Listen to Ibn Hazm

“If you wish to live happy, never be in a condition that would not allow you to be satisfied with another.”

The book, Hispano-Arabic Poetry (Baltimore, 1946) fell into my hands years ago, and I have since failed to part with it. It is by Alois Richard Nykl — dead these last sixty years or so, but prior to that a remarkably learned man. The point of his book was to show the relation between Muslim Spanish poets and the Troubadours of Aquitaine; that in many ways, the former precursed the latter. He was an assiduous translator, and in the course of his survey we take glimpses of the last moments of Granada, and the periods that passed before: the Almohad, the Almoravid, the Muluk At-Tawaif,┬áthe Emirate, and Khalifate, looking backwards. For the generous Christian reader, there are moments of nobility to be treasured in their own right, throughout; too, of wine and song.

Some know of the previous Visigothic (and Christian) polity that was conquered by the Arabs, and therefore understand that polities come and go; or they might know of the cultured pagan Roman Hispania which preceded that, with its own famed dramatists and poets; or of the fascinating Iberian caves and prehistory. History flows, we might say, always downhill, but along many paths.

We are often told, by scolds, to appreciate the Andalusian glory, and to remember when an inferior Europe drew inspiration from it. In our attitudes, curiously Islamic ourselves, we celebrate their philosophers principally, both Muslim and Jewish, yet ignore a fine lyrical inheritance. (The Arabs did the same thing with the ancient Greeks. They were mesmerized by Plato and Aristotle, yet from Homer forward the Greek poets were ignored.) We attribute to them a wise tolerance, which they would never have attributed to themselves; for everyone tolerates what he has learned to love.

Iberia is a place, with ghosts as well as people; she leaves her mark on all who pass through. Someone should eventually write on the influence of ancient pagan and Christian Spain upon the later Muslim occupiers: how it made their civilization different from the classical Arabic; how it brought the best (and sometimes the worst) out of them; how it put them in a new encounter with Europe, which persisted for centuries, and persists still, even within the phantasies of Al Qaeda terrorists.

The verse maxim I have cited is both lyrical and philosophical. It falls out of a body of work to rival the great Persian Islamic tradition in literature, music (nota bene), architecture, painting. The thundering truth embodied in that line is intensely Islamic, and could have been Persian, or have come from anywhere in that realm. It also happens to be intensely Christian, and could have come from anywhere in ours. By stealing it, however, I risk the wrath of another mediaeval Muslim Hispanic poet, who would suggest that my tongue be cut out, as it is “the right hand of the verse thief.” (The Islamic propensity to chop right hands off thieves is well attested over space and time.)

All I wished was to hold it up, and consider it for itself. It is a good question for worldlings of all faiths and denominations. Happy, perhaps, for the moment, could we be happy in another, when everything in our surroundings has changed? Or are we just like frogs, instead, blissful only in one corner of a pond, and apt anyway to be eaten if we move?

“For the days of man’s life consist of brief moments, / They pass as quickly as the lightning flash: / And I, now prepared to unload my burden, / Like the camel who hurtles me towards death. …”

I have perhaps taken liberties with my re-translation.