Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages: Poetry, Public Performance, and the Presentation of the Past

By Samer M. Ali. 2010. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 312 pages. ISBN: 978-0-268-02032-3 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Michael Lundell, University of California, San Diego

[Review length: 1176 words • Review posted on October 4, 2011]


Samer M. Ali’s book Arabic Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages traces the growth and spread of literary salons, or the mujalasat, from the pre-Islamic Middle East through the Abbasid Caliphate and beyond. These mujalasat were important community centers aiding in the production and protection of culture, history, literature, the arts, debate, and education. The book is a well-written and interesting investigation into an important time-period and place, and sheds light on the debt the Western literary tradition has to the Islamic Middle Ages.

The book’s general central topic, and a key feature of the mujalasat, is the exploration of the nuances of adab, an Arabic word with a rich set of definitions. Contemporary use of the word in Arabic means “literature,” but adab also can signify important cultural elements, such as etiquette and other social behaviors. Ali’s book showcases adab’s potential for dealing with competition in a group, and in particular the debates over what information gets passed on to future generations. The book delves into the rich number of meanings behind the word, particularly vis-à-vis Abbasid culture and the mujalasat, and situates much of its discussion of the importance of this era’s literature within the shifting meanings and importances inherent in adab.

Professor Ali’s book is divided into two parts. Part One is more of a general historical background. Part Two delves into the particular manuscripts that Ali has examined. The organization of the book is done in a straightforward manner. The content is appealing to seasoned scholars of the region and to generalists who might be new to the topic. In fact, many of the most positive aspects of the book pertain to more universally interesting topics such as the nature of literature, history, and even learning itself.

In chapter 2, for example, Ali delves into the important problems a historian would have in researching something as little documented as a literary salon steeped in oral performance. He rightfully expresses caution about the positivist approach to medieval studies and its insistence on having clear, ordered, well-charted documentation, in order to make claims of certainty. In fact, he argues, written documentation was not as well regarded during this time period as reputable oral information, and most preserved written documents are rife with poetic license. While books were important educational tools, “self-study” was also not well regarded. Education and knowledge largely took place as a performance, in public, or in a group, with a vital oral component.

Education by someone who had wisdom and who was speaking the knowledge was seen as a vital part of the process. “In Arabo-Islamic culture a piece of technology such as a book could not adequately substitute for the authority of learned gifted personalities, largely because of the premium on lyricism and elegizing” (39). This is not to say that nothing can be learned for certain about this time period or its cultural products, Ali further cautions, but rather that such positivist methodologies should consider the varying levels of importance that orality and the written word had at that time. Ali’s research insists on a realignment of historical ways of approaching written texts from this era, and hence makes important claims that any academic should consider.

The first three chapters, comprising Part One of the book, deal with an overview of how literary salons were run, the importance of adab to these salons, and the use and importance of poetry during the Islamic Middle Ages. In chapter 3, “Poetry Performance and the Reinterpreting of Tradition,” Ali outlines just how fluid the notions of culture and history were during the Islamic Middle Ages, and how important the literary salons were to showcase a contemporary teller’s ability to elegize, to ensure a sense of cultural tradition, and to propel the culture forward into the future.

The second part of the book gets into the specifics of how the mujalasat acted as a forum for the important performative cultural elements discussed in Part One. In chapter 4, “The Poetics of Sin and Redemption,” Ali discusses the public spheres of emotion, how emotion, transgression and redemption were all handled in the mujalasat under very specific traditional guidelines, and how poets transformed cultural, political, and historical events, resituating important moments of the past into the present and aiding in the political self-definitions that the mujalasat acted as mediums for, “the immolation of one order for the sake of a new one” (151).

Arabic Literary Salons skillfully situates its focus in the specifics of Abbasid court poet Al-Buhturi, relying on the poet’s definitions and personal reflections on the mujalasat. In the latter part of the book, Ali investigates, at length, important and politically controversial Al-Buhturi poems and their relationship with Abbasid political leadership. In his last chapter, “Singing Samarra,” the book shows how Al-Buhturi was able to successfully meld mythology with history and the political present. This melding seems like the perfect culmination of Ali’s focus in his book.

Arabic Literary Salons has many positive attributes. Its overview and investigation into the mujalasat relies on important source material not often seen in academic books in English. While Professor Ali does cite Al-Masudi and Al-Tabari, the two most well-researched historians from this time period, his book successfully illuminates newly discovered cultural nuances at a personal level via Al-Buhturi.

The book importantly shows the mujalasat’s relationship with Islamic institutions and the quasi-secular nature that the salons took. In doing so, Ali is able to open a space in medieval Islamic studies that makes the study of art’s important role in the cultural makeup of this time period possible. While Islam’s importance is never overshadowed, the salons provided the performative space that other, not so religious cultural elements used to develop and reinterpret.

In addition, Ali provides a lot of incredibly interesting information regarding the nature of history, education, performance, and language. Some of the book’s highlights are its examinations of Arabic words like adab and mujalasat and their literal translations, controversial misunderstandings, and diversities of meaning. In doing so Ali is allowed to situate his scholarship in the preciseness that contemporary academia demands while also deftly navigating the nuanced grey areas that his content lives in.

A possible shortcoming of the book might be its overreliance on Al-Buhturi, but the poet’s fame and importance, the diversity of his writings, and the relative lack of writing in English on him, overshadow any potential criticism regarding this point. In addition, perhaps an expansion on how this time period influenced later time periods and cultures might have been useful to readers interested in the relationship of the medieval Middle East to the West, but this certainly does not detract from the book’s successes.

Arabic Literary Salons is a book highly recommended for anyone interested in this time period, Arabic literature’s development and history, the relationship of Islam to the development of the arts, and in reading a general historical book. It is certain to be an important part of medieval Middle Eastern studies and the development of academic interest and scholarship in this time period and region.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.