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Series Brings Alive Classical Arabic Texts for Young Readers

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Asking the Right Questions

The second book in the series, Lima Ishtadda ʿIshq al-Insan li-Hadha al-ʿAlam? (Why Did Humanity So Love This World?), features excerpts from The Philosopher Responds by Abu Ḥayyan al-Tawḥidi and Abu ʿAli Miskawayh. This is another tenth-century collection, although instead of stories, it brings together al-Tawḥidi’s philosophical questions with Miskawayh’s responses.

Many of the questions are about human behavior: Why is eloquence of the tongue more difficult than eloquence of the pen? Why is it unseemly to praise oneself, while it seems proper to be praised? Other questions are about natural laws, such as: Why do children and non-rational animals suffer pain?

“Even if these answers are irrelevant, and even if they’re scientifically wrong, still, this was science at the time,” Orfali said. “And they make us think about how people in a thousand years will think about our science, and how we look at things.”

“What’s surprising is that we still ask many of the same questions,” he added. “And I think the questions are even more important than the answers. I wanted to convey this to the kids in schools, that asking the question is as important as answering it, if not more important.”

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This second book has a markedly different illustration style. The drawings, by the Syrian artist Ward Alkhalaf, sometimes provoke their own questions. According to Khansa and Orfali, the collection Why Did Humanity So Love This World? is for a slightly older audience than their first one, Weaving Words. The first book is for readers 9 and older, while the second is recommended for readers 13 and older.

But there is no upper limit, Orfali said. “My mother also gave it to her friends, who are 50-plus, and they enjoyed it.”

Like all good literature for young readers, “it’s for all age groups.”

Wise Madmen, Grammarians and Women

The third book in the series, set to arrive this month, is Abu al-Qasim al-Naysaburi’s ‘Uqala’ al-Majanin (Wise Madmen). Although this book comes from around the same time period, other forthcoming texts are from other periods, and they will also include a wide range of styles, genres, and subjects. They are also considering bilingual texts or English-language translations.

The forthcoming anthology Sadaqa (Friendship) is not based on selections from a single text. Rather, Orfali said, “we put a Quranic verse, and then a hadith, and then a proverb, and then a poem and a risala, all together, in dialogue with each other.”

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