Mount of Knowledge, Sword of Eloquence: Book Review

Mount of KnowledgeMount of Knowledge, Sword of Eloquence: Collected Poems of an Ismaili Muslim Scholar in Fatimid Egypt: A Translation from the Original Arabic of al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī’s Dīwān. Translated by Mohamad Adra. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011. Pp. xiv, 240. ISBN: 9781848859135.

Mount of Knowledge, Sword of Eloquence: Collected Poems of an Ismaili Muslim Scholar in Fatimid Egypt is a translation of al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī’s Dīwān into English. The original Arabic text of the work was first edited in 1949 by Muḥammad Kāmil Ḥusayn (published by Dār al-Kātib al-Miṣrī in Cairo). Over 60 years later an English version of the work has finally been published by I. B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. The work has been translated by Mohamad Adra with an introduction by Kutub Kassam. Mr. Adra is an independent scholar of Ismaili literature based in Salamiyya, Syria.

Al-Muʾayyad fī al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (ca .997–1078 CE) was one of the most accomplished dāʿīs (preachers), scholars, authors, statesmen, and poets of Fatimid times. His life can be divided into three phases: Persian, Egyptian, and Syrian. During the first phase he became prominent in the service of Abū Kālijār, a Buyid ruler of the Fars region. Due to his missionary activities local leadership grew hostile towards him and he had to flee for Fatimid Egypt. In the second phase, after reaching Cairo, he offered his services to the Fatimid imam-caliph al-Mustanṣir billāh. He was acknowledged and recognized by the imam and was appointed to important positions in the administration. The third and final phase was his Syrian phase, which saw him visit the region repeatedly. He was sent by the wazīr al-Yāzūrī as head of a diplomatic mission to local tribal chiefs and he was successful in his task, given that al-Basāsīrī was finally able to take Baghdad and have the name of al-Mustanṣir pronounced in the khuṭbah (Friday sermon). Despite this, the victory was short lived and the Seljuqs took Baghdad back from the Fatimids and reclaimed the Abbasid caliphate.

Later, al-Muʾayyad returned to Cairo, where he wrote a qaṣīdah for the caliph-imam al-Mustanṣir and had a historic meeting with him in which the latter accorded him a warm welcome by reciting his own poetry in honor of al-Muʾayyad, and then conferred on him the title of “mount of knowledge which none can ascend” (hence the title of the work under review). He attained eventually the highest post in the religious hierarchy by becoming bāb al-abwāb, chief dāʿī, and head of daʿwah at Cairo. The poetry which he composed during all of the above phases reflects his pride in success and his humility in failure; however, the overarching theme throughout the Dīwān remained his love for the imam.

The translation, if compared with the original Arabic version, accounts for almost all the poems of the Dīwān appearing in the Cairo edition with the exception of the 63rd, which the translator rightly points out is by another author. The 62 qaṣīdahs given here reflect the author’s constant movements, with 17 appearing to have been composed in Persia, 12 while he made his way to Egypt, 20 while residing in Egypt, and the remainder written in Syria, Jerusalem, Mecca, and elsewhere. Though readers are informed that the “translation follows the order and the sequence of the qasidas found in most manuscripts of the Dīwān and also retained in Husayn’s edition,” it would have been helpful had the texts of the poems been provided along with the translation.[1]

The translator can be said to have succeeded not only in conveying the literal sense of the poetry but in doing so in simple and lucid language. Mr. Adra’s verse translation is impressive in that, while close to the Arabic text, it remains graceful and expressive throughout. His notes provide useful context, explanation, and references to the events, names, and places mentioned in the poems. Moreover, a majority of the poems are given an approximate date and place of composition, thus providing a geographical and historical background to al-Muʾayyad’s life.

A closer examination of his Dīwān reveals many themes, such as philosophical meditation, religious disputation, praise of the Prophet Muḥammad and his progeny, and complaints about his misfortunes, such as forced migration, persecution, and exile from his own homeland. His Dīwān has been described as “a pioneering work of Fatimid daʿwa poetry” and one of the “masterpieces of Arabic Literature.” On the one hand it shows the relationship of a follower with his guide, while on the other it showcases the times and circumstances of the Fatimid court at its height.

In short, this is a significant work and useful not only to specialists but also to students entering the field. It might even be of use in courses examining the history and civilization of this region during the 10th/11th century, illustrating the literary and intellectual activity of the age.


[1] In comparing Ḥusayn’s text with this translation, it appears that in Adra’s Mount an additional verse (verse 29) has been added to the first poem in the cycle. It is possible that the translator found the text of this verse in a manuscript text of poem 1 or in a different source, but it is hard to account for it since no explanation is offered for this discrepancy (see Mount of Knowledge, 37). As a result, the total number of the verses in the translation of poem no. 1 is 153, in contrast with the 152 verses that make up the first poem in Ḥusayn’s text . See al-Muʾayyad fī al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Dīwān al-Muʾayyad fī al-Dīn dāʿī al-duʿāh, ed. M. Kāmil Ḥusayn (Cairo, 1949), 149.