Samuel of Arabia

Before the advent of Islam, Jews were a local element in the Arabian peninsula. A new book by a professor in Riyadh explores the life of one of the poets among them

"Samuel - Al-Samaw'al: The Legend and the Anonymous Man" (in Arabic), by Dr. Fadl Ibn Ammar Alammari, Kuwait

The recent publication in Kuwait of this book on the Jewish poet Al-Samaw'al Ibn Adiya can serve as an occasion for examining the status of Jewish writers and their position in classical Arabic poetry. We shall limit the discussion to mainstream literary Arabic and leave aside the poetry written in Judeo-Arabic (that is, Arabic in Hebrew letters, for internal Jewish consumption, and the linguistic spirit suited to it).

In the Arabian Peninsula, just preceding and also during the first part of the sixth century, lived a poet whom all of classical Arabic literature and generations of Arab scholars defined as a Jew. Al-Samaw'al (Samuel) Ibn Adiya (known by the cognomen "al-Yahudi" in Arabic literature) is his name. Legend has it that the ancient and admired poet, Imru' al-Qays, gave him armor for safekeeping. Al-Samaw'al, who lived in a famous Arab castle, got embroiled in a war because of this armor, and refused to betray the trust put in him by handing it over - so much so that his stubbornness led to the death of his son, the victim of this faithfulness. This became a proverb, a metaphor and a legend in Arab culture: "More trustworthy even than Al-Samaw'al."

Before the advent of Islam, Jews were a local element in the Arabian Peninsula, integrated almost seamlessly into the culture of the inhabitants. Thus, there is scope for discussion, at least with regard to the special field of early poetry and its concepts. Indeed, it may be asked with what Judaism their poetry was endowed, and this characteristic vanishes almost without a trace.

There were poets like Al-Samaw'al Ibn Adiya (or shall we call him "Samuel the Jew?"), about whom bits of information, echoes and legends that were current through oral transmission in that period, were collected only during the Muslim period. Or like Ka'ab, a member of a Jewish tribe, who was prominent during the war between the Prophet Mohammed and the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula. Their poetry was truly a part of the historical tales, legends and verses that were often used as descriptions of and evidence for customs, the consciousness of situations and events.

However, one begins to wonder with respect to subsequent generations, in the shadow of the various Islamic kingdoms. The number of Jews cited for their classical Arabic poetry is quite small. To aid in considering and balancing the issue, the Jewish scholar Yehuda Ratzhaby, of Bar-Ilan University, collected enough examples of poetry by Jewish poets in Muslim Spain, together with fragments of poetry in Arabic by three Jewish writers from the eastern part of the Muslim world, to fill up an article. The assumption is that there were additional materials that had been preserved in Arabic literature.

Y. Tobi, of Haifa University, added lines from a poet (possibly a woman), said to be Jewish. During the past decades, several poems in Arabic by Yehuda Alharizi - a Jew of Toledo who traveled in Syria, Iraq and Egypt and died in 1225 - were discovered. Because of his unique talent, which is perhaps not representative of other Jews, he added to his writing in Hebrew and in Judeo-Arabic the composition of poetry in "classical" Arabic in honor of Arab rulers and princes in Syria. At least one Arab bibliographer in the Middle Ages, who dealt with poets in Syria and their background, contributed to his memory and quoted his work.

Nevertheless, this Jewish artist, who was of gigantic stature in the area of Hebrew writing, infiltrates only the margins of Arabic poetry; his status there is almost negligible. I myself tend, therefore, to be convinced that the poetic harvest from Jewish pens, as part of "classical" Arabic poetry, is not particularly abundant. There are those who believe otherwise.

Was there indeed some shortcoming in the attitude of Jews toward the highest poetic level of the Arabic language, in the Islamic civilization in which they dwelled? How did the desire to serve verse in the Hebrew language arise? In the nature of things, this question has attracted the attention of scholars of linguistics.

Dubious hypotheses

I shall allow myself to mention the Jerusalem scholar of Hebrew and Arabic, Joshua Blau. Of course, this is not a purely literary issue, but rather one of language, concerning the accessibility of Arabic literature to the Jewish minority. In the balance here are the facts of the cultural way of life, the habits of Jewish education within eastern-Arabic civilization, and the path along which the Jewish and Hebrew cultural spirit developed over the generations. And materials are still accumulating that deal with this issue.

However, on the margins of these serious deliberations several dubious hypotheses have developed - some of them due to an excess of dry learnedness, some of them as a result of amusing nationalist sentiments, and some of them embedded in a grain of charlatanism. Quite a free-for-all.

As I mused along these lines, the work of Ibrahim Ibn Sahl - or shall we call him "Abraham the Israelite" (that is, "al-Isra'ili," or quite simply, "the Jew") - of Seville came along and caught my attention. The work of this poet, who died about 20 years after Rabbi Yehuda Alharizi, mentioned above, is quite extensive and was published from manuscripts about 30 years ago, in a collection of over 500 pages; it is a pity that he came along too late for Yehuda Ratzhaby.

Ibn Sahl won esteem in the Arabic-speaking Muslim part of Spain and in the literature of all the Arab lands. The fact of this poet's success within the culture that served as his home does not in the least contradict the rule previously referred to, with respect to the small Jewish output in this field, but is rather an exception that proves the rule: His exceptional successful reception into "mainstream" Arab culture is what turned his head and led him to pursue a more tangible belonging. He went ahead and converted, and became a strictly "kosher" Muslim. However, his Judaism, even though he converted, was never forgiven him by his environment. Some saw him as an imposter and hastened to enumerate his unpleasant character traits, calling him, till the end of his days, by the cognomen "al-Isra'ili" - i.e., the Jew.

It may be said that his poetry almost succeeded in making it to center stage of Arabic culture; he is not in the front rank of its poets, but certainly several ranks ahead of the position Rabbi Yehuda Alharizi attained in its margins.

Two sons of Spain

Now there has come into our hands a fine opportunity to make a reckoning with two sons of Spain from the same generation: Alharizi and Ibn Sahl al-Isra'ili. The former, in remaining faithful to his Judaism, also found it possible to compose a few verses in defense of it, in the presence of the rulers of the land. The poet himself did refrain from excoriating the Jews and their characteristic parsimony, and their miserliness when mankind had jailed them and almost done away with them. This is how his fellow Jews looked to him, subjectively (as he had to seek Jewish patrons, mainly). However, this he expressed in Hebrew, for internal Jewish consumption. But when Alharizi appeared before Muslim nobles, he took the opposite position, praised Jewish generosity and broke into song, which may be translated thus from Arabic:

Hark to my opponents: Jews? Open hands?

My reply: You've got it wrong way round.

Moses divided the Sea of Generosity to Man

Only so the Israelites could walk on dry ground.

In contrast to this praise, that rests on a fine witticism of Alharizi's about Moses, the prophet of the Jews, and the dividing of the waters of the Red Sea, Ibn Sahl al-Isra'ili compares Moses to Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, thus ("Diwan Ibn Sahl," 1998, page 144):

I was moved from Moses by my love of Mohammed.

By the Almighty's instruction I chose the right way.

My parting from Moses was not out of hate:

His Law was abrogated by that of Mohammed.

Let us go back now to the days of the Jahiliyya, the period prior to the advent of Islam, and to tribal and desert life. As noted, the Jews were integrated into this life, as equals to all the rest of the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula in terms of their "primitive" notions, until the prophet Mohammed came along in the seventh century, and got rid of the Jews by determining their fate in battle.

Was the famous poet Al-Samaw'al, Samuel, among them? There have been scholars, such as D.S. Margoliouth, H.Z. Hirschberg and others, who have cast doubt on parts of the Samaw'alian legend and have also questioned the attribution of the extant verses to this poet.

Why Al-Samaw'al?

The author of the volume before us, Dr. Alammari of the University of Riyadh, tends to exculpate his country from the legends concerning Jewish matters that have stuck to the poetic heritage. Legends have, indeed, been the lot of most of the early Arab poets, and there is no part of the history of their poetry that is entirely free of such accretions. These elements were transmitted orally, in an era when writing was a rare commodity, until they were collected at relatively later times (especially during the first Abbasid period). However, why has this reckoning been conducted particularly with Al-Samaw'al?

His father's name, Adiya, has been investigated and is attributed to a castle that had no connection to the incident of the armor related at the beginning of this article. Alternatively, it has been argued that the poetry attributed to him indicates that perhaps there was some other Samuel who died at the beginning of the eighth century.

The cognomen "Al-Dayyan" ("jurist and judge," which some have seen as a Jewish matter) that goes along with Al-Samaw'al's life, has been interpreted as the name of a tribe that had no connection to Judaism. There is no basis for the location of the Al-Ablaq castle in which the legend places the Jewish poet and his means of defense in guarding the armor that was deposited with him for safekeeping.

The poet Imru' Al-Qays, who deposited the armor, does not make any mention in his poetry of the war over its possession, and there have also been other assorted arguments of identifications of time and geographical errors that Dr. Alammari sets out systematically for the reader.

Of the Jewish poet little remains after this paring down. Indeed, back at the beginning of the last century, the renowned Lebanese writer Louis Cheikho published an anthology in many volumes of ancient Christian (!) Arab writers, into which he co-opted Al-Samaw'al. Though Dr. Alammari is evidently not aware of this move, he might perhaps agree to compromise as to the Christianity of this poet, though for him, his very existence is not at all certain.

All this comes within the realm of academic and scientific possibilities, of course - and I am not casting any aspersions. Nevertheless, what can I say about the atmosphere in the Arab world where, from time to time, publications come out with titles like "The Jews and the Arabs," and some writers are spending their time on things like Jesus le non-juif ("Jesus the non-Jew"), which was published in French in 1987 by the Egyptian writer Sarwat Anis al-Assiouty, and similar compositions, in Arabic, about heroes of the Bible and ancient times?

Perhaps there is something in this atmosphere that could explain a certain fervor that is also found in the work of Dr. Alammari. I cannot prove this and even if I were to prove it, it certainly in no way detracts from the scholar's right to pursue his research in an unbiased and unrelenting way. The rights of scholarship are with Alammari and must be fully respected. However, we the readers, into whose laps fall all kinds of written material, will know how to maintain the proper balance.

The few verses by Al-Samaw'al, in quite a poetic Hebrew translation by Hannah Amit Kochavi, published in Ha'aretz on September 29, 1998, definitely testify to the spirit of tribalism, respect for the origins of every Arab tribe, sacrifice and courage, restraint, the preservation of honor to the point of blood revenge, if necessary, and similar virtues. Thus, for example, in Hebrew, the translator soars in language somewhat more elevated than the experience of the sons of the desert: "We were borne in a rush on backs of noble steeds, rapt in a gallop o'er gully and vale."

The truth is, in our language, the original matter should have approached the crude verities of an act of sexual intercourse: We come from a glorious back - and not of horses, but of men - as the seed a man carries was identified with the posterior (which is the case in Arabic to this day), and this male seed is planted not in gullies and vales, but (and this is the case in Arabic) in women of noble wombs. The glorious seed (back) and the noble womb (belly) are an expression that means: I am from a superior lineage! In the classical language of the desert, the original expression is elevated and not at all "crude," even if translated properly, according to the original meaning.

When the off-the-mark Hebrew translation was published here, I received an agitated visit from Dr. Suliman Jubran, who likes to dip into Arabic poetry with all its precision. He was very upset. This was because the poem is well-known and famous, included in the most respected anthology of Arabic poetry from the ninth century and taught in Arab schools and our universities. Of course, soaring on the wings of poesie is the right of every translator - especially when a certain crudeness prevents a direct approach and requires recourse to euphemism, though whether the translator did this on purpose, or because the intention of the juicy formulation was hidden from her, is not clear.

Even if nothing remains of the figure of Al-Samaw'al but fragments of legends scattered in all directions and unattributed verses, this does not contradict the sense that legends, too, are an authentic cultural reality.

Prof. Joseph Sadan is a specialist in medieval civilization and Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University.