Baghdad vs. Damascus: a walk in Abū l-Hakam's shoes

print of old shoes

In twelfth-century Damascus, the physician Abū l-Hakam displayed his poetic virtuosity in a poem that encompasses lament, comedy, polemic and a vast range of technical knowledge.  Abū l-Hakam’s well-wrought poem is about badly made shoes.  Abū l-Hakam applied his erudition to mock the extensive learning of the Baghdadi scholar Ibn al-Salāh.  Ibn al-Salāh apparently was Abū l-Hakam’s friend and former student.[1]  This sort of poem is scarcely conceivable in today’s intellectual regime of tense, institutionalized authorities and strict disciplines.

The poem begins like a lament of lovesickness.  It’s a personal confession of passionate bewilderment:

My plight is bewildering and indescribable,
my case is strange to explain, O Abū l-Faḍl!
I’ll let you in to my misery and passionate feelings
and the humiliation I suffered in Damascus. [2]

Arriving in Damascus from Baghdad, the speaker Ibn al-Salāh is a conscientious scholar with an earthly problem much unlike courtly love:

I arrived there unaware of its affairs,
no matter how much I have been wary of ignorance.
I was wearing an old pair of shamshak shoes on my feet
to which treacherous Time had done its unpraiseworthy deed.

The shamshak shoes are literally the focus of the poem.  They apparently were a Baghdadi type of shoes, yet some puzzling philological-textual issues exist with the word shamshak.[3]  Perhaps that word is a play on a common name for Damascus, ash-Sham, unjoined and misglued.  Suffering from bad shamshak shoes in ash-Sham would be appropriate poetic comedy for the poem.

A scoundrel shoemaker confounds the scholar Ibn al-Salāh.  With courtly language, Ibn al-Salāh in Damascus orders a pair of shamshak shoes.  The shoemaker took two months to produce the shoes.  The shoes fit the scholar very badly according to his scholarly learning:

They contain a fault in a compound syllogism:
neither the conditional nor the categorical produce a conclusion.
Their transversal is not fitting that I should
protect my feet with it. Their shape ought not to exist!

Ibn al-Salāh steps through “numerous technical terms from the fields of logic, natural sciences, and geometry” in criticizing his new shoes.[4]  He comes to exclaim:

They baffled me, to the point that I became totally oblivious
and Saʿdān {the shoemaker} left me bereft of reason, my friend!
Yet, in all this it was clear that the man’s brains were cracked;
how despicable, a person lacking wits, of disordered mind!
And how quick to be ruined, a house from which comes what you can see among people,
and how worthy of humiliation and distress!

Speaking of the man with cracked brains, Ibn al-Salāh might as well be speaking of himself.[5]  The poem in part seems to be parodying Baghdad’s claims to intellectual and moral primacy over Damascus:

The leading scholars in this field have never ceased
to suffer what they should not, from ignorant people.
Therefore I, since I came to stay in Damascus,
regret it and am resolved to return to my family.
If I were in Baghdad, some generous and noble people
would be there to help me

Mocking a scholar from Baghdad probably would play well among patrons of poetry in Abū l-Hakam’s Damascus.

Playfulness, however, seems to trump Abū l-Hakam’s intellectual-material interests.  The poem concludes with a parody of claims of lovesickness unto death:

Because I suffered so badly from the narrow instep
I fear my whole body will be sick and waste away.
O, what a shamshak! As soon as I looked at its shape
I knew for certain that that it had to cause my death
And would give me an illness from which, I imagine,
neither herbs nor any decoction will save me.

Lovesickness was a popular topic for poetry.  It was also an ailment that physicians attempted to treat.  Abū l-Hakam was a poet and a physician.  Ibn Abī Usaybiʿah described Abū l-Hakam as:

distinguished in the philosophical sciences, well-versed in medicine, interested in literature and famous for his poetry. He was a good conversationalist, had a sense of humor, and loved parties and entertainment. [6]

As Abū l-Hakam’s poem on badly made shoes shows, he was an intellectual who didn’t merely pursue his own material interests.  He knew how to have fun.

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[1] van Gelder (1995) p. 223, n. 33, observes that Abū l-Hakam and Ibn al-Salāh apparently were on good terms and that Abū l-Hakam taught Ibn al-Salāh in Baghdad.  According to Ibn Abī Usaybiʿah, Ibn al-Salāh had “profound and detailed knowledge in the philosophical sciences” and was a “distinguished physician.”  Ibn al-Salāh was Persian, while Abū l-Hakam originated from Murcia in Andalusia.  HP pp. 791, 805.  For an example of vicious scholarly relations in the ancient Islamic world, see the debate between Ibn Butlān and Ibn Ridwān on the relative warmth of the chick and the chicken.  An episode in that conflict was re-worked in Hebrew in the twelfth century in Ibn Zabara’s Book of Delight.

[2] From Arabic trans. van Gelder (forthcoming).  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from van Gelder’s prose translation of Abū l-Hakam’s poem on the badly made shoes.  Id. represents the Arabic line with paired lines of English text, with the second line in the pair indented.  For technical reasons I have not been able to preserve that indenting above.

[3] Id., note on shamshak.  The word shamshak occurs five times in Abū l-Hakam’s poem on badly made shoes.  If shamshak actually is a pun for Damascus, it’s a badly made pun.  Professor van Gelder has stated:

I don’t think our poet is making a pun on shamshak / al-Sham: in the first place,  in the poem he uses the form tamshak or rather tamashk (or else it does not scan correctly); secondly, al-Sham has a long a (or a short a followed by a glottal stop: al-Sha’m), and the paronomasia would not work in Arabic. One would rather think of a play on tamashk / Dimashq (Damascus), but this too would count as a somewhat feeble pun.

[4] Prefatory comment of Ibn Abī Usaybiʿah, trans. id.

[5] A common tradesman confounds a learned man in a story in the Hebrew Sefer Hamusar, written about 1580.

[6] HP p. 791.

[image] Original artwork by Joan Galbi.


Gelder, Geert Jan van. 1995.  “The Joking Doctor: Abū l-Hakam ‘Ubayd Allah ibn al-Muzaffar (d. 549/1155).”  Pp. 217-28 in Concepción Vázquez de Benito & Miguel Ángel Manzano Rodríguez, eds. Actas XVI Congreso UEAI {Union Européene des Arabisants et des Islamisants}. Salamanca.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. “Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghrībī’s poem on the badly made shoes of Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ.”  Forthcoming in A Literary History of Medicine: “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270).  University of Oxford & University of Warwick.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi‘ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

paternity is crucible for social communication

Social communication skills are crucial for the social construction of paternity.  Among humans, a woman knows for certain who her biological children are.  For men, good information about paternity historically has been very costly to acquire.  Men’s beliefs about paternity have been subject to social construction in ways that women’s knowledge of maternity has not.[1]  A man’s belief about who is caring for his descendents typically strongly influences which women the man provisions. The mother of a child typically has greater interests and opportunities to shape the paternity beliefs of a man provisioning her with resources than does any other man. Sexual asymmetry in information about relatedness to descendents favors the evolution of female superiority in social communication.

Galbiati family in Italy in 1900

Talk about infants’ facial resemblances is consistent with an evolved female superiority in social communication.  Infants’ resemblance to parents is an ordinary aspect of chatter among and with parents. For both women and men, beliefs about genetic relations have a large effect on perceived facial similarities.  Unrelated persons typically judge children to look more similar to women than men, irrespective of the actual and believed relation of the children to the adults.[2]  However, in spontaneous conversation, in interviews of various structures, and in written responses, mothers are much more likely than fathers to describe their children as resembling their (social) father.[3]  Empirical data thus indicates that mothers have an incentive to affirm (social) father’s belief in genetic paternity and that mothers communicate to further that interest.

World literature provides an alternate perspective on paternity and social communication.  Women’s guile in cuckolding men has been a theme in world literature cross-culturally and throughout history.  Discussion of that important topic has been in various periods subject to social suppression.  So it is today.

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[1] Historically, various forms of mate guarding have been costly means that men have used to reduce their paternity uncertainty.  DNA testing now provides low-cost technology for acquiring very accurate information about paternity.  However, various social and political strategies have greatly limited men’s access to accurate paternity knowledge.

[2] Bressan & Dal Martello (2002), Bressan & Grassi (2004).

[3] Daly & Daly (1982), Regalski & Gaulin (1993), McLain et al. (2000).  Bressan (2002) presents a model that suggests that “under conditions of infant anonymity, fathers will actually promote their own fitness by believing their spouses.”  That model doesn’t include the option of low-cost DNA testing.  Extending that model slightly, mothers would promote their own fitness by believing that DNA testing serves their long-run interests.  Rothstein (2005) collects various authorities who generally emphasize that fatherhood is a social relation.  But id. remains strictly silent about the legal imposition of paternity on men in circumstances of unplanned parenthood and without respect to social fatherhood.  Much of the biological study of paternity beliefs displays similar bias to scholarly study of sexismGynocentrism and female superiority in social communication significantly affect formally scientific scholarship.


Bressan, Paola. 2002. “Why babies look like their daddies: paternity uncertainty and the evolution of self-deception in evaluating family resemblance.” Acta Ethologica 4: 113-118.

Bressan, Paola and Massimo Grassi. 2004. “Parental resemblance in 1-year-olds and the Gaussian curve.” Evolution and Human Behavior 25: 133-141.

Bressan, Paola and Maria F. Dal Martello. 2002. “Talis pater, talis filius: perceived resemblance and the belief in genetic relatedness.” Psychological Science 13: 213-218.

Daly, Martin and Margo I. Wilson. 1982. “Whom are Newborn Babies Said to Resemble?” Ethology and Sociobiology 3: 69-78.

McLain, D. Kelly, Deanna Setters, Michael P. Moulton and Ann E. Pratt. 2000. “Ascription of resemblance of newborns by parents and nonrelatives.” Evolution and Human Behavior 21: 11-23.

Regalski, Jeanne M. and Steven J.C. Gaulin. 1993. “Whom are Mexican Infants Said to Resemble? Monitoring and Fostering Paternal Confidence in the Yucatan.” Ethology and Sociobiology 14: 97-113.

Rothstein, Mark A. 2005. Genetic ties and the family: the impact of paternity testing on parents and children.  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Genius urges plowing to perpetuate the human species

Persecution of men’s sexuality is becoming more harsh.  The historically entrenched practice of men-on-men war threatens to engulf the world.  The cost-benefits of pornography relative to dating are stroking a dangerously solitary path.  The perpetuation of the human species is at risk.

wooden plough for medieval plowing

Opinion leaders should take their hands away from their current vigorous activities and use their heads more effectively.  In medieval Europe, men had faith in reason. Genius made a powerful, emotional appeal to men:

Plow, for God’s sake, barons, plow,
and restore your lineages.
Unless you think about strongly plowing,
there’s nothing that can restore your lineages.

In your two bare hands raise
the guideboards for your plow.
Support them strongly with your arms
and strive to enter the ploughshare
stiffly in a straight path,
the better to be engulfed in the furrow.

{ Arez, por Dieu, baron, arez,
et voz lignages reparez.
Se ne pansez formant d’arer,
n’est riens qui les puist reparer.

Levez au .ii. mains toutes nues
les manchereaus de voz charrues,
formant au braz les soutenez,
et du soc bouter vos penez
raidemant en la droite voie,
por mieuz affonder en la roie }

Man-degrading chivalry dominated western Europe in the thirteenth-century, just as it does in many places around the world today.  Genius recognized the original, true understanding of chivalry:

My lords, be merciful! Be merciful, my lords!
Remember your good fathers
and your old mothers!
Conform your deeds to what they traced out,
take care that you don’t deviate.
What did they do? Take good care in it.
If you consider what is their prowess,
you understand that they have defended themselves so well
that they have given you this existence.
If it weren’t for their chivalry,
you would not now be alive.
Much they prayed with great compassion for you,
in love and in friendship.

{ Seigneur, merci! merci, seigneur!
Souviegne vos de voz bons peres
et de voz ancienes meres!
Selonc leur fez les voz ligniez,
gardez que vos ne forligniez.
Qu’ont il fet? Prenez vos i garde.
S’il est qui leur proece esgarde,
il se sunt si bien deffandu
qu’il vos ont cest estre randu;
se ne fust leur chevalerie,
vos ne fussiez pas ore en vie;
mout orent de vos grant pitié
par amors et par amitié. }

Have compassion for humanity.  Throughout all of history, plowing has saved humanity from oblivion.  It’s our best hope for surviving into the future.

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The above two quotes are from the 13th-century French masterpiece, The Romance of the Rose {Le Roman de la Rose}, 19671-4, 19679-84 (Plow, for God’s sake, barons, plow…) and 19748-60 (My lords, be merciful! Be merciful, my lords!…), Old French text from Lecoy (1965-70), vol. 3, English translation (modified) from Dahlberg (1995).

The Old French text includes a pun with the Old French word “baron.” As a nominative, it could mean “baron / barons” or by extension, “husband / husbands.” The Anglo-Norman homonym barain carries the sense of “barren.”

The Old French seigneur as a nominative could similarly mean “lord / lords,” or by extension, “husband / husbands.” Seigneur, however, could also be an address to God (the Lord): “God, have mercy! Have mercy, God!”

Genius’s urging of husbands to plow draws closely on verses from an agricultural context in Virgil’s Georgics, Book 1. See, e.g. Georgics 1.45-6, 210, 299, as cited and analyzed in Huot (2010), pp. 92-3. Georgics, Book 1, ends with men’s efforts being futile. Genius, in contrast, has an optimistic view of men’s labor along with women’s.

[image] Medieval Japanese plow.  I’ve derived this image from one available on the Japanese Wikipedia.


Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995.  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Huot, Sylvia. 2010. Dreams of Lovers and Lies of Poets: Poetry, Knowledge and Desire in the Roman de la Rose. London: Legenda. Review by Noah Guynn.

Lecoy, Félix, ed. 1965-70. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Le Roman de la Rose. 3 volumes. Paris: Honoré Champion. Old French text via Base de français médiéval: vol. 1, vol. 2, and vol. 3.