Teaching The Ring of the Dove in “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy”

Teaching The Ring of the Dove in “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy”

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah

Columbia University

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As a specialist of Arabic-Islamic literature, my experience of teaching the survey course “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy” for undergraduate students was instructive in terms of developing critical pedagogy through syllabus design. The course, more popularly referred to as Literature Humanities, is a required two-semester survey course that is part of Columbia University’s Core Curriculum. Students typically take the course as freshmen and are expected to engage in close reading and literary analysis of each text.1 Professors are instructed to teach the course as a university seminar and to guide students’ discussion rather than lecture. The courses are not team-taught; rather, each professor has the opportunity to tailor the standard syllabus by adding and/or removing a text for their individual class. Because the standard syllabus jumps one millennium between Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Inferno, I include an eleventh century Arabic-Islamic literary text from the Iberian Peninsula. By assigning Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah fī al-Ulfah wa al-Ullāf by Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064)2 – more popularly referred to as Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah or The Ring of the Dove3 – I am able to productively address and challenge students’ pre-conceived notions on multiple fronts. That is, through a literary engagement with Islam and Arabic in Europe, students raise questions interrogating the construction of the western canon; the idea of the Dark Ages; the role of Arabic in the medieval world and European literature; the absence of non-Christian identities; and contemporary anti-Muslim arguments that invoke civilizational and cultural borders.4

Addressing Multiple Levels of Prior Knowledge and Implicit Bias

Regardless of the enormous strides accomplished by medieval scholars, popular assumptions about what characterizes the Middle Ages remain. Moreover, in the current political context, scholars of Medieval Studies are increasingly wary of the connections being made by white supremacists and medievalism.5 Many first-year students often enter the classroom with prior knowledge6 that the term “medieval” expresses rigidity, dogmatic religiosity, superstition, and the stagnation both of culture and of the pursuit of knowledge. Such an inaccurate understanding of what characterizes the medieval period is contrasted by a conception of a flourishing Greco-Roman civilization preceding it and by an innovative European Renaissance following it. Giving the students the opportunity to read at least one medieval text empowers them to reject such systemic stereotypes and epistemologies.

Moreover, regardless of the important work scholars of Islamic Studies, Ethnic and American Studies, as well as Critical Theory have produced, many undergraduate students also continue to enter our classrooms with popularly circulated ideas about Islam and Muslims that inform contemporary anti-Muslim racism and xenophobia.7 These ideas include but are not limited to the idea of a Clash of Civilizations as proposed by Samuel Huntington8 that views Muslims as monolithic outsiders in contradistinction to Western civilization’s white, European, and Judeo-Christian character.9  Although Post-colonial Studies scholars have long deconstructed the kind of civilizational thinking proposed by figures like Huntington, the latter’s ideas continue to be invoked. Nevertheless, Post-colonial Studies has influenced the ways social and intellectual historians, for example, have taken great interest in the intersections of pre-modern people, texts, and cultures as evidence of cross-pollination that often challenge nationalist histories.10

The identity of a white European Judeo-Christian civilization imagined as the foundation of Modern Western Civilization is largely based on a narrative in which important details within the same temporal and geographic parameters are elided. A simple way to pedagogically mine the narrative of a survey course is to have students identify the spatial and temporal gaps within the map of their standard syllabus.  The medieval period of Islamic history within Europe, in particular, and the prolific production of Arabic literature and culture that circulated in the Mediterranean quickly unsettle that narrative. By identifying the absence of at least one language (i.e., Arabic) and discursive tradition (i.e., Islam) not typically considered western within one iteration of a western canon, students are invited to consider its implications and ask more questions.

Why The Ring of the Dove for the Missing Medieval Millennium           

At the intersection of Post-Colonial and Medieval Studies, scholars have written about the problematic ways in which the past is viewed as an exotic foreign country that parallels ways in which the Global South is imagined as distant and exotic. Interrogating the implications of how the term “medieval” is deployed to connote the barbaric and unenlightened, medievalist scholars have demonstrated how popular conceptions of the European Dark Ages is misleading. Moreover, Post-Colonial scholars have demonstrated how non-European archives have been used to inaccurately understand and analyze developments outside of European Christendom. For example, nineteenth- and twentieth- century modernists adapted the Enlightenment discourse regarding the medieval period which they referred to as ʻAṣr al-Inḥiṭāṭ or the Age of Decline. Such periodization not only continues to impact Arabic and Islamic Studies although scholars have extensively and thoroughly debunked the notion,11 but it remains a part of modern discourse that will characterize the disliked actions of certain contemporary groups as “medieval.”12 Although few medievalists now go along with these very outdated views of the Middle or “Dark Ages,” the ideas continue to shape popular discourse about the past.

There are numerous texts that could be included in the syllabus to represent, what I call, the Missing Medieval Millennium. I decided the best strategy for an alternative syllabus design would be to include a medieval Arabic-Islamic love treatise from the Iberian Peninsula – or al-Andalus as it is called in Arabic – that is within the geographical parameters already created by the syllabus. The presence of such a text would enable at least eight pedagogically rich opportunities:

  1. The text highlights other non-Christian voices from within the same historical and geographical parameters of the syllabus post-Christianity.
  2. The medieval Arabic republic of letters is one example of many that demonstrates that the medieval world was anything but stagnant. The Persianate literary world, to which Arabic literary texts refer and in which the famous late tenth-century Shahnameh or The Book of Kings was composed, is another.
  3. At the same time in which European writers began to compose texts in vernacular languages, new genres of medieval Arabic literary production emerged as well as an increased interest in the compilation of lexicons and encyclopedic compendia.13 By making students aware of the wealth of primary sources from the medieval period, they confront the difficulty of theorizing a particular experience in order to understand other geographic, cultural, and linguistic spaces.
  4. It provides for an opportunity to introduce the centrality of Arabic in the medieval world as a scholarly and literary language and to highlight pre-modern instances of cultural and intellectual cross-pollination.
  5. It provides the opportunity to inform students about the Greco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad (750–975) and its role in transmitting ancient Greek texts in Europe. The translation movement challenges the narrative in which the transmission of ancient Greco-Roman texts is solely dependent upon European Christendom and Latin translations. Although Arabic contribution to the translation of Greek texts, as well as the influence of Arabic literature, is recognized by medievalist scholars, undergraduate students often express pleasant surprise when they learn this history.
  6. It provides students with more literary context for Dante, Boccaccio, and most explicitly Cervantes’s incorporation of characters and references to Arabic-Islamic historical figures, texts, and culture.
  7. Late medieval and early modern texts included in the standard syllabus, such as Dante’s Inferno or Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, refer to or engage in critique of the courtly love tradition. In order to identify and appreciate the critique of that literary tradition, students would benefit from exposure to courtly love poetry.
  8. Finally, having a more global understanding better informs students’ questions about religion, language, nationalism, colonization, class, gender, race, and ethnicity that emerge in western literature.

From among a list of possible medieval texts, I ultimately selected Ibn Ḥazm’s The Ring of the Dove because the text provides for the eight pedagogical opportunities listed above.14 Written as a treatise on love, the work is stylistically and conceptually distinct enough to offer something new for students to wrestle with in their analyses but also accessible enough in its inclusion of familiar themes and literary conventions discussed in texts they would have already read. Furthermore, I wanted to teach a text that could give additional analytical language and context for the texts to come.

Uniquely among the texts in the syllabus, Ibn Ḥazm includes poetry as commentary in order to illustrate, clarify, and explain a prose narrative about love rather than the reverse.15 Connecting back to earlier texts in the syllabus, the work begins with the definitions of love and its signs that prominently reflect and develop concepts introduced in Plato’s Symposium – another text the students read earlier. Ibn Ḥazm also contests the concept of the body and passion in Augustine’s Confessions which students notice as they read. Regarding connecting with later texts in the syllabus, Ibn Ḥazm touches upon verbal and non-verbal signs of love and incorporates prose narrative and rhymed poetry.  Students engage these themes, motifs, and writing styles as they emerge later in the semester as prominent nodes of literary analysis in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Finally, the work is not difficult to excerpt. I decided it is more important that students engage deeply with an excerpt than skim over the entire work.16 Moreover, there is an accessible translation by A.J. Arberry available online.

About Ibn Ḥazm and Ṭawq Al-Ḥamāmah

Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd ibn Ḥazm was born in al-Andalus in the city of Córdoba around 384/994 and died at Manta Līsham (a town near Seville) in 456/1064. His father was a vizier of the Umayyad caliphate before it’s dissolution in Córdoba in 1031 and the rise of the Tā’ifah States in the Iberian Peninsula, and Ibn Ḥazm grew into adulthood during a period of immense political turmoil. Brought up among court elites, Ibn Ḥazm was looked after by many women including relatives and servants. He records that women taught him reading, writing, and memorization of the Qur’an.17 Ibn Ḥazm travelled widely as is reflected in his work, and he lived in a number of different cities including Majorca, Valencia, and Seville. After he was imprisoned, he devoted most of his energy to scholarship. Records show that he composed over 400 works, but less than 40 have survived. In addition to being a poet, a historian, a linguist, and a theologian, Ibn Ḥazm is more famously known as a jurist of the Ẓāhirī legal school.18 One area in which Ibn Ḥazm differed with a majority of medieval Islamic theologians is that he believed in the existence of women prophets, naming Mary the mother of Jesus, Sarah the wife of Abraham, and Āsiya the wife of Pharoah and step-mother of Moses among them.

The Ring of the Dove, according to Ibn Ḥazm, is “jest in the beginning, and the most serious of matters at its conclusion.”19 He begins with definitions of love, differences of opinion regarding the definition, and different types of love.  He meticulously identifies each chapter by various topics related to love beginning with the different ways in which people may fall in love such as falling in love by words and through long association; followed by characters and issues related to love such as the spy and the reproacher and the stages of love including union and separation; and concluding with the pitfalls and virtues of love.  Some scholars believe the text can be read as an autobiography of the author’s own romantic episodes.

The form and style of the work demonstrates Ibn Ḥazm’s reputation as a well-known jurist. Like a jurist, the writer does not present any argument without evidence and commentary. His evidence, instead of being culled from sacred and legal texts, however, includes detailed narratives and anecdotes regarding various known and anonymous individuals and their trials and successes in love. Men and women play the role of lover and beloved interchangeably, and they include characters from various socio-economic backgrounds and different cities within al-Andalus. As for his commentary, Ibn Ḥazm moves from prose narrative to rhymed poetry. His inclusion of poetry further illustrates or emphasizes a point – and demonstrates his own poetic skills.  For example, on the topic of eyesight and insight, physical and inner beauty, and its role in the process of falling in love, Ibn Ḥazm writes,

The vision of my outward eye

A human shape descries in thee;

When inward reason I apply,

I know thy form is heavenly.20

Because I only have one class session for discussing the text, I do not assign the entire work. Instead, I select the following excerpts:

  1. Preliminary Excursus
  2. The Signs of Love
  3. On Falling in Love at First Sight
  4. On Falling in Love Through a Description
  5. Allusion by Words
  6. Concealing the Secret
  7. Divulging the Secret
  8. On Union

By assigning the students excerpts, they get exposure to a different text from another literary tradition and an opportunity to read short complete sections closely rather than skim.

Disrupting the Syllabus Narrative Through Mapping and Syllabus Design

Figure 1 Twelfth century world map by Arab geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi commissioned by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily. 21

The syllabus can provide opportunities for instructive and productive interrogation. As a teaching document, the syllabus introduces and highlights key concepts for students. On the first day of class, I inform my students that we will be part of the larger community of “Masterpieces of Western Literature” students. I remind them that as we build our own intellectual community through collectively reading and discussing the assigned texts, we will have our own unique local differences as all communities. I mention that I require my students to read excerpts from a medieval Arabic text that other professors do not teach nor require for the same course. Another difference, I explicitly note, is that they will consistently be asked to locate on the map where we are geographically when we first encounter authors and their works.

By doing so, students identify on the first day that our western literature syllabus begins in a place that would be located in modern day Turkey rather than Greece. Immediately, many students note the decentering of Western Europe by locating the Trojan War in a place that theoretically is much closer to Syria than to Paris or London.22 Even without knowing specific details of city locations as they read through the classics, some students find that mapping the texts in which wars and refugees are central to the narratives like the Iliad and Odyssey intellectually engaging particularly when their peers realize that the flow of refugees in the text often paralleled the flow of Syrian refugees they often read and hear about in xenophobic media content outside the classroom. By repetitively drawing their attention to an important detail of geography before continuing with our discussion of the texts in the first semester of western masterpieces, students develop a practice of thinking about the geographical and temporal trajectory of the syllabus while also noticing the selective progression of texts.

I also inform the students while reviewing the syllabus in class that I will pause from our regular seminar-style practice when we complete Augustine’s Confessions to discuss the standard syllabus design itself. Every year, students express a desire for having a conversation about the Core Curriculum. This is one way to address that concern. When the students arrive at Augustine’s Confessions, I again draw their attention to the map in which they identify the geographical proximity of Carthage and North Africa to Italy.   When we complete our discussion on Confessions, I ask the students to consider the time passed between Augustine (d. 430) and Dante (d. 1321) who is assigned on the standard syllabus directly after Augustine. Students are then prompted to identify and discuss major historical developments that may have taken place between Anatolia and the Iberian Peninsula and throughout the Mediterranean.  This discussion prepares them for the introduction to The Ring of the Dove.

Figure 2: Map based on my syllabus 23

Framing of the Text within the Syllabus

This is where I pause to discuss the standard syllabus itself as I promised the students on the first day of class. I prefer that the students experience parts of the syllabus and develop their own questions about it before I offer them my own. I preface the in-class discussion on The Ring of the Dove with a brief comment about the history of the course. I affirm for the students that in addition to developing better questions for close reading and written analysis in the course, they should continue to ask the following questions, which they have been encouraged to ask since the first day of class:

  1. What does it mean for a text to belong to a Western Canon?
  2. How does a curated canon shape our views of what it means to be “Western” and what it means to be outside of that category?
  3. What values does the inclusion of a text and our experience of it convey for a liberal arts education?

Then I move on to give the students an opportunity to develop context. After posing the question, “What major civilizational developments happen over the millennium after we leave Augustine who returns to Africa and before we return to Italy with Dante?” the students identify a number of historic events. My strategy is to direct students to move from the general and global into the increasingly particular and local, adding important details unaccounted for in the original syllabus along the way. After having an opportunity to brainstorm, I have them return to the online maps of the Greco-Roman world of Virgil and Ovid; maps of the spread of Christianity in the Mediterranean world of Augustine, the Byzantine Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire; and a map of the Mediterranean world after the advent and spread of Islam and Arabic as the lingua franca of early Muslim empires. The presence of Islam and Muslims in the same geographical region the students have been looking at since the fall semester does not require much commentary from me as their instructor. The students develop their own questions about what that could mean in terms of historical, intellectual, and literary influence on the region from which the literature they read emerge.

When students ask about the possible impact of Arabic on the texts we have read and will read, I briefly inform the class of the role of the Arabic translation movement of Ancient Greek texts in Baghdad. From the second/eighth century to until the fourth/tenth century, a large segment of Abbasid elites and scholars supported the movement including caliphs, civil servants, merchants, and scientists supported the movement, and scholars debated and defined the ethics and methodology of translation.  Many ancient Greek and Roman writings that reached Europe were translated, and scholars argue that the study of post-classical Greek secular writings can hardly proceed without the evidence in Arabic, which becomes the second classical language before Latin.24

I draw the students’ attention back to the map in order to identify Ibn Ḥazm’s location in the medieval Iberian Peninsula. By doing so, students visually encounter the location of the Arabic-Islamic text and its author within the European continent with the syllabus still facing westward. Before we enter the text, I remind the students that an English translator mediates the Arabic text like all the other English translations we read in the class, and there are many ways in which translators betray their biases.  Although I do not require students to read A.J. Arberry’s preface, it provides instructors and students opportunities for reflecting on and discussing translator bias and translation as mediation, particularly when Arberry articulates that Arabs as a race do not generally exhibit literary genius.

Using Established Teaching and Reading Practices

Course design is the first point of engagement with a student. The standard syllabus of “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy” immediately tells a grand narrative of western literary heritage over the course of the semester. Based on their instructor’s guidance as well as their own interpretive development, students become either increasingly skeptical or convinced that the texts are a comprehensive reflection of the development of western culture. It is important to establish regular practices of close reading in order to model different forms of analyses and inquiry desirable in the classroom.25

Before teaching “Masterpieces of Western Literature,” I assisted teaching a two-semester series entitled “Islamic Civilization.” Many of the students who take the course have already taken “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy.” By comparing my teaching experiences between the two courses, there is a noticeable difference in the way students read texts.26 Students did not readily transfer their skills of close reading and literary analysis that they would have developed in “Masterpieces of Western Literature” in “Islamic Civilization.” Some students revert to invoking conflated identities as well as imprecise use of terms and categories of difference. Others’ questions and comments in “Islamic Civilization” reflected the larger problem of ethnocentric bias even in reading practices and reception of the texts. When students focused on larger concepts of culture and historical context, they often did not closely engage with the language and style of the texts. Although students develop a larger appreciation of history, it became difficult to establish a practice of literary analysis from the beginning once they encountered literary texts in the course.

Many students demonstrate a similar approach to the first texts they read in “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy.” Thus, when they write about Homer’s Iliad statements such as the following: “In ancient civilizations, literature is heavily influenced by religion,” I write as a comment, “Avoid generalizing statements. Be specific. Which text(s) are you referring to and from which period and region?  Refer to a passage and offer a close reading analysis.” By being thorough and explicit about ways in which language betrays our biases from the beginning of fall semester, students demonstrate a steady decrease in writing generalizing statements.

Thus, one of the learning objectives I set out to achieve was for students to understand that the medieval Arabic text still requires that they use similar categories of analysis as the other assigned literary texts in the class in order to construct an argument. They should think about metaphorical language and symbolism, structure and form, imagery, and so on in order to make a literary argument.  For that reason, in addition to calling attention to the map, I establish two other classroom practices. The first is to briefly introduce a work’s context. The second is to ask a thematic, formal, or structural question and then have students read a passage out loud together at the beginning of each class that we then discuss together. I do this in order to focus the class discussion on selected passages, images, and language. After creating an established practice, students develop reliable expectations and become more comfortable in participating within the classroom.

The reliability of a structure and certain initial questions empower students to build upon and innovate more complex levels of inquiry. This is demonstrated when their questions increasingly reflect close engagement and critical reception of the text. If students demonstrate they have not read the text and/or make generalized statements about the culture from which the work is produced, I offer guiding questions to refocus the direction of their interrogation.  For example, if a student offers his or her classmates a reading of a text as indicative of “the oppressive nature of Arab society towards women,” I reflect the problem of generalization back in the form of a close reading question for the student’s classmates to challenge and discuss. For example, I could respond, “The terms nature, Arab society, and women are large categories. Let’s return to a specific passage. Are there specific examples of female characters speaking? Where and in what context? What do we know about them, and how would you characterize the conventions of their speech within the text?”  I do this for all other class texts as well.

When students arrive at the medieval period and encounter an Iberian Arabic-Islamic text in the middle of the academic year, they do not discard the practices of reading they develop as a community; rather they continue to ask similar questions of the text. At the same time, the students are capable of identifying the work’s distinguishing features and offer insightful analysis. Regardless of the period or language of the text, I ask a familiar question on the general features of the work, such as its genre, purpose, and structure before moving into the specifics.  One such question I ask is “What might the title tell us? How is it significant?” Without knowing Arabic, that question alone leads students to discuss symbolic power and the legibility or illegibility of symbols and the importance of literary conventions and traditions that make such symbols understood.

The students immediately notice the unique structure and form of the text in which the author weaves in poetry as commentary on his prose rather than the other way around. Having encountered Augustine’s enarratio (citation of biblical verses in service of commentary on his autobiographical narrative), some students want to compare and contrast Augustine’s style with the poetic commentary of Ibn Ḥazm’s prose narrative. By doing so, they demonstrate their development of comparative literary analysis which can lead to rich discussions about modes of commentary, biblical authority, poetic legitimacy, and literal and figurative methods of clarification.

Moreover, the established teaching practice prevents students from overly fetishizing the idea of cultural difference without diminishing the students’ enjoyment and engagement with the particular uniqueness of the text.  For example, in the chapter on “Divulging the Secret,” students read,

How many a person of the severest respectability, veiled as it were and shrouded in the most impenetrable curtains, has seen his robe of modesty ripped off by love, his heart’s shrine violated, his holy of holies desecrated, so that his respectability has been turned into notoriety, his quiet retirement changed so that he is a public laughing-stock! To be a scandal is then his fondest ambition; he will commit actions which, if they had been so much as pictured to him hitherto, he would have shivered all over at their very mention, and prayed long and earnestly to be delivered from them.

When students encounter the image of the veil, it’s important they demonstrate they are more than capable of locating the meanings of the image within the world of the text as well as consider the image among other symbolic usages.  When they do, the students do not invoke generalized assumptions of the cultural values associated with the Islamic or Arabic identity of the text. Instead, because they read Ibn Ḥazm’s statement that “disclosure is sometimes due to love’s overpowering mastery; publicity prevails over modesty” along with his chapter “On Concealing the Secret,” students focus their discussion on notions of the public and private and associate it with previous analyses on the outer and inner eye. The discourse on the role of the secret is also enormously helpful and productive for future discussions and remains a point of interest throughout the semester.

The Ring of the Dove also offers opportunities to discuss non-verbal modes of communication including a consideration of the role of the eyes as a literal and figurative conduit of meaning.27 Students interrogate the invocation of consciousness and the role of imagination in the text in the section “On Falling in Love While Asleep.” Some students referred to the section on falling in love through words, in particular, during the Inferno episode with Francesca and Paolo falling in love by reading.28 Similarly in the section on the nature of love, students identify references to Plato noting the similarities and differences in Ibn Ḥazm’s conception of love that not only affirm the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy in Arabic texts but the transactional characteristics of influence, transmission, and translation of classics. When reading about the concept of the scattered parts of souls, students discuss the role of the physical body and beauty in love and the different kinds of love Ibn Ḥazm refers to in addition to passionate love.  Because they enter into the text having read both the Symposium and Confessions, students are able to discuss further the problem of the body and materiality that they find more easily resolved in the world of The Ring of the Dove.

In anticipation of later texts, I also direct the students’ attention to the poetics of the lover and the beloved, especially inquiring whether the roles are gendered, racialized, and/or classed. Having already discussed the homosocial world of the Symposium, where male-male love is constructed as the highest form of love, the students are prepared for thinking further about constructions of love, power, and social hierarchy in relationships. Their discussion of the interchangeability of gender in the binary roles of lover and beloved in The Ring of the Dove also remain with them when reading later texts. For example, the theme of gendered expressions of desire re-emerge in the Decameron when the women of the brigatta are clearly entrenched in gender norms that conflict with their desires.

In general, students express surprise in encountering the candid tone in the treatment of love and desire in The Ring of the Dove. Some of the students express their surprise because of their assumptions regarding the medieval period; other students indicate that they would not expect medieval Muslims to write about such subjects. One student remarked how surprised she was to read such an accessible and relatable work from the medieval period that she described as a gossip column. Another student noted with playful exasperation that every love story has already been written. In many ways, within the context of a literature class that is expressly a “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy” course, the students demonstrated a higher level of literary engagement with a medieval text than I experienced in the “Islamic Civilizations” course.

Conclusion

One of the clearest signs of success in incorporating this particular medieval Arabic text within the syllabus of “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy” is students’ reference to, recollection of, and reliance on the text in order to construct and build analysis and meaning throughout the semester. The practice of imagining a medieval Arabic text in their analysis of other medieval and early modern Spanish, French, Italian, and English texts in addition to ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts reflects more accurately the Mediterranean world the students are asked to consider as the source of “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy.” That is, Arabic was not only the lingua franca of many major cities of the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Levant, and West Asia but it is also a medieval European language by way of the Iberian Peninsula. The fiction of the medieval period as the Dark Ages collapses in the encounter with the medieval Arabic-Islamic republic of letters in which literary networks within the Iberian Peninsula were crucial interlocutors.29

Furthermore, imagining a vibrant, candid, and creative medieval Arabic-Islamic literary which contributed to western knowledge production and culture achieves a number of learning objectives particularly urgent in our contemporary political context. One of those learning objectives is being able to imagine a diverse and multi-faceted medieval world. The fiction of an essentially white, European, Judeo-Christian west holds as long as only parts of the west speak and other parts are silenced. The inclusion of a medieval Arabic text among other works considered western masterpieces is also one way to make more clearly visible the globally transformative events of 1492 including the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, the banning of Arabic, and the development of a racial and blood purity discourse which students eventually encounter in Don Quixote among other texts.

By providing students with the opportunity to engage with the absent voices of a western literary canon, it may pique their curiosity after they leave the class. It may inspire them to ask questions of other absent voices in western canons of which there are many – including the indigenous voices of the Americas and the trans-Atlantic slave narratives. It may cultivate the desire for learning, inspire better scholarship, and communicate knowledge that leads to a better understanding of others – and achieve the ultimate goal of strong scholarship-based teaching.


1 Throughout this article, I will mostly refer to the course as “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy” instead of Literature Humanities to highlight the focus of the course in the Core Curriculum. The Core Curriculum also includes a Global Core requirement that covers what are considered non-western canons. African Civilization, Asian Humanities, and Islamic Civilization are among the courses from which students may choose to fulfill that requirement.

2 In Arabic and Islamic Studies, the general convention is to include two calendar dates. The first year refers to the Hijrī or Islamic lunar calendar. The second year refers to the Gregorian calendar.

3 Ibn Ḥazm, `Alī ibn Aḥmad. Ṭawq Al-Ḥamāmah Fī al-Ulfah wa al-Ullāf Li-Ibn Ḥazm Al-Andalusī: Taḥlīl Wa Muqāranah. Ed. Ṭāhir Aḥmad Makkī. Al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Hilāl, 1994; The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love. Trans. A J. Arberry. London: Luzac, 1953.

4 Sierra Lomuto writes about the role of medievalists in challenging the manipulation of history in service of racist ideology.  She states,

I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see “Oriental” used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples…We can build a racial consciousness and stop using words like “Oriental” and “uncultured” to refer to non-white peoples in the Middle Ages. We can stop saying “race” doesn’t apply to the Middle Ages when what we mean is that later forms of racial codification don’t apply; we can start asking, what forms of race do we see operating in the primary sources we study and teach?

See Lomuto, Sierra. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle, 14 Jan. 2017, www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/12/white-nationalism-and-ethics-of.html.

See Symes, Carol. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft.” American Historical Association Today, 2 Nov. 2017, blog.historians.org/2017/11/medievalism-white-supremacy-historians-craft/.

6 For a discussion on the effects of prior knowledge in the context of pedagogy, see DiPietro, Michele, et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013, 34-38.

7 See Ullah, Sahar. “Teaching Notes III: Islamic Studies and Deprogramming.” Baraza, 14 Sept. 2017, baraza.cdrs.columbia.edu/teaching-notes-iii/.

8 See Dabashi, Hamid. “For the Last Time: Civilizations.” International Sociology. Vol. 16, no. 3, 2016, pp. 361-368; and Tharoor, Ihsaan. “Donald Trump’s Real Foreign Policy: A Clash of Civilizations.” The Washington Post, 14 Jan. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/28/donald-trumps-real-foreign-policy-a-clash-of-civilizations/?utm_term=.3a3db027bd2b.

9 Regarding Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, see Sayyid, S. “A Measure of Islamophobia,” Islamophobia Studies Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, 10–25; Jones, Rachel Bailey. “Intolerable Intolerance: Toxic Xenophobia and Pedagogy of Resistance.” The High School Journal, vol. 95, no. 1, 2011, 34–45. Also see S.N. “Medieval Memes: The Far Right’s New Fascination with the Middle Ages.” The Economist, 2 Jan. 2017, www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2017/01/medieval-memes. The article notes, “The more popular medieval history becomes, the more it may come to be seen not as an endorsement of homogeneity but a refutation, a world in which non-conformity was not debilitating deviance but a desire to strive for something better.”

10 See Cohen, Jeffrey. The Postcolonial Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2001; Gaunt, Simon. “Can the Middle Ages be Postcolonial?” Comparative Literature, vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, 160-176; Altschul, Nadia R. “Postcolonialism and the Study of the Middle Ages.” History Compass, vol. 6, no. 2, 2008, 588-606.

11 See al-Musawi, Muhsin. The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015.

12 See Holsinger, Bruce. “Carly Fiorina Goes Medieval.” New York Times, 8 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/opinion/carly-fiorina-goes-medieval.html?ref=opinion; and Perry, David M. “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS.” CNN. 16 Oct. 2016. www.cnn.com/2016/10/16/opinions/nothing-medieval-about-isis-perry/index.html

13 For an example, see Elias Muhanna’s translation of Nuwayrī, Aḥmad. The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World. New York: Penguin Books, 2017.

14 From medieval Arabic literature, I also considered incorporating one of the Maqāmāt or works of devotional and mystical poetry. Regarding the latter, the Sufi lexicon and symbolism of Ibn al-`Arabī’s Interpreter of Desires (12th century) or the narrative universe embedded in Al-Būṣīrī’s The Mantle Ode (13th century) would require far more resources, teaching, reading, and class time during the semester.

15 This style of using poetry as commentary and evidence is not unique to Ibn Ḥazm’s style within the Arabic literary corpus.

16 Ibn Ḥazm. The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love. Trans. A J. Arberry. London: Luzac, 1953; Ṭawq Al-Ḥamāmah Fī al-Ulfah wa al-Ullāf: Risālah Fi Awsāf al-Hubb wa Ma`ānih wa Asbābih wa a`rādih. Bayrūt: al-Maktabah al-ʻAṣrīyah, 2004.

17 For more details about his life and work, see Abu-Laylah, Muhammad. In Pursuit of Virtue: The Moral Theology and Psychology of Ibn Ḥazm al-Andalusi (384 – 456 AH/994 – 1064 AD. London: TaHa Publishers, 1998; Adang, Camilla, Maribel Isabel Fierro, and Sabine Schmidtke. Ibn Ḥazm of Cordoba: The Life and Works of a Controversial Thinker. Lieden: Brill, 2013; and Arnaldez, R. “Ibn Ḥazm.” Encyclopaedia of Islam Second Edition. Ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs, 2012.

18 For more details about his life and work, see Abu-Laylah, Muhammad. In Pursuit of Virtue: The Moral Theology and Psychology of Ibn Ḥazm al-Andalusi (384 – 456 AH/994 – 1064 AD. London: TaHa Publishers, 1998; Adang, Camilla, Maribel Isabel Fierro, and Sabine Schmidtke. Ibn Ḥazm of Cordoba: The Life and Works of a Controversial Thinker. Lieden: Brill, 2013; and Arnaldez, R. “Ibn Ḥazm.” Encyclopaedia of Islam Second Edition. Ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs, 2012.

19 For the Arabic, see Ibn Ḥazm, 92. The translation is mine.

20 Ibid., 98. Translation by A J. Arberry.

21 See “Idrisi’s ‘Tabula Rogeriana’ World Map (1154).” The BIG Map Blog, 2 June 2012. www.bigmapblog.com/2011/idrisis-tabula-rogeriana-world-map-reproduction/.

22 See Ullah, Sahar. “‘Bored’ with the Theater of War?” Baraza, Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, 10 November 2014. baraza.cdrs.columbia.edu/bored-with-the-theater-of-war/

23 Franziska Landes and Liz Bailey, Lead Teaching Fellows at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, assisted in designing this map using Google Earth.

24   Gutas writes,

In terms of the extent of the translated material, the enormity of the undertaking can best be grasped if one were to just consider that the Berlin Academy edition of the Greek commentaries on Aristotle—works that form only a small fraction of the books translated— comprise seventy-four large volumes.

See Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʻAbbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries). London: Routledge, 1998, 1-2.

25 For another example of an assignment I designed for non-English literature classes based on my experience teaching “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy,” see Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah, “Spotifying Arabic Literature: Creating a Soundtrack to Your Intro to Arabic Literature Syllabus,” Arabic Literature (in English), 7 July 2016. arablit.org/2016/07/07/spotifying-arabic-literature-creating-a-soundtrack-to-your-intro-to-arabic-literature-syllabus/

26 Designed as a lecture-style course led by a professor, students who attend the lectures are also required to meet once a week with a graduate instructor in smaller groups of twenty to discuss assigned texts.  The course fulfills a global core requirement, but it is not a universally required course.

27 In a course that would allow for more medieval texts, introducing the troubadours and some of Chretien’s romances would allow for interesting comparative analysis.

28 Alighieri, Dante. Inferno: A Verse Translation. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum and Barry Moser. New York: Bantam, 1982, 44-46.

29 The fiction of the Dark Ages collapses on many fronts when students are well taught with medieval materials, including, but not exclusively, medieval Arabic literature.