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Reading Maqãmat Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî through a Western Lens


Reading Maqãmat Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî through a Western Lens

Amal Tawbe([1](


In their criticism of the maqãmas in general and the maqãmas of Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî specifically, some critics and writers have offered some harsh and perhaps unfounded judgments. Thomas Chenery has claimed that the “diction is all in all”. Reynold A. Nicolson describes the style as everything. H.A.R. Gibbs believes that the “author’s object is to display his poetry, his eloquence or his learning.” Finally G.E.von Grunebaum describes the art of Hamãdanî as “the greatest triumph of the principle of art for art’s sake” (Monroe,1983, pp. 87-88). To really appreciate the value of the maqãmas as a literary work, it is important to study the Maqãmas of Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî, which were written in the fourth century, on the basis of western theory. This article endeavors to show that the Maqãmas reflect western theory to a large extent, and this is significant because it proves that the Maqãmas are not only universal literature that can withstand time and place, but they can  also be applicable to a foreign theory. In the first part of the article, I will use a Structuralism approach to interpret six maqãmas of Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî. In the second part, the same six maqãmas will be interpreted utilizing the approach of Ecocriticism. The third part studies  the power mechanism  in some of the six maqamas.

Keywords: maqãmas, ecocriticism,  Structuralism,  Badî El Zamān El Hamādani, panopticon

The Maqamat, or Assemblies, of Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî (d. 398/1008) are masterpieces of classical Arabic literature which have been translated into many languages. The following Maqãmas written by Badî al-Zamãn al-Hamãdanî and translated into English by William Prendergast (1973) will be considered in this study:

  1. The Maqãma of Kûfa
  2. The Maqãma of the Blind
  3. The Maqãma of Mosul
  4. The Maqãma of Madirah
  5. The Maqãma of Adharbayjan
  6. The Maqãma of Isfahan
  7. Interpreting the Maqãmas through Structuralism

Structuralism is a general theory of culture and methodology which implies that elements of human culture can be understood by their relationship to a broader system. In order to interpret each of the above Maqãmas, we must first understand the Mãqãma genre or the overall system that connects them all together. By studying the langue (system) of this genre, we will be able to interpret the instance (the maqama).

                          System for studying the following six Maqãmãs                                            

Maqãma Narrated


Narrated about Topic Setting Language Plot Ending
Maqãma of Kufa Ísá Iskandari deceit Kufa ornate meets Iskandari and is deceived by his eloquence He brags about his ability to deceive.
Maqãma of the Blind Ísá Iskandari deceit Ahwaz ornate Meets Iskandari and is deceived by his eloquence and appearance Iskandari brags of his ability to deceive , and tries to justify his reasons.
Maqãma of Mosul Ísá Iskandari deceit Mosal ornate Iskandari and Isa are traveling companions. They deceive Mourners 1.He is beaten.

2. People are stupid and thus easily duped

Maqãma of Madirah Ísá



Iskandari  and Issa   Basra ornate Iskandari and Isa are both guests at a merchant’s house Iskandari complains about being deceived.
Maqãma of Adharbayjan




Iskandari  and Issa deceit Adharbayjan ornate Issa watches Iskandari in the act of deceit Iskandari justifies his actions and brags about being expert.
The Maqãma of Isfahan Ísá Iskandari deceit Isfahan ornate Issa watches Iskandari in the act of deceiving  people Iskandari lectures about the stupidity all men and advises Issa to exploit them

The above chart of the six chosen Maqãmas reveals some common characteristics of the maqãmas that bond them as a system. To interpret each Maqãma according to a system would be too simplistic. We must also study each instance. In five of the above Maqãmas, Iskandari brags of his ability to deceive people, but in the Madirah he complains of being deceived by the merchant. The Madirah does not fit perfectly in the system because instead of deceiving, Iskandari is deceived. In the Maqãma of Mosal, Ísá and Iskandari are almost accomplices. They are traveling companions who had been deceived and robbed of their possessions. In this Maqãma, Ísá is not just an innocent by-stander, a voyeur, watching the scene and narrating the incident. He participates in both feats. The Maqãma of Mosal contains the events of two incidents. Iskandari tries to deceive the mourners into believing that their dead might still be alive. When he fails, Iskandari tries his luck with a group of villagers whose village is flooded. In the second incident, Iskandari does not gain anything, but still, he brags about his own cleverness and the stupidity of men.

         In the Maqãma of Madirah, Iskandari is duped by the merchant. In fact, Iskandari who usually uses his eloquent language to deceive others is beaten by the very weapon he usually uses, language. The merchant utilizes language to drive Iskandari crazy. According to the Maqãma genre, Iskandari dupes people with his eloquent diction. However, in the Maqãma of Madirah, the reader who is used to the form or who understands the larger system feels there is a gap somewhere. After reading this maqãma, we wonder if there is something we did not understand. We are at loss because in the maqãma, Iskandari can not be duped. Studying the system without studying the instance is not enough. The instance, in this case, the Maqãma, must also be analyzed   too. Here, it is essential to apply the principal of the hermeneutic circle. In other words, to understand the part we have to understand the whole and to understand the whole we have to understand the part.

         So do these Maqãmas, which do not fully adhere to the system, fit into the system at all? If Iskandari is deceived in the Madirah, does it remain a Maqama? Structuralists believe that the oddness in the structure helps us figure out the system’s structure and its boundaries. Both the Maqãma of Madirah and the Maqãma of Mosal help broaden the spectrum of the system. In other words, now the system can define its anti-hero as either a person who deceives others or is himself deceived. In the Maqãma of Mosal, the narrator (Ísá) is a character, an accomplice to Iskandari, so, the maqãma’s anti-hero can be both narrator and main character. In order to maintain this systemization, the Maqãma’s anti-hero can be both narrator and main character. The maqãmas can be categorized under different branches, according to the characteristics of each. Those maqãmas that adhere to strict rules can be put under one category and those which share other common characteristics can be put under another category. Studying the Maqãmat as a system leaves us with a choice. After studying a maqãma, we can decide that it does belong to the Maqãma genre, or we can revise our grammar of the Maqãma. If Iskandari repents or we do not learn how he benefitted from his deceit, then we can refine our grammar. Instead of saying the Maqãma requires Iskandari as a swindler, we can say that the Maqãma requires Iskandari or Ísá or both to deceive others. This open-ended systemization is often criticized because if we keep branching and categorizing the maqãmas according to systems, we might end up with a version of Maqãmas that does not even belong to the same tree. However, Structuralists believe that this does not topple the system but reveals it. If a maqãma includes characteristics that are too foreign to be included in the maqãma structure, then the literary text cannot be interpreted as a maqãma.

So far, we have tried to interpret the Maqãmas in terms of structure. However, the study of the narratology of the Maqãma can also be very illuminating to its interpretation. According to Structuralism, narratology is the way the narrative works. Narration focuses on what is referred to as the “telling” and the “tale”. The tale is the sequence of events in the order they take place. The telling is the sequence of events in the order they are told. The telling of the maqãma, as any other telling, must have gaps (ellipses and lacunae) because it is impossible to recount every minute detail in the tale. The Maqãma’s main objective (at least the surface objective) is to reveal iskandari’s deceit, and to do that, not every detail in the tale should or could be narrated, especially in such a relatively short narration as the Maqãma. In all the above six Maqãmas, Ísá is relating a tale about Iskandari, but rarely does he ever mention the reaction of any person other than himself to Iskandari’s feats.

The setting of each maqãma is a populated place, yet the reader is never given any insight into the minds of spectators or victims of deceit. The passivity of secondary characters leaves gaps in the telling of the tale. In the maqãma of Kûfa, for example, Ísá uses the pronoun “we” and we know that he was at a friend’s house when Iskandari knocked at the door, asking for money and shelter. Ísá tells how he felt and what he thought, but he never mentions the reaction of his companions. In the Maqãma of the Blind, Ísá is moved to tears by Iskandari’s words, but what about the reaction of the other spectators present at the scene? This gap in the telling makes a lot of difference to the story, to its art, and to its meaning. Are all the characters as charmed as Ísá with Iskandari and his eloquence? One might conclude that they were captivated with his eloquence in the Maqãma of the Blind because they shower him with money. However, giving money to beggars was not necessarily the result of the beggar’s charm. These people’s religious beliefs obliged them to give money to those who asked for it.

 In fact, the sequence of the telling is itself loaded with cultural codes and assumptions. When the narrator declares in the Maqãma of Isfahan: “But, from what I knew of the savage fanaticism of the people  of that place, if  prayers were cut short of the final salutation, there was no alternative but silence and endurance, or speech and the grave”(p.57). The telling that follows this statement takes on a different meaning after the narrator reveals this cultural information. Had he not revealed this information, the tale that follows could not have had the same effect. He would not have been able to convince the reader that he was obliged to stay until the prayers were completed. The narratology of the Maqãma would have been quite different if, for example, Ísá had  revealed Iskandari’s identity from the beginning of the Maqama. Noticing Iskandari somewhere near the end is crucial for suspense and plot. In the Maqãma of Kufa, Ísá ibn Hishám exclaims near the end of the narrative: “Lo by Heavens. It was our sheikh Abu LFath” (p.40). The same exclamation is repeated at the end of the Maqãma of the Blind, the Maqãma of Adharbayjan, and in the Maqãma of Isfahan.

The choice of the telling is saturated with meaning and consequence. Narrative embedding or nesting is a powerful technique that provides us with insight into the meaning of the maqãma. Embedding or nesting is used by structuralists to refer to stories within stories, where the narrative has a framing story and another story within the frame. The only Maqãma of Hamãdanî that uses this technique is the Maqãma of Madirah. The outside story begins with Ísá ibn Hishám bragging about the eloquence of Iskandari: “I was in Basra and with me was Abú’l-Fatḥ al-Iskanderí, the man of eloquence who summons it and it responds to him, the man of rhetoric who commands it and it obeys him”(p.88). The all-time swindler has become the companion of Ísá, and is in fact portrayed as the special guest of the party. This is a little odd to grasp when we look back at Iskandari’s role in the structure of the maqãma. What is even more stupefying  is the fact that Iskandari, who is always begging for food is now demanding that the Madirah be taken away. Since the outer frame of this story is a little wobbly, we are, as readers, forced to look at the inner frame more skeptically. In the inner story, Iskandari declares that the merchant was praising his wife the whole way:

Now the whole way he was praising his wife and ready to sacrifice his heart’s blood  for her, eulogizing her cleverness in her art, and her excellent taste in cooking, saying, ‘Sir, if thou wert to see her with the apron tied round her waist, going about the rooms, from the oven  to the cooking-pots, and from the cooking pots to the oven, blowing the fire with her mouth, pounding the spices with her hands; and if thou wert to see the smoke discoloring that beautiful face and affecting that smooth cheek, thou wouldst behold a spectacle at which eyes would be dazed (Prendergast, 1973, p.90).

This description of a wife by a husband to a total stranger was not a common trait of the people of that culture. So, here again the embedded story seems unconvincing. Both stories force us to look skeptically at each one of them. We also begin to question the narrator’s reliability and perhaps the reliability of both narrators, Ísá and Iskandari. First, it is easy to visualize Iskandari as an unreliable character because, after all, deceit is his game. The integrity of his narration is questionable. The binary opposition of reliable and unreliable narrators opens up new vistas for interpretation.

On the other hand, we may also question the reliability of Ísá ibn Hishám himself. After all, Ísá agrees that the Madirah had “sinned against the noble and preferred the base to the good” (p.97), and he vows not to eat it again. So he perceives Iskandari as an example of the ‘good’ regardless of his knowledge of Iskandari’s character. Ísá is our only source of the tale and the telling. He is narrating the outer story and in a sense the enframed story as well. Ísá was absent in the inner story. He is narrating what Iskandari had related to him. Even if he is narrating the exact tale that Iskandari had related, is it not possible that his memory of the narration might not be that reliable? Ísá could have added or left out details to make the tale credible.

In the Maqãma of Mosul, Ísá is not just a narrator; he is also an accomplice to Iskandari. He is iskandari’s traveling companion, and in fact, it is he who asks “What shall we devise?” (p. 85). He even justifies their feat with the mourners: “Now we were impelled to go to a house whose master had just died and the female mourners had already stood up” (p.85). Throughout the Maqama, he narrates that it was Iskandari who did this and that, but when it comes to fleeing, he uses the pronoun ‘we’: “We slipped away fleeing” (p.86). Not once did he reproach Iskandari for his unethical behavior. Here, we must question his reliability as a narrator. Did he perhaps play a part that he did not mention, or did he just observe as Iskandari deceived both the mourners and the villagers? Is it not also odd that the mourners beat only Iskandari when logic dictates that since Ísá and Iskandari were companions, they should have both been treated equally? The question of a reliable and an unreliable narrator leads us to the category of focalization (point of view or perspective). Focalization in the Maqãmas is a complex issue. In the Maqãma of Mosal, Ísá is an exterior narrator and a character. The Maqãma is narrated in the first person voice of a character. Ísá is the focalizer, but he is also focalized by the ‘us’ in “Ísá related to us” so the ‘us’ becomes the focalizer. However, the ‘us’ could also be focalized. Some believe that the ‘us’ refers to the author, but even if it does refer to the author, it does not mean that the author is the focalizer. We might recognize yet another exterior focalizer, culture. The author might be portraying not his own perspective, but that of his culture.

The maqãma can also be interpreted in terms of oppositional binaries that are loaded with cultural codes. Iskandari can be seen as a victim and a victimizer. He is a victimizer because be deceives people and cheats them out of their possessions. In the Maqãma of Isfahan, he deceives people to take their money. However, Iskandari can also be perceived as a victim. Iskandari often justifies his actions by hinting that society has made him what he is. In other words, he is compelled to cheat. In the Maqãma of the Blind, when Iskandari’s identity and motives are revealed, he answers:

I am Abú Qalamún,  In every hue do I appear,
Choose a base calling, For base is thy age,
Repel time with folly, For verily time is a kicking camel.
Never be deceived by reason, Madness is the only reason. (Prendergast, 1973, p.75)

So, Iskandari could really be a victim of the social and political turmoil of an age that forced the learned and the eloquent to find ways to deceive in order to survive. On the other hand, binaries also exist in the characters of Iskandari’s victims. Perhaps, they were not as innocent as they appeared. In a way, they were as much to blame because of their stupidity and naivety. In the Maqãma of Mosal, they believed that Iskandari could revive the dead and even invited him to do so. In the same maqãma, people believed that he could deliver them from floods and torrents. Binary oppositions between individual values and collective values can be detected. All six maqamas seem to deal with corruption and fraud not only on the collective level, but also on the individual level. The maqamas are preoccupied with the deceit and hypocrisy of Iskandari.

The structuralist notion of defamiliarization is a dominant technique in the maqāmas, especially the defamiliarization of language. The topic of the six maqamas studied in this article is deceit, a familiar topic, but it is defamiliarized through the elite language it exploits and the means by which deceit is executed. In the Maqãma of the Blind, Iskandari is given a dinar by Issa, and in his endeavor to gain more dinars from the crowd, he describes the dinar, a familiar object, in a fresh manner.

What beauty is hers and how intensely yellow, Light, stamped and round, water almost drops from her lustre, A noble mind hath produced her, Yea, a soul of a youth possessed by generosity, Which makes him do What it will. O thou for whom this praise is meant Exaggeration cannot describe the extent of thy worth. I therefore refer thee to God with whom is thy reward. May God have mercy upon him who will bind her to her pair And associate her with her sister. ( Prendergast, 1973, p.75)

This defamiliarization in the form makes readers question what the dinar represents. The use of the pronoun ‘her’ for the dinar, which is usually thought of as ‘it’, defamiliarizes the usual perspective. The gender coding of language is noteworthy as the imagery used to describe the ‘dinar’ suggests femininity and decoration. It is as if he is describing the beauty of a woman and not just some currency. Language becomes a means of cultural representation. The social world of the maqãma has a way of cracking the structural boundaries of the system. This defamiliarization enlarges the structural system of each maqãma to accommodate its social history. The use of sajaۦ or rhymed prose also defamiliarizes the form of the maqãmas. The use of this device alters the mood and the tone. Despite the gloomy, oppressive nature of the subject, deceit and fraud, the message is decorated to make it more acceptable to the readers.

  1. Interpreting the Maqãmãs through Ecocriticism

Regardless of the lapse of time and the alien nature of the Maqãmas, they seem to manifest a few ecological characteristics that enrich their interpretations. According to Greg Gerrad (2012), “Ecocriticism entails the study of the relationship of the human and the non-human, throughout human cultural history and entails critical analysis of the term itself” (p.5). Gladwin (2019) maintains that “if what makes a compelling short story is the ability to offer an impressionable moment for an audience, like a snapshot in time forming what Edgar Allen Poe famously called a “unity of impression,” then what makes an exemplary ecologically focused short story is one that presents a moment whose environmental implications are wide reaching and centrifugally resonant” (p.140). This definition definitely applies to The Maqãma of Mosal.

In the second incident of the Maqãma of Mosal, nature triggers the whole incident.   However, it is portrayed as a threat to humans. Iskandari and Ísá came upon a village situated on the edge of a valley “whose torrent was eroding it, and whose waters were destroying it. Its people were distressed and had not slept a wink in the night for fear of the flood.” (P.87) Iskandari said: “I will deliver you from this flood and its mischief, and will turn away its devastation from this village” (p.87). Water, the most vital element of nature, especially to the people of the desert, becomes a menacing force capable of destruction and death. Here, nature is perceived as a source of distress to humans. Iskandari manipulates these characteristics of nature in order to execute his plan of deceit. He promises to save the people from what he calls “this flood and mischief” (p.87). It is ironic that Iskandari, a mischievous knave, appoints himself as the savior of the people. Here we are reminded of the pathetic fallacy, a term used by Eco-critics to refer to our tendency to see our emotions reflected on our environment. Iskandari is projecting his own emotions on the external world.

The following checklist is provided by Lawrence Buell (1996). According to Buell, an environmentally oriented work should display the following characteristics:

  1. The non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device, but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is not implicated in natural history.
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only interest.
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than a constant or a given is at least given in the text. (p. 7)

 Iskandari plans to save people by praying to genuflexions, so that God may divert the direction of this flood to this desert. Iskandari calls upon God and religion to help him conquer nature. The American historian, Lyn White, claims that “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to what is around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs-by religion” (Buell, 1996). Iskandari perceives the external world, and especially nature as creation to serve the general interest of humans. In his mind, man had dominance over nature and the natural world. This self-centered image gave him the right to stand as master over nature. In the Maqãma of Isfahan, this attitude is also evident. Iskandari admits: “I sought aid against the difficulties of the desert through the blessing of prayer” (p.56). He believed that it was God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. It is interesting to note that in A.H.376, this town of Mosal was hit by an earthquake which caused great loss of life and property (Ibn –Athir, ix.35 as cited in Prendergast). It seems that human culture functions through links and reciprocal relations with nature.

III.  Interpreting the Maqãmas through the Panopticon

This part will briefly examine the role of the maqãma as a literary work that not only reflects history, but also shapes it. The Maqāmas build what Michel Foucault calls the Panopticon. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault (1979) proposes that modern society works like a panopticon, regulating, disciplining, policing and surveying behavior and beliefs. The Maqāmas put men of trade under suspicion. By exposing the devices and the varieties of identities used to deceive people, Hamadani puts them under the lens. In the Maqãma of Isfahan, he exposes the deceit found in men who use religion to delude. Here, consciously or unconsciously, Hamadani has forced the swindler to police himself because he and his methods are no longer safe. People have heard of his tricks and so he must be more careful. In the Maqãma of Mosal, men who pretend to cure the sick or revive the dead are also put under surveillance. In the Maqãma of the Blind, imposters who claim to be handicapped are also under suspicion. After each narrative in the Maqãmas, imposters are revealed to the public. Monroe sees in the typical Maqãma plot a negative criticism of society as a whole:

The Maqãma does not deal primarily with rulers in their courts (when it does so, it is often hypocritical, and not sincerely encomiastic); instead, it deals with society at large, which it views with a jaundiced eye, providing us with a negative portrait of its pretensions, activities, and aspirations. If the qasidah is a genre for the consumption of insiders privy to royal courts, the Maqãma may be viewed as the literature of outsiders no longer welcome at those courts. (as cited in Hamilton, 2003, p. 207)

Moreover, Iskandari is not a character with a specific identify. He can be anyone. He himself claims to be “Abú Qalamún, in every hue do I appear” (p.75). Thus, any and every imposter can be Iskandari. In this way, the Maqãmas of Hamãdanî build a psychological Panoptican in society. Literary works do not merely reflect history and culture, but they also change it. The Maqãmas reflect history and culture by commenting on it, but the effect does not stop here. They do not only alter the perception of people they also empower them by providing knowledge.

  1. Conclusion

In this article, I have tried to interpret six Maqãmas using the approach or some concepts of three different western theories: Structuralism seems to be the best equipped to interpret the Maqãmas perhaps because of the narrative characteristics of the maqãmas. Structuralism depends on systems which can be applied to the narrative technique of the Maqãma. Theories provide interpretations that enrich the meaning and the significance of the Maqãmas. However, even if these theories or concepts could not be applied on the maqamas specifically and on any literary work in general, it would not lessen their value. Appreciation of a literary work should not be based on how well this work fits into theory because theory should fit the literary work and not the other way around. Despite time, the Maqãmas have shown the durability which can only be a characteristic of a great work of literature and deserve to be studied on a wider scope.


Buell, L. (1996). The environmental imagination: Thoreau, nature writing and the formation of American culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

 Drew, E., & Sitter, J. (May 01, 2011). Ecocriticism and Eighteenth-Century English Studies. Literature Compass8, (5), 227-239.  10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00797.x

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Garrard, G. (2012). Ecocriticism. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Gladwin, D. (2019). Ecological and Social Awareness in Place-Based Stories. The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies42, 138–157.

Hamilton, M. M. (2003). “Words Sweeter than Honey”: The Go-between in al-Saraqusṭī’s “Maqāma 9.” Journal of Arabic Literature, 34(1/2), 206–219.

Monroe, J. T. (1983). The art of Badi az-Zaman al-Hamadhani as picaresque narrative. Beirut: American University of Beirut.

Prendergast, W. J. (1973). The Maqamat of Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani. London.

[1] -Assistant Professor in English Literature  at Lebanese University, Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences


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