The History Of Literature I

September 23, 2020 Category: History

During the Late Middle Ages, literature within the Muslim world was limited, but did exist.  One of the most notable examples was the parable about “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan” [Alive, Son of Awake], written in the 11th century by the famed freethinker, Avicenna. That work would inspire Andalusian physician Ibn Tufayl to write a novel by the same name a century later.  These works were decidedly SECULAR in nature, as they were celebrations of science over dogmatism.  To make this explicit, the title of the latter work is sometimes translated in English as “The Improvement Of Human Reason As Exhibited By The Life Of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan”.  Needless to say, Avicenna (and his character, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan) as an ANOMALY.  Such achievements had nothing whatsoever to do with religiosity.

As it turned out, the majority of the most valuable non-fiction material from the Orient was distinctly non-religious.  For example, Bactrian writer, Nasir Khusraw of Khorasan penned the great (secular) travelogue, the “Safar-nama”.  The Turkic “Kutadgu Belig” [Book of Wisdom-leading-to-Fortune] was also composed in the 11th century.

By the 14th century, the Renaissance in Europe was in full swing, and the demise of intellectual activity in the Muslim world was impossible not to notice–a subject I explore in my essay: “Islam’s Pyrite Age”.  In the 16th century, the Azeri / Oghuz poet, Muhammad ibn Suleyman of Karbala [a.k.a. “Fuzuli”]; the Bengal writer, Syed Shah Isra’il of Sylhet; and the Sumatran Sufi pantheist, Hamzah Fansuri produced some noteworthy material.

As far as poets in the Muslim world go, that just about covers it…until the 19th century (see the Appendix 2).  As this survey shows, it was the (very notable) exceptions that proved the rule.  Yet to hear Islamic apologists tell it, one would think there was an efflorescence of literary achievement in the medieval Ummah–achievements that surpassed what was going on in the rest of the world.

Quite the contrary: There was a noticeable STUNTING of literary achievement in Dar al-Islam.  Unsurprisingly, the stifling of speech also occurred in the other theocratic region of the Middle Ages: (Roman Catholic) Europe.  That the Roman Catholic Church was just as censorious as the rulers in Dar al-Islam does not detract from the present point.  Indeed, in the annals of human history, the medieval Vatican likely gets the gold medal for most aggressive censorship.  This was in spite of the construction of the Malatestiana Library (in Cesena), the Marciana Library (in Venice), and the Laurentian Library (in Florence) during the 15th century. {19}

That the Muslim world–in medieval times, and to the present day–gets the silver medal is nothing to celebrate.  The bar here is abysmally low.  So far as Dar al-Islam was concerned, fresh new ideas were not on the menu.  Voicing them was a surefire way to get into hot water.  That Islam’s theocratic rulers were not quite as hostile to free speech as was the Vatican Curia is hardly something over which to gloat.  The treatment of poetry within the Mohammedan dominion was excessive by ANY standard.

Let’s review.  When it came to the medieval Muslim world, the point can’t be emphasized enough: So long as the material was not seen to subvert the Sunnah, it was permitted.  The moment a writer stepped on the toes of Islam’s standard-bearers, he was promptly eliminated.  This draconian policy followed from the clear precedent set by MoM himself, and the Sahabah / Salaf.

We might contrast this to the handling of poetry in, say, the Judaic tradition.  The Jewish Andalusian poet, Judah ha-Levi of Toledo / Grenada (late 11th / early 12th century) is a good example–as he composed secular and philosophical material.  Rather than being persecuted for the gesture, he was revered for it.  A dozen other examples of Sephardic (Jewish) writers from the era:

  • Andalusian poet, Dunash ha-Levi ben Labrat of Fez (10th century)
  • Andalusian writer, Judah ben David Hayyuj of Cordoba (10th century)
  • Andalusian writer, Jonah “Ibn Janach” of Zaragoza (11th century)
  • Andalusian writer, Shlomo ben Yehuda “Ibn Gabirol” of Malaga / Cordoba [Solomon ben Judah; a.k.a. “Avicebron”] (11th century), a Neo-Platonic moral philosopher.
  • Andalusian writer, Shmuel “Ha-Nagid” of Cordoba [alt. Samuel ibn Naghrillah] (11th century) {20}
  • Andalusian commentator, Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra of Tudela (early 12th century)
  • Andalusian poet, Joseph ben Jacob ibn Tzaddik of Cordoba (12th century)
  • Andalusian (secular) rationalist and satirist, Judah ben Solomon al-Harizi of Toledo (late 12th / early 13th century)
  • Norman Storyteller, Berechiah ben Natronai Krespia ha-Nakdan composed a book of fables, “Mishle Shu’alim” c. 1200
  • South European poet, David Ha-Kohen of Avignon (13th century)
  • Italian poet, Immanuel ben Solomon ben Jekuthiel of Rome (late 13th / early 14th century)
  • Andalusian writer, Joseph ben Shem-Tov of Castile (15th century)

We might also note the writings of the 12th-century (Sephardic) Andalusian thinker, Moses ben Maimon of Cordoba (a.k.a. “Maimonides), who was influenced by such luminaries as Mohammed al-Farabi of Khorasan, Ibn Sina of Bukhara (a.k.a. “Avicenna”), and his contemporary, Ibn Rushd of Cordoba (a.k.a. “Averroës”).

Judaism often–though certainly not always–welcomed literary activity outside of strictly religious material.  In the early 16th century, Castilian writer, Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel of Lisbon was both a philosopher and physician.  His magnum opus, “Dialoghi d’Amore” [its original Italian title] was a beautifully-written philosophical book on love–which, incidentally, promoted Renaissance ideals.  Rather than being persecuted for sacrilege, he was celebrated for the brazen gesture.

There were, of course, limits to tolerance in Beth Israel, as attested by the excommunication of the great philosopher, Baruch-cum-Benedict Spinoza.

In the post-Mohammedan era, the juxtaposition between Dar al-Islam and the rest of the world is very revealing.  Just as literary activity was being stifled in the Middle East, we find a different story in the Far East.  The efflorescence of literature in Japan has already been mentioned.  It should also be noted that the Tang period (618 to 907) turned out to be the Golden Age of Chinese literature. {18}

Presumably, the Abrahamic deity sat idly by as all this headway was made outside of Dar al-Islam.  Such juxtaposition serves to further illustrate the LACK of liberal verse in the Muslim world.

During Islam’s “Golden Age”, other notable writers of the Far East included:

  • Jain writers, Shiva-koti Acharya, Naga-varma, and Sri Ponna pioneered Kannada poetry (9th and 10th centuries)
  • Tamil poet, Thirutakka-Thevar composed the “Civaka Cintamaṇi” (10th century)
  • Chinese (Song) writers like Su Shi and Su Zhe of Sichuan [a.k.a. “Su Tung-po”], Sima of Guang [a.k.a. “Jun-sh”], Zeng Gong of Fu-zhou, Guan of Qin, Ou-yang Xiu of Sichuan, and Ting-jian of Huang broke new ground (11th century)
  • Telugu writer, Nannaya Bhattaraka of Rajahmundry composed a new version of the Mahabharata (11th century)
  • Tibetan writer, Mila Thopaga of Gungthang [a.k.a. “Jetsun Milarepa”] composed his famed poetry (late 11th / early 12th century)
  • Chinese (Southern Song) writers, Lu You and Xin Qiji of Hang-zhou composed their famed poetry (early 12th century)
  • Gujarati (Jain) scholar, Hema-chandra of Dhandhuka composed his famed poetry (early 12th century)
  • Tamil writer, Kambar composed a new version of the Ramayana, the “Rama-vataram” (12th century)
  • Kannada writer, Madhva Acharya of Karnataka ushered in the era of Hoysala literature (12 century)
  • Hoysala writer, Raghavanka composed Kannada poetry.  Andayya then composed his magnum opus: “Kabbigara Kava” [Defender of the Poets] (late 12th / early 13th century)

In Kashmir alone, there was an efflorescence of literary activity in the 11th century; even as Islam’s “Golden Age” was on the wane:

  • Abhinava-gupta composed the “Tantra-loka”
  • Kshemendra composed the “Brihat-katha-manjari”
  • Somadeva composed the “Katha-sarit-sagara”
  • Bilhana composed the great epic, “Vikraman-kadeva-charita”, as well as the classic love poem, the “Chaura-pancasika”
  • Kshemendra produced an anthology of ethical poetry, the “Charu-charya”

These writers were all highly innovative in their philosophical disquisition; yet none were persecuted by their respective societies.  Unlike the Muslim world, poets were not limited to elegies and panegyrics.  Indeed, Eastern traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism usually allowed for dissident speech. {16}

It was in the 11th century that the “Van Mieu” [House of Literature] at Hanoi was established by the Ly Dynasty in Vietnam.  And it was during the Middle Ages that the great Chinese works like “Hau Kiou Choaan” [The Fortunate Union] and “Chinese Courtship” were composed.

During the Dark Ages of Europe, it cannot be over-emphasized that the Roman Catholic Church was ALSO extremely oppressive.  Medieval Christendom had an abysmal record when it came to the toleration of free-thought and free expression.  The dearth of progress between the demise of (pre-Christianized) Rome and the Renaissance is glaring.  This was primarily due to the dominion of the Vatican, which stifled intellectual activity in Europe for over a thousand years–from the execution of Hypatia of Alexandria in 415 to the persecution of Galileo in 1633. {17}

Nevertheless, during this period, there were a few writers who managed to produce estimable material.  The great Skalds (Norse poets) of Scandinavia–beyond the reach of Roman Catholic dominion–composed their sagas beginning c. 800 (with Bragi Boddason’s “Ragnarsdrapa”); culminating in the writings of Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century.  The Old English epic “Heliand” and the eloquent Frankish hagiography, “Vita Karoli Magni” [Life of Charles the Great] were both composed c. 830.  The Germanic epic, “Hildebrandslied” [Lay of Hildebrand] was composed in the 830’s.  And the (Greek) epic poetry known as the “Acritic Songs” became popular in the Byzantine Empire beginning in the 9th century.  Also of note:

  • Ealhwine of Northumbria (a.k.a. “Alcuin of York”) wrote in the 8th century.
  • The great Frankish / Germanic scholar, [h]Rabanus Maurus Magnentius of Mainz wrote in the late 8th / early 9th century.
  • Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf of Mercia [alt. Northumbria] pioneered Anglian poetry in the 9th century.
  • The (Old English) epic romance about Waldere and Hildegyth was composed in the 9th century.
  • The skaldic (Norse) poet, Audunn “illskalda” composed material for the Yngling dynasty in the 9th century.
  • The “Sequence of Saint Eulalia” was composed using Old French in the 9th century.
  • The Anglo-Saxon anthology of (Old English) poetry, the “Exeter Book” was compiled in the 10th century.
  • Skaldic (Norse) poetry was composed by Eyvindr Finnsson “skaldaspillir” and Einarr Helgason “skalaglamm” in the 10th century.
  • The Anglo-Saxon epic, “Beowulf” was composed c. 1000 (roughly around the same time as Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh”, mentioned earlier).
  • The skaldic (Norse) “Bandadrapa” was composed by Eyjolfr “dadaskald” in the 11th century.
  • Byzantine (Christian devotional) writers, John Mauropous of Paphlagonia and Christopher of Mytilene composed poetry using medieval Greek in the 11th century.

As Islam’s “Golden Age” came to an end during the 12th century, the early Renaissance in Europe was underway.  During this time:

  • Georgian writer, Shota Rustaveli wrote his epic, “Vepkhi-Stqao-sani” [One With the Tiger’s Skin]. 
  • French writers like Peter Abelard, Benoit de Sainte-Maure, and Chrétien de Troyes started composing the epic poetry known as the “Chanson de Geste”–most notably: “La Chanson de Roland” and versions of the Arthurian legend.
  • English writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth elaborated upon Arthurian legend.
  • Celtic writers composed the “Mabinogion”.
  • Norman writer, Béroul composed his epic about the fabled Arthurian knight, Tristan.
  • Byzantine writer, Constantine Manasses wrote a romance: “The Love of Aristander and Callithea”.
  • The Castilian epic, “El Cantar de mio Cid” was composed.
  • Germanic writers, Hildegard of Bingen, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Wolfram von Eschenbach broke new ground in Saxony.
  • Armenian writer, Nerses of Lambron / Cilicia earned renown.

In the 13th century, Jean Bodel did a new compilation of “Les Chansons de Geste” (French).  Classics like the “Nibelungenlied” (German), the “Gesta Danorum” (Danish), and the “Life Of Alexander Nevsky” (Russian) were composed.  Meanwhile, Austrian poet, Rudolf von Ems composed epics.

And farther to the east, the landmark work, “Amrut-anubhav” [Elixir of Experience] was composed by the famed Marathi poet, [d]Jnyaneshvar of Maharashtra.

In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer composed his Canterbury Tales, Giovanni Boccaccio composed his “Decameron” [Book of Allegories], and Francesco Petrarch had composed his “Canzoniere” [Book of Songs].  This was the heyday of the Niram poets in southern India, who pioneered Malayalam literature.

In the 15th century, Bengal poet, Maladhar Basu composed his landmark “Sri Krishna Vijaya”.  Meanwhile, Cherusseri Namboothiri of Kunnar [Kerala] composed the greatest works of Malayalam literature.  It was then that the great Armenian poet, Yovhannes T’lkuranc’i flourished.  Around this time, the great (secular) Library of Corviniana was commissioned by the Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus.

In the late 15th / early 16th century, Italian writers, Matteo Maria Boiardo (“Orlando Innamorato”) and Ludovico Ariosto (“Orlando Rusioso”) rendered their own version of the aforementioned (French) “Chansons de Roland”; thereby moving the literary tradition forward in Italy.

In the 16th century, Ming writer, Xu Zhong-lin of Nan-jing composed the classic Chinese epic, “Feng-shen Yan-yi” [“Investiture of the Gods”]. Meanwhile, the Italian writer, Ludovico Ariosto wrote the epic romance, “Orlando Furioso” c. 1516. The poem, a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando, and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens

This brings us to the early Enlightenment.  In part II of this essay, we will survey the modern era; and focus on the use of parable around the world.

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