Abstract

This article treats the notion of “play” in various cultural domains, ranging from exegesis of the Quran, to “mirror for princes” and medieval mystical poetry. The article emphasizes the importance of play for medieval court culture and how a distinction was made between mind games such as chess and backgammon and physical games such as polo. The intriguing aspect of such treatments of games is that they are connected to pleasure and pastimes where a strong fear of gambling exists. The article also briefly deals with the tensions between theological views on play and the popularity of various sorts of play at Persian courts such as chess, backgammon, literary riddles, and polo. While these are actual games in Persia, their poetic and aesthetic aspects are also discussed. For instance, many references are made to polo in an allegorical sense in which the polo ball becomes a metaphor for the head of the lover and the polo stick the hair of the beloved. The article concludes with an analysis of the notion of play in Islamic mysticism, especially in the works of the twelfth-century poet Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (d. 1220).

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