While reading this post by Nassim Nicholas Taleb yesterday, I encountered the following interesting statement:
.. the 7th Century Christian Arab poet Al-Akhtal made a point to never eat halal meat, in his famous defiant poem boasting his Christianity: “I do not eat sacrificial flesh”
The article is talking about ways in which a minority can impose its values on a culture, and the context is the creeping way in which foodstuffs are made kosher or halal by manufacturers, simply for sales reasons.
But this is not important here. However I can quite imagine the quotation taking on a life of its own, and I’d like to track it down.
We do not tend to think of 7th century Arab poets who were a Christian. I’d never heard of al-Akhtal. So who was he?
Via a Google Books preview of an Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, I found this article by G.J.H. Van Gelder:
al-Akhtal (c. 20- C. 92/ c.640-c.710)
Ghiyath ibn Ghawth al-Akhtal was one of the great poets of the Umayyad period. Although he was, like his tribe, Taghlib, a (monophysite) Christian, he was favoured by leading Umayyad statesmen such as Ziyad ibn Abihi and al-Hajjaj. and even became the most important court-poet of the caliph Abd al-Malik. He was probably born in Hira in Iraq. In his youth he was a close companion of caliph Yazid I, with whom he shared a taste for heavy drinking. The many passages on wine and drinking in his poems make al-Akhtal an important early bacchic poet. His fame as a poet rests mainly on his panegyric and invective, which are often combined in his numerous poems supporting Umayyad policy and attacking its opponents – state politics being, to a large extent, tribal politics. His career is closely associated with that of his contemporaries al-Farazdaq and Jarir; siding with the former against the latter, he produced a series of flytings or naqa’id in which personal and tribal invective mix with politics. In his poetry, which serves as both political propaganda and literary entertainment, he builds on the diction, themes and forms of pre-Islamic poetry. The panegyric ode of al-Akhtal and his contemporaries acquired a classical status: it became a model for subsequent periods. Not yet affected by the characteristics of the ‘modern poets’ or muhdathun, its language and diction were accepted by philologists and critics as sources of ‘pure Arabic.’
Naqa’id Jarir wa-al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (ed.), Beirut (1922) (the recension incorrectly attributed to Abu Tammam). [Online here]
Shi’r al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (Salhani) (ed.), Beirut (1891) [Online here]; with supplement, Beirut (1909); Fakhr al-Din Qabawa (ed.), Beirut, (1979).
Abbot, Nabia, Studies in Arabic literary papyri, III: language and literature, Chicago (1972). passim.
Jayyusi, Salma K., ‘Umayyad Poetry’, in CHALUP, 387-413.
Kratchkovsky, L, ‘Der Wein in al-Aktal’s Gedichten’, in Festschrift G. Jacob, Leipzig (1932), 146-64.
Lammens, H., ‘Le chantre des Omiades. Notes biographiques et litteraires sur le poete arabe chretien Aktal’, Journal Asiatique 9, vol. 4 (1894), 94-176, 193-241, 381-459. [Online here].
Mattock, J., ‘A ba’iyya of al-Aktal in Praise of al-Walid b. ’Abd al-Malik’, Wagner Festschrift, 120-30.
Other materials can be found about Akhtal online, which repeat anecdotes of his role as a poet at the Damascus court of the Ummayad caliphs. What I was unable to locate was any sign of English translations. Nor was I able to find any source for the quotation (although I have tweeted an enquiry to the article author).
Let me end instead with an Academia article here by Suzanne Stetkevych which perhaps might illuminate the context in which Akhtal may have made his remark. The anecdote is by someone named al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī:
Al-Akhṭal came before ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān who asked him to recite for him. “My throat is dry,” responded the poet, “Order someone to bring me a drink.” “Bring him some water,” ordered the Caliph. “That’s for donkeys,” said al-Akhṭal, “and we have plenty of it.” “Then give him milk.” “I’ve long since been weaned!” “Then give him honey.” “That’s for the sick!” “Well, what do you want?” “Wine, O Commander of the Faithful!” “Have you ever known me to serve wine, you bastard?! If it weren’t for the inviolable bond between us, O what I would do to you!” So al-Akhṭal left and came upon one of ʿAbd al-Malik’s attendants. “Damn you,” he said to him, “the Commander of the Faithful ordered me to recite, but my voice was hoarse. Give me some wine!” So he did. Then al-Akhṭal said, “Match it with another!” So he did. “You have left the two of them fighting in my stomach, better give me a third!” So he did. “Now you’ve left me listing to one side, give me a fourth for balance.” The servant gave it to him, and al-Akhṭal went before ʿAbd al-Malik and recited:
Those that dwelt with you have left in haste
departing at evening or at dawn,
Alarmed and driven out by fate’s caprice
they head for distant lands.
When he finished the poem, ʿAbd al-Malik said to a servant boy, “Take him by the hand, boy, and help him out, heap robes of honor upon him, and reward him generously.” Then he proclaimed, “Every people has its poet, and the poet of the Banū Umayya is al-Akhṭal.”
The poem is in fact much longer than the single verse given, and endorses the Ummayads at length. The “transgression” above is for asking the Muslim ruler for wine. Indeed Akhtal was so visibly drunk by the end that he had to be helped out of the room! But the importance to an Arab ruler of being endorsed by an established poet was greater than any newly made-up rules about wine.
It is curious to note that there is no real interest in our society in making Arabic literature accessible to us all. A proper handbook of Arabic literature, like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, but readable and brought up to date, would be a benison. As it stands, who but specialists can even access this literature?
UPDATE: Well, well. On p.116 of the Journal Asiatique article are the verses we seek. The caliph Abd-al Malik was hardly very committed to Islam, but still made the effort.
One day, when Akhtal came to recite a brilliant panegyric, the prince asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”
“I will,” said the poet, laughing, “so long as you grant me the use of wine and an exemption from Ramadan.”
Abd-al Malik, whose proposal was serious, took this ribaldry badly. “Know,” he said, “that once you become a Muslim, if you neglect even one of the obligations of Islam, I’ll have you beheaded.”
Unfazed, Akhtal responded with these verses:
“No! I will never observe the fast of Ramadan, nor eat the flesh of sacrifices.
Never will I drive a young and robust camel towards the valley of Mecca in the time of pilgrimage.
Never will I cry out like a donkey, “Come! To prayer!”
But I will continue to drink the blessed liquor, and to prostrate myself at daybreak.”
“But,” said the Caliph, “what attraction has this wretched drink for you?”
“Sire,” replied Akhtal, “when I drink then I don’t worry about you any more than about the strap of my sandal.”
“Improvise some verses on this thought,” said the Caliph, decidedly in a bad mood, “or I will lift your head off from your shoulders!” The poet had to comply; but luckily in this matter he was not taken off-guard:
If my wish makes me take two goes to empty three cups of a generous vintage, I get up, dragging the folds of my robe as if I was your master, O Master of the Faithful.
The first reference given is “Divan 156 and 154”. This appears to be a publication “Divan of Akhtal”, published by the Catholic press at Beirut “last year”. This is probably an Arabic publication of some kind; at any rate, beyond my ability to locate. Is it perhaps the “Shi’r al-Akhtal” listed above?
Still good news to find even this much.
UPDATE: See the comments for more information. I have just added a link to the other edition to the post.
UPDATE: A tweet from Dr Taleb advises me that his source was this online collection of Arabic poetry, and this page here. This gives the verses:
|ولست بصائم رمضانَ طوعاً||ولَسْتُ بِآكِلٍ لحْمَ الأضاحي|
|ولست بقائم أبداً أنادي||كمِثْلِ العَيرِ حيّ عَلى الفَلاحِ|
|ولكني سأشربها شمولاً||وأسْجُدُ عِنْدَ مُنْبَلَجِ الصَّباحِ|
-  Edited by Julie Scott Meisami, and Paul Starkey. 1998. Vol. 1, p.67. Impossibly expensive to buy, of course. ↩
-  “Al-Akhtal at the Court of `Abd al-Malik: The Qasida and the Construction of Umayyad Authority”, in: Christians and Others in the Ummayad state, ed. A. Borrut &c., p.133. ↩
-  Un jour que celui-ci venait de lui réciter un brillant panégyrique : « Pourquoi, lui dit le prince, ne te fais-tu pas musulman ? — J’accepte, répondit le poète en riant, si l’on m’accorde l’usage du vin et la dispense du Ramadan. » ‘Abdalmalik, dont la proposition avait été très sérieuse, prit mal la plaisanterie. «Sache-le bien, répliqua-t-il, une fois musulman , si tu négligeais une seule des obligations de l’islam, je te ferais trancher la tête ! » — Sans se laisser déconcerter, Ahtal répondit par ces vers :
Non! jamais je n’observerai le jeune du Ramadan, ni ne mangerai la chair des victimes.
Jamais je ne pousserai vers la vallée de la Mecque an temps du pèlerinage une jeune et robuste chamelle.
Jamais je n’irai crier comme un âne : Allons ! à la prière !
Mais je continuerai à boire la bienfaisante liqueur et me prosternerai au lever de l’aurore!
«Mais, demanda le prince, quel attrait a donc pour toi cette maudite boisson? — Sire, répondit Ahtal, quand j’en ai bu, je ne me soucie pas plus de ta personne que des courroies de ma sandale. — Improvise des vers sur cette pensée, dit le calife décidément de mauvaise humeur, ou je te ferai sauter la tête des épaules! » Le poète dut s’exécuter; heureusement sur cette matière il n’était jamais pris au dépourvu : Si mon commensai me fait à deux reprises vider trois coupes d’un vin généreux, Je me lève, traînant les pans de ma robe, comme si j’étais ton maître, O maître des croyants. ↩