Illustrious Arab Poets Through The Centuries
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
In the desert of Arabia long before the Islamic conquests, Arabic had developed an enormous vocabulary. For any object to be found in their barren and inhospitable land, the Arabs had countless names. Hence, the poets had no trouble in rhyming their verses since they had a large storehouse of synonyms from which to draw.
Thus, Arabic became unmatched as a language of prose and poetry and bards were to be found everywhere. Unlike other societies where balladry was a luxury for the privileged few, Arabic poetry was the literary expression of a whole people and has remained so until our times.
In poetic words of dazzling imagery, the bards extolled the tribal virtues of honor, courage, generosity, fidelity, and revenge. In the centuries predating Islam, poetry became an invisible bond between the tribes and formed the basis of an Arab nation.
In this poetic era, when a family produced a lyricist, all the surrounding tribes would be invited to a great feast. Dancing and singing would fill the encampment and men would congratulate each other on this joyous event. It was a time of endless joy for a poet satirized the tribe’s enemies, defended the honor of the tribe and perpetuated their glorious deeds, thereby establishing their fame forever.
No one knows for certain in what epoch the Arabs began to practice the art of balladry. However, Arabic poetry as we know it seems to have arisen from an empty desert and appeared suddenly about 100 years before the birth of Islam. Before that period, even though verification must have been the oral literature of the Arabs, not a stanza has filtered down to us.
Nevertheless, the complex poetry from that century preceding Islam was composed in a highly articulated language and points to a long history of Arabic balladry. The influence of what was produced in that 100 years has left its imprint on Arabic poetry and literature for all times.
In those few decades, the basis for the various types of Arabic poetry was established. Saja’a, the oldest type of rhymed verse; fakhr, pride; ghazal, love stanzas; hija’, a satire with which a poet reviled his enemies; madh, praise; and marthiya, elegy, all had their respective bards. However, the qasida, an ode of intricate meters and polished rhetoric was and still is to some extent, the epitome of Arabic poetry. Many Arabs believe that it is the only valid form of poetic inspiration.
The masterpieces of verses produced in those few years, before Islam burst upon the world, were the Seven Odes. Known as the mu’allaqat (the Suspended Ones), they were the optimal poems, hung for all to see at a great fair that was held annually at ‘Ukaz. They have been regarded until our times as the supreme model of poetic excellence and sophistication, and have been imitated by countless Arab poets.
The oldest and most famous of the mu’allaqat is that of lmru’ al-Qais of the Banu Kinda tribe and a descendant from the kings of Yemen. When his father was put to death after a revolt in the tribe, lmru’ al-Qais journeyed to Constantinople seeking aid from the Byzantines to avenge his death. Although the Emperor Justinian agreed to help him, lmru’s affair with Justinian’s daughter was to be his undoing. He died on his return journey about 550 A.D., some say by a poisoned robe the Emperor had given him.
The mightiest of the great pre-Islamic poets, he set the form for Arabic verse that has remained until our times. Later lyricists never excelled his images created by the vivid scenes of desert life and earthly love. In his mu’allaqat he boasts:
“Many a fair lady’s tents has opened its treasure
For me to enjoy slowly at my own leisure,
Slipping past men and guards who with speed
Would have slain me for my daring deed.”
Imru’s verses had at times words of wisdom such as these:
“If a man cannot value the words of his tongue,
How can he treasure anything under the sun?”
Another distinguished poet of mu’allaqat fame was ‘Antara ibn Shaddad, a warrior-poet of the 6th century, renowned for his honor and courage. Through the ages, perhaps no other Arab balladist has been quoted more than this desert bard.
Born of an Arab father and an Abyssinian mother, he became early in life the champion warrior and poet of his tribe – the Bani ‘Abs. His courage in many battles and his love for his cousin ‘Abla became the basis of the fictional literary work Sirat ‘Antar a model of Arab romance and chivalry. His poetry is full of his exploits of valor and the love he had for ‘Abla. Proudly he says:
“Give me not the drink of life in servitude,
But in pride give me a drink of bitterness.
The water of life is hell in servitude,
and Hades in pride is a land of bliss.”
In the same vein he goes on:
“Choose for yourself a place of dignity,
Or die with honor on a dusty battlefield.
Though I am as a slave, my ambition
Is above the Pleiades and the starry field.”
In the first years of Islam, the poets kept the form and themes of the pre-Islamic lyricists. In fact, the literature of the century of Umayyad rule (661-750 A.D.) consisted almost exclusively of this type of poetry.
One of the most renowned bards of that period was Ghiyath ibn Ghawth nicknamed al-Akhtal (640-710 A.D.). He was an honored Christian poet in the court of the Umayyads and an ardent propagandist of this dynasty. Along with his contemporaries Jarir and al-Farazdaq, he praised the princes of Umayya and satirized their enemies. One of the most prolific poets of the first Islamic century, he eclipsed his two rivals in praise and wine lyrics. His poetry had polish, purity, and correctness of style. When the Caliph admonished him for continually sipping the wine cup, he said:
“After my carousing pal poured me a drink, then another,
Three glasses noisily overflowing with foam,
I left haughtily dragging my robe as if I were,
Over you Prince of the Faithful, a prince.”
Although al-Akhtal was the poet laureate of the Umayyads, he still believed that the caliphate was not rightly theirs. Thus he wrote:
“Sons of Umayya, I have struggled mightily for you
Against a people who sheltered and aided the Prophet.”
The wealth of the early Arab conquests led to the refinement of poetic art. Poems were set to music and sung in the homes of the affluent. ‘Umar ibn Abi-Rabi’ (643-719 A.D.), a handsome member of an opulent Meccan family, devoted his erotic poetry to the charms of the beautiful and upper-class women.
His seductive verses written in a lucid and simple language describing his escapades and the physical attributes of the women that inspired them. Known as the haughty love poet, his verses are graceful, harmonious and musical. Hence, many of his stanzas were sung by the musicians of his day. These lines typify his egoistic lyrics:
“When gossiping about me, they saw me,
Galloping on my steed with a mile to run.
The eldest said, the noble horseman, who is he?
The middle one said, I know him, it is ‘Umar.
The youngest said he has aroused love in me,
I recognize him, can the moon stay under cover?”
‘Umar was an expert at describing women. In one of his lyrics he says:
“Under the lids of her eyes are whiteness and blackness,
And her slender neck is tenderness and softness.”
At the twilight of the Umayyad dynasty and the beginning of the ‘Abbasid era, Persian influenced court poetry replaced the odes of the desert. As the bards more and more depended for their livelihood upon the munificence of the rulers, the poets abandoned the praising of a person for his virtues. Rather, they flattered in a bombast style their patrons who, in the main, lived in luxury and at times debauchery.
Hasan ibn Hani, better known as Abu Nuwas (747-813 A.D.) was perhaps the best example of these poets. Boon-companion to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, he was a poetical genius one of the greatest Arabic lyricists of all times. His kshatriya (wine songs) indicate how he treated moral laws and religious observances with contempt. Cynically frank in describing his own vices, he depicts the frivolous upper-class society of his day. These verses have been quoted by Arab carousers though the centuries:
“O come! Give me a drink and say it is wine,
Serve it not in secret but where I can see it shine.”
“Expose your love and leave life’s fantasies alone,
There is no joy in pleasure over which a veil is thrown.”
Later in life Abu Nuwas regretted his drinking bouts and asked God for forgiveness saying:
“O, God! The magnitude of my sins are enormous,
But I know Your mercy is so much greater.
If only the virtuous can call on You for help,
Then with who can a criminal seek friendship and shelter?
O, God! I beseech You as You ordered, in prayer,
If You turn me down, who will show compassion?
I have no entreaties for You except my imploring,
The beauty of Your forgiveness and I am a Muslim.”
In a different vein, Abu Tammam (804-845 A.D.) wrote most of his verses about historical events. After studying poetry in Egypt he became extremely proficient in the Arabic tongue. He rose to fame under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu‘tasim and under his patronage wrote poems elaborate in thought and expression. When the Caliphal-Mu‘tasim, acting against the dark predictions of the astrologers, stormed and captured the Byzantine city of Amorium, Abu Tammam praised him with a brilliant ode which began:
“Truer than words of books is the sword in its tidings,
Its edge is the boundary between seriousness and romping.
The white gleam of swords, not the black ink of books,
Clears doubts and uncertainties and bleak outlooks.
From the lances flashing between armies knowledge comes,
Not from the seven heavenly bodies and their wisdom.
Where are now the astrologists, where are the stars,
And the woven lies about them made afar?”
More powerful in his verses than Abu Tammam was Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Husayn, labeled al-Mutanabbi (915-965 A.D.). Although he wrote in the Abbasid era, he lived in the court of Saif al-Dawla – a prince of the independent state of Aleppo and a great patron of literary men.
Among the Arabs, Mutanabbi’s poetry is perfection itself and he is considered by them as their greatest poet. His verses that have 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.”
Also known for his almost demonic pride, he produced masterpieces of boastful verses. In one of these he said:
“The arid land knows me well, the night, the mounted men,
The battlefield, the sword, the writing pad, and pen.”
Better known in the western world than al-Mutanabbi is Abu al-‘Ala’ Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Ma‘arri (973-1 057 A.D.), born and buried in Ma’arat al-Na‘man in northern Syria. Orphaned and blinded from childhood, he became an ascetic freethinker and materialist. With his extraordinary mastery of the Arabic tongue, he wrote poems that were cynical, sad and powerful in their expressions. His translated work, Luzum ma La Yalzam, made him better known in Europe than any other Arab poet.
AI-Ma‘arri had an unconventional outlook toward religion. He was a believer in God, but in matters of the resurrection of the dead or the immortal soul, he had an unorthodox belief. He writes:
“Walk gently for I believe,
This earth is from humans gone,
Ancestors long departed,
It is not nice on them to walk upon.”
Regarding procreation as a sin, he never married. It is said he wanted this verse inscribed on his grave:
“This wrong which my father has done me,
I did not commit against anyone else.”
In the same century as when the ‘Abbasids were overthrown, the Muslim kingdoms in Spain were being destroyed one after another. During this period, when Granada was the last remaining Arab kingdom, Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib (1313-1375 A.D.) rose to fame. A favorite of kings, he held high office in both Granada and Morocco and was a prolific author, excelling in history. A man of both sword and pen, he wrote excellent poetry some of which was put to music as muwashahat a type of singing perfected in Arab Spain. These few lines of his yearning for the lost parts of Al-Andalus (Arab Spain) which the Arabs considered an earthly paradise are as popular to millions of Arabs today as they were in Ibn al-Khatib’s era:
“Generous are the clouds if they shed tears
For the past ages which link us to Andalusia.
This link can now be only in a dream that cheers,
In sleep, or in fleeting deceit or idea.”
For over 400 years after the fall of Granada in 1492, classical Arabic poetry was stagnant until revived by Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932 A.D.). Born in Cairo, he became Poet Laureate of the Khedive ‘Abbas II. When ‘Abbas was disposed of by the British, Shawqi was exiled to Spain. Here he composed verses glorifying the Arab/Islamic civilization in this former Arab land.
After the First World War, he returned to Egypt and turned from a court bard to versatile balladist. His poetry vibrating with emotion and filled with lofty ideals led to his being labeled “Prince of Poets”. In one of the moving odes he talks about Egypt’s Pharaohs saying:
“They were shining stars when the earth was night,
And when men walked the globe in darkness.
Rome walked under their guiding light,
And from their glow Athens borrowed greatness.”
His powerful poetry encompassed all the Arab lands. In his poem The Disaster of Damascus he wrote:
“For the colonialists, even if they become soft
Have hearts as stones which have no mercy.”
Continuing with this theme he says:
“To any freedom red with blood, there is a door,
Opened by every crimson hand which knocks.”
With Shawqi’s verses, a great era of classical Arabic poetry came to an end. Today, the majority of Arab poets write in free-verse – a style of poetry borrowed from the West with no roots in the Arabic past. However, the Arabs have not wholly rejected their historic emotion-filled poetry. Even in their modern verses, they have held on to the essence of the odes, first formed in their desert homeland.
In our minuscule journey through the centuries of Arabic poetry, we have only included a few sample verses. These and the thousands of similar stanzas have been recited by the masses of Arabs for hundreds of years. When there are arguments or discussions of subjects at all levels of Arab society a verse or two are always employed to strengthen a case.
Without question, these verses of the illustrious Arab poets from the past lost in translation the beauty of the Arabic tongue. However, even in English they still carry the intended message.