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Classics

Hospitality, a Pillar of Arab and Islamic Ethics

Arabic miniature

Generosity is driven by his anxious desire to escape death’s great abyss

This article was published in Oasis 24. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-14 09:49:02

A legendary poet-knight slightly preceding Islam, Hātim al-Tā’ī is a proverbial model of generous hospitality not only in Arab literature but also throughout the Islamic world. Of the very many texts in which his name occurs, we have chosen to translate almost integrally one of the most ancient sources: the entry dedicated to him in the Book of Poetry and Poets by Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), which relates the main traits of Hātim’s figure in a few pages of crisp, direct prose. We have also taken into account the more long-winded parallel narration in the Book of Songs, the great poetico-musical encyclopaedia compiled by Abū l-Faraj al-Isfahānī (d. 967).

 

 

If, in the case of Ibn Qutayba and al-Isfahānī, we are dealing with two classics of learned literature from the Abbasid era aimed at constructing an ‘Arab humanism’, some of the motifs they treat will be taken up again in the popular folklore: the anecdote about Hātim’s hospitality post mortem, for example, ended up in the Thousand and One Nights.[1] The deeds of the Arab tribal chief have also proved capable of crossing the sea, entering Boccaccio’s Decameron by way of “some Genoese”[2] and – several centuries later – Goethe’s West-Eastern Diwan: “Nicht Hatem Thai, nicht der Alles Gebende Kann ich in meiner Armuth seyn” (In my poverty, I cannot be Hatem Thai, not he who gives everything away).

 

 

Why this great success, even outside the Arab-Islamic context? Doubtless because Hātim is a universal archetype and, therefore, one to be approached in an anthropological key rather than a historical one. At the same time, his universality is reached through the particular: the Arab nomad culture preceding Islam. This specific setting imposes a ‘cultural migration’ on the Western reader. With the intention of facilitating this effort, we take the liberty of suggesting that the female camels and their offspring (that we have kept for philological scruple) be mentally replaced by the ewes and lambs belonging to our own Arcadian tradition: everything will immediately become more familiar. Conversely, it would strike an inappropriate note to clarify (as is, indeed, the case) that the possessions that Hātim strips himself of are, for the most part, fruit of his raids.

 

 

As the story about the three poets clearly illustrates, Hātim’s generosity is driven by his anxious desire to escape death’s great abyss. “So now then, you who revile me because I attend the wars / and partake in all pleasures, can you keep me alive forever?” sang another great pre-Islamic poet, Tarafa.[3] In Hātim, this yearning is taken to the extreme: in an anecdote not recounted by Ibn Qutayba, an enemy shouts at him in the midst of a furious fight, “Give me your spear!” And the tribal chief immediately strips himself of his weapon, thereby exposing himself to the risk of dying. In reality, death is ubiquitous in these stories, one need only think of the scene of the horse sacrificed in time of famine.

 

 

 

 

 

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Facing the intransigence of this all-pervading ideal, nascent Islam chooses the path of moderation. To be sure, following the example of the Qur’anic Abraham and his treatment of the mysterious guests (51:24-27 and 15:51-56) and perhaps even more so on the basis of Arab customs adopted by Muhammad and his first Companions (of which the story of Abū Talha offers a beautiful example), hospitality has been made a keystone of the Islamic ethical system: “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should honour his guests.” And yet the limits of this hospitality are also defined with great practicality: three days, the first with a special banquet and the other two with normal treatment. “Anything after that is charity.” Still unsatisfied, the jurists were to ask themselves whether the three days should be taken as a binding precept, on the same level as prayer and fasting, or as a recommendation, as they will finally conclude.

 

 

In this light, the contrasting assessments of Hātim’s person in two traditions reported by al-Isfahānī appear significant: in the first, ‘Alī expresses a favourable (and very modern) opinion about the human virtues that prepares to faith but, in the second, Islam’s Prophet – without mincing his words – declares to Hātim’s son that his father is firewood in hell, thereby criticizing in the clearest possible manner the pagan motive that drove his quest for the ‘fine deeds’. It must be said, however, that the author of the Book of Songs (who is very little interested in law) implicitly prefers ‘Alī, giving his hadīth pride of place.

 

 

The hadīths and, even more so, their legal exegesis thus reveal the difficulty of putting the value of generous hospitality into practice. Even in those remote days, one could say. And yet, hospitality has remained a typically Arab virtue over the centuries and the unresolved oscillation between ideality and its rationalization  has still something to say to our own, disenchanted days.

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

 

 


 

[1] Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and A Night, 10 volumes (London, 1885), vol. 4, pp. 94-96.

 

 

[2] The story is that of Nathan and Mithridanes (Tenth Day, Third Novella). It can be no coincidence that the plot is almost identical to the story from the Hātim cycle, despite the fact that Boccaccio set it in legendary Cathay. See Georges Thouvenin, “La légende arabe d’Hatim Ta’ï dans le Décaméron,”  Romania 59 (1933), pp. 248-269. The main problem lies in identifying the exact source: Thouvenin hypothesizes it could be the Bustān by the Persian poet Sa‘dī (d. 1291) but, given the nature of the contacts between East and West during the late Middle Ages, a less literary and more popular transmission would be preferable.

 

 

[3] The translation is taken from A.J. Arberry, The Seven Odes. The First Chapter in Arabic Literature, G. Allen & Unwin (Macmillan, London and New York, 1957) p. 86.

To cite this article


Printed version:
Martino Diez, “Hospitality, a Pillar of Arab and Islamic Ethics”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 94-95.


Online version:
Martino Diez, “Hospitality, a Pillar of Arab and Islamic Ethics”, Oasis [online], published on 15th March 2017, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/hospitality-pillar-arab-and-islamic-ethics.

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