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Poetry Guide: Arabic Poetry

Arabic poetry is poetry composed and written down in the Arabic language either by Arab people or non-Arabs. Knowledge of poetry in Arabic dates from the 6th century but oral poetry is believed to predate that. The amount of Arabic poetry composed has, at times, been greatly reduced with Persian poetry and Poetry of the Ottoman Empire becoming dominant in the region. While there has been a resurgence of the language for literature, particularly in the 20th century, the poets are usually classified into separate national literatures as their work is often written in a local dialect of Arabic

Pre-Islamic poetry

The earliest works of Arabic literature are poems, with prose only used later. The distinction between the forms is particularly blurred in Arabic with saj, maqama or rhymed prose being frequently employed. Poetry held an important position in pre-Islamic society with the poet or sha'ir filling the role of historian, soothsayer and propagandist, similar to the Sibyl in ancient Greek society. Words in praise of the tribe or qit'ah and lampoons denigrating other tribes hija' seem to have been some of the most popular forms of the early poetry. The sha'ir represented an individual tribe's prestige and importance in the Arabian peninsular and mock battles in poetry or zajal would stand in lieu of real wars. 'Ukaz, a market town not far from Mecca, would play host to a regular poetry festival where the craft of the sha'irs would be exhibited.

Along side the sha'ir, and often as his poetic apprentice, is the rawi or reciter. The job of the rawi was to learn the poems by heart and to recite them with explanations and probably often with embellishments. This tradition would allow the transmission of these poetic works and the practice would be adopted later by the hafiz for their memorisation of the Qur'an. At some periods there have been unbroken chains of illustrious poets, each one training a rawi as a bard to promote his verse and then to take over from them and continue the poetic tradition. Tufayl trained 'Awas ibn Hajar, 'Awas trained Zuhayr ibn Abî Sûlmâ, Zuhayr trained his son Ka'b bin Zuhayr, Ka'b trained al-Hutay'ah, al-Hutay'ah trained Jamil Buthaynah and Jamil trained Kuthayyir 'Azzah.

Singers who simply performed works included performed Ibrahim al-Mawsili, his son Ishaq al-Mawsili and Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi son of caliph al-Mahdi. Many stories about these early singers were retold in the Kitab al-aghani or Book of Songs by Abu al-faraj al-Isfahani.

Some poets, such as Ta'abbata Sharran, al-Shanfara, 'Urwah ibn al-Ward, were known as su'luk or vagabond poets, much of whose works consisted of attacks on tribal life and praise of solitude. These works were designed to be ironic, criticising all that the Arabs held most dear in their tribal lifestyles in order to sing their praises. While such poets were identified closely with their own tribes others, such as al-A'sha, were known for their wanderings in search of work from whoever needed poetry.

The very best of these early poems were collected in the 8th century as the Mu'allaqat meaning "the Hanged poems" and the Mufaddaliyat meaning al-Mufaddal's examination or anthology. The former is named the hanged poems for supposedly being hung up on the Kaaba and other prominent buildings although this is now though unlikely. It also aimed to be the definitive source of the era's output with only a single example of the work of each of the so-called "seven renowned ones", although different versions differ in which "renowned ones" they choose. The Mufaddaliyat on the other hand contains rather a random collection; apparently all that was remembered and perhaps some that was only produced in the 8th century and was not truly pre-Islamic.

Poetry under Islam

These early poems were to some extent a threat to the newly emerging faith of Islam and if not actually suppressed, fell into disuse for some years. The division of society into tribes and the internecine warfare carried out through verse served to separate Arabs at a time when religion was trying to pull them together. The sha'ir and their pronouncements were too closely associated with the religion practiced before Islam and the role of the poet was singled out for criticism in the Qur'an. They also praised subjects of dubious merit such as wine, women and gambling, which clashed with the new ideology. Satirical poems attacking an idea or leader were less censured. While some poets were early converts, poetry about or in praise of Islam took some time to develop.

It was the early poems' importance to Islamic scholarship, though, which would lead to their preservation. Not only did the poems illuminate life in the early years of Islam and its antecedents but they would also prove the basis for the study of linguistics of which the Qur'an was regarded as the pinnacle.

Many of the pre-Islamic forms of verse were retained and improved upon. Naqa'id or flytings, where two poets exchange creative insults, were popular with al-Farazdaq and Jarir swapping a great deal of invective. The tradition continued in a slightly modified form as zajal, in which two groups 'joust' in verse, remains a common style in Lebanon.

Court poets

Ghaylan ibn 'Uqbah, nicknamed Dhu al-Rummah, is usually regarded as the last of the bedouin poets. His works had continued the themes and style of the pre-Islamic poets particularly eulogising the harsh but simple desert life, traditionally told round a campfire. Although such themes continued—and were returned to by many modern, urban poets—this poetic life was giving way to court poets. The more settled, comfortable and luxurious life in Ummayyad courts led to a greater emphasis on the ghazal or love poem. Chief amongst this new breed of poet was Abu Nuwas. Not only did Abu Nuwas spoof the traditional poetic form of the qasidah and write many poems in praise of wine, his main occupation was the writing of ever more ribald ghazal many of them openly homosexual.

While Nuwas produced risqué but beautiful poems, many of which pushed to the limit what was acceptable under Islam, others produced more religiously themed poetry. It is said that Nuwas struck a bargain with his contemporary Abu al-Alahijah: Abu Nuwas would concentrate on wine and love poems whilst al-Alahijah would write homilies. These homilies expressed views on religion, sin and the afterlife, but occasionally strayed into unorthodox territory. While the work of al-Alahijah was acceptable, others like the poet Salih ibn 'Abd al-Quddus were executed for heresy. Waddah al-Yaman was also executed for his verse but this was probably due to his over familiarity with the wife of the caliph Al-Walid I.

The Sufi tradition would also produce poetry closely linked to religion. Sufism is the mystical offshoot of Islam and it emphasised the allegorical nature of language and writing. Many of their works appear to be simple ghazal or khamriyyah. Under the guise of the love or wine poem they would contemplate the mortal flesh and attempt to achieve transcendence. Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyyah, Abd Yazid al-Bistami and Mansur al-Hallaj are some of the most significant Sufi poets, but their poetry and doctrine were dangerous and al-Hallaj was eventually crucified for heresy.

The caliph himself could take on the role of court poet with Al-Walid II a notable example, but he was widely disliked for his immorality and was deposed after only a year

An important doctrine of Arabic poetry from the start was its complexity but during the period of court poetry this became an art form in itself known as badi. There were feature such as metaphor, paronomasia (basically puns), juxtaposing opposites and tricky theological allusions. Bashar ibn Burd was instrumental in developing these complexities which later poets felt they had to surpass. Although not all writers enjoyed the baroque style, with argumentative letters on the matter being sent by Ibn Burd and Ibn Miskawayh. The poetic brinkmanship of badi led to a certain formality in the poetic art, with only the greatest poet's words shining through the complex structures and wordplay. This often makes Arabic poetry even less easy to translate then poetry from other languages and much of a poet's skill is usually hidden.

Arabic poetry declined after the 13th century along with much of the literature due to the rise of Persian literature and Turkish literature. It flowered for little longer in Andalucia (Islamic Spain) but ended with the expulsion of the Arabs in 1492. The corpus suffered large-scale destruction by fire in 1499 or 1500. It was at the orders of Cisneros, Archbishop of Granada and was apparently due to the 'indecent' nature of a large part of the poetry.

Modern poetry

The revival of Arabic poetry in the late 19th, early 20th century first displayed a neo-classical style. It consciously used the themes and forms of some of the earliest poets with Hafiz Ibrahim being one of the best exponents. Later poets would reject the purely Arabic neo-classical style and instead many would seek inspiration from romanticism and particularly the romanticism of English poetry. Poets such as Sa'id 'Aql from Lebanon, with its closer ties to France, would be more influenced by the symbolist movement.

A common theme in much of the new poetry was the use of the ghazel or love song in praise of the poet's homeland. This is manifested either as a nationalism for the newly emerging nation states of the region or in a wider sense as a Arab nationalism emphasising the unity of all Arab people. The poems of praise or the madih, and the hija or lampoon also returned. Ahmed Shawqi produced several works praising the reforming Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk, but when Atatürk abolished the caliphate Shawqi was not slow in attacking him in verse. Political views in poetry were often more unwelcome in the 20th century than they had been in the 7th and several poets faced censorship or, in the case of Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayyati, exile.

After World War II there was a largely unsuccessful movement by several poets to write poems in shi'r hurr or free verse. Most of these experiments were abandoned in favour of prose poetry. The growth of modernist poetry also influenced poetry in Arabic.

Poetic forms

Poetry in Arabic is traditionally grouped in a diwan or collection of poems. These can be arranged by poet, tribe, topic or the name of the compiler such as the Asma'iyyat of al-Asma'i. Most poems did not have titles and they were usually named from their first lines. Sometimes they were arranged alphabetically by their rhymes. The role of the poet in Arabic developed in a similar way to poets elsewhere. The safe and easy patronage in royal courts was no longer available but a successful poet such as Nizar Qabbani was able to set up his own publishing house.

A large proportion of all Arabic poetry is written using the monorhyme. This is simply the same rhyme used on every line of a poem. While this may seem a poor rhyme scheme for people used to English literature it makes sense in a language like Arabic which has only three vowels which can be either long or short.

Mu'rabbah: literary Arabic

Malhunah: informal poetry

Kan wa-kin, meaning "once upon a time"
Zajal, meaning "shout", a strophic poem usually an attack
Mawwal or Mawaliya, folk poetry in four rhyming lines

Poetic themes

Madih, an eulogy or panegyric
Hija, a lampoon
Ritha', an elegy
Wasf, a descriptive poem
Ghazal, a love poem, sometimes expressing love of home
Khamriyyah, wine poetry
Tardiyyah, hunt poetry
Zuhdiyyah, homiletic poetry

Selected poets & anthologists

Antara Ibn Shaddad
Abu Tammam (9th Century)
Abu Nuwas (9th Century)
al-Mutanabbi (10th Century)
Ahmad al-Tifashi
Bashar ibn Burd
Muti' ibn Iyas
Ibn Quzman
Nizar Qabbani, (1923–1998)

Further reading

External links