The Syrian Lightning: The Fleeting Pleasures Of Imad Al-Din Al-Isfahani

The Persian scholar and poet Imad al-Din al-Isfahani (عماد الدين الأصفهاني) was an important figure in medieval Arabic literature.  He was born in Isfahan in Persia in 1125 and studied in Baghdad.  We are told that he studied law at the Nizamiya college there, but he preferred literature and adventure.  His proficiency in letters brought him to the attention of powerful political figures, who were able to secure him government posts in Basra and Wasit.

After enduring the normal reversals of fortune common to men in those times, he found himself in Damascus in 1167.  His talents brought him to the attention of the local leader, Nur al-Din.  His high levels of fluency in both Persian and Arabic doubtless made him useful to those in power, who gave Imad al-Din a governmental post.  When his patron died in 1174, Imad al-Din fell out of favor and moved to Mosul, where he came to the attention of none other than Saladin.  When Saladin moved to Damascus, Imad al-Din went with him, and soon formed a close association with the famous leader.  He accompanied Saladin on his campaigns against the Crusaders, and had the temerity to criticize his leader’s generosity to them on several occasions.  Had such criticisms come from any other mouth, they would at least have merited imprisonment, possibly worse; but somehow Imad al-Din was left alone.

Many stories are told of Imad al-Din’s extemporaneous proficiency with language.  According to his biographer Ibn Khallikan (III.309), he once met a friend (a qadi, or judge) on horseback, and was able to rattle off a palindromic phrase in jest:

It is related that, meeting him one day on horseback, he [Imad al-Din] said:

“Proceed, and may thy horse never stumble with thee (Sir fala kaba bik al-Faras)!”

To which the qadi replied: “May the glory of Imad ad-Din endure (Dam ala al-Imad).”  These phrases may be equally read backwards and forwards.

Once when he was accompanying Saladin on a military campaign in the Levant, he was struck by the strange beauty of the clouds of dust raised by the massive movement of horses and infantry.  He recited the following lines extemporaneously:

The dust is raised by the horses’ hooves (as-sanabik); the sky is darkened by it, but it receives light from the brightness of thy presence (anara bihi as-sanabik).

O fortune !  Spare me Abd ar-Rahim, and I shall not fear the touch of thy fangs (massa nabik).

In the verses above, Imad al-Din has given a beautiful play on words, with the sounds as-sanabik and the phrase massa nabik providing the same tonal quality.

We are told that Imad al-Din continued to hold the office of secretary for Saladin until the great commander died in 1193; as often happens, he was then ejected from court and deprived of his influence in the seat of government.  He then devoted himself to literary activities, and produced a consistently high quality of output.  Some of these efforts were monumental, such as a ten-volume encyclopedia discussing the poetry of every significant writer in the Arabic-speaking world, and an eyewitness account of Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem.  One of his greatest works was a compendium called the Kitab al-Barq al-Shami (كتاب البرق الشامي), which filled seven volumes and survives only in fragments.  About this work, his biographer Ibn Khallikan says:

The author commences with the history of his own life and gives an account of his journey from Iraq to Syria, and of what happened to him when in the service of the sultan Nur ad-Din. He then relates by what means he got attached to the service of the sultan Salah al-Din [Saladin], and notices some of the conquests achieved in Syria.  He entitled this useful book The Syrian Lightning, because the hours he spent in those days resembled the lightning flash in the pleasure which they gave, and the rapidity with which they passed away.

How true this last line is!  Pleasure arrives and departs in our lives with the rapidity of lightning, leaving only its memory imprinted on our senses for all time.

Yet he was philosophical about his fall from grace; when visitors would come to his house to meet him, he would often repeat these lines to them:

I am come as a guest to your dwelling.  Where, O where is the host?  My acquaintances know me no longer, and those whom I knew are dead!

He died in 1201, obscure to his contemporaries, but renowned by posterity.  His lightning has not yet dimmed.


Read more in Thirty-Seven: