Interview: Murderers and Murder Victims in Pre- and Early Islamic Periods

The longstanding series Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 1: The Near and Middle East recently reached its 150th volume by publishing the special Prominent Murder Victims of the Pre- and Early Islamic Periods Including the Names of Murdered Poets. We caught up with Geert Jan van Gelder, editor and translator of the volume, to talk about his love for Arabic literature, the translation of the work, as well as a few historic crime stories.

Professor Van Gelder, thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about your work and your background?

When I was sixteen I bought Tritton’s Teach Yourself Arabic. So began for me a life-long love of Arabic language and literature. I studied Semitic Languages in Amsterdam and Leiden (1965–72) and I was fortunate to be employed as a lecturer in Arabic at the University of Groningen (1975–98) and then as Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford (1998–2012). Now, “retired”, I live in Haren again. With my books and articles on Classical Arabic literature I seem to have earned a reputation for being interested in the highways and byways, but particularly the latter, of Arabic literature. This must be among the reasons why a Festschrift dedicated to me in 2014 was entitled The Rude, the Bad, and the Bawdy. I am not especially interested in proving theories using (and sometimes abusing) well-known texts, but I see it as my task to introduce as many people as possible to the riches of Arabic literature. To that end I have translated poems and prose texts, in anthologies (in Dutch and English) and in editions with translations. I aim at making translations that are as close to the original as tolerable, yet readable: always a challenge.

What made you decide to take on the translation of the Prominent Murder Victims book?

During the past decade or so I collaborated on editions and translations of several works: with Gregor Schoeler on the famous Epistle of Forgiveness by al-Ma‘arri, with some seven others on the celebrated Literary History of Medicine by Ibn Abi Usaybi‘ah, and with Emily Selove on that extraordinary text, Hikayat Abi l-Qasim al-Baghdadi (to appear this year as A Portrait of Abu l-Qasim al-Baghdadi). Working with others is rewarding and pleasant, but I felt I wanted to do another translation all by myself, which has some obvious advantages (as well as disadvantages). The book by the 9th-century Muhammad ibn Habib on prominent murder victims is not unknown to specialists, but it has not been used as often as it should. The subject, murder, is of perennial interest to almost everyone. The stories are told in a straightforward manner, without moralising; they are often entertaining. For a modern readership they require a lot of background knowledge and explanations, which I supply in notes. I did not offer my book to that otherwise admirable series, the Library of Arabic Literature, for it does not use footnotes and dislikes extensive annotation, so I am pleased that Brill accepted it and nicely produced it.

The book consists basically of two texts, one dealing with the murder of prominent people, the other with the murder of poets. Are there any noticeable differences between the two texts?

The author apparently wrote two different books but then decided to join them, as is clear from cross-references. Some poets who were murdered have an entry in the first part, which is duly noted in the second. The part on poets also contains stories of poets who were killed in fights and battles, which is not the same as being murdered. As can be expected in stories on poets, the second part contains many lines of verse, but poetry is by no means absent from the first part. I should stress that especially in pre- and early Islamic times a poet was a prominent person. Many tribal leaders were proficient poets (or vice versa). In the modern world the role of the poet has to some extent been taken over by writers and journalists; but some journalists only become really prominent when they are murdered, which was shown a few years ago in a notorious case.

What are some of the most common motives for murder? And are there any differences between motives for murdering prominent people and murdering poets?

The range of motives for murder in Ibn Habib’s book differs from that in present-day crime stories. There are no psychopaths, no sexual or sadistic murders purely for the sake of killing, no random or terrorist murders. Even murder prompted by passion and sexual jealousy is rare. Among the more common reasons for killing someone are vengeance or retaliation, as the result of a blood feud or defending one’s honour. Political intrigue is another motive, to eliminate enemies or rivals, as was done by governors and caliphs, including Mu‘awiyah, the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty, and the Abbasid caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma’mun. A few tyrants are assassinated, with some justice, such as the pre-Islamic ruler of Medina, al-Fityawn, who used to deflower brides before their husbands, a custom also practised by the South Arabian ruler Zuhayr, who was killed at the instigation of Bilqis, the Arabic name of the legendary Queen of Sheba (Ibn Habib cast his net wide, from the legendary past to the early ninth century). A poet could be killed as the result of a damaging lampoon, as was the sad fate of the only woman among the murder victims, the otherwise unknown Ghadub.

Some murder stories in the book are gruesome, some funny. Can you give an example of both such stories?

Any murder is gruesome, one could argue. But particularly nasty is sadism, as when someone avenges his father’s death by capturing eight men of the murderer’s tribe, gags their mouths, puts bowls of water in front of them, and kills them one after the other at intervals, whenever the east wind blows, because an easterly wind blew at his father’s death. Gruesome, too, is another, possibly apocryphal story in which a young and handsome poet hides in a chest in the boudoir of the caliph’s wife with whom he is having an affair. When the husband suspects this he has the chest buried beneath his throne – not so much in order to punish the lovers as to prevent any whiff of scandal.

As for funny stories, I could mention that of the man who boasts of his murder to another man, unaware that this is the victim’s father. “I killed him with this sword!”. The father says, “Show it to me!” He recognises the sword and kills the murderer with it. Or the story of the man who steals into the house of his intended victim at night and finds, the moment the man awakes, that he has forgotten to bring his sword. In the ensuing struggle he manages to break the man’s neck. And there is a story in which three noses are cut off. I don’t know if this counts as funny, but I find it bizarre.

When writing about murder, Muhammad ibn Habib differs quite a bit from his contemporaries and other Muslim writers. Can you tell us in which ways and why you believe this makes his work more appealing?

Many of the stories in the book are also known from other sources, a few being older and many later, among these the large and famous history by al-Tabari (d. 923). Al-Tabari and most other historians take pains to mention their sources by means of long chains of transmitters, and sometimes giving multiple accounts of one event. This is admirable, but it does not make for easy reading. In Ibn Habib’s book such display of serious scholarship is almost completely avoided, perhaps because the text we have is a shortened version, or perhaps it was compiled for the instruction and entertainment of the sons of prominent Abbasids in whose service he was employed as tutor. There are other Arabic books on violent deaths, such as the several works on the numerous Shi‘ite martyrs, some of whom are also in Ibn Habib’s book. But these works have a clear political and religious agenda, whereas Ibn Habib does not have an axe to grind, apparently. This makes his book more appealing to me at least.

Your translation is the third edition of the original text. Can you tell us what you've done differently than your predecessors?

It was not my original intention to make a new edition together with the annotated translation. The text was first edited in 1954–55 by the renowned Egyptian scholar Abd al-Salam Harun (d. 1988), who edited numerous classical Arabic texts. It appeared in a collection that he entitled Nawadir al-makhtutat, “Curious, or Rare, Manuscripts”. The text appeared again in 2001, in an edition by Sayyid Kasrawi Hasan, which is clearly based on the earlier one, but rather than correcting its relatively few errors he liberally introduced new ones and expurgated a few naughty bits. More usefully, he added many quotations in footnotes, often very lengthy, of parallel sources, of which there are many. I decided to publish a new version of the Arabic, correcting some errors in Harun’s text, not because I am a better editor than he but because unlike him I was able to benefit from searches on the Internet, where almost any printed classical Arabic text can be found.


Geert Jan van Gelder was Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford from 1998 until 2012. He published several monographs, editions, translations, and many articles on Classical Arabic Literature.