[Translation of a small paper I wrote during my days in Qatar]
The Arab Thinker Faroukh (1974: 5) said: “Literature is a collection of fair speeches narrated to us from our predecessors”. Such a definition is quite satisfactory if one is to ponder well, even if one considers all the modern day changes Arabic literature has gone through. The roots of it, one has to admit, is strongly established in the era the ancient Arabs were part of. Literature has many roles to play in the life of man. The most important part it plays probably is by buttressing us in developing psychologically and socially without untying the bond with the forefathers. We can hence reflect on a future enlightened by a shining light lit by the past. If this is understood then we can not help admitting that literature is not well understood without a sincere observation of its past. This is true for literature of any civilization without any exception.
Arabic literature is one of the oldest and perhaps one of the most well documented one. It is true that it has gone through some paradigm shift after the advent of Islam, but its base was well developed by the pre-Islamic Arabs in an era now came to be known as Al-‘Asr al-Jahili (The age of Ignorance). It was considered to be the age of ignorance because of its theological or religious profanity but, otherwise, it was known as an era which saw one of best poets in the history of Arabic literature. Perhaps the literary work, or should we say collection of works, that still boggles the mind even today, is the work of Al-Mu’allaqat. Al-Mu’allaqat is a set of beautiful poems written in the Jahili era that is still related orally by the Arabs today. Connoisseurs of literature from around the world marvel at the aesthetic beauty of the poems, whether read in the original Arabic or even its translated works. What I intend to do in this paper is to shed some light on facts regarding this intriguing set of poems and present some information regarding the poet who wrote these.
The Era of Al-Mu’allaqat
Literature is not borne out of void. It is in fact a culmination of expressions from what people feel and know. Such depth of feelings stems from the ambience, societies, places and more importantly the time in which people live. So it is incumbent on us to have a glance at the era in which Al-Mu’allaqat came out and observe the societal condition prevalent at that time. Briefly put, the Jahili era is regarded to be the one that precedes the first year of the advent of Islam, that is 622 C.E. But we don’t have much information to show for except for the last two centuries at best (Faroukh 1974: 12). When we look at the lives of the Arabs in the Jahili era we see a totally primitive way of living. They were divided into tribes and the sense of tribalism was fierce and rampant. It was so severe that each tribe used to believe they are even superior than the Persians and the Romans, though the latter two civilizations were way ahead of them both in terms of riches and culture. The tribes were led by a single leader. They didn’t have any knowledge except the petty knowledge of lineage and few expertise in medicine i.e., treatment using honey, cupping etc. The culture was mainly based on legends and folklore. An astonishing barbarism that was very much rooted in the culture was live burials of baby girls due to fear of decreased provision. Most of them would worship idols and effigies. But few Christian and Jewish tribes were also found scattered in the region. The only possession, however, that the Arab truly took pride in, and deservingly so, was their language. The Arabs were extremely eloquent in their language and expressions. They were very fond of poetry and some exceptional poets did arise among them. Al-Faadil (2003: 30) makes a very interesting point:
“The tribal mentality often begot moments of brilliance. The brilliance of the Arabs was to be found in their language. Often they would offer metaphors that will prove their intuitive linguistic prowess. But such brilliance was not actually the one of an innovator or discoverer – it was just a presentation of speech in many different forms. Hence what puzzles you more is their diversity in speeches rather than his creativity with meanings. You can even say: His (an Arab’s) tongue was more skillful than his intellect.”
A (very) concise introduction to Mu’allaqat
Mu’allaqat is the name given to a collection of long poems of some very distinguished Jahili poets. Linguistically the word means things that are hanging. There are different theories and opinions regarding how the name Mu’allaqat was coined. We will see some of these reasons here:
1. The poems became so popular that the Arabs started revering them and consequently wrote them with golden ink and hung them over the sides of the Ka’ba or its curtains. Hence the name Mu’allaqat. This is the most well-known reason cited.
2. The name came due to the fact that the poems were engraved in the hearts of the people.
3. Often the kings would become very fond of a poet’s work and would ask the poems to be hung and preserved in the treasury.
4. The Jahili people were often afraid of the poems being destroyed or eaten by monkeys, rats or moths. So they would fold them inside a cylindrical body and hang it up on the wall.
There are some other names for these set of poems which was mentioned by Al-Zarzooni (1993: 7). Let me mention some of them here – Al-Mu’allaqat as-Sab’, Al-Sab’ alTiwaal, Al-Qasaid al-Sab’ al-Tiwaal al-Jahiliyyat, Al-Sab’iyat, Al-Mu’allaqat al-‘Ashr, Al-Sumoot, Al-Mashhoorat, Al-Mudhahhabat etc. but the name, simply Al-Mu’allaqat, stayed with people. There are also differences of opinions regarding the total number of these poems and their poets. According to the majority of citation, the number is seven. These seven distinguished poets are Imru-ul Qays, Tarfah bin al-‘Abd, Zuhayr bin Abi Salmaa, Labeed bin Rabee’ah, ‘Amr bin Kulthum, ‘Antarah bin Shaddad and Al-Harith bin Halza. Some of the narrations also added another three names to this elite group: Al-Naabiga al-Dhubyani, Al-‘A’asha and ‘Ubayd bin al Abras al-Asadi.
Facts Regarding the Poets of Mu’allaqat
Arguably the most famous among the poets of Mu’allaqat was Imru-ul Qays. He was a prince whose kingdom was taken over and he himself had to flee. The sense of pain and vengeance appeared in the later part of his poem. One will also find him talking about love and eroticism in his poem, a motive (Gharad) known as Ghazal in Arabic poem. He also focused a lot on his own life and the Arab nomadic life (Al-Zarzooni 1993). Al-Tarfah’s poem revolved around the motives of wisdom (Hikmah), characterization (Wasf) and pride on himself (Fakhr). His is the longest poem in the set of Mu’allaqat which constitutes of 102 verses. Interestingly he is also the youngest to die among these poets, at the age of 26 (Al-Zarzooni 1993). Zuhayr’s work was hugely influenced by the infamous war of Dahis and Ghubara, a war that took place in the Jaahili era and continued for 40 years. He was also inspired by two young man Haram and Al-Haarith who eventually took the effort to stop the war. The main motives found in Zuhair’s work are praise (Madh) and wisdom (Hikmah). Labeed had a long life of around 110 years and he is in fact the only poet among them who converted to Islam and was regarded as a companion of the Prophet. He is thus known as a Mukhadram, a term given to a person who has witnessed two literary eras – The Jaahili one and the one commenced with the coming of Islam. The main motives in his poems were characterization, wisdom, love and pride. He was also the only one who traveled a lot and described different lands in his poem. It has been claimed that ‘Amr bin Kulthum lived for around 150 years (Al Zarzooni 1993: 111). He was very well known for his razor sharp choice of words. His main motive was pride. Unfortunately his poem had not been preserved in its totality. ‘Antara’s poem has received huge popularity because of it containing narration of his much celebrated love with a woman named ‘Abla. The story of ‘Antara and ‘Abla is a popular one in the Arabic folklore. ‘Antara was a fierce warrior on his own right and did participate in many battles. Among all the poets of Mu’allaqat, ‘Antara’s poem is the easiest one in terms of style (Al-Faadil 1993). The last one, among the famous seven, is Al Haarith – who is also claimed to have lived approximately 150 years (Al-Shanqeeti: 40). According to Abu ‘Ubayda, an Arab litterateur, the most beautiful poems in the Mu’allaqat are the ones of these three: ‘Amr, Al-Haarith and Tarfah (Al-Shanqeeti: 41).
Significance of Mu’allaqat
Significance of such a literary work can hardly be exaggerated. We try to figure out the most important factors of significance over here:
1. Literary Significance: Obviously Mu’allaqat is extremely important in studying and researching the legacy of Arabic literature. The Jahili era is the first era of Arabic literature and Mu’allaqat is considered to be the symbol of this literary period. From a very early age the scholars and litterateurs are researching, explaining and writing on the Mu’allaqat. Some of the modern day writings over the issue are Sharh al-Mu’allaqat alSab’ by Al-Zarzoony, Al-Mu’allaqat al-‘Ashr waAkhbar Shu’ara-iha by Ahmad Ameen al-Shanqeeti etc.
2. Linguistic Significance: As poems of the Jahili era, Mu’allaqat is regarded as the linguistic and grammatical standard in Arabic. The linguists often resort back to and study these poems to understand the syntax, morphology, phonetics and semantics in traditional Arabic. The grammarians similarly do their necessary research over these poems in dealing with grammatical issues.
3. Historical Significance: Mu’allaqat is a gold mine for historians, specially those who have interest in the Arabs of Jahili era. These poems possess a wealth of information about the society, economics, culture and tradition, wars and truces etc of Jaahili period.
4. Religious Significance: Its significance in deciphering the Islamic canonical texts is also easily fathomable as these texts contain many words and expressions of that era and these poems thus help decoding their meaning. Many Islamic scholars and their students often memorise and study these poems for exactly the same reason.
This was supposed to be a brief account of Mu’allaqat which touches on a very few of its issues. The context doesn’t permit this author to bring forth the whole ocean except for few drops. Mu’allaqat remains to be a pleasant surprise the Arabic literature gifted the world. These poems deserve to be further researched and studied for various reasons and motives. They are the sole proof of the genius of ancient Arabs despite the fact that they lived a very primitive life that hardly saw any ray of development. Perhaps a very simplistic exterior of life has helped them to be immersed with deep expressive selves full of emotions which were then translated in this amazing set of poems.
1. Faroukh, ‘Umar – Al Minhaj fee al Adaab al ‘Arabee waTaarikhuhu. 1974, 1st edition. Publisher: Al-Maktaba al ‘Asriyah li al Tiba’a wa al Nashr.
2. Al Faadil, Ahmad – Taarikh wa ‘Usoor al Adaab al ‘Arabee. 2003, 1st edition. Publisher: Daar al Fikr al Lubnanee.
3. Al Zarzooni, Abu ‘Abdillah Al Husayn – Sharh al Mu’allaqat al Sab’. 1993. Publisher: Daar al ‘Aalamiah
4. Al-Shanqeeti, Ahmad al Ameen – Al Mu’allaqat al ‘Ashr waAkhbar Shu’ara-iha. Publishing date – not given. Publisher: Daar al Nasr.
5. Shalqi, Dr. ‘Alee – Nuqaat al Tatawwur fee al Adab al ‘Arabee. 1975. Publisher: Daar al Qalam, Beirut.