Talk:WikiJournal of Humanities/Abū al-Faraj ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn al-Iṣfahānī, the Author of the Kitāb al-Aghānī

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Article information

Author: I-Wen Su[a][i]


Peer reviewer 1

reviewer-annotated pdf file.
reviewer-annotated pdf

Review by Hilary Kilpatrick , Author and translator on medieval Islam

These assessment comments were submitted on , and refer to this previous version of the article

As it stands, this entry of 15½ pages can be divided up roughly as follows: dates 1 p., family 3 p., education and career 4+ p., personality, preferences and beliefs 3 p., legacy 3+ p. There is no separate section “Works”; the works are subsumed under “Legacy”.

Leaving aside the value of the information contained in the article, it must be asked whether the right balance has been found between the different topics. Abū l-Faraj is famous for his writings, in particular the Aghānī, which is one of the most important works of classical Arabic literature, but also the Maqātil al-Ṭālibīyīn. Even if a separate article deals with the Aghānī one would expect the œuvre in general and the Aghānī in particular to occupy more space. As it is, the Aghānī does not even rate a page; it gets the same space as the Maqātil. I do not know if Wikipedia has rules for the length of its articles, but to reflect the Aghānī’s  importance the section on it here should certainly be expanded somewhat, even if there is a separate article on it. And although Abū l-Faraj made an immense contribution to what is known of the history of Arabic music, this aspect of his activity is hardly mentioned in the article. He has been described as “a true prophet of modern ethnomusicology” (George Dimitri Sawa, Music Performance Practice in the Early ‘Abbāsid Era 132-320 AH/750-932 AD. Toronto 1989, 29; this title should figure in the references).  

The author of the article has taken over from I-Wen Su’s “The Family History of Abū Al-Faraj Al-Iṣfahānī” a family tree and extensive details about the contacts between Abū l-Faraj’s great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncle with ‘Alids and Ṭālibids. A much more concise account could be given in this article, referring interested readers to “The Family History”.

The author needs to reflect more on what the sources we have do not or cannot tell us. There is no way of knowing what contacts, if any, Abū l-Faraj’s forebears had with ‘Alids in Isfahan, and the question can be despatched more quickly than this article does. Likewise, as a rule the sources do not mention the details of the careers of scribes, but the absence of CV-like information is not a reason to doubt that an individual described as a scribe was in fact one. The article gives the impression that Abū l-Faraj was mainly active was as a scholar and teacher, because most of the sources about his life focus on scholarly activities. Apart from the fact that early sources qualify him simply as a kātib or adīb, however, the titles in his œuvre, taken as a whole, reflect the interests of court circles as much as  – if not more than - those of strictly speaking scholarly ones. And the anecdotes about him, whether exaggerated or not, are set in the world of the kuttāb.  

The sources for Abū l-Faraj’s life used here range from contemporaries (al-Tanūkhī) or near contemporaries (al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī) to a writer of the 11th/17th century (Ibn al-‘Imād). The author sometimes takes account of the difference in period, but not always. Thus Yāqūt is qualified, rightly, as a late source (p. 4) in connection with Abū l-Faraj’s sectarian orientation (a subject which exercises the author far more than his musical interests), but in the end the even later Dhahabī’s verdict on this point is approved (p. 12).  Neither for these sources nor for others referred to does the author take account of the changes in attitudes of Sunnī writers to the Shī‘a over several centuries and the evolution of controversial terms such as “rāfiḍī”.

The concentration on problems of sectarian identity blinds the author to other dimensions of the context in which Abū l-Faraj worked, notably the administration and world of music. S/he questions whether he was a Zaydī, despite al-Ṭūsī’s affirming that he was, on the grounds that the Maqātil does not mention the latest Zaydī movements in Yemen and Ṭabaristān. S/he admits that this might have been because Abū l-Faraj had not heard about them. But other reasons can also be adduced: first, even in the politically much less sensitive Aghānī Abū l-Faraj does not deal with contemporary subjects, in this case singers, composers and poets. The period his material covers ends roughly at the start of the 4th/10th century. Second, in the competitive world of the kuttāb, where retaining one’s position or getting advancement depended on one’s relations with those in power, intrigues were rife. Mentioning contemporary uprisings could be used against an individual by his rivals.

Where music is concerned, another reason behind Abū l-Faraj’s preference for Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī over Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī needs to be mentioned: the two men’s contrasting approaches to performance and the effect this had on the evolution of the musical tradition (see the quotation in: George Sawa, “The Kitāb al-aghānī”, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 6: The Middle East. New York 2002, 355).

Although K. Abū Deeb’s article, “ABU’L-FARAJ EṢFAHĀNĪ,” (Encyclopædia Iranica, I/3, 3, pp. 282-283, is often uncritical, his evaluation of Abū l-Faraj’s prose style is more informative than the one given here and deserves to replace it. Abu Deeb writes: “Eṣfahānī was one of the finest writers of Arabic prose in his time, with a remarkable ability to relate widely different types of aḵbār in a rich, lucid, rhythmic, and precise style, only occasionally exploiting such formal effects as saǰʿ (rhyming prose). He was also a fine poet with an opulent imagination. His poetry displays preoccupations similar to those of other urban poets of his time.”

To conclude : This article needs to be refocussed away from issues of sectarian membership towards the main reasons for the subject’s importance. It should also approach the sources more sensitively and critically. A great many stylistic changes and some minor comments are to be found in the corrected text of the article.

Peer reviewer 2

reviewer-annotated pdf file.
reviewer-annotated pdf

Review by Adam Talib , Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University, UK

These assessment comments were submitted on , and refer to this previous version of the article

This is a very informative article about a key figure in the history of Arabic literature. The article is very well sourced. I am especially pleased to see that the author has been able to use I-Wen Su's work on al-Isfahani. I have read their dissertation and found it very, very informative.

The article is well presented and follows scholarly conventions. I would encourage the writer to insert some sentences or a list at the beginning of the article to let the reader know what information will be presented in the article and in what order. The article is heavily focused on al-Isfahani's religious identity and how that may have influenced his literary output. I wonder therefore whether it would be good to make this focus clear in the title of the article or early on in the body of the article in an explicit way.

I would also encourage the writer not to use 'al-' before sun letters but that is just a personal preference of mine.

I have made detailed comments and asked some questions using the comments function in the attached file. I've also made a few edits for style but perhaps the article should be reviewed quickly for style to catch some non-idiomatic expressions.

It is important to say that this article is primarily descriptive. By that I mean, that the article does not seek to interpret historical material in order to put forward an original argument. The contribution of the article lies therefore in the detailed assembling of information related to an important historical figure in a lucid and accessible way. Because much of this material is gleaned from the work of other scholars (all acknowledged in the ample footnotes) I think it would be a good idea to cite their contributions by name in the body of the text. Not only would this give them credit for the information that has been assembled into this lucid and detailed entry, it would also draw the reader's attention to the most important works of scholarship on the issue for further reading.

Author response to reviews

editor-annotated pdf file.
editor-annotated pdf

Comments by Eystein Thanisch ,

These editorial comments were submitted on , and refer to this previous version of the article

The author responded to the peer reviewer comments with the updated manuscript, which also includes the handling editor's comments

Extra Peer Reviewer 3

I will just note that I think it is best practice to ask the author to make his work visible by copying it and merging it with Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani article on English Wikipedia. --Piotrus (discusscontribs) 05:36, 25 June 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Fully agree. That'll be the next step after the final proofread that the author does during the pdf-formatting stage (current tracking table). T.Shafee(Evo﹠Evo)talk 07:28, 28 June 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]