Next Article in Journal
Religious Festival Marketing: Distinguishing between Devout Believers and Tourists
Next Article in Special Issue
Erratum: Blankinship, Kevin. 2020. Suffering the Sons of Eve: Animal Ethics in al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle of the Horse and the Mule. Religions 11: 412
Previous Article in Journal
Knowledge and Learning of Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding in an Indonesian Islamic College Sample: An Epistemological Belief Approach
Erratum published on 20 October 2020, see Religions 2020, 11(10), 535.
Open AccessArticle

Suffering the Sons of Eve: Animal Ethics in al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle of the Horse and the Mule

Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, USA
Religions 2020, 11(8), 412;
Received: 1 June 2020 / Revised: 21 July 2020 / Accepted: 4 August 2020 / Published: 10 August 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Animals in Islam)


In the year 1021 CE, blind author and skeptic Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (d. 1057 CE) wrote Risālat al-ṣāhil wa-l-shāḥij (The Epistle of the Horse and the Mule), a winding prose work populated by animal characters who talk about poetry, grammar, riddles, and Syrian society on the eve of the crusades. Traditionally forgotten as a source for al-Maʿarrī’s pacifism, and his vegan worldview, the Ṣāhil lets readers see his thinking on animals more than most other works. After a brief survey of animals in Islam, which shows a mainstream desire for balance between human and non-human needs, as well as exceptional cases that strongly uphold animals as subjects per se and which stand as key inter-texts for al-Maʿarrī, this paper considers how the Ṣāhil champions non-human creatures through images of animal cruelty deployed to shock readers into compassion, and through poetry and popular sayings (amthāl) recast in a zoocentric mold. It, therefore, advocates with more fervor than anthropocentric Islamic writings on animals, such as Kalīlah wa-Dimnah or the letters of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ. However, this happens in a way that makes it hard to pin down the sources of al-Maʿarrī’s thought. Furthermore, al-Maʿarrī seems to contradict himself when, for example, he employs literal meaning when it comes to animal justice, even as he avoids literalism in other contexts. This calls his concern for animals into question in one sense, but in another, it affirms such concern insofar as his self-contradictions show an active mind working through animal ethics in real time.
Keywords: amthāl; Arabic literature; Islam; poetry; ethics; animals; veganism amthāl; Arabic literature; Islam; poetry; ethics; animals; veganism

1. Introduction

“We are the tribes of equus—hardships are thrown on our necks and attacks heaped on our backs.” So whimpers the horse to the mule in the Risālat al-ṣāhil wa-l-shāḥij (Epistle of the Horse and the Mule) of blind poet, philologist, and skeptic Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (d. 1057 CE).1 Writing around the year 1021 CE (Smoor 1982, p. 50), al-Maʿarrī meant the Ṣāhil ostensibly as a plea to the Fatimid-vassal governor of Aleppo, Abū Shujāʿ Fātik ʿAzīz al-Dawlah (d. 1022 CE)2, to pardon a land tax owed by al-Maʿarrī’s relatives. This real life impetus mirrors the epistle’s narrative frame, in which a cast of distressed animals—the titular mule (al-shāḥij, “Brayer”) and horse (al-ṣāhil, “Neigher”), as well as the dove (al-fākhitah, “Cooer”), the camel (Abū Ayyūb), the hyena (Umm ʿAmr), and the fox (Thuʿālah)—try and fail to deliver a message to the governor. In the process, they swap rumors about contemporary Syrian society on the eve of the crusades, but in fact, the bulk of the work is a paean to language itself: Qurʾān, ḥadīth, poetry, grammar, popular sayings, riddles, and other genres.
Surviving in two manuscripts at the Ḥasaniyyah Archive in Rabat, Morocco, the Ṣāhil was edited and published in 1975 by ʿĀʾishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān “Bint al-Shāṭiʾ” (daughter of the riverbank), whose critical introduction joins a mere handful of secondary studies (see also Smoor 1981, 1982; Barkoudah-Raoux 2009; Blankinship 2019a, pp. 15–18). Given this state of the art, people have often discounted the Ṣāhil as a window onto al-Maʿarrī’s vegan3, pacifist worldview. This paper corrects the oversight with a study of animal ethics in the Ṣāhil, such as they are. Moving from the general to the specific, the paper starts by surveying early Islamic thought, in order to situate al-Maʿarrī, who left behind few unambiguous statements about what he believed and why, in the context of other thinkers and texts. The first part of this survey establishes the mainstream tendency of Islam, which is to balance compassion for animals against human need for them as a life-giving resource. The second half of the survey considers cases that stand out from this norm, including Sufi animism and Turco-Persian reincarnationism, in giving greater priority to animals as moral exemplars or as subjects deserving justice in their own right. These cases represent key antecedents and inter-texts for understanding al-Maʿarrī.
There follows a sketch of animals as portrayed throughout al-Maʿarrī’s texts. He is in many ways a more convinced animal ethicist, and a more zoocentric writer overall, than those, such as the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, who uses animals mainly to comment on human society. That said, the finer points of his thought make it hard to pin down where he got his inspiration; he explicitly rejects Indic doctrines of reincarnation, and his focus on animal life per se departs from Byzantine neo-Manichaean groups, especially the Bogomils, whose avoidance of animal products draws on the (fundamentally anthropocentric) dualist struggle between spirit and matter. Such a challenge in establishing textual sources for al-Maʿarrī raises the possibility that more ephemeral matters, such as biography or psychology, played a role here.4 The paper’s last two sections each inspect a rhetorical tactic of the Ṣāhil itself. The first is a grim parade of human cruelties as recorded in poetry, popular maxims (amthāl), and folklore, in order to shock readers into sympathy for nonhuman creatures. The second is a recasting of poetry and popular amthāl in a zoocentric mold, one that stands at odds with traditional interpretation. These two strategies affirm al-Maʿarrī’s concern for animals, yet at the same time, they raise puzzling incongruities about intellectual and cultural history that are hard to answer for certain. The point is not to solve such questions, but instead to show al-Maʿarrī working out his animal ethics—contradictions and all—in real time.

2. Considering the Nonhuman in Early Islam

To build his brick house of animal ethics, the Islamic thought tradition gave al-Maʿarrī plenty of straw. The main current of that tradition tries to balance between nonhuman creatures as sacred, respect worthy creatures, and as useful resources for humans, who often take priority. This balance is struck elegantly and succinctly in two Qurʾānic verses about bees (16/al-Naḥl: 68–69):
And thy Lord revealed unto the bees, saying: ‘Take unto yourselves of the mountains, houses, and of the trees, and of what they are building. Then eat all manner of fruit and follow the ways of your Lord easy to go upon.’ Then comes there forth out of their bellies a drink of diverse hues wherein is healing for men. Surely in that is a sign for a people who reflect.5
God esteems the insects by addressing them in their own right, yet simultaneously consecrates their “diversely hued” output (mukhtalifun alwānuhu)—honey—for human benefit. This counterpoise obtains in the ḥadīth corpus too, wherein people are allowed to use animals, but within strict guidelines; they must provide for them, show kindness and relieve their suffering, and avoid their abuse.6
Metaphysically, the ḥadīth tradition but above all the Qurʾān honors animals as one of a few communities, alongside humans, angels, and jinn, who owe their existence to God and receive His mercy. Hence, Sarra Tlili’s claim that the Qurʾān is basically theocentric and not anthropocentric—“any being that worships and obeys God obtains God’s pleasure and is rewarded in the hereafter” (Tlili 2012, p. ix). Animals belong to God, a beneficent sovereign who cherishes them as valuable creations, and therefore how humans treat them can tip the scales of final judgement.7 Moreover, mainstream Muslim belief holds that, like humans, animals will resurrect physically after death (ibid., p. 10).
For jurists, theologians, and philosophers, these factors all point to justice: do nonhumans deserve it, and if so, to what extent and on what grounds? The Muslim tradition, while typically prioritizing human need, does show compassion to animals because they have the ability suffer, which in turn suggests the ability to feel and perceive, similar to humans in kind if not degree. Early Arabic lexicography, kalām, fiqh, and Qurʾānic tafsīr all classify a given animal as dhū rūḥ, literally “who has blown breath” but roughly “life force” or “soul,” a concept which in early texts had a wider semantic range, but which becomes more closely linked to humans after the nineteenth century (Tlili 2017, pp. 18–21). In The Healing (Al-Shifāʾ) and Salvation (Al-Najāh), Avicenna concedes to both humans and nonhumans a faculty called wahm, “estimation,” which occupies a place “as the highest power among the soul’s animal faculties” and can be thought of as a “pre-intellectual grasp of non-sensible intentions at the core of the judgements in question” — his favorite example is that of sheep sensing hostility from a wolf (Black 1993, p. 220).
Animals also enjoy powers of perception in the “Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn,” which takes up most of Epistle 22 of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān 1957, vol. 2, pp. 203–377, at 213; Goodman and McGregor 2009, pp. 113–14). The segment about “The Acute Senses of the Animals” (Fī bayān jawdat al-ḥawāss fī l-ḥayawānāt) speaks of horses hearing footsteps in the night, or of ewes locating their farflung lambs one by one. Nonhuman characters also play a role in another philosophical allegory, Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, whose title character is raised by a compassionate gazelle. After reflecting further, Ḥayy turns to vegetarianism to avoid “opposition to the work of the Creator,” insofar as that work is embodied by His creatures (Ibn Ṭufayl 2008, pp. 77–79; Ibn Ṭufayl 2009, pp. 144–45).
With few exceptions, Islamic legal texts group animals under property ownership as far as their treatment goes (Furber 2015, pp. 1–2). In the Sunnī tradition, Ḥanbalī and Shāfiʿī jurists list fewer human needs that justify violence to animals, than do the Ḥanafīs and Mālikīs.8 No wonder, then, that one of the firmest statements about “animal rights upon humans” (ḥuqūq al-bahāʾim wa-l-ḥayawān ʿalā al-insān) appears in an influential text of Shāfiʿism, Rules for Deriving Laws for the Benefit of Living Things (Qawāʿid al-aḥkām fī maṣāliḥ al-anām9) by ʿIzz al-Dīn ibn ʿAbd al-Salām al-Sulamī10 (d. 1262 CE) (Al-Sulamī 1991; English trans. 2010). A manual of legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh) rather than practical rulings (furūʿ), the Qawāʿid is one of the first works to tackle the notion of “objectives” (maqāṣid al-sharīʿah). It does this by indexing specific legal issues based on the welfare (maṣlaḥah) versus the harm (mafsadah) done to God’s creation.
In a section called “A Rule on Clarifying Sole Rights and Shared Rights” (Qāʿidah fī bayān al-ḥuqūq al-ḳhāliṣah wa-l-murakabbah), Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām has a short but remarkable passage about the claims that animals have upon humans (Al-Sulamī 1991, vol. 1, p. 167; Al-Sulamī 2010, Part 1, pp. 223–24).11 They include financial and other expenses to care for them, even after the animals have grown sick and give no benefit (bi-ḥaythu lā yantafiʿu bihā). However, even as Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām sympathizes with animals, he weighs their needs against those of humans, betraying a circumspection and “probabilism” typical of fiqh as a whole (Weiss 1998, p. xiii). In a longish section called, “On the Cases When Benefit is Found Together with Harm (Faṣl fī ijtimāʿ al-maṣāliḥ maʿ al-mafāsid) (Al-Sulamī 1991, vol. 1, pp. 98–123; Al-Sulamī 2010, Part 1, pp. 130–55), he sizes up the relative merits and drawbacks in over 50 hypothetical situations, including several about animals (ibid. 1991, vol. 1, pp. 135–36, Numbers 10–12; ibid. 2010, Part 1, pp. 135–36). In Number 11, for example, he justifies eating “wild game” (al-ṣayd al-waḥshī) without proper ritual slaughter (al-dhabḥ), a situation normally prohibited by Islamic law. However, Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām allows for it if circumstances make performing the slaughter difficult, and if people would benefit from the physical nourishment (lākinnahu jāza bi-l-ḥaraj ʿinda taʿadhdhuri l-dhabdḥ li-maṣlaḥat taghdhiyat al-ajsād).
While Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s brand of counterbalancing humans versus animals is dominant within classical Islam, some groups deviated from this norm in their strong support for nonhuman justice, often as a cosmic principle. It is worth considering these cases for a moment as meaningful precursors and inter-texts to al-Maʿarrī. One of the most obvious—and controversial—was the doctrine of metempsychosis, tanāsukh, sometimes called “projection,” burūz, namely the movement of souls from humans into animals after death, which seems to rule out doing violence to animals on ethical grounds. Many observers associated this doctrine with extremist (ghulāh) Shiʿites who rebelled against the early caliphs (Daniel Gimaret, “Tanāsukh,” EI2), but it could have prevailed among the first Muʿtazilīs, especially the disciples of Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-Naẓẓām (d. 835 CE). In the Kitāb al-ḥayawān (Book of the Living), al-Jāḥiẓ calls them aṣḥāb al-jahālāt, “those who deal in absurdities,” and credits them with panpsychism, i.e., the belief that everything possesses reason and, therefore, moral responsibility, even stones, mountains, flies, and lice; the aṣḥāb al-jahālāt apparently went so far as to say that each of these communities had a prophet sent by God (Crone 2012a, pp. 34–39).12 Al-Jāḥiẓ himself scoffs at the claim, evoking objections raised by Stoicism and other prior schools who denied the intrinsic moral value of animals on the grounds that they lack reason (Lagerlund 2018, p. 759). Whether his reports do justice to these beliefs in reality, they were taken up later by heresiographers like al-Shahrastānī (Walker 1991).
As an aside on al-Jāḥiẓ, although he dismisses panpsychic beliefs as false, he does have a section in Kitāb al-ḥayawān called “Disputing the Slaughter and Killing of Animals” (ḥijāj fī dhabḥ al-ḥayawān wa-qatlihi) (Al-Jāḥiẓ 1938, pp. 427–36).13 Addressed to a notional group of objectors who claim that Islam permits them to kill and eat animals, al-Jāḥiẓ offers a rebuttal based on the principle of mercy, which, as al-Jāḥiẓ puts it, “Is all of a piece [al-raḥmah shakl wāḥid]: whoever shows no mercy to the dog, also shows none to the gazelle; whoever shows none to the gazelle, shows none to the goat; whoever shows none to the sparrow, shows none to the human boy. Small and simple things lead to bigger ones [wa-ṣighār al-umūr tuʾaddī ilā kibārihā]” (ibid., p. 428).
Returning to the doctrine of metempsychosis, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE, this doctrine found a beachhead within millenarian movements in the Islamic East. The Nuqṭavīs or “Dottists” openly promoted a materialist-reincarnationist worldview (Amanat 1996; Babayan 2002, pp. 57–117), while the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great (d. 1605 CE) installed a cult that worshipped his person as divine and professed metempsychosis, and, by extension, vegetarianism (Moin 2012, pp. 130–69; Crone 2012b). Many occultist thinkers, physicians, and advisers to Persian-Turco-Mongol rulers believed in reincarnation but equivocated in public for fear of being tarnished as kuffār. Among their numbers were Sayyid Ḥusayn Akhlāṭī (d. 1397 CE), the personal physician to Mamluk sultan al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Barqūq (r. 1382–99 CE), and Akhlāṭī’s disciples Ibn Turka (d. 1432 CE) and Badr al-Dīn of Simavna. While scholars once thought that the ideas of these men grew out of Jainism, emerging research shows that they were neo-Pythagoreans, especially since Pythagoras himself gave credit for his reincarnationist veganism to an ancient Persian sage: Zoroaster (Melvin-Koushki forthcoming, pp. 32–34). The problem of whether Hellenic or Indic currents supplied Islam with metempsychosis and related beliefs still breeds controversy (Crone 2012a, pp. 29–30).
To many thinkers, including al-Maʿarrī, the movement of souls reeked of another strange doctrine: the equation of reality with divinity, dubbed “unity of being,” waḥdat al-wujūd, by Ibn ʿArabī’s disciples (Ibn ʿArabī himself never used the term, calling it instead “real being,” ḥaqq al-wujūd) (Chittick 2020). Strict monotheists thought that this was too close to pantheism, and, therefore, polytheism (shirk), to pay it any heed, but it rang true for Sufi devotees. Of significance to animal ethics are the pietistic stories that show Muslim holy men communing with lions, dogs, fish, and, birds, since all of these creatures share in the divine essence.14
Many such stories are preserved in the Persian-language Tazkirat al-awliyāʾ (Memoir of the Saints) by poet and mystic Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (d. 1221 CE). There, one reads about Khorasan-born jurist Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 778 CE) and the “compassion that he had for all of God’s creatures” (az shafaqat kih ū-rā būd bar khalq-i khudāy). In one anecdote, Sufyān frees a caged bird, which then visits him every night and eventually dashes itself to the ground following Sufyān’s death and burial rather than live without him (ʿAṭṭār 1905–1907, vol. 1, pp. 195–96; ʿAṭṭār 1966, pp. 169–70). Ibrāhīm al-Khawwāṣ (d. 903 CE), a figure known for advocating “self-abandonment” (tawakkul) (Leonard Lewisohn “Tawakkul,” EI2), narrates in the first person about how he rescued a lion by healing its injured paw, after which the lion returned wagging its tail, bringing along its grateful cub (bachchah-i ū) and a round breadloaf (gardah) for the holy man (ʿAṭṭār 1905–1907, vol. 2, p. 149; ʿAṭṭār 1966, pp. 169–70). Speaking of lions, legends about Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896 CE), recount that lions, dogs, and other wild beasts freely visited him, and that he would feed and take care of them. For this reason, according to ʿAṭṭār, when a Sufi disciple once asked to come see him, he cautioned, “If you’re afraid of lions, then don’t spend time with me (agar tu az sibāʿ mī-tarsi bā man ṣuḥbat madār) (ʿAṭṭār 1905–1907, vol. 1, p. 267; ʿAṭṭār 1966, p. 204). Such Franciscan tales tie together a strand running throughout philosophies like Sufi animism or Turco-Persian reincarnationism, namely that animals stand as moral exemplars. One sees al-Maʿarrī tugging at this thread to weave his own defense of animals.

3. Animals in Al-Maʿarrī’s Works

Throughout his career, al-Maʿarrī looks to be a committed stalwart for animals. Many of the poems in his later collection Luzūm mā lā yalzam (Self-Imposed Necessity) plump for them unequivocally, though typically en route to condemning humans for cruelty or lack of scruple. On this idea, despite an outwardly greater focus on animals as subjects in their own right, he retains the anthropocentrism of texts that use animals to discuss good human society, like Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, translated to Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, or the Al-Namir wa-l-thaʿlab (The Leopard and the Fox) of Sahl ibn Hārūn (d. 830 CE), director of the bayt al-ḥikmah and a staunch shuʿūbiyyah partisan, that is, a champion of non-Arabs and especially Persians in an Arab-dominant society.15 That al-Maʿarrī uses animals to comment on humans brings up the question as to whether and how far one should take his interest in nonhumans at face value.
In one poetic couplet, for example, al-Maʿarrī wants above all to prosecute his own kind as base and evil. To do this, he compares them unfavorably to wild birds, who do not indulge the same cruelties as people (meter: ṭawīl) (Al-Maʿarrī 1891–1895, vol. 2, p. 25; ʿAṭṭār 1905–1907, p. 202 in English, p. 287 in Arabic):
Taṣaddaq ʿalā l-ṭayri l-ghawādī bi-sharbatin/
mina l-māʾi wa-ʿdud’hā aḥaqqa mina l-insī
Fa-mā jinsuhā jānin ʿalayka adhiyyatan/
bi-ḥālin idhā mā khifta min dhālika l-jinsī
Donate sips of water to birds, gone by morning,
and count them worthier of alms than men:
their kind commits you no harm at all,
even as you fear it from your own
Or in another poem, warning of death like so much of zuhd discourse, al-Maʿarrī says that it is only right for fate to be silent and callous—humans themselves cannot keep from being so reticent about their grisly treatment of animals (meter: khafīf) (Al-Maʿarrī 1891–1895, vol. 1, p. 58; Al-Baṭalyawsī 1991, p. 67):
Wa-wajadtu l-zamāna aʿjama faẓẓan/
wa-jubārun fī ḥukmihā l-ʿajmāʾū
I found fate tongue-tied, bereft of mercy,
while the dumb beast’s blood goes unavenged.
If a wrongfully wounded beast remains as jubār, “unavenged, unretaliated” (Lane 1984, vol. 1, p. 377)16—a state of affairs for which humans are to blame, as al-Maʿarrī seems to imply—then it faces cruelty for no reason. Why, then, should humans expect such a reason when faced with their own looming, cruel demise? That they are found, in al-Maʿarrī’s calculus, morally lacking compared to animals recalls Plutarch’s imagined chat between Odysseus and Gryllus, one of the crewmen whom Circe changed into swine, and who, still in his porcine state, lists dozens of ways in which animals prove more virtuous than people— “for without command or instruction, ‘unsown and unploughed,’ it were, [the souls of beasts] naturally bring forth and develop such virtue as is proper in each case” (Plutarch 1927–2004, vol. 12, pp. 501–31, at 501).
Other works by al-Maʿarrī pose such troubling questions, or at least, they paint vividly colored tableaux from a nonhuman—and conspicuously pacifist and vegan—perspective. In the Risālat al-ghufrān, where al-Maʿarrī repeatedly lampoons overly literalistic visions of heaven—e.g., dajāj al-raḥmah, “fat chickens of mercy,” or farārīj al-khuld, “pullets of Eternity” (Al-Maʿarrī 2013–2014, vol. 1, pp. 206–7)—the narrative shows birds led to slaughter without pain, or gazelles hunted and killed without suffering. In fact, these creatures get replenished day after day so that their predators need not suffer privation, either (ibid., pp. 244–45).
In the alleged Qurʾān parody Al-Fuṣūl wa-l-ghāyāt, at the start of the chapter rhyming in bāʾ, for example, al-Maʿarrī singles out proverbially industrious insects, like the common honeybee (al-jārisah, “buzzer”) or the psyche moth bagworm (al-surfah, Psyche quadrangularis17), to show that the structures they build are worthier than human-made products like wine or weapons (Al-Maʿarrī 1938, pp. 39–40). In his chancery style guide Iḥkām ṣanʿat al-kalām (Perfecting the Craft of Prose Speech), Andalusī vizier ʿAbd al-Ghafūr al-Kalāʿī (d. 1148 CE) quotes animal fables that he claims are salvaged from al-Maʿarrī’s lost Kitāb al-qāʾif (Book of the Tracker). They include tales of a lion who turns to veganism, or of an ant brought close to death, and who, when its fellows fret for the sake of its soul, soothes them with talk of an eternal reward—“and this, since I never once spilled another’s blood” (wa-dhālika annī lam asfik al-dam qaṭṭ) (Al-Kalāʿī 1985, pp. 204–6).
The closest thing to a Maʿarrian treatise on animal ethics are his exchange of letters with the Cairo-based Fatimid Shiʿite missionary al-Muʾayyad fī l-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 1078 CE) (Al-Maʿarrī 1982, pp. 83–140; Margoliouth 1902).18 In what one could call a public relations maneuver—a learned debate put on display to garner intellectual and spiritual converts—al-Muʾayyad asks al-Maʿarrī to explain a poem in which the latter comes down against animal products of any kind, including fish, milk, and honey.19 The real question, however, is why al-Maʿarrī went in for the vegan life at all, since, as reviewed in the first section, mainstream Islamic though allows people to eat meat.20
Al-Maʿarrī’s answer revolves around a hub of divine justice. Replying to al-Muʾayyad’s charge that anyone practicing veganism tries to outdo God in mercy, since Islam condones using animal products, he hints provocatively that the God of Islamic tradition is less merciful than reason suggests. “The prophets recall, peace be upon them, that The Creator—exalted be His strength—is gracious and merciful (raʾūf raḥīm).” 21 However, we see evidence to the contrary: if He is merciful to the Sons of Adam, then He must also show mercy to other living beings (aṣnāf al-ḥayawān), which suffer pain in the slightest thing” (Al-Maʿarrī 1982, pp. 109–12, at p. 110). However, God does let animals suffer, says al-Maʿarrī, as when a lion preys on weaker flesh, or when humans steal cow calves to eat them as veal. How can one therefore credit Him with mercy?
Lest al-Maʿarrī court charges of unbelief (kufr) or atheism (ilḥād) for calling God’s pity into question, he defends vegan practice on agnostic grounds: the question of evil in this world is what poses the true mystery (sirr khafiyy), not God’s compassion (ibid., p. 105). Lacking more certainty about where evil comes from, including the evil of animal cruelty, “those who profess religion have always been anxious to avoid meat, since it cannot be obtained without harm to a living creature” (wa-lam yazal man yantasibu ilā al-dīn yarghabu fī hijrān al-luḥūm li-annahā lā yūṣalu ilayhā illā bi-l-īlām li-ḥayawān) (ibid., p. 107). By offering his zoocentric counsels, al-Maʿarrī departs from a more human-centered thinker like Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 CE), who writes of the purifying effects of hunger on the human soul—including heightened spiritual “insight” (baṣīrah)—in the section “Kitāb kasr al-shahwatayn” (On Breaking the Two Desires, i.e., overeating and sexual desire) from Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (Winter 1995, trans., pp. 117–32).
Where did al-Maʿarrī come by his beliefs? The question has bedeviled observers for centuries. Without evidence to the contrary, al-Maʿarrī’s tendency toward compassion may have been a natural one. Blind from childhood and having lost both parents before middle age, he seems deeply affected by life’s tragedies, if his statements to al-Muʾayyad fī l-Dīn—made at the very end of al-Maʿarrī’s life—describing physical and emotional suffering are any indicator. That believing Arab–Muslim authors in many eras faced their own hardships and still did not voluntarily avoid animal products reinforces the point. In addition, due to al-Maʿarrī’s 18-month sojourn in Baghdad, many commentators single out Indo-Persian origins as an influence. However, this is less likely when one considers that al-Maʿarrī himself attacks Hindu beliefs—especially reincarnation, of which more below—in Risālat al-ghufrān, as well as what he sees as an abhorrent practice: satī or widow burning.22 As for pre-Islamic Persian creeds, in his first letter to al-Muʾayyad, al-Maʿarrī explicitly mentions—and rebuffs—Manichaean dualism as the answer to the problem of evil and as grounds for vegetarianism, as did Augustine before him in The City of God (Al-Maʿarrī 1982, p. 106; Augustine 1957, book 1, p. 20).
Another imaginable yet little discussed channel for vegetarian belief in medieval Islamdom was the Hellenic one. Al-Maʿarrī lived at a time of religious ferment in Byzantium, less than a hundred miles to the northwest and which some biographers say he visited in his youth.23 Especially conspicuous in that realm was what Dmitri Obolensky called Balkan neo-Manichaeism, flourishing from the tenth to fifteenth centuries CE and whose forerunners had been hounded as heretics under Justinian II in the seventh (Obolensky 1948, p. 27). It spanned a number of groups, such as the Paulicians, the Massalians, and the Blakhernites, but above all the Bogomils, a dualist, vegetarian sect denounced by Cosmas the Priest in the tenth century CE (not to be confused with Cosmas I or II, both subsequent patriarchs of Constantinople) (ibid., p. 104).24
Some of this Manichaean tumult might have fueled al-Maʿarrī’s thinking, but his distinctly zoocentric approach, fixated on sparing God’s creatures from suffering, parts ways with the Byzantine dualists, who based their ideas on the permanent struggle between spirit and matter and the moral superiority of the former. Thus, even if Bogomilism fired up the engine of al-Maʿarrī’s thought, he would have ultimately taken it down a different path. Still, it is clear enough that al-Maʿarrī knew of canonized Greek medical authorities like Galen,25 who had suggested restricting one’s meat intake for better health (Al-Maʿarrī 1982, p. 111; Margoliouth 1902, p. 319).
Given the history of building vegetarian practices atop a reincarnationist groundwork, it seems crucial to ask: did al-Maʿarrī think that human souls migrated after death? If so, then he convincingly hid any such views.26 In fact, judging by the poetry of Saqṭ al-zand, he knew about—and dismissed as false—the doctrine of metempsychosis from an early age, maybe even before his trip to Baghdad circa 1007 CE. In Qaṣīdah Number Five, following the chronology of Ḥusayn et al., al-Maʿarrī answers a poem by a certain Shiʿite notable (sharīf ʿAlawī) called Abū Ibrāhīm Mūsā ibn Isḥāq. With memorable disdain, the line in question plays on this Abū Ibrāhīm’s name in order to invalidate his belief in reincarnation (meter: wāfir) (Al-Maʿarrī 1945, vol. 1, p. 276, line #51; Al-Jundī 1962–1964, vol. 3, p. 1337):
Wa-law ṣaḥḥa l-tanāsukhu kunta Mūsā/
wa-kāna abūka Isḥāqa l-dhabīḥā
If the doctrine of reincarnation were right,
then you’d be Moses (Mūsā)
and your father Isaac (Isḥāq) the Slain!
Later in his career, al-Maʿarrī still thought that certain Shiʿite groups— as well as Hindus and the followers of murdered Sufi al-Ḥallāj (d. 922 CE)—believed in metempsychosis. He writes in Risālat al-ghufrān that:
This sect [al-niḥlah, referring to al-Ḥallāj and his disciples] propagates the idea of metempsychosis [al-tanāsukh], which is an ancient belief held by the Indians [ahl al-hind]. It has also become common among a group of Shiʿites [jamāʿah min al-shīʿah]. We ask God for success and protection (Al-Maʿarrī 2013–2014, pp. 78–79).27
That al-Maʿarrī puts reincarnation squarely in India belies sophisticated contemporary knowledge—above all by the Persian traveler and polymath Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī (d. 1050 CE)—of non-Indic and especially Hellenic writings on metempsychosis (Walker 1991, pp. 220–22).28 In addition, given the fact that al-Maʿarrī was regularly accused of heterodox belief in “Brahmanism” (al-barhamiyyah) for his vegan lifestyle29; and given the fact that he thought, as others did, that some Shiʿites believed in reincarnation, it is remarkable that neither he nor al-Muʾayyad fī l-Dīn al-Shīrāzī charged each other more vehemently with such beliefs.
One might think that by snubbing these different groups, al-Maʿarrī was just “writing between the lines,” that is, concealing his unorthodox views for fear of being persecuted (Strauss 1941, p. 490). This possibility again brings up the question: how far should readers take his concern for animals at face value? However, most of the time, he is quite pleased to trumpet his thoughts, plus the fact that his disdain for Sufis, Hindus, and extremist Shiʿites stays consistent throughout his writings. Short of equating literary discourse with reality, it is safe to assume that he in fact disavowed these ideas as he claims. In addition, as noted, the content itself—being the main way to know how he got his ideas, short of new evidence coming to light—is not enough to tell which sources inspired him. Several are possible, especially Balkan neo-Manichean groups like the Bogomils; Iranian breakaways from Zoroastrianism like the Khurramīs or neo-Mazdakīs (Babayan 2002, esp. pp. 137–54, 262–92); Indic religion as conveyed by medicine; or some blend of these.30 But the details of his thought depart enough from any single point of supply as to rule it out as the only one. The best one can do is to orient him to other thinkers and texts, as the preceding sketch tries to do.
Perhaps the weightier influences on his thinking are lost to history. Returning again to the trip to Baghdad or the childhood stay in Byzantine lands, it is unlikely that new evidence will emerge of conversations with travelers, chance encounters with eccentric folk beliefs, and so forth. Nor should one overstate claims about the past without a basis in historical data. However, to discount the possibility that undocumented conversations or encounters made their way into al-Maʿarrī’s worldview would mean over-textualizing a past that often evades written capture.31 As Thomas Glick says regarding Christian–Muslim cultural transfer on the Iberian peninsula, “of all the processes of acculturation, non-formal cultural diffusion is perhaps the most important” (Glick 1979, p. 152). Therefore, so too might al-Maʿarrī have seen, heard, or read things for which no trace remains. Perhaps he did indeed absorb Indic or Hellenic injunctions against animal harm, or, on the other hand, perhaps he happened to meet a single individual with similar ethical concerns. Together with his apparently inborn awareness of nonhuman suffering and a strongly felt sense of justice, there are unlikelier explanations than these for how al-Maʿarrī came by his convictions.

4. Shocked to the Point of Compassion

As stated, the action of the Ṣāhil—such as it is—unfolds as one animal after another passes by the waterwheel-bound mule (al-shāḥij) and asks about its plight. The mule, in turn, falls on these passersby to carry a plea to the governor of Aleppo, ʿAzīz al-Dawlah, since it suffers daily beatings at the hands of a “lazy day laborer” (ajīr kaslān) (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, p. 98). This scenario already betrays a concern for animal welfare, although Pieter Smoor’s judgment that the mule in fact represents al-Maʿarrī suggests that readers should not draw neat correspondences, at least not in this section (Smoor 1981, pp. 57–61).
Instead, where one finds the thinnest veneer between literary discourse and what must be al-Maʿarrī’s actual view is the first monologue of the horse, the titular ṣāhil, “neigher” (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, pp. 108–65). The mule begs it for help delivering a message to ʿAzīz al-Dawlah by appealing to biological relations, calling the horse “brother of my mother” (yā khālī) (ibid., p. 96). This appeal by the horse rejects in typical Maʿarrian fashion, that is, with a long list of homonyms or near homonyms—many of them animal names—that refer to different things despite sounding or looking the same, such as the clan of Dhiʾb within the Azd tribe, versus the wolf (dhiʾb) that “schemes evil plots” (yahtabilu bi-jaddin naṭīḥin) (ibid., pp. 110–13, at p. 112). The point is that language can deceive, as when the mule calls the horse “uncle” despite there being no such relation, at least from the horse’s perspective. “So don’t let names dupe you,” it chides the mule— “before someone observed the lightning, the sky was already there” (qabl al-shāʾim kānat al-samāʾ) (ibid., p. 113).
Then the horse goes to work on the second part of the mule’s plea: the fact that it wants help from a human, ʿAzīz al-Dawlah. “Don’t you know that the Sons of Adam are the sovereigns of the earth? [mulūk al-arḍ] … As for us, we are the tribes of equus (maʿāshir al-jabhah). Hardships [ghamarāt] are thrown upon our necks and attacks [ghārāt] are put upon our backs” (ibid., p. 115). There ensues a litany of evils inflicted upon animals by humans, a litany which, despite the horse’s aim of logically proving that humans are not trustworthy, is vivid and disturbing enough that the intended shock to readers becomes its own form of argument.
For instance, time and time again, the horse reminds the mule that domesticated animals form bonds with humans, only for the humans to betray those bonds and kill them. “What about cows that till the ground? [al-muthīrāt al-kawārib]” it asks rhetorically. “Humans use them, and then they eat them!” (ibid., p. 128). When a bull’s flesh is sufficiently marbled with fat (lammā shurija laḥm Abī l-Muzāḥim bi-l-nayy32), it is taken to market and carved up, setting aside the erstwhile society between man and beast (ibid., p. 130). Ranchers give food to chickens not out of sympathy, but rather to dupe them into sticking their necks into a trap (al-siṭa) (ibid., pp. 128–29). However, this is not all, continues the horse: wild animals (al-waḥsh al-bāhilah) suffer no less than do tame ones (al-bahāʾim al-ahliyyah). It recalls goats ascending up a mountain (al-awʿāl al-ʿāqilah), whom hunters paralyze (fa-qaʿadūhā) by shooting their haunches, then take them for food and leave their orphaned young (ghufr waqil) (ibid., p. 140). When wild jennies (al-ʿānāt) make a loud commotion (al-jarabbah), it is not enough scare off hunters from killing them (ibid., p. 134). Further, with ostriches, people will stab them and steal their eggs for food (ibid., p. 144), and so on with many different species, including rabbits, foxes, lizards, jerboas, bees, and even snakes and mice, which some sources say the Bedouin would eat (ibid. pp. 151–53).
Of the more ghoulish practices recalled by the horse, certain Bedouin tribes would supposedly waterlog their camels over ten days before a long desert journey, letting them fill their humps on the first day, then starving them of water for another eight days, and finally letting them drink again on the tenth day—as al-Maʿarrī says, ẓammaʾū al-ibl ʿishran (“they thirsted their camels for a ten-day period [eight days without water]”; Lane 1984, vol. 2, p. 2103). Then, when all the water had run out and circumstances in the barren wastes grew dire, they would rip open the camel’s stomach and drink the excess water (baqarū buṭūnahā fa-sharibū al-faẓẓ).33
In the voice of the horse, al-Maʿarrī quotes several poets who allude to this practice, at least in the horse’s (and probably al-Maʿarrī’s) estimation. For example, here is line 49 from a mufaḍḍaliyyah in the basīṭ meter by ʿAlqamah ibn ʿAbadah “al-Faḥl” (fl. mid-sixth cen. CE) (Al-Ḍabbī 1921, vol. 1, p. 818, poem #120; vol. 2, p. 337):
Wa-qad uṣāḥibu aqwāman ṭaʿāmuhumū
khuḍru l-mazādi wa-laḥmun fīhi tanshīmū
And time was that I went around with a people34 whose diet
is the dark-hued water of provision bags, and rank, fetid meat.
Most commentators,35 including al-Anbārī (ibid.), understand the phrase khuḍru l-mazādī to mean either water pouches, normally made of goatskin, in which the water is covered by algae, or else stomachs (kurūsh) removed from animals and used as water bladders. Regarding the strange color, Ibn Manẓūr explains that “the water has remained a long time in the waterskins and thus gone green/darkened36 with age” (inna l-māʾ baqiyat fi l-adāwī fa-khḍarrat min al-qidam) (Ibn Manẓūr 1999, vol. 14, p. 152). The stomachs may also contain meat, as Ibn Qutaybah says about the word tanshīm (“rotting,” “putrefaction”): “Whenever the desert Arabs went military campaigns and crossed long distances, they would carve up meat and stow it in an animal’s stomach [used as a provision bag]; and after many days, the meat would go bad, and this is [the meaning of] ‘its rotting’” (kānū idhā ghazaw wa-sāfarū qaṭaʿū l-laḥm fa-jaʿalūhu fī kirsh fa-idhā atā ʿalayhi ayyām taghayyara fa-dhālika tanshīmuh) (Ibn Qutaybah 1953, vol., 3, pp. 381–82; also in Al-Baṭalyawsī 2008, vol. 1, p. 387). However, the horse in al-Maʿarrī’s story quotes ʿAlqamah’s line because it thinks—or it wants readers to think—that it is about slaughtering camels in order to consume their stomach content. This demonstrates al-Maʿarrī’s method of creatively reinterpreting well-known passages to fit his pacifist, zoocentric message, although at least one commentator, al-Akhfash al-Aṣghar, does support al-Maʿarrī’s understanding of the line by ʿAlqamah (Al-Akhfash 1999, p. 643).37 More on such interpretive somersaults by al-Maʿarrī in the next section.
Going further, the horse character says that the Bedouin also used to open the veins of camels and drink their blood,38 and that for the truly destitute, dead camel carrion offered relief from hunger. Again, poetry serves as proof of such horrors, with anonymous lines quoted in rajaz meter and with a tinge of black humor (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, p. 125):
Inna l-saʿīda man yamūtu jamaluh
yaʾkulu laḥman wa-yaqillu ʿamaluh
Happy is he whose camel dies, so he
eats the meat, saves himself the work!39
The horse goes on to describe how humans wear out their camels with overmuch walking, or how, as in a poem attributed—incorrectly40—to Juwayriyah ibn Asmāʾ al-Fazārī, travelers slaughter their riding camels so that an attacking wolf will eat them instead of the humans (ibid., p. 126). With these examples at its command, the horse builds to a crescendo: “No animal has endured torture from the Sons of Eve like the camel has” (wa-mā ṣabara shayʾun min al-bahāʾim ʿalā ʿanat Banī Ḥawwāʾ mā ṣabarathu al-ibil) (ibid., p. 125).
This gallery of crimes echoes an earlier text to which al-Maʿarrī’s Ṣāhil might owe a debt, however indirectly, in its display of human cruelty for the sake of persuading readers: The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn, by the Brethren of Purity. Throughout the trial, the spokesman of the beasts (zaʿīm al-bahāʾim) is in fact a mule (baghl), making for a conspicuous link between this work and al-Maʿarrī’s.41 The mule of the Brethren of Purity bemoans how humans have treated nonhumans from the earliest days (fī badʾ al-khalq), driving them from their homes and enthralling them as beasts of burden (Ikhwān 1957, vol. 2, pp. 203–4; Goodman and McGregor 2009, pp. 99–100). Then, in the section “On the Animals’ Complaint of Oppression by Humans” (Fī bayān shakāwat al-ḥayawān min jawr al-ins), readers find a long list of crimes that indict humans on their face.
“As for feeding and watering us,” charges the mule in Goodman and McGregor’s English, “these things are not done out of kindness or compassion, as he [the human spokesman] claims, but for fear lest we die and lest they lose their investment in us and the benefits they take from us” (bal makhāfatan an nahlika fa-yakhsarū athmānanā wa-tafūtahum al-manāfiʿ minnā) (Ikhwān 1957, vol. 2, p. 215; Goodman and McGregor 2009, p. 116). Such alleged self-interest flouts the counsels of an author like Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām to care for animals even when they give no direct benefit. Then, as if on cue, other animals take up the mule’s mantle and chime in with their own objections. The ass (ḥimār) complains of being overburdened with bricks; the ox (thawr) protests being chained to human waterwheels and millstones (dawālībihim wa-arḥiyatihim); the ram (kabsh) resists having its kids stolen so that humans can eat them and steal their milk; the horse (faras) denounces being bridled and bitted; the rabbit (arnab) laments being hunted by dogs; and on and on. As in the Ṣāhil, such testimonies pile up with nearly physical force, pressing readers into the ironic position of siding with nonhumans against their own kind.
In the end, however, the pleas fall short of convincing the jinn king, who tosses out the animals’ case. To account for the discrepancy between this result and the tale’s overall egalitarian tenor, Tlili pits the Brethren’s hierarchical worldview, which triumphs in the end, against an even-handed view of animals deriving from the Qurʾān (Tlili 2014). Of course, the result of the trial may be more complicated than this; the humans emerge victorious simply because a tiny number of them are saints, which leaves untouched the accusation that the vast majority of humans are worse than animals.42 Meanwhile, al-Maʿarrī himself sides with his own horse character’s verdict, if one gauges from the short, token rebuttal offered by the mule. It spends barely two edited pages—in patent contrast to its conversation partner’s lengthy descant—quashing the horse’s claims and pointing out human charity (iḥsān) before moving to the issue of whether some lines of poetry count as rajaz or not (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, pp. 173–75). While no explicit position is advanced, if one reads between the lines, there are differences of length, detail, and enthusiasm between the horse’s talk and that of the mule that serve to confirm al-Maʿarrī’s support for nonhuman justice.

5. From Poetic Myth to Zoocentric Reality

As the foregoing shows, literary discourse gets pressed into the service of arguments pro and contra during the horse’s monologue, as it does throughout Risālat al-Ṣāhil wa-l-shāḥij. Although a tried and true rhetorical move in classical Arabic—one which would be familiar even in the hypothetical text world of the Ṣāhil, a text world for which one assumes a basis in culturally Islamicate discursive genres—using poetry and maxims (amthāl) for historical, sociocultural, or rhetorical evidence is something that the horse still feels it needs to justify. “All of this represents more than enough desert Arab poetry to establish proofs [of my point],” it says defensively (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, pp. 134–35). “I only produce it here like a bearer of news showing you the sun [kamā yushīru al-muḥaddith ilā Umm Shamlah43], or the night rider showing you the moon’s halo” [wa-yurīka rākibu laylihi al-sāhirah]—in other words, to show the mule, plus any eavesdroppers,44 the source of its own ideas and the trajectory of its thought.
In particular, pre- and early Islamic hunting poetry enters the mix, especially Hudhalī verse, with its “depictions of animals, especially onagers and oryx, that are killed by hunters as representatives of the ineluctability of fate” (Miller 2016, p. 118). At one point, al-Maʿarrī’s horse brings out nine lines of a 44-line poem by Sāʿidah ibn Juʾayyah,45 a mukhaḍram—a poet whose life spanned before and after the coming of Islam—who, along with his rāwī (transmitter and pupil) Abū Dhuʾayb Khuwaylid ibn Khālid (d. ca. 649 CE), also a mukhaḍram, form a distinctive school among the Hudhalīs; according to Nathaniel Miller, they share common characteristics “in the depictions of rain storms, honey-collectors, vocabulary and stylistic devices like repetition” (ibid., p. 312; see also pp. 377–79, 389–92).
The lines in question—Numbers 8–16, with variant readings and line ordering in al-Sukkarī’s recension (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, pp. 142–43; Al-Sukkarī 1965, vol. 3, pp. 1122–38)46—imagine a hunter taking down a curvehorned ibex (dhū ḥayadin, or dhū ḥiyadin in al-Sukkarī) on the side of a mountain. The ibex strays from its herd in search of Indian lilac (nīm, Azadirachta indica, also known as nimtree) and black henna (katam, Buxus dioica), neither of which it finds. Instead, it comes across a hunter, who capitalizes on the animal’s distance from the herd:
Ḥattā utīḥa lahū rāmin bi-muḥdalatin/
jaʾshin wa-bīḍin nawāḥīhinna ka l-sajamī47
Dallā yadayhi lahū qaṣran48 fa-alzamahū/
naffāḥatan ghayra ikhṭāʾin49 wa-lā sharamī
Fa-jāla minhu bi-aʿlā l-raydi thumma kabā/
ʿalā naḍiyyin khilāla l-jawfi50 munḥaṭimī
Then fate decreed a shooter with a delicate, well-worn bow
and white arrows whose blades are like willow leaves.51
He hung his hands from above, to let fly with utmost power (qaṣran),
then dealt it a bloodspattering shaft, nor flying amiss
nor merely grazing skin.
The ibex fled the high mountain ridge, then fell forward
onto the bare bolt, which pierced its gut through to the ribs.
In these lines, later Arabic commentators saw the human-centered fatalism so familiar to pre-Islamic verse. Even the pre-Islamic and mukhaḍram poets themselves felt this way, a fact that can be discerned from the case of Abu Dhuʾayb, the pupil of Sāʿidah, who expanded his mentor’s themes into the single most celebrated Hudhalī poem: an elegy to his five sons who died of plague within a single year, and in which the tragic abruptness of their fate is likened to wild asses (jawn, “humpbacked,” and jadāʾid, “plump [she-asses]”) killed by a hunter’s bow and arrow; a lone oryx (shabab) attacked by hounds; and two champion warriors (sing. kamiyy, pl. kumāt) who slay each other in battle (Jones 2011, pp. 493–524).
However, in al-Maʿarrī’s hands, the creatures killed by hunters become revivified subjects per se, with their poems as evidence of the harm that humans do. More than that, al-Maʿarrī often assumes that the harms described by poetry are real— “There is no doubt that this is still done even today” (wa-lā rayba annahu yufʿalu ilā al-yawm) (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, p. 137). In this sense, he reverses the customary place of animals in poetry. Jaroslav Stetkevych writes that the journeying poet’s she-camel (nāqah), along with the oryx (shabab or mahā) or onager (ʿayr or faraʾ) to which it is often compared, assumes a legendary, unicorn-like quality, comparable to the curios of ʿajāʾib and nawādir literature, since all three creatures appear by epithet more than by name (Stetkevych 2002; Bauer 1992, vol. 1, pp. 35–38). One should not overstate the point about myth, since camels, oryx, and onagers still existed when the early ʿAbbāsids wrote their commentaries, unlike the mythical geography of place names or topographical features common to pre-Islamic poetry. However, it is an intriguing conceptual foil al-Maʿarrī’s approach, in which animals begin as symbols for human fate, only to wind up as real, pitiable beings.
In fact, not just poetry but also popular sayings (amthāl) become zoocentrized in the Ṣāhil. Sometimes they show up as proof of human cruelty, as for instance when the horse reproduces rajaz poetry “on urging [people] to eat spiny-tailed lizard [genus: Uromastyx]” (fī l-ḥathth ʿalā akl al-ḍabb) (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, p. 150), since lizard gut fat is a proverbial Bedouin delicacy:
Aṭʿim akhāka min ʿaqanqali l-ḍabb
innaka in lā tuṭʿimanhu yaghḍab
Feed your brother lizard gut fat—
if you don’t, then he’ll get mad!52
Taken as a maxim, these lines mean, “be generous to others,” but the horse turns them—ironically—into a reason to mistrust others. Other times, popular amthāl serve as plot points, like the expression “more deceptive than a dove” (akdhab min fākhitah), which comes up as the mule and horse debate whether to let the dove character, al-fākhitah, convey the mule’s message (ibid., p. 211). Earlier in the story, the mule had also cited poetic description of horses as noble creatures, in order to flatter the horse character (al-ṣāhil) and prove its competence to carry a message to ʿAzīz al-Dawlah’ (ibid., pp. 156–57).
Most of the time, al-Maʿarrī is playful and keeps his eye on literary effects when he shifts the focus of poetry and amthāl to the animals themselves. However, if one assumes that he is being earnest, especially when he tries to prove animal agency, then he ignores another writer’s advice from two hundred years earlier about equating allegory with reality. In the Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, al-Jāḥiẓ had urged readers to mark off proverbs referring to the natural faculties of animals, e.g., “stupider than a bustard” (aḥmaq min ḥubārā), from proverbs that figuratively treat animals as if morally responsible, such as “more deceptive than a dove.” Al-Jāḥiẓ warns against interpreting the second type of proverb literally, thereby confusing human and animal status, since only humans have reason and thus moral agency (Miller 2017, pp. 105–7). Any claims to the contrary, reasons al-Jāḥiẓ, look like the panpsychic beliefs of the aṣḥāb al-jahālāt mentioned above.
The prospect of al-Maʿarrī taking things too literally, at least considering what others say about literary allegory, introduces a sweet irony. Here is a man who constantly resorts to non-literalism—allusions, riddles, double entendre, and obscure meanings for everyday words—to dupe readers into critical self-reflection. Granted, by zoocentrizing the Arabic written tradition, he offers an exceptional way to understand that tradition, even out of a Midas-like yearning to make everything he touches into a pacifist, vegan cautionary tale. Yet at the same time, this method tries to bend the meaning of certain texts to suit his needs, in a way that many commentators would not support. Furthermore, his approach equates literary discourse with historical reality, a tactic that al-Maʿarrī dismisses out of hand whenever readers take his dubious statements at face value, or, as seen previously in Risālat al-ghufrān, when readers buy into overly literal visions of the afterlife. However, he seems more sanguine to do it himself, at least when it affirms God’s justice for nonhuman beings.
These perplexing chinks in al-Maʿarrī’s armor could be a sign of anthropocentrism masquerading as animal ethics. Perhaps, as with texts like Kalīla wa-Dimnah or the letters of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ nonhuman creatures stand for human behavior whether good or ill. However, from another viewpoint, the fact of self-contradiction speaks not to insincerity but instead to an active mind working through ethical quandaries. This point recalls the words of James Montgomery on al-Jāḥiẓ, who, appearing at times to contradict himself, exhibits from another perspective a nimble intellect at work on the difficulties of large-scale thought: “As with other great systematizers such as Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine or Montaigne, the integrity of the system is at its most vibrant when evidence of its development is most conspicuous” (Montgomery 2006, p. 21). Seen in this way, irreconcilable points about al-Maʿarrī speak to his deeply held concern for animals, which no amount of literary equivocation or apparent anthropocentrism could keep hidden.


This research received no external funding.


Many thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder, Devin Stewart, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Nathaniel Miller, Theodore Beers, Bella Xu, and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and generous feedback. Any errors are mine alone. Most of all, I am grateful to Sarra Tlili for betting on a greenhorn scholar, for her careful work on animals in Islam, and for her discerning editor’s eye.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


  1. Aḥmad, Muḥammad Shākir, and ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn, eds. 1955. Al-Aṣmaʿiyyāt, 5th ed. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, Repr. in Beirut. 5th repr, n.d. [Google Scholar]
  2. Al-Ābī, Abū Saʿd Manṣūr ibn al-Ḥūsayn. 1980–1991. Nathr al-durr fī l-muḥāḍarāt. Edited by Muḥammad ʿAlī Qarnah and ʿAlī Muhammad al-Bijāwī. 7 vols. Cairo: Dār Al-Hayʾah al-Miṣriyyah Al-ʿĀmmah li-l-Kitāb. [Google Scholar]
  3. Al-Akhfash, al-Aṣghar. 1999. Kitāb al-Ikhtiyārayn, al-Mufaḍḍaliyyāt wa-l-Aṣmaʿiyyāt. Edited by Fakhr al-Dīn Qabāwah. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr. [Google Scholar]
  4. Al-Andalusī, Ibn Shuhayd. 1967. Risālat al-tawābiʿ wa-l-zawābiʿ. Edited by Buṭrus al-Bustānī. Beirut: Dār Ṣādir. [Google Scholar]
  5. Al-Baṭalyawsī, Ibn al-Sīd. 1991. Sharḥ al-Mukhtār min Luzūmiyyāt Abī l-ʿAlāʾ. Edited by Ḥāmid ʿAbd al-Majīd. 2 vols in 1. Cairo: Al-Hayʾah al-Miṣriyyah al-ʿĀmmah li-l-Kitāb. [Google Scholar]
  6. Al-Baṭalyawsī, Ibn al-Sīd. 2008. Sharḥ al-ashʿār al-Sittah al-Jāhiliyyah. Edited by Nāṣīf Sulaymān ʿAwwād. 2 vols. Beirut: Al-Maʿhad al-Almānī li-l-Abḥāth al-Sharqiyyah. [Google Scholar]
  7. Al-Bīrūnī, Abū Rayḥān. 2020. The Yogi Sutras of Patañjali. Edited by Mario Kozah. Translated by Mario Kozah. New York: Library of Arabic Literature; New York University Press. [Google Scholar]
  8. Al-Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl. 2002. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Beirut and Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr. [Google Scholar]
  9. Al-Ḍabbī, Al-Mufaḍḍal ibn Muḥammad. 1921. The Mufaḍḍalīyāt: An Anthology of Ancient Arabian Odes. Edited by Charles James Lyall. Translated by Charles James Lyall. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Google Scholar]
  10. Al-Dīnawarī, Abū Hanīfah. 1974. Kitāb al-nabāt. Edited by Bernhard Lewin. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH. [Google Scholar]
  11. Al-Ḥarīrī, Abū Muḥammad al-Qāsim. 2020. Impostures. Translated by Michael Cooperson. New York: Library of Arabic Literature; New York University Press. [Google Scholar]
  12. Al-Jāḥiẓ, Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī. 1938. Kitāb al-ḥayawān, 2nd ed. 1965–1969. Edited by ʿAbd al-Salām Muḥammad Hārūn. 8 vols. Cairo: Sharikat Maktabat wa-Maṭbaʿat Muṣṭafā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī wa-Awlādihi. [Google Scholar]
  13. Al-Jāḥiẓ, Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī. 1948. Kitāb al-bukhalāʾ. Edited by Tāhā al-Hajirī. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif. [Google Scholar]
  14. Al-Jāḥiẓ, Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī. 1997. The Book of Misers: A Translation of al-Bukhalāʾ. Translated by Robert Bertram Serjeant. Reading: Garnet. [Google Scholar]
  15. Al-Jundī, Muḥammad Salīm, ed. 1962–1964. Al-Jāmiʿ fī akhbār Abī l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī wa-āthārihi. 3 vols. Damascus and Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, Repr. 1992. [Google Scholar]
  16. Al-Kalāʿī, Abū l-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Ghafūr. 1985. Iḥkām ṣanʿat al-kalām, fī funūn al-nathr wa-madhāhibihi fī l-mashriq wa-l-Andalus, 2nd repr. Edited by Muḥammad Riḍwān al-Dāyah. Beirut: ʿĀlam al-Kutub. [Google Scholar]
  17. Al-Maʿarrī, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ. 1891–1895. Luzūm mā lā yalzam. Edited by ʿAzīz Zand. 2 vols. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Maḥrūsah. [Google Scholar]
  18. Al-Maʿarrī, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ. 1938. Al-Fuṣūl wa-l-Ghāyāt fī Tamjīd Allāh wa-l-Mawāʿiẓ. Edited by Mahmūd Hasan Zanātī. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Ḥijāzī. [Google Scholar]
  19. Al-Maʿarrī, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ. 1945. Shurūḥ Saqṭ al-zand, 3rd ed. Edited by Tāhā Husayn, Muṣṭāfā al-Saqā, ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn, ʿAbd al-Raḥīm Maḥmūd, Ibrāhīm al-Ibyārī and Ḥāmid ʿAbd al-Majīd. 5 vols. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah. 3rd repr. 1986, Repr. 1965. [Google Scholar]
  20. Al-Maʿarrī, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ. 1975. Risālat al-ṣāhil wa-l-shāḥij. Edited by ʿĀʾishah ʿAbd al-Rahmān Bint al-Shāṭiʾ. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, Repr. 1984. [Google Scholar]
  21. Al-Maʿarrī, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ. 1982. Rasāʾil Abī l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿārrī: al-juzʾ al-awwal. Edited by Ihsān ʿAbbās. Beirut: Dār al-Shurūq. [Google Scholar]
  22. Al-Maʿarrī, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ. 2013–2014. The Epistle of Forgiveness. Edited by Gregor Schoeler and Geert Jan van Gelder. Translated by Gregor Schoeler, and Geert Jan van Gelder. 2 vols. New York: Library of Arabic Literature; New York University Press. [Google Scholar]
  23. Al-Maydānī, Abū l-Fadl Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad. 1959. Majmaʿ al-amthāl. Edited by Muḥammad Muhyī l-Dīn ʿAbd al-Hamīd. 2 vols. Cairo: Al-Maktabah al-Tijāriyyah. [Google Scholar]
  24. Al-Nīsābūrī, Abū l-Hasan Muslim ibn al-Hajjāj. 1991. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim. Edited by Muḥammad Fuʾād ʿAbd al-Bāqī. 5 vols. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyyah. [Google Scholar]
  25. Al-Qifṭī, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū l-Hasan ibn Yūsuf. 1950. Inbāh al-ruwāt ʿalā anbāʾ al-nuḥāt. Edited by Muḥammad Abū l-Fadl Ibrāhīm. 4 vols. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah. [Google Scholar]
  26. Al-Shāfiʿī, Muḥammad ibn Idrīs. 2001. Kitāb al-umm. Edited by Rifʿat Fawzī ʿAbd al-Muttalib. 11 vols. Mansoura, Egypt: Dār al-Wafāʾ. [Google Scholar]
  27. Al-Shirbīnī, Yūsuf. 2016. Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded. Edited by Humphrey Davies. Translated by Humphrey Davies. New York: Library of Arabic Literature; New York University Press. [Google Scholar]
  28. Al-Sukkarī, Abū Saʿīd al-Hasan ibn al-Husayn. 1965. Sharḥ ashʿār al-Hudhaliyyīn. Edited by ʿAbd al-Sattār Aḥmad Farrāj and Mahmūd Muḥammad Shākir. 3 vols. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Madanī, Repr. 1995. [Google Scholar]
  29. Al-Sulamī, ʿIzz al-Dīn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn ʿAbd al-Salām. 1991. Qawāʿid al-aḥkām fī maṣāliḥ al-anām. Edited by Tāhā ʿAbd al-Raʾūf Saʿd. 2 vols. Cairo: Maktabat al-Kulliyyāt al-Azhariyyah. [Google Scholar]
  30. Al-Sulamī, ʿIzz al-Dīn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn ʿAbd al-Salām. 2010. Rules of the Derivation of Laws for Reforming the People (Qawaʿid al-Ahkam fi Islah al-Anam). English translation. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Banking and Finance Institute Malaysia (IBFIM). [Google Scholar]
  31. Al-Tawḥīdī, Abū Hayyān. 1988. Al-Baṣāʾir wa-l-dhakhāʾir. Edited by Wadād al-Qādī. 10 vols. in 6. Beirut: Dār Ṣādir. [Google Scholar]
  32. Amanat, Abbas. 1996. The Nuqṭawī Movement of Maḥmūd Pisīkhānī and his Persian Cycle of Mystical-Materialism. In Medieval Ismaʿili History and Thought. Edited by Farhad Daftary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 281–97. [Google Scholar]
  33. Antoon, Sinan. 2011. Abū ʾl-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī. In Essays in Arabic Literary Biography, Volume 2: 925–1350. Edited by Terri DeYoung and Mary St. Germain. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, pp. 228–34. [Google Scholar]
  34. Arthur John Arberry, trans. 1955, The Koran Interpreted, 3rd ed. 2 vols in 1. Toronto: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., Repr. 1969.
  35. ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn. 1905–1907. The Tadhkiratu’l-Awliyá (“Memoirs of the Saints”) of Muḥammad ibn Ibráhím Farídu’ddín ʿAṭṭár. Edited by Reynold A. Nicholson. 2 vols. London: Luzac & Co., Leiden: E.J. Brill. [Google Scholar]
  36. ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn. 1966. Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkiratal- Auliya’ (Memorial of the Saints). Translated by Arthur John Arberry. London and New York: Routledge, Online 2008. [Google Scholar]
  37. Augustine. 1957. City of God, Volume 1: Books 1–3. Translated by George E. McCracken. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
  38. Babayan, Kathryn. 2002. Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
  39. Barkoudah-Raoux, Joumana. 2009. Al-Ma’arri, ou l’Art D’écrire sous la Censure: l’exemple de Risalat al-sahil wa-l shahig, “L’Épître du Cheval et du mulet”. Ph.D. dissertation, Université Lumière Lyon, Lyon, France. [Google Scholar]
  40. Bauer, Thomas. 1992. Altarabische Dichtkunst: Eine Untersuchung ihrer Struktur und Entwicklung am Beispiel der Onagerepisode. 2 vols. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. [Google Scholar]
  41. Black, Deborah L. 1993. Estimation (Wahm) in Avicenna: The Logical and Psychological Dimensions. Dialogue XXXII: 219–58. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  42. Blankinship, Kevin. 2019a. Al-Maʿarrī’s Esteem in the Islamic West: A Preliminary Overview. Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 31: 253–71. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  43. Blankinship, Kevin. 2019b. Missionary and Heretic: Debating Veganism in the Medieval Islamic World. In Insatiable Appetite: Food as Cultural Signifier in the Middle East and Beyond. Edited by Kirill Dmitriev, Julia Hauser and Bilal Orfali. Leiden: Brill, pp. 260–91. [Google Scholar]
  44. Burge, Stephen Russell. 2009. Angels in Islam: A Commentary with Selected Translations of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī’s Al-Ḥabāʾik fī akhbār al-malāʾik (The Arrangement of the Traditions about Angels). Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK. [Google Scholar]
  45. Chittick, William. 2020. Spring 2020 online edition. Ibn ‘Arabî. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: Stanford University Press, Available online: (accessed on 5 May 2020).
  46. Crone, Patricia. 2012a. Al-Jāḥiẓ on Aṣḥāb al-Jahālāt and the Jahmiyya. In Medieval Arabic Thought: Essays in Honour of Fritz Zimmermann. Edited by Rotraud Hansberger, Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti and Charles Burnett. London and Turin: The Warburg Institute and Nino Aragno Editore, pp. 27–39. [Google Scholar]
  47. Crone, Patricia. 2012b. The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
  48. Dozy, Reinhart. 1877–1881. Supplément aux Dictionnaires Arabes. 2 vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, EI2 = Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition. 1960 (vol. 1)–2009 (index vol.); 2012 online. Leiden: Brill Online. [Google Scholar]
  49. Fahd, Toufic. 1996. Botany and Agriculture. In Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science. Edited by Rashed Roshdi and Régis Morelon. London: Routledge, pp. 813–52. [Google Scholar]
  50. Furber, Musa. 2015. Rights and Duties Pertaining to Kept Animals: A Case Study in Islamic Law and Ethics. Abu Dhabi: Tabah Foundation. [Google Scholar]
  51. Glick, Thomas F. 1979. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [Google Scholar]
  52. Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. [Google Scholar]
  53. Lenn E. Goodman, and Richard McGregor, transs. 2009, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn: A Translation from the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies.
  54. Gruber, Christiane. 2018. The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [Google Scholar]
  55. Heller-Roazen, Daniel, ed. 2010. The Arabian Nights. Based on the Edition of Muhsin Mahdi and Translation of Husain Haddawy. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company. [Google Scholar]
  56. Ḥusayn, Tāhā, Muṣṭāfā al-Saqā, ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn, ʿAbd al-Raḥīm Mahmūd, Ibrāhīm al-Ibyārī, and Hāmid ʿAbd al-Majīd, eds. 1944. Taʿrīf al-qudamāʾ bi-Abī l-ʿAlā. Cairo: Wizārat al-Maʿārif al-ʿUmūmiyyah. [Google Scholar]
  57. Ibn al-Kalbī, Abū l-Mundhir Hishām. 1995. Kitāb al-aṣnām, 3rd repr. Edited by Aḥmad Zakī Bāshā. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah. [Google Scholar]
  58. Ibn Durayd, al-Azdī. 1987–1988. Jamharat al-lughah. Edited by Ramzī Baʿlabakkī. 3 vols. Beirut: Dār al-ʿIlm li-l-Malāyīn. [Google Scholar]
  59. Ibn Manẓūr. 1999. Lisān al-ʿarab, 3rd repr. Edited by Amīn Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and Muḥammad Ṣādiq al-ʿUbaydī. 17 vols. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī. [Google Scholar]
  60. Ibn Qutaybah, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh. 1953. Kitāb al-maʿānī al-kabīr. Edited by Fritz Krenkow. 7 vols. Beirut: Dār al-Nahḍah al-Ḥadīthah. [Google Scholar]
  61. Ibn Qutaybah, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh. 1996. ʿUyūn al-akhbār. 2nd repr. 4 vols. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah. [Google Scholar]
  62. Ibn Ṭufayl. 2008. Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān l-Ibn Sīnā wa-Ibn Ṭufayl wa-l-Suhrawardī, 4th repr. Edited by Aḥmad Amīn. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif. [Google Scholar]
  63. Ṭufayl, Ibn. 2009. Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale, 6th ed. Translated by Lenn Evan Goodman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Google Scholar]
  64. Ikhwān, al-Ṣafāʾ. 1957. Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa-khullān al-wafāʾ. Foreword by Buṭrus al-Bustānī. 4 vols. Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, Qom: Maktab al-Iʿlām al-Islāmī, Repr. 1985. [Google Scholar]
  65. Alan Jones, trans. 2011, Early Arabic Poetry: Select Poems, 2nd ed. Reading: Ithaca Press.
  66. Komnene, Anna. 1969. The Alexiad. Translated by Robert Sewter. London: Penguin Books, Repr. 2003; rev. ed. 2009. [Google Scholar]
  67. Kurd ʿAlī, Muhammad, ed. 1913. Rasāʾil al-bulaghāʾ. 2 parts in 1. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyyah al-Kubrā. [Google Scholar]
  68. Lagerlund, Henrik. 2018. Food Ethics in the Middle Ages. In The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics. Edited by Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson and Tyler Doggett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 759–72. [Google Scholar]
  69. Lane, Edward William. 1984. Arabic-English Lexicon. 8 vols. in 2. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society. [Google Scholar]
  70. Mahdi, Muḥsin. 1984–1994. The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla): From the Earliest Known Sources. 3 vols. Leiden: Brill. [Google Scholar]
  71. Margoliouth, David S. 1902. Abu’l-ʿAlā al-Maʿarrī’s Correspondence on Vegetarianism. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland April: 289–332. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  72. Melvin-Koushki, Matthew. Forthcoming. The New Brethren of Purity: Ibn Turka and the Renaissance of Neopythagoreanism in the Early Modern Persian Cosmopolis. In Companion to the Reception of Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism. Edited by Robert Aurélien, Irene Caiazzo and Constantin Macris. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill.
  73. Miller, Nathaniel. 2016. Tribal Poetics in Early Arabic Culture: The Case of Ashʿār al-Hudhaliyyīn. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA. [Google Scholar]
  74. Miller, Jeannie. 2017. Man is Not the Only Speaking Animal: Thresholds and Idiom in al-Jāḥiẓ. In Arabic Humanities, Islamic Thought: Essays in Honor of Everett K. Rowson. Edited by Joseph E. Lowry and Shawkat M. Toorawa. Leiden and Boston: Brill, pp. 94–121. [Google Scholar]
  75. Moin, A. Azfar. 2012. The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kinship & Sainthood in Islam. South Asia Across the Disciplines. New York: Columbia University Press. [Google Scholar]
  76. Montgomery, James. 2006. Beeston and the Singing-Girls. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 36: 17–24. [Google Scholar]
  77. Nasrallah, Nawal, ed. 2017. Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill. [Google Scholar]
  78. Nutton, Vivian. 1984. From Galen to Alexander: Aspects of Medicine and Medical Practice in Late Antiquity. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 38: 1–14. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  79. Obolensky, Daniel. 1948. The Bogomils: A Study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Twickenham: Anthony C. Hall, Repr. 1972. [Google Scholar]
  80. Plutarch. 1927–2004. Moralia. Translated by Harold Cherniss, William Clark Hembold, Paul Augustus Clement, Herbert Benno Hoffleit, Frank Cole Babbitt, Philip Howard de Lacy, Benedict Einarson, Lionel Pearson, Francis Henry Sandbach, Harold North Fowler, and et al.. 16 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
  81. Sahl, ibn Hārūn. 1973. Kitāb al-namir wa-l-thaʿlab. Edited by ʿAbd al-Qādir Mahīrī. Tunis: Al-Jāmʿiyah al-Tunisiyyah, Kulliyyat al-Ādāb wa-l-ʿUlūm al-Insāniyyah. [Google Scholar]
  82. Sezgin, Fuat. 1974–1995. Geschichte des arabischen Schriftums. vols. 1–9, plus index vol.; 2000–2005, vols. 10–12. Leiden: Brill, (vols. 1–9). Frankfurt am Main: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, (vols. 10–12). [Google Scholar]
  83. Sheibani, Mariam. 2020. Innovation, Influence, and Borrowing in Mamluk-Era Legal Maxim Collections: The Case of Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām and al-Qarāfī. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Forthcoming. [Google Scholar]
  84. Smoor, Pieter. 1981. Enigmatic Allusion and Double Meaning in Maʿarrī’s Newly-Discovered ‘Letter of a Horse and a Mule’. Part 1. Journal of Arabic Literature 12: 49–73. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  85. Smoor, Pieter. 1982. Enigmatic Allusion and Double Meaning in Maʿarrī’s Newly-Discovered ‘Letter of a Horse and a Mule’. Part 2. Journal of Arabic Literature 13: 23–52. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  86. Stetkevych, Jaroslav. 2002. In Search of the Unicorn: The Onager and the Oryx in the Arabic Ode. Journal of Arabic Literature 33: 79–130. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  87. Stoneman, Richard. 2020. The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [Google Scholar]
  88. Strauss, Leo. 1941. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Social Research 8: 488–504. [Google Scholar]
  89. Thaʿlab, Abū l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Yahyā. 1960. Majālis Thaʿlab. Edited by ʿAbd al-Salām Muḥammad Hārūn. 2 vols. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1st repr. [Google Scholar]
  90. Tlili, Sarra. 2010. The Meaning of the Qurʾanic Word ‘dābba’: ‘Animals’ or ‘Nonhuman Animals’? Journal of Qurʾanic Studies 12: 167–87. [Google Scholar]
  91. Tlili, Sarra. 2012. Animals in the Qur’an. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
  92. Tlili, Sarra. 2014. All Animals are Equal, or Are They? The Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’s Animal Epistle and its Unhappy End. Journal of Qur’anic Studies 16: 42–88. [Google Scholar]
  93. Tlili, Sarra. 2015. Animals Would Follow Shāfiʿism: Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence to Animals in Medieval Islamic Thought. In Violence in Islamic Thought from the Qurʾān to the Mongols. Edited by Robert Gleave and István T. Kristó-Nagy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 225–44. [Google Scholar]
  94. Tlili, Sarra. 2017. From Breath to Soul: The Quranic Word Rūḥ and Its (Mis)Interpretations. In Arabic Humanities, Islamic Thought: Essays in Honor of Everett K. Rowson. Edited by Joseph E. Lowry and Shawkat M. Toorawa. Leiden and Boston: Brill, pp. 1–21. [Google Scholar]
  95. Ullmann, Manfr. 1981. Das Gespräch Mit Dem Wolf: Beiträge zur Lexikographie des Klassischen Arabisch. Munich: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, in Kommission bei C.H. Beck. [Google Scholar]
  96. Walker, Paul. 1991. The Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Islam. In Islamic Studies Presented to Charles J. Adams. Edited by Wael B. Hallaq and Donald P. Little. Leiden, New York, Copenhagen and Cologne: E.J. Brill, pp. 219–38. [Google Scholar]
  97. Weiss, Bernard G. 1998. The Spirit of Islamic Law. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press. [Google Scholar]
  98. Timothy John Winter, trans. 1995, Al-Ghazālī: On Disciplining the Soul (Kitāb riyāḍat al-nafs) & On Breaking the Two Desires (Kitāb kasr al-shahwatayn), Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn). Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society.
(Al-Maʿarrī 1975). For more on al-Maʿarrī’s life and works, see Pieter Smoor, “Al-Maʿarrī,” EI2; (Antoon 2011).
Given this governor’s death date, Pieter Smoor estimates that the Ṣāhil was completed no later than 1020 CE (“Al-Maʿarrī,” EI2).
An admittedly anachronistic term, “vegan” comes closest to describing al-Maʿarrī’s avoidance of all animal products, including fish, milk, eggs, and honey, plus his exhortation that everyone else should avoid them, too. For further discussion, see (Blankinship 2019b, p. 261), footnote 1.
Thanks to one of the anonymous reviewers for suggesting further discussion of this point.
(Arberry 1955), vol. 2, pp. 293–94.
For an overview of ḥadīth that spell out these guidelines, see (Furber 2015, pp. 7–17). One sees an overall concern for animal welfare in ḥadīths that tell of the Prophet praising a man for giving water to a thirsty dog (the matn states, “There is a reward for every moistened liver” [fī kulli kabidin raṭbatin ajrun], meaning that every good deed, such as wetting the liver of thirsty animals—giving them water to drink—will be rewarded) (Al-Nīsābūrī 1991, vol. 4, p. 1761, #2244; Al-Bukhārī 2002, p. 569, #2363); or of a woman damned to hellfire for starving a cat to death (ḥattā māta jūʿan) (Al-Nīsābūrī 1991, vol. 4, p. 1760, #2242-2243; Al-Bukhārī 2002, p. 569, #2364-2365; p. 862 #3482).
In the immediate Arab cultural milieu, some also saw kindness to animals as part of “manly virtue,” murūʾah. For instance, the early writer Ṣāliḥ ibn Janāḥ (d. ca. 767 CE) says in his Risālah fī l-adab wa-l-murūʾah: “A man’s kindness to his riding animals, his taking good care of them, and his support for them, is indeed a righteous act, a way toward prosperity, and one of the many aspects of manly virtue” (Inna rifq al-rajul bi-dawābbihī wa-ḥusn taʿāhudihī lahā wa-qiyāmihī ʿalayhā ʿamal min aʿmāl al-birr wa-sabab min asbāb al-ghinā wa-wajh min wujūh al-murūʾah) (Kurd ʿAlī 1913, part 2, p. 305). Thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder for this reference.
According to Tlili, “the two [Sunnī] schools that are more text-oriented, the Shāfiʿī and the Ḥanbalī, are more attentive to nonhuman animals’ well-being. Shāfiʿīs and Ḥanbalīs, therefore, can more accurately be described as Ḥadīth champions than as animal champions. The two descriptions, however, are not mutually exclusive” (Tlili 2015, p. 244).
Since the term anām refers, especially in post-Qurʾānic usage, to creatures seen as “rational” (ʿāqil)—namely humans, angels, and jinn (Tlili 2012, p. 139)—It makes sense that the Qawāʿid should focus on human rather than animal welfare. That said, Qurʾānic usage is often more capacious, e.g., the word dābbah, which in later texts means “nonhuman animal” but which, according to Qurʾān commentators, includes humans too (Tlili 2010).
For more on this jurist, see (Sheibani 2020).
The passage on animals comes near the end of this section and the beginning of the next “On Classification of Rights into Unequal, Equal, and Disputed” (Faṣl fī inqisām al-ḥuqūq ilā al-mutafāwit wa-l-mutasāwī wa-l-mukhtalaf fīhi) (Al-Sulamī 1991, vol. 1, p. 168; Al-Sulamī 2010, part 1, p. 225).
Al-Jāḥiẓ ascribes a number of unorthodox opinions to these aṣḥāb al-jahālāt, by whom he also meant the Jahmiyyah, that is, followers of slain theologian Jahm ibn Ṣafwān (d. 745 CE). He shows them, for instance, promoting extreme voluntarism, namely a denial of inherent differences between physical objects, since the only real difference lies in God’s will. Supposedly the aṣḥāb al-jahālāt held to his view against al-Naẓẓām’s doctrine of “latency,” al-kumūn, which says that traits like wetness, dryness, heat, and saltiness inhere in the objects themselves. The logical conclusion of the Jahmiyyah viewpoint, at least as recounted by al-Jāḥiẓ, is that, “apart from God, nothing really exists” (Crone 2012a, p. 29).
Thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder for this reference.
Written texts as well as visual artworks also show angels in animal form—lions, bulls, roosters, peacocks, and so on (Burge 2009, pp. 102–4; Gruber 2018, pp. 23, 128–30).
(Sahl 1973). For more on his life and times, see Mohsen Zakeri, “Sahl ibn Hārūn,” EI2.
Lane quotes a saying of the Prophet, jurḥ al-ʿajmāʾ jubārun, “The wound of the speechless beast is a thing for which no retaliation, nor expiatory mulct is extracted” (ibid.; Al-Bukhārī 2002, “Kitāb al-diyāt,” p. 1709, #6913; Al-Nīsābūrī 1991, vol. 3, “Kitāb al-ḥudūd,” pp. 1334–35, #1710; Al-Shāfiʿī 2001, vol. 10, “Bāb jurḥ al-ʿajmāʾ jubārun,” pp. 315–17) (thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder for the ḥadīth and al-Shāfiʿī references). This is almost certainly an unstated allusion of al-Maʿarrī’s line.
Found in the grasslands and deserts of Central and Southwestern Asia, bagworms are known proverbially in Arabic for industriousness due to their oddly distinctive log cabin cocoon: aṣnaʿ min al-surfah (craftier than a bagworm). The cocoon is often made with twigs from the saxaul tree (al-rimth) and is known colloquially as mukḥulat al-dhīb, “the wolf’s antimony jar,” since it appears in the branches of far-off trees, familiar only to wolves (Ibn Manẓūr 1999, vol. 6, pp. 244–45).
For a fuller study of these letters with respect to veganism, see (Blankinship 2019b).
The complete poem can be found in Arabic at (Al-Maʿarrī 1891–1895, vol. 1, pp. 232–34); and in English at (Blankinship 2019b, pp. 284–87).
The Qurʾān endorses humankind’s profiting from animals as a natural resource, whether of flesh and milk (e.g., 23/al-Muʾminūn: 21–2), wool, fur, and skin (e.g., 16/al-Naḥl: 80), or prowess in hunting (e.g. 5/al-Māʾidah: 4).
This verbiage comes directly from the Qurʾān, e.g., Q 2/Al-Baqarah 143, inna llāha bi-l-nāsi la-raʾūfun raḥīmun (“Truly God is All-gentle with the people, All-compassionate,” Arberry 1955, vol. 1, p. 46); Q 9/Al-Tawbah 128, bi-l-muʾminīna raʾūfun raḥīmun (“gentle to the unbelievers, compassionate,” ibid., p. 223).
“Those who have witnessed Indians practice self-immolation (man shahida īḥrāqahum nufūsahum) tell that when they feel the fire burning they want to get out, but those present push them back with sticks and sharpened swords. There is no god but God; << You have done a monstrous thing!>> [quoting Q 19/Maryam, v. 89]” (Al-Maʿarrī 2013–2014, vol. 2, pp. 80–83).
Ibn al-ʿAdīm writes that al-Maʿarrī went to Antioch (Ḥusayn et al. 1944, pp. 555–56), while Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qifṭī says he visited Latakia (Al-Qifṭī 1950, vol. 1, p. 49). Even though such details differ, the biographers who mention this episode all agree that al-Maʿarrī traveled beyond Greater Syria in his youth, and that the trip affected his worldview.
In the twelfth-century Byzantine historical epic The Alexiad, at the back half of Book 14 and the middle of Book 15, Princess Anna Komnene (d. 1153 CE) exposes various dualist offshoots for the perceived threat they posed. She calls the Bogomils “a serpent lurking in its hole” and describes how, like a viper, their ideas had slithered into small towns and villages, taking hold especially among the peasants (Komnene 1969, pp. 455–63).
For more on Galen as a canonical source of Byzantine medicine, see (Nutton 1984).
Muḥammad Salīm al -Jundī rolls out statements by al-Maʿarrī on a number of theological positions, especially those for which he was charged with unorthodox views. (Al-Jundī 1962–1964, vol. 3, pp. 1398–487). Even though al-Jundī seems eager to defend al-Maʿarrī, he adds up enough evidence to show that al-Maʿarrī was not a convinced reincarnationist.
As Kathryn Babayan points out, the Sufi belief in waḥdat al-wujūd—which here al-Maʿarrī conflates with metempsychosis—was, at least in the mind of heresiographers, shared by Iranian neo-Pythagorian movements like the Nuqṭavīs.
Nor is this for al-Bīrūnī’s lack of knowledge about the Indic tradition, reckoning by his commentary on yoga philosophical texts (Al-Bīrūnī 2020).
For examples of such accusations, see (Al-Jundī 1962–1964, vol. 1, pp. 406–9).
Recent research casts doubt on some of the stark lines that have been by scholars between Hellenic and Indian thought, judging from centuries of direct contact between the two (Stoneman 2020).
Many thanks to one of the anonymous reviewers for suggesting further discussion on this point.
The word for fat, nayy, “raw” or “untouched by fire,” is originally written nayʾ. Traditionally, desert Arabs distinguished fat as an uncooked substance from flesh, sometimes called naḍīj, “cooked” (Lane 1984, vol. 2, supplement, p. 2930). Abū l-Muzāḥim, or sometimes Ibn al-Muzāḥim or simply muzāḥim, “fighter,” can by association mean a raging elephant or, in this context, a bull with broken horns (munkasir al-qarnayn, reading munkasir for munkar in the text) (Ibn Manẓūr 1999, vol. 6, p. 29).
In literature, disemboweling and the like seems emblematic of a particularly gruesome death. In his Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded (Hazz al-quḥūf bi-sharḥ qaṣīd Abī Shādūf), seventeenth-century Egyptian author Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī (d. ca. 1700 CE) includes an anecdote about a wolf cub raised on the milk of a ewe, which it then eviscerates (Al-Shirbīnī 2016, vol. 1, pp. 40–41); and about a hyena raised by a Bedouin man, whose stomach the hyena later rips open (ibid.). Apart from highlighting the starkness of the violence, these stories are meant as evidence that humans, like animals, “will not escape their inborn nature” (lā yakhruju al-insān min ṭabʿihi, ibid., pp. 38–39).
There is a variant reading of the first hemistich: Wa-qad uṣāḥibu fityānan ṭaʿāmuhumu, “and time was that I went with young warriors [geared for raiding] whose food was” etc.
Many thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder for checking my understanding of this line, and for suggesting the various references that appear in this paragraph.
Khuḍr can mean green, but also brown or black in classical Arabic—presumably this refers to how the water was colored by the dark contents of their stomachs, but possibly also bile (this seems less likely).
“Whenever the desert Arabs rode through a barren wasteland, i.e. one without moisture, they would give water to a sturdy camel, then pierce its snout [to bind it] so that it could not chew its cud. Then, when thirst overtook them, they would puncture the camel’s upper chest and drink whatever water was in its stomach. The name of that water is faẓẓ, ‘pressed-out’” (kānū idhā rakibū mafāzatan jardāʾ, ay lā māʾ fīhā, arwaw baʿīran thumma jadhdhū mashāfirahu li-allā yajtarr, fa-in ajhadahum al-ʿaṭash naḥarūhu wa-sharibū mā fī jawfihī min al-māʾ, wa-ism dhālika l-māʾ al-faẓẓ).
In his edition of Ibn al-Kalbī’s Kitāb al-aṣnām (Book of Idols), Aḥmad Zakī Bāshā reproduces a marginal note from the unique Egyptian National Archives manuscript (Ibn al-Kalbī 1995, p. 3) explaining the phrase inna llāha arāḥakum min al-sajjah wa-l-bajjah, “God has given you respite [i.e. freed you] from the pagan god Sajjah and the practice of blooddrinking.” The note glosses al-sajjah as “an idol once worshipped alongside Allāh” (ṣanam kān yuʿbad min dūn Allāh), and al-bajjah as “phlebotomized blood which the desert Arabs would consume in times of crisis” (al-faṣīd alladhī kānat al-ʿarab taʾkulu fī l-azmah). In his Kitāb al-bukhalāʾ (Book of Misers), al-Jāḥiẓ mentions majdūḥ, a Bedouin “emergency dish” made of blood mixed with other things (Al-Jāḥiẓ 1948, pp. 216, 218; Al-Jāḥiẓ 1997, trans. Serjeant, pp. 195, 197; cf. Ibn Durayd 1987–1988, vol. 1, p. 435). Thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder for the references in al-Jāḥiẓ and Ibn Durayd. Setting aside the question of historicity, such references show that, in the Arab popular imagination, opening the veins of mounts and pack animals was considered a standard tactic of Bedouin desert survival.
Also appearing in the “Kitāb al-ṭaʿām” (Book of eats) of Ibn Qutaybah’s ʿUyūn al-akhbār (Book of Choice Accounts) (Ibn Qutaybah 1996, vol. 3, p. 213).
There is a confusion, as noted in (Ullmann 1981, p. 88, note 84), with the well-known poet Asmāʾ ibn Khārijah al-Fazārī (on whom see e.g., Sezgin 1974–1995, vol. 2, p. 329); Bint al-Shāṭiʾ, editor of the Ṣāhil, did not notice this. Perhaps al-Maʿarrī misremembered; Ullmann thinks it is due to copyists. Ullmann gives all eighteen lines in transliteration, translation, and with extensive commentary (Ullmann 1981, pp. 87–96). The lines are from a poem by Asmāʾ ibn Khārijah (Aḥmad and Hārūn 1955, pp. 48–52). Many thanks to Geert Jan van Gelder for pointing out the misattribution and recommending these sources.
Other talking mules in Arabic literature include the donkey-shaped jinn that appear in the fourth and final section of Ibn Shuhayd al-Andalusī’s Risālat al-Tawābiʿ wa-l-zawābiʿ (The Treatise of following spirits and whirling demons) (Al-Andalusī 1967, “Ḥayawān al-jinn,” pp. 147–52), and in the Thousand and One Nights (Mahdi 1984–1994), the deceitful donkey of “Ḥikāyat al-ḥimār wa-l-thawr” (The Tale of the donkey and the ox) (Thousand and One Nights, Mahdi 1984–1994, vol. 1, pp. 66–69; Heller-Roazen 2010, pp. 13–15).
Thanks to one of the anonymous reviewers for pointing this out.
Al-muḥaddith normally carries the technical meaning of a ḥadīth transmitter. So it may here too, although the full Arabic statement is general enough not to mark it either way. Umm Shamlah is a nickname for the sun; it can also mean wine or, more generally, the world and its fleeting joys, “so called because compassing [shamlah] the intellect of a man and concealing it” (Lane 1984, vol. 1, p. 1610).
In discourse analysis, sociologist Erving Goffman is credited with the distinction between “overhearers,” i.e. those who are privy—or potentially privy—to a conversation not directly “intended” for them, and “ratified participants,” namely those for whom a conversation is intended, whether or not they happen to be listening (Goffman 1981, pp. 124–59). Whatever one thinks about an author’s ability to imagine future readers, if one assumes that there are readers whom the author has not thought of, but who may in fact one day read his works, then they could be described as overhearers.
For more on this poet, see (Al-Sukkarī 1965, vol. 3, pp. 1095–185).
Lines 8, 15, and 16 occupy the same order in both the Ṣāhil and al-Sukkarī. Lines 9, 10, 12, and 13 in the Ṣāhil are, respectively, lines 10, 9, 14, and 12 in al-Sukkarī. Most of the variant recensions change by just a single word, e.g. al-Sukkārī’s yanẓuruhā versus al-Maʿarrī’s yarqubuhā in line 11. The only major change appears in the first hemistich of al-Maʿarrī’s line 10, yarūdu fīhā nahāran thumma mawriduhū / ṭāmin ʿalayhi furūʿu l-qāni wa-l-nashamī (“Here it wanders during the day, followed by its drinking/where branches of grewia and old man’s beard [Clematis vitalba] drape overhead”), versus al-Sukkarī’s line 9, yaʾwī ilā mushmakhirrātin muṣaʿʿidatin/shummin bi-hinna furūʿu l-qāni wa-l-nashamī (“It takes shelter in points up high/where branches of grewia and old man’s beard spread out overhead”).
Al-Sukkarī has sayran, “flying” (lit. “moving,” “going”) (Al-Sukkarī 1965, p. 134).
Al-Sukkarī has ghayra inbāʾin, “without warning” (Al-Sukkarī 1965, p. 134).
Al-Sukkarī has khilāla l-ṣadri, “through the chest” (Al-Sukkarī 1965, p. 134).
Lane translates al-saḥam as “a kind of tree,” but says of al-sajam that it refers to the leaves of a tree called khilāf and which—most relevant here—are often compared to arrowheads (Lane 1984, vol. 1, p. 1322). Most scholars translate khilāf as “Egyptian willow,” Salix aegyptiaca, in Arabic ṣafṣāf miṣrī (e.g., Stetkevych 2002, p. 112; Nasrallah 2017, p. 296; Dozy 1877–1881, vol. 1, p. 397), or simply “willow” (Al-Ḥarīrī 2020, p. 285); while a minority give “oleaster,” Elaeagnus angustifolia, known as Persian olive, or in French, chalef and eleagne (e.g., Fahd 1996, p. 826). Although the term khilāf might refer to both trees, this seems unlikely, since willows and oleasters belong not just to different biological genera, but in fact to different families, Salicaceae (the willow family) and Elaeagnaceae (the oleaster family) (ambiguity in Arabic animal terms tends to stay at the genus level, e.g. namir, which denotes the genus Panthera, hence why it is used interchangeably to mean “tiger,” “leopard,” or “panther,” or ghurāb for the genus Corvus and which is used to mean “crow” or “raven”).
Also found in (Thaʿlab 1960, vol. 2, p. 506; Al-Ābī 1980–1991, vol. 6, p. 201; Al-Tawḥīdī 1988, vol. 6, p. 162, quoting Ibn al-ʿAmīd; Al-Maydānī 1959, vol. 1, p. 431, no. 2271). Ironically, the uromastyx lizard appears again in the Ṣāhil—though only in passing—as “judge of all the animals” (qāḍī al-bahāʾim) (Al-Maʿarrī 1975, p. 214).
Back to TopTop