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The Poet Milton and Islam: A Tale of Mutual Influence

Elie Chalala

Book CoverThe Aphorismi by the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates of Kos, (B.C. 460-377) gave us this precious Latin saying – Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile – which translates into “Art is long, vitality brief, occasion precipitous, experiment perilous, judgment difficult.” What Eid Abdallah Dahiyat tries to do in his book “Once Upon the Orient Wave,” is to delve into all segments of the above aphorism in an effort to show us that great literary art knows no boundaries, intermingles with all aspects of life, and belongs to everybody.

Literary art, the fauna of humanity, permeates all cultures, influences them, and outlasts them – as Lord Byron (1788-1824) so aptly versed it in “Don Juan”:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
’Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper – even a rag like this –
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that’s his.

Of all the arts, literature is the most immediately inclined to dissemination, but is also the only art that requires translation, and ‘there’s the rub.’ For as the French proverb declares “Les traductions sont comme les femmes. Lorsqu’elles sont belles elles ne sont pas fidèles, et lorsqu’elles sont fidèles elles ne sont pas belles,” which translate into – “Translations are like women; when they are beautiful, they are not faithful and when they are faithful, they are not beautiful.” In this ebb and tide of world literature, “the idea of an imaginary journey to the other world is a universal theme,” states the author, E. A. Dahiyat. Indeed, he shows us that – from Homer’s “Odyssey” to Virgil’s “Aeneid,” to the Quran, to Al-Ma’arri’s “Epistle of Forgiveness,” to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” – this recurrent theme transcends historical epochs with remarkable facility.

Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the greatest literary epic in the English language, is subjected to meticulous, scholarly study by the author, with the noble intention of placing it into proper historic prospective. Without favoritism, this literary historian examines the influence of the Islamic cultural renaissance in Syria and Spain during the middle-ages, and on Milton’s opus magnum, “Paradise Lost.” He then examines the influence of Milton on the Arabic literature that succeeded him and concludes with the Iraqi poet, Jamil Sudqi Az-Zahawi’s long poem Thourah fil Jahim (“A Revolution in Hell”), which, he claims, “is probably the most courageous poem in Arabic literature and the one which bears the strongest similarities to Al-Ma’arri’s Risalat-ul-Ghfuran and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.”

“Once Upon the Orient Wave” is a scholarly work, suffused with enlightening historical facts, circumspect in its assessment of literary exchanges, profound in its analysis of intellectual dimensions, and terse in its presentation (only 136 pages). It represents a powerful expose of the sublime yearnings of the human soul throughout recorded history.  For the literati with analytical minds and citizen-of-the-world spirits, it is necessaria libro pro bibliothecis (an indispensable book for their libraries).

Hannah Saadah

Once Upon the Orient Wave
By Eid Abdallah Dahiyat
Hesperus Press, London, 2012

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 64, 2011.

© Copyright 2011, 2017 AL JADID MAGAZINE