Islam & Poetry (Part 2) 1

The preferred poetic form of the jāhiliyya was the qasīda (ode), one of the three principal types of lyric poetry, the others being the ghazal (short lyric love poem) and the rubā‘ī (or quatrain), each of which underwent the spiritual transformation of secular topics and themes typified by the qasīda:

“The classic genre begins with a section (nasīb [the amatory prologue of this polythematic ode]) in which the lover expresses a longing for the departed beloved…. Then the poet describes the subject’s quest and concludes with the lover boasting ironically of how he has succeeded in exiling her from his memory. Muslim poets transformed both the themes and the three-part structure of the qasīda form, adapting the genre to specifically religious and mystical purposes.” (Renard, 1996: 110)

Islam is emphatic that Muhammad, as God’s Messenger and Seal of the Prophets, was no tribal bard moved by the jinn (s. jinnī, intelligent, usually invisible beings), those fiery spirits thought to have inspired, in the manner of the Greek muse, pre-Islamic Bedouin poets. And Muslims rightly argue the Qur’ān’s literary qualities transcend those of even the best poetry. The need for the Qur’ān to distance itself from pagan poetry was quickened by the fact the Arabic word for poetry (shi‘r) comes from a verb that means ‘to know’ and ‘to perceive.’ So while we might interpret this to imply that all knowledge is, in some sense, poetry, for Muslim authorities this meant rather that the knowledge revealed in the Qur’ān was in direct and urgent competition with the poetic articulation of the Bedouin worldview. And it hardly helped matters that poets were often the most dangerous and implacable foes of the Prophet. Still, and strictly speaking, poetry is not forbidden in Islam, although ‘as a patterned mode of discourse where pattern is a vehicle of art and art can militate for autonomy and for control of content, poetry is clearly suspect’ (Goodman: 34).

From a sūra in the Qur’ān titled ‘The Poets,’ we learn that ‘only those who are lost in error follow the poets’ (26: 224), and elsewhere that ‘We have not taught the Prophet poetry, nor would he ever have been a poet’ (36: 69), hence in spite of the transparent and eloquent poetic qualities of the Qur’ān, its words are unequivocally ‘not the words of a poet’ (69: 40-41). Yet, and importantly, the Qur’ān also refers to those poets ‘who believe, do good deeds, and remember God often’ (26: 227). Hadīth (pl. ahādīth, reports or traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) literature is less nuanced, tending to view poetry with prima facie suspicion or questionable acceptability. Muhammad himself was not above finding wisdom in poetry, nor immune from enchantment by its aesthetic elegance. What is more, the Qur’ān effects a transition from the poet’s oral culture of inexplicable intuition and improvisation to a literary culture that privileges study and contemplation, a reasoned scrutiny of culture’s contents (as Oliver Leaman reminds us, ‘There are many references to the importance of reason in the Qur’ān, and Islam seems to take pride, at least in its early years, in presenting itself as highly rational.’). This transition might also be seen as a change ‘from a point of view which made contact with the pagan surface of existence to one which reached into its metaphysical depths’ (Adonis: 37). It’s no small irony that Qur’ānic exegesis and studies gave birth to a vigorous literary criticism and incipient science of religious aesthetics, all the while indirectly stimulating poetic production and opening up new vistas in poetry.

Poetry finds philosophical sanction in the work of the first truly systematic thinker in Islamic philosophy (falsafa), Abū Nasr Muhammad al-Fārābī (c. 256-7/870—339/950). Al-Fārābī’s Peripatetic and Neoplatonic infused Islamic philosophy understands the music of poetic speech as ‘superior to all other music in its evocative powers and the effects it produces’ (Adonis: 24). The philosopher’s views on this score have family resemblance to a Confucian perspective on The Odes, and Plato’s rationale, in the Laws, for making music an integral component of education (padeia) in the widest sense, insofar as its pleasurable nature is essential in the training of children to become habituated to virtue (aretē). Specifically, in The Great Treatise on Music (Kitāb al-Mūsīqā al-Kabir), al-Fārābī argues that

“Because many moral stances and actions are the result of the emotions and of the visions conjured up by the imagination, these perfect tunes have a beneficial effect on attitudes and morals and encourage listeners to acquire all the mental attributes,  such as wisdom and knowledge of the sciences.” (Qtd. In Adonis: 25)

Al-Fārābī proceeds to accord poetry a unique epistemological end: takhyīl, or calling to mind the imaginative depiction of an object:

“This theory of imaginative evocation was to become the cornerstone of subsequent Islamic interpretations of poetic imitation, and through it psychological…underpinnings it became the means whereby the emotive and cognitive appeal of poetry and poetic discourse could be explained, and its role in philosophy and religion established.” (Black in Nasr and Leaman: 182-183)

In short, poetry is, like prophecy, and for the philosopher, a product of the interplay between intellect and the mimetic capacities of imagination, although only philosophy provides the syllogistic (logical) demonstration of truths that prophecy and poetry communicate by symbolic and figurative means. What’s compelling about this theory is that it permits what are otherwise rarefied truths known with “certainty” by the philosopher to be communicated to masses possessing neither the taste nor the talent for philosophy. The intuitive reason and vision of the heart central to the poetic enterprise is now blessed with Islamic philosophical vindication, whatever a democratic epistemic sensibility may conclude about the possible condescending or patronizing character of such an approach.

One comment

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

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