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Arabic poetry

Arabic poetry

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Arabic poetry (Arabic,الِشعر العربي) is the earliest work of Arabic literature. It is 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. Arabic poetry is categorized into two main types, rhymed or measured, with the earlier greatly preceding the latter. The rhymed poetry falls within fifteen different meters collected and explained by Al-Farahidi in what is known as “علم العروض” (The Science of Arood). Al-Zamakhshari later added one more meter to make them sixteen. The meters of the rhythmical poetry are known in Arabic as “بحور” or Seas. The measuring unit of the “seas” is known as “تفعيلة” (Taf’eela) with every sea containing certain number of Taf’eelas that the poet has to observe in every verse (bayt) of the poem. The measuring procedure of a poem is very rigorous. Sometimes adding or removing a consonant or a vowel could shift the bayt from one meter to another. Also, in rhymed poetry, every bayt has to end with the same rhyme (qafiya) throughout the poem.

With the expansion of Islam into Persia, Arabic language was greatly enriched by Arabic grammarians and writers of Persian descent. The new converts had also major contributions to Arabic poetry. The quality of Arabic poetry composed has, at times, deteriorated especially during the Mamluks era and onward. In the 20th century, there has been a resurgence of the language for literature and poetry particularly in Egypt and Lebanon.


Pre-Islamic poetry

The pre-Islamic poetry is commonly referred to in Arabic as "الشعر الجاهلي" or the Jahili poetry, which translates to "The poetry of the period of ignorance". This name was most likely coined by later Muslims to differentiate between the poetry of the pre-Islamic era "the era of ignorance" and poetry of the post-Islamic era "The era of enlightenment".

Arabic language in general and Arabic poetry in particular were, and still are, of a central importance to Arabs. Philip Hitti describes Arabs' fascination by poetry by saying "No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Modern audiences in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo can be stirred to the highest degree by the recital of poems, only vaguely comprehended, and by the delivery of orations in the classical tongue, though it be only partially understood. The rhythm, the rhyme, the music, produce on them the effect of what they call "lawful magic"

Therefore, 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 peninsula 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.

Among the most famous poets of the pre-Islamic era are; Imru' al-Qais, al-Nabighah al-Dhubyani, Tarafah ibn al 'Abd , and Zuhayr ibn Abî Sûlmâ. Other 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 the rigidity of tribal life and praise of solitude. Some of these attacks on the values of the clan and of the tribe were meant to be ironic, teasing the listeners only in order finally to endorse all that the members of the audience held most dear about their communal values and way of life. 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 hung poems" and the Mufaddaliyat meaning al-Mufaddal's examination or anthology. The former is named "the hung poems" being hung on the Kaaba. 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.

There are several characteristics that distinguish the pre-Islamic poetry from the poetry of later times. One of these characteristics is that in pre-Islamic poetry more attention was given to the eloquence and the wording of the verse (البيت) than to the poem as whole. This resulted in poems characterized by strong vocabulary and short ideas but with loosely connected verses. A second characteristic is the romantic or a nostalgic preludes with which pre-Islamic poems would often start. In these preludes the poet would remember his beloved and her deserted home and its ruins. This concept in Arabic poetry is referred to as “الوقوف على الأطلال” (standing at the ruins) because the poet would often starts his poem by saying that he stood at the ruins of his beloved or by asking his friends to stand up with him at the ruins etc. The infatuation of pre-Islamic poets with these types of preludes can be understood considering that their life was that of Bedouins who were continuously on the move. This characteristic was later dropped from the Arabic poem and even some Arab poets, like Abu Nuwas, would turn into a source of mockery of the pre-Islamic poetry.

Poetry under Islam

Illustration from Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs), 1216-20, by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, a collection of songs by famous musicians and Arab poets.

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.

A famous example of Arabic poetry on romance (love) is Layla and Majnun, dating back to the Umayyad era in the 7th century. It is a a tragic story of undying love much like the later Romeo and Juliet, which was itself said to have been inspired by a Latin version of Layla and Majnun to an extent.[1]

Court poets

Ghaylan ibn 'Uqbah (c. 696 - c. 735), 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, though Cisneros conceived of Islam as constituting a state within a state: in spite of this, however, it continued to exert a subtle, almost underground influence, as evidenced by the love poetry of Sebastiano de Córdoba, whose eroticism was re-inverted for a spiritual purpose by the Christian mystic poets Saint John of The Cross and Saint Teresa of Ávila.

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 an 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, of which one of the most important influential proponents is Nazik Al-Malaika; one of the contemporary exponents is Iman Mersal[1]. 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: vernacular poetry

Poetic themes

Selected poets and anthologists

See also List of Arabic language poets

See also


  1. NIZAMI: LAYLA AND MAJNUN - English Version by Paul Smith

Further reading

  • E.G. Browne. Literary History of Persia. (Four volumes, 2,256 pages, and twenty-five years in the writing)
  • Philip F. Kennedy. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition.. Open University Press, 1997.
  • Khaled El-Rouayheb. The Love of Boys in Arabic Poetry of the Early Ottoman Period, 1500 - 1800. Middle Eastern Literatures, January 2005, vol.8, no.1.

External links

ar:شعر عربي

fr:Poésie arabe

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