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Stroumsa - Avicenna's Stories

Stroumsa - Avicenna's Stories

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Published by Tom Cheetham
Avicenna's Philosophical Stories: Aristotle's Poetics Reinterpreted, by
Sarah Stroumsa. Arabica, T. 39, Fasc. 2 (Jul., 1992), pp. 183-206
Avicenna's Philosophical Stories: Aristotle's Poetics Reinterpreted, by
Sarah Stroumsa. Arabica, T. 39, Fasc. 2 (Jul., 1992), pp. 183-206

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Published by: Tom Cheetham on Mar 05, 2010
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AVICENNA'S PHILOSOPHICALSTORIES:ARISTOTLE'S POETICSREINTERPRETED'
BY
SARAH STROUMSAFor Lucyand Sari NuseibehA
MONG
Avicenna'smanyworks,hisstories
(qisas)
have avery26special place, byvirtue both of their form and of their content.While most ofAvicenna's shortercompositionsare devotedtospecific problems,in the stories Avicenna endeavours topresenthisphilosophyasawhole, thoughin a miniature version. But scholarsdisagreeastothenatureof thisphilosophy:does itrepresentAristotelian teaching2orprofoundspiritual gnosis3? Scholars agreethat the stories are written in a peculiarstyle, but disagree as to thephilosophical significance of thisfact. A.-M. Goichon, indeed,believes that it has none: For her,Avicenna wrote the stories as<<apoeticandprofound game>> o diverthim during his imprisonmentatFaragan.4For Dimitri Gutas thestories represent an example ofthe symbolic method as used by theAristotelian philosopher; sincethesymbolic method is ((by its verynature... inferior to the demon-strative>), its main function mustalso be modest: ((to impart to thecommon people... that much ofthe knowledge as is necessary fortheirsocial andeschatologicalwell-being)).5 Henri Corbin alone
I
This paper has benefitedfrom the comments of severalfriends and colleagues.In particular I wish to thankRina Drory, Guy Stroumsa andFrank Stewart fortheir very helpful suggestions.
2
((Unresumede la doctrine avicennienne delaconnaissance>, Goichon,
IHayy,
p. 15; ((Theknowledge of theAristotelian tradition as integrated,systematized andpresented by Avicenna>>,Gutas,p. 311. On the degree ofagreement betweenAvicenna's rational and hismystical/poetic writings, see alsoS. Nuseibeh, <Al-'aql
al-Qudsi:
Avicenna'sSubjectiveTheory of Knowledge),,SI LXIX(1989), p.39.
3
Corbin, p. 23. See alsoGardet, <<humanisme)>,. 825.
4
((Unjeupoetiqueetprofondoccupantses loisirsforces>>,Goichon, p.14.
5
Gutas, p.306.
Arabica,
tome XXXIX,1992
 
184
SARAHSTROUMSA
granted thestyleof the storiesprofoundphilosophicalsignificance,regardingthem as(<visionaryrecitals>>.6InthefollowingpagesIshall firstdiscussAvicenna'sstories,theirliterarybackgroundand theuseof storiesbyMuslimthinkersafter Avicenna.I shallattempttodemonstrate that in thisrealmAvicenna wasinnovative andremainedunique.I shallthenexamine the variousscholarlyattemptstointerpretAvicenna'sstories. It ismyintention to showthat thesestoriesdonotfitthesymbolicmethodnormallyusedbytheAristotelianphilosophers,butthatthestories,styleandall,mustneverthelessbeunderstoodagainstthebackgroundofAvicenna'sreadingofAristotelianphi-losophy.I.Avicenna'sStoriesAvicennawrote threestories:a)IjayyibnYaqzadnsthetaleof anencounterwith avigorousoldmanwhoinvites thewriter(andthereader)to afantasticjourneythroughunknownrealms inthecosmos,ajourneywhichculminatesinavisionoftheKing.7b)TheStoryofSaldmanandAbsdl(theoriginalAvicennianversionofwhichislost,andwhichisknownto usonlythroughTiisi'sPer-siancommentary)8tellsofKingSalamanand hisbelovedbrotherAbsal.Salaman'slustfulwifeschemes togainthefavoursofAbsal.Absal'spersistentrefusal tosubmit toher,despiteallhissufferings,leads tothetragicendofthestory.c) TheEpistleofthe Bird9recountsthemisfortunesandtheemo-tions ofabirdthat isensnaredbyhuntersandheldincaptivity.Withthehelp ofotherbirdsitawakensto thepossibility ofregain-ing itsfreedomandreturnstoitsplaceoforigin.Avicenna'sthreestorieshaveseveralfeaturesincommon.Allthree haveamore orlessdramaticplotandanapparentlyobviousmessage,and allarewritteninaflowerystylewhichoccasionallyslidesintorhymedprose10.
6
Corbin,especiallyp. 43. Corbinwastranslated intoEnglishbyWillardR.
Trask(Avicennand theVisionaryRecital,London,1960).
7
Mehren,pp.1-22;Amin,pp.43-53.
8
Gutas,p.305,n.10.9Risdlatal-Tayr,Mehren,pp.42-48.
10
Malachi(p.317)andLevine(p.584)correctlypointoutthat, incontrasttoIbnEzra'sHebrewversionof IHayyibnYaq-zanortotheHebrewversionofThe
 
PHILOSOPHICAL STORIES
185
1.1 The literarybackgroundAvicenna did notinventthese storiesfrom scratch:similarallegorical writingswere known in the eastbefore the rise ofIslam.Aversion of The storyof SaldmanandAbsdl was translatedfromGreekby HunaynibnIshlq"l.Thetheme of TheEpistle ofthe Birdisalsonot new: the Syriac Hymn ofthePearl carries muchthe samemessageandhas a similarplot"2.Afterthe Arabconquestsin theEast,the Indians and PersiansintroducedtheArabs to animaltales, among them Kalfla wa-Dimna.These stories were meant toamuse while at the same time carryingapractical moral message.It seems that such edifying literatureisalsothe source of theEpistle of the Animals,thetwenty-firstof theEpistles of the Pure Brethren'3.Unlike Kalfla wa-Dimna, this epistledoesnot offer moral orpracticaladvice to theruler,butrather aphilosophico-theologicalmessage:Theanimate worldis hierar-chical,andjustas humanbeings are, by nature, superiortoanimals,so are theprophetssuperior bynature toother humans.The Epistles of The PureBrethren re generally admitted to be con-nected to theIsmacizjyya,although the precise nature of the connec-tionis still debated byscholars'4. In any case, it seems that theIsmacilis favoured the useof such allegories, and in theIsmacllKitdbal-guldmwal-mutacallim heallegory develops into a full-fledgedinitiationstory".Syriac allegories,IndianparablesandIsmaciliinitiationstorieswere, then, widely knownbefore Avicenna, and are probably thebackgroundto hisstories. ButwithAvicennathe allegorical stories
EpistleoftheBird,Avicenna'sstories are not inrhymedprose.But it isneverthelessevident that Avicenna'sstoriesarewrittenin arathersophisticatedpoetic prose.
11
Qi,satSaldmdnwa-Absdl,targamatHunaynibnIshaqminal-Yundnfyya,in TisCRasa'il,ed.AminHindih(Cairo, 1908);seeCorbin, p.229.
12
SeeP.-H.Poirier,L'hymnedelaPerledesActes de Thomas(Louvain-La-Neuve,1981).
13
Rasa-'il Ihwadnal-.afdwa-Hilldn al-Wafa(Egypt, 1928),II, pp.173-198;Fr.Dietrici, ThierundMensch vordem Kiinigder Genien(Leipzig, 1881).Seealso themedievalHebrewtranslation byQalonimos benQalonimos,Iggeret bacaleiha-hayim, ed.ToporovskiUerusalem,1956).
14
See S. M.Stern,<(Newinformationabout theauthors of theEpistlesof theSincereBrethern,Islamic Studies, 4(1964), III,pp. 405-428, rpr.Studies inEarlyIsmadclismUerusalem,1983), pp.155-176;Y.Marquet, Laphilosophie desIhwdnal-,afid'(Algiers,1973), p. 585 etpassim.
15
SeeHermannLandoldt,((Suhrawardl's'Tales ofInitiation'>>, Journalof theAmericanOrientalSociety,107(1987), p.482.

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