function to the insertion of wise sayings ascribed to most of the figures. This presentation will examine the functions these of wise sayings (ḥikam/amthāl/aqwāl) in the construction of historical biographies, exploring their role in biography writing and developing characterisation, and, thanks to the survival of a large number of Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn manuscripts, the talk will also discuss the reader responses to the wisdom statements, which constitute some of the more plentiful types of marginalia.

12.15-13.00 Emily Cotrell (Leiden University)

Ahiqar and Luqman: Wisdom along the Red Sea

The story and sayings of Ahiqar have been a model for countless versions in all the languages of the Near East (Aramaic, Demotic, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic...) as well as Ethiopian, Slavonic and Old Turkish... Both the result and the matrix of an "ocean of stories", it is no surprise to find parallel motifs between the Ahiqar story and later narratives where another character is used in guise of the hero, such as the "castle in the sky" and the flight on eagles' backs. The sayings on their side have been compared to similes in the Bible and the Quran, while in the latter the wise man figure is assumed by Luqman. We will address the Arabian and Coptic traditions of Luqman and question possible channels of transmission.

13:00-15:00 lunch

15:00-15:45 Louise Marlow (Wellesly College)

The Ghazālian Naṣīḥat al-mulūk from Persian into Arabic

The Ghazālian Naṣīḥat al-mulūk is one of the most celebrated examples of the ‘counsel for kings’ (or ‘mirror for princes’) genre. Dating from the early twelfth century, the mirror was in wide circulation as early as the thirteenth century, with numerous copies produced during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. It was not the original Persian composition, however, that enjoyed this wide circulation; rather, it was the Arabic translation usually known as al-Tibr al-masbūk fī naṣīḥat al-mulūk. With reference to a small number of manuscript copies, I shall, in this presentation, study the textual relationship between the Persian and Arabic versions, as well as the context for and significance of the Arabic translation.

15:45-16:30 Jan van Ginkel (Freie Universitat Berlin)

Words of Wisdom in the Syriac Tradition. Form and Function.

I will try to give a general overview of the “short text” types (like sayings, proverbs etc.) of Wisdom Literature in the Syriac literature and for what they have been used by various authors. How and why they are collected and how they may well be read.

16:00-16:30 Tea break

16:30-17:15 Devin Stewart (Emory College)

The Many Afterlives of the Slave-girl Tawaddud of the Arabian Nights

The story of the slave-girl who bested the scholars of Baghdad in debate on law, theology, astronomy, and mathematics and even outdid all opponents in chess, backgammon, and playing the lute, though it is not nearly as famous as the stories of Aladdin, Sindbad, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, exerted a fascination for centuries and spread around the globe in pre-modern times. The original story was probably written in Egypt in the Mamluk period, perhaps inspired, ultimately, by the account of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who, according to legend, had emerged victorious from a debate with fifty scholars at the court of the Emperor Maximian (286-305 C.E.) or Maxentius (306-312 C.E.). This essay examined the many versions it inspired, including the 16th-century Shiite “Debate of Ḥusniyyah,” which made her a champion of Shiite Islam who proved Sunni Islam wrong and heretical, the Spanish La Doncela Teodor, which made her a Christian, and further texts in Portuguese, Mayan, and Tagalog, and discusses the modifications of the story that occurred through this process.

17:15-18:00 Beatrice Gruendler (Freie Universitat Berlin)

The Anonymous Anthologist

An anonymous copyist-redactor of the fourteenth century added a lengthy incipit to Kalīla wa-Dimna, which makes it usable as an anthology of ethical and practical advice geared to a wide audience. This incipit constitutes the longest and most substantial later addition to Kalīla wa-Dimna, and it evinces a scholastic structure. Its elements partly reuse abstracts and concluding commentaries of chapters from the book, and the incipit was then adopted by other copyist-redactors. This suggests that some anonymous, though ambitious, copyist-redactors “optimized” their versions by making the wisdom scattered across various fables accessible in a systematic way.


If you would like to join please send a mail to: AlBab@hum.leidenuniv.nl


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