An introduction to the Chahar Maqala

In the previous post, I wrote about my happiness to find a copy of the Chahar Maqala in its original language. Some might be curious as to what this is, some (a greater number) would have thought that I get happy on finding any book and quite a few (a much much larger number) would have wondered what is there to make a fuss about, and concluded that I have finally lost my reason.

However, to return to the point. The book, in question, came to my attention quite recently when I read a book about an English traveller’s account of his time in Iran and the two places he cited it – and his feelings towards it tranforming from detestation – when he had to study it – to later become akin to reverence when he realised its intrinsic worth.

For what it worth, the incident of the Saamanid prince and the poet Rudaki which I wrote about here recently (and had a great effect on me too) was drawn out of its pages.

And now to come to the point what actually is it? (Books are really having an effect on me. I remember reading a series with a Chinese police inspector as the principal protagonist and how his subordinate’s father, a retired cop himself, is nicknamed the Suzhou Opera Singer for his habit of making lengthy digressions before he can come to the issue at hand…. and I realise I have become one too).

Chahar Maqala, it is, without any more digressions. Since I have just begun reading and to maintain impartiality, I shall depend upon the Encylopaedia Iranica for its authoritative and informed version. 

ČAHĀR MAQĀLA, Persian prose work written in the 6th/12th century by Abu’l-Ḥasan Neẓām-al-­Dīn (or Najm-al-Dīn) Aḥmad <<نظامی عروضی or Nizami Samrkandi, to be simple>> b. ʿOmar b. ʿAlī Neẓāmī ʿArūżī Samarqandī, originally entitled Majmaʿ al-nawāder.

It consists of four discourses (maqālas), hence the title, on four different subjects. The date of its composition can be placed in the years 550­-52 (H)/1155-57 (AD).

Čahār maqāla consists of a doxology, a preface, and four discourses, and an epilogue. The preface comprises five sections, which contain a eulogy of contemporary Ghurid rulers and discusses the creation of the universe, heavenly spheres, stars, minerals, plants, animals, humans, internal and external senses, and an anecdote and justifications of prophethood, imamate, rulership, and government. The four discourses describe the functions of secretaries (dabīrs), attributes of the perfect secretary, and related matters; qualities required in poets and their poetry; astronomy and the wide knowledge needed by astronomers; and medicine and counsels of physicians. The epilogue expresses wishes for the success of the author’s patrons. 

Neẓāmī considered that no ruler could do without the four kinds of functionaries: secretaries, poets, astrologers, and physicians, who were among his close associates, and gave this as the reason for writing the book. In his opinion, which also may reflect the prevailing views of the time, the good order of the realm was ensured by secretaries, the perpetuation of its good name by poets, the good timing of its business by astronomers (or astrologers), and the good health of its ruler by physicians.

At the beginning of each maqāla, Neẓāmī briefly describes the function in question; then he discusses the human qualities it re­quires and how these qualities can be acquired, namely through education, study, methodology, style, and observance of necessary proprieties and standards of conduct. These passages, despite their brevity, contain important points. For example, in discussing the definition of the functions of secretaries and the definition of poetry, Neẓāmī gives more weight to the substance and effect of their prose and verse than to the form. Here he is clearly influenced by the views of philosophers and logicians rather than belletrists and rhetoricians. His proposals for professional training throw light on the contempo­rary methods of teaching, learning, and the development of skills in these fields, and his recommendations of books for study show which Persian and Arabic works had won professional acceptance and wide circulation as textbooks.

 To be continued….
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