The Arab Homer, part 4


arab homer mGreek mythology puts on a new robe

I will discuss the reception of Greek polytheistic worldview in the Arab-Islamic civilization universe in the following passages. How could one reconcile strict Islamic monotheism with the polytheistic worldview of Greek poetry? Andalusi poet and philologist Ḥāzim al-Qarṭāǧanī (1211-1284) in his book Minhāǧ al-bulaġāʼ wa-sirāǧ al-udabāʼ (The methodology of the eloquent ones and the lamp of the literati) reiterates al-Fārābī in that Every genre of Greek poetry is connected to a certain particular metre. In addition, he lists three other observations regarding Greek poetry:

  1. Greek poetry is based on myths (asaṭīr) and fables (ḫurāfāt) which imagine the existence of things not existing in reality;
  2. Greek poetry also rests on fables (ḫurāfāt) revolving around real things, in a way similar to the Fables of Kalila and Dimna or the fable written by An-Nābiġa about a snake and her master;
  3. They [the Greeks] have a special poetic technique by which they relate the passing of time and its vicissitudes, turns of fortune, the way human conditions change and what they turn into.[1]

Al-Bīrūnī (973–1048), the father of Arab “comparative mythology” tried to approach it sine ira et studio. This Khwarezmian polymath can certainly be considered a predecessor of Campbell, Frazer, Eliade or Dumézil, while his scientific methodology sometimes puts even modern scholars to shame.

In 1017, as Mahmud of Ghazna took Rey on one of his countless military exploits into Persia, the city's scholars, including Al-Bīrūnī, were taken to Mahmud's court in Ghazna, while he himself was made court astrologer.[2] As the great conqueror used to put his faith in the stars before major battles, Al-Bīrūnī accompanied Mahmud on his invasions into India and lived there for a few years. Driven by his curiosity and a deep sense of ethics, he mastered Sanskrit because he wanted to read the major works of Hindu literature by himself. The result of his study was a monumental Taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind min maqūla maqbūla fī al-ʻaql aw marḏūla (Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable) -  an encyclopaedic work in 80 chapters finished sometime around 1030, in which he explored nearly every aspect of Indian life, including geology, geography, history and laws, astronomy and mathematics, religion and philosophy, festivals, manners and customs. He quotes extensively key Hindu texts like the Four Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads or the Puranas, as well as Indian scientific works by Aryabhata and Brahmagupta. His interest in all aspects of Indian civilization led him to start collecting Hindu books in order to translate into Arabic and showcase not only Indian discoveries in mathematics, science, medicine or astronomy, but also to try to better understand the difficult and often bloody history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the Subcontinent. Throughout the work he tries to keep the utmost level of objectivity, even at times acknowledging that the underlying reason why many Hindus hate Muslims lies in the destruction and the loss of life caused by nearly four centuries of Muslim invasions into India. His aim was to understand the Hindu culture from within, letting the written evidence speak for itself. He opens the Taḥqīq with:

The book is a simple historic record (kitāb ḥikāya). I shall bring forward the theories of the Hindus (kalām al-Hind) exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.[3]

His knowledge about the Greek and Indian mythology enabled him to draw comparisons between the two. Rather than placing value on the two peoples´ mythological stories, he presents the Greek/Hindu worldview as basically monotheistic, or at least reads it “through the eyes of a monotheist”. Hindu gods (devas) are thus seen as angels (malā’ika), while the Brahman, defined as the “first father” (al-ab al-awwal), represents the Universal principle of the Universe, i. e. the God. Drawing comparison with the Greeks, he arrives at a conclusion:

If you compare these [Hindu] traditions (aqāwīl) with those of the Greeks with regard to their own religion, the strangeness will cease to exist. We have already mentioned that they [the Greeks] called the angels gods (āliha).[4]

In Book 8, after retelling the stories regarding Zeus’s birth on Cretan Mount Dicta where his mother concealed him from his father Kronos, so that he would not devour him as he had devoured others, the abduction of Europa (who bears him only Minos and Rhadamanthus), and Zeus’s death on Crete where he was buried at the time of Samson the Israelite, being 780 years of age, Al-Bīrūnī returns to the topic of the divine:[5]

Regarding that which has no connection with humanity regarding Zeus, the Greeks say that he is Jupiter, the son of Saturn, for Saturn alone, according to the philosophers of the Academy (aṣḥāb al-miẓalla), as Galen said in the Book of Deduction (Kitāb al-burhān), is eternal, not having been born. This is sufficiently proven by Aratus’[6] book Phenomena (Aẓ-Ẓāhirāt), for he begins with the praise of Zeus: “We, the mankind, do not relinquish him, nor can we do without him; He filled the roads and the meeting-places of men and is mild towards them; He produces for them what they like, and incites them to work; He reminds them of the necessities of life and indicates to them the times favourable for digging and ploughing for a proper growth; He has raised the signs and stars in the celestial sphere; Therefore, we supplicate him first and last.” After this, he praises the spiritual beings (ar-Rūḥāniyyūn; i. e. the Muses). If you compare the two, [you will find that] these are the descriptions of Brahman.[7]

As it was already mentioned, a single verse from the Iliad (Β 204), taken out of its original context, was used to prove Homer’s monotheism. Al-Bīrūnī also finds the most poetic description of Zeus in Homer’s words:

The author of the commentary on the Phaenomena of Aratus claims that he diverged from [the custom of] the poets in beginning with the gods; he was determined to speak of the celestial sphere. Furthermore he, like Galen, reflected on the origin of Asclepius, and said: “We would like to know which Zeus Aratus meant, the mystical (ar-ramzī) or the physical one (aṭ-ṭabīʻī). For the poet Crates called the celestial sphere Zeus, and likewise Homer said:[8]

‘As pieces of snow are cut off from Zeus.’”[9]

Aratus calls the ether and the air Zeus in the passage: “The roads and the meeting-places are full of him, and we all need to inhale him.” Therefore, he claims that the philosophers of the Stoa (aṣḥāb al-usṭuwān) see in Zeus the spirit (ar-rūḥ) which is dispersed in the matter (al-hayūlī), and similar to our souls, i.e. the nature which rules every natural body. And ascribes to him mildness, since he is the cause of the good (ʻillat al-ḫayrāt); therefore, he is right in claiming that he has not only created men, but also the gods.[10]

Al-Bīrūnī mentions Homer on two other occasions. In Book 3, while discussing the Vedic system of five great elements (pañca mahābhūta – space, air, fire, water, earth) and their qualities: I do not know what they [the Hindus] mean by bringing sound into relation with space. Perhaps they mean something similar to what Homer, the poet of the Greeks, said: “Those endowed with the seven melodies speak and answer each other in a pleasant voice.” Therefore, he meant the seven planets, as another poet said: “There are seven spheres endowed with different melodies, eternally moving, glorifying the Creator, for it is he who holds them and embraces them unto the farthest end of the starless sphere.”[11] Such a verse is nowhere to be found in the Homeric corpus – actually, Pythagoras connected the celestial spheres and musical tones.[12]

Homer is mentioned once more in Book 21, in which Al-Bīrūnī presents the Vedic system of seven upper and seven lower planetary systems: After the earths come the heavens, consisting of seven levels, one above the other. They are called lokas, which means “gathering-place” (maǧmaʻ/maḥfil). Similarly, the Greeks thought of heavens as gathering-places. John Grammaticus said in his refutation of Proclus: “Some philosophers saw the sphere called γαλαξίας, i.e. ‘milk’, by which they mean the Milky Way, as a ‘dwelling-place’ (manzil/mustaqarr) for rational souls. The poet Homer said: ‘You have made the pure heaven an eternal dwelling-place for the gods. The winds do not shake it, the rains do not wet it, and the snows do not destroy it. For in it there is radiant clearness without clouds covering it.’[13][14]

Another very important issue must be raised – the moral dimension of Greek poetry. Ibn Rušd, commenting on Plato’s Republic,[15] follows Plato’s criticism directed towards poets who imitate i.e. describe improper subjects:

ought to imitate from the time of their youth what is appropriate to them, and they ought to try to be like men of courage, sobriety, nobility of mind and similar qualities. But as regards imitations of men possessed of baseness and vice, it is not proper for them to have anything to do with them. For if imitations from the time of youth continue for a long time, they turn into a trait of character and [a second] nature, alike in body and soul.

Therefore he said: it is not proper that the most worthy of men should imitate the actions of women crying out in their labour, nor of women having intercourse with their husbands or quarrelling with them, because they fancy themselves fit for rulership, nor of women [indulging] in mourning, lamentation and ululation. Nor are they allowed to try to be like maidservants and slaves, or to imitate drunkards or madmen. And not this alone; we will also not let them imitate the crafts of tanner or cobbler or other (like) occupations. For just as they are not allowed to engage in these occupations, so also they are not allowed to imitate them.

Even more strange than this would it be were they allowed to imitate the neighing of horses, the braying of asses, the lapping of rivers, the murmuring of the sea or the roar of thunder, for all this resembles mere insanity. I said: poems should be eliminated which follow the Arab custom of describing these matters and of imitating things akin to them.[16]

What he meant by “the Arab custom” is further explained in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics:

Arabic poetry is mostly immersed in the insatiable (nahim) and the repulsive (karīh). The class which they call nasīb[17] is an incitement to depravity, and should be avoided by children, who are brought up by their poetry in what incites them to courage (šaǧāʻa) and nobility (karam), alas the Arabs don’t incite by their poetry to anything save these two virtues, and not by way of inciting to them, but by way of pride (faḫr).[18]

Arabic poetry is empty of panegyrics for noble deeds and disparagement of shortcomings which the Noble book [i. e. the Noble Qur’an] reproached.[19]

Greek poetry, on the other hand is directed towards inciting to virtue and repelling depravity, or to which benefits in acquiring good manners or knowledge.[20]

But even the Greek poetry is a source of danger - even the gods (Al-Bīrūnī’s angels) behave in ways not to be emulated by the young ones, like Zeus who married certain women one after the other, and cohabited with others, raping them while not marrying them.[21]

No doubt, poetry, be it Greek and Indian or Arabic, should be handled with care.


[1] Ḥāzim al-Qarṭāǧanī, 68

[2] Kamiar 2009, 167-168

[3] Al-Bīrūnī, Taḥqīq, 5

[4] Ibid, 72

[5] Inserted are the stories of Cecrops (the source of all the vices among the Athenians) and the birth of Alexander (whose father is Nectanebus, king of Egypt, who after having fled before Artaxerxes the Black, was hiding in the capital of Macedonia and, engaging in astrology and soothsaying, tricked Olympias, the wife of King Philip).

[6] Aratus (c. 315–c. 245 BC) was a Greek didactic poet. His only completely extant work is the Phaenomena, a didactic poem in hexameters whose immediate popularity spurred many commentaries. One verse from the famous opening invocation to Zeus is quoted in the New Testament (Acts 17:28). An Arabic translation of the Phaenomena was commissioned by the caliph Al-Maʼmūn (Dolan 2017, 48)

[7] Al-Bīrūnī, Taḥqīq, 74

[8] Ibid, 74-75

[9] The verse is „ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε ταρφειαὶ νιφάδες Διὸς ἐκποτέονται“ (Τ 357).

[10] Al-Bīrūnī, Taḥqīq, 75

[11] Ibid, 32

[12] Lamberton 1989, 238

[13] The verses are „ὅθι φασὶ θεῶν ἕδος ἀσφαλὲς αἰεὶ / ἔμμεναι. οὔτ᾿ ἀνέμοισι τινάσσεται οὔτε ποτ᾿ ὄμβρῳ / δεύεται οὔτε χιὼν ἐπιπίλναται, ἀλλὰ μάλ᾿ αἴθρη / πέπταται ἀνέφελος, λευκὴ δ᾿ ἐπιδέδρομεν αἴγλη“ (ζ 42-45).

[14] Al-Bīrūnī, Taḥqīq, 32

[15] The Arabic original is lost but the work is preserved in Hebrew translation of Samuel b. Yehuda and was in turn translated into English by E. I. J. Rosenthal, whose translation is reproduced here.

[16] Ibn Rušd, Commentary on Republic, 132-133

[17] Nasīb is a nostalgic opening of a qasida in which the poet reflects on the passing of time. A common theme is the poet's pursuit of his beloved's caravan, but by the time he reaches their camp-site, usually situated among ruins, the caravan has already moved on.

[18] Ibn Rušd, aš-Šiʻr, 67

[19] Ibid, 123

[20] Ibid, 67-68

[21] Al-Bīrūnī, Taḥqīq, 73