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Other Talking Animals

Dr. Matthew L. Keegan

Kalīla and Dimna was not only widely copied in the pre-modern period. It was also adapted and reconceived by dozens of other authors. The rich and diverse tradition of writing about talking animals beyond Kalīla and Dimna is not well known, but these adaptations informed how readers and copyists thought about Kalīla and Dimna. The May 2019 workshop, entitled "Animals, Adab, and the Abbasid Fictive Tradition," seeks to bring together leading scholars of animal writing in the Adab tradition to further explore this tradition of writing.


Kalīla and Dimna was adapted into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ in the 8th century, but the first surviving manuscript witness is from the 13th century, almost half a millennium later. During that period, Adab (roughly: belles-lettres and paideia) came into its own. While many scholars have explored and debated the origins of Kalīla and Dimna, its impact on the rich tradition of animal writing within Adab has been left largely unexplored. Throughout the pre-modern period, Kalīla and Dimna inspired numerous Arabic adaptations and versifications. It also influenced a broader tradition of allegory and fictive writing, which often either implicitly or explicitly engaged with Kalīla and Dimna. How and whether Kalīla and Dimna relates to different nodes within the Adab tradition is an open question, and it is one that requires a much more nuanced understanding of how authors wrote about and thought about animals.

Learning more about this rich tradition of writing about animals is crucial to the project for a number of reasons. First of all, the copyists responsible for the surviving manuscripts of Kalīla and Dimna were familiar with its broader reception within Adab, and we must understand that reception if we want to understand how and why the "copyists" were so creative in adapting the text. Indeed, the AnonymClassic project has already found that some "copyists" re-mixed Kalīla and Dimna with other Adab texts in creative ways.

Furthermore, if we wish to understand Kalīla and Dimna's context and reception, we need to learn more about how authors were reading Kalīla and Dimna and responding to it both implicitly and explicitly. Rather than take for granted that Kalīla and Dimna belongs to a recognizable genre, which can be interpreted according to our expectations of that genre, this workshop will begin to allow us to understand Kalīla and Dimna in terms of Adab. In a certain sense, each new text about talking animals sheds fresh light on Kalīla and Dimna because they can be seen as fresh claims about what kind of text Kalīla and Dimna was and how it ought to be read.