The Role of Poetry in Arabic Culture

Over the centuries, poetry enjoyed a unique position amongst the Arabs. It was the diwan (record) of the Arabs and it occupied the first place amongst the Arabian arts. It was held so high in esteem that the Arabs in pre-Islamic days used to hang some of the outstanding poems, known as the mucallaqat, on the walls of the Kacba.

In pre-Islamic days, the poet himself enjoyed a high place in his tribe which used to celebrate the appearance of a poet, because he would defend it with his poetry and enhance its position amongst the tribes by singing its glories and belittling its enemies by his satire. The poet used to be surrounded by circles of tribal audience in the same fashion as audiences might gather nowadays in front of television sets. The poet was akin to a Minister of Information in our times, and often reached the position of the chief of the tribe itself as was the case with cAmr Bin Kulthoom who said in his Mucallaqa: “When one of our babies is weaned the giants prostrate themselves before him”.

The tribe of Taghlib were so proud of this poem that it was said about them by another poet: “The tribe of Taghlib has been distracted from all fine doings by a poem of cAmr Bin Kulthoom”.

The poem of cAmr Bin Kulthoom provides an example of vanity poetry and is also an example of political poetry. We also find in what has come down to us from pre-Islamic days examples of love poetry as in cAntara’s lines which we still chant: “I have remembered you when the lances were sapping my blood and the Indian swords were dripping with it. Whence I wished to kiss the swords because they glittered like your smile”.

We also find in pre-Islamic poetry verses of gnomic poetry spread over various poems but we also find many examples of panegyric, satirical and vanity poetry and also some humourous poems like Giran Al-Acud’s poem about his two wives. Pre-Islamic poetry also provides examples of the poetry of the Sacalik poets who rebelled against the traditions of the tribe.

Pre-Islamic poetry conveys to us conflicting views on the meaning of life held by the various poets. Thus, while Tarafah sums up his philosophy of life in his famous lines which state that were it not for wine, women and horsemanship, i.e., material pleasures, life would be worth nothing, the poet Labid says “Everything save God is nonsense and every pleasure is sure to vanish”.

When Islam appeared it finally decided the fate of poetry in the eyes of Muslims by virtue of the verses in Sura Al-Shucara (Poets) stating:

“And the poets, it is those straying in evil who follow them. Seest thou not that they wander distracted in every valley? And that they say what they practice not. Except those who believe, work righteousness, engaged much in remembrance of Allah, and defend themselves after they are unjustly attacked; and soon will the unjust know what vicissitudes their affairs will take!”

It is reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said “In poetry there is wisdom and if you are confused about anything in the Quran seek its explanation in poetry, for it is Arabic”. The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) himself was not a poet as is confirmed by the Quran in its saying “We have not instructed him in poetry, nor is it meet for him”. However, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) gave audience to poetry and encouraged its use in the defence of Islam as in his saying to Hassan Bin Thabet “This is more painful to them than being struck by arrows”. During that period we see an example of ideological poetry by a number of poets who were companions of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.), and Muslims to this day chant some of their verses such as the verse by Khubaib: “I do not care when I am killed fighting for Islam on which side I fall”.

The defence by the poet of his tribe in pre-Islamic days and of his creed after the appearance of Islam made it incumbent upon him to have a profound knowledge of geneology. One single line of poetry was sometimes able to elevate the position of a tribe, as happened to the tribe Bani Anfulnaqah (literally the tribe of the nose of the camel) which had been embarrassed by its name, but became proud of it because Hutay’ah said “There are people who are the nose whilst others are the tails, and who compares the nose of the camel with its tail?!”.

Meanwhile another poet in the Umayyad period named Jarir was able to degrade the tribe of Numair again by means of a single line of verse: “Cast down your eyes for you belong to the tribe of Numair which has not reached the level of Ka’b nor Kilab”, although the tribe of Numair had been equal to Ka’b and Kilab in tribal status.

The Arabs expected the poet to be well versed in the Arabic language and, therefore, many poets used to go to live with the bedouin tribes to learn the pure Arabic language. Grammatical errors appeared in the language of the town dwellers because of the mixing that took place there between Arabs and non-Arabs. Versification was also used to record the rules of Arabic grammar to make them easier for students to memorise, such as in Alfiyat Ibn Malik. Moreover, verse was used to record some sciences, for example as was done by Ibn Majid (the famous mariner born at Ras-al-Khaimah who was met and considered highly by Vasco da Gama) in recording his navigational experiences.

However, perhaps the most important contribution of poetry to Arabic culture is what poets since the Abbassid era have produced about asceticism, sufism, wisdom, philosophy and reflection on the meaning of life and mystical matters.

As for the learned men of religion, they were well versed in poetry and employed it in quotations in their religious speeches including Friday sermons, a practice which has continued up to this day, but their poetic creation was limited in quality and quantity. They would fight shy of expressing their emotions freely because of their religious status. Thus we find Al-Imam Al-Shafici who was probably the best poet amongst religious teachers saying “Had it not been that poetry demeans the learned men of religion I would have been today a greater poet than Labid”.

Combining poetry with sciences was found amongst many poets as was the case with Avicenna who combined philosophy and medicine with poetry. He is the author of the well-known poem about the soul which was admired by the renaissance Europeans and which begins: “A dove of pride and self-esteem has come down to thee from the highest place”.

Likewise, cUmar Al-Khayyam was a mathematician, an astronomer as well as a poet. He wrote both Arabic and Persian poetry. Reflection on the destiny of man and the object of existence of the universe lead to the appearance of asceticism in poetry in the earlier days of the Abbassid age as we find for example with Abi Al-Atahyah. This led in turn to the development of mystical poetry which was rich in its subject matter and varied in its proximity to Islamic fundamentalism. The extreme side in mysticism is represented by poets such as Al-Hallaj who said “Oh my trusted friends kill me for in my killing lies my life”. It is worth mentioning that he was in fact killed later on when the men of religion sentenced him to death for uttering remarks such as “There is no one in my robe but Allah”.

Conflict also arose between Al Muctazila and the Abbassid poet Abu Nuwas, who was criticised by Al Naddam for his lax behaviour but Abu Nuwas answered him by saying: “Say unto him who claims knowledge, you have claimed the knowledge of some but not all things. Do not deprive us of God’s pardon if you are a strict man because this deprivation is degrading to religion”. Argument in matters of pre-destination and free-will led to the appearance of philosophical schools in the second Abbassid age and thereafter of Muslim philosophers like Al Farabi, Avicenna and Aviross. This philosophical development crept into Arabic poetry and appeared in a special way with Abi Alcala Al-Macarri.

Arabic poetry had, before the appearance of philosophy, shown its concern with adages since pre-Islamic days when we find a poet like Zuhair Bin Abi Sulma chanting successive adages in his Mucallaqa such as his line: “I am fed up with the responsibilities of living, and he who lives until he is eighty years old must become fed up”. With the development of Arabic thought in the Abbassid age we find Al Mutanabbi dealing with the same concept in greater depth where he says: “If an old man says “pooh”, he is not fed up with living but with his weakness. The mainstay of life is health and youth; so when they disappear, man is finished”.

No doubt Al Mutanabbi was the greatest Arab poet in sounding the depths of the human soul and in the understanding of human behaviour, and because of the wonderfulness of his poetry, the depth of his experience and the strength of his personality, he has enriched the Arabic language by his numerous verses dealing with human behaviour in depth. For instance, he explains indicates the difference in human behaviour when it emanates from a good or a bad nature, by saying “If you do good to an honourable man you become his master, but if you do so to a mean man, he rebels against you”.

Poetry has a great role to play in Arabic ethics as in the saying of Abi Tammam: “Were it not for the morals set by poetry, the builders of the edifice of greatness would not know how to begin”. Abu Tammam was himself the poet who was able to immortalise in verse the conquest of cAmmuryah by Al-Muctasim in his poem which begins with the verse, “The sword is more reliable than the book”. Thus the battle of cAmmuryah is known to the layman whereas conquests more important could not find a poet to immortalise them, so that only people versed in history know about them. Al-Mutanabbi was able to set certain measures for the Arabic values the influence of which continued for generations to come. Al-Mutanabbi in his poetry has given a fine place for singing the praises of self-esteem as in his saying: “Live with self-respect or die honourably between piercing lances and fluttering flags”. Although in his saying that: “The wishes of the self are too small to deserve that we fight and destroy ourselves for them”, yet in the line that followed he did not advocate tolerance but emphasised the cause of self-esteem by saying: “But a courageous man would rather meet the darkness of death than meet disgrace”, and in his saying: “May the time of disgrace never pass me, and may my soul, if it accepts injustice, never accompany me”.

Al-Mutanabbi himself is said to fall a victim of the values which he advocated, as he had to refuse flight from the ambush in which he died, lest men would say that he fled from the field of battle when it was he who had said: “The horse, the night and the desert know me and so do the sword, the lance and paper and pen”.

The values of Al Mutanabbi have continued to prevail since the fifth century until they re-appeared in one form or another in the poetry of later poets such as Ibn Al-Wardi whom we find saying for example: “Never say the origin and branches from which I come for the origin of a true man are his deeds”.

A different lot of poets were those who sang the praises of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) and who were led by Al-Busairi in his poem known as Al-Burda which was imitated by Ahmad Shauqi, the greatest poet of the Renaissance period in the 20th century who obtained the title of the Prince of Poets. Poetry also had a nationalistic role to play in the opposition of injustice and imperialism as in the case of Hafidh Ibrahim and Shauqi who is credited with saying: “Red freedom has a door knocked by hands smeared with blood”, and saying: “Are the large trees out of bounds to its own nightingales, but in bounds to other birds of all descriptions”. The poems of Shauqi were sometimes published on the front page of dailies. Indeed the revolution in Yemen against the regime of the Imam relied on the appeal of poetry - especially the poetry of Al-Zubairi who left the Imam’s prison while reciting: “We have left the prison with our noses in the air like lions leaving their lairs, passing in front of the blades of swords and approaching death through its proper gate”.

Thereafter appeared the beginning of the impact of Western poetry on Arabic poetry. The features of romanticism revealed themselves in the poetry of Arab poets in the two Americas like Jibran and Ilya Abu Madi. These features were transferred to poets in Arab countries like Ali Mahmud Taha, Al-Shabi, and Bisharah Al-Khoori. Thereafter, following the tragedy of Palestine, romanticism began to lose ground to make room for realism and socio-realism, just as the poetry of line verses gave way with effect from the middle of the twentieth century to that of the syllabic tafcilah poetry which flourished in Iraq and later in Egypt during the Naserite era because several of its writers sang the praise of the principles of the revolution and nationalistic causes. This form is now widespread in the poetry of the Palestinian Resistance Movement and Arab poets in general. Following the Six Day war the impact of Western poetry on Arabic poetry increased and what is known as the prose ode, whose acceptance is still debated, began to appear. This form has also become widespread after a large number of false claimants to poetry have found their way to the circle of Arabic poetry using a thick screen of abstruse and obscure verse.

Classical Arabic poetry in the United Arab Emirates during this century has followed similar styles and subjects used in other Arab countries, with the difference in standard since education started here relatively late.

During the past few decades poetry has begun to lose its position as the top art of the Arabs due to the advent of cinema and television. The novel has also competed with it and has helped pushing it to the backrows. The proliferation of newspapers and literary pages in them has led to the increased publication of poor and obscure poetry resulting in alienating the normal reader from poetry.


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