BADĪʿ-AL-ZAMĀN HAMADĀNĪ, ABU’L-FAŻL AḤMAD B. ḤOSAYN B. YAḤYĀ (b. Hamadān 358/968, d. Herat 398/1008), Arabic belle-lettrist and inventor of the maqāma genre.

Abu’l-Fażl Aḥmad, known as Badīʿ-al-Zamān (Wonder of the age), studied in Hamadān with the great Arab philologist, Ebn Fāres (d. 395/1004). In 380/990-91 he went to Ray, where he benefited from the presence at the court of the famous Buyid minister and literary patron, Ṣāḥeb b. ʿAbbād. Thence, Badīʿ-al-Zamān traveled to Jorjān (Gorgān), where he lived among the Ismaʿilis. The biographical sources are not completely clear about Hamadānī’s religious affiliations. Some, cite the historian of Hamadān, Sīrawayh, to the effect that Hamadānī was a Sunni and learned in Hadith but Ṣafadī notes that Badīʿ-al-Zamān was accused of Asḥʿarism. However, Monroe’s conclusion (pp. 52-55, based partly on Hamadānī’s own writings) that Badīʿ-al-Zamān converted to Shiʿism and then later reverted to Sunnism is probably correct.

Badīʿ-al-Zamān arrived in Nīšāpūr in 382/992 (Ṯaʿālebī, Yatīma IV, p. 257) or in 392/1001 (Yāqūt, Odabāʾ I, p. 96). It was here that his rivalry with the noted Arabic litterateur Abū Bakr Ḵᵛārazmī (d. 383/993) took root, a rivalry said to have contributed to the latter’s demise. According to Ṯaʿālebī (Yatīma IV, p. 258), who apparently knew Hamadānī personally, the latter traveled so widely in Khorasan, Sīstān, and Ḡazna that there was not a single place he did not visit and benefit from. He finally settled in Herat, where he died in 398/1008, at age forty. Hamadānī is said to have gone mad towards the end of his life (Yāqūt, Eršād I, p. 95; Ṣafadī, al-Wāfī VI, p. 355). Both Ṣafadī (al-Wāfī VI, p. 358) and Ebn Ḵallekān (Wafayāt I, p. 129) give the same two variants of the death of Badīʿ-al-Zamān. According to the first he died from poisoning. According to the second he suffered a stroke and was quickly buried. Then he awoke in his grave and his voice was heard in the night. But when people opened the grave, he was found dead, his hand clutching his beard.

Hamadānī had a pleasant countenance, was good company, lofty of spirit, a good person to befriend, but, at the same time, someone who was bitter when it came to his enemies. The biographers note his prodigious memory, which seems to have been photographic. He could apparently glance quickly at several pages of a book he did not know and then reproduce their contents. Hamadānī was also quite skilled in spontaneous composition. If someone suggested to him that he compose a qaṣīda (ode) or an epistle on an unusual subject, he would do so immediately and without hesitation. Hamadānī’s linguistic skills are worthy of note as well. He was able to easily translate Persian poetry rich with unusual expressions into Arabic verse.

Perhaps even more significant for Hamadānī as creator of the maqāmāt was his sense of humor and play. Ṣafadī (al-Wāfī VI, pp. 357-58), for example, recounts an encounter between Ḵᵛārazmī and Hamadānī, in which the latter declined a word incorrectly. When Ḵᵛārazmī chided him for it, he replied with a word play based on the misdeclined word. On another occasion, with the same Ḵᵛārazmī, Badīʿ-al-Zamān showed his linguistic skills by a series of verbal stunts based on words ending with the same consonants.

But Badīʿ-al-Zamān owes his fame to the new literary genre he created, the maqāma genre, one of the few totally new, yet lasting, genres created in medieval Arabic literature. The maqāmāt of Hamadānī are a set of adventures narrated in rhymed prose (sajʿ), but also including original poetry. They revolve around a rogue hero, Abu’l-Fatḥ Eskandarī, and a narrator, ʿĪsā b. Hešām. The most common (though by no means the only) structural pattern in the maqāmāt is one in which ʿĪsā finds himself in one of the cities of the Islamic world and happens upon a swindler who is invariably cheating his audience. After much verbal display, usually on the part of the rogue hero, ʿĪsā discovers that he has indeed been witnessing a disguised Abu’l-Fatḥ in action. After this process of recognition, the two bid each other adieu, until the next maqāma. But, the literary role of ʿĪsā b. Hešām in Hamadānī’s Maqāmāt is not restricted to that of narrator. He performs tricks of his own, like those of Abu’l-Fatḥ (e.g., in the maqāma of Baghdad).

Holding the text together, thus, are not only the repeated narrative structures of the Maqāmāt but also the interplay of the two central characters. Abu’l-Fatḥ is a hero who lives by his wits (mostly verbal) and who often takes advantage of the gullibility of his audience. Furthermore, in a certain sense, he initiates ʿĪsā b. Hešām (and the reader) into the art of roguery.

According to the sources, Hamadānī wrote four hundred maqāmāt, though only fifty-two have come down to us. Apparently, as well, they were written in the earlier part of his life. Badīʿ-al-Zamān is also credited with the authorship of a number of epistles.

Ḥarīrī (d. 516/1122), who was Hamadānī’s most important continuator in the maqāma genre, clearly attributed the creation of this new form to Badīʿ-al-Zamān (Šarīšī, Šarḥ maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī I, p. 21). However, Ḥoṣrī (d. 413/1022), in his Zahr al-ādāb (I, pp. 305-06), claimed that the Maqāmāt of Hamadānī were written to counter a set of stories invented by Ebn Dorayd (d. 321/933) and written in unusual language. This claim has caused much ink to be spilled over the question of origins, and has set scholars searching for stories which might have served as prototypes for the maqāmāt. What is important is not that a specific story from an earlier literary work inspired Hamadānī or even served as a model for him, but that the entire earlier Arabic literary (and specifically adab) corpus was there for Badīʿ-al-Zamān to draw upon and that the rogue hero he devised has antecedents in other adab character types, like the ṭofaylī (or party crasher). Badīʿ-al-Zamān’s innovation consists in the creation of a set of texts all employing the same distinctive discourse, revolving around the same characters and characteristic plots, and whose setting traveled from one location to the next.

Most intriguing from a literary historical and biographical point of view is the relationship of Badīʿ-al-Zamān to his rogue hero. Abu’l-Fatḥ, like his creator, is widely traveled, has a sense of humor, and, perhaps most important, is able to manipulate the Arabic language and its traditions with virtuosity. Badīʿ-al-Zamān has left his mark on Arabic letters not only through his own qualities but through their reflection in the literary hero he created, Abu’l-Fatḥ Eskandarī, and the genre which embodies both.



Editions of Hamadānī’s works: Maqāmāt, ed. Moḥammad ʿAbdoh, 6th ed., Beirut, 1968.

The Maqāmāt of Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī, tr. with an introd. and notes, W. J. Prendergast, London, 1915.

Kašf al-maʿānī wa’l-bayān ʿan rasāʾel Badīʿ-al-Zamān, Beirut, n.d.

For the most important primary sources on the life of Hamadānī and the origins of the Maqāmāt see Ebn Ḵallekān (Beirut), I, pp. 127-29.

Ṣafadī, Ketāb al-wāfī be’l-wafayāt VI, ed. S. Dedering, Wiesbaden, 1972, pp. 355-58.

Ṯaʿālebī, Yatīma (Cairo) IV, pp. 256-301.

Yāqūt, Odabāʾ I, pp. 94-118.

Ḥoṣrī, Zahr al-ādāb wa ṯamar al-albāb, ed. Moḥammad Moḥyī-al-Dīn ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd, Beirut, 1977.

Šarīšī, Šarḥ maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī I, ed. Moḥammad Abu’l-Fażl Ebrāhīm, Cairo, 1969.

On Hamadānī and his Maqāmāt, see also Mārūn ʿAbbūd, Badīʿ-al-Zamān al-Hamaḏānī, Cairo, 1980.

A. F. L. Beeston, “The Genesis of the Maqāmāt Genre,” Journal of Arabic Literature 2, 1971, pp. 112.

Šawqī Żayf, al-Maqāma, Cairo, 1980.

Moḥammad Rošdī Ḥasan, Āṯār al-maqāma fī našʾat al-qeṣṣa al-meṣrīya al-ḥadīṯa, Cairo, 1974.

A. F. Kilito, “Le genre "Séance": Une introduction,” Stud. Isl. 43, 1976, pp. 25-51.

Idem, Les Séances: Récits et codes culturels chez Hamadhānī et Harīrī, Paris, 1983.

Fedwa Malti-Douglas, “Maqāmāt and Adab: "Al-Maqāma al-Maḍīriyya" of al-Hamadhānī,” JAOS 105/2, 1985, pp. 247-58.

James T. Monroe, The Art of Badīʿ az-Zamān al-Hamadhānī as Picaresque Narrative, Beirut, 1983.

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(F. Malti-Douglas)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: August 22, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 4, pp. 377-379