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Empire through Language: Al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf and the Power of Oratory in Early Islam
Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In our modern world, public speech can change the course of history. Public speech was even more powerful in the ancient world when modern multimedia such as the internet, television, radio, and newspaper did not exist and when people relied more on face-to-face communication with their audience to inform, praise, and persuade. Most famously, the Greeks and Romans practiced and systematized the art of public speaking. Like the ancient Greek and Romans, the Arabs after them took immense pride in their oratory. Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages boasted about Arabs’ natural rhetorical abilities and believed that there was something special about Arabic itself. They concluded that because the Qur’an is God’s masterpiece and transcends human imitation, Arabic was a sacred language, the chosen language of God.What did Arabic public speaking mean before these later opinions of Arabic appeared? In this talk I analyze the role, nature, and effect of Arabic oral performance in the early Islamic period (622–750 CE), when Islamic civilization was beginning to take shape. I specifically engage the Umayyad governor, named al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (d. 714), who was one of the most salient figures of early Islam and directly controlled a large territory from Iraq to India around the year 700. He is remembered both as a notorious tyrant and as an eloquent orator, which creates an interesting paradox. I will solve this paradox and use his figure and speeches to explore the power of oratory in early Islam before Arabic acquired its later “nationalistic” and religious dimensions. I will explain why early Islamic oratory has been neglected in modern scholarship, argue for its recovery as afield of study, and point to the key ideological role of public speech in al-Hajjaj’s imperial project. Al-Hajjaj’s case, furthermore, points to the symbolic, ritualistic, and magical impact of speech in his time, which helps us reimagine the role of Arabic oratory in the building of the newborn Islamic Empire.

Time: 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Location: Olin, Room 102
Sponsor: Dean of the College; Religion Program
Contact: Richard Davis.
E-mail: rdavis@bard.edu
Phone: 845-758-7364

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