(A.D. 500 - 622)
'Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet 'tis early morn: Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn.' Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Locksley Hall'
If we define literature as something that is written down, then there was no such thing as Arabic literature before the coming of Islam. The Arabic book was a creation of Islam. However, between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula did compose a considerable body of prose and verse -- especially verse. This body of literature was designed to be recited, it was committed to memory by its audience, and it was orally transmitted from generation to generation. Even after literacy became widespread in the ninth century and it became common to compose on to paper, still the written literature retained many of the characteristics of oral composition. Moreover, what was written was usually intended to be read aloud to an audience. Spymasters, sorcerers and solitary ascetics might indulge in silent, private reading, but not many other people did. Medieval Arabic literature was noisy.
St Nilus, in the course of describing a Bedouin raid on the monastery of Mount Sinai in A.D. 410, mentioned the special songs with which the Bedouin celebrated their arrival at a watering-hole. Doubtless the songs or poems were as old as the Bedouin way of existence itself. However, it does not seem that any Arabic poetry composed earlier than the sixth century has survived to the present day; though some of the versions of poems which were allegedly composed in the sixth century have survived, those poems were not actually written down until the eighth or ninth century.
Most of what we know about Arabia in the age of Jahiliyya, the pagan period of 'Ignorance' prior to the preaching of Islam, both concerns poetry and has been transmitted in the form of poetry. According to a ninth-century philologist and biographer of poets, al-Jumahi, 'In the Jahili age, verse was to the Arabs the register of all they knew, and the utmost compass of their wisdom; with it they began their affairs, and with it they ended them.' According to another saying, 'Poetry is the public register [diwan] of the Arabs: by its means genealogies are remembered and glorious deeds handed down to posterity.' According to the fourteenth-century North African philosopher-historian, Ibn Khaldun, 'The Arabs did not know anything except poetry, because at that time, they practised no science and knew no craft.'
Pre-Islamic poetry composed in the Arabian peninsula (as well as in what is now southern Iraq) celebrated the values of nomadic, camel-rearing tribal life. Poets boasted of the tribes' exploits, commemorated tribal genealogies and celebrated inter-tribal feuds and camel raids. Metre and rhyme were mnemonic aids in preserving a tribe's history. The poetry they produced enshrined the tribal values of desert warriors: courage, hardihood, loyalty to one's kin, and generosity. The theme of vengeance features prominently in early Arabic poetry. The Jahili Arabs believed that dead men in their graves become owls and, if a man's killing was unavenged by his kinsmen, then the owls would rise from the earth crying, 'Give me to drink! Give me to drink!' Poetry was also used to convey wisdom and moral precepts with a more general application. Aphorisms in verse formed part of the common conversational stock.
The Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared that 'Verily eloquence includes sorcery'. In pre-Islamic Arabia the boundary between writing a poem and casting a spell was far from clear. Poetry was commonly referred to as sihr halal (legitimate magic). Tribal poets saw their poetry as a kind of sorcery by means of which one could build up one's own strength and weaken that of one's enemies. Poets were inspired by jinns. A qarin means 'companion', but it has the special sense of a jinn who accompanies a poet and inspires him, thus acting as his genius. Not satisfied with inspiring poets, the jinns were also known to compose poetry in their own right. The soothsayers (kahins) of the Jahili period made use in their incantations of a rhythmic form of rhymed prose, known as saj, as well as of a crude, folk-poetry metre known as rajaz. In the very earliest period the distinction between a soothsayer and a poet was blurred.
Arabic is a Semitic language and therefore it is related to such languages as Hebrew, Amharic and Syriac. The earliest rock-cut inscriptions in what is effectively the same language as classical Arabic date from the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The Arabic script used today derives from the Syriac alphabet and appears in the early seventh century. It has an alphabet of twenty-eight letters. Arabic vocabulary is organized round what are mostly triconsonantal roots. For example, the trilateral root K-T-B generates a whole cluster of verbs and nouns with related meanings. Kataba means 'he wrote'; inkataba, 'he subscribed'; istakataba, 'he dictated'. Kitab means 'book' and indeed any piece of writing, whether short or long. A katib is a scribe; a kutubi, a bookseller; maktab, an office; maktaba, a bookshop, and so on. To take as another example, a root-form with more diffuse meanings, the three letters SH'R (in which the SH is one letter and in which the apostrophe stands for the Arabic letter 'ayn), sha'ara means he knew, sensed or felt, and sh'ir means poetry or knowledge. The primary sense of sha'ir was a man endowed with intuition; by extension, it came to mean a poet. (Nevertheless, one should not imagine that Arabic word formation was completely logical, as some modern artificial languages are. Other words formed from the triliteral root SH'R refer to barley and to the Dog Star, among other things.)
Arabic poetry, as opposed to rhymed prose, is defined by conformity to specific thematic and metrical conventions. It is not enough for a poem's lines to rhyme and be rhythmic. Only certain forms of metre could be used for qasidas (and the question of metre will be discussed in more detail in subsequent chapters). A qasida is an ode. The earliest qasidas to have survived date from no earlier than the mid-sixth century. By convention the Arabic ode was supposed to follow a set form, based, however loosely, on a journey through a desert. (The related verb, qasada, means to journey towards something, or to aim for a thing.) The ninth-century anthologist and literary critic Ibn Qutayba (on whom see Chapter 4) described the typical sequence of themes in a qasida:
I have heard from a man of learning that the composer of Odes began by mentioning the deserted dwelling-places and the relics and traces of habitation. Then he wept and complained and addressed the desolate encampment, and begged his companion to make a halt, in order that he might have occasion to speak of those who had once lived there and afterwards departed; for the dwellers in tents were different from townsmen or villagers in respect of coming and going, because they moved from one water-spring to another, seeking pasture and searching out the places where rain had fallen. Then to this he linked the erotic prelude (nasib), and bewailed the violence of his love and the anguish of separation from his mistress and the extremity of his passion and desire, so as to win the hearts of his hearers and divert their eyes towards him and invite their ears to listen to him, since the song of love touches men's souls and takes hold of their hearts, God having put it in the constitution of His creatures to love dalliance and the society of women, in such wise that we find very few but are attached thereto by some tie or have some share therein, whether lawful or unpermitted. Now, when the poet had assured himself of an attentive hearing, he followed up his advantage and set forth his claim: thus he went on to complain of fatigue and want of sleep and travelling by night and of the noonday heat, and how his camel had been reduced to leanness. And when, after representing all the discomfort and danger of his journey, he knew that he had fully justified his hope and expectation of receiving his due meed from the person to whom the poem was addressed, he entered upon the panegyric (madih), and incited him to reward, and kindled his generosity by exalting him above his peers and pronouncing the greatest dignity, in comparison with his, to be little.
Kitab al-Shi'r wa-l-Shu'ara, trans. R. A. Nicholson, in A Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 77-8*
*Where a shortened form is used, full details of publications can be found in the Bibliography, pages xv - xviii.
Although only some qasidas precisely followed the ordering of themes prescribed by Ibn Qutayba (for example, the opening lament for the lost love might be omitted), still the description cited above does provide a good preliminary map. Most qasidas open with an evocation of a deserted campsite (atlal), or other dwelling place. Typically, the author of a qasida, in demanding a halt to the journey at this point, addresses a couple of notional travelling companions. The remains of a former campsite provide a pretext for the nasib, the amatory prelude in which the poet remembers a past passion. Characteristically the poet looks back, with both regret and pride, on a previous erotic encounter. He will never see the woman again and he boasts of the intensity of his anguish. In the next section, the rihla, the poet complains of fatigue and suffering as he journeys by camel (or occasionally horse) to a new destination. He is also likely to praise his mount (and in many poems one feels that the excellence of the camel more than compensates for the lost lady love). Finally, in the madih, or panegyric, which normally concluded the qasida, the poet put forward his case for being rewarded for his poem and he increased his chance of getting that reward by praising a patron. Alternatively, in the final part he might praise himself, or his tribe, or satirize an individual. The goal of the poem was in its end, whether that end was panegyric, self-adulatory, or satirical. It was common for a qasida to be terminated with a violent thunderstorm. (Incidentally, Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall', with its opening 'Comrades, leave me here . . .', followed by a lament for the lost love, his cousin Amy, conformed to the rules for opening a qasida, but failed to follow the set pattern of the Arabs much further.)
As can be seen, the qasida moved from topic to topic and much of the poet's skill lay in his ability to make the necessary transitions. Even so, a typical qasida is likely to strike a Western reader as lacking all formal unity. It can be, and often was, compared to a loosely threaded string of beads. The earliest Arab poets expected their audience to recognize the scenes and sentiments they were evoking. There was little scope for fantasy in the qasida, for it reflected the perceived realities of existence in the desert. Although there was no word for nostalgia in medieval Arabic, nevertheless many qasidas are dominated by this mood. Such poems often implicitly commemorate the passage from youth to manhood, and even to old age; there are often references to white hairs, lost teeth and failing success with women. According to an eighth-century grammarian, Abu 'Amr ibn al-'Ala, 'The Arabs mourned nothing so much as youth -- and they did not do it justice!' Not only has the qasida form dominated Arabic poetry right up to the twentieth century, but its themes and rules have also been adopted and adapted in Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Kurdish, Urdu, and Hausa poetry.
A qasida was not defined merely by the characteristic sequence of its subject matter, for it also obeys strict rules with regard to length, rhyme and metre. It is a fairly long poem with a single rhyme and a single metre in hemistichs -- that is, each line of verse is cut in half. Bayt (which means tent or house) is also the word for a line of verse. The minimum length for a qasida was about ten lines, while they rarely exceeded eighty lines. The opening couplet, but only the opening couplet, is doubly rhymed, so that the first half of the hemistich rhymes with the second. The rest of the poem rhymes only at the end of the second hemistich, but that rhyme is maintained throughout the whole poem. The set forms, in which Arabic words are derived from what are, usually, triconsonantal roots, means that sustaining a monorhyme is less of a feat in Arabic than it would be in English. Even so, the demands of the monorhyme may go some way to explaining why there are no ancient Arabian verse epics on the scale of, say, the Iliad or Beowulf. Arab poets often favoured feminine rhymes because these are easier. Each line of verse has to have a self-sufficient meaning. Logical development from line to line is not necessarily very strong. As well as sustaining the same rhyme throughout the qasida, the poet also had to choose a metre and, having chosen it, stick with it.
One of the most flamboyant ways of 'publishing' in pre-Islamic Arabia was for the poet to have his work read out at one or other of the annual trade fairs which took place under inter-tribal truce agreements. The most important of such fairs was held annually at Ukaz, near Mecca, and during this fair poets are said to have recited their poems. There was a competitive atmosphere to this literary event and, according to later Arab medieval literary lore, seven of the greatest qasidas ever composed were honoured by being written down and displayed within the Ka'aba enclosure -- a holy area in Mecca where in pre-Islamic times a pantheon of pagan idols was venerated. The seven acclaimed qasidas were hung up in the Ka'aba area -- hence their name, Mu'allaqat, the 'hanging ones'. However, the story of the display of poems in the sacred enclosure is almost certainly a retrospective projection, a fabrication generated to explain the puzzling term Mu'allaqat. The real origin of the term is unknown, but it was perhaps based on the metaphor of hanging jewels. It may have been applied to the best pre-Islamic qasidas by an eighth-century literary anthologist. Later Islamic literary critics were agreed that seven odes by seven different poets were chosen to form the Mu'allaqat, but as there was not an absolute consensus about who those poets were, there were ten or twelve candidates for the seven places of honour.
Excerpted from Night & Horses & the Desert by Robert Irwin. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Irwin. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.