One day in April, on April 14th 1879, to be precise, an Algerian man by the name of Ḥassan ben Brimaht (in Arabic spelling: Brīhmāt) sent a gift to a friend. The recipient was the French Orientalist Charles Auguste Cherbonneau (1813-1882). Ḥassan ben Brimaht wrote a dedication into his offering, which he sent as a ‘souvenir de notre longue et fidèle amitié’. The gift was a book, written by hand in characteristic North African Arabic style nearly a century earlier, in late Jumādā II 1204/March 1790. The first page is beautifully decorated in an ornamental style. Why Ḥassan chose this book is unknown to us. He may have been identical with al-Ḥasan ibn Ibrāhīm ibn al-Ḥājj Ḥusayn Brīhmāt (or Barīhmāt) (1821-1884), an Algerian legal scholar of some standing. Although they are not the primary subject of the book, legal discussions are relevant.
The manuscript Ḥassan ben Brimaht sent to Cherbonneau does not have a title, but it contains a commentary on a hunting poem known as Rawḍat al-sulwān (The Garden of Consolation). A number of uncertainties surround the text, the author and the commentator. Future research may very well provide answers. Either the poem or the poem and the commentary together are also known under the title Al-Farīd fī taqyīd al-sharīd wa-tawṣīd al-wabīd. The author of the poem was Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm ibn ʿAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Fajījī who died around 1514, although the dates 1576 and 1579 circulate as well. Fajīj or Fijīj is the name of a Berber kinship group who inhabit the border area of modern-day Morocco and Algeria as well as an oasis town in the area. The commentary was written by the poet’s nephew Abū ’l-Qāsim ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Fajījī. There is the possibility of confusion between the date the poet died and the date the nephew wrote the commentary or died. It appears that 16 Dhū ’l-Ḥijja 986 in the Islamic calendar or 13 February 1579 in the Common Era is the date when the commentary was written. The poem and commentary were copied several times and thus seem to have enjoyed a certain popularity.
In some respects, the poem presented and interpreted in this book follows literary conventions. Hunting poetry has been popular in Arabic since pre-Islamic times. Falconry is but one of several forms of hunting mentioned in these poems. Al-Fajījī, the poet of sixteenth-century North Africa, also describes different kinds of hunting, falconry being one of them. There is, however, also a more unusual twist in this poem. Specifically, al-Fajījī defends himself against people who criticize him for his passion for the hunt and argue that hunting is prohibited according to Islamic law. (This is where the poem intersects with the expertise of Ḥassan ben Brimaht.) The overall tone of the poem is thus somewhat defensive – al-Fajījī highlights the benefits of hunting, including the utility of hunting as a preparation for war which allows the hunter to train skills such as endurance and fast decision making. He adds moral, social and even medical benefits. Hunting keeps the hunter young. He also becomes more attractive to women, but because he is pious he does not engage with them in inappropriate ways. The benefits of hunting as a communal activity include joint action, enthusiasm and memories. A range of birds of prey are mentioned, but the gyrfalcon appears to be the poet’s favorite. Al-Fajījī presents legal arguments, concluding that those who believe that Islamic law forbids hunting should be put to death. Henri Jahier and Abdelkader Noureddine, who edited and translated the poem, emphasize that it is the presence of the poet, his agenda and psychological profile which make this poem so significant.
To historians of premodern Arabic falconry literature, this manuscript offers important insights. Pioneering scholars, notably François Viré and Detlef Möller, have published important milestones concerning the history of medieval Arabic tradition of falconry manuals. These manuals mostly distinguish different kinds of birds of prey, discuss techniques and challenges in training them and provide instructions for diagnosing and treating illnesses. Sometimes, they too include legal discussions. Most of this literature was produced and copied in the Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq. With the chronological and geographical context of the original poem and the commentary tradition, we are thus offered insights into an underexplored chapter in the history of Arabic falconry literature. Manuscript testimonies point to the presence of medieval Arabic falconry manuals in North Africa, especially the manuscript tradition inspired by the treatise for the Hafsid caliph in the thirteenth century. Al-Fajījī’s poem, however, the commentaries as well as the manuscripts, stem from much further west and Berber territories. Al-Fajījī himself had traveled widely, but lived in an oasis in the Sahara. His education presumably puts him in a higher social group, but his desert homeland sets him significantly apart from most of the other protagonists of Arabic falconry literature who tend to be urban. The nephew-commentator may have shared a similar background.
Rawdát as-sulwan: le jardin de consolation, translated by Henri Jahier and Abdelkader Noureddine (Alger: Institut d’études orientales, Faculté des lettres, 1958).
Excerpt of the poem:
They rebuke me for (my passion for) hunting despite the oh-so many benefits
First, to obtain permitted food, as established in the divine revelations, so crystal clear
For people of excellence and piety, there are examples to contemplate in hunting, to be remembered with lasting effect
Hunting leaves a soul happy, liberal, generous. It makes an anxious man patient.
It liberates a young man from worries that make him old, delaying the arrival of grey hair which does not come with haste