Traces of Orality in Classical Arabic Maqamat

DOI:  10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-12


The traditional Arabic literary genre, maqama, was developed in the 10th century and continues to this day. The original fictional prose form, the like of which cannot be found in other literatures, is fascinating in many ways. Scholars consider maqama as a pre-romance genre that influenced the Spanish picaresque novel [Monroe, 2002]; scholars view maqamat as a fictional story unique for the Middle Ages, where the main character is neither unequivocally positive nor negative (neither a hero nor an anti-hero) [Monroe, 1983] – the main character is more likely of a complex psychotype [Zakaria, 1994]; it is thought to be a progressive literary piece of work, since the introduction stipulates that the story to be told is actually fictional (whereas the Eastern environment was exposed to the restrictions of the literary canon of the Middle Ages - fiction was perceived as a lie, i.e. misleading the reader, and it was unethical to speak of it) [Drory, 1994]. Maqamat are analysed as a text of a rare linguistic virtue, a display of linguistic “acrobatics” [Cooperson, 2020], a didactic piece of writing [Daif, 1987], etc. This article will focus on the direct influence of oral narration, text declamation or representation in maqamat. Maqama, as a literary genre, emerged at the threshold of oral and written literatures, in the era of their coexistence – maqamat as a wonderful example of the aesthetics of sameness was greatly influenced by orality. This influence is evident in the structure and composition of maqamat - a form that the genre has retained even in the 21st century [Dolidze, 2019: 62-81].

The word – maqama - has existed in the Arabic language since ancient times, and its definition has undergone certain changes. While in the pagan/pre-Islamic era, maqama referred to the gathering of a tribe, the place of gathering or whatever was spoken during the gathering (i.e. stories, inspirational and moral stories, legends, tales...), in the middle ages, it meant a public speech or sermon [Dolidze, 2010: 18-19]. According to Brockelman [1898: 94], in the 9th century, this term was used to describe the speech of the statesmen at the Caliph’s palace, and in the 10th century – the pleading of beggars. To clarify, by that time, the Abbasid Caliphate that had a reputation of an international centre of education and culture, began to break down, which, along with political challenges, brought about the deterioration of the social and economic situation. Indeed, one could easily come across educated beggars in markets, mosques, baths, squares and other gathering places. This stratum of poor wanderers, gifted with knowledge and eloquence, earned a living by delivering public speeches and participating in poetic contents. Some of particularly gifted ones were fortunate enough to get all the way to perform at the Caliphate. Badi' al-Zaman[1] al-Hamadhani (969-1008), considered to be the creator of the maqama genre, who was distinguished by his phenomenal memory and amazing ability of improvisation, must have taken such a path to reach the literary centres. However, no one really knows why he called his work Maqamat. As a literary genre, the maqama is a short novel about a fictional character and the author usually created sets (cycles) of ten maqamat. Each maqama unfolds an independent story, which are united in a set by two main characters: one is an impoverished eloquent speaker, who travels from city to city, and the other is a narrator telling the stories about the former. In each maqama, the narrator meets the main character and tells the reader what he himself witnessed the main character’s chicanery and heard his eloquent speech. The stories in Maqamat are based on the hero’s wanderings with a view to earning a living. To this end, he often lies, deceives others, for which he deserves the narrator’s reprimanding, which is then followed by his excuses. The frame-like structure is developed into the opening phrase “The story was told to me to me by ... (name of relevant narrator)”, which is the beginning line in each maqama (this phrase may be repeated in the middle of the story as well).

When discussing the formal features of the maqamat, which link maqamat directly to the oral tradition, it is important to note that the first maqamat presented through improvisation rather than though a written form. Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat, published in Constantinople in 1880, are preceded by the introduction of Al-Qayrawani (+1067) stating that Badi' Al-zaman used to improvise maqamat for the listeners at the end of the gatherings [Mowafi, 1996: 25]. Sometimes he created them on the topics that his disciples suggested. Some maqamat even seem to have traces of such impromptu. Al-Hamadhani’s work has neither a prologue nor an epilogue. The number of his maqamat is unknown, and the authenticity of some of them even causes certain doubt and they are considered to be later additions to his work. Only after his death were Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat made into a single collection [Hämeen-Anttila, 2002: 33]. It is inconceivable to imagine that a writer of the Middle Ages would convey his ideas in a written form without attaching a prologue or an epilogue to them. Al-Hamadhani must have created a new genre impromptu, unconsciously, which lasted for centuries, and his disciples were the ones who later on recorded his stories. Maybe because of their gatherings, they were called maqamat, or maybe because of the culminating part in each story, which is the preacher’s/presenter’s monologue. Maqamat undeniably includes many nuances of orality, which must have emerged in the process of oral composition. Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat, which are an adventurous rhyming text spiced with light irony, must have gained great popularity in public reading, since in the 12th century, the famous supporter of men of letters, Caliph Al-Mustahzir (1094-1118) assigned the distinguished and gifted philologist Al-Hariri (1054- 1122) to have maqamat written in  Al-Hamadhani’s style. Al-Hariri did justice to himself in fulfilling his job - he created an excellent written monument; he took the name of the best representative of the classical Arabic genre, and in a way, he canonized this written literary form. In the Arab world, many writers had written maqamat imitating Al-Hariri including the 19th century. This form spread from Arabic to other (Persian, Hebrew, Syrian, Indian...) cultures as well. Unlike his predecessor, Al-Hariri (1054-1122) did not treat his texts carelessly – while composing his work, he would delve into number of books and dictionaries, refined each phrase, and enriched his texts with rarely used words and expressions, which had already been forgotten. In consequence, his texts are rather difficult to read and decipher. With Al-Hariri, everything from the first to the fiftieth maqama is arranged in a thoughtful manner. This is the path that the main character goes from fraudulent pursuits to repentance. None of this author’s maqamat casts any doubt on authenticity. While the first maqamat naturally bears the mark of orality, as they are the result of impromptu and oral improvisation, al-Hariri’s maqamat, conceived to be a distinguished written monument from the very beginning, are more structured in terms of composition with a hint of oral literature.

Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat, created through oral presentation, were entirely based on the then-prevailing canonical Arabic literature - Adab[2]. In addition to the fact that most of the poems included in the maqamat belong to different Arab poets, there are many quotations from the Qur'an, more specifically, hadiths[3]. There are used almost all prose genres of literature: fables (أساطير), anecdotes (نوادر), stories (أمثال), chivalry stories about Arab heroes (سيرات), travel books (كتب الرحلة) and epistles (رسائل). The titles of the maqamat containing the geographical names (maqamat of Sana, Baghdad, Alexandria, etc.) are reminiscent of the works of Arab geographers. The text contains preaching, dialogue, declamation, and reflection on a certain issue. The main character is also the creation of the reality in which the first sample of the genre was developed. Prior to the time of Al-Hamadhani, the reader could encounter a wandering character of a rather plain appearance, skilled in oratory, and fluent in language in the works of Al-Jahiz (776-868) and Ali al‐Tanukhi (941-994). Thus, despite being different from all previous traditional models, in terms of content, the first set of maqamat is a conventional compilation. Many features of its structure are taken from oral literature - they are related to the tradition of oral composition, the practice of oral representation. This is hardly surprising, since in the Middle Ages the literary work was either produced orally (although it was common to write down traditional narratives) or was written down for public reading (since individual reading was not practiced back then).

The first detail that catches the reader’s attention when reading Maqamat is the rhymed prose, e.g. Saj’, which had a long tradition in Arab culture as an integral component of orality. This kind of harmonious speech can be found in fairy tales, where the same phrases are repeated and read in a singing manner all over again. Rhyme gave orality a strong influential effect - it captured the listeners with a kind of supernatural power. The reader can encounter passages in rhyme in the pre-Islamic priests’ speech, spells, blessings, Prophet Muhammad’s sermons. The Arab scholar, Abd al-Qādir Ḥusayn, explains that Muhammad did not completely reject the Saj’ and that he only rejected the Saj’ of the pagan priests as a pagan phenomenon [Ḥusayn, 1983: 127]. R. Nicholson [1962: 336] points out quite rightly that after the spread of Islam, the Saj had long been connected to religious associations, since the Qur'an was also written in rhyme. However, in the 9th century, Saj’ became not only an integral part of the Caliphs’ sermons and orators’ speeches, but also a necessary form of epistles. There were high, medium, and low tones of Saj’. Saj’ was required to be pleasant to listen to – an idea should not have been interrupted at the expense of the rhyme. The Saj’ established in the 9th-10th centuries was the result of the transformation of the Archaic Saj’ [Silagadze, 2009: 99].

In the 10th century, in the time of Al-Hamadhani, rhymed prose was used everywhere, even in administrative activities. Badi’ Al-Zaman’s credit was only that, knowingly or unknowingly, he turned the Saj into a part of the literary composition, which had not been found anywhere else before. It is a popular understanding that the medieval author should be assessed by inherited knowledge, but the question goes - what is Al-Hamadhani’s attitude towards the traditional Arabic form? In what context does he use Saj’? J. T. Monroe [2002] reflects on this issue suggesting that Prophet Muhammad, who did not approve of pagan poets, introduced the truth revealed by heavens to his people in the rhymed prose. Therefore, in his narrative, poetry was associated with lies, while Saj’ was related to truth. Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat communicate the opposite - a lie is conveyed in rhyming prose, e. i. a story about how a trickster deceives people, and poetry, which is oftentimes included in the monologue of the main character or the narrator, conveys admonition, the truth, and common sense  [Monroe, 2002: 9]. Monroe [2002] detects Al-Hamadhani’s ironic attitude towards rhyming prose. The main point here is that the Saj’, which had not yet been completely freed from its sacral burden, became an important component of the composition of the first maqamat precisely because of the greater effectiveness of the oral presentation. According to G. von Grünebaum, mixing prose and poetry was a more pre-Islamic phenomenon, which is again related to oral tradition [Von Grünebaum 1955: 117].

Another feature of maqamat - the similar manner of story development in independent maqamat, i.e. one and the same content is repeated in different variations - reflects on the unmistakable influence of orality in independent maqamat. Repeating the story, as a concurrent phenomenon of the de-folklorization process is generally characteristic of medieval literary works[4].  The main scheme of repeated actions in the maqamat are reduced to the following 8 components: 1) exposure; 2) meeting with an eloquent speaker; 3) monologue; 4) rewarding; 5) the narrator’s recognizing of the main character; 6) reprimanding; 7) self-justification; 8) departing. The vast majority of classical maqamat follow this pattern. For example, in Al-Hariri’s  “Tbilisian” maqama, where the action takes place in the Tbilisi mosque, there are all these stages in place:

a) Exposition - arrival of the narrator, Ibn Hammam, in the city:

I swore to Allah, when I turned fifteen years old, I would not delay and pray as much as possible. I used to eat one loaf of dry bread on weekends, but I never missed the time of prayer; I avoided accidental sins. When embarking on a long journey or settling down for a while, I would happily embrace the muezzin’s voice; I would also follow the faithful worshippers. It so happened that when I arrived in the city of Tbilisi, I had to pray with a small group of poor people” [Dolidze, 2010: 155], (translated from Georgian into English).

b) meeting with an eloquent speaker:

We were done with everything and were about to leave, but suddenly we came across a sheikh with a cerebral palsy - his jaw was dislocated, the corner of his lip was crooked, he could hardly walk, and his clothes were torn [Dolidze, 2010: 155], (translated from Georgian into English).

c) Monologue:

“Oh, far-sighted, wise and witty, isn’t it better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times?! Can there be a fire without smoke?! Grey hair is visible, frailty is obvious, illness is severe, and poverty is hard. However, I used to be the one who ruled, had immense wealth, helped out and supported others, even invaded – I was the one whose mightiness was known throughout the world. The wheel of fate rolled back and forth for me, my house became completely empty and all my wealth disappeared. I was left with nothing – I don’t have even a dirham. My clothes are torn, the world has become bitter to me. My children whine out of hunger begging for one bite only. I would not be standing here asking you for a little charity, but I have suffered a great deal, I have been paralyzed, I have gone grey, I have endured so much, and I long for death, only death… [Dolidze, 2010: 155], (translated from Georgian into English).

d) Rewarding

Those gathered there were delighted with the foreign sheikh’s wit. Despite his illness, he captivated everyone there. And they collected everything they had in their pockets. They told him: You have passed through waterless wells. You have seen empty hives with no honeycomb on the way. Take this small donation from us and don’t judge us, don’t even thank us”  [Dolidze, 2010: 156], (translated from Georgian into English).

e) Recognizing the main character - Abu Zayd:

“Here, the storyteller continued with the story:

It seemed to me that he acted in a completely different way. He also changed his unusual manner of walking. I followed along. He noticed me and gave me an evel eye - he must have been thinking who on earth ran into him. He waited until the road was empty and then, greeted me smiling and in high spirits …

Then he guffawed showing me that he was an ordinary man. And I did recognize Abu Zayd Sarujel - he had no sign of illness” [Dolidze, 2010: 157], (translated from Georgian into English).

f) Reprimanding is not given as a phrase; however, there is a mention of it. The story teller goes on with the following:

“Were I to be given a chance to reprimand, I would, but he came first …” [ibid]

g) Self-justification:

“I began to stutter, and pretended to be poor,

Fate must have treated me terribly,

I pretended to have had a palsy in order to win people’s hearts.

I would not be able to achieve the results without torn clothes,

If I did not cry, how would people feel sorry for me?!”

[Dolidze, 2010: 158], (translated from Georgian into English).

h) Departing:

That’s how I had walked along with him [Abu Zayd] for two years, until fate separated us again.” [ibid.]

Such solid composition is related to the tradition of oral representation of the text. On the one hand, written prose was not entirely free from the influence of folklore, and on the other hand, it was also the request of the audience of that time. It would be more accurate to use the word, audience, here rather than readers when speaking of the Middle Ages, for when there were no printing houses, most people had no proper education, and silent reading was not a commonplace - pieces of literature were read out loud and heard in public. The medieval audience was not necessarily fascinated by the effect of surprise or novelty - they wanted to enjoy hearing what they had already heard many times. Therefore, Al-Hariri’s piece of literary work, which was not developed orally, but was read publicly, perfectly complied with the demands of the audience of that time. The listeners of Maqamat were far from being disappointed. The audience should have known in advance not only the time and place of the character’s appearance in each maqama, but also of the main character’s habit of lying  and oftentimes, this lying (i.e. the way to get money or food) was repeated. As the story develops, the hero must receive a reprimand from the narrator, which should always be followed by his self-justification. And it does not bother the audience that the narrator never gets to know the main hero, an eloquent speaker, whom he has met many times before. The place of their encounter is always the same - it must be a crowded place.

The third important feature of the maqamat, which bears the traces of oral literature, is the double narration of the story. The narrator seems to be telling the author about what happened, and what he saw only with his own eyes, and then, the author narrates this story to us, the readers. That explains why each maqama begins with the phrase: “The story was told to me to me by ... The presence of an eyewitness narrator in maqamat had a significant motivation. On the one hand, this was a literary tradition, and on the other hand, it was the audience’s request back then.  Although the Arabs had translated Aristotle’s Poetics, no one thought of the fiction as a challenge of Arabic literature, because the world view prevailing in the East at that time - the whole school of thought was immensely influenced by religion. Narrating the story in the first person and relating it to the eyewitness first appeared in the Jewish literary tradition precisely due to religious perspectives. Later, story transmitters also appeared in the hadiths describing the life of Muhammad. When narrating the biographical details related to the Prophet, the Shiites mentioned the names of absolutely all story transmitters, while the Sunnis would only mention the names of prominent ones. The aim was to have these stories be conveyed to Muhammad’s contemporaries, i.e. to eyewitnesses. The said phenomenon is called Isnad (Arabic: support). According to R. Drory [2000: 12], canonical Arabic literature turned out to be so influential that it made historicity or reality a necessary feature even for those prose genres that had no direct connection with religion. Stemming from the demand  of the audience of that time, the authenticity of the story being told was of utmost importance; a fictional story was perceived to be a lie [Drory, 1994: 147]. That is why the prose emerged - it gives room for a fictional story, but announcing it out loud is unacceptable, unethical. Even in anecdotes, at least one character should be real, and the story told should be related to reality. In classical maqamat, the reader comes across the so called fictitious Isnad. As the Moroccan scholar, 'Abd Al-Fattah Kilito [1976: 109] points out, the text in maqamat is narrated first by one and then by another Ravi or narrator, just like the old works of poetry, and later hadiths were narrated with great precision and accuracy by narrators, i.e. Ravis[5]. According to the scholar, the difference is that in the case of maqamat, one of the Ravis is fictitious [Kilito, 1976: 109].

The “fictional” storyteller, naturally, represents  the narrator of the maqamat, and the real storyteller is the author himself. The so called pseudo-Isnad - when the figment (absence of reality) of the narrator once again emphasizes the fictitiousness / unreality of the story being told - used to be common before the time of Al-Hamadhani – its task was to narrate the story in the first person. The need for an eyewitness, i.e. the double narration of the story in maqamat is related to the following: 1) the Jewish-Arabic tradition of oral transmission of religious texts; 2) the Arab pagan tradition, when Ravis used to transmit poetry or stories and legends orally from generation to generation; 3) the “demand” of the audience of orally transmitted literature (epics, stories, legends or chivalry stories...) – to the ethical law prevailing in the Middle Ages, according to which it was not allowed to deceive the audience with a fictional story. All genres of Adab, the majority of which could be distinguished by didacticism, had to have a connection with reality, which, to some extent, was determined by the dominant religious way of thinking[6].

Another characteristic of oral narration, which is reflected in the maqamat as a written literary monument, is the framework composition. Maqamat is a cycle of novels, where two main characters relate individual episodes to each other. The main framework develops with the wanderings of the main character. The collection of fables, Kilila and Damana, which is a literary reworking of the Indian Panchatantra and comes from the oral tradition, is distinguished by its framework composition; One Thousand and One Nights, whose tales were passed down orally for centuries; Arab Days  - chronicles of Bedouin’s life before Islam, which was recorded as late as the 9th century, etc. The episodic structure is as well characteristic of oral narration. The Arab Days, like fables and fairy tales, retained their cyclical form even after they were developed as a written piece of work. It is known that before the emergence of written literature, narration did not have a unified structure - when the audience specially gathered to listen to the literary works, those who had not attended the previous meeting was able to listen to an independent episode in terms of content, and not to a sequel to the story. Thus, such a practical, prosaic, existential explanation lies in the cyclical form, which again leads to orality, the oral transmission of literature. According to Likhachev [Likhachev, 1979: 341], in the Middle Ages, when a ceremony passed from life to arts, telling or reading aloud meant participating in that certain ceremony. The framework composition and cyclical structure allowed the audience not to experience the discomfort of not having listened to the previous episode - each new part (be it a fairy tale, a story, an anecdote or a historical story depicting Arabs’ heroic deeds) was framed and had no chronological or meaningful connection with each other. In the case of the maqamat, the disciples of Al-Hamadhani were the audience who were not supposed to experience any inconvenience of not having listened to the previous maqama.

For the American researcher, D. Wacks [2003: 180], the narrator-character of the maqamat is also interesting from another perspective; as he [Wacks, 2003: 180] notes, maqamat seem to be written for performance, for a stage, which is achieved at the “external” level  by the presence of the narrator and by his description of the events, while “internally,” the aim is achieved through presenting each action as a part of a whole chain.

According to Wacks, similarly to the written prose, maqamat reflect the so-called narrative performance, which existed in the orality. In maqamat, both the stance of the storyteller and the public speech of the main character when disguised as a different person presenting in front of the audience (in one of Al-Hariri’s maqamat, the main character even appears disguised as a woman) can be considered elements of performance. A character giving a speech in front of the audience has another listener other than us - he addresses the said listener directly. According to Wacks [2003: 180], the disguised, lying hero performing in front of the audience is already an actor, and the presenter/transmitter’s speech in front of the audience in a certain stance is already a mono-performance. Therefore, on the one hand, maqamat include the elements of the narrative performance (be it the transformation of the main character or the narrator’s stance) and on the other hand, the mechanisms that the presenter uses during the oral representation of the text (raising and lowering the voice, gesturing, etc.) turns maqamat into a mono-performance, where the so called actor-storyteller tells a fictional, hard-to-believe story.

The modern prose does not include special “performance” because the individual reader does not need it. Wacks [2003] notes the following on the matter:

“…the advent of printing ….. puts a great deal of distance between the modern critic and the Medieval reality of reading (Coleman 23). When the reading public thinks of performance, thoughts turn to drama, music, perhaps to poetry. However, works of literary prose narrative in Medieval Arabic have a much closer relationship with orality and performance than the modern novel” [Wacks, 2003: 182].

Thus, it is possible to find the traces of oral presentation or performance, orality of that time in the main character or storyteller’s  stance presenting in front of the audience in classical Arabic maqamat. When such an immensely significant written fictional genre of the Arabic literature - maqama - was being created, reading was deemed to be a play (resp. performance).

According to one of the assumptions, Al-Hamadhani’s maqamat were composed as a parody to amuse his disciples, and later, with Al-Hariri, they became to be a classic. Al-Hariri established the written form of maqamat that had been created through oral improvisation. His oldest manuscript had been read at 30 public readings over a period of 180 years. It quickly spread throughout the Muslim East, including Spain and India, and despite its complex language, became the most popular reading material after the Qur'an. One of the first manuscripts of Al-Hariri had been passed down from generation to generation. Embracing and canonizing maqamat as a literary genre of Arabic literature occurred in the context of its oral presentation, performance, and performativity. Although at that time it was generally considered one of the requirements of writing, orality also comes from eloquence (Arab. بلاغة), which is especially characteristic of Al-Hariri’s maqamat.  The complicated style and garnished vocabulary used in the maqamat was a sign of speech delivery, oratory. In the Arab culture formed in a nomadic environment, the word was given a special purpose and significance in the age of paganism. In the Muslim world of the Middle Ages, Arabic - the language of God - should have been able to convey anything. Obviously, the art of speech, both before and after Islam, contained elements of performance, which also appeared in maqamat.

The formal signs of the classical maqama analysed above, such as rhythmic prose (called Saj') with verses included in it, uniform development of events (solid composition similar to fairy tales), double narration of the story (called Isnad), i.e. the presence of an eyewitness narrator as a character, cyclicity or framework composition are those elements of narrative performance that characterize oral literature. Their presence in maqamat might be explained by the following two main reasons:

1) Maqama is a genre created by the aesthetics of sameness, which naturally reflects the tradition of oral literature; 2) Maqama as a literary genre was created in an era, when there was a concurrent existence of oral and written literature and when reading a piece of literary work in public was commonplace.

The influence of orality in maqamat was determined both by the commitment to the literary heritage and by the presence of the audience. While the traditional, pagan or religious literary heritage (Qur'an, Hadiths, poetry, chivalry stories, legends, tales, anecdotes, fables, etc.) was reflected on classical maqamat content-wise, the influence of oral transmission and orality revealed itself in the peculiarities of maqamat’ form (Saj’, Isnad, narrative performance, complex, stylized vocabulary...) and composition (alternation of rhyming prose and poetry, repetition of plot elements, fragmentation of the text...).


[1]Badi' al-Zaman  (Arab. بديع الزمان) -  The Miracle of the Epoch

[2]Adab – the unity of the whole literature, that was required from the educated individual of that epoch

[3]Hadiths – New stories about the life of Muhammad

[4]The theory of V. Propp about the mythology of the fairy tales is not appropriate to the fairy tales only. It suits to numerous literary works of the middle ages including Maqamat. For the further information might see: Dolidze, 2002, 94-104

[5]Ravi  (Arab. راو) -  story teller, the one who transferred the poetry and hadiths existed before Islam.

[6]Fables and fairy tales were not considered fictional stories because there was no fictional reality. Fiction is something that did not actually happen, but could have happened. Jinn, flying carpets don't really exist, and animals and birds don't talk.


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