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The Literature and Poetry of Arabia

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The literature of Arabia has its origin in the songs, improvisations, recitations and stories of the pre-Mahommedan Arabs. Of written literature in those days there was, so far as we know, none. But where books failed memory was strong and the power of retaining things heard was not confined to a professional class. At every festive meeting many could contribute a poem or a story, many could even improvise the one or the other. When members of different tribes met in peace (as at the fair of ?Uka?) the most skilful reciters strove to maintain the honour of their own people, and a ready improviser was held in high esteem. The smartest epigrams, the fairest similes, the keenest satires, spoken or sung on such occasions, were treasured in the memory of the hearers and carried by them to their homes. But the experience of all peoples in that memory requires to be helped by form. Sentences became balanced and were made clear by some sort of definite ending. The simplest form of this in Arabian literature is the saj? or rhymed prose, in which the sentences are usually (though not always) short and end in a rhyme or assonance. Mahomet used this form in many parts of the Koran (e.g. Sura, 81). The next step was the introduction of metre into the body of the sentence and the restriction of the passages to a definite length. This in its simplest form gave rise to the rajaz verses, where each half-line ends in the same rhyme and consists of three feet of the measure . Other metres were introduced later until sixteen altogether were recognized. In all forms the rhyme is the same throughout the poem, and is confined to the second half of the line except in the first line where the two halves rhyme. While, however, these measures were in early use, they were not systematically analysed or their rules enunciated until the time of Khalil ibn Ahmad in the 8th century. Two other features of Arabian poetry are probably connected with the necessity for aiding the memory. The first of these is the requirement that each line should have a complete sense in itself; this produces a certain jerkiness, and often led among the Arabs to displacement in the order of the lines in a long poem. The other feature, peculiar to the long poem (qasida, elegy), is that, whatever its real object, whatever its metre, it has a regular scheme in the arrangement of its material. It begins with a description of the old camping-ground, before which the poet calls on his companion to stop, while he bewails the traces of those who have left for other places. Then he tells of his love and how he had suffered from it, how he had journeyed through the desert (this part often contains some of the most famous descriptions and praises of animals) until his beast became thin and worn-out. Then at last comes the real subject of the poem, usually the panegyric of some man of influence or wealth to whom the poet has come in hope of reward and before whom he recites the poem.

Poetry.—The influence of the poet in pre-Mahommedan days was very great. As his name, ash-Sha?ir, “the knowing man,” indicates, he was supposed to have more than natural knowledge and power. Panegyric and satire (hija?) were his chief instruments. The praise of the tribe in well-chosen verses ennobled it throughout the land, a biting satire was enough to destroy its reputation (cf. I. Goldziher’s Abhandlungen zur arabischen Philologie, i. pp. 1-105). Before Mahomet the ethics of the Arabs were summed up in muruwwa (custom). Hospitality, generosity, personal bravery were the subjects of praise; meanness and cowardice those of satire. The existence of poetry among the northern Arabs was known to the Greeks even in the 4th century (cf. St Nilos in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, vol. 79, col. 648, and Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History, bk. 6, ch. 38). Women as well as men composed and recited poems before the days of the Prophet (cf. L. Cheikho’s Poetesses of the Jahiliyya, in Arabic, Beirut, 1897).

The transmission of early Arabic poetry has been very imperfect. Many of the reciters were slain in battle, and it was not till the 8th to the 10th centuries and even later that the earliest collections of these poems were made. Many have to be recovered from grammars, dictionaries, &c., where single lines or groups of lines are quoted to illustrate the proper use of words, phrases or idioms. Moreover, many a reciter was not content to declaim the genuine verses of ancient poets, but interpolated some of his own composition, and the change of religion introduced by Islam led to the mutilation of many verses to suit the doctrines of the new creed.

The language of the poems, as of all the best Arabian literature, was that of the desert Arabs of central Arabia; and to use it aright was the ambition of poets and scholars even in the Abbasid period. For the man of the towns its vocabulary was too copious to be easily understood, and in the age of linguistic studies many commentaries were written to explain words and idioms.

Of the pre-Mahommedan poets the most famous were the six whose poems were collected by Asma?i about the beginning of the 9th century (ed. W. Ahlwardt, The Diwans of the Six Ancient Arabic Poets, London, 1870). Single poems of four of these—Amru-ul-Qais, ?arafa, Zuhair and ?Antara—appear in the Mo’allakat (q.v.). The other two were Nabigha (q.v.) and ?Alqama (q.v.). But besides these there were many others whose names were famous; such as Ta?abbata Sharran, a popular hero who recites his own adventures with great gusto; his companion Shanfara, whose fame rests on a fine poem which has been translated into French by de Sacy (in his Chrestomathie Arabe) and into English by G. Hughes (London, 1896); Aus ibn Hajar of the Bani Tamin, famous for his descriptions of weapons and hunting scenes (ed. R. Geyer, Vienna, 1892); ?atim Ta’i, renowned for his open-handed generosity as well as for his poetry (ed. F. Schulthess, Leipzig, 1897, with German translation); and ?Urwa ibn ul-Ward of the tribe of ?Abs, rival of ?atim in generosity as well as in poetry (ed. Th. Nöldeke, Göttingen, 1863). Among these early poets are found one Jew of repute, Samau’al (Samuel) ibn Adiya (cf. Th. Nöldeke’s Beiträge, pp. 52-86; art. s.v. “Samuel ibn Adiya” in Jewish Encyc. and authorities there quoted), and some Christians such as ?Adi?ibn Zaid of Hira, who sang alike of the pleasures of drink and of death (ed. by Louis Cheikho in his Les Poètes arabes chrétiens, pp. 439-474, Beirut, 1890; in this work many Arabian poets are considered to be Christian without sufficient reason). One poet, a younger contemporary of Mahomet, has attracted much attention because his poems were religious and he was a monotheist. This is Umayya ibn Abi-?-?alt, a Meccan who did not accept Islam and died in 630. His poems are discussed by F. Schulthess in the Orientalische Studien dedicated by Th. Nöldeke, Giessen, 1906, and his relation to Mahomet by E. Power (in the Mélanges de la faculté orientale de l’université Saint-Joseph, Beirut, 1906). Mahomet’s relation to the poets generally was one of antagonism because of their influence over the Arabs and their devotion to the old religion and customs. Ka?b ibn Zuhair, however, first condemned to death, then pardoned, later won great favour for himself by writing a panegyric of the Prophet (ed. G. Freytag, Halle, 1823). Another poet, A?sha (q.v.), followed his example. Labid (q.v.) and Hassan ibn Thabit (q.v.) were also contemporary. Among the poetesses of the time Khansa (q.v.) is supreme. In the scarcity of poets at this time two others deserve mention; Abu Mihjan, who made peace with Islam in 630 but was exiled for his love of wine, which he celebrated in his verse (ed. L. Abel, Leiden, 1887; cf. C. Landberg’s Primeurs arabes, 1, Leiden, 1886), and Jarwal ibn Aus, known as al-?u?ai?a, a wandering poet whose keen satires led to his imprisonment by Omar (Poems, ed. by I. Goldziher in the Journal of the German Oriental Society, vols. 46 and 47).

Had the simplicity and religious severity of the first four caliphs continued in their successors, the fate of poetry would have been hard. Probably little but religious poetry would have been allowed. But the Omayyads (with one exception) were not religious men and, while preserving the outward forms of Islam, allowed full liberty to the pre-Islamic customs of the Arabs and the beliefs and practices of Christians. At the same time the circumstances of the poet’s life were altered. Poetry depended on patronage, and that was to be had now chiefly in the court of the caliph and the residences of his governors. Hence the centre of attraction was now the city with its interests, not the desert. Yet the old forms of poetry were kept. The qasida still required the long introduction (see above), which was entirely occupied with the affairs of the desert. Thus poetry became more and more artificial, until in the Abbasid period poets arose who felt themselves strong enough to give up the worn-out forms and adopt others more suitable. The names of three great poets adorn the Omayyad period: Akhtal, Farazdaq and Jarir were contemporaries (see separate articles). The first was a Christian of the tribe of Taghlib, whose Christianity enabled him to write many verses which would have been impossible to a professing Moslem. Protected by the caliph he employed the old weapons of satire to support them against the “Helpers” and to exalt his own tribe against the Qaisites. Farazdaq of the Bani Tamim, a good Moslem but loose in morals, lived chiefly in Medina and Kufa, and was renowned for his command of language. Jarir of another branch of the Bani Tamim lived in Irak and courted the favour of Hajjaj, its governor. His satires were so effective that he is said to have crushed forty-three rivals. His great efforts were against Farazdaq, who was supported by Akhtal (cf. The Naka’id of Jarir and al-Farazdaq, ed. A.A. Bevan, Leiden, 1906 foll.). Among many minor poets one woman is conspicuous. Laila ul-Akhyaliyya (d. 706) was married to a stranger. On the death of her lover in battle, she wrote numerous elegies bewailing him, and so became famous and devoted the rest of her life to the writing of verse. Two poets of the Koreish attained celebrity in Arabia itself at this time. Qais ur-Ruqayyat was the poet of ?Abdallah ibn uz-Zubair (Abdallah ibn Zobair) and helped him until circumstances went against him, when he made his peace with the caliph. His poems are chiefly panegyrics and love songs (ed. N. Rhodonakis, Vienna, 1902). ?Umar ibn Abi Rabi?a (c. 643-719) was a wealthy man, who lived a life of ease in his native town of Mecca, and devoted himself to intrigues and writing love songs (ed. P. Schwarz, Leipzig, 1901-1902). His poems were very popular throughout Arabia. As a dweller in the town he was independent of the old forms of poetry, which controlled all others, but his influence among poets was not great enough to perpetuate the new style. One other short-lived movement of the Omayyad period should be mentioned. The rajazpoems (see above) had been a subordinate class generally used for improvisations in pre-Mahommedan times. In the 7th and 8th centuries, however, a group of poets employed them more seriously. The most celebrated of these were ?Ajjaj and his son Ru’ba of the Bani Tamim (editions by W. Ahlwardt, Berlin, 1903; German trans. of Ru’ba’s poems by Ahlwardt, Berlin, 1904).

With the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty, a new epoch in Arabian poetry began. The stereotyped beginning of the qasida had been recognized as antiquated and out of place in city life even in the Omayyad period (cf. Goldziher, Abhandlungen, i. 144 ff). This form had been ridiculed but now it lost its hold altogether, and was only employed occasionally by way of direct imitation of the antique. The rise of Persian influence made itself felt in much the same way as the Norman influence in England by bringing a newer refinement into poetry. Tribal feuds are no longer the main incentives to verse. Individual experiences of life and matters of human interest become more usual subjects. Cynicism, often followed by religion in a poet’s later life, is common. The tumultuous mixture of interests and passions to be found in a city like Bagdad are the subjects of a poet’s verse. One of the earliest of these poets, Muti? ibn Ayas, shows the new depth of personal feeling and refinement of expression. Bashshar ibn Burd (d. 783), a blind poet of Persian descent, shows the ascendancy of Persian influence as he openly rails at the Arabs and makes clear his own leaning to the Persian religion. In the 8th century Abu Nuwas (q.v.) is the greatest poet of his time. His language has the purity of the desert, his morals are those of the city, his universalism is that of the man of the world. Abu-l-?Atahiya (q.v.), his contemporary, is fluent, simple and often didactic. Muslim ibn ul-Walid (ed. de Goeje, Leiden, 1875), also contemporary, is more conservative of old forms and given to panegyric and satire. In the 9th century two of the best-known poets—Abu Tammam (q.v.) and Bu?turi (q.v.) —were renowned for their knowledge of old poetry (see Hamasa) and were influenced by it in their own verse. On the other hand Ibn ul-Mo?tazz (son of the caliph) was the writer of brilliant occasional verse, free of all imitation. In the 10th century the centre of interest is in the court of Saif ud-Daula (addaula) at Aleppo. Here in Motanabbi (q.v.) the claims of modern poetry not only to equal but to excel the ancient were put forward and in part at any rate recognized. Abu Firas (932-968) was a member of the family of Saif ud-Daula, a soldier whose poems have all the charm that comes from the fact that the writer has lived through the events he narrates (ed. by R. Dvorák, Leiden, 1895). Many Arabian writers count Motanabbi the last of the great poets. Yet Abu-l-?Ala ul-Ma?arri (q.v.) was original alike in his use of rhymes and in the philosophical nature of his poems. Ibn Farid (q.v.) is the greatest of the mystic poets, and Busiri (q.v.) wrote the most famous poem extant in praise of the Prophet. In the provinces of the caliphate there were many poets, who, however, seldom produced original work. Spain, however, produced Ibn ?Abdun (d. 1126), famous for the grace and finish of his style (ed. with commentary of Ibn Badrun by R.P.A. Dozy, Leiden, 1846). The Sicilian Ibn Hamdis (1048-1132) spent the last fifty years of his life in Spain (Diwan, ed. Moaçada, Palermo, 1883; Canzoniere, ed. Schiaparelli, Rome, 1897). It was also apparently in this country that the strophe form was first used in Arabic poems (cf. M. Hartmann’s Das arabische Strophengedicht, Weimar, 1897), and Ibn Quzman (12th century), a wandering singer, here first used the language of everyday life in the form of verse known as Zajal.

Anthologies.—As supplemental to the account of poetry may be mentioned here some of the chief collections of ancient verse, sometimes made for the sake of the poems themselves, sometimes to give a locus classicus for usages of grammar or lexicography, sometimes to illustrate ancient manners and customs. The earliest of these is the Mo?allakat (q.v.). In the 8th century Ibn Mofaddal compiled the collection named after him theMofaddaliyat. From the 9th century we have the Hamasas of Abu Tammam and Buhturi, and a collection of poems of the tribe Hudhail (second half ed. in part by J.G.L. Kosegarten, London, 1854; completed by J. Wellhausen in Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, i. Berlin, 1884). The numerous quotations of Ibn Qutaiba (q.v.) in the ?Uyun ul-Akhbar (ed. C. Brockelmann, Strassburg, 1900 ff.) and the Book of Poetry and Poets (ed. M.J. de Goeje, Leiden, 1904) bring these works into this class. In the 10th century were compiled the Jamharat ash?ar al Arab, containing forty-nine poems (ed. Bulaq, 1890), the work al-?Iqd ul-Farid of Ibn? Abdi-r-Rabbihi (ed. Cairo, various years), and the greatest work of all this class, the Kitab ul-Aghani (“Book of Songs”) (cf. Abu-l Faraj). The 12th century contributes the Diwan Mukhtarat ush-Shu?ara’i with fifty qasidas. The Khizanai ul-Adab of Abdulqadir, written in the 17th century in the form of a commentary on verses cited in a grammar, contains much old verse (ed. 4 vols., Bulaq, 1882).

Belles-Lettres and Romances.—Mahomet in the Koran had made extensive use of saj’ or rhymed prose (see above). This form then dropped out of use almost entirely for some time. In the 10th century, however, it was revived, occurring almost simultaneously in the Sermons of Ibn Nubata (946-984) and the Letters of Abu Bakr ul-Khwarizmi. Both have been published several times in the East. The epistolary style was further cultivated by Hamadhani (q.v.) and carried to perfection by Abu-l?Ala ul-Ma?arri. Hamadhini was also the first to write in this rhymed prose a new form of work, the Maqama (“assembly”). The name arose from the fact that scholars were accustomed to assemble for the purpose of rivalling one another in orations showing their knowledge of Arabic language, proverb and verse. In the Maqamas of Hamadhani a narrator describes how in various places he met a wandering scholar who in these assemblies puts all his rivals to shame by his eloquence. 273Each oration forms the substance of a Maqama, while the Maqamas themselves are united to one another by the constant meetings of narrator and scholar. Hariri (q.v.) quite eclipsed the fame of his predecessor in this department, and his Maqamas retain their influence over Arabian literature to the present day. As late as the 19th century the sheik Na?if ul Yaziji (1800-1871) distinguished himself by writing sixty clever Maqamas in the style of Hariri (ed. Beirut, 1856, 1872). While this class of literature had devoted itself chiefly to the finesses of the language, another set of works was given to meeting the requirements of moral education and the training of a gentleman. This, which is known as “Adab literature,” is anecdotic in style with much quotation of early poetry and proverb. Thus government, war, friendship, morality, piety, eloquence, are some of the titles under which Ibn Qutaiba groups his stories and verses in the?Uyun ul AkhbarJahiz (q.v.) in the 9th century and Baihaqi (The Kitab al-Ma?asin val-Masawi, ed. F. Schwally, Giessen, 1900-1902) early in the 10th, wrote works of this class. A little later a Spaniard, Ibn ?Abdrabbihi (Abdi-r-Rabbihi), wrote his ?Iqd ul-Farid (see section Anthologies). The growth of city life in the Abbasid capital led to the desire for a new form of story, differing from the old tales of desert life. This was met in the first place by borrowing. In the 8th century Ibn Muqaffa?, a convert from Mazdaism to Islam, translated the Pahlavi version of Bidpai’s fables (itself a version of the Indian Panchatantra) into Arabic with the title Kalila wa Dimna (ed. Beirut, various years). Owing to the purity of its language and style it has remained a classic work. The Book of the 1001 Nights (Arabian Nights) also has its basis in translations from the Indian through the Persian, made as early as the 9th century. To these stories have been added others originating in Bagdad and Egypt and a few others, which were at first in independent circulation. The whole work seems to have taken its present form (with local variations) about the 13th century. Several other romances of considerable length are extant, such as the Story of ?Antar (ed. 32 vols., Cairo, 1869, &c., translated in part by Terrick Hamilton, 4 vols., London, 1820), and the Story of Saif ibn Dhi Yezen (ed. Cairo, 1892).


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