Sacred Texts  Islam 

Illustration from the Maqamat of al-Hariri: Bagdad, Arabic Ms. 5847 [1237] (Public Domain Image)

The Maqámát
of Badí‘ al-Zamán

translated by W.J. Prendergast


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A Maqama (plural, Maqamat) is an Arabic rhymed prose literary form, with short poetic passages. Maqama is from a root which means 'he stood,' and in this case it means to stand in a literary discussion in order to orate.

The two classical exponents of the Maqama were Hamadhani (967-1007), the composer of this work, and the later and better-known Hariri (1054-1122). Hamadhani was born in Hamadhan, the ancient Ecbatana, in what is now Iran (to the southwest of Tehran) and spent his life as a wandering scholar. The Maqamat of Hamadhani and Hariri have a similar structure. They both consist of a series of unrelated episodes involving a wandering narrator, and a trickster protagonist. In the Maqamat of Hamadhani, the narrator is an alter ego of Hamadhani, a wandering scholar named Isa ibn Hisham. In each tale, he encounters a mysterious rogue named Abul-Fath al-Iskanderi.

Iskanderi wanders the earth, surviving on his wits and a silver tongue, running scams, always one step ahead of an angry mob. Each story is a small capsule description of a sometimes absurd predicament that the characters find themselves in. Nonetheless the stories are often used as framing for discourses on serious topics such as predestination, the vanity of human life, and the inevitability of death and judgement. The work brings to mind Jack Kerouac's On the Road,