This talk explores the comparison between the poetry of Homer and the Qur’Än made by Qusá¹Ä ibn LÅ«qÄ (ca. 820-912 CE), a translator and author of medical and scientific texts, in the context of Homeric reception across the early medieval Near East. Ibn LÅ«qÄ wrote a defense of Christianity, responding to various claims made by his Muslim acquaintance Ibn MunaÄŸÄŸim, including the inimitability of the Qur’Än (Samir and Nwyia, 1981). In a remarkable passage, he juxtaposes the collection of the Qur’Än, which remained fragmented and dispersed until it was assembled by the caliph ‘UthmÄn, according to numerous and varied ‘aá¸¥ÄdÄ«th (Burton); and the collection of the Homericcorpus under Peisistratus (Wyrick, 2004). Ibn LÅ«qÄ notes that ‘UthmÄn required two independent witnesses to include a verse in the Qur’Än, whereas Peisistratus’s experts could discern authentic and forged Homeric verses based on their language alone.
Ibn LÅ«qÄ used his status as an authoritative mediator of Greek tradition to make this unique comparison (Sizgorich, 2010). Yet his appeal to Homer, in whom the ‘AbbÄsid translators showed little interest as compared to philosophy and science, and whose reception among Christianswas mixed, demands closer examination. Indeed, Robert Hoyland has recently emphasized how religion was only one among many factors insocial relations, along side “culture, ethnicity, history, language” (Hoyland,2011). Accordingly, in this paper I examine the role of these factors in the reception of Homer across the Early Medieval Near East, in order to place in relief the circumstances of Ibn LÅ«qÄ’s comparison between epic poetry and the Qur’Än.
In Egypt, where an indigenous reception of epic traditions about the Trojan War had developed among the priesthood in the Greco-Roman period (Quack, 2005), Late Antique Christians were largely hostile to Homer. Although epic hexameters evidently played a role in education at some monasteries, the latest references, at around the time of the Arab conquest, condemn the poetry as idolatrous (Fournet, 2011). A very different situation existed in Syria and Mesopotamia, where the association between Homer and polytheism was less pronounced. The astrologer and polymath Theophilus of Edessa (695-785 CE), who was active at the court of the ‘AbbÄsidcaliph al-MahdÄ«, translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into Syriac, and also apparently included a retelling of the Trojan War in his Chronicle. This narrative sympathizes with the Trojans, implying connections between their defeat by the Greeks and the subjugated Christians of the Near East (Conrad, 2005).
Ibn LÅ«qÄ, a native speaker of Syriac, was probably familiar with this positive attitude toward Homer. Like his contemporary, the Christian á¸¤unayn ibn Isá¸¥Äq, he traveled in the Byzantine Empire (probably Constantinople), where he would have learned epic poetry in Greek, along with the Peisistratus legend and the allegorical interpretation of Homer, a Neoplatonicstrategy (Lamberton, 1989) that gained broad Christian support by the sixth century (Browning). Ibn Isá¸¥Äq radicalized allegorical interpretation for his Muslim readers, divesting Homeric citations in the works of Galen of all allusions to the gods, for instance identifying Apollo as a mortal doctor, and even a “prophet” (Stromaier, 1980). I argue that this strategy, pursued by the head of the Bayt al-á¸¤ikmaunder caliph al-Ma’mÅ«n, clarifies the comparison of the Qur’Än to Homer by IbnLÅ«qÄ, who identifies both as sources of rhetorical and scientific knowledge, if not divine inspiration. In particular, it explains Ibn LÅ«qÄ’s extremely daring comparison between the prophet Muhammad and a polytheist poet, which breaks the normal monotheistic decorum of Christian-Jewish-Muslim debates. In fact, in ‘AbbÄsid Baghdad Homer was known not as a pagan poet, but as a wise man who inspired philosophers.