Advertisement Close


posted on: Nov 25, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributor

The desert sands know me well, the night, the mounted men,

The battlefield, the sword, the paper, and pen……

So wrote the 10th century Ahmad ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn al-Ḥasan ibn Abbasid al-Ṣamad al-Jacfī Abū al-Ṭayyib al-Kindī who has come down to us as the famous al-Mutanabbī.

Considered the greatest Arab poet, for many, the king of Arabic poetry for others, until today he remains the most popular and probably one of the most widely quoted poets in the Arab world.  To his patrons, he extolled their generosity and their bravery in battle, characteristics of perfection in leadership, and Arab character.  His proficiency in Arabic philology, his proverbial poetic style, his skill in panegyrics, his unparalleled use of metaphors, and his ornate and sometimes pompous and lofty pride in one’s self-style in verse and his wittiness, led 13th-century scholar Ibn Khallikān, compiler of the biographical dictionary Wafayāt to describe al-Mutanabbī’s works to be the ‘height of perfection’.  He is one of the most celebrated classical poets.  His 10th century Diwan is a collection of his poetry and the panegyrics written for his patrons.

Growing up I would often hear Arab immigrants while discussing Arabic poetry and reciting verses from the past, come to the general conclusion that al-Mutanabbī was the greatest poet the Arab nations had ever produced.   In later years, when I became somewhat proficient in the Arabic language, I read the poetry of al-Mutanabbī and became an enthusiastic and ardent fan.

I remember well an old Arab immigrant who told me if you want to be a good poet, you must study the verses of al-Mutanabbī, for there is no other that has his style nor who could impart his message the way he did. For it is among the Arabs that al-Mutanabbi’s poetry is perfection.  His verses having influenced Arabic balladry for centuries are filled with the splendor of his rhetoric, imagination and advice.  In one of his fine odes he begins:

…According to the degree of zealous mortals comes determination,

And according to qualities of noble men comes generous action.

In the eyes of the small, small deeds are great,

And in the eyes of the great, great deeds are small…

And in another, the beauty of his descriptive metaphors seems unchallengeable:

“Misfortune shot at me with the arrows of calamity,

Till my heart was covered with them,

So that the darts which struck it broke against

Those which were fixed in it already.”

In Kufa (Iraq), in 915 A.D., at a time when the Abbasid caliphate was beginning to fray and descending into the hands of non-Arab rule, al-Mutanabbī was born into a family of strong and noble Arab lineage.  Arab culture continued to hold sway in the city and Arabic poetry was still prized more than any other form of art.

The family appears to trace its roots to a south Arabian Yemeni tribe.  This lineage was a source of pride for al-Mutanabbī who claimed that this gave him the natural-born talent to compose poetry as others had from this genealogical line.  Some believe the family was poor.  He lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his grandmother.  His father’s profession, it is said, was that of a water-bearer, assumingly because the area in which the family resided was one of weavers and water-carriers. Yet, al-Mutanabbī was well-educated, attending a school patronized by many of Kufa’s elite.  Thus, it can also be assumed that the family may have been connected to the nobles of the city, the family’s lineage manifesting noble status.

The young al-Mutannabī had a hunger for learning and literature and was gifted with sharp intelligence. That inborn talent of which he prided himself was manifested at an early age with his early poetry, offering himself as a panegyrist to those men of modest rank.  His memory was exceptional and resolute.  It is said that one time when a bookseller loaned him a book to read, al-Mutanabbī said he had no reason to buy it because “its entire contents were already stored in his mind”.  He could read a book once and memorize it by heart.

At the age of 9, his family left Kufa, fleeing from a Qarmatian attack, and headed for Syria.  There al-Mutanabbī continued his studies in Damascus, then completed his learning among the Bedouin Arab tribe of Banu Kalb, in the al-Samāwah region of the Syrian desert.  His stay in the desert, for al-Mutanabbī, was a form of poetic justice, in that the Bedouin were the preservers of the purest form of Arabic and thus the ideal venue for composing his verses. From those years in the desert, he mastered the pure Arabic tongue which he absorbed into his poetry and which would bring accolades from all and popularity as, according to Ibn Khallikān, “such as never was obtained by the works of any other poet”.

It may have been around this time that his proficient perfection of verse and the language launched the name ‘al-mutanabbī’ – the one who would be a prophet or rather ‘prophecy claimant’ probably based on his pure Arabic, sheer perfection in writing, his flawless style of composing and his proficiency in philology.   In the desert of al-Samāwah, he gained a following from the Banu Kalb and other tribes, and from there, in 933 A.D., al-Mutanabbī led an uprising with his Bedouin followers that ended up landing him in prison.  His repute did not go well with the governor of Hims who kept him imprisoned for a period of time until the poet repented.

Upon his release al-Mutanabbī was determined to seek fortune and fame as a poet, and to be appreciated as such.  He set off for Aleppo and in 948 A.D. became the poet laureate at the court of the Arab prince, Sayf al-Dawla al-Ḥamdānī (945-967 A.D.). Here was a patron worthy of al-Mutanabbī ’s poetry and the perfect subject of them.  Noted for his fighting ability on the battlefield, his valiant endeavors and successes against the Byzantine forces, this Sayf al-Dawla was also a patron of the arts.  At his court in Aleppo, the ruler would assemble the finest minds of the Islamic world who al-Mutanabbī would surpass in his compositions.  Odes of praise, many of which are found in his 10th century Diwan, predicated the poet’s verses on near every occasion.  One such example was when Sayf al-Dawla had recovered from an illness:

Light is now returned to the sun, previously it was extinguished

As though the lack of it in a body were a kind of disease….

He is called the Sharp Sword but not because of resemblance

For how can masters and servants resemble each other

The Arabs stand alone in the world in being of his origin

And the non-Arabs share his beneficence with the Arabs…

I did not single you out for congratulations on your recovery

For if you are safe and sound, then everyone is safe and sound.

At another time al-Mutanabbī upon Sayf al-Dawla’s departure from Antioch boasted of his patron’s heroics:

Whether at war or at peace, you aim at the heights whether you tarry or hasten

Would that we were your steeds when you ride forth, and your tents when you alight….

Every life you do not grace is death, every sun that you are not in darkness.

For nine years, Sayf al-Dawla’s patronage was magnanimous with al-Mutanabbī even riding out on campaigns with the ruler.  Al-Mutanabbī had made his mark and much of his best poetry was written during this period, and, according to Arberry, “the greatest masterpieces of Arabic literature”.

However, court intrigue and jealousies would befall al-Mutanabbī. His court rivals would eventually cause Sayf al-Dawla to become estranged from the poet.  During one evening of the poetical congregation, the Persian scholar Ibn Khalawayh became so incensed with al-Mutanabbī that he hit him on the face with a key hidden in his sleeve.  This came about as a result of al-Mutanabbī ’s telling him that he could not know the Arabic language since he was a Persian.  Since Sayf al-Dawla did not intervene on behalf of al-Mutanabbī, the poet felt infuriated, neglected, and disrespected by the indifference of his patron.

He left Aleppo, reached Damascus and then left for Egypt on the invitation of Kāfūr al-Ikhshīdi, the ruler and the new patron of al-Mutanabbī.  The panegyrics he composed for Kāfūr that became known as kāfūriyāt were so magnanimous that al-Mutanabbī was confident that his request to govern the province of Sidon would be granted.  When it was not, al-Mutanabbī, in around 960 A.D., left for Kufa, but not before satirizing, lampooning, and ridiculing the ruler in verse.

Word got back to Kāfūr who angrily sent out his men in pursuit. For the Ikhshīdī, the liberties the poet had taken were unacceptable.  When questioned about his strong reaction to the poet, he responded, “My people! Would he who claimed the gift of prophecy after Muhammad’s, not be capable of claiming the empire with Kāfūr?”

On a visit to Baghdad, he was welcomed by the vizier there in the hopes that the well-known al-Mutanabbī would compose praises for him.

He provoked anger in the vizier when the poet refused on the grounds that his praises were reserved for princes forcing al-Mutanabbī to leave for Arrajan and then to Shiraz where at the court of the Buwayhi emir cAḍud al-Dawla al-Buwayhi, he was compensated generously for the praises he composed for that leader.

It was time to return to Kufa and it was at this time that he would meet his fate.  Although warned that his life could be in danger because he had satirized and ridiculed the family of Fātik Ibn Abī Jahl al-Asadi’s, the tenacious and stubborn al-Mutanabbī refused to listen to warnings and take any precautions.

The attack took place and at first, al-Mutanabbī’s reaction was to run.  It was his slave who reminded him of his words and that he should stay and fight and face Fātik and his bandits:

The desert sands know me well, the night, the mounted men,

The battlefield, the sword, the paper, and pen……

And thus, it was, in September of 965 A.D. the great al-Mutanabbī, his son Muḥassad and his slave, Muflih were killed.

Some may believe that a haughty character, lofty thoughts, and arrogance may have been al-Mutanabbī ’s downfall.  When once questioned as to how he could remain seated in the presence of the prince Sayf al-Dawla, his response was “fortune grants to each man that to which he has been accustomed”.  His self-pronounced pride and haughtiness set the tone for many of his verses, based on the belief that he was the master of language and ode and those who were worthy would receive his praises.

But it was courage, the description of battles, bravery, the nobility of spirit, traditional Arab values, and the philosophy of life in his neo-classical style of the traditional qasida that would preserve for the future the grandiose of pure Arab character and virtues.  Within his verses of praise and panegyric, he implanted his own emotional ad personal strengths to revamp the formal and panegyric ode.  Centuries after his death, Ibn Khallikān would not find it necessary to give examples al-Mutanabbī’s poetry in his biographical study “since it is so well-known”.

Known for his almost demonic pride, he produced masterpieces of boastful verses and panegyrics for those who deserved them.  Upon his death he was recognized as a matchless faultless pearl, “his lofty mind to him, an army, placed him in the pride of power…in poetry he was a prophet, and the ideas he expressed show forth his miraculous powers.”

When in the early 11th century, the Abbasid ruler of Seville, al-Muctamid ibn cAbbād recited a verse of al-Mutanabbī, Ibn Wahūn, the celebrated Andalusian poet, cautioned “proud of his poetic talent, al-Mutanabbī declared himself a prophet; had he known that you would recite his poems, he had thought himself a god.”

Centuries after his death he is still considered the greatest of poets, imbedded in Arab history and among the Arabs today. In Baghdad, there is a street named after him where a number of bookstores, bookstalls, and booksellers offer ‘knowledge and culture’ in the manner of al-Mutanabbī.  A larger-than-life bronze statue of al-Mutanabbī stands there commemorating this poetic genius with his words embedded for posterity and for those who look at him to remember:

انا الذي نظر الاعمى الى ادبي.. واسمعت كلماتي من به صمم

“I am whom the blind man could see my verse,

And (I am) who made a deaf man hear my words.”