‘Like the Wick of the Lamp, Like the Silkworm They Are’: Stupid Schoolteachers in Classical Arabic Literary Sources
By Antonella Ghersetti
Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Vol.10 (2012)
Abstract: The alleged stupidity of schoolteachers was a common topos in adab literature of the Abbasid period as well as in later sources. Indeed, ‘the stupid schoolteacher’ was a stereotype much like ‘the dull person’, ‘the smart sponger’ and ‘the ridiculous bedouin’. Frequent references to such images indicate that the intended audience revelled in this kind of literary device. This article examines diverse ways of reading and interpreting the adab sources which deal as much in fantasy as reality. Indeed, while the standard stereotypes of schoolteachers are varied, amusing and predominantly negative, they are not always as they at first appear.
Introduction: ‘Like the wick of the lamp, like the silkworm they are’: these are the words traditionally ascribed to the wise caliph, al-Maʾmūn, when speaking of schoolteachers. The quotation, from a royal authority, is related by Ibn al-Ǧawzī (d. 597/1201) in his book Aḫbār al-ḥamqā wa-lmuġaffalīn (Tales of The Stupid and Simple-Minded), just at the beginning of a chapter specifically devoted to simple-minded schoolteachers (almuġaffalūn min al-muʿallimīn). That schoolteachers were incorrigibly fatuous was certainly a common perception, widespread in adab literature of the ʿAbbāsid period and in later sources too. Indeed, the question of their stupidity, or rather, the stereotype of ‘the stupid schoolteacher’ was a topos which several classical and post-classical writers were fond of using, along with others such as ‘the dull person’, ‘the smart sponger’ and ‘the ridiculous bedouin’. Frequent references in the sources to these indicate that the intended audience enjoyed these kinds of literary topoi and stereotypes, and had fun in reading or listening to the stories connected to them. Being literary topics, these images should not be taken at face value – they do not necessarily reflect historical reality and at best, reflect it only to a certain extent. This must be carefully considered when reading and interpreting adab sources where we are in the realm of representation more than of actuality.
In what ways were schoolteachers supposed to have behaved to have merited such a reputation in literature and seemingly in common opinion too? Why was their stupidity considered as some inherent characteristic? Before answering this, we must first examine the role of the muʿallim, what he was supposed to be teaching as well as the notion of ‘stupidity’ in classical sources. In the medieval period, the term taʿlīm (a less common equivalent is taʾdīb) referred to instruction at a basic level, and in this sense it is opposed to tadrīs, which referred to the teaching of religious law. Hence, muʿallim (and less frequently muʾaddib) is the term employed for primary-school instructors who were basically Qurʾānic teachers. Apart from the Qurʾān, other subjects were often taught in elementary teaching, such as numeracy, poetry, grammar and philology. Ibn Ḫaldūn (d. 808/1406) briefly illustrates the curricula of elementary education in the Arab world at his time and stresses its differences according to geographical regions.