115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why Does Shahrazad Succeed?: Medieval Arabo-Islamic Intercession, or the Scapegoat’s Last Laugh 

Samer Mahdy Ali, University of Michigan

The field of Arabic literature has offered several studies recently that illustrate the functional capacities of Arabic discourse (khitab) to serve as a commodity in a gift exchange. Among gift exchange, we notice intercession or peace offering to release self or others from captivity, harm, or even death. This paper goes beyond brute functionality to develop a model of valuation in poetic exchanges that lead to intercession in the service of a scapegoat. Part of the Islamic Peace Studies Initiative at the U of Michigan.


Scholars have recently noted the capacity of Arabic literary discourse (khitab) to serve as a commodity in a gift exchange, and with that power comes the capacity of the poet to serve as intercessor in releasing self or others from captivity, harm, or even death (Stetkevych, Buergel, and Ajami). One might think of the pre-Islamic cases of Ka’b Ibn Zuhayr, Sha’s (Brother of Alqama and subject of Mufaddaliyya 119), and most famously Shahrazad in The 1001 Nights, all of whom gain their freedom by virtue of someone’s khitab, be it poetry or prose or a hybrid. Intercession also seems to be the leitmotif of medieval works like The Pillar (K. al-‘Umda), The Songs (al-Aghani), and The Orphan Pearl of Time (Yatimat al-Dahr). In fact, for centuries, Arabic literature scholars understandably have taken this pattern for granted like oxygen. However, a comparison with medieval Icelandic sagas, like that of Egill Skallagrimsson, shows how delicate these intercessions can be in the face of power: Consider the moment when Arinbjorn intercedes on behalf of Egill in the face of King Eirik’s anger but Egill is shamed publically and denied reconciliation. So, we come back to Arabic sources a bit wiser and ask: why does intercession seem to succeed so reliably in the medieval Arabic world view? This paper examines cases of intercession on behalf of scapegoats before and after the tenth century AD to show that structural changes in performance and patronage lead intercession to become much more popular and in a sense democratic. Before the tenth century, we find most cases involved elite poets and patrons, however, after the tenth century (and the poet al-Mutanabbi) the subjects redeemed by intercession seem more humble, often chancery workers, Qur’an teachers, Qadis, as well as merchants. This paper engages specific theories of psychology and economics (Heilbroner, Marx, and Freud) to show that khitab had such cachet in performance culture, it functioned much like social currency. By delicate convention, khitab enjoyed at least four states of fungiblity: first, as an intangible intimate value like a fetish; second, as tangible commodity with rational use-value; third, as a prestige good bearing the promissory value of influence and benefit in the future; and fourth, as an ontological marker of one’s specialness and belonging in a cosmic hierarchy. My approach here seeks to recognize the multiplicity of aims and hopes that social agents bring to the culture of khitab, while also acknowledging (against the grain of  the field) that brute functionality cannot account for the indefinite amassing of poetry as fungible wealth. The amassing of poetic wealth invites us to face the human drive for dominance-submission games within primate hierarchy. The paper will develop a model of literary intercession, and it will draw on intertextual readings from the poetry of al-Mutanabbi, proverbs from Sayings and Salon Performances (al-Tamthil wal-Muhadara), and the Book of Party-Crashers (K. al-Tatfil).

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