‘I made up my mind to go to sea and so I went off to buy a variety of trade goods, as well as other things that I would need for the journey. I boarded a ship and sailed down river from Basra with a number of other merchants. We then put out to sea and sailed for a number of days and nights, passing island after island and going from sea to sea and from one land to another. Whenever we passed land, we bought, sold and bartered, and we sailed on like this until we reached an island which looked like the meadows of Paradise …’ So begins Sinbad the merchant’s narrative of his travels. Basra was the port of the Abbasid Caliphate. Baghdad became the political capital of that caliphate, but Basra remained its literary capital as well as a port.
Anyone who thinks about the history of Arabic literature in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, from the seventh until, say, the eleventh century, must be struck by the enormous number of first-rank writers and thinkers who were either born in Basra or who lived and studied there. They include Sibawayh and Khalil ibn Ahmad, the founders of Arabic grammar, lexicography and prosody, Hasan al-Basri the first great Sufi mystic, Rabia al-Adwiyya, the most famous of all women Sufis, Bashshar ibn Burd and Abu Nuwas, the most famous poets at the Abbasid court (or, in the case of Abu Nuwas, perhaps the most notorious), Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, al-Jahiz and al-Hariri, the acknowledged masters of literary prose and the scientific encyclopedists known as the Ikhwan al-Safa, or the Brethren of Purity. As the great, if somewhat crazy, Orientalist, Louis Massignon put it: ‘Basra, in fact, is the veritable crucible in which Islamic culture assumed its form, crystalised in its final shape in the classical mould … in the seventh to tenth centuries. It was the site on which the main components of Arabic literature were manufactured. It was the forcing ground for Islamic philosophy, theology, oratory and science.’