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Leiden Lectures on Arabic Language and Culture (2016)

Modernity in the Ninth Century: the Controversy around Abū Tammām

  • Beatrice Gründler
Thursday 4 February 2016
Leiden Lectures on Arabic Language and Culture
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden
Small Auditorium

On Thursday 4 February, Professor Beatrice Gründler (Freie Universität Berlin) will deliver the fourth Leiden-Aramco Lecture on Arabic Language and Culture entitled "Modernity in the Ninth Century: The Controversy around Abū Tammām". This lecture also marks the kick-off of the 2016 spring lecture series "WHAT's NEW?! Current Research on Islam and the Middle East".

Beatrice Gründler recently edited and translated the biography of Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā al-Ṣūlī (d. 335 or 336 H/946 or 947 AD) about Abū Tammām, who became one of the most celebrated poets in the Arabic language. Al-Ṣūlī’s biography does not only show the brilliance of Abū Tammām, but teaches us more about Abbasid society and the role of poetry in it as well. Beatrice Gründler will focus exactly on this work in her lecture at Leiden University. After the lecture there will be a reception in the Academy Building. 

Modernity in the Ninth Century: The Controversy around Abū Tammām

The cosmopolitan and intellectually vibrant society of the early Abbasid period witnessed a major controversy about the aesthetics of poetry. It was sparked by Abū Tammām (d. 231 or 232 A.H./845 or 846 A.D.), who went on to become one of the most celebrated poets in the Arabic language. Born in Syria of Greek Christian background, he quickly made his name as one of the premier Arabic poets at the caliphal court of Baghdad. Abū Tammām vigorously promoted a new style of poetry that merged abstract imagery with archaic Bedouin language. Both highly controversial and extremely popular, this sophisticated verse epitomized the “modern style” (badīʿ) that influenced all subsequent Arabic and Arabic-inspired poetry—an avant-garde aesthetic that was very much in step with the intellectual, artistic, and cultural dynamic of the Abbasid dynasty.

This turning point is captured by the courtier and scholar Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā al-Ṣūlī (d. 335 or 336 H/946 or 947 AD) in his Life and Times of Abū Tammām, a work which mounts a robust defense of “modern” poetry and of Abū Tammām’s significance as a poet against his detractors, while painting a lively picture of literary life in Baghdad and Samarra. Born into an illustrious family of Turkish origin, al-Ṣūlī was a courtier, companion, and tutor to the Abbasid caliphs. He wrote extensively on caliphal history and poetry and, as a scholar of “modern” poets, made a lasting contribution to Arabic literary history. Like the poet it promotes, al-Ṣūli’s book is groundbreaking; it represents a major step in the development of Arabic poetics, and inaugurates a long line of treatises on innovation in poetry.


About Beatrice Gründler

Beatrice Gründler (PhD Harvard University, 1995) has been Professor of Arabic at the Freie Universität Berlin since 2014. She has also taught at Yale University (1996–2014) and Dartmouth College (1995–96). Her main areas of research are the development of the Arabic script, classical Arabic poetry and its social context, the integration of modern literary theory into the study of Near Eastern literatures, and early Islamic book-culture (ninth century AD) viewed from the perspective of media history. Besides numerous articles, her major publications include:

The Development of the Arabic Scripts: From the Nabatean Era to the First Islamic Century (1993, Arabic trans. 2004); Medieval Arabic Praise Poetry: Ibn al-Rūmī and the Patron’s Redemption (2003); as editor and translator, The Life and Times of Abū Tammām (Akhbār Abī Tammām) by Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Yaḥyā al-Ṣūlī (2015); as contributing co-editor, Understanding Near Eastern Literatures: A Spectrum of Interdisciplinary Approaches (2000) and Writers and Rulers: Perspectives from Abbasid to Safavid Times (2004); and, as contributing editor, Classical Arabic Humanities in Their Own Terms (2007).

More biographical information can be found  here.

Beatrice Gründler was recently interviewed for the Library of Arabic Literature by the New York University Press. This interview in two parts gives interesting insights about  Life and Times of Abū Tammām and about the translation process.

Part 1
Part 2


The lecture is in English and open to all. We encourage registration beforehand. To do so, please send an e-mail to Ms. Nienke van Heek at lucis@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

Leiden Lectures on Arabic Language and Culture

To celebrate Leiden's long and deep tradition in Arabic studies, LUCIS organises the Leiden Lectures on Arabic Language and Culture. Three lectures took place: 

  • Geert Jan van Gelder: "Antidotes and Anecdotes: A Literary History of Medicine from 13th-Century Syria" (8 October 2015).
  • James Montgomery: "On Hedgehogs, Foxes and Magpies, and Why the World Should Read Classical Arabic Poetry" (12 February 2015).
  • Petra Sijpesteijn: "The Wisdom of the Arabs. Four Hundred Years of Cross-Cultural Engagement" (4 February 2013).

These three lectures have been compiled into one publication, entitled Wit and Wisdom in Classical Arabic Literature


This lecture is part of the WHAT's NEW?! Spring Lecture Series

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