Matthew L. Keegan: Before Literature: Adab in an Age of Commentary

The Maqamat of al-Hariri, a collection of trickster stories written in Arabic in the 12th century AD, was once considered the pinnacle of the Arabic prose tradition. Scholars composed scores of commentaries on it, and students studied it intensively from Spain to Central Asia. However, in the age of colonial modernity, the Maqamat came to be evaluated under the rubric of „literature.“ The advent of literature and its evaluative, comparative edge led to the reformulation of canons and the denigration of certain kinds of reading practices. The digressive, scholarly commentaries on the Maqamat came to be seen as a mark of cultural decline and as essentially un-literary activities. My project seeks to rethink how adab is to be read by examining the transformations wrought by developments of literature and by exploring the practices of interpretation carried out in the age of commentary.

Matthew L. Keegan is the Moinian Assistant Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College. His research focuses on the intersections of Islamic thought and Arabic poetry and storytelling traditions. He usually works on tricksters, commentaries, riddles, and anthologies written in Arabic before the Ottoman period, but he also makes occasional forays into the 19th century. He has served as an Assistant Professor at American University of Sharjah and as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin.


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