By Edouard Aldahdah
Posted on September 21st, 2008 in Arabia
These days, whenever I have a few minutes, I enjoy reading excerpts of Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi‘s “Ansab al-khayl fi al-Jahiliyah wa-al-Islam wa-akhbaruha“. This roughly translates as “The genealogies and histories of horses in the era before Islam and after the rise of Islam”, and is commonly known as “Kitab al-Khayl” (the “Book of Horses”).
This precious work was written more than 1,200 years ago (yes, twelve hundred years ago) by one of the most prolific and knowledgeable medieval Islamic historians and genealogists. All of the 140 books Ibn Al-Kalbi (757 AD -819 AD) wrote are now lost, except for two books that survived miraculously: the “Book of Horses” and the more famous “Book of Idols“.
A manuscript version of the “Book of Horses” was published in Arabic, first in 1946, then in 1964. If you happen to read Arabic and live in the USA, here is a list of a few libraries where you can find a copy (I xeroxed mine from the Georgetown University Library). Another manuscript version was also translated to French and published by E.J. Brill Publishers in Leyden, Germany, in 1928.
The “Book of Horses” revisits the stories of the most famous horses in pre-Islamic times (before 610 AD) and the period immediately after Islam, up to Ibn al-Kalbi’s own era (150 years after the rise of Islam), and cites Arabic poetry verses in which these horses and their descendents are mentioned. It also provides the earliest known version of now famous mythological accounts of the origin of the Arabian horses, from the story of the domestication of the horse by Ishmael son of Abraham to the story of the Stud of King Solomon. It does not say anything about the legend of al-Khamsa – the five mares of the Prophet Muhammad – for a good reason: that legend is much more recent than the times Ibn al-Kalbi was writing about and the times he lived in.
In the time of Ibn al-Kalbi, Arabian horse strains were still transmitted in the sire line, much like the English Thoroughbred today. The “Book of Horses” mentions mares from the “strain of Lahiq”, and the “strain of A’waj”, two famous steeds in pre-Islamic times. The legend of al-Khamsa, by contrast, has all of today’s Arabian horses trace to five mares: a Kuhaylah, a ‘Ubayyah, and three others that change from one version of the legend to the other. Since today’s strains – Kuhaylan, ‘Ubayyan, Hadban, etc – are (only) 450 years old, it is reasonable to assume that the al-Khamsa legend is either as old or more recent as the strains themselves.
Pity the “Book of Horses” has never been translated to the English language. There are small excerpts of it in Lady Wentworth’s “The Authentic Arabian Horse”, perhaps from the book her mother Lady Anne Blunt wrote and never published. Perhaps someone needs to release me from my current job, lock me up in a room for six months (with plenty of horses around) and force me to translate it. That’s what I’d call time well spent.