A Thousand Years of Autobiography in Arabic

Issa J. Boullata

Interpreting The Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition
Edited by Dwight F. Reynolds
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001

I must begin my review by saying that I like this book. In many ways, it is unique in contemporary American scholarship on Arabic literature and a model to be emulated. The nine co-authors began their project in 1990. They met privately to discuss literary theories and research issues related to the book, and they publicly offered their initial findings in panels at professional meetings (MESA 1993 and 1994) for feedback from other scholars. After this, the nine scholars published their individual conclusions on particular facets of their project for a wider readership in a special 1997 issue of Edebiyat. Finally, they collectively co-authored the book; Dwight F. Reynolds acted as editor, but all collaboratively contributed to the research, discussions, revisions, and composition that led to the final product. The result is a book of outstanding joint scholarship that reaches beyond the normal capabilities of a single scholar. Only in the physical and life sciences, and to a lesser extent, in the social sciences, is such a collaborative approach used regularly, but we rarely see it in the humanities.

The project explores autobiographies in the Arabic literary tradition. Earlier in Western scholarship, Franz Rosenthal's 1937 article in Studia Arabica pioneered the research in this field, followed by Georg Misch in his 1949-69 four-volume study of autobiography in human cultures, benefiting from Rosenthal's readings regarding the Arabic tradition. Both studies were flawed by assumptions about the superiority of the "Western self" and its perceived capacity for the individualism and self-awareness necessary to produce autobiography, a capacity they believed was lacking in Arab culture; hence the paucity or inexistence of "true" autobiography in Arabic - in their view. Their findings, if not always their assumptions, have subsequently continued to be common in the West until challenged by this book under review.

The co-authors surveyed more than a thousand years of Arabic autobiographical tradition, broadening the Western definition of an autobiographical work. The scholars first looked at the strong and deeply rooted Arab biographical genre, which began as an oral tradition in pre-Islamic times and then developed into a written and more sophisticated genre as the years passed. They found that Arabs have practiced autobiography increasingly throughout the years as a subgenre of biography in works of sira (exemplary life story), tabaqat (biographical dictionaries), and tarjama (biographical notice). The authors of these works often included entries about themselves in the first or third person, as well as entries by others about themselves (e.g., Yaqut al-Hamawi, d. 1229), thus including autobiographical entries. Pre-Islamic Greek and Persian models of autobiography in Arabic translation (e.g., Galen and Burzoweh) exerted some influence on physicians and philosophers during the Islamic period, which lasted from the 10th through the 12th century. Furthermore, Sufis as far back as al-Muhasibi (d. 857), al-Tirmidhi (d.898) and al-Ghazali (d. 1111) wrote autobiographies, and their examples were later followed by Sufis like al-Simnani, Zarruq, al-Sha'rani, al-Yusi and Ibn 'Ajiba, all of who mainly presented their spiritual inner growth and their progress along the mystical path so that others could emulate them.

The co-authors finish their survey with a look at the years 1926-27, when Taha Husayn published the first volume of his autobiography “al-Ayyam.” This monumental work was followed by many autobiographies by other Arabs, who profited from both the Arab and Western traditions of this literary genre. Though they end with this work, the co-authors clearly show how autobiography had flourished in Arabic for a thousand years before the publication of this momentous work. They delineate the literary characteristics of Arabic autobiography, which differ from those of Western autobiographies at times, but which also include examples from many noted figures of the Arab Islamic civilization, interpreting their own lives for posterity. The co-authors' extremely useful annotated guide to Arabic autobiographical writings (9th to 19th centuries) at the end of the book lists more than 150 autobiographers with bibliographic information on each. This guide complements the insightful analysis on many of those autobiographers in the body of the book and invites scholars to further research this insufficiently studied field.

Part II of the book is also helpful for the reader, as it contains English translations of important sections from the autobiographies of 13 autobiographers: Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873 or 877); al-Tirmidhi (d. between 905 and 910); al-Mu'ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 1077); 'Imad al-Din al-Katib al-Isfahani (d. 1201); 'Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 1231); Ibn al-'Adim (d. 1262); Abu Shama (d. 1268); al-Simnani (d. 1336); 'Abd Allah al-Turjuman (d. 1432?); Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505); al-'Aydarus (d. 1628); Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1772); and 'Ali Mubarak (d. 1893). This section includes translations of one or more of these autobiographers, each of which is preceded by a brief introduction and bibliography.

From this rich tradition, one notices that the earliest Arabic autobiographers may have written their works in isolation from one another, but the later ones were clearly written in 'clusters', whereby autobiographers wrote with full knowledge of their immediate predecessors, who perhaps served as their professors or model authors. Future autobiographers followed in their footsteps as students and admirers. A literary convention therefore developed, and this book traces this development with historical precision. The literary convention is presented within the enveloping Arab Islamic civilization and its values, for that which is viewed as private or public in a person's life evolves according to cultural changes, and the act of autobiographical writing responds accordingly. Autobiographers in Arabic, for example, portrayed their emotions and inner motivations by citing relevant poetry and by narrating visions and dreams rather than by expressing themselves directly. One of their constant anxieties was not to appear boastful; thus, autobiographers often presented their life achievements as an expression of gratitude to God for his numerous blessings on them. The title of al-Suyuti's autobiography, for example, is telling: "Al-Tahadduth bi-Ni`mat Allah" (Speaking of God's Bounty).

Autobiography in Arabic, therefore, is an established literary genre that has its own conventions of individuation and of speaking of the inner and private life. It does not conform to the Western notions of self and self-awareness; however, this difference in style does not mean that Arab culture is lacking. In actuality, Arab culture has developed its own notions of self and self-awareness, and therefore has its own ways of portraying them.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).

Copyright (c) 2001, 2019 by Al Jadid