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Adam Talib's Poetry Discovery

Ian Greer
April 17, 2024

New historical sources on the medieval era are few and far between. However, an AUC faculty member has uncovered a “never-before-studied” source on the courtly life of Abbasid Baghdad, told through the eyes of a vizier from Mosul in northern Iraq.

Adam Talib (MA ’08), associate professor in AUC’s Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations and a specialist in Arabic poetry, discovered an entire diwan (collection) of poetry by Ibn al-Musalaya, who was famous for his poetry as well as eloquent letters written on behalf of three Abbasid caliphs (Muslim rulers). 

“This collection has never been researched or analyzed before,” said Talib. “I found the manuscript while looking through archives for another project altogether. The discovery of his diwan promises new perspectives on the history of the Abbasid dynasty, the life of a medieval man of letters and the nature of Arabic poetry itself.”

Ibn al-Musalaya’s diwan is a collection of praise poetry, a genre in which poets typically applaud — and legitimate — powerful patrons or rulers, following the rules and conventions of an elite poetic culture. Ibn al-Musalaya praised the most powerful statesmen of his age, the Caliphs he served; their rivals for symbolic power, the Seljuk Sultans; and the great Sunni revivalist Nizam al-Mulk (1018–1092). 

“The relationship between the Seljuk Sultan and the Abbasid Caliph has long been a subject of historical interest,” Talib says. “The Seljuks foreshadowed the future of the Muslim world, and Nizam al-Mulk is the source of dozens of influential ideas and institutions in Islamic civilization.”

Ibn al-Musalaya’s poetry describes celebrations, events and meetings between these historical characters, their comings and goings in Baghdad, as well as their negotiations and plans –– adding color and texture to otherwise dry history. “The value of Ibn al-Musalaya’s poetry is not purely artistic but also historical, providing some of the only sources available on the relationship between the most powerful men of the Abbasid era,” explains Talib.

Talib wants to link his work as a poetry specialist with that of historians during that period, bringing the details of Ibn al-Musalaya’s diwan to a wider readership. He hopes to publish a translation and an Arabic critical edition. In his view, poetry remains a critically underestimated historical source.

“My work is arguing for the primacy of poetry,” he states. “ In an elite culture like that of the Abbasids, poetry is a key, if not the key, idiom. Poetry of this kind was not primarily the expression of individual emotions. It was how elites negotiated symbolic power.”