Ibn al-Muqaffa’, Abd Allah

Ibn al-Muqaffa’, Abd Allah
(ca. 721–ca. 757)
   One of the first and most influential writers of prose fiction in Arabic, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ was of Persian descent and devoted much of his energies to translating important Persian texts into Arabic in the years following the Muslim conquest of Persia. His best-known work, Kalilah wa-Dimnah, is a collection of instructive animal fables that is still used throughout the Middle East as a model of exemplary prose.
   Ibn al-Muqaffa’s father was tortured by the despot Hajjaj, and his hand shriveled up as a result, hence his son was called Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (or “son of the shriveled”). Originally a Zoroastrian, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ converted to Islam, though his enemies always questioned the sincerity of his conversion, and he was, at one point, accused of heresy because one of his texts imitates a part of the KORAN.
   Ibn al-Muqaffa’ worked in Basra (a major port city in what is modern-day Iraq) as a government secretary, part of a middle class of scribes and bureaucrats. He also worked as a translator, rendering into Arabic the history of the kings of Persia. In addition he wrote Kitab Adab al-Kabir (The grand book of conduct), with advice on statesmanship including the importance of generosity and the danger of flattery, and Risala al Sahaba (A letter on the entourage), which was a political text discussing the caliph and segments of his court.
   But Ibn al-Muqaffa’s most important contribution to Arabic literature was his Kalilah wa-Dimnah. Originally a collection of Indian fables for princes, the text had been translated in the sixth century from Sanskrit into Old Persian, and Ibn al-Muqaffa’ reworked the Persian collection into Arabic and changed it enough to make it a new creation. He wrote his own prologue and a section expressing religious skepticism, and he set the collection in a frame narrative in which a pre-Islamic sage called Burzoe travels to India in search of a famous book of wisdom that he copies. The fables themselves contain a good deal of practical wisdom—advising appropriate conduct for government bureaucrats more than for the princes for whom the Indian collection was originally intended—and also display a common theme of storytelling as a way of getting out of life-threatening situations. In addition the text is structured in a way that embeds tales within tales, so that in telling one story as a way out of a difficult situation, a narrator may have a character within his tale begin telling a tale of his own. Both of these motifs—the life-ransoming stories and the embedded stories—appear later in the more famous Arabic collection, The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS.
   The intent of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s work seems to have been largely didactic. In part he wanted to introduce the refined pursuits and sensibilities of the dihqan (the traditional Persian country gentleman) to the new Muslim Abbasid court in Basra. In addition he wanted his Kalilah wa-Dimnah to be a model for Arabic grammar and literary style, and wrote it simply enough so that schoolchildren or nonnative speakers of Arabic could use it as a model. He hoped they would commit the text to memory.
   These concerns helped Ibn al-Muqaffa’ become instrumental in helping to develop the concept of adab—a social and ethical code and cultural refinement expected of the genteel or of one who wanted to advance in society, later applied especially to literary style.
   Ibn al-Muqaffa’ died young—he was apparently murdered (possibly in a fire) by political enemies before he was 40. But his animal fables remained extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages, and were translated into Persian, Turkish, Latin, and Hebrew. They continue to be popular today, and still serve as a model of refined Arabic prose. No definitive edition of the Kalilah wa-Dimnah exists, however, and versions of the text differ.
   ■ Irwin, Robert, ed.Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of classical Arabic Literature. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2000.
   ■ Younes, Munther Abduffatif. Tales from Kalila wa Dimna: An Arabic Reader. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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