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Title: Maqama  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, Al-Hariri of Basra, Islamic art, Picaresque novel, Arabic literature
Collection: Arabic and Central Asian Poetics, Maqama, Medieval Arabic Literature
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


The 7th Maqāma of Al-Hariri, illustration by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti from the 1237 manuscript (BNF ms. arabe 5847).

Maqāma (literally "assemblies") are an (originally) Arabic prosimetric[1] literary genre of rhymed prose with intervals of poetry in which rhetorical extravagance is conspicuous. The 10th-century author Badī' al-Zaman al-Hamadhāni is said to have invented the form, which was extended by al-Hariri of Basra in the next century. Both authors' maqāmāt center on trickster figures whose wanderings and exploits in speaking to assemblies of the powerful are conveyed by a narrator. The protagonist is a silver-tongued hustler, a rogue drifter who survives by dazzling onlookers with virtuoso displays of rhetorical acrobatics, including mastery of classical Arabic poetry (or of biblical Hebrew poetry and prose in the case of the Hebrew maqāmāt), and classical philosophy. Typically, there are 50 unrelated episodes in which the rogue character, often in disguise, tricks the narrator out of his money and leads him into various straitened, embarrassing, and even violent circumstances. Despite this serial abuse, the narrator-dupe character continues to seek out the trickster, fascinated by his rhetorical flow.

Manuscripts of al-Harīrī's Maqāmāt, anecdotes of a roguish wanderer Abu Zayd from Saruj, were frequently illustrated with miniatures.[2] al-Harīrī far exceeded the rhetorical stylistics of the genre's innovator, al-Hamadhani, to such a degree that his maqāmāt were used as a textbook for rhetoric and lexicography (the cataloging of rare words from the Bedouin speech from the 7th and 8th centuries) and indeed as schoolbooks for until Early Modern times.[3]

The maqāma genre was also cultivated in Hebrew in Spain between beginning with Yehūda al-Ḥarīzī's translation of al-Harīrī's maqāmāt into Hebrew (c. 1218), which he titled maḥberōt 'ītī'ēl ("the maqāmāt of Ithiel"). Two years later, he composed his own maḥbārōt, titled Sēfer Taḥkemōnī ("The Book of the Tachmonite"). With this work, al-Ḥarīzī sought to raise the literary prestige of Hebrew to exceed that of Classical Arabic, just as the bulk of Iberian Jewry was finding itself living in a Spanish-speaking, Latin- or Hebrew-literate environment and Arabic was becoming less commonly studied and read.

Later Hebrew maqāmāt made more significant departures, structurally and stylistically, from the classical Arabic maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī and al-Harīrī. Joseph ibn Zabara (end of the 12th-beginning of 13th century), a resident of Barcelona and Catalan speaker, wrote the Sēfer sha'ashū'īm ("The Book of Delights"), in which the author, the narrator, and the protagonist are all Ibn Zabara himself, and in which the episodes are arranged in linear, not cyclical fashion, in a way that anticipates the structure of Spanish picaresque novels such as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and Guzmán de Alfarache (1599) by Mateo Alemán.

Noted illustrator


  1. ^ Eckhardt, Caroline D. "The Medieval Prosimetrum Genre (from Boethius to Boece)" in Genre 16, 1983 p. 23
  2. ^ Maqāmāt Al-Harīrī
  3. ^ See: Luisa Arvide, Maqamas de Al-Hariri, GEU, Granada 2009 (in Arabic and Spanish).


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