The Gibb Lecture Series 2022: Two Talks by Michael Cooperson

May 27, 2022
Cooperson Gibb 2022 group
Michael Cooperson, Roy P. Mottahedeh, William Granara, Alma Giese-Heinrichs

Hacı Osman Gündüz, PhD Candidate, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

After two years of dormancy due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hamilton A. R. Gibb Lecture Series was back in action in March 2022. The series is the tāj (crown) of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, as CMES Director William Granara, Gordon Gray Professor of the Practice of Arabic, described it. The series was established in 1964 with funds provided by John Goelet, who was a student of Sir Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb (d. 1976), the former James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic and University Professor at Harvard University. This year’s guest speaker was Michael Cooperson, Professor of Arabic and the University of California, Los Angeles, who is the first speaker of the series to have completed all his higher education – AB ('87), AM ('91), and PhD ('94) – at Harvard.

Cooperson delivered two talks, titled “Rethinking Arabic Literary History” (Monday, March 21) and “Learning Arabic Backwards: Was It Absolutely Frightening?” (Wednesday, March 23). The talks were attended in person by Harvard University affiliates and simultaneously broadcast via Zoom. Granara, who has served as the CMES Director for the past eight years, introduced the first talk, and Roy P. Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History, Emeritus, introduced the second talk. Mottahedeh, who was a student of Gibb's, taught the guest speaker, thus forming a silsilah (scholarly chain of authority) from Gibb to Cooperson. Cooperson’s primary advisor and mentor in Arabic literature was, however, the late Wolfhart P. Heinrichs (d. 2014). The talks were attended by Heinrichs’s widow Alma Giese, a fellow scholar of Arabic literature, and acclaimed translator of classical works from Arabic to German.

Cooperson Gibb 2022 group
Michael Cooperson, Roy P. Mottahedeh, William Granara, Alma Giese-Heinrichs


Cooperson completed his PhD in 1994 and published his thesis as a book in 2000, titled Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Maʾmūn. He also contributed to the Makers of the Muslim World series with a volume published in 2005 on the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 813–833). He has co-authored and edited other books in addition to penning numerous articles. Cooperson is a celebrated translator; one of his most recent translations is al-Ḥarīrī’s (d. 1122) Maqāmāt rendered into English under the title Impostures (2020). This masterful translation won the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in translation category, and it was shortlisted for the 2021 National Translation Award. Al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt is a work of fifty anecdotes in rhyming prose narrating the adventures of a rogue character who gets himself in and out of trouble using tricks and by resorting to eloquent speech. The word maqāmāt, sing. maqāmah (literally, “standing”) has also been translated into English as “assemblies.” Following a suggestion by Shawkat Toorawa of Yale University, Cooperson chose the word “imposture,” which clearly alludes to trickery, a common theme in the work. The term "impostures" also contains the word “posture,” a reference to the literal meaning of the word and to the fact that these anecdotes were delivered while standing. The work was deemed impossible to translate faithfully into a target language while preserving all that makes it sui generis, with its word plays and lexical gymnastics. Cooperson overcame the challenge by translating each maqāmah into a different register of the English language or style of writing, such as Singaporean English and Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As Sam Sacks notes in his article about the translation in the Wall Street Journal, “[s]peaking to an interviewer, Mr. Cooperson remarked that the Maqāmāt is ‘a book that shows off everything that Arabic can do.’ ‘Impostures’ shows off English in the same flattering light, demonstrating its dynamism, its endurance, its mutability and its glorious, weedy wildness. In this way, a translation that is so brazen in its liberties is faithful to the spirit of the original.”

Al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt was an instant success during the author’s lifetime, and it has remained so until modern times. Al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1114), the famous Quran exegete, composed the following lines celebrating the work – as translated by Reynold Alleyne Nicholson’s (d. 1945):

I swear by God and His marvels,
By the pilgrims’ rite and their shrine:
Ḥarírí’s Assemblies are worthy
To be written in gold in each line.

The work’s esteem was not restricted to the Arabic-speaking lands. The Ottoman biographer Âşık Çelebi (d. 1572), in describing how dedicated a certain poet was to the study of Arabic, says the following – as translated by Helen Pfeifer in her recent book Empire of Salons (2022): “In that family, knowledge of Arabic is a necessity, and young and old are devoted to study and knowledge. Newborns are put to sleep with the Assemblies [Maqamat] of Hariri, and when they cry they are consoled with Platters of Gold [Atbaq al-Dhahab] [two classics of Arabic literary prose].” What is surprising is that al-Maqāmāt was used to teach and learn Arabic despite that it is a notoriously difficult text. It is, as Cooperson noted, like learning English from Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s equally notoriously difficult work.

How did non-Arabs learn Arabic, for that matter? This was the topic of Cooperson’s second lecture. Non-Arabs started learning Arabic following the Muslim Arab conquests from seventh century onwards. At the advent of Islam there were numerous languages spoken in the Near East and North Africa, such as Persian, Kurdish, Greek, South Arabian, Coptic, and Amazigh. While some of these languages died out, others have survived. It is not clear as to whether new converts were expected to learn Arabic in the formative period of Islam. Al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), however, appears to be the first to make the case that every Muslim should learn enough Arabic to make the profession of faith and perform rituals that require reciting verses from the Quran in Arabic. However, the Quran was not always the major text people used to learn Arabic. Furthermore, as Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) would later note, the Quran is not a sufficient medium from which to learn the Arabic language.

The early grammar manuals were not composed to help non-Arabs learn Arabic. Al Sībawayhi’s (d. 796) al-Kitāb, for example, is an analytical text, rather than a language learning manual. There are, however, certain exegetical works that appear to have been used as texts for learning Arabic, such as the tafsīr of Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 767), which provides detailed explanations for things that do not need explanation if the reader knows Arabic. Ibn Khaldūn recommended that people learn Arabic as it is spoken and used by its native speakers. Simply memorizing abstract grammatical concepts will not help the learner to be an effective communicator – a surprisingly modern understanding of second language acquisition best encapsulated in communicative language pedagogy. Ibn Khaldūn also recommended that a student of Arabic should resort to literary texts, and the most popular secular work was the Maqāmāt.

The Maqāmāt presented challenges to native Arabic speakers, best demonstrated by the fact that there are numerous commentaries on the work, and that there are manuscript copies with interlinear glosses not only in Arabic, but in other languages as well. One such example Cooperson shared is a manuscript of the Maqāmāt with interlinear glosses in Gilaki, an Iranian language. Matthew Keegan, a scholar of Arabic literature and the Maqāmāt, has argued that the work was used as a learning tool. The work itself does not allude to language learning or, for that matter, to any other language directly, but the protagonists search for a specific word and such searches create constant motion within the narrative. Cooperson argued in his talk that the reason that the Maqāmāt was used as a learning tool is because of its narrativization, a method that is used in modern language teaching. Those of us who have learned or taught Arabic in the United States will be familiar with the story of Mahā and Khālid and how each lesson is constructed around a narrative; Mahā’s father works at the United Nations (remember this word from Lesson 1?), they live in a big city, but Mahā is lonely!

European scholars from past centuries recommended that the student of Arabic use the Maqāmāt to learn the language. The Dutch scholar Albert Schultens (d. 1750), who was the first to edit the work and translate it into Latin, is one such scholar. Baron Silvestre de Sacy (d. 1838), on the other hand, noted that the work cannot be translated because of all the word games, but that it should still be studied to learn Arabic. The author of this essay is not sure if students of Arabic now use the Maqāmāt at all in improving their language skills, but as a teacher of both Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic I can attest to the fact that students do appreciate a challenge. I ask my students to memorize one or two lines of poetry with new words, and it seems to work. I have not tried to assign sections from the Maqāmāt yet, though. I might soon.

If the reader is interested in learning more about the Maqāmāt and other seminal works, there are several reference sources covering the history of Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic to modern times. Cooperson plans to contribute to the field by writing a history of Arabic literature or his own view of it, as he put it, and this was the topic of his first talk “Rethinking Arabic Literary History.” Some of the well-known histories of Arabic literature in the English language are the following:

  • Nicholson’s A Literary History of the Arabs, first published in 1907. The work’s disproportional focus on pre-Islamic period (pp. 2–140) is in stark contrast to its brief treatment of the post-Mongol period (post-1258) – some six centuries (pp. 442–70). Nicholson provides rhymed translations of select poetry – as cited above – in his work, but Cooperson noted that he does so only for his favorite Arabic poems. His translations of his favorite poems are rendered into rhyming English so that they are presentable to a Western audience in the best manner.
  • Gibb’s Arabic Literature, first published in 1926 and published in a revised second edition in 1963. This brief work examines the history of Arabic literature in five epochs: 1. the Heroic Age (c. AD 500–633); 2. the Age of Expansion (AD 622–750); 3. the Golden Age (AD 750–1055); 4. the Silver Age (AD 1055–1258), and 5. the Age of the Mamlūks (AD 1258–1800). Gibb also provides rhymed English translations.
  • Roger Allen’s An Introduction to Arabic Literature (2000) does not examine Arabic literature by dividing its history into epochs, but it does so by focusing on genres. Allen, unlike Nicholson and Gibb, does not translate poetry into rhymed English, but rather into prose-like renditions.
  • The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, published in six edited volumes between 1983 and 2006: Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period (1983); ʿAbbasid Belles-Lettres (1990); Religion, Learning and Science in the ʿAbbasid Period (1990); Modern Arabic Literature (1992); The Literature of al-Andalus (2000), and Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period (2006). Each volume has articles covering genres, literary trends, and eminent figures written by scholars in their respective field of research. While some volumes received adulatory reviews, others did not.

Cooperson has been thinking about writing a literary history for a while, and he has started taking practical steps into materializing his project. He has already drafted some chapters, and he showed the audience what he has been working on. In this project Cooperson distances himself from, as he put it, “the Orientalist project of asserting control over textual artifacts by making them legible to Europeans in a way that excludes those who identify as bearers of the culture.” His aim is “to replace it with a project that acknowledges the Western readers present positionality. Because it’s this positionality rather than some inscrutability inherent in the past that makes the past unreadable in the first place.” Cooperson also noted that what inspired him to venture into this project is what he observed in terms of a growing indifference to pre-modern literature in the Arab world itself. When he was in Abu Dhabi on a grant to work on Impostures, he told people that he was working on Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī, only to find out that his interlocutors thought that he was working on maqālāt (articles) of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (d. 2005). The connection between the pre-modern and new generation is not completely severed, nonetheless. Arab authors find creative ways of maintaining that link. For example, Cooperson cited an interesting work which is a translation of Abū ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s (d. 1057) Risālat al-Ghufran (Epistle of Forgiveness) into modern Egyptian Arabic by Nārīmān al-Shāmilī (2016). Cooperson interprets this as a response to a “slippage that has increased.”

In this project Cooperson needs to deal with the question of what to include. Who and what should make it into a literary history? For that matter which canon should be examined? When we speak of an Arabic literary canon, what we have in mind is generally what was canonized, so to speak, by the late Ottoman-era editors as they chose to edit and publish certain works in the so-called nahḍah period. As Ahmed El Shamsy of the University of Chicago has argued in his Rediscovering the Islamic Classics (2020), Cooperson noted, some canonical works and authors came to be accepted so only in the past century. Before then intellectual life revolved around scholars and works that did not make it into the nahḍah canon. This canon excluded many significant works from the post-Mongol era. Cooperson, however, drew attention to that a new generation of scholars has been working to change this trend.

Cooperson’s work will treat Arabic literature in its own terms by not succumbing to the notion that certain European categories are universally valid. In order to make the Arabic literary text legible, Cooperson will foreground translation, and his translations will “follow Nicholson’s and Gibb’s model in that if it’s a poem in Arabic, it’s going to be a poem in English. And if it fails, it fails because it is badly translated, not because it’s a bad poem.” Cooperson will aspire to cover all locations and periods equally without focusing on one place or era more than others. In order to achieve these principles, Cooperson’s project will be a textbook of didactic presentation using as many images as possible to bring the materiality of the past to the foreground. Once the project comes to fruition, Cooperson hopes to make the book digitally available. Such a textbook will undoubtedly be a welcome resource for the students and teachers of Arabic literature, as well as a general readership. In addition to this project, Cooperson has also been adding new languages to his polyglotism. He has mastered Maltese, and he shared over dinner that he is now learning Hawaiian. Hoihoi loa, indeed! He is also interested in time travel as a literary device. We look forward to Cooperson’s future works and thank him for the two wonderful talks.