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by al-Hamadhani


Three of 51 or 52 tales set in multiple locations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia from the late tenth to the early eleventh centuries; written sometime before 1007; published in Arabic in 1888–89, in English in 1915.


A rogue manage to outwit some unsuspecting victims in the “Maqamah of Wine” and the “Maqamah of Baghdad” but is outwitted by a boastful merchant in the “Maqamah of the Madirah.”

Events in History at the Time of the Tales

The Tales in Focus

For More Information

In a literature renowned primarily for its poetry, Badr al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (967–1007) achieved fame as a prose writer. Al-Hamadhani is best known for his collection of anecdotal short narratives in Arabic, called the maqamat (singular: maqamah).Comic as well as serious, they deal with some of the most controversial religious and ethical questions of the time, often in a lighthearted or ironic way. Al-Hamadhani’s stature as one of the greatest writers of Arabic is paradoxical because of his Persian origins. As his name indicates, al-Hamadhani was born in Hamadhan, a city in northwestern Persia (modern-day Iran). In the early 990s, after living in the cities of Ray and Jurjan, he moved to Nishapur. Robbed by bandits during the journey, he arrived there destitute and had to contend with a formidable competitor in Nishapur, one of the great rhetoricians and prose writers of the time, Abu Bakr al-Khuwarizmi. After al-Khuwarizmi’s death in 993 al-Hamadhani became the leading literary figure of his time. He moved from Nishapur to Herat, where he married into a rich family and remained until his death. Al-Hamadhani corresponded throughout his life with important rulers and literary figures. His letters, together with his collected poetry and maqamat have survived to the present day. Al-Hamadhani’s most important contribution to Arabic literature was his supposed “invention” of the maqamah genre—a mixed form of prose and passages of poetry. The prose sections of the maqamat are remarkable in that they, like the poetry, have end rhymes. Yet the sections are considered prose, because they lack the other necessary feature of Arabic poetry— meter. Al-Hamadhani’s innovation and originality in creating the then new maqamah genre earned him the epithet “Wonder of the Age” (Arabic: “Badx al-Zaman”).In a subtle, comic, and non-judgmental manner, his fictional maqamat invite readers to come to their own moral and ethical conclusions on the behavior of the characters, in contrast to the preaching and sententious style so common in religious texts of his day.

Events in History at the Time of the Tales

Expansion of Islam and the Abbasid age

The essence of Islam is the prophecy of the religious and political leader Muhammad (d. 632), as expressed in the Muslim holy text, the Quran (also in WLA1T 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).After Muhammad’s death, the mix of religious and political leadership passed to the first four caliphs or successors, who became known collectively as the Rashidun (Rightly-guided) (632–661). These caliphs were followed, in turn, by the Umayyad dynasty (661–749) whose rulers governed from Damascus, Syria. During the periods of the Rashidun and the Umayyads, Islam expanded enormously from its origins on the Middle East’s Arabian Peninsula eastward to Central and South Asia, through North Africa and westward as far as the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). In the Middle East and Central Asia, the authority of the Umayyad dynasty gave way to the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258), whose rulers governed from Baghdad, Iraq. By 945, shortly before the birth of al-Hamadhani, the Abbasid Empire had disintegrated to the point that a group led by the Buwayhid clan took control of Baghdad. The Buwayhids did not formally replace the Abbasid government; they allowed its caliphs to continue as figurehead rulers. But the decline of a strong Abbasid central government led to severe economic and social problems. In its place came the dominance of large landowners and military warlords, under whom the general economy suffered greatly. Poverty prevailed among the intelligentsia as well as the masses. This poverty and the accompanying scarcity of even basic necessities partly explain the emphasis in many of the era’s literary works on food and hospitality. Political instability resulting from the decline of the Abbasid Empire necessarily disrupted the traditional employment for writers, whose trade involved composing praise poems for powerful rulers. Since writers would no longer be rewarded for composing these praise poems, they turned their efforts to other genres. In al-Hamadhani’s case, this was the completely new genre of the maqamah.

Divergent responses to Arabic dominance

The spread of Islam and its accompanying political authority to vast areas, whose native languages were not versions of the Arabic language, created many problems. In some areas, Arabic replaced the original local languages. In other places, especially Persia where al-Hamadhani was born, local languages and customs survived and flourished side-by-side with the Quranic Arabic used for religious purposes. During the eighth through the tenth centuries, Persians excelled at writing Arabic and translating manuals of conduct, protocol, and belles lettres, or serious literature, into Arabic. The most famous of these translators from Persian to Arabic was Ibn al-Muqafi‘ (d. 757 C.E.), translator of the fables Kalilah wa Dimnah into Arabic. Some of these works reflect a sense of superiority over and resentment against Arabs and Arabic on the part of the Persians. Persians willingly embraced Arabic, the language of the Quran and Arab governmental administration, when they adopted Islam. At the same time, the relegating of their native language and culture to a second-class status could only bring about ethnic resentment toward the Arabs. This resentment existed even when there were no active attempts by the Arabs to eradicate the native Persian language and culture. Even though al-Hamadhani’s works do not directly reflect anti-Arab sentiment, the time and places he lived would have exposed him to such resentment. Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat therefore can be seen in certain respects as an exercise in outperforming the Arabs in their own language.

During al-Hamadhani’s lifetime, the forces of this Persian/Arabic bilingualism and biculturalism gave rise to a new variety of Persian literature that was written in Persian, but with Arabic script. Arabic script began to replace the Pahlavi characters for the writing of Persian in the ninth century. As with other languages that came into contact with Arabic (e.g., Ottoman Turkish and Mozarabic Spanish), Arabic script was used to transliterate the sounds of the native language. The native language remained unchanged: the form of written representation was the only foreign element. Literature originally written in Persian was recomposed in Arabic script. A contemporary of al-Hamadhani, Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi (c. 940–1025), recomposed the Persian masterpiece Shahnamah , an epic poem about the early history of Persia (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).The composition, in a “new” Persian, influenced by Arabic vocabulary and syntax, contributed to the revival of Persian history and culture. The two writers, Firdawsi and al-Hamadhani, achieved their fame in divergent branches of the same hybrid culture. Al-Hamadhani devoted himself to the newer, imposed language and culture, Arabic; Firdawsi, to an Arabized version of the traditional language and culture, Persian.

The Shi’ite/Sunni division

The division between the Shfite and Sunni sects of Islam has its origins in disagreement over successors to the Prophet Muhammad. Members of the Shfite sect believe that religious authority is transmitted through individuals called “imams.” This line of imams, or imamate, began with descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and her husband Ali. The martyrdom of All’s second son, Husayn, in 680 in Karbala, Iraq, contributed to the unity of believers in the imamate, whose name emanates from the father. They were called partisans of Ali (Arabic: sh’at Ali), hence the name Shfite. In contrast, Sunni Muslims take their name from the sunna, the legally binding precedents based on the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Disagreement over succession to Muhammad and doctrinal differences would lead to other sectarian divisions. On the general Shrite-Sunni level, the Shfites did not consider the Umayyads or Abbasids legitimate imams and opposed their political and religious authority.

By al-Hamadhani’s time, Sh‘rites were the predominant group in the areas where he was born, lived, and traveled. Nevertheless, al-Hamadhani’s own sectarian affiliation is unclear. Although he claimed to have been a Sunni Muslim, his collected letters indicate allegiances with Shilsm. Aside from the importance of al-Hamadhani’s sect to his biography, his affiliation with either Sunni or Shite carries significance for his maqamat.If, as some authorities believe, al-Hamadhani was a Shfite most of his life, one ought to read the maqamat in the context of free-will Shfite doctrine. The governing belief would be that the rogue protagonist and other characters perform unethical, damaging actions of their own free will. In keeping with this doctrine of free will, it can be assumed that characters are adversely judged by God for their misdeeds. However, if the determinism commonly associated with Sunni doctrine were applied to the maqamat, the characters and their actions become merely a part of a predetermined grand design. Since the characters’ salvation also has been predetermined, they bear no real doctrinal responsibility for their actions.


The most important religious text for all Muslims is the Quran. In Islam, the Quran expresses the revelations of God to the Prophet Muhammad. Like the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Quran contains a vast variety of material, from accounts of individuals important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Jewish Patriarchs, Jesus, Mary, the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, etc.) to descriptions of correct personal and social conduct. The Quran does not, however, articulate specific doctrine on many questions—What are the attributes of God? Is an individual’s salvation after this life predetermined by God and by fate, or earned through good conduct? Can a last-minute repentance before death “save” the individual? What are the attributes of the Quran itself: was it created by God, or has it always existed, like God? Differing opinions on these and many other such issues have given rise to a wide range of beliefs within Islam. Not only did these differences lead to the establishment of Sunni and Shfite sects. They led as well to the formation of various subgroups including the Mu’tazilites, the Sufis, and many others. Divergent doctrines also gave rise to six (today four) legal “schools” or differing approaches to interpreting questions of religious law. As in Judaism and Christianity, the explanation and interpretation of the faith’s holy text became the object of an entire process of exegesis. Theologians from the beginning of Islam to the present era have devoted whole lifetimes to writing interpretations of the Quran’s subtleties. The need for and differences of opinion on the Quran’s interpretation have a parallel in the maqamat.Because the language of the maqamat is so rich and complex, the maqamat, like the Quran, often require a commentary to clarify the meaning. This explanation is usually printed in the margin of the page, next to the text it explains. Islamic theologians from a wide range of doctrinal groups use a similar method to explain the complexities of the Quran.

Authority of the text

Arabic texts during al-Hamadhani’s time almost always carried with them a chain of transmission. Showing who had transmitted (usually orally) the text to whom, the chain was expressed as, “X said that Y said, that Z said” and so forth. There could be any number of transmitters in a chain, called an isnad.The purpose of the isnad was to ensure the authenticity of the text. If all the transmitters in the chain were reliable and honest, the text was assumed to be authentic and genuine. On the other hand, if one or more of the transmitters were unreliable or a liar, the text would be dismissed as a fabrication. This process was used for all kinds of texts, including news events, history, and most importantly, religious accounts of the lives of the Prophet and his followers (called hadith).Since the lives and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and the first leaders of the Muslim community were so important for later periods, an entire science was developed by theologians to separate authentic from bogus accounts about these early Muslims. As with other aspects of the religion, there was disagreement between groups and individual theologians over the authenticity of certain accounts. Throughout al-Hamadhani’s time, debate remained vigorous in this regard.

Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat are similar to hadith in that the maqamat stories also have an isnad.The isnad of every maqamah by al-Hamadhani begins, “Isa ibn Hisham told us….” Thus, the process for authenticating real texts is used to construct a fictional text, starting with a fictionalized narrator—Isa ibn Hisham. Al-Hamadhani’s use of the fictionalized narrator was one of his innovations in Arabic literature. If we judge the text of the maqamat by the standards applied to a non-fictional text, the fact that the narrator is fictionalized should lead us to dismiss the text he transmits as inauthentic. Also, in many maqamat, the narrator’s accounts are inconsistent, unreliable, or even bold-faced lies. By asking the reader to accept a fictional isnad and transparently false information, while at the same time maintaining the pretense of an authenticated text, al-Hamadhani creates irony in the maqamat.Al-Hamadhani’s fictional narrator and transparently bogus isnad may also be an indirect criticism of the methods used to authenticate religious texts.

The maqamat’s use of the isnad furthermore places responsibility for interpreting and evaluating their moral content on the reader. Is the reader supposed to reject an entire maqamah and any possible ethical benefit from it, simply because the isnad has been fictionalized? Or, given that the text conveyed by the isnad is often ironic, is the reader expected to be so gullible as to accept an ironic text at face value? The isnad is obviously not valid, so perhaps the maqamah is to be understood simply as the model for transgressive behavior. Or, is the reader supposed to consider the invalid isnad part of the fictional aspect of maqamat written purely for entertainment value? Al-Hamadhani provides no answers for any of these questions in either his maqamat or other writings. The audience most capable of dealing with al-Hamadhani’s irony and ambiguity would have been the literary elite of his day. The largely illiterate masses were probably unaware that the maqamah genre even existed, much less would they have read a maqamah.

The Tales in Focus

Contents overview

Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat are a collection of 51 (in some manuscripts and editions, 52) anecdotes that share a common rogue protagonist (Iskandari) and narrator (Isa ibn Hisham). Beyond these features, there is little to connect the stories, one to the other. The fact that the protagonist does not develop or change over time from one story to the next is a major difference between the maqamat and a modem novel. There is also no chronological ordering of the stories, as is often the case in the modern novel. In one maqamah, the protagonist may appear as an old man, while in the next he may be a young person. The ordering of the stories within the collection differs according to the manuscript (s) used by the editor. Another variable factor is the settings. Some maqamat take place in real locations, which have led modern editors to group certain tales together as the “Maqamah of Armenia,” the “Maqamah of Shiraz,” and so forth. Many of these real-life settings are places that al-Hamadhani either lived in or visited (Hamadhan, Nishapur, Jurjan). Other real-life settings are major cities of the time—Baghdad, Mosul, Kufah, and Shiraz, to name a few. Even when the settings are so specific, though, there are few, if any, “local color” descriptions of anything particular to the locations. There is, on the other hand, commonality in the style of the tales. Most individual maqamat adhere to a set framework that varies little from story to story. After the introductory isnad, which identifies the narrator, Isa ibn Hisham, as the source of the account, the maqamatis plot generally follows this pattern:

  1. Travel and arrival of the narrator (Isa ibn Hisham) to the maqamatis setting.
  2. Narrator’s encounter with an unnamed preacher or orator who will later be unmasked as the rogue protagonist (Iskandari).
  3. Sermon or speech by the rogue protagonist (variant: trickery by the protagonist of unsuspecting victim [s]).
  4. Rogue’s success at obtaining goods or money (variant: outright theft).
  5. Rogue’s attempt to flee.
  6. Narrator’s recognition of rogue.
  7. Farewell and departure, as narrator and rogue protagonist go their separate ways.

(Young, p. 76)

These major features, common to nearly every maqamah, are usually presented in passages of rhymed prose. The rogue protagonist’s observations on the events, together with his observations on religion and philosophy, often appear in sections of poetry interspersed within the passages of rhymed prose.

Plot summaries—“Maqamah of Wine.”

In the “Maqamah of Wine,” some drinking companions encounter a scoundrel who masquerades as both a religious leader and a tavern entertainer. The maqamah lampoons the hypocrisy of the drinkers and the scoundrel for indulging in this un-Islamic vice. In fact, of all al-Hamadhani’s maqamat, the one that comes closest to approaching the comedy of Western “slapstick” is the “Maqamah of Wine.” As is the case at the beginning of every maqamah, the writer attributes the account to Isa ibn Hisham, who does not give the maqamah a specific setting but does say that it occurred during his youth. In contrast to many young people, his has been a youth characterized by “temperance” and “moderation”—terms whose irony will become patently obvious (al-Hamadhani, “Maqamah of Wine,” in Maqamat of Badi az-Zaman al-Hamadhani, p. 178).

One evening, Isa ibn Hisham joins his drinking companions for a night of carousing. The group begins by consuming the wine on hand, exhausts this supply, and then resorts to tapping the wine storage jars. By early morning, even these containers are empty, so the companions go to a tavern for more wine drinking. But before they reach the tavern, dawn breaks. Throughout the Muslim world, this is the time when the muezzin gives the call to dawn prayers (fajr) in the mosque. The drinkers face two equally unpleasant alternatives. On the one hand, they can continue to the tavern, ignore the call to prayer, and risk the ostracizing contempt of their fellow Muslims for having missed the prayers. On the other hand, the drinkers can fulfill their duties by attending the prayer service, even though their inebriated state will invalidate their prayers, defile the mosque, and make them the object of scorn and ridicule by the other worshippers. They opt for the second choice. Temporarily putting aside their drinking to make an appearance at the prayer service, the drinkers take their place behind the leader of the prayers, the imam. His slow, deliberate motions prolong their discomfort, aggravating their impatience to leave and resume their drinking. At the conclusion of the service, the imam turns, faces the congregation, knowingly sniffs the air, and begins to chastise the drunkards present. He chides the wrongdoers, saying they should have stayed home instead of forcing the congregation to endure their polluted breath. Sullied is this breath, he continues, from flagrant indulgence in the “mother of enormities,” wine drinking (“Maqamah of Wine,” p. 179). The imam then incites the congregation against the drinkers by pointing them out, fully expecting the pious, abstinent congregation to react as violently as they do. Physically attacking the drinkers, the rest of the congregation beats the wrongdoers and tears their clothes. The drinkers escape. Curious about the identity of the imam whose inflammatory speech caused the attack, they ask his name. A group of children reveal him to be Iskandari (also known as Abu al-Fath), the rogue and antihero of nearly every other maqamah.Learning the imam’s name evokes a puzzled reaction on the part of the drinkers, since they are aware of Iskandarf’s reputation as a scoundrel and rogue himself. However, the group is not troubled by this paradox for long.

Intent on resuming their drinking, the drinkers continue their journey to the tavern, where they are met by a woman who kisses them warmly at the door. (The proprietress of the tavern and her employees are assumed to be Christian because Muslims would have been forbidden to sell wine.) After the proprietress extols, in the rhetoric of classical Arabic wine poetry, the quality of her wine, the drinkers inquire as to who provides entertainment in the tavern. The woman then describes an old, fatherly man whom she met one Sunday at a Christian convent. She was so taken with him that they began a romantic relationship and the old man came to stay with her in the tavern. When the drinkers are introduced to the old man, lo and behold, he turns out to be Iskandari, rogue and erstwhile imam. In the concluding lines of poetry, Iskandari not only expresses no remorse, he vows to continue his flagrant drinking in violation of Islamic law, justifying his hypocrisy with “everyone behaves this way” (“Maqamah of Wine,” p. 182). Shocked by Iskandari’s duplicity, the narrator and his companions nevertheless remain in the tavern with the rogue for a week of drinking and carousing. As in all the other maqamat in al-Hamadhani’s collection, this one makes no clearcut moral or ethical statement. Is the beating at the hands of the congregation sufficient punishment for Muslims drinking wine? If so, it certainly does not dissuade the drinkers from continuing their indulgence in the vice. Should the reader accept at face value the rogue’s explanation of “everybody does this” as a valid excuse for forbidden behavior? Or, is the maqamah merely a comic anecdote that actually endorses, contrary to Islamic law, consumption of alcoholic beverages? One wonders too about the moral status of the Christians in the story. Wine is not forbidden in their religion, and they make a profit “corrupting” Muslims by providing the beverage. What this suggests about Muslim-Christian dynamics is as open to debate as the rest of the details.

“Maqamah of Baghdad.”

In the “Maqamah of Baghdad,” the narrator bests a country bumpkin by taking advantage of his greed. This maqamah is unusual in that the narrator, Isa ibn Hisham, rather than the rogue Iskandari, performs the trickery. Isa ibn Hisham introduces the maqamah by describing his poverty. In spite of his lack of money, Isa develops a sudden hunger for a rare, expensive variety of date. Isa makes his way to the market area of Baghdad, where he finds a naive, rustic, “country bumpkin,” whom he has never met before. To initiate his scam, Isa addresses the rustic with the random name “Abu Zayd,” all the while greeting him effusively as if he were a long lost friend. When the bumpkin corrects his name to “Abu Ubayd,” Isa apologizes and faults himself for his forgetfulness yet continues to use the incorrect name. Isa attempts to establish his familiarity with the man by inquiring about his father. The rustic informs Isa that his father died some time earlier, for which Isa offers mock sympathy and condolences. In order to celebrate the unexpected meeting of the two supposedly long-lost friends, Isa suggests that they get something to eat. They can, says Isa, either go to his house (which he does not have) or eat in the market. Then Isa extends false hospitality by inviting the rustic to eat in Isa’s home, but he forestalls acceptance of the invitation by mentioning in the same breath that the restaurants in the market are closer and offer better food. His duplicity is matched by the rustic’s expectation of being treated to a free meal by his supposed friend. The pair begins by consuming the delicacies of the meat vendor. Their gluttony continues with the eating of pastries (probably of the non-sweet meat variety) and finally desserts. Isa instructs each food vendor to serve his friend (and himself) the best and most expensive variety of dishes available. At the end of the meal, Isa suggests to Abu Ubayd that he must be thirsty. Under the pretext of finding a water vendor, Isa disappears to a spot where he cannot be seen but can himself see the food vendors’ location. When Isa does not return as promised, Abu Ubayd starts approaching his donkey to leave. But he is stopped by the meat vendor, who demands a large payment for the consumed meat. Abu Ubayd protests that he was invited to eat as a guest of Isa, who should be responsible for the bill. The meat vendor, of course, refuses to accept this excuse and beats Abu Ubayd into paying the bill. At the maqamaconclusion, Abu Ubayd laments the loss of the large sum of money for the food and the fact that Isa repeatedly mistook him for someone by the name of Abu Zayd. Isa offers his own cynical summation in verse: an individual has the right to do anything to earn a living. Whereas this self-serving justification applies to his own trickery, it could apply equally well to Abu Ubayd’s greed when he thought he was eating at Isa’s expense.

“Maqamah of Madirah.”

In the “Maqamah of the Madirah,” the rogue’s attempt to take advantage of a boastful merchant’s hospitality backfires when the merchant outwits him. The narrator, Isa ibn Hisham, and the rogue, Iskandari, together attend a dinner at a merchant’s house in Basra. The guests are served a delicacy known as a madirah, a dish made by stewing meat in milk and yogurt. Whereas the other guests are impressed by the lavish dish, the rogue, Iskandari, stands up, curses the dish, its cook, those who eat it, and the host. Those present misinterpret Iskandari’s rage as a joke. When Iskandari leaves the room in a fury, those present reluctantly order the delicious dish removed. They then join Iskandari and inquire as to what provoked his violent reaction to the dish. This provides the framework for Iskandari to relate the story-within-a-story of his experiences at another dinner party in Baghdad.

Iskandari recounts that a Baghdad merchant had extended a dinner invitation to him in such an insistent, aggressive manner as to be rude. The attraction to accepting the invitation was the main dish, the madirah.As Iskandari accompanied the merchant to his home for dinner, the host began an endless harangue of bragging and boorishness. He started by praising his wife for her beauty, honesty, and domesticity. When the merchant and Iskandari reached the merchant’s neighborhood, the bragging took the form of the merchant’s asking Iskandari to guess the value of the houses in the area. Once the two arrived at the merchant’s house, the boasting focused on details of the house—the teakwood door, the price of the brass doorknocker, and the staircase. The merchant took a break from his bragging to explain to his guest how he acquired the house. The previous occupant had been a wealthy man with a reckless, extravagant son. Upon the father’s death, the merchant sensed the opportunity to acquire the house by giving the son small loans, for which the house was pledged as collateral. When the son inevitably defaulted on the loans, the merchant took advantage of the son’s plight by foreclosing on the house and taking possession. The merchant’s bragging continued. Among other boasts, he claimed to have made a fortune by buying, at unreasonably low prices, possessions from individuals in poor straits, then selling the goods at a high profit.

Iskandari mistakenly believed that mealtime was near when the merchant summoned the slave to bring a ewer, basin, and water for hand washing. However, this merely served as a pretext to extol the value of the slave, the workmanship of the ewer and basin, and the purity of the water. The next focus of boasting was the embroidered napkin, which, the merchant assured his guest, was so valuable and well guarded that no common Arabs had defiled it with their hands. After the merchant extolled the many advantages of the table, Iskandari interrupted his host to anticipate what might be the next object of bragging. Iskandari himself took up the line of bragging: he praised the kitchen utensils, the bread, its wheat, its baker, the vegetables, their cultivation, and the madirah and its preparation, mocking the merchant all the while. Still the vaunting continued. When Iskandari got up to go to the bathroom, the merchant could not resist the opportunity to brag about the room—the bath supposedly outdid that of a prince, with walls so highly polished that an ant would slip. The “last straw” for Iskandari was the merchant’s bragging that the bathroom was so luxurious that guests want to eat there. At this point, Iskandari left the house; he was pursued by the merchant protesting that his guest would not get to enjoy the promised madirah.

In his attempt to get Iskandari to return, the merchant called out his guest’s name along with the word madirah.So insistent and repetitious was his calling that some boys in the street believed that madirah was Iskandari’s title. They proceeded to taunt Iskandari, calling him “Madirah.” Enraged, Iskandari threw a stone at one of them, missed, and seriously injured an adult man. Retaliating, a crowd chased and beat Iskandari, who was apprehended and forced to spend two years in prison. The narrator concludes the story-within-a-story and the maqamah by saying that he and the other guests excuse Iskandari for not partaking of the madirah.

The reader is again left with the responsibility for determining what lesson, if any, is to be derived from the story. Is the maqamah simply a humorous anecdote about a boorish host and hapless guest? Does the guest’s greediness in accepting the invitation put him in a position of being forced to tolerate the host’s boorishness? Does the way the host acquired his wealth and the house generate moral questions? The individual punished is the unlucky guest, not the host. Does this mean that the host’s boorish bragging and predatory acquisition of material goods are acceptable or even praiseworthy? Again the maqamah raises ethical questions without supplying definitive answers.


An important aspect of religious belief established before and during al-Hamadhani’s life was the doctrine of rational theology. This doctrine held that the basic truths of Islam could be explained by reason rather than simply by faith. The many, mostly Shfite, supporters of this rational theology came to be known as


Let there arise out of you
A band of people
Inviting to all that is good,
Enjoining what is right,
And forbidding what is wrong:
They are the ones to attain felicity.
          (Quran 3:104 in Yusuf AH, pp, 149–50)

This and other passages in the Quran emphasize the importance of advising and directing one’s fellow humans to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. For a devout Muslim, providing such guidance has come to be considered an obligation, not a mere option. The actions and beliefs of many of the characters in ai-Hamadhani‘s maqamat are clearly wrong by most standards of Islamic conduct—they drink, tie, cheat, and exhibit hypocrisy and greed. To what extent is Hamadhani encouraging these transparently wrong actions through their representation in his maqamat? On the other hand, do al- Hamadhani’s stories serve as a negative example and fulfill his duty as a Muslim to encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong?—an overarching question, this one subsumes all the specific ones raised by his individual maqamat.

M`tazilites. Shortly before al-Hamadhani’s time, Mif tazilite doctrine enjoyed the official favor of the Abbasid caliphs. Even after Muf tazilite belief ceased being the official doctrine of the caliphs, the Mif tazilites remained numerous in the areas where al-Hamadhani lived.

An aspect of Mu’tazilite doctrine closely related to rational theology concerns the interpretation of the Quran itself. Because the language of the Quran is so complex, the text may have a superficial, literal meaning along with one or more secondary meanings. Therefore, the text of the Quran can be subjected to either literal or allegorical/figurative interpretations. The Mu`tazilites generally favored a non-literal, allegorical interpretation, whereas an adherence to a more literal interpretation was advocated by many Sunni groups.

The maqamat bear a similarity to the Quran in that many words in both are rare and frequently have multiple layers of meaning. Also like the Quran, the maqamat can be the object of a literal or figurative interpretation. The very “invention” of the maqamat by al-Hamadhani, given its need for interpretation, may connect al-Hamadhani with groups such as the Mu‘tazilites, who advocated a non-literal interpretation of the Quran. Commentaries on al-Hamadhani’s maqamat and other works of linguistic and rhetorical complexity in Arabic literature provide a model for this non-literal interpretation. These commentaries give a near line-by-line explanation of the meaning of each maqamah through a paraphrasing of content and definition of words with uncommon or multiple meanings. The explanation is usually printed in the maqamatis margin, side-by-side with the text it explains, in the same way that Quranic exegesis is presented. An example of literal versus non-literal interpretation of Quranic text, as it relates to the central theme of the “Maqamah of Wine,” is found in Quran 2 (al-Baqarah): 219–20: “They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: In them is great sin, and some profit, for men.’” The Arabic word for wine, khamr, is interpreted literally as “fermented grape juice” (Yusuf Ali, n. 240, p. 86). An excessively literalist interpretation of the Quran would mean that wine consumption alone is prohibited. What about whiskey, gin, beer, sake, and vodka? All these beverages also contain alcohol yet are not mentioned in the Quranic prohibition. The universal agreement among Islamic religious authorities is that the prohibition on khamr applies by analogy to all beverages containing alcohol. An interpretation of the Quran based on an excessively literal meaning of khamr alone could conceivably ignore the application of the prohibition to alcoholic beverages other than wine. Again, the non-literal interpretation based on analogy extends the ban to all alcoholic beverages. Both the Quran and the maqamat are furthermore sprinkled with words and phrases open to multiple meanings, which compounds many times over the possible interpretations for the passages that contain them. Just as we have no definite proof as to whether al-Hamadhani was Shiite or Sunni, we have no proof for his being a Mu` tazilite, the group that championed a non-literal interpretation of the Quran. Nevertheless, since the Mu`tazilites were still such a highly influential force during his lifetime, their doctrine’s effect cannot be ignored in reading the maqamat.

Sources and literary context

In spite of al-Hamadhani’s reputation for novelty and innovation, his maqamat still reflect earlier and contemporary literary currents. As described above, al-Hamadhani appropriates the method for authenticating secular and religious texts to create a fictional work. Another formal characteristic of the maqamah, its rhymed prose (called saj), in many ways resembles large passages in the Quran. Even though al-Hamadhani may not have intended to imitate the Quran, the similarities between the maqamatis rhymed prose and Quranic discourse are so striking as to call into question the doctrine of the Quran’s inimitability. Al-Hamadhani also makes use of the pre-existing genre of poetry, to give an ironic cast to his maqamat.Fine poetry had been held in the highest esteem since pre-Islamic times. However, the passages of poetry in al-Hamadhani’s maqamat are usually of such inferior quality that they poke fun at the commonly held idea that poetry is superior to prose. This idea is likewise lampooned in the characterization of the rogue, Iskandari, who is supposedly a brilliant, master poet, yet one capable of producing only mediocre poetry. Iskandari’s “highly inspired poetry” is in many instances merely a combination of proverbs strung together in rhyme to give the appearance of poetry. In this way, al-Hamadhani’s maqamat make frequent use of the pre-existing genre of proverbs. The tales rely too on the genre of the sermon. Their rogue protagonist, Iskandari, steps often ironically into the role of an itinerant preacher who delivers “fire-and-brimstone” sermons to gullible yet pious congregations.

The maqamah reworks the content of another pre-existing genre, the humorous anecdote. This genre had been practiced by a number of al-Hamadhani’s predecessors, the most famous of whom was a writer better known by his nickname of “al-Jahiz” (“the one with the bulging eyes”), whose real name was Amr ibn Bahr (c. 776–869 B.C.E.). The butt of al-Jahiz’s comic stories were groups of individuals, such as misers and possessors of slave singing-girls. Even though these anecdotes share the maqamatis humor and irony, they differ in that they contain less rhymed prose than the maqamah.The anecdotes also differ in their focus on groups or “types” rather than on the individual rogue featured in the maqamah.Finally the humorous anecdote deploys a strategy other than the isnad for the supposed authenticating of the text. Al-Jahiz makes the tales appear to be sections of a learned treatise (Kitab al-bukhala [Book of Misers]) or of letters (Risalat al-qiyan [Epistle of the Singing-Girls]).Another predecessor, closer in time to al-Hamadhani, was al-Muhassin ibn Ali al-Tanukhi (938–57 C.E.), whose anecdotes are more similar to al-Hamadhanfs tales. Like the maqamat, al-Tanukhi’s collection of anecdotes, al-Faraj bad al-shiddah (Relief After Hardship), focuses on a rogue protagonist. This earlier collection, however, lacks al-Hamadhani’s extensive and virtu-osic use of rhymed prose.

There are no specific sources for al-Hamadhani’s maqamat of “Wine,” “Baghdad,” and “Madi-rah.” However, al-Hamadhani does exploit both past and contemporary literary and social traditions. For nearly all readers during al-Hamadhani’s time, the “Maqamah of Wine” would recall the tradition of wine poetry. Abu Nuwas (d. 965), the best known practitioner of this type of poetry, glorifies the consumption and intoxicating qualities of wine. Given Islam’s total prohibition on wine and other alcoholic beverages, wine poetry was rarely taken literally. It was more often an aesthetic exercise or perhaps a metaphor for a religious experience. The genre therefore was not seen as being particularly subversive or anti-Islamic. Al-Hamadhani’s focus on the drinkers’ riotous desecration of a prayer service and lack of self-control borrows from and makes literal, in a comic manner, the metaphors of wine poetry. The idealized, metaphoric intoxication of traditional wine poetry becomes in al-Hamadhani’s maqamat the literal reality of drunkenness. References to the Christian hostess, to Muslims using Christian monasteries as taverns where they could drink, to the aging of the wine, and to the entertainment accompanying wine-drinking all hark back to the tradition of wine poetry.

Both the maqamat of “Baghdad” and “Madi-rah” deal with food and its consumption. In spite of their lack of a definite source, both maqamat reflect social conventions and economic conditions of the time. Hospitality as an all-important social norm in Arab-Islamic society provides the background for the two “invitations”—one to the unwitting country bumpkin in “Baghdad,” the other to the rogue protagonist in “Madirah.” In both maqamat, the guests are victimized as the result of their own greediness to exploit the social convention of hospitality. This focus on the exploitation and withholding of hospitality had already been the focus of al-Jahiz’s Book of Misers.


The paradox of al-Hamadhani’s being called “Wonder of the Age” is that his successors upstaged him. The model established by al-Hamadhani for the maqamah was taken up by Abu Muhammad al-Qasim al-Hariri (d. 1122 C.E.), who contributed his own mainly stylistic transformations to the genre. Al-Hariri made the maqamah ’s rhyme schemes far more elaborate and performed virtuosic rhetorical feats such as alternating the dotted and undotted letters of the Arabic script. Beyond these stylistic innovations, he did little to offer new themes and situations over and above those already presented in


622 Migration (hijra) of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, which marks the advent of Islam

757 Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, translator of Kaliah and Dimnah, dies

869 al&jahiz, prose writer of Book of Misers and Epistle of the Singing Girl, dies

c. 1000 Firdawsi, al-Hamadham’s contemporary, writes Persian epic the Shahnamah; al-Hamadhani develops the maqamah genre

1122 Death of al-Hamadhani’s successor, al-Hariri, virtuoso writer of maqamat

al-Hamadhani’s maqamat.But al-Hariri’s stylistic feats were so impressive that his reputation eclipsed that of his predecessor and the originator of the maqamah genre, al-Hamadhani. When the maqamah is mentioned in the Arabic-speaking world today, the most common association is with the stylistic embellishments added by al-Hariri, rather than with the origins of the genre by al-Hamadhani. This reverence for al-Hariri at the expense of al-Hamadhani was the case with most writers of maqamat from al-Hariri’s time onward. The best-known maqamah writer on the Iberian Peninsula when a good portion of it spoke Arabic was Ibn al-Ashtarquni, also called al-Saraqusti (d. 1143). Ibn al-Ashtarquni expressed great admiration for al-Hariri, yet barely mentioned al-Hamadhani. Later practitioners of the maqamah were the Iraqi writer Ibn al-Sayqal al-Jazari (d. 1273) and the Egyptian writer al-Suyuti (d. 1505). During the “Arab Renaissance” (the period of cultural revival and imitation of the West) of the nineteenth century, the writing of maqamat continued to a very limited extent, primarily in Middle Eastern Arabic-speaking countries. In 1988 the Egyptian fiction writer Najib Mahfuz (b. 1911) became Nobel Laureate in Literature for his adaptation of the Western novel into Arabic. Had the maqamah maintained its position as the foremost fictional prose form in Arabic, Mah-fuz’s well-deserved honor might have been bestowed for excellence in that genre. Instead, as with so many aspects of classical Arabic culture, the maqamah had long since been relegated to the status of a literary artifact. As a concession to modernity and what many erroneously perceived as the superiority of westernization, the maqamah genre faded into disuse. By the time of Mahfuz’s Nobel victory, it had been replaced by the Arabic adaptation of the European novel.

—Douglas C. Young

For More Information

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Cook, Michael A. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought.New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

al-Hamadhani, Badr az-Zaman. Maqamat of Badi` az-Zaman al-Hamadhani.Trans. W. J. Prendergast. London: Luzac, 1915.

al-Hariri, Abu Muhamad. The Assemblies qfal-Hariri. 2 vols. Trans. Thomas Chenery (Vol. 1); F. Steingass (Vol. 2). Westmead, England: Gregg International, 1969.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies.New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Margoliouth, D. S. “Hamadhani.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam.Ed. E. J. van Donzel. New York: E. J. Brill, 1993.

Monroe, James T. The Art of Badi az-Zaman al-Hamadhani as Picaresque Narrative.Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1983.

_____. The Shuubiyya in al-Andalus.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

al-Saraqusti, Abu al-Tahir Muhammad ibn Yusuf. al-Maqamat al-luzumiyah.Trans. James T. Monroe. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002.

Young, Douglas C. Review of Las sesiones del Zaragoci: relatos picarescos (maqamat) del siglo XII. Trans. Ignacio Ferrando. Journal of Arabic Literature 32, no. 1 (2001): 74–83.

Yusuf Ali, Abdullah, ed. and trans. The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation, and Commentary.Beirut: Dar al-Arabiya, 1968.