The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus: Ibn Rushd’s
Grounds for Comparison
In his recent reﬂections on translatability across cultures, literatures, and
languages, ʿAbdelfattah Kilito, one of the most imaginative Arabic intellec-
tuals writing today, expressed his low opinion of Ibn Rushd (1126–98),the
medieval Arabic philosopher who under his Latin name Averroes earned
aprestigiousplaceinDante’sInferno, alongside Avicenna and Saladin
(Inferno 4.144). In particular, Kilito was struck by the distance between Ibn
Rushd’sMiddle Commentary on Aristotle’sPoetics(TalkhīṣKitābArisṭūṭālīsfī
al-Shiʿr, ca. 1174)and the Greek text on which it proposed to comment.
Until the Renaissance, Ibn Rushd’s commentary was the primary medium
through which the Poetics reached Europe. It was translated into Latin in
1256 by Hermannus Alemannus (“Hermann the German”),whoreliedon
the assistance of the “Saracens”residing at that time in Toledo, and in 1337
into Hebrew by Todros Todrosi of Arles.
The prestige of this commentary
is indicated by the fact that the Latin translation of the Arabic original
made in 1256 survives in twenty-four manuscript copies, whereas William of
Moerbeke’s 1278 Latin translation of Aristotle’sPoetics is extant in only two
Ó2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0026- 8232/2014/11201-0001$10.00
I would like to express my gratitude to Modern Philology’s excellent anonymous reviewers,
who offered much material for further reﬂection. I would also like to thank Kathy Eden
(Columbia University)for her elucidations of Aristotle’sPoetics,andJoshuaWong(Yale–NUS
College)for his editorial assistance. The new critical edition of The Poetics by Leonardo Tarán
and Dimitri Gutas (Leiden: Brill, 2012)unfortunately appeared too late for me to make use
1. The philosopher Roger Bacon later reported a conversation with Hermannus in which
the latter admitted that the Saracens led the way in his translations (in suis translationibus princi-
pals)of the text, while he merely served as their assistant (see Roger Bacon, Compendium studii
philosophiae,cap.8,ed.J.S.Brewer,Opera quaedam hactenus inedita, Rolls Series 15.1 [London,
2. For the dissemination and citation history of Hermannus’s translation, see William F.
Boggess, “Aristotle’s Poetics in the Fourteenth Century,”Studies in Philology 67 (1970):278–94;
Yet the inﬂuence of Ibn Rushd’s text did not prevent it from being con-
sidered a failure in the mind of the modern Moroccan intellectual, Kilito.
“Despite his well-known erudition and the diversity of his interests,”Kilito
concludes, “the greatest philosopher of the medieval world did not com-
prehend Aristotle’s book.”
For Kilito, Ibn Rushd’s commentary is an exem-
plary instance of the misrecognition that is entailed in all translation and
that dooms the enterprise of cross-cultural inquiry from the start. Kilito sug-
gests that every commentary, translation, and exegesis by a reader whose
culture is distant from the source text reveals more about the commenting
culture than the culture commented on. Kilito sees in Ibn Rushd’sengage-
ment with Aristotle’sPoetics a document that reveals much about the intel-
lectual horizons (and limits)of twelfth-century Cordoba, yet comparatively
little about Aristotelian poetics.
Kilito’s dismal assessment echoes Ernest Renan’s notorious condemna-
tion in Averroèsetl’Averroisme (1852). Working with the limited amount of
material on Ibn Rushd available to him in Latin, Renan criticized the Anda-
lusian philosopher for his “complete ignorance of Greek literature [l’ignor-
ance la plus complète de la littérature grecque].”
Jorge Luis Borges, citing
Renan’saccusationashisepigraph(as Kilito also did in his essay),under-
took to narrate Averroes’s engagement with Aristotle in the short story
“Averroes’sSearch”(La busca de Averroes; 1947). Playing on Orientalist
tropes while also (as will shortly be seen)deconstructing them, Borges nar-
rates the defeat (derrota)that prevented the Arab philosopher “bounded
within the circle of Islam”from grasping Aristotle’s literary exegesis of trag-
edy and comedy.
According to Renan, Borges, and Kilito, Ibn Rushd’s failure hinged on
the rendering of the Greek terms for tragedy and comedy by praise (madīḥ)
and blame (hijāʾ), respectively. Ibn Rushd stood charged with uncritically
rendering tragōidiā(τραγῳδία)by madīḥand komōidiā(κωμῳδία)by hijāʾ,and
speciﬁcally in his statement that “every poem and poetic statement is either
praise (madīḥ)or blame (hijāʾ).”
The idea of translating tragedy by praise
and comedy by blame did not originate with Ibn Rushd. However, Kilito,
Borges, and Renan concentrated their complaints on the Andalusian phi-
O. B. Hardison, The Enduring Monument: A Study of the Idea of Praise in Renaissance Literary Theory
and Practice (Chapel Hill: U niversity of North Carolin a Press, 1962), 34.
3. ʿAbdelfattah Kilito, Lan tatakallam lughatī(Beirut: Dāral-Ṭalīʿah, 2002), 48.
4. Ernest Renan, Averroèsetl’Averroisme (Paris, 1852), 48.
5. Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes,”in El Aleph (Caracas: Ayacucho, 1993), 135–
50, quote on 136. Future references are given parenthetically.
6. Ibn Rushd, TalkhṣKitābArisṭūṭālīsﬁ-l-Shiʿr, ed. Charles Butterworth and Aḥmad ʿAbd al-
MajīdHarīdī(Cairo: al-Hayʾah al-Miṣrīyah al-ʿĀmmah lil-Kitāb, 1986), 54. The English version
is Averroes’s Middle Commentary on Aristotle’sPoetics, ed. and trans. Charles Butterworth (Prince-
ton University Press, 1986), 59. Future references are given parenthetically with the Arabic text
followed by the English.
losopher and deduced from his hermeneutical error a general assumption
concerning Arabic ignorance.
While madīḥand hijāʾcorrespond to clearly demarcated Arabic poetic
genres, both terms have considerably broader uses as well. In addition to
being the middle and longest section of the qaṣīda (panegyric ode),madīḥ
can simply mean praise in general. Likewise, while hijāʾcorresponds to a
speciﬁc kind of satire or invective that is the qaṣīda’sobverse,italsomore
generally refers to any kind of blame or mocking.
The same generality of
meaning clearly does not apply to Greek tragedy and comedy, which pri-
marily signify as speciﬁc literary genres. While Ibn Rushd’s formulation was
inﬂuenced by AbūBishr MattāIbn Yūnus’s Arabic translation of the Poetics
(ca. 932), these proposed Greek-Arabic equivalencies were applied by Ibn
Rushd more methodically and categorically than the medieval exegetical
tradition had yet seen.
While Aristotle indeed did not suggest that poetry could be reduced to
praise and blame, he did offer an origin theory whereby poetic discourse
arose from ecomium and lampoon, respectively.
Ibn Rushd transposed
Aristotle’s historical genealogy, which pertained only to past literary pro-
duction, into a general theory of poetry and used it to explain literature’s
present and future. Both in their initial formulations as madīḥand hijāʾ,and
through their Latin equivalents as laudatio and vituperatio,praiseandblame
were to shape subsequent discourse about literature in the Islamic world
and Christendom well into the early modern period.
For Kilito, as for the modern interpreters who preceded him, this trans-
position of genres speaks to Ibn Rushd’s failure to understand the Greek
text. Kilito gave Ibn Rushd a measure of respite by blaming the mistake on
AbūBishr’s translation and speciﬁcally onthe conditions of the text’strans-
mission from Athens to Baghdad. Kilito even pleaded for mercy for Abū
Bishr, faced with “an amputated book”(49). For Kilito, Borges, and the Ori-
entalist tradition that mediated Ibn Rushd’s encounter with Aristotle to
modernity, medieval Arabic literary theory misread Aristotelian poetics
because of translation’s intrinsic impossibility. Viewing the Greek-Arabic-
Latin exchange through the prism of modernity, these critics perceived
only an unbridgeable incommensurability dividing one literary tradition
from the other. Reverberating across languages, cultures, texts, and genres,
this incommensurability in their view doomed cross-cultural literary
encounters to failure.
7. For an overview of the hijāʾas a genre, see G. J. H. Van Gelder, The Bad and the Ugly: Atti-
tudes towards Invective Poetry (Hijāʾ)in Classical Arabic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1988).
8. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Malcolm Heath (New York: Penguin, 1996),7(1449a).Future
references to Aristotle’sPoetics are given only in the form of Bekker numbers, without refer-
ence to the pages of Heath’s translation.
3Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
But rather than viewing the Arabic rendering of tragedy and comedy by
praise and blame respectively as a failure in translation, we might ask how
this particular rendering served the uses Ibn Rushd sought to make of Aris-
totle’s text. Such a line of inquiry will show that, far from being arbitrary or
simply incorrect, Ibn Rushd’srenderingsexplicateapoeticsmoreappropri-
ate to his Andalusian milieu than a strict rendering of Aristotle’s meanings
could have enabled. Moreover, Ibn Rushd’s renderings extract the univer-
sally applicable aspects of Aristotle’s teaching with a clarity that would have
been invisible in the case of a more commensurable translation.
POETRY, HISTORY, PARABLES
In his opening statement, Ibn Rushd declares his aim as being to “summa-
rize the universal rules found in Aristotle’s book on poetry that all or most
nations share in common”even as he notes that “most of what is in [the
Poetics]are rules particular to [Greek]poetic compositions and customs”
(54/59). Ibn Rushd’s opening statement outlines a methodology for read-
ing Aristotle against the grain, discerning in and extracting from his text
qualities less evident to the general reader. The Arab philosopher speciﬁ-
cally acknowledges his intention to focus on elements of the text that
diverge from the norm, by separating out the general rules (al-qūwanīn),
which are in the minority, from those that occupy the majority of the text
and are speciﬁc to Greek literature.
Later on, echoing Poetics 1451b, Ibn Rushd writes that the poet “sets
down names for existing things [that]speak about universal things. There-
fore the art of poetry is closer to philosophy than the art of inventing a para-
Ibn Rushd has in mind a corpus of texts that, like
the Arabic Aristotelian tradition itself, was mediated and altered in the pro-
cess of its translation. Kalīla wa Dimna, best known to medieval Arabic read-
ers in Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s translation from Pahlavi (ca. 740), is an Arabic story
cycle that originated in ancient Indian tales and represented for Ibn Rushd
the parable-like narrative form that Herodotus’sHistories represented for
Aristotle (see Poetics 9.1451b5–7). Needless to say, Ibn Rushd does not
intend to suggest that Aristotle had Kalīla wa Dimna in mind when he com-
pared poetry to history. But Ibn Rushd’s primary concern was the repro-
9. Hermannus Alemannus carried the “translation”of Aristotle’s passage even further.
Substituting the “book by Aesop”for the reference to Kalīla wa Dimna, he states that “the poet
gives names only tothings that exist and at times speaks in universals; and thereforethe art of
poetry is closer to philosophy than the art of proverbial tales”(“Averrois Cordvbensis commen-
tarivm medivm in Aristotelis Poetriam,”ed. William Boggess [unpublished PhD diss., Univer-
sity of North Carolina, 1966],29–30). As noted by Boggess, sixteen of the twenty-three extant
manuscripts substitute the nonexistent Ysope seu Hesiodi for Aesop’s fables. For Aristotle’s state-
ment, see Poetics 1451a36–b11.
duction of the spirit of Aristotle’s meaning in its universal dimension, not
in its literal meaning. Ibn Rushd fashioned a reading of Aristotle’s book
that accorded with his own deﬁnition of interpretation (tāʾwīl)as the pro-
cess of “extracting the ﬁgurative signiﬁcance [al-majāz]of an utterance [al-
lafẓ]from its true meaning.”
Far from marking a failure of translation,
Ibn Rushd’s hermeneutical method was entirely congruent with Aristotle’s
approach. From a diversity of forms, Aristotle extracted basic principles
concerning poetic meaning, rhetorical expression, and ethical behavior
that pertained to all times and places.
By creatively rendering the particularities of Aristotelian poetics in terms
that resonated in his own milieu, Ibn Rushd showed himself to be a faithful
student of his Greek master. Both the rhetoricization of poetic categories
and the “translation”of history by an Arabic story cycle demonstrate that
Ibn Rushd’s commitment to deducing principles applicable to all poetry
superseded literalist ﬁdelity to the Greek text. Given that the very concept
of translation was more ﬂuid and capacious in medieval cultures than it is
in modernity, it hardly seems legitimate to take Ibn Rushd to task for his
creative localization of Greek literary forms.
As evidenced by his ready transposition of Aristotle’shistoria into mathāl,
Ibn Rushd approaches Aristotle’s text already persuaded of the legitimacy
and necessity as well as of the possibility of translation. Rather than regard
incommensurability in translation as a sign of hermeneutic failure, he sees
the interpretive gaps that emerge in the course of his exposition as proofs
of poetry’s universal applicability. If a set of terms such as tragedy and comedy,
or poetry and history, can be adapted to the categories of a culture radically
distinct from the culture within which the terms originated, such translat-
ability of itself attests to the philosophical salience of a given paradigm. The
hermeneutical disjuncture that some modern scholars and critics have cho-
sen to read as a failure should be read as a demonstration of Ibn Rushd’s
Ibn Rushd does not inform his reader that he has substituted an Arabic
story cycle for the Greek concept of history, nor does he apologize for his
inability to explain Greek literary genres to his Arabic readers. Rather than
seeking to extract data about ancient Greek literature from the Poetics,Ibn
Rushd transformed Aristotle’s text into a manifesto on Arabic poetics. The
Arab philosopher was less concerned to recover the original meaning of
10. Averroes [Ibn Rushd],Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory [Kitābfaṣlal-maqāl], trans.
Charles Butterworth (Salt Lake City, UT: Brigham Young University, 2001),9(translation mod-
iﬁed in all citations from this work).
11. For medieval Islamic ways of conceiving translation, see Rebecca Gould, “Inimitability
versus Translatability: The Structure of Literary Meaning in Arabo-Persian Poetics,”Translator
19, no. 2 (2013):81–104.
5Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
the Greek text than to extract from it those aspects that could help him
understand poetry as such. Rather than pursuing the textual estrangement
that Lawrence Venuti and other scholars of translation theory have advo-
cated under the heading of foreignization, Ibn Rushd is an unabashed
domesticator of his foreign text.
Ibn Rushd’s method recalls the postulate
that a society that is “conﬁdent in itself will often use ﬂuent strategies in
translation of foreign literary works.”
Domesticating translations, there-
fore, are not necessarily to be seen as betrayals of the source text. Instead,
for twelfth-century Islamic culture. Particularly in al-Andalus, Arabic schol-
ars had moved well beyond the literalizing translational methodologies that,
as Dimitri Gutas and others have shown, characterized the early Abbasid
translation movement based in Baghdad.
FROM DRAMA TO RHETORIC
While later readers have silently passed over the “translation”of the Greek
concept of history in Poetics 1451 by “parable,”thenomoredomesticating
rendering of tragedy by praise (madīḥ)andcomedybyblame(hijāʾ)has
attracted greater opprobrium. An early assessment by Jaroslaus Tkatsch
(1871–1927), the ﬁrst scholar to study AbūBishr’s translation in depth, of
Ibn Rushd’srenderingofAristotleas“a medley of monstrous misunder-
standings and wild fantasies”has set the tone for subsequent generations of
Such condemnations notwithstanding, the many mean-
ings that attach to madīḥand hijāʾin classical Arabic mean that Ibn Rushd’s
interpretive role with respect to the rendering of tragedy and comedy by
praise and blame cannot be assessed from one angle alone.
Contesting the conventional reduction of madīḥand hijāʾto the formal
genres of encomium and satire, Vicente Cantarino maintains that rather
than using madīḥand hijāʾin their technical meanings, Ibn Rushd deploys
these terms “to express the poet’s subjective attitude in his rendition of the
Somewhat revising Cantarino, it could be said that
12. Lawrence Venuti, the best-known proponent of foreignization in translation theory,
has authored two manifestos that contest domesticating translation methodologies in Anglo-
phone literatures: The Translator’s Invisibility (London: Routledge, 1995),andThe Scandals of
Translation (London: Routledge, 1997).
13. John Milton, “Foreignization: A Discussion of Theoretical and Practical Issues,”Year-
book of Comparative and General Literature 54 (2008): 110.
14. Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in
Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–4th and 8th–10th c.)(New York: Routledge, 1998).
15. Jaroslav Tkatsch, “Über den Arabischen Kommentar des Averroes zur Poetik des Aristo-
teles,”Wiener Studien 24 (1902): 76.
16. Vicente Cantarino, “Averroes on Poetry,”in Arabic Poetics in the Golden Age: Selection of
Texts Accompanied by a Preliminary Study (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 19.
Ibn Rushd uses madīḥand hijāʾin both their technical and nontechnical
meanings. Even beyond Ibn Rushd’s uses of praise and blame to evoke the
poet’s subjectivity, the typologization of poetry into these two modesassimi-
lates it more thoroughly to a globally shared medieval rhetorical tradition.
To identify poetry as either praise or blame (whether such rubrics are
intended in genre-speciﬁc or in more general senses)is to foreground
poetry as a normative art, a choice that made eminent sense in Ibn Rushd’s
milieu. Even more appropriate to the rhetorical orientation of medieval lit-
erary culture was Ibn Rushd’s distinctly non-Aristotelian foregrounding of
character over plot. With respect to this preference, Ibn Rushd builds on
the exegetical precedent of Ibn Sīnā, the Persian philosopher known to
medieval Europe as Avicenna. In his commentary on the Poetics (1020),Ibn
Sīnādistinguished between Greek and Arabic literature on the grounds that
“Greek poetry was generally intended for imitating actions and emotions,
and nothing else”while Arabic poetry is occupied with the “imitation of per-
Even though it did not speciﬁcally reﬂect on the difference made by the-
ater, the substance of this distinction was already strongly implied in Ibn
Sīnā’s commentary. Indeed, Ibn Sīnā’sandIbnRushd’s emphasis on the
primacy of character over plot corresponds more closely to the aesthetic
hierarchies inculcated by the introspective literary genres—such as lyric
poetry and the novel—that constitute the bulk of modern literature. In this
sense then, Ibn Rushd’s interpretation marked a step in the Poetics’adapta-
tion to modern aesthetic principles. While for Ibn Rushd and his predeces-
sors all literary expression was reducible to two forms, genre taxonomies
were ﬂexibly applied, so to facilitate rather than constrain the production
of literary meaning. In their antithetical as well as complementary relations,
the rhetorical modes of praise and blame were highly generative. Ibn
Rushd’s interest lay in uncovering how the structure of meaning confers
coherence on these categories rather than in debating their taxonomic
According to Kilito, the amputations entailed in Ibn Rushd’sformative
attempt to render Aristotle into Arabic are intrinsic to the translational
enterprise. Kilito titled his manifesto on this subject Thou Shalt Not Speak My
Language (Lan tatakallamlughatī), as if to remind the reader of the impossi-
bility of ever grasping the author’s original intention in translation. And
yet the reading proposed here indicates that Ibn Rushd’s rendering of trag-
17. Ibn Sīnā,“Kitābal-Shiʿr,”in Fann al-shiʿr; maʿa al-tarjamah al-ʿarabiyyah al-qadimah wa
shuruh al-Fārābīwa Ibn S īnāwa Ibn Rushd,ed.M.M.Badawī(Cairo: Matabat al-Nahda al-Miṣr-
iyya, 1953), 170; Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle,trans.IsmailDahiyat(Leiden:
Brill, 1974), 74. Future references aregiven parenthetically with the Arabic text followed by the
7Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
edy and comedy by the rhetorical modes of praise and blame more effec-
tively illustrates culture’s translatability—its capacity to morph and shift
across time and space—than its singularity.
Renan, Tkatsch, Borges, and Kilito all assume that Ibn Rushd’srender-
ing of tragedy by praise and comedy by blame was motivated by sheer igno-
rance and that a ﬁrsthand encounter with the theater would have resulted
in a better translation. But Ibn Rushd followed the precise lead of the Ara-
bic translation of the Poetics. Hence the historical imprecision of Borges’s
story, which attributes the transposition of the meanings of tragedy and
comedy exclusively to Ibn Rushd. When Ibn Rushd undertook to interpret
the Poetics, however, the rhetoricization of tragedy and comedy as praise
and blame was already well established in the Islamic exegetical tradition.
Although these renderings were not the only ones available to the would-
be commentator, they were normative. Indeed, the substitution for trag-
edy/comedy of praise/blame predates even the translation of the Syriac
text into Arabic. It is attested in the writings of al-Kindī(801–73),theﬁrst
Arabic philosopher in the Greek tradition. In an epitome of the text that
predates its Arabic translation, al-Kindīstated that the Poetics contains an
account of “the meters used in every species of poetry, like the panegyric
By contrast with Ibn Rushd’s striving for ﬂuent localization, the only
extant fragment of the Syriac translation is marked by a literalist adherence
to the original Greek lexicon.
Terms such as tragedy,comedy,andharmony
are transcribed with exactitude, and no attempt is made to domesticate
their meanings for a readership in late antiquity. One reason for what
appears to have been the Syriac translator’s literalist approach to the Greek
text may have been that his translation had very few readers. While domesti-
cation features frequently in cultures that have been evolving for centuries,
translators within newer literary cultures are more likely to adhere to strictly
literal renderings of foreign texts.
Hence, when Arabic culture became
more conﬁdent of itself, Aristotle’s works were increasingly appropriated,
localized, and adapted to the requirements of a medieval Islamic reader-
ship. Ibn Rushd represents the pinnacle of this domesticating process.
18. Michelangelo Guidi and Richard Walzer, “Studi su al-Kindī: Uno scritto introduttivo
allo studio di Aristotele,”Atti della Reale Academia dei Lincei, Memorie della classe di scienze morali,
storiche e ﬁlologiche 6.6.5 (1940),402(Arabic); 417 (Italian trans.). Also see the reference to al-
Kindī’s epitome in al-Nadim’sFihrist,ed.andtrans.BayardDodge(New York: Columbia Uni-
versity Press, 1970), 2:602.
19. See David Margoliouth, Analecta Orientalum ad Poeticam Aristoteleum (London, 1887),77–
79, for a translation of the text in question, which is preserved in the thirteenth-century Dia-
logues of Jacob bar Shakko, for an expl ication of its style (5).
20. Milton, “Foreignization,”112.
The long genealogy for the incorporation of Aristotle’sPoetics into a
poetic tradition is rooted in the interpretative traditions of late antiquity,
above all in Themistius (ca. 317–88 CE)and in Alexander Aphrodisias (ﬂ.
200 CE).Al-Fārābī(870–950)speciﬁcally cites Themistius, to whom a lost
oration (kalām)on the Poetics was attributed in Arabic sources.
given that al-Fārābīstudied under AbūBishr, who translated the Syriac Poet-
ics into Arabic, the pseudo-Aristotelian tradition represented by Themistius
seems to have played a larger role in shaping al-Fārābī’s commentary on the
Poetics than did the Poetics itself.
Al-Fārābī’s brief work, considered by
Arberry as “the earliest extant Arabic work on Poetics consciously based on
the teaching of Aristotle,”consists primarily of an enumeration of the
twelve literary forms that the philosopher understood to constitute ancient
Here we see the beginnings of an Arabic rhetoricization of
the dramatic genres, particularly in al-Fārābī’s deﬁnitions of tragedy and
comedy, respectively: “Tragedy is a kind of poetry having a particular
meter, affording pleasure to all who hear or recite it,”states al-Fārābī.“In
tragedy,”al-Fārābīcontinues, “good things are mentioned, praiseworthy
matters that are an example for others to emulate”(269/275). Comedy by
contrast is “a kind of poetry having a particular meter”within which “evil
things are mentioned, personal satires, blameworthy characteristics, and
While al-Fārābī’s deﬁnitions of tragedy and comedy do not by any means
constitute a full-blown epistemology of poiesis according to the praise/
blame antinomy of the sort encountered in Ibn Rushd, the lineaments of a
rhetoricization of a series of originally nonrhetorical literary forms are
already present in this early treatise. Al-Fārābīwrites as a compiler of infor-
mation, not as a philosopher, and is not conscious of breaking new ground
with his typology. Far from being an innovator, al-Fārābīwas a reviver of an
exegetical tradition from late antiquity. Thus, if a misreading is entailed in
the rhetoricization of Aristotle’s genre typologies, this misreading must be
ascribed to an entire exegetical tradition originating in late antiquity. Like
the later Arabic philosophers, this early Arabic exegetical tradition had lit-
tle use for a theory of poetics based on drama. Partly for this reason, Arabic
theorists of literary language did not regard mimesis as an effective basis
for theorizing literary representation. The concept of literary representa-
21. “Farabi’sCanonsofPoetry,”ed. and trans. A. J. Arberry, Rivista degli Studi Orientale 17
(1937): 270 (Arabic text);276(English trans.). Future references are given parenthetically with
the Arabic text followed by the English. For the Arabic attribution of an oration on Aristotle to
Themistius, see J. Tkatsch, Die arabische Übersetzung der Poetik des Aristoteles und die grundlage der
Kritik des griechischen Textes (Vienna: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1928), 1:122.
22. For al-Fārābī’sstudiesunderAbūBishr, see Nicholas Rescher, The Development of Arabic
Logic (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963), 121–22.
23. A. J. Arberry, introduction to “Farabi’sCanonsofPoetry,”266.
9Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
tion in the premodern Islamic world was better captured by poiesis—acon-
cept Heidegger later glossed as the “bringing-forth”of new realities through
the imagination—than by mimesis, which from a premodern Islamic van-
tage point would seem to be merely servile imitation.
REPLACING MIMESIS BY THE IMAGINATION
One of Ibn Rushd’s most startling reversals of the Poetics’mimetic orienta-
tion occurs with the following propositions: “Poetic statements are imagi-
native. There are three sorts of imaginative ﬁgurations [al-takhyīl]and com-
parison [al-tashbīh]”(54/60). Adhering impressively close to the Arabic
original, Hermannus Alemannus rendered takhyīl(imagination)as imagina-
tio and tashbīh(resemblance)as assimilatio.
Both authors radically de-
parted from the Poetics’original vision with this formulation that shifted
the conversation from the relation between the subject and the object of
representation to the question of how ﬁguration achieves its efﬁcacy and
inscribes itself onto the imagination. While such formulations are nowhere
to be found in Aristotle’s text, they lay the foundation, in Arabic and Latin,
for theories of poetic perception that stand to make as profound a contri-
bution to the theorization of literary representation as the Aristotelian tra-
dition of equating poiesis and mimetic representation.
So, given that the rendering of tragedy by praise and comedy by blame
was not unique to Ibn Rushd, and this aspect of Ibn Rushd’sinterpretation
draws on a lineage that predates the Arabic translation of the Poetics itself,
the right question to ask, then, is not why Ibn Rushd rendered Aristotle’s
modalities of poetry by praise and blame, or why he replaced mimesis by
imagination, but why he made this choice against the grain of the Arabic
Aristotelian tradition, as represented by al-Fārābīand Ibn Sīnā.WhenIbn
Sīnāundertook to make sense of Aristotle’s anatomy of literary form in the
Book of Healing (Kitābal-shifāʾ),IbnSīnāimitated al-Fārābī’s literalism, even
to the extent of straining comprehension. Although AbūBishr’sArabic
translation had already initiated the transposition of drama into poetry by
rendering tragedy as “panegyric”(madīḥ), Ibn Sīnāfollowed al-Fārābīin
using the Greek genre term, transliterated as ṭarāghūdhīyā.
24. For Heidegger’s gloss on poiesis, see Martin Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Writings,
ed. Manfred Stassen (New York: Continuum, 2006),284.
25. Hermannus Alemannus, “poetria ibinrosdin,”appendix to De arte poetica: translatio Guil-
leimi de Moerbeke (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1968), 42; “The Middle Commentary of Averroes
of Cordova on the Poetics of Aristotle,”trans. O. B. Hardison, in A. Preminger et al., Classical
and Medieval Literary Criticism: Translations and Interpretations (New York: Ungar, 1974), 349.
Future references are given parenthetically with the Latin text followed by the English.
26. Ibn Sīnā,“Kitāb al-Shiʿr,”166/67; al-Fārābī, 269/275.
10 MODERN PHILOLOGY
practice was in keeping with the practice of transliterating rather than
translating Greek terms that could not readily be assimilated into Arabic.
For the Greek translation movement in its early stages, adopting the most lit-
eral approach seemed the safest translation strategy. By the time the Greek-
Arabic encounter reached twelfth-century Spain, however, pure literalism
had come to seem outmoded and irrelevant to contemporary Arabic and
Mozarabic literary culture. Freer, localizing renderings had come to seem
more interesting as well as more important than strictly literal versions.
The foregoing indication that Ibn Rushd chose to render tragedy and
comedy as praise and blame when he had other options again generates the
question, why did the Andalusian philosopher make such a choice when he
was working within a philosophical-exegetical tradition that placed a high
value on philological exactitude even to the extent of preferring translitera-
tion to translation?Butterworth’s acknowledgment that Averroes aimed less
to provide “a careful explanation of Aristotle’saccountofpoetry”than to
glean “from that account features common to all or most nations in the
light of which he can carry out his own investigation of Arabic poetry”offers
one clue regarding the newness of his method.
clue when he notes that Ibn Rushd’s innovation as a commentator consisted
of his “attempttoapplysomeoftheideaswhich he understood from Aristo-
tle’s book to specimens taken from Arabic literature.”
With respect to his interest in using Aristotelian poetics to as a tool to
elucidate Arabic poetry, Ibn Rushd breaks with both al-Fārābīand Ibn Sīnā,
neither of whom cited as extensively from the Arabic poetic canon—or
from any poetic canon for that matter—as did Ibn Rushd, and both of
whom were less interested in comparing the merits of varying literary forms
than in probing the imagination’s philosophical foundations. (At the same
time, it is clear that Ibn Rushd’s intervention would have been unthinkable
without these two philosophical predecessors.)Of the three Arabic peripa-
tetic philosophers, Ibn Rushd is the most Aristotelian with respect to his
belief in poetry’s pedagogical usefulness, while al-Fārābīand Ibn Sīnāare
more interested in locating poetry within a hierarchy of disciplines. While
al-Fārābītook the most comprehensive approach to this task in his Catalogue
of the Sciences (Iḥṣāʾal- ʿUlūm),IbnSīnāaimed to cosmologically uncover
poetry’s epistemology in his Book of Healing. Neither approach suited Ibn
Rushd, who was most deeply concerned with the practical business of evalu-
ating poetry as literary ﬁguration.
27. On this methodological distinction between the translators’and the peripatetic philo-
sopher’s approach, see Dimitri Gutas, “On Translating Averroes’Commentaries,”Journal of the
American Oriental Society 110 (1990): 95; an d Ismail Dahiyat, Avicenna’sCommentary,5.
28. Butterworth, “Introduction,”in Averroes’Middle Commentary on Aristotle’sPoetics,19.
29. Gutas, “On Translating Averroes’Commentaries,”100.
11Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
An even deeper indication of the reasons behind Ibn Rushd’s philo-
sophical reworking of Aristotle’s text is afforded by the philosopher him-
self. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahāfut al-tahāfut), his refutation of
al-Ghazali’s similarly titled attack on the philosophers, The Incoherence of the
Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifa), Ibn Rushd argued out in painstaking detail
the objective reality of philosophical universals. Just as Aristotle had argued
that poetry is more philosophical than history due to its reliance on proba-
bility (Poetics 9.1451b5–7), so too was Ibn Rushd persuaded of the objective
existence of truths based on reason. This was Ibn Rushd’s way of conceiving
the relation between the probable and improbable. Whereas al-Ghazali,
persuaded that God’s omniscience limited the scope of human reason,
had reduced philosophical universals to unreal phenomena existing sub-
jectively in the mind, Ibn Rushd maintained against al-Ghazali that univer-
sals “exist potentially, not actually in the external world; indeed, if they did
not exist at all in the outside world they would be false.”
directly related to his belief in the truth-value of poetry, Ibn Rushd argued
in a later work, The Decisive Treatise (Kitābfaṣlal-maqāl), dedicated to demon-
strating the harmony of religion and philosophy and thereby to defending
the authority of worldly knowledge, that “one who is not cognizant of artful-
ness is not cognizant of what has been artfully made [al-maṣnūʿ],andone
who is not cognizant of what has been artfully made is not cognizant of the
Artisan [al-ṣānaʿa],”namely God.
To know God was to apprehend the
poetic representation of reality, which accorded with the dictates of reason.
Ibn Rushd’s belief in the revelation of universals through aesthetic and
rational means motivated his adaptation of Aristotelian poetics to his own
literary milieu and licensed his rhetoricization of literary forms to bring
poetics into closer alignment with philosophy.
In rendering tragedy by praise and comedy by blame, Ibn Rushd chose
the exegetical path most suitable to comparative literary analysis. Had he
followed the path of his illustrious predecessor Ibn Sīnā, and transliterated
rather than translated Aristotle’s alien terms, Ibn Rushd would not have
attracted the opprobrium of Renan, Borges, and Kilito. And yet such literal-
ism would have done little to advance world literature. Most important,
had Ibn Rushd set forth a theory of poetics in terms alien to Arabic literary
culture but more proximate to Aristotle, he would not have been able to
deploy the Poetics to elucidate the poetry of al-Mutanabbī,AbūFirās, and
AbūTammān. Although Ibn Rushd entered the scene after many centuries
of Qurʾānic exegetes and rhetoricians, from al-Rummānīto al-Bāqillānīto
al-Jurjānī, had cultivated a method for reading Arabic poetry alongside the
30. Ibn Rushd, Tahāfut al-Tahāfut,trans.SimonVanDerBergh(Cambridge: Gibb Memo-
rial, 1954), 65.
31. Ibn Rushd, Kitābfaṣl al-maqāl,9.
12 MODERN PHILOLOGY
Qurʾān, such an interpretive feat with regard to Arabic poetry had never
before been performed within the Arabic Aristotelian tradition.
Rushd, the rendering of tragedy and comedy by praise and blame was a
necessary element in his appropriation of a text that would eventually
become—but which at the time of his writing was not—anormative
account of poetic signiﬁcation. One of Ibn Rushd’smanyachievementsis
to have made it possible for Arabic scholars to see in Aristotle’sPoetics a tool
for understanding their own literary tradition, rather than an arcane docu-
ment pertaining only to a distant Greek literature.
Ibn Rushd’s exegesis reveals a kinship between the poet’s creativity and
the philosopher’s universalizing aspirations. Indeed, to a greater degree
than his predecessors as well as his modern critics, Ibn Rushd reads Aristo-
tle’sPoetics with the eyes of a poet. The concept that guides him is less
mimesis—understood as the reproduction of reality—than poiesis: imagi-
native recreation in a completely new linguistic and literary environment,
which was for Aristotle congruous with poetry itself. Poiesis was what Arabic
and Greek philosophers of literature shared in common; mimesis was
the grounds on which they diverged. Consequently, Arabic philosophy’s
grounds for comparison with Aristotelian poetics was more fully encapsu-
lated in the former than the latter. Ibn Rushd approximated the Greek
sense of poiesis through the Arabic term takhyīl(image making).
not mimesis, was uppermost in Ibn Rushd’s mind when he distinguished
between the “poetic statement [qawl al-shiʿrī]that urges belief [al-iʿtiqād]”
and the “poetic statement that urges character [al-ʿāda]”(72/78).Whereas
the latter “impels us to an action [ʿamal],”the former “only inﬂuences us to
believe that something exists or does not exist, not to seek it or reject it”
Since poiesis works at a higher level of abstraction than mimesis, its
aims are more philosophical. While Arabic translators and commentators
maneuvered among a series of terms—muḥāka,takhyīl,tashbīh,andtamthīl
—to render mimesis, Islamic philosophy’s deepest contribution to global
32. For an introduction to Islamic rhetoric, see Gustavevon Grunebaum’s translation of al-
Bāqillānī’sIʿjāzal-Qurʾān: A Tenth-Century Document of Arabic Literary Theory and Criticism (Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 1950).
33. On thisconcept in classical Arabic literary theory, see Takhyīl: The Imaginary in Classical
Arabic Poetics, ed. Geert Jan van Gelder and MarléHammond (Oxford: Oxbow, 2008);and
Wolfhart Heinrichs, Arabische Dichtung und griechische Poetik: Ḥāzim al-Qarṭājannī’s Grundlegung
der Poetik mit Hilfearistotelischer Begriffe (Beirut: Beiruter Texte und Studien, 1969), 149–54. The
distinction proposed here between mimesis and poiesis is not intended to be deﬁnitive and is
explored in greater detail with respect to Perso-Arabic poetics in Rebecca Gould, “Travelling
Romance: Persian Narrative and Vernacular Imaginations from South Asia to the Caucasus”
(unpublished manuscript, 2014).
34. Hermannus’s text here (49/356)is extremely close to the Arabic original.
13Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
poetics lies more in what it had to say about the role of the imagination
than in any theory of mimetic representation. When Ibn Rushd asserted
that “poetic discourses are imaginative”(54/60)he referenced takhyīl
instead of the more precise Arabic term for mimesis, muḥāka (inscription,
engraving). Regarding poetry’s capacity to approximate reality as one of its
lesser powers, Ibn Rushd set forth an even more ambitious thesis. Buoyed
by an Arabic tradition that saw poetry as a form of creation ex nihilo, he
identiﬁed the discursive speciﬁcity of poetry through the work it performs
on the imagination.
The rendering of takhyīlby “mimesis”and its variants in English transla-
tions of Ibn Rushd’s commentary has served to obscure the Arabic philo-
sophical tradition’s disengagement from this aspect of the Platonic-Aristo-
telian tradition and its replacement of the Greek theory of representation
by concepts more rooted in Islamic thought.
Like Ibn Sīnā, Ibn Rushd’s
interest in poetry lay primarily in its ability to bring new worlds into being
by fabricating new representations. The relation between these representa-
tions and the nonrepresentational perfection that lay at the pinnacle of the
Platonic hierarchy of forms was not of great concern to the Arabic rhetori-
And yet, by disengaging from what might be seen as a correspondence
theory of truth applied to literature, neither Ibn Rushd nor his Latin trans-
lator disengaged from the intersection between the text and the world. To
the contrary, persuaded that, as Ibn Rushd elsewhere maintained, the truth
discovered by the ancients “agrees with and bears witness to the truth”of
Islamic and Christian civilization, both translators intensiﬁed that relation
by rhetoricizing ancient Greek literary forms.
Among recent scholars,
Karla Mallette is the most discerning with regard to the practical implica-
tions of the rhetorical concept of poetry that reverberated across the medie-
val Mediterranean and the concomitant irrelevance of the mimesis concept
for a medieval readership. Because Ibn Rushd and Hermannus understood
Aristotle’sPoetics “as a manual for those who intended to use words to effect
change in the world, they viewed it in a continuum with ethics,”Mallette
Mallette correlates this medieval ethical orientation to poetry with
the rendering of tragedy and comedy by praise and blame.
Aristotle of course famously revised his master’s condemnation of poetry
by inverting the Platonic theory of forms and reinterpreting Platonic mime-
sis. Ibn Rushd and his Islamic and Latin contemporaries found other ways
35. The rendering of takhy īlas “imitation,”followed by Butterworth in his translation, and
criticized by Gutas, “On Translating Averroes’Commentaries,”98. See also n. 22 above.
36. Ibn Rushd, Kitābfaṣl al-maqāl,9.
37. Karla Mallette, “Beyond Mimesis: Aristotle’s Poetics in the Medieval Mediterranean,”
PMLA 124 (2009):585.
14 MODERN PHILOLOGY
of elucidating the discursive work done by literature in and on the world.
They were able to elude the Platonic rejection of poetry because they were
not trapped within a theory of forms that made all imitations false simula-
tions of superior originals.
Avoiding a hierarchal concept of representa-
tion, they foregrounded ethics over ontology. Whereas the ancient Greek
emphasis on mimesis arose from a culture that saw artistic expression
embodied ﬁrst and foremost in the performing arts and that was continu-
ously confronted with simulacra of reality, medieval commentators such as
Ibn Rushd and Hermannus Alemannus worked within cultures that dis-
cerned the deepest forms of creativity in the written word.
preoccupation with poetics was matched by their concern with rhetoric.
This second concern derived its inspiration in part from another Aristote-
lian text, the Rhetoric, while also engaging with the indigenous Arabic tradi-
tion of ʿilm al-balāgha (the science of rhetoric).
The Arabic philosophers’
belief in poetry’s efﬁcacy was contingent on their impulse to classify poetry
as either praise or blame. To interpret their rhetorical-didactic orientation
to poetry as a fall from an imagined Platonic-Aristotelian state of grace is to
instrumentalize the imagination in the service of a metaphysical hierarchy
While Aristotle argued that, pace Plato, mimetic art partakes of truth,
even the Stagirite was unable to do away entirely with the assumption that
art’s value is measured by the accuracy of its representation of the world.
Islamic aesthetics by contrast emphasized the generative and even magical
powers of the imagination.
Herein lies a basic difference between Aris-
totle and his Arabic commentators: the distance between the world and its
aesthetic representation is the beginning of poiesis in Arabic literary criti-
cism. “Thebestpoetryisthatwhichliesthemost[khayr al-shiʿr akdhabuhu],”
runs a famous Arabic proverb that was cited by many Arabic rhetoricians,
According to this logic, the distance between the
38. For another account of the impact of this Platonic duality on aesthetics, see Gilles
Deleuze, “Plato andthe Simulacrum,”trans. Rosalind Krauss, October 27 (1983):45–56.
39. For an important attempt to dislocate the normative assumptions guiding the Poetics’
dependency on the dramatic forms, see Earl Miner, Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on
Theories of Literature (Princeton University Press, 1990),esp.26and216.
40. For the Arabic translation of Aristotle’sRhetoric,seeArisṭūṭālīs al-Khiṭābah: al-tarjamah al-
ʿArabīyah al-qadīmah,ed.ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī(Kuwait: Wikālat al-Maṭbūʿāt, 1979); and the
studies by Deborah Black, Logic and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics in Medieval Arabic Philosophy
(Leiden: Brill, 1990); and Uwe Vagelpohl, Aristotle’s Rhetoric in the East: The Syriac and Arabic
Translation and Commentary Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
41. For a discussion of these local Islamic traditions concerning poetry’smetaphysics,see
J. Christoph Bürgel, The Feather of Simurgh: The “Licit Magic”of the Arts in Medieval Islam (New
York University Press, 1988).
42. ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī,Asrār al-Balāgha , ed. Hellmut Ritter (Istanbul: Istanbul Govern-
ment Press, 1954), 243. For additional engagments with this provocative statement in the Ara-
15Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
world and its representation in literature is to be cultivated, theorized, and
celebrated, whereas in the Platonic tradition this distance is a problem to
By privileging language over representation, poetry over drama, and the
work of the imagination over conformity to representational aesthetics, Ibn
Rushd was able to detach literary meaning from a correspondence theory of
truth without relinquishing literature’s capacity to intervene in the world.
Aristotle, preoccupied as his treatise was by the concept of mimesis, assumed
the dependency of art on reality and never sought to reverse that relation.
Aristotle’s concept of probability enabled him to demonstrate the efﬁcacy
of artistic representation in relation to other discourses (such as history),
but, unlike Arabic and Persian theorists of poetics, Aristotle did not argue
for poetry’s ontological primacy in the world of representations. For Aris-
totle, as for Plato, poetry was always, at some level, subordinate to another
level of discourse that was perceived as more proximate to truth. Indeed,
the mere attempt to justify poetry (as against history)in terms of philosophy
shows that, for Aristotle, philosophy was more important than poetry.
As mediators between Greek learning and Islamic literary culture, and as
philosophers, al-Fārābī,IbnSīnā, and Ibn Rushd worked at the peripheries
of an Islamic culture in which their more theologically grounded counter-
parts, al-Rummānī,al-Bāqillānī,andal-Jurjānī, were more deeply immersed.
Most scholars have concluded that medieval Arabic philosophical engage-
ments with Aristotle did not directly impact Arabic poetry or poetics.
yet the trafﬁc in the opposite direction—from the Arabic-speaking world to
Western Europe—was vibrant and diverse enough to make a lasting impact
on European literary theory. What these marginal philosophers, Ibn Rushd
in particular, accomplished that was original was to enrich the philosophi-
cal traditions of classical antiquity with a medieval Islamic way of reading
the poetic artifact. This worldview included, among other things, an em-
phasis on the rhetorical aspects of artistic expression. The emphasis for
both Plato and Aristotle was on how art represents the world rather than, as
for the Arabic tradition, how art brings the world into being through styl-
ized expression. Far from being a ﬂaw, the value and importance of Ibn
Rushd’s encounter with Aristotelian Poetics is his adaptation of its alien and
un-Islamic conception of poetry to local rhetorical norms.
bic rhetorical tradition, see J. Christoph Bürgel, “‘Die beste Dichtung ist die lügenreichste’:
Wesen und Bedeutung eines literarischen Streites des arabischen Mittelalters im Lichte kom-
paratistisher Betrachtung,”Oriens 23/24 (1974):7–102.
43. Amjad Trabulsi argues the contrary in La Critique Poétique des Arabes jusqu’au Ve Siècle de
l’Hégire (Damascus: Institut français de Damas, 1958). For the (more common)view that there
was no direct inﬂuence, see S. A. Bonebakker, “Aspects of the History of Literary Rhetoric and
Poetics in Arabic Literature,”Viator: Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 1(1970):90–95;
andI.G.Krachkovsky’s introduction to Ibn al-Muʿtazz’sKitābal-Badīʿ(London: Luzac, 1930).
16 MODERN PHILOLOGY
Alone among Ibn Rushd’s detractors, Borges gestured explicitly toward the
otherwise imperceptible advantages of Ibn Rushd’s imprecise rendering of
tragedy and comedy by praise and blame. One of the most poignant
moments in “Averroes’sSearch”is when the philosopher initiates a post-
prandial discussion concerning the merits and demerits of a poetic ﬁgure
imagined into being by the pre-Islamic poet Zuhayr (ca. 520–609). Zuhayr
is known in the annals of Arabic literature as the poet who, more than
any other of his contemporaries, avoided unfamiliar language and “distin-
guished himself by praising a man only according to the virtues he really
The poetic ﬁgure that hovers over the dinner table in the philosopher’s
home in twelfth-century Cordoba is the likening of destiny to an old, blind
camel. The least learned among Ibn Rushd’sguestsclaimsthat“ﬁve hun-
dred years of admiration”have worn the image thin and deprived it of
poetic intensity. The guests unanimously assent. Alone among those pres-
ent, Ibn Rushd dissents from the consensus upheld by his guests. He eventu-
ally breaks his silence to deliver the most suggestive words spoken that eve-
ning, in defense of images hallowed by custom and tradition. Ibn Rushd’s
philosophical speech is conditioned by the different temporalities pertain-
ing to poetry and the discourses of everyday life. “Time,”Ibn Rushd muses,
“which ravages fortresses, enriches poetry”(139; emphasis added).IbnRushd
then counters his guests’disdain for texts that have borne multiple readings
with the argument that Zuhayr’s poetry is enriched by the many interpreta-
tions that accrue to it through its journey across the centuries.
Whereas Ibn Rushd’sguestsonlynotethatthepassageoftimecanmake
a clichéfrom a brilliant image, Ibn Rushd focuses on the creative infusion
afforded by multiple readings. To embrace polysemy as the goal of poetic
meaning is implicitly to adopt a non-Platonic theory of literary representa-
tion. It is to relinquish the expectation that poetry approximates truth and
instead to assert that, by generating new meanings and new realities, poetry
brings truth into being. Over time, readers graft onto Zuhayr’s image new
associations until his poem becomes thicker, denser with meanings, and
more suffused with signiﬁcations.
Persuaded as he is of the aesthetic superiority of polysemy over singular
meaning, Ibn Rushd celebrates the work done to a literary text in time, as it
acquires new readers who graft their life experiences onto their readings of
the text. The philosopher argues that a text is enriched by every new read-
44. Bonebakker, “Aspects of the History,”81 n. 17, offers a long list of medieval Arabic liter-
ary critics, from al-JumaḥitoIbnRashīq, who attributed this assessment of Zuhayr to the caliph
17Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
ing to which it is subjected and that nothing is more conducive to multiple
readings than the passage of time. Whereas the original comparison con-
sisted of only two terms, camel and old man,“today,”notes Ibn Rushd, “it
has four. Time widens the circle of the verses”(139).
Ibn Rushd concludes
by gesturing toward poetry’s highest goal. “Imyself,”he declares, “know
some verses that are, like music, all things to all men”(139).
There is yet another dimension to Borges’s revelation. Whereas Renan
and Kilito begin by assuming that Ibn Rushd’s ignorance of Greek drama
led deterministically to his rendering of tragedy and comedy by praise and
blame, and thereby deny any scope for the philosopher’s imagination, Bor-
ges subtly suggests that the concept of drama was available to the Cordoban
philosopher even though this awareness remained opaque in his commen-
tary. Borges follows Renan’s lead: he begins apologetically, assuming that
the conditions under which Ibn Rushd labored made an accurate under-
standing of Aristotle’s text impossible. “Averroes,”Borges writes, ventrilo-
quizing the Orientalist tradition, “who knew neither Syriac nor Greek, was
working from a translation of a translation”(135). Like Renan before him
and like Kilito afterward, Borges considers the incommensurability of an-
cient Greek and medieval Arabic cultures to lie at the origin of Ibn Rushd’s
incomprehension. And yet this seemingly straightforward argument for
the impossibility of translation is undermined by two moments in the text,
both of which unfold in lapidary fashion and leave to the reader the task of
assessing Ibn Rushd’slegacy.
The ﬁrst moment occurs when Ibn Rushd takes a break from his arduous
work on The Incoherence of the Incoherence. While surveying his library in search
of illumination regarding the meaning of the terms tragedia and komedia,
Ibn Rushd glances out his window and gazes on the grounds below. There
he sees, through the bars of his balcony, a group of children playing. One
child from among the group is pretending to be a muezzin, the person who
recites the Islamic call to prayer ﬁve times a day from the minaret (tower)of
a mosque. A second boy, standing motionless and supporting the erstwhile
muezzin on his shoulders, pretends to be the minaret from which the muez-
zin recites the call to prayer. A third boy, kneeling and bowing low in the dirt,
is the congregation of the faithful. This spectacle does not last long because
all three boys want to play the muezzin and none wants to assume the role of
the motionless minaret or the congregation of the faithful. But this perfor-
45. In the entirety of El Aleph, the story collection of which the Averroes story is part, the
term rendered here as “circle”(ámbito, more precisely “scope,”“ambit”)occurs only three
times: at the beginning and end of the Averroes story, with reference to the “circle”that
bounded Averroes and prevented him from understanding tragedy and comedy, and here,
with reference to the space of poetrythat is widened by time. Formally reproducing its seman-
tic content by appearing both at the story’s beginning and at its end, “circle”functions as a
metonym for a historical horizon that is bounded but also extended by time.
18 MODERN PHILOLOGY
mance drags on long enough to suggest to the discerning reader that, just as
every culture possesses its own distinct notion of literature, so too every cul-
ture possesses its own dramatic forms, whether or not these forms are
denominated as such and whether ornottheseformsaremadefounda-
tional to its genre systems. Given the universal grounds for comparison that
was the motive, stimulus, and goal of Ibn Rushd’s endeavors, Kilito’s untrans-
latability thesis appears untenable within the Borgesian framework.
This Borgesian suggestion concerning the availability to Ibn Rushd of a
concept of tragedy that was within his conceptual grasp even while the term
itself remained a mystery is conﬁrmed by a second postprandial exchange
between Ibn Rushd and his dinner guests. One of his guests, Abu al-Hasan,
has traveled all over the world, as far as China. All of Ibn Rushd’sguestsare
eager to hear tales of the sights Abu al-Hasan has seen in the course of
his travels. Abu al-Hasan obliges by telling of a strange phenomenon he
encountered in Canton (Borges borrows the term used by Arabic travel writ-
ers such as Ibn Baṭṭūṭa to describe this region of southern China: Sin Kalán,
literally meaning “Great China”).
A group of Muslim merchants conduct
Abu al-Hasan to a house of “painted wood”that resembles “a single room,
with rows of cabinet-like contrivances, or balconies, stacked on top each
other”(137). The structure Abu al-Hasan describes without being able to
name is, of course, a theater. “There were people eating and drinking,”Abu
al-Hasan elaborates, “therewerepeoplesittingontheﬂooraswell,andalso
on a raised terrace”in the midst of a performance of “ﬁfteen or twenty wear-
ing crimson masks who prayed and sang and conversed among themselves”
(137–38). As with the tableaux of children playacting the roles of a muezzin,
minaret, and congregation below Ibn Rushd’s window, the imaginary status
of these proceedings is underscored by the narrator: the masked actors
“were imprisoned, but no one could see the prison; they rode on horses,
but the horse was not to be seen; they waged battle, but the swords were of
bamboo; they died, and then they walked again”(138).
Similarly to the famous opera scene in Tolstoy’sWar and Peace that ren-
ders the spectacle on stage strange through defamiliarization, Abu al-Hasan
describes the performance he witnessed in Canton in terms that convey its
strangeness to the Arab milieu. Without using an Arabic term for drama or
theater, Abu al-Hasan makes available to Ibn Rushd in twelfth-century Cor-
doba all he would have had to know in order to adequately understand what
Aristotle meant by tragedy and comedy. (Meanwhile, apart from Borges’s
story, we know that the terms tragedy and comedy had been transliterated into
46. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Voyages d’Ibn Batoutah, texte arabe, accompagne d’une traduction,ed.C.Defrém-
ery and B. R. Sanguinetti (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1853–58),93–93. For Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’suse
of Ṣin Kalān, see Hyunhee Park, Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange
in Pre-modern Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 155.
19Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
the Arabic lexicon by al-Fārābīand Ibn Sīnāmuch earlier.)Both the playact-
ing children and the traveler’s tale indicate that the mimetic element
assumed to be missing from Ibn Rushd’s commentary and necessary for his
comprehension of the text in fact was already abundant in the target
culture. This reading is supplemented by a medievalist’s lexicographical
observation that “throughout the middle ages any place, usually but not
necessarily out of doors, where public and secular entertainments were
given—often public square or marketplace—might be called a theatre.”
While Ibn Rushd lived and wrote in an Islamic Spain milieu, the medieval
European theatrical tradition was also part of his world. The mismatch
between tragedy and praise, on the one hand, and comedy and blame, on
the other, is less the result of cultural misrecognition than of two similar phe-
nomena acquiring different names in different literary cultures. Establish-
ing a grounds for comparison, this difference-in-sameness helps the Arabic
philosopher ground the comparative study of literary form, thereby creating
a basis for a comparative poetics that still awaits its analytical realization.
Whatever Borges’sintentions,IbnRushd’s measurement of Zuhayr’s
excellence—the ability of his images to signify all things to all readers and
listeners—elucidates the Poetics as well as Ibn Rushd’s commentary on it.
Both texts bear an uncanny capacity for generating multiple interpreta-
tions. The key question generated by their reception histories is not whether
these texts were altered in transmission but rather whether they could
engender new meanings and new ways of reading poetry when considered
in light of different textual traditions. That time widens the circle of mean-
ings does not mean that the old is better than the new. Rather, Borges’s
axiom suggests that the translatability of literary form is released into the
world gradually, not in a single instant. The translatability of literary form is
activated through a text’s ability to signify different things to different peo-
ple and for its chords to resound differently to different ears.
From this vantage point, Kilito’s pessimism regarding the translatability
of cultures seems to evade a deeper issue. It is symptomatic of this evasion
that Kilito cites Petrarch’s famous remarks condemning the Arabs and
their poetry as “nothing more than seductive ...nothing more disgusting”
as the epigraph to his work without noting that, in all likelihood, nearly
everything that Petrarch knew about Arabic poetry would have reached
him via Ibn Rushd’s commentary, just as Kilito’s own access to Petrarch’s
writings was mediated by French and Arabic sources.
47. Mary Marshall, “Theatre in the Middle Ages: Evidence from the Dictionaries and
Glosses,”Symposium: A Journal Devoted to Modern Foreign Languages and Literature 4(1950): 382.
48. For a recent discussion of Petrarch’s access to Ibn Rushd’s text, see Karla Mallette, Euro-
pean Modernity and the Arab Mediterranean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
2010),34–64. Older signiﬁcant discussions include C. H. L. Bodenham, “Petrarch and the
20 MODERN PHILOLOGY
Latin exchange generated far more meanings, including productive mis-
readings, than either Petrarch or Kilito are willing or able to acknowledge.
In order for Aristotle’sPoetics to illuminate medieval Arabic poetry, the lit-
erary forms speciﬁc to ancient Greece had to undergo modiﬁcation. But
there is no mandate for reading the modiﬁcation Ibn Rushd performed on
Aristotle’s text as a reduction in its meaning. Indeed, such modiﬁcations
were probably underway before Aristotle’s ideas on poetry were given tex-
tual form, for as we know today, the Poetics is a set of lecture notes probably
compiled by Aristotle’s students.
become esoteric for most readers during their late antique reception.
the form in which it has reached us, Aristotle’s text hardly represents the
philosopher’s unmediated reﬂections on the interface between form and
meaning or representation and the making of poetry.
Notwithstanding the assumption of a linear, if fragmented, continuity
between the literary forms of ancient Greece and modern European literary
genres that still pervades scholarship on the Poetics, few theorists of modern
literature turn to drama as to a normative model for literary discourse.
Those for whom modern literature is thenormlooktothenovelasmodern
literature’sur-genre(perhaps arguing for the epic as the novel’sprecursor),
while those oriented to premodern literary cultures look to the lyric.
respect to the foregrounding of drama as the normative model for litera-
ture by classical theorists of literary language, the real parallel is between
ancient Greece and ancient India, not between Greece and Europe.
respect to the emphasis on rhetoric, the closest parallels are between medie-
val Islam, late antiquity, and ancient Greece. Against this background, mod-
ern European theories of literature are foreign and strange, worth examin-
ing on their own terms but hardly adequate guides to the aesthetic values of
places and times that never came under their inﬂuence.
Poetry of the Arabs,”Romanische Forschungen 94 (1982): 167–78; H. A. Kelly, “Aristotle-Averroes-
Alemannus on Tragedy: The Inﬂuence of the Poetics on the Middle Ages,”Viator 10 (1979):
206; and Charles Burnett, “Petrarch and Averroes: An Episode in the History of Poetics,”in
The Medieval Mind: Hispanic Studies in Honour ofAlan Deyermond,ed.RalphPennyandIanMac-
pherson (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 1997),49–56.
49. Matthew Potolsky, Mimesis (New York: Routledge, 2006), 32.
50. See D. S. Margoliouth, The Poetics of Aristotle (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911),21–
51. An unfortunate instance of the master narrative linking ancient Greece to modern
Europe is thecollection Essays on Aristotle’sPoetics,ed.Amélie Rorty (Princeton University Press,
1992), particularly the essay by Stephen Halliwell on “The Poetics and Its Interpreters”(409–
23), which makes no reference to the Arabic exegetical tradition.
52. Miner, Comparative Poetics, esp. 26 and 216.
53. Much like Aristotle’sPoetics, the earliest Sanskrit treatise on aesthetics, the Natyasastra
attributed to Bharata-Muni, is exclusively concerned with drama. For a translation of this text
by Manomohan Ghosh, see The Natyasastra: A Treatise on Ancient Indian Dramaturgy and Histrion-
ics (Calcutta: Manisha Granthalaya, 1956).
21Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
When the Poetics is interpreted as a prolegomenon to literary theory
today, and as one of the foundational texts establishing a grounds for com-
parative literature, when it is used as an introductory text in graduate prose-
minars on comparative literature, it is read as Ibn Rushd himself read the
text: for what it has to say about poetics, beyond ancient Greece. While this
approach has contributed to the text’s extraordinary afterlife, it can make
no claims to be consistent with the usages envisioned for the Poetics in its
original context. Nor does Ibn Rushd’s approach correspond to the later
reception of the Poetics in early modern Europe, wherein Italian critics such
as Antonio Riccoboni (1541–99)made of Aristotle’stexta“practical man-
ual for poets and playwrights.”
At the same time, Ibn Rushd’s willingness
to assimilate the culturally speciﬁc aspects of Aristotle’s text into his imme-
diate milieu paved the way for the subsequent European appropriations of
the text by Hermannus Alemannus, Lorenzo Valla, Julius Caesar Scaliger,
and Umberto Eco. The rendering of tragedy by praise and comedy by
blame licensed later adaptations, which in turn made of the Poetics a text
that could elucidate all literatures, if in inevitably differing ways, and only
after reading the original against the grain.
With respect to its emphasis on dramatic literature, Aristotle’sPoetics is
indisputably a product of its epoch. The text’s relevance beyond its original
milieu resides more in its exegetical method—including especially the use
of textual citations to substantiate epistemological claims that Ibn Rushd
put to good use in his commentary—than in general precepts. Rather than
offer a universal theory of poetry, as Plato did through Socrates in the
Republic, Aristotle and Ibn Rushd pioneered a method for comparative
poetics. Their achievement suggests that the Poetics and its commentary’s
merging of literary form and philosophical analysis should be regarded as a
strength rather than as a weakness. That Aristotle’s explications are tied to
readings of speciﬁc texts and genres attests to the literary acumen that
accompanied his philosophical agenda. Just as Aristotle’s insights were tied
to his time and place, so too were Ibn Rushd’s horizons intensively shaped
by his immersion in Arabic poetry.
To fault the Arab philosopher for rendering tragedy as praise and com-
edy as blame is to internalize the Orientalist fallacy that makes of ancient
Athens the gold standard for all literary cultures and regards any departure
from Greek norms as a fall from grace. A more productive way of narrating
the circuitous route followed by the Poetics as it journeyed from Athens to
Baghdad (via AbūBishr and al-Fārābī)to Central Asia (via Ibn Sīnā)and to
54. John Edwin Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship: From the Revival of Learning (Cam-
bridge University Press, 1908), 134. For a recent facsimile reprint of this work, see Poetica Aristo-
telis Latine conversa (1587)Compendium Artis poeticae Aristotelis [ab]Antonio Riccoboni (1591)
(Munich: Fink, 1970).
22 MODERN PHILOLOGY
al-Andalus (via Ibn Rushd)is to see each iteration as a testimony to the
translatability of literary norms that in turn makes possible the translatabil-
ity of literary form. In all its multifarious deployments, the power of poetry
resides in its ability to act on the imagination. In the words of al-Fārābī,
poetry is “composed of things that aim at imaginative assent ...and result in
seeing it as better or worse, more beautiful or uglier, digniﬁed or base.”
Ibn Rushd echoes al-Fārābīwhen he notes that, unlike rhetoric, poetry
achieves its mission when it persuades us of a particular belief (iʿtiqād).
imaginative assent referenced by al-Fārābīand Ibn Rushd stimulates a trans-
formation of the seer as well as of the seen. The translatability of literary form
across time and space gives the lie to the still-prevalent scholarly habit of
treating Arab poets, translators, commentators, and philosophers as merely
the ﬂawed and ignorant mediators of an immutable Greek civilization.
Ibn Rushd’s illustrious predecessor Ibn Sīnāopened the second chapter
of his commentary on the Poetics by limiting his interpretation to that part
of the Poetics “which we are able to understand”(177).IbnSīnāacknowl-
edged that the text was full of “discussions of poems and descriptions”
peculiar to the Greeks (177). The Cordoban philosopher declared his inter-
est in precisely that part of the Poetics that could be understood without ref-
erence to the Greek tradition. While al-Fārābīand Ibn Sīnāsystematically
sought to gain a deeper grasp of the Greek genre system, Ibn Rushd did
not subordinate his inquiry to such an information-gathering end. Far
from seeking to understand Greek literature, Ibn Rushd aimed to under-
stand those aspects of Aristotle’sPoetics that pertain to the literatures of all
peoples, including the Arabs. While Ibn Sīnā’s approach was more lexically
precise, Ibn Rushd’s hermeneutics offers a more substantial precedent for
the discipline of comparative literature. What the latter’s commentary
sacriﬁces with respect to technical precision it gains with respect to creative
intervention. While Ibn Rushd failed to explicate Greek literary forms to an
Arab readership, he made great strides toward enabling a comparative
poetics that could give the lie to the only lesson that Petrarch took away
from his encounter with Ibn Rushd in Hermannus’stranslation.
In what remains the best study of the poetics of praise for the early mod-
ern period, O. B. Hardison foregrounds the centrality of Ibn Rushd’sinter-
vention. “Had [Ibn Rushd’s]paraphrase added only the magic name of
Aristotle to the theory of praise,”Hardison notes, “it would be a signiﬁcant
However, Ibn Rushd went beyond the mere infusion of Aris-
55. Al-Fārābī,Iḥṣāʾal-ʿUlūm,ed.ʿUthmānAmīn(Cairo: Maktabat al-Anjlūal-Miṣrīyah, 1968),
56. See Ibn Rushd, Talkhīṣ,68–72, 79/75–79, 86. Ibn Sīnā’stermisraʾy(179/94),which
comes closer to meaning “opinion.”Both terms correspond to Aristotle’sdianoia.
57. Hardison, The Enduring Monument, 35.
23Rebecca Gould The Poetics from Athens to al-Andalus
totle and revived a discussion from late antiquity concerning the modalities
of poetic speech. Looking beyond the Latin critics Donatus and Fulgentius,
who had discussed praise solely in connection with Vergil’sAeneid,Ibn
Rushd broadened the theory of praise to include all literary genres.
It may be the case that Ibn Rushd achieved this clarity by neglecting
essential aspects of Aristotle’s poetics, such as plot (mythos)and mimesis. It
may also be true that Ibn Rushd chose to focus exclusively on those aspects
of Aristotle’s poetics that could be easily assimilated by the Arabic literary
canon. But if the reduction of poiesis to praise and blame is regarded as an
error, it must be acknowledged that Ibn Rushd’s mistranslation—which is
better understood as simply a variant interpretation—was one of the most
productive misreadings in world literary history.
24 MODERN PHILOLOGY