Poetry is the cornerstone of Arabic culture. In this article for The Diplomat, a Saudi magazine, I explored how it has developed since the days before Islam.
“If you see the lion bearing his fangs, don’t assume that the lion is smiling.”
When Abu At-Tayyeb Al-Mutanabbi composed that line to impress a 10th century Syrian prince, he could hardly have imagined that television commentators over a millennium later would use his words to describe victorious football teams. Indeed, quoting classical verse is hardly common among sports commentators outside of the Arab world, but the words of Al Mutanabbi and his contemporaries are regularly used in this way. It is a testament to the ability of Arabic poetry to describe honor, beauty and above all, passion.
Poetry is by far the oldest and most important form of literature in the Arabic-speaking world. Centuries before Arab revivalists began writing novels, a western art form, poets in the Arabian and Syrian deserts were composing verses that are memorized by school children from Morocco to Saudi Arabia today. The continued popularity of this poetry is remarkable: one of the most well-known songs by the famous Nasser-era Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthoum, is a musical rendition of a poem by Abu Firas Al-Hamadani, a contemporary of Al Mutanabbi. That is equivalent to Frank Sinatra singing verses from Beowulf.
Al Mutanabbi was himself born into a centuries-old tradition of poetry. In the largely illiterate, nomadic society of pre-Islamic Arabia, poets were the primary transmitters of information and propaganda between towns and across deserts. It was they who recorded the genealogy and history of tribes, eulogizing great leaders and warriors and mocking rival tribes. Poets provided fire-side entertainment to generations of travelers as they camped under the stars in the Arabian wilderness.
If the poet was a kind of oral scribe, he was also a propagandist, extolling the virtues and honor of his tribe or its elders, or ridiculing its enemies in verse. Fakhr (pride) and hija’ (mockery) were important themes. Poets engaged in eloquent verbal battles – occasionally as a substitute for the real thing. Meanwhile sa’aalik, freelance poets, traveled far and wide, composing verses in praise of solitude and mocking the rigidity of tribal life.
The great poets of the jahiliyya composed poems hundreds of verses long and passed them on to rawat, apprentices who memorized whole anthologies as they trained to become masters of the craft themselves. Sadly, little of that history was logged, making it hard to date the birth of Arabic poetry. However, we do have evidence of its importance in the Arabian Peninsula at least a century before the birth of Islam, suggesting that the tradition was by then already generations old. The Quran itself was first passed on via rawat capable of memorizing thousands of stanzas.
Poets were revered figures. Ibn Rashiq of Qairouan, an 11-century poet, noted that the Arabs “congratulated each other on three things: the birth of a boy, the emergence of a poet in their midst, or the foaling of a mare.” The poet was second only to the leader of the tribe, and undoubtedly the most revered poet of the jahiliyya was Imru’ Al-Qays.
Much of what is written about Al-Qays is apocryphal. It is a matter of debate whether he actually existed. He seems to have been the son of the king of Kindah, one of the tribal kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula and descended from Yemenite royalty. Born in Najd, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, he was thrown out by his father after indulging too much in the high life: wine, hunting and composing love poetry.
Al-Qays became a wanderer, travelling with a group of vagabond, sa’aalik poets as far south as Yemen. Upon hearing of the murder of his father, he swore vengeance. His travels in search of the murderers took him as far as Constantinople, where he sought help from the Byzantine Emperor. His own death appears to have been an act of revenge by the Emperor, who suspected Al-Qays of indiscretions with his daughter.
Imru’ Al Qays’ most famous work is the first of the mu’allaqat, a collection of seven poems held to be the finest works of the jahiliyya period. Some sources claim that the mu’allaqat (literally, “the suspended ones”) were written in gold ink and hung on the Ka’aba in Mecca during the days when it was a pagan shrine. Again, it is hard to be certain whether this is true, but the mu’allaqah of Imru’ Al Qays is certainly a masterpiece.
In it, the narrator recounts arriving at the campsite of his lover’s tribe, only to find that they have left in search of better pastures. He is devastated by his loss and sets off into the desert, eulogizing the stark beauty of the scenery. Then he attacks the infidelities of women, in contrast to his loyal horse. Finally, he launches a vitriolic assault on the other tribes in the area, eloquently praising his own.
Early Arabic poetry had to fit into a strict system of meters and rhymes, testing the poet’s adeptness with grammar, vocabulary and wordplay to the limit. The resulting complexity makes these poems extremely difficult to translate. Some decent attempts have been made, however. Sir Charles Lyall, a British civil servant and orientalist, made several translations including this, a section from the mu’allaqah of Imru’ Al-Qays:
O friend – see the lightning there! It flickered, and now is gone,
as though flashed a pair of hands in the pillar of crowned cloud.
Nay, was it its blaze, or the lamps of a hermit that dwells alone,
and pours o’er the twisted wicks the oil from his slender cruse?
* * *
The arrival of Islam brought deep changes to the social order in the Near East. As the new religion burst forth from the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabic language spread with equal vigor. Islam’s transmission through the Quran, a book recited, passed on orally and finally written down in the most eloquent Arabic verse, added to the language’s importance. As Islamic civilization rose to become the most confident and dynamic political entity of its time, Arabic was put to a range of new uses.
Within a couple of centuries, it had become a common tongue across a vast geographical area. Thus began the golden age of Arab civilization: scientists and philosophers gathered in cities as far distant as Cordoba and Baghdad, communicating with each other by letter, exchanging ideas about politics and philosophy and sharing the latest medical and astronomical knowledge. Without their efforts to translate, preserve and develop the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans, that body of knowledge would have been lost to the Europe of the dark ages. Without the great age of Arab science, the European Renaissance would quite probably never have happened.
Under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, Cordoba, Fes, Damascus and Baghdad emerged as hubs of science. Arabic was their lingua franca. At the same time, in the Iraqi cities of Kufa and Basra, poetry was experiencing a revival after a quiet period during the early Islamic conquests. For the first time, the rawat were busily gathering jahiliyya poetry into written anthologies. Young students flocked to the cities to study the art of verse. Abu Al-Tayyib Al-Mutannabi was one of these enthusiastic newcomers.
There is a saying that the great age of Arabic poetry began with a king and ended with a king. If Imru’ Al-Qays reigned in the jahaliyya, Al-Mutannabi was the emperor of the Abbasid age. The beauty, range and punchy eloquence of his verse place him among the greatest of Arabic poets:
Softly do town girls their faces adorn,
But Bedu are from garish colours shorn.
Town beauty is with pampered softness sought,
The Bedu are with unsought beauty born.
When Al-Mutanabbi began his career, the heartland of Arabic poetry had moved out of the Arabian deserts and into the more refined milieu of the cities. New themes were taking precedence. Poets seeking patronage in luxurious royal courts, far from the tough desert life of their predecessors, focused more on themes such as love and merriment than the stark beauty of the desert and the bravery of tribal warriors.
Al-Mutanabbi appeared determined to break this mold. After an early education in Damascus, he moved out to live with the desert Bedouin. He became involved with revolutionary movements and spent nine years in prison, where he began composing poetry. His verse attracted the attention of the prince of the mini-state of Aleppo, Sayf Ad-Dawla.
Much of Al-Mutanabbi’s verse glorifies his patron. The cultural place of the Arabic language had changed massively in the decades following the arrival of Islam, but poetry had kept its place as an instrument of propaganda. For a political leader such as Sayf Ad-Dawla, a talented poet was as valuable as dozens of men at arms. Al-Mutanabbi was everything he could have wished for: a warrior bard who created oral works of art in praise of the Aleppan prince, which have echoed through Arabic literature ever since.
However, Al-Mutanabbi saved his best and most famous verses for himself. When other poets such as Abu Firas Al-Hamadani sought Sayf Ad-Dawla’s favour, he declared jealously:
Everyone who joins our gathering will acknowledge
That I am the best thing that walks on two feet,
The stallion, the night and the desert know me
So do the sword, the spear, the inkpot and the pen.
Al-Mutanabbi eloquently embodied the pride of the great Arabic poets, but through his mockery he made plenty of enemies. Political troubles eventually forced him to flee for Egypt, and later to Baghdad. He served as a court poet for a while in Shiraz. Finally, he was killed in a skirmish with the relatives of a man he had mocked in verse, Dhabbah Bin Yazid. It seems his haughtiness and contempt had caught up with him.
Arabic poetry has passed many stages since the Abbasid era. The literary revival that accompanied the Arabic nationalist movement in the nineteenth century prompted poets to break out of the constraining rhythms and forms of ancient verse.
While its form has changed, poetry has retained its importance as a mode of political expression. The Syrian love poet Nizar Qabbani challenged many taboos on the place of women in society. The Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008, was a more prominent representative of the Palestinian struggle than many a militant or politician.
Yet for many lovers of Arabic poetry, the golden age of the Abbasid era has never been surpassed. Al-Mutanabbi remains a firm favorite and his life story is well known. On one occasion, faced with competition from other poets seeking Sayf Ad-Dawla’s favour, the king of poets jealously declared:
I am the one whose refinement the blind gaze at,
whose words the deaf can hear.
As recently as the 2010 World Cup, his words were adapted by Arabic football commentators to describe the Argentinian striker Lionel Messi:
I am the one whose feet admirers gaze at,
whose skills the clumsy extol.
If imitation is the sincerest compliment, Al-Mutanabbi would still have good reason to be proud.
Paul Adrian Raymond