On Rupture and Temporary Endings: The Apostrophic Frame of Ibn Shuhayd al-Andalusī’s (d. 426/1035) Satire on Inspiration and Literary Theft

Published: 2024
Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 24 (1), 171-190
ISBN: 0806-198X


In the early decades of the fifth/eleventh century, a young poet from Córdoba, Ibn Shuhayd al-Andalusī (d. 426/1035), composes a satire on inspiration and literary theft, after being accused of plagiarism. It came to be known as The Epistle of Attendant Jinn and Whirling Demons. It opens with an apostrophic frame, activating, from the onset, interstitial locations and alerting the readers to its unorthodoxy both as an intellectual attitude and a narrative strategy. In this epistle, the author revisits the old Arab myth that personifies inspiration as demons who live at the Mount-Parnassus-like Valley of ʿAbqar. The recrudescence of this myth, however, serves a particular purpose: it is designed to satirize the persistence of the classics, and to agitate the structures that make them legible. In the tales, the auto-diegetic protagonist experiences a writer's block, and is introduced to an attendant jinn who becomes the poet’s co-author and travel companion. As this recurs, episodic suspension becomes the structure that sustains the program of the work: it allows for new beginnings to emerge throughout the work and enables a series of (time) travels to the valley of ʿAbqar.

Conceived within an Arabo-Islamic environment that places great value on the ability of art to persuade, The Epistle of Attendant Jinn and Whirling Demons’s satirical outlook comes with an urgent claim. Ibn Shuhayd is not asking for pleasant, disinterested appreciation, but for public reparation. Multiply imaginative and meticulously scholarly, Ibn Shuhayd’s epistle demands to be read through a twined lens. The present study takes this affinity seriously, tracing resonances of the epistle in Ibn Shuhayd’s scholarly writing to sketch how the poetic form and and the scholarly project jointly speak to a critical moment in the Arabic literary imagination.