How Sheikh Zayed Book Award winner Tahera Qutbuddin unravelled years of early Arabic oration

The author is the first person of Indian origin to win the coveted book award

In April, Tahera Qutbuddin became the first Indian author to win a Sheikh Zayed Book Award when Arabic Oration: Art and Function received the 2021 prize for Arab Culture in Other Languages.

The book, published in 2019 by Brill, had been in the works for a decade. But its subject matter, which explores the history and development of Arabic oration, has been a lifelong interest for Qutbuddin.

"Arabic was the language I learnt first," she tells The National. "I grew up in a Muslim family in India. No one spoke Arabic but we learnt it. My father was an eminent alim (Islamic scholar) in India and would regularly teach us in Arabic."

As part of her lessons, Qutbuddin studied the Hikmah, the sayings of Imam Ali, son-in-law and companion of the Prophet Mohammed. The musicality and arresting quality of the Rashidun caliph’s words fascinated her.

“They were so beautiful,” says Qutbuddin, a professor of Arabic literature and Islamic studies at the University of Chicago. “I’d memorise them and loved them.”

In the late 1980s, when she was studying for her bachelor of arts at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Qutbuddin decided to revisit the sermons of Imam Ali in the hope of writing about them, exploring their aesthetics as well as the historical context surrounding them.

She never actualised the idea but it stayed in the back of her mind as she continued her studies, obtaining a master's from Harvard University in 1994 and then a PhD in 1999.

Arabic Oration: Art and Function by Tahera Qutbuddin. Courtesy Brill

“It seemed like too complicated a topic,” she says. “But 12 years ago, just as I was looking to start a new project, this topic came to mind. It seemed like the right moment to start.”

At first, Qutbuddin’s research was exclusively based on Imam Ali’s sermons. However, as she began to hone her analysis of the material, she decided it would be good to read up on the Khutbah, a form of public preaching in Islam.

“I wanted to get a sense of the genre,” she says. “I then realised how little had been done in terms of analytical work on the Khutbah. One thing led to another and the project pivoted.”

Infused with illustrative texts and original translations, Arabic Oration: Art and Function is an examination of the genre in its foundational period and looks at how speeches and sermons attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Ali and other political and military leaders still influence the Khutbahs of today.

Most of the earliest surviving texts of Arabic oration date back to the 7th and 8th centuries, coinciding with the establishment of Islam, but Qutbuddin says there are texts preceding the religion’s founding by about 50 years. These are vital barometers to understanding the genre’s beginnings, she says.

"One famous text is by a man who is believed to be the Christian bishop of Najrah. There are also a few by the Prophet Mohammed's forebears, including his grandfather. But the majority of texts we have are from the Islamic period," she says. "Of course, it was an oral period, so a lot was lost."

One primary influence on how Arabic oration developed in form and function in its early years, Qutbuddin says, was the predominant culture of that time.

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If you were someone who lived in that time, whose brain was trained to retain more than we do now, you would remember the speeches

“Writing did exist,” she says. “But it was reserved for important functions and documents. It formed a minuscule part of the artistic production of that time. Most productions were produced orally and transmitted until approximately the 8th century, when they discovered how to manufacture paper.”

Rhetorical devices and mnemonics often had a starring role in early Arabic oration techniques, primarily to help listeners remember what they heard.

“The most important device that helps the brain remember is rhythm,” Qutbuddin says. “Early texts are also suffused with parallelism, so they have the same grammatical structure line after line. If you were someone who lived in that time, whose brain was trained to retain more than we do now, you would remember the speeches.”

Vivid graphic imagery was also an essential building block of those early sermons, Qutbuddin says. “For example, in one of his sermons, Ali compares the world to a leaf in the mouth of a locust that’s chomping on it. So instead of saying the world will perish soon or that it’s not worth anything, he uses imagery to help listeners remember.”

Speeches by several prominent female figures in the region’s history are also featured in Qutbuddin’s book. In the early Islamic period, she says, there were women who held important roles in society, yet speaking in front of a mixed audience was considered taboo.

“You would only see a woman giving a public speech in a moment of trauma,” she says.

One famous example is a speech by Zaynab, daughter of Imam Ali and granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

The sermon was uttered in 680 AD after the Battle of Karbala, fought between the army of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid and a small army led by Zaynab's brother Husayn. Zaynab was taken to the Yazid capital in Damascus, along with other survivors of Husayn's army.

Anguished by the death of her brother and sons, Zaynab made her presence known at the court of Yazid and challenged his victory.

"She chastised him and declared that God was on their side," Qutbuddin says. "It's a famous speech and is one of the earliest written texts of Arabic literature called Balaghat al-nisa."

In her book, Qutbuddin examines Zaynab’s sermon, as well as those by other key female figures in Islamic history. There are speeches attributed to Zaynab’s mother, Fatimah bint Mohammed, as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s widow Aisha.

The intricate and archaic language used in these sermons was a challenge to unravel, Qutbuddin says. It was partly for this reason that Arabic Oration took 10 years to write.

"I wrote it in bits and pieces," she says. "I wrote a couple of chapters early on, while my fellowship from the Carnegie Foundation focuses on contemporary works and I used that research to write the final chapter."

Qutbuddin says she is honoured to be the first Sheikh Zayed Award winner of Indian origin and was delighted with the reaction to the accolade.

"It warms my heart to see how proud India is," she says. "I think it's a source of joy for them to have one of their own honoured in this way."