According to information provided by the publisher, Shuraydi finished his PhD in Arabic-Islamic Studies in 1970 at Yale University. After that, he had a career in translation/revision at the United Nations in New York and Geneva. The reader concludes that this book realizes a life-long dream of one who has cherished a commitment to independent academic research. At first glance, the animal names in the title suggest yet another study on pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. However, the subtitle informs the reader that the book is neither on animals nor on pre-Islam. It points to two widespread but by no means exclusive metaphors for youth (raven) and old age (falcon) in medieval Islam. The book’s ambition is to provide a comprehensive study on youth and old age in medieval Arabic-Islamic literature and beyond, focusing roughly on the literature of adab (prose-literature which extends well beyond belles-lettres to other fields of knowledge, like history or geography) in the ‘Golden Age’ of ʿAbbasid rule (eighth to tenth centuries). For Shuraydi, the question is not whether such a comprehensive treatment of the subject exists in Arab literary studies for Arab readers or not (obviously not). He targets Western Arabic studies when he contrasts the work of Ernst Robert Curtius and others on the history of European literature with the narrowly specialized Arabic Studies: ‘If someone interested in knowing what medieval Arabs thought of youth/old age goes to a library and asks the reference librarian for a book on the subject, chances are that person will come back empty handed’ (p. 23). In order to fill this gap, Shuraydi offers to present ‘a panoramic view of major themes with many examples considered to be representative of the cultural identity of youth and old age as embodied in the sources’ (p. 25). His source material is diverse and wide-ranging, as it includes not only poetry and monographs on the subject (Ibn Abī l-Dunyā, al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā, Pseudo-Jāḥiẓ and, still in manuscript, Ibn al-Jawzī), but also adab encyclopaedias with chapters on old age/youth, the Arabian Nights, the maqāmāt, collections of proverbs, religious literature (including Qurʾān, ḥadīth and legal literature), philosophical-ethical treatises, medical works, biographical dictionaries and historical literature (pp. 25–9). The study comprises nine chapters, the first of which (‘Toward a Definition of the Ages of Man’) examines different definitions of the stages of life including the abundant wealth of metaphors for these stages (like shayb, ‘grey hair’, for old age). The following chapters are less transparent, despite an overview on p. 25. Chapters 2 and 3 are on physical beauty (‘The Age of Beauty’) and the pleasures of life (‘Youthful Pleasures and Repentance’) that are normally linked with youth. But the text switches already in ch. 3 to the repentance of elderly people, who thereby hope for an easier route to paradise. The discourse on old age is continued in ch. 4 (‘Lament for Lost Youth’), while chs. 5–9 seem to pick up several perspectives, aspects or themes that go along with the notions of youth and/or old age. The headings ‘Intellectual Pursuits’, ‘Code of Conduct’, ‘Marriage and Sexuality’, ‘Religio-Political Leadership and the Promise of Paradise’ and ‘Rejuvenation and Paradisiacal Youth’ unite traditions, sayings, anecdotes with statements concerning a broad variety of subjects only indirectly connected to the themes of youth and old age, like ‘ignorance’, ‘intoxication’, ‘onanism’, ‘jihād’ or ‘rejuvenation’. Hasan Shuraydi retrieves from his eclectic knowledge an abundance of details and references, but the academic usability of the book remains doubtful. It is neither a social nor a literary history, but a kind of ‘mental map’ of youth/old age in medieval Islam. The clustering of quotations under a particular heading is based rather on association than on methodology, thus rendering immediate access difficult. This is partly due to the fact that Shuraydi does not really distinguish between different levels of reality, but attributes subjects, issues, themes, motifs and topoi to one and the same reality. For example, the wealth of highly variable, stylized and complex allusions to old age in Arabic poetry is certainly not captured in a statement like: ‘The hoary Arab poet felt miserable at being rejected by women’ (p. 10). There are other methodological shortcomings in this book: terminological anachronisms (‘The aristocrat ʿAbd Allāh b. Jaʿfar did not think it beneath his dignity to make the pilgrimage there to hear her sing a couplet of Imruʾ al-Qays …’, p. 98), religious apologetics (‘The universal phenomenon of old men lusting after young women became a social problem in Western societies, but was controlled and legally managed in Islamic societies’, p. 16), social misunderstandings (‘In a patriarchal society … this [seductiveness] may be the only power women have over men’, p. 271), cultural prejudices (‘The Khurāsānians were ‘stallions’ to whom the cheeks, legs, and buttocks of boys looked like those of women … The Bedouins were free of that desire …’, p. 120) and naive considerations (‘This is not to say that ‘debauched Baghdad’… was entirely a godless city’, p. 103). These examples should not be overrated, and yet they point to a methodological vagueness which leads to more serious consequences by the end of the book. Perhaps the most important result of Shuraydi’s book is his conclusion: ‘In terms of authority, prestige, and veneration, old age had its heyday in the Jāhiliyya, youth in Islam’ (p. 357). What may be true for a certain period in early Islam, namely for the age of revelation, consolidation and expansion, is certainly untrue for the rest of historical Islam. Even a kind of missionary zeal shines through this statement, when Shuraydi elaborates further on the subject: ‘Neither the Jāhiliyya nor the Greeks could offer what Islam had to offer: dār al-salām (abode of peace) or the Janna (Paradise), in which shabāb is privileged and shayb is proscribed. There can hardly be a clearer indication of the favoured place youth occupies in Islam than the divine choice of beardless youths rather than hoary shaykhs as the inhabitants of Paradise. This choice runs counter to the popular negative portrait of youth that had been inherited, in part at least, from the Jāhiliyya, as well as to the whole culture of shayb and age veneration’ (p. 358). This statement is not ‘modern’, as it is certainly meant to be, but anachronistic. Moreover: In times of al-Qaida, the IS and other Islamic terrorists inside and outside the Arabic-Islamic world, such a linkage between Islam and shabāb is perhaps not the most promising approach to evoking sympathy with Arabic–Islamic culture. It may even run counter to the intent of the author, who certainly has Islam’s striving for change, social justice or new cultural forms in mind. But despite this particular error of judgement, the diligent, rich and varied collection of material ensures an informative and entertaining reading. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. 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Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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