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Islamic poetry

For as long as the Arabic language has existed it has been used to write some of the most beautiful poetry a reader can find. Poetry, in fact, was instrumental in the development of the Arabic language, with its formal grammar being first set out by the poets living on the Arabian Peninsula.[1] This poetic tradition has never died out. Indeed, over time it spread, taking hybrid forms in different times and places. In Islamic Spain, for instance, Muslim poets developed a personal, romantic style that drew from local dialects; and in the area we now know as Iran Arabic-Islamic poetry became Persian-Islamic poetry; the most famous Muslim poets, Rumi and Hafiz, both wrote in Persian.

Some examples of this poetry are given below. They take examples from the ancient and the modern, and from writers who are both well known and obscure. It is impossible to do justice to the full array of themes in this tradition - love, loss, eroticism, politics, religion, mysticism and belonging are all present - but it provides a selection of the kinds of topics that different poets have addressed.

Pre-Islamic poetry

The poetry of Arabia before Islam had already developed a complex formal system of rhyming patterns (or metres). These could vary from short piercing lines to majestic lengthy cadences. One of the most common forms was known as the tawil¸ which was made up of units of two lines printed side by side with a space between them (known as a distich). In the tawil the first line was fourteen syllables, the second thirteen, making twenty-seven in total.

The subject matter of the poems are generally narrations of grand battles, amorous encounters, or hymns of praise to a ruler (called panegyrics). The following example was written by a poet called A'sha Maimun of Bakr (died 629), who was possibly the first professional poet to have written in Arabic. It pictures the tense feelings of the people of Arabia before the battle of Dhu Kar, a route of the Persian forces that occurred in 602 CE:

Had all Arabia joined our ranks

there were honours for all who saw Dhu Kar.

The Persians came as if led by the night

sweeping dark across the land;

nobles, their sons, and men of rank

wearing rings of gold in their ears,

and pearls - close-sheltered once by the sea

in the oyster's lap untouched by the clay.

Our women, in fear, with beating hearts,

close behind us, weeping, watched,

looking fate in the eye unveiled,

mascara [kohl] streaking down their cheeks.

Forward we faced, no glance aside,

no flinch as we drove our lances home

again and again in relentless charge

as the hawk picks off the birds of the marsh.

As they bent to fling their arrow storm

we rushed them, man to man, with our swords,

and our horse incessantly battered the field

till the sun stood high and the Persians broke.[2]

Poetry of the Umayyad period

During the reign of the Umayyad caliphate the pre-Islamic tradition of Arabic poetry remained largely unchanged in terms of form - although, as one might expect, the Islamic faith became prominent. Humour was one notable innovation, with it becoming almost a whole new category of poem. The themes also moved from desert-life to city-life, reflecting the changed style of living common at the time.

The tradition also split (very roughly) into the poets of the east and west, each having its own themes. The poets living in the west, near Mecca, tended to be, in general, supportive of the regime, whilst the more disparate tribes in the area now known as Iraq tended to oppose it and wrote sharply critical lyrics.

A good example of a western poet is Umar Ibn Abi Radi'a, who was born in 644 CE and was Mecca's most celebrated poet. He was born to a rich father and was part of a powerful tribe. He remained close to power throughout his life, even if he never entered public office himself. (The piety of the later Sufi poets was yet to develop.) Umar was one of the finest humorists of his day. This example, however, is a little more romantic:

Worlds apart our dwellings lie
when on Aden's distant shore I stand
while Mecca holds her, and nothing remains
to link us but sadness on memory's wing.
Had she seen the rider's tears at the gates
of return, she'd have thought him strange to my home.
Remember the day when, pilgrims both,
at Mecca we suddenly met in the crowd,
confused, and she turned to Thurayya and said,
while black from her lashes the tears ran down:
‘In God's name ask him - but no reproach! -
What quest did you hope in Yemen to gain?
If worldly things, what staggering prize
was yours for renouncing the pilgrimage, then?'

One can see in the above poem not only references to the traditional practices of Islam (albeit ones that occurred in a slightly different form before Muhammed [pbuh]), but a more prominent personal touch than in the pre-Islamic poems. We can see this personal touch more prominently in another poem by the same author:

They call me untrue to you, faithless in love,
a traitor in absence, so they say.
Then what has befallen my eye, immune
to things for which others are licensed to fall,
as at evening when people turn to frown
on a man's tomfooling, but call it wit;
nor censure a pigrim's dawdling eye
caught by the wink of a dalliant flirt;
he, who had hoped to lessen his sins
and instead returns encumbered the worse?
What has curbed me is not a penitent's awe,
but love, which has laid a guard on my heart.

One of the best known eastern poets was Farazdak of Darim-Tamim, who was born in 650 CE. Farazdak settled in Bazra; like many of his eastern peers he was more than used to using his verse to have a go at the authorities, and the following is a good example. In it, he mocks a man named Ziyad, the current governor of the area around Iraq, who had taken objection to the poet lampooning one of his friends. The governor had offered Farazdak an interview in order to conciliate, but the latter replied with:

He waved the payroll. Let him! I thought,
so long as men worth credit walk
this earth. Besieging Ziyad at the gates
are plenty of men in straits for him
to enrol if he wished; some cry for the moon,
but the many urge no more than need.
Guessing, then, that the clink of cash
might change overnight to the clank of chains
I jumped to a jade worn thin to the bone
from nightly parades of the dead-beat land

Poetry of the Abbasid period

The Abbasid revolution saw the centre of the Muslim empire move from Mecca to Baghdad. Poetry in the time directly after the revolution was no longer favoured at court, and by the time it re-entered, it had undergone some profound shifts. Many of the people living in the area were not Arabian, and even fewer had any knowledge of the Bedouin life out of which the traditional poetry had emerged. Also, by that time a translation movement was in full sway which gradually translated the vast majority of the famous Greek philosophical works into Arabic. In consequence, whilst the traditional forms and modes were retained, the poetry shifted in tone and had a noticeably intellectual tendency.

The earliest well known poet was a man called Bashshar of Amir. Born in 700 CE, this poet was already well known by the time the Abbasids came to power. For this reason he was closer in style to the Umayyad poets before him. The most interesting thing about Bashshar was the fact that he was blind, which caused his poetry to really emphasise the old Zoroastrian themes of the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness, but metaphorically. In the following poem, he actually talks about his blindness directly:

I was blind from the womb, and from blindness insight came;
and a world of the known I built through wondering why;
and the light, unfathomed, with knowledge emerged ablaze
through a heart that saved what others, unseeing, destroy;
with thoughts like the flowers on earth, and words that I taught
lightly to tread when the thoughts came full of thorns.

The most famous authentically Abbasid poet was a man named Abu Nawas of Kakam-Madhhij, who was born half a century after Bashshar in 756 CE. In his poetry one can find references to Greek myths such as that of Narcissus, reflecting the translations from Greek that were being prepared at the time. Nawas himself however was more famous for his fine living; indeed, for many people he was a living scandal. His love poetry has a different tone to that of the Umayyad poets; it is much more willing to dwell on aesthetic beauty:

A being at blush of dawn,
silver in the absolute,
in whom the eye beholds
beauty in the infinite,
perfection poised, eclipsed
in re-creation inchoate -
so beauty moves into orbits
reborn and unregenerate.

It was Abu Nuwas who made the ‘wine poem' - or anacreontic - famous. These poems, which can be seen later on in the verse of Hafiz, gave many rulers and religious authorities headaches. He was eventually thrown in prison by one of the governors, Amin - who rather unfairly condemned him in order to draw attention away from his own drinking habit.

After Amin died in a power struggle Abu Nuwas's fortunes looked likely to change. He composed an elegy for his dead ruler; but it was sadly near enough the last thing he did before dying himself. His last words, it is said, were: "The Prophet once said that his intercession was reserved for those of the faith who had committed great sins. Do you think I am not one of them?"

Other poets made their names at this time too. Muslim of Azd (born 747) delivered measured, lengthy and deeply religious poetry; and Ibn al-Ahnaf of Bakr (born 804) composed short, charming verses, such as this one:

So bear the burden in love, and forgive,
and if you are wronged, then say: ‘I did wrong'
But scorn forgiveness in love: You will walk
with the fault abroad on your face, alone.

From the time of these poets to the end of the classical era around 1050 CE poetry, in fact, became a public spectacle, with recitals being often heard in the places of power. The classical period came to an end with the death of the strongly anti-religious Ma'arri, and from this period onward it became associated more and more with Sufism, and Sufi orders.

The poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273)

Most scholars of Islamic poetry would call Jalal al-Din Rumi the greatest Muslim poet to have ever lived. In fact, one could make the case that he is among the greatest poets to have lived regardless of religion or ethnicity. Rumi was a prominent Sufi influenced by al-Ghazali whose spiritual, ethical and poetic works have a deeply affecting clarity and humility. He influenced the German poet and philosopher Goethe, and through Goethe much European Romantic poetry. Indeed, even today books of his poetry are widely read, and are very easy to get hold of in English. In the United States, in fact, Rumi was the best-selling poet throughout the 1990s.[9]

Rumi was born to a highly educated father allegedly of noble descent in the early thirteenth century. Whilst still a child he was forced to moved from city to city, each time being forced too flee from the military activities of the Mongols who had destroyed his childhood town of Balkh (now in Afghanistan). This early experience forever affected him, and his writing as a result always had a keen desire for justice and fair rule - as one can see from the opening of his book Discourses:

"The Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: The worst of scholars is he who visits princes, and the best of princes is he who visits scholars. Happy is the prince who stands at the poor man's door, and wretched is the poor man who stands at the door of a prince."[10]

Rumi's aptitude for learning was spotted early, and as young as twelve he had been given to study some of the great mystical, ethical, mathematical and astronomical texts of the day. For that reason he initially followed his father into a life of scholarship, taking over his father's position at just 24 after settling in Konya (now in Turkey).

This life of scholarship was set on a rather different path, however, when Rumi had an encounter with a wandering Sufi named Shams at the age of 37. The two individuals developed a close friendship; Rumi even claimed that he found in Shams the image of the Divine Beloved. They spent a number of years living closely together, and during this time Rumi became less focused on the tenets of Islamic law and engulfed by the desire for God's love. He began to recite poetry which reflected this desire; in the following example, for instance, he likens the human individual to a reed-flute (nay), ready to be filled with the flame of love:

Hearken to this Reed forlorn,
Breathing ever since 'twas torn
From its rushy bed, a strain
Of impassioned love and pain.

"The secret of my song, though near,
None can see and none can hear
Oh for a friend to know the sign
And mingle all his soul in mine!

'Tis the flame of Love that fired me,
'Tis the wine of Love inspired me.
Wouldst thou learn how lovers bleed,
Hearken, hearken to the Reed!"

His life became dedicated to religious worship, and the creation of new ways of expressing his love for the world, for others, and for God. During this time he developed - supposedly after being inspired by the rhythmic hammering of the local goldsmiths - a form of whirling religious dancing now known by the word Sema.[12] This type of dance was later to become formalised, and eventually became well known to Europeans as the dance of the ‘Whirling Dervishes'.

Rumi did not reject Islamic law; but he did, like al-Ghazali before him, begin to criticise some jurists (fuqaha) for seeing nothing in religion but strict observance of ritual. He and al-Ghazali shared the concern that if Islam became all about ritual observance it would lose its sense of purpose; it would become a hollow shell, and inevitably as a result make ethical mistakes. This position gave some of his poetry a strong moral energy, and it was fiercely critical at times. A good example of this is his poem ‘A rebuke to the bigots':

On this wise did the Jew tell his dream. Oh, there was many a Jew whose end was praiseworthy.
Do not spurn any infidel, for it may be hoped that he will die a Muslim.
What knowledge have you of the close of his life, that you should once and for all avert your face from him?

However, the fact that he turned away from his previous life still displeased some people. Many of his former disciples resented the fact that all his time was now being spent with Shams. Rumi's companion eventually disappeared, as mysteriously as he had arrived; some have speculated that he was murdered.

This sent Rumi into a deep sadness. He began to become lost in the recitation of his poetry, whirling around in a trance-like state. He kept teaching, however, often in the face of continued personal jealousies, and his followers went on to found the Mevlevi order, one of the best known Sufi orders. (It was the Mevlevi order who made the Sema famous, and became known as the ‘Whirling Dervishes'.)

It is grossly mistaken though to think of Rumi as a woeful poet. Despite his tough childhood and the loss of his good friend the vast majority of his work is characterised by the affirmation of life in all its beauty. Most of it comes across... like this:

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
and say,

Like this.

When someone mentions the gracefulness
of the night-sky, climb up on the roof
and dance and say,

Like this.

If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
or what "God's fragrance" means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.

Like this.

When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.

Like this.

If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don't try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.

Like this. Like this. [...]

When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.

Like this. [...]

When Shams comes back from Tabriz,
he'll put just his head around the edge
of the door to surprise us

Like this.[14]

The poetry of Hafiz (circa 1320-1390)

Despite the fact that Hafiz (or Hafez) is today one of the best known Sufi Muslim poets his life remains shrouded by folklore and hearsay. We can say with certainty that he spoke and wrote in Persian, and that he is buried in Shiraz, which is today in south-west Iran. It is fairly likely that he was a learned religious man too, for his abbreviated name is also a title that refers to a person who has memorised the Qur'an by rote. And, although we cannot be sure, it is also said that during his lifetime he moved in and out of favour with the rulers of the era, becoming at times favoured by the courts and at others being charged with blasphemy.

This absence of a reliable biography means that we have to try to know him and his life mainly through what he wrote. This admittedly does not give us many details, but it does tell us a lot about his worldview and beliefs - and a fair bit about the Sufi tradition that he was part of and that assisted in giving him his reputation too.

In common with a number of Sufis, Hafiz wrote poetry that was brimming with expressive words and phrases; he is fast and loose with his imagery, drawing upon the Christian and Jewish religions as well as the Islamic. To the unfamiliar reader his poems seem to display a lust for life that people do not often associate with the Islamic faith. Consider, for instance, the following two verses from his poem ‘Love and wine':

Fill, fill the cup with sparkling wine,
Deep let me drink the juice divine,
To soothe my tortured heart
For love, who seemed at first so mild,
So gently looked, so gaily smiled
Here deep has plunged his dart

And then later in the poem:

Hafiz, if thou wouldst enjoy
Ecstatic rapture, soul-felt joy,
Blest as the powers above,
Snatch to thine arms the blooming maid,
Then, on her charming bosom laid,
Abandon all for Love

This poem gives a little bit of a clue as to why some Sufis (and probably Hafiz himself) were looked upon unfavourably at times by the religious authorities for succumbing to a hedonistic lifestyle. One can imagine another of his poems, ‘Lawful wine', getting a particularly frosty reception for its suggestion that: "Toping [drinking to excess] no more counts for sin, now that our Lord Royal has put sins away".[16]

But in Hafiz's poetry this apparent yearning for what is illicit in Islam normally presented in a highly ambiguous way - a tendency which is again visible in the works of a number of early Sufis. Worldly pleasures are employed in his and others' poetry lyrically and often metaphorically; the apparently hedonistic desire for individual experience is intermixed with, and often used to represent, a desire for direct experience of God. A good example of this is his poem ‘Strife', which leaves the reader unsure of whether the author is talking about a fellow person, or God:

The calm circumference of life
When I would fain have kept,
Time caught me in the tide of strife
And to the centre swept.

Of this fierce glow which Love and You
Within my breast inspire,
The Sun is but a spark that flew
And set the heavens afire!

This ambiguity has certainly puzzled and provoked religious scholars and authorities greatly over the years; it largely it explains why a learned religious man such as Hafez might have been both lauded and deplored by those in charge; but it also makes reading him all the more interesting.

Hafiz did not only write about pleasure and desire, of course. He, like Rumi before him, spoke of the full range of human experiences - including life's pains. In the following verse titled ‘Desire', love's desire is pictured as painful and precarious:

I cease not from desire till my desire
Is satisfied; or let my mouth attain
My love's red mouth, or let my soul expire,
Sighed from my lips that sought her lips in vain.
Others may find another love as fair;
Upon her threshold I have laid my head:
The dust shall cover me, still lying there,
When from my body life and love have fled.

But - like Rumi's poetry - Hafiz's verse is generally ebullient and full of a love for life. Even when dealing with worldly disappointments and setbacks he remains largely optimistic. These heartening lines, for instance, encourage the reader to keep going even in hard times:

I behold the green expanse of the sky and the sickle of the new moon: I was reminded both of my life's field and of the time of reaping.
I said: "Fortune, you have slept, and the sun has burst forth into the sky;"
I was told: "In spite of all this do not abandon hope for what has passed.
If like Jesus, stripped of all and pure, you ascend to heaven's sphere, from your lantern a hundred rays will reach to light the sun itself

Modern Arabic poetry

Whilst poets that have lived recently or are still alive today cannot easily acquire the reputation of some of their forebears, there is nonetheless still an Arabic poetry movement that is active on the world stage. Indeed, this movement has gained an impressive reputation.

Much of this poetry deals with the substantial changes that have affected the Middle East over the last century. Some of the poetry in this tradition is consequently mournful, and reflects the fact that Arabic-speaking lands have so often been troubled by war and division in the recent past. Hoda Ablan for instance, born in Yemen, writes poetry of loss and longing that is very personal. This example is called ‘Confession':

Sometimes at nightfall I break down and cry
Then I resent my tears, which have illuminated the world
and extinguished me.

Seema Atalla, who was born in New York, writes similarly mournful verse but with a more political tone. The following excerpt is taken from a poem called ‘Holy land', and is written for her grandmother Melia. The verses alternate between the image of the checkpoints of occupied Palestine, on the one hand, and her grandmother's needlework, on the other - the imagery of one subject intermingling with that of the other:

Settlements sewn
to the hills
bases secured
with double knots
checkpoints pinned
to the perforated

in the cornered crook
of a sofa's arm

Land spread flat
in that holy glare
by invading needles
villages picked apart
old roads

counting the careful squares
within confining lines -

The scarlet skeins
and veins of your hands
fill the grid
by cross
with piercing

Modern Arabic poetry has been influenced itself by these political and social changes. The traditional lyrical style of Arabic poetry is still present in the modern writers' works, but they are often influenced by English or French verse. French poetry, particularly, has had a large influence. (French, it should be remembered, was the language of international politics until around the 1920s.) Both the Modernist and the Surrealist traditions have impacted upon the Arabic style too.

One author who demonstrates well the hybrid style of some modern Arabic poetry is Fuad Rifqa. Rifqa was born in Syria, but has lived in Germany and the USA. He has become a translator of the famous German poets Holderlin and Rilke, and has developed a terse style. This poem is called, simply, ‘A thought':

Between his eyes and her tears
this suitcase, always packed
and the distances of so many journeys
to see
to feel the fire of poetry
in a foreign land

[1] Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber and Faber, 1991.

[2] Taken from Charles Greville Tuetey, Classical Arabic Poetry: 162 Poems from Imrulkais to Ma'arri, KPI, p. 103

[3] Ibid, p. 128.

[4] Ibid, p. 136.

[5] Ibid, p. 169.

[6] Ibid, p. 192.

[7] Ibid, p. 207.

[8] Ibid, p. 225.

[9] Emin Aydin (ed.), Mevlana Jalaleddin Rumi, The Dialogue Society, 2004.

[10] A. J. Arberry, The Discourses of Rumi, John Murray, 1961.

[11] Taken from Reynold A. Nicholson, Rumi: Poet and Mystic, George Allen and Unwin, 1950, p. 31.

[12] Emin Aydin (ed.), Mevlana Jalaleddin Rumi, The Dialogue Society, 2004.

[13] Taken from Reynold A. Nicholson, Rumi: Poet and Mystic, George Allen and Unwin, 1950, p. 172.

[14] Taken from Coleman Barks, Essential Rumi, HarperOne, 2004, p. 135.

[15] Taken from A. J. Arberry, Persian Poems, J. M Dent and Sons, 1954, p. 62-63.

[16] Ibid, p. 72.

[17] Ibid, p. 76.

[18] Ibid, p. 69.

[19] Taken from Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, Oneworld, 2000, p. 143.

[20] Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon (eds.), A Crack in the Wall: New Arab Poetry, Saqi, 2001, p. 17.

[21] Ibid, p. 29.

[22] Ibid, p. 222.

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For as long as the Arabic language has existed it has been used to write some of the most beautiful poetry a reader can find. Poetry, in fact, was instrumental in the development of the Arabic language.