Literary Reflections

Al-Hamadhání, "The Maqama of Fresh Butter”

About This Resource

Men of intellectual distinction gathered in assemblages known as Maqàmàt. This term also describes a literary genre whose masters included Badí ‘al-Zamán al-Hamadhání (967–1008 CE), whose name means “Wonder of the Age.” He lived in a time of great intellectual activity, when education included instruction not only in religion and refined Arabic,but in literature from cosmopolitan sources. Al-Hamadhání may have been Persian, though he claimed descent from famous Arab tribes and wrote about their culture. As a literary genre, the Maqámát (sing., Maqama) is characterized by elaborate Arabic, elegant poetry, and witty anecdote. In “The Maqama of Fresh Butter,” the narrator is Ísá ibn Hishám, a rogue hero. The illustration shows a Maqáma in the Arabic tradition by famous illustrator al-Wasiti.

The Arabian Nights, a title on the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, is another source of stories told since the early days of the Muslim world.


Ísá ibn Hishám related to us and said: “I turned aside with a few of my friends to the front of a tent to ask hospitality from its occupants, and there came out to us a portly little man and asked: 'Who are you?' We replied: 'Guests who have tasted nothing for three nights.'” He related: “He coughed and then said: ‘O young men! What do you say to fresh butter of the flock, like the head of a bald man, in a broad shallow dish adorned with the dates of Khaibar [oasis in the Arabian Peninsula north of Madinah], taken from the bunch of a branch of a tall, young, and large palm-tree? One of them would fill the mouth of one of a hungry company five days without water; the tooth is lost in it, and its stone is like the tongue of a bird, and they scoop up the butter with it, taken with deep wooden drinking-bowls of milk drawn from good milking-camels pastured on haram and rabl [desert herbs used for animal forage]. O young men, do ye like it?' We answered: 'Yes, by Heavens! we like it.' 'Ha, ha,' laughed the old man, 'Your uncle also likes it.' Then he said: 'O young men! What is your opinion of white flour like unto a piece of molten silver collected on a round piece of hide with the odour of the qaraz [mimosa]?  From among you one springs forward, a young, comely and active man, and mixes it without violently disturbing or scattering it. Then he leaves it before it is well kneaded. After a while he mixes it thoroughly with milk, more or less diluted with water. He next proceeds to work it up and then leaves it around the pan till it is leavened without becoming dry; then he betakes himself to the ghaa wood [firewood] and kindles it. Then, when the fire subsides, he spreads it over his oven, goes to his dough, flattens it out, after he has well kneaded it, lays it upon the hot ashes and then covers it up.

'Then, when it has dried and risen, he places on it hot stones sufficient to unite the two heats [above and below it]. He covers them up over the bread, in the form of a round plate, until it cracks and splits and its crust resembles that of a circular cake, and its brownness looks like that of the [famous] ijáz date...fruit.  Wild honey, white as snow, is then poured over it till it penetrates the brown crust and the pith absorbs all it has upon it. It is then brought before you, and you gobble it with the gobbling of Juwain [a character famous for his greed].... Young men, do you desire it?'” He related: “Each one of us stretched his neck towards what he had described, his mouth watered and he licked his lips and smacked them, and we answered: 'Yes, by Heavens! we like it.' 'Ha! ha!' laughed the old man, and said: 'And your uncle, by Heavens! does not hate it.' Then he said: 'What is your opinion, O young men, of a wild she-kid of Nejd and Aliya [an Arabian region] which has fed upon the artemisia Judaica of Nejd [an Arabian region], the artemisia abrotanum and hashim [fragrant herbs], nibbled at the thick herbage and is filled with tender grass? Her marrow is abundant, her inner membrane is covered with fat and she has been slaughtered without blemish. Next it is suspended head downwards in an oven till it is perfectly baked without being either burnt or underdone, and then it is placed before you with its skin cracked, exposing white fat, on a table with thin cakes disposed thereon, as though they were unfolded Egyptian linen, or fine cloth of Kohistán [province in Pakistan] coloured with red clay. It is surrounded with vessels containing mustard and raisin sauce and divers kinds of liquid seasonings. Then it is served to you exuding fat and dripping with gravy. O young men, do you like it?' We replied: 'Yes, by Heavens! we like it.' He said: 'And your uncle, by Heavens! will dance for it.' Then one of us sprang towards him with a sword and said: 'Does not our hunger suffice thee that thou mockest us?' Then his daughter brought us a tray upon which was a piece of dry bread, scraps, and leavings, and she entertained us well. So we departed, praising her and blaming him.”


Prendergast, W. J., trans. The Maqámát Of Badí‘ Al-Zamán Al-Hamadhání. London: Luzac & Co.; Madras, India: S. P. C. K. Depository, 1915, pp. 136–138. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior to January 1, 1923. Image: “Group Speaking Arab Miniature By Al Wasiti From Maqamat by al-Wasiti… News Photo | Getty Images | 89863358”,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #154: Al-Hamadhání, "The Maqama of Fresh Butter”", May 21, 2024


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