Who was the Arab Poet Al-Mutanabbi and Why was He Influential?
By: Pamela Dimitrova/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Al-Mutanabbi is rightfully considered one of the greatest and influential Arabic poets, with works translated into over 20 languages worldwide. Starting to write at the early age of 9, many consider his poems to be a great representation of his life. Among the topics in his art is courage, the philosophy of life, and the description of battles. His great talent brought him very close to many leaders of his time, but who exactly is he and how did he become one of the historic figures in Arabic poetry?
Al-Mutanabbi was born in 915 in Kufah, Iraq. He was the son of a water carrier who claimed noble and ancient southern Arabian descent. When Shi’ite Qarmatians sacked Kufah in 924, he joined them and lived among the Bedouin, learning their doctrines and dialect. Claiming to be a Nabi — hence the name Al-Mutanabbi (“The Would-be Prophet”) — he led a Qarmatian revolt in Syria in 932. Why he was named so is only partly clear. According to some interpretations, he likened himself to the Prophet Salih in some of his verses. Others claim it is his political activities that won the young poet the unusual name. He was the leader of a revolutionary movement, and claiming to be a Prophet, led a revolt in his home town in 932.
After its suppression and two years of imprisonment, he recanted in 935 and became a wandering poet. It is during this period that he began to write his first known poems. Al-Mutanabbi had great political ambitions to be a Wali (leader), which later failed.
The ‘Wandering’ Poet
He began to write panegyrics in the tradition established by the poets Abū Tammām and al-Buḥturī. In 948 he met Sayf al-Dawla, the Hamdanid poet-prince of northern Syria and the founder of the Emirate of Aleppo, and joined his court. During that time, he versified his greatest and most famous poems, he wrote in praise of his patron panegyrics that rank as masterpieces of Arabic poetry. During his stay in Aleppo, he enjoyed the protection of the prince for nine years, before great rivalry occurred between Al-Mutanabbi and many scholars and poets in Sayf al-Dawla’s court, one of those poets was Abu Firas al-Hamdani, Sayf al-Dawla’s cousin.
Some say Al-Mutanabbi lost Sayf al-Dawla’s favor because of his political ambition to be Wāli. The latter part of this period was clouded with intrigues and jealousies that culminated in al-Mutanabbi’s leaving Syria for Egypt, then ruled in name by the Ikhshidids. There he won the protection of the regent, Abu al Misk Kafur, but his favors were not bestowed on Al Mutanabbi for a long time. He had to flee this country in 960 after he wrote several satirical poems that presented the court in a bad light.
The poet’s tumultuous path then lead to Shiraz, Iran, where he gained the protection of the Adud ad-Dawlah and worked as court poet until 965. It was in this same year when he found his death.
Al-Mutanabbi was killed because one of his poems contained a great insult to a man called “Ḍabbah al-Asadī” Dabbah, along with his uncle Fāṫik, managed to intercept al-Mutanabbi, his son Muḥassad, and his servant near Baghdad. Ibn Rachik reported that when al-Mutanabbi wished to flee, his servant awkwardly reminded him of his bold verses. For this reason, al-Mutanabbi resolved to live up to them, fought, and died along with his companions in 965.
The bold imagination and hypnotizing metaphors and hyperboles induced many to call Al Mutanabbi the most important representative of the panegyric poetic style. To understand Al Mutanabbi’s significance for Arabic poetry, one needs to take a closer look at the genres predominant at the time.
These were, as they emerged according to traditional rules, the ghazal, which usually embodied a love poem, the qitah, a less serious literary form exploring the humorous side of life; and the qasidah (a form of poetry), which Al Mutanabbi, with his assertive and more personal style, followed but slightly modified.
The qasidah poetic form was born at the dawn of Arabic society before Islamic times. It developed from the first type of Arabic literature, which essentially was the courageous and daring verses of the proud families of the early Arabs. In its essence, the qasidah described episodes from the author’s life experience or that of his close ones. This was done with a vivid and very impactive aroma. The structure of the qasidah consists of twenty to over one hundred verses. Adhering to the standard outline, the verses keep to a preset arrangement.
Al Mutanabbi did go one better than all conventional qasidah poets in the lavishness of what has been referred to as his “reckless audacity of imagination.” As a poet, he experimented and mixed facets from Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi influences with orthodox Arabic standards. The works he wrote – his panegyrics of his patrons with short abrupt verses, which are still quoted today – have always managed to capture the attention of Arabs and especially their rulers.
Al-Mutanabbi’s pride often entered the realm of arrogance. It was the foundation of much of his writings. In a sense, Al Mutanabbi was a very controversial figure of his time. His poetry achieved much success with its opulently metaphorical and skillfully attacking or slyly praising qasidahs. His subject matters always bring to mind the time-honored and accepted Arab intrinsic worth of reliability, respect, companionship, courage, and gallantry. During Al Mutanabbi’s lifetime and till our present day, his poetry attracted and attracts a great deal of interest. As with many controversial figures in history, the censure he received at times gave him popularity and opened the doors of his patrons in the cultural centers of the Arab world in the tenth century.
Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad is named after him and features a sculpture of the poet by the renowned Iraqi sculptor, Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, made in the 1960s.
Check out more posts like this on our BLOG!