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THE FUTŪḤ AL-BAHNASĀ: And its relation to pseudo-"Maġāzī" and "Futūḥ" literature, Arabic "Siyar" and Western Chanson de Geste in the Middle Ages

H. T. NORRIS
Quaderni di Studi Arabi
Vol. 4 (1986), pp. 71-86
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25802579
Page Count: 16
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
THE FUTŪḤ AL-BAHNASĀ: And its relation to pseudo-"Maġāzī" and "Futūḥ" literature, Arabic "Siyar" and Western Chanson de Geste in the Middle Ages
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Abstract

The article discusses the close relationship between the content — thematic and descriptive — of the leading Arabic siyar, especially the Sīrat 'Antar, and those sundry, diverse and less elaborated works of Arabic popular literature in the Middle Ages which have the jihād, undertaken by the Companions of the Prophet, as their central theme. These are known as the pseudo-Maġāzī and pseudo-Futūḥ works. They were popular in al-Andalus and amongst the Moriscos, and in the Arab East and in India. In such works the heroic warriors are often interchangeable. Occasionally, and 'Antar is an example, popular heroes of the Jāhiliyya age assume the mantle of 'Alī, the son in law of the Prophet, and fight for the latter against enemies who are without doubt regarded as infidels. Parts 93 and 94 of the Sīrat 'Antar are partly concerned with battles fought by him against the Copts, the Sundanese and the Ethiopians. They take place in Middle Egypt around the ancient city of al-Bahnasā. The enemy are defeated and amongst them are giants and warriors mounted upon elephants. The article then discusses an Egyptian work of popular pseudo-Futūḥ literature, Futūḥ al-Bahnasā, which is attributed to the rāwī, Abū 'Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Muqrī, or al-Muqurrī. Several copies of the text of this work are found in Europe, including the British Library, the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Much of it would seem to date from the Mamlūk era. One is struck by the close parallels which exist between parts of this work and the section of the Sīrat 'Antar, referred to above. Quite clearly a common source is being drawn upon in both works for part of their content. In both of them, the Sudanese are mounted upon elephants, the African kings and Coptic rulers are the same, with minor variations, and in the Futūḥ al-Bahnasā there is an army of negroes who are led by chains which are fixed in their noses. These latter (the quwwād) were routed by the Companions of the Prophet. Some of the latter died in the battle and were subsequently buried in the necropolis (jabbāna) of al-Bahnasā, which survives to this day and is being surveyed jointly by the Dār al-Āṯār al-Islāmiyya in Kuwait and the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, led by Professor G. Fehervari. The portrait of the giants (al-muḫazzamūn) seems to be derived from early geographical descriptions by the seaman Sulaymān, or by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī. The text of these appears, translated, in J. Reinaud, Relations des voyages dans le IXe siècle de l'ère chrétienne, Paris 1845 (see Tadeusz Lewicki, Arabic External Sources for the History of Africa to the South of the Sahara, London - Lagos 1974, page 31). It would appear that in both the Sīrat 'Antar, and yet more so in the Futūḥ al-Bahnasā, there are to be found fragments of an East African or an Indian tale about giants and elephants and their riders and that these fragments are incorporated in a story of Muslim or Arab heroism in Middle and Upper Egypt and in Nubia. Parts of the story survive in oral literature in the Sudan Republic until today. There is nothing historical in this story, save for the known revolt by Nubians and parts of Upper Egypt during different periods of Muslim rule. The article concludes by comparing and contrasting the portrayal of the African monster in this Arabic literature and in Western chansons of the medieval period. John Block Friedman writes, «Climatologists and moralists believed Ethiopia to be the home of all that was primitive and ugly, and many poets felt the same way. The Chanson de Roland speaks of "Ethiopia, a cursed land", where "the black men... had great noses and winnowing ears". As these "Sarrazins" charge him, Roland watches them come, a "cursed people, blacker than ink; their only whiteness is their teeth"». Black skin, a terrifying appearance and sin were interconnected. Warriors mounted on elephants are depicted in the French bestiaries. The ambivalence and the paradox of the view of mankind shared by men in both East and West is made clear in the Sīrat 'Antar, in Futūḥ al-Bahnasā and in chansons (see Paul Bancourt, Les Musulmans dans les Chansons de Geste du cycle du roi, Université de Provence, Aix en Provence, Tome 11, 1982, pages 21-23 and 69-71). The views of the combatants in the jihād, Crusader or Saracen, are remarkably close in their aversion to the Blemmyae and Epiphagi, with «their faces on their chests». The examples in the article may offer further scope for research into parallels and borrowings between Arabic and medieval Western popular literature, folk epic in particular.

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