Desert Voices: Arabic Poetry Through the Ages, Part I – Pre-Islamic Poetry

The richness of Arabic poetry and, more specifically, of poetry born on the Arabian Peninsula, is breath-taking. Beginning well before the coming of Islam and continuing on into the new millennium, Arab poets have blessed the world with some of the finest verse ever written. The overall corpus of their work is amazingly diverse, beginning as an oral tradition among the Bedouin, taking a more definite written form beginning in the 6th century CE, joined in the centuries immediately following by Islamic verse, and blending those traditions with others in truly magical ways ever since.

With so much territory to cover in this overview, we have opted to divide our survey into three parts: the first, beginning here, discusses pre-Islamic poetry starting with the oral traditions of Bedouin Arabs prior to Islam and continues into the first “true” Arabic poetry dating from the 4th century CE; the second, to follow in October, centers on what is known as the classical period and explores verse inspired by Islam and the Qur’an; the third, concluding this series in November, reviews modern Arabic poetry, continuing the story into the present day.

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The existence of poetry on the Arabian Peninsula prior to the rise of Islam has been the subject of fierce debate. Certain doubtful scholars have argued that what many people think of as pre-Islamic poetry consists of forgeries fabricated by transmitters in the centuries following the establishment of Islam as a way to support the authenticity of Qur’anic narratives. Although such arguments have been solidly refuted, they still have their adherents. In this article we respectfully dismiss those arguments and fully embrace the concept of pre-Islamic poetry.

That poetry was rooted in the oral tradition of the desert with all of its richness, passed on from generation to generation for untold centuries by tribal story-tellers. Those early verses as best we can understand them displayed an instinctive sense of rhythm with certain word combinations repeated again and again.

The Bedouins of the pre-Islamic period are generally portrayed as a proud and boastful people, fond of epic tales and emotive poetry and expressive prose. Strains of what some people criticize and label as “arrogance” and “self-worship” among them is evident in what we know of their verse, adding in this writer’s eyes power and force to those words. One could have a semantic debate on how best to describe those elements. I personally prefer the words “confidence” and “pride” in place of “arrogance” and “self-worship.” Like with so many issues in life, viewpoints differ. But the poetry remains, stimulating our hearts and minds and provoking debate.

Via the oral tradition, tribes preserved their history and passed it on. In Bedouin culture, the shared memories embodied in those words kept the past alive, while silence begot forgetfulness, and forgetfulness begot lost memories which was tantamount to death. Those long-ago desert tribes kept themselves alive through their spoken verse. It embodied their history. It was their cultural lifeblood flowing through generations. In a culture with few if any written traditions, reciters—known as rawis in Arabic—committed to memory the poetry and songs of their poets, some of them hundreds of lines long, and recited them at public assemblies and private gatherings.

It’s commonly assumed that their poetry was exquisite, but how do we know this for sure about poetry originating from a pre-literate oral tradition? Bedouins generally lacked a means for writing down their verses, and scholars have labored mightily to try to recapture their words. Possible evidence to help solve this mystery may lie in the many thousands of rock art texts—think of them as prehistoric desert graffiti—found on the Arabian Peninsula and in surrounding lands. Many of those texts were inscribed on rocks scattered about the ancient lava flows or harrahs common to the region. Those rock art inscriptions harbor many secrets yet to be unraveled, at least some of them likely related—it seems—to poetry associated with the Bedouin oral tradition.

A pre-Islamic poem written in a form of ancient Arabic recently transcribed from a rock art inscription found in the deserts of Jordan illustrates the repeated use of certain word combinations common to that genre:

May his halting be only for war
So let here this day be the final encampment
Foremost fame!
So let here this day be the final encampment
Those who return suffer
So let here this day be the final encampment

[ Quoted in “A New History of Arabia, Written in Stone. How strange rocks—and an obscure language—are changing a decades-old academic consensus,” by Elias Muhanna, The New Yorker, May 23, 2018 | ]

The rise of pre-Islamic written Arabic poetry closely coincided with the origins and the development of the Arabic language. The oldest examples of written Arabic date from the 4th century CE. Prior to that, Arabic remained primarily an oral language. The works of the great early Arab poets were transmitted orally from generation to generation, with the poets themselves often giving public recitations. Written Arabic as such began to emerge in the 7th century CE as the holy book of Islam, the Qur´an, was written in the same Arabic language as that of the early Arabic poets. Arabic oral poetry has been dated back as far as the third century CE. Tracing its existence before that to its origins is a daunting task.

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While the oral Bedouin tradition endured and continues to this day in a vibrant written form, a contrasting, identifiable written strain of pre-Islamic poetry blossomed and grew to prominence in 6th century CE Arabia featuring its own set of poetic tropes and carried on by the so-called Jahili (“agnostic” or “ignorant”) poets. Scholars recognize this development as the actual “birth” of Arabic poetry per se. Much of that pre-Islamic tribal poetry comes to us in the form of odes, known as Qaşīda, the dominant poetic form of the age. Qaşīda poetry was rooted in the values of the warrior aristocracy and consisted of three parts: nasīb (an erotic prelude); rahīl (desert journey); and gharacj (the goal of the ode, which could vary from praise of a ruler, to boasting about the greatness of oneself or one’s tribe, to a paean to a fallen warrior, to invective and even satire. The example of the Qaşīda was embraced early in the Islamic period and became the dominant poetic genre in courts across Arabia.

According to legend, inside the Kaaba at Makkah prior to Muhammad once hung seven long pieces of Coptic linen with seven pieces of poetry written on them in gold known as the Mu’allaqat— meaning “The Suspended Odes” or “The Hanging Poems”—a septet of qaṣīdahs representing the finest works of seven of the greatest early Arab poets. One of those seven qaṣīdahs was reportedly the work of a 6th century Jahili poet named Imru’ al-Qais, the last ruler of Kindah, a tribal kingdom comprised of much of central and eastern Arabia. Said to have been banished into exile for his inordinate love of poetry, al-Qais wandered the land writing poetry of his own. Many consider him the “father” of Islamic poetry. It was during that banishment that he composed his contribution to the Mu’allaqat.

The poem evinces a trope evident throughout pre-Islamic Arabic poetry known as “wuquf ‘ala al-atlal” meaning, literally, “stopping by the ruins”:

Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved.
Here was her abode on the edge of the sandy desert between Dakhool and Howmal.

The traces of her encampment are not wholly obliterated even now.
For when the South wind blows the sand over them the North wind sweeps it away.

The courtyards and enclosures of the old home have become desolate;
The dung of the wild deer lies there thick as the seeds of pepper.

Later in the poem al-Qais describes his lost love:

I drew the tow side-locks of her head toward me; and she leant toward me;
She was slender of waist, and full in the ankle.

Thin-waisted, white-skinned, slender of body,
Her breast shining polished like a mirror.

In complexion she is like the first egg of the ostrich—white, mixed with yellow.
Pure water, unsullied by the descent of many people in it, has nourished her.

She turns away, and shows her smooth cheek, forbidding with a glancing eye,
Like that of a wild animal, with young, in the desert of Wajrah.

And she shows a neck like the neck of a white deer;
It is neither disproportionate when she raises it, nor unornamented.

And a perfect head of hair which, when loosened, adorns her back
Black, very dark-colored, thick like a date-cluster on a heavily-laden date-tree.

Her curls creep upward to the top of her head;
And the plaits are lost in the twisted hair, and the hair falling loose.

And she meets me with a slender waist, thin as the twisted leathern nose-rein of a camel.
Her form is like the stem of a palm-tree bending over from the weight of its fruit.

Elsewhere in the poem al-Qais introduces a fierce lightning storm into the tale, a common element in pre-Islamic poetry:

But come, my friends, as we stand here mourning, do you see the lightning?
See its glittering, like the flash of two moving hands, amid the thick gathering clouds.

Its glory shines like the lamps of a monk when he has dipped their wicks thick in oil.
I sat down with my companions and watched the lightning and the coming storm.

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When the Qur’an (the divinely-inspired word of God) appeared, how much it resembled or owed to the pre-Islamic poetry (the work of poets and soothsayers—kahin in Arabic) preceding it became a hot-topic issue. Debate continues to this day about the contours and dynamics of transmission and interaction between the two genres.

Muhammad was criticized in his time as “a Jinn-ridden poet,” but the Prophet understood himself not as a poet but as a thoughtful messenger of God bringing truth to the world. The relationship between Muhammad and the Qur’an on the one hand and pre-Islamic poetry on the other will be returned to in detail in the next article in this series. Was that relationship a radical break from pre-Islamic times, or more of a continuation of traditions native to pre-Islamic cultures? Answering that question conclusively is well beyond the scope of this series, but we intend to at least consider the question nonetheless in the next installment of this series. Here we shall settle for recognizing two distinctive strains of poetry originating on the Arabian Peninsula: one Bedouin born among desert nomads in a time before records were kept and one growing out of Arab settlements on the Peninsula early in the Common Era.

Part 2