Islam & Poetry (Part 1) 2

As Grace should be said before meals, many thanks to WE for inviting folks to share in the banquet at the Literary Table. In addition to posting poetry from the traditions mentioned in the warm welcome to the Table, I hope to offer contributions from such literary luminaries as Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Matthiesson, Gary Snyder, Iris Murdoch, Pico Iyer and Simone de Beauvoir (well, they come quickest to mind, so there’ll be others too).

Before posting a few poems by Sufis in the Islamic tradition I’d like to introduce the role of poetry in Islam generally. This is the first of three posts that will constitute our introduction. The last post will include the references.

Any discussion of the role of poetry (shi‘r) in Islam must perforce treat the importance of poetry during the jāhiliyya (the pre-Islamic period of ethical and spiritual ignorance), the Arabic word used by Muslims to designate their history prior to the advent of the Qur’ānic revelations. In the jargon of social science, the meaning and function of poetry was, and to some extent still is, contested. This accounts for its apparent ambiguous status in Islamic history, such ambiguity in turn traceable to poetry’s exalted standing during the jāhiliyya.

Pre-Islamic poetry is animated by the Bedouin ethos of the desert in which the tribal poet (shā‘ir) is a ‘singing witness’ to the collective’s customs and traditions, to its wars and heroic exploits. The poet provides the tribe with a somewhat idealized mirror image of itself. The poet’s inventiveness therefore is concentrated in the manner and diversity of expression, as the poem’s subject matter remains constant and predictable:

“In the earliest stages of the literary tradition the emergence within a tribe of the Arabian peninsula of a truly gifted poet was a cause for great rejoicing, as ibn Rashīq notes; the presence of such a figure was a matter of supreme importance, in that words were the most effective of weapons. The poet would rouse the tribe with eulogies (madīh) extolling the chivalry and generosity of its leaders and men; would remind them of the fallen heroes in elegies (marthiya), a category in which women poets seem to have played a prominent role; and, deadliest of verbal weapons, would cast aspersions on the qualities of many tribes, their leaders and womenfolk, in vicious lampoons (hijā’).” (Allen: 109)

Eulogies during the jāhiliyya celebrated such virtues as valor, endurance, patience, loyalty and generosity, as well as the preeminent tribal virtue: solidarity (‘asabiyya). The panegyric to tribal leaders was often peppered with aphorisms (hikma, s. hikam) that reflected the largely secular worldview of tribal life. So-called vagabond poets (su‘luk) performed on the periphery of tribal society, expressing preferences for antinomian if not misanthropic beliefs and behavior, including the privations of solitary life in an unforgiving desert environment. Lastly, we find itinerant court poets whose number and importance increased as Islam flourished in cultural centers beyond the Arabian peninsula: in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Qayrawān, Fez, and Cordoba, for example.

For some Muslims, however, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was emblematic of ‘the days and ways of barbarism’ (Goodman). Whatever degree of truth in this characterization, it should not preclude an appreciation of continuity in poetic expression and themes after the jāhiliyya, even if the Bedouin poetry of the Arabian desert was subject to an Islamic transformation and transvaluation that belies whatever Muslim animus was aimed at poetry as such. For instance, pre-Islamic poetry was born in song and its fundamental orality was nurtured within a predominantly audio-visual culture (for an explanation, see Adonis). Poetic recitation is frequently compared to singing birds, and its meter, rhythm and melody to birdsong. Thus it is not surprising the Khūrāsanī poet and hagiographer, Farīd ad-Dīn ‘Attār, uses birds as metaphors for spiritual experience and the mystical quest in his delightfully didactic and allegorical mathnawī (lit. ‘doubled,’ rhyming couplets), The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-tayr). After ‘Attār, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (604/1207—672/1273) writes of the falcon as a symbol of the soul; the equation soul=bird is, however, hardly unique to Islam.

A transvaluation of the vagabond poets’ ‘truest friends,’ namely the wolf and the hyena, might be inferred from Indian and Persian miniatures that show the Muslim saint or mystic sleeping or sitting among (now) tamed wild animals. More conspicuously, the language of profane or erotic love was used by poets like Muhammad Shams ad-Dīn Hāfiz (726/1325—791/1389) and Rūmī, and before them, by Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya  (95 [or 99]/714 [or 717-8]—185/801), to poetically convey the relationship of love between human beings and God, between lover and the Beloved. Rabi`a represents the pinnacle of the Basran tradition of women’s ascetic spirituality within Islam and within Sufism she is considered one of the (if not the) earliest exponents and dramatic exemplars of ‘love-mysticism’ (for a succinct analysis, see Leaman: 99-104).


  1. Pingback: Sufi Poetry–I « The Literary Table

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