Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Scholarly Debates, Damascus Style

One of the funner parts of Michael Chamberlain's book Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-1350 is his description of the portrayal of scholarly debates in our surviving sources. He once compared the participants to Western gunfighters whose goal was to prove that they were the best mind in town. Here are some quotes, with the references removed because there are so many of them:
"A debate was a duel in the lists, and argument a sword or a knife. The debater triumphed with the 'sword of eloquence,' 'slashing through obscurities men of the sword have never known,' finally 'killing the feeble-minded opponent.' A scholar 'unsheathed the sword of the tongue of eloquence to make war on his opponent.'" (p. 154)

There's more:
"Formal debates were 'contents in the hippodrome,' the debater 'galloping onto the field of eloquence,' attacking like the legendary hero 'Antar, struggling against falsehood with 'Ali's legendary sword Dhu'l-faqar. Victory in debate was 'striking the opponent with an arrow,' 'cutting him off,' or 'taking him to the impasse of surrender.'" (p. 166)

Here is an account of a particular debate:
"In a debate in Baghdad in 605/1208-9, a shaykh quoted a hadith containing a problematic preposition. Taj al-Din al-Kindi interrupted and pronounced the preposition according to one school of thought. The shaykh turned to the wazir and asked who his interlocutor was, and the wazir responded, 'He is one of the Kalb, so let him bark.' The pun was so esteemed that it was lauded in poetry composed to commemorate the event and reported in chronicles written long afterwards." (p. 165)

And, of course, letters of appointment:
"When Muhammad Ibn 'Ali al-Misri was appointed as lecturer and administrator of the Duwla'iyya, the decree referred to him as a man who in the 'thick of debate' 'cuts through obscurities with proofs [sharper] than a sword.' The appointment of Salah al-Din al-Ala'i described the ink that flowed through his pen as the blood that flows from a martyr. The aptness of this language to describe social competition among civilians...was not merely metaphoric license; it was also because shaykhs identified with warriors as engaged in mortal combat." (p. 166)

I wonder if any of my conference exchanges will inspire poetry.


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