Samer Mahdy Ali is Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic culture at the University of Michigan. He is author of Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle AgesThe CALICO Journal: Special Issue on Hebrew and ArabicEncyclopedia of IslamThe Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Al-Qantara,TheJournal of Arabic Literature,The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. His research has earned seven national and international awards, including five (U of Notre Dame Press), which theorizes how embodied face-to-face performance in group shaped the presentation, reception and transmission of Adab-literature in the Abbasid culture of both books and oral performance. He is also co-editor of . Dr. Ali has focused his research on the intersections of power, identity, and rhetoric in the Arabo-Islamic Middle Ages, and particularly how ordinary people embraced the Islamic humanities to gain respect and influence in society. His publications have appeared in the , and Fulbright Awards. At U-M, he teaches The Arabian Nights, Arab Women Poets, Islamic Law, and Classical Arabic Poetry. He is currently working on a book about the poet al-Mutanabbi and humanistic-adab approaches to structural peace.
The Question of the Scapegoat in al-Mutanabbi’s Poetry: Language as Peace Offering and Implications for Peace Studies Research
Scapegoating is a perennial phenomenon in political and linguistic ecosystems, becoming particularly overt in grim economic times, but how does scapegoating work precisely? René Girard’s “scapegoat mechanism” elaborates his early ideas on the mimetic nature of desire: For him, desire is intransitive, and arises out of competition with an “other” who attends to the same object. The rivalry between self and other escalates to the point of violence, which is then channeled toward a dispensable sacrifice, in the hopes of contenting the competitors. For Girard, a problem arises: the scapegoat sacrifice is not enough to really content, or at least not for long, and the cycle begins afresh. In the Christian tradition, the theory of Christus Victor suggests that the sacrifice of Christ is so unparalleled, it purges the believer’s heart of the evil of scapegoating, in principle, yet practice diverges from theory. In The 1001 Nights, the story of the“Merchant and the Demon” posits a scapegoat escaping his fate in exchange for marvelous stories, and in it, a mercantile model of payment in full for moral debts. While The Nights offers a vivid late medieval illustration, we can find earlier examples of this approach in the poetry of al-Mutanabbi (d. 965). This paper examines a suite of qasida-odes composed and performed by al-Mutanabbi to ransom four scapegoats. The odes stage the capacity of poetry to serve as a peace offering, payment in full for moral debts in exchange for liberty. Like money itself, language is a promissory note for an intangible debt; language serves to placate anger, and restore peace. Since humans have a seemingly endless capacity for anger, Mutanabbi’s mercantile approach to scapegoating poses productive lines of thought for the role of Adab in the emerging field of peace studies.