Desert Voices: Arabic Poetry Through the Ages, Part II – The Classical Age
Mosaics and carved stonework dictating Arabic poetry outside a building in Marrakech.

Scholars trace Arabic poetry’s origins back to the oral traditions of Bedouins and aristocratic tribal court life predating the Common Era. Lacking science, philosophy, history, and scholarship of any kind in any written form, early Arab culture turned to poetry and oratory for expression and preservation, relying on them to transfer accumulated knowledge across generations. By 500 CE, that poetry had begun taking on a written, literary form. With the birth of Muhammad and the spread of Islam in the 7th century, the depth and complexity, richness and beauty of Arabic poetry blossomed. AXP covered the pre-Islamic stages of Arabic poetry in an article appearing in these pages last month. We continue here with our review of Arabic poetry with a look at that literary form as it was practiced during what is known as the Classical Period, highlighted by the appearance of Muhammad, the publishing of the Qur’an, and the rise of Islam.

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Repetition and rhythm are essential elements of all poetry, with myriad variations within and between cultures. Much of Arabic poetry in the pre-Islamic era was an oral poetry mirroring life on the Peninsula—verbally preserving history, sometimes foretelling events, often propagandizing for the poet’s particular tribe. In the minds of early Bedouin Arabs, a spirit within a soothsayer poet was what inspired him, endowing him with a special power, a verbal genius to capture life and its mysteries in forceful words. In long-ago cultures like theirs, “words of power” were believed to have quasi-magical effects, significantly heightening their impact on listeners compared to how modern cultures respond to words.

The incessant warfare characteristic of Bedouin tribes is captured perfectly in lines from the poet al-Qutami:

Our business is to make raids on the enemy,
on our neighbor and on our brother,
in case we find none to raid but a brother.

In a form of bloodless warfare, early Bedouin tribes wielded poetry as a weapon against other tribes, hoping their bards would shame their enemies in opposing camps with their eloquence. To them, poets were primal forces, imbued with powers to divine future events and influence their outcomes, to grant people blessings or assail them with curses. A tribe’s designated poet was its spokesman, its voice to the world. The more poets a tribe could claim in its numbers, the greater was that tribe’s stature. Extending on into the Islamic period, tribal poets on occasion held forth against one another at market places across the Peninsula, where the outcome of literary contests was considered nearly as important as trade itself.

Contrasting with tribal poets, a class of vagabond poets emerged owing allegiance to no one tribe. Those wandering bards traversed the deserts of Arabia incessantly seeking new audiences. Often their poems extolled the virtues of the solitary lives the poets lived.

Owing to the absence of contemporaneous written records, debate abounds regarding the authenticity and particulars of early Arabic poetry stemming from an illiterate oral tradition. Their words were subsequently captured in writing only by literate generations that followed centuries later. The rhythmic formulas evident in that oral poetry—such as they have been identified—are thought to have been elaborated slowly over the course of centuries by an instinctive trial-and-error process with no theoretical knowledge of meter to refer to. In such poetry, formulaic repetitions of certain word combinations were legion. Many have long assumed that the stories transmitted orally were memorized and passed on intact from generation to generation. Strong arguments have since been made to the contrary that each reciter delivered his own version of a traditional tale using a common poetic vernacular consisting of distinctive rhythms and word combinations, each with its own accepted meaning. According to this argument, those rhythms and word combinations were the building blocks from which classical Arabic poetry was constructed, and the details of any one poem varied from one reciter to another.

When written Arabic poems first appeared ca. 400 CE, they were typically lyrical, descriptive, relatively short compositions infused with romanticism and nostalgia. Many of them told no coherent story as such. While they included rhyming words, they lacked any discernible rhythm. This early form of Arabic poetry is known as “Saja.” Eventually, an approach to poetry known as “Rajz” came into favor with a rhythm-based on the undulating gait of the camel, following closely the sounds of the camel driver’s song known as “hida.” Rajz poems are noted for their loose structure and for the attention they give to the specific wording of individual lines and couplets. As well, they evidenced a relative lack of concern for the overall organization and meaning of the poems.

In-depth, verifiable knowledge and understanding of Arabic poetry begins with those 5th century CE verses. As previously noted in our September piece, the flowering of pre-Islamic written Arabic poetry closely coincided with the origins and development of the written Arabic language itself. The full and highest development of that language in turn closely coincided and intertwined with the rise of Islam.

With the appearance of Islam, those early Arabic poems fell into disfavor. Their perceived association with pagan pre-Islamic religions elicited opposition from Islamic scholars and was specifically criticized in the Holy Qur’an itself, which resembled pre-Islamic poetry in no perceptible way, however beautiful its prose may be. The Qur’an had this to say about poets and their poems:

And as to the poets, those who go astray follow them.
Do you not see that they wander about bewildered in every valley?
And that they say that which they do not do. (26:224-226)

On one important point observers of all beliefs readily agree: Arabic poetry was inspired from its earliest days by the Arabian Desert.

In 6th century CE Arabia, a heroic ode form rooted in the values of the warrior aristocracy known as the qaşīda became the dominant poetic form of the age. Transmitted by poetic practitioners, this poetry expressed and preserved the values of the warrior aristocracy. During the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 CE), a number of lesser poetic genres emerged: the al-khamriya or wine poem; the tardiya or hunt poem; the zuhdiya or ascetic poem; and, most important, the ghazal or love lyric. Later, during the succeeding Abbasid Caliphate (750–1517 CE)—often referred to as “the Golden Age of Islam”—other poetic forms appeared, among them the zahriya or flower/garden/meadow poem. The most influential and long-lasting of these various literary forms were the polythematic panegyric qaşīda and the romantic ghazal.

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There is no recognized direct equivalent of the ghazal in English literature, although some point to the sonnet as an approximation. The ghazal’s name is derived from an Arabic word meaning spinning or spun or twisted. A classic example of a poem written in the manner of a ghazal is purportedly the work of the first man, Adam, himself:

The lands are changed and all those who live upon them,
the face of the earth is torn and surrounded with gloom;
everything that was lovely and fragrant has now faded,
from that beautiful face has vanished the joyful bloom.
What deep regrets for my dear son… O regrets for Abel,
a victim of murder…who has been placed into the tomb!
Is it possible to rest while that Devil that was cursed
who never fails or dies…up from behind us does loom?
“Give up these lands and all of those who live on the;
I was the one who forced you out of Paradise, your room,
where you and your wife were so secure and established,
where your heart did not know of the world’s dark doom!
But you, you did escape all of my traps and my trickery,
until that great gift of life…upon which you did presume
you went and lost…and from Aden the blasts of wind,
but for God’s Grace would’ve swept you, like a broom.”

The rhyme pattern presented above in English translation was a common feature of this style of poetry. The poems were written as a succession of two-line couplets, with the last word of the second line of each couplet rhyming with the last words of all other second lines in the poem.

Capturing the beauty and flow of the original Arabic in an English translation is a major challenge given the dramatic differences in the two languages. At their best, those translations become poetic works of art in and of themselves. Arguably the best known example outside the Arab world (whether or not it’s the best English rendering of an Arabic poem from the Golden Age of Islam—a time referred to by many as Pax Islamica—is a matter for debate) is Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his 1859 translation from Persian into English of a selection of four-line quatrains said to be authored in the 11th century CE by Omar Khayyam. Whether or not Khayyam was the actual author of those quatrains remains an uncertain matter. He was better known in his time as an astronomer and mathematician than as a poet. The alleged renown of his poetry only began to emerge half a century after his death. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald’s translation has introduced countless millions of people around the world to the beauty of Arabic poetry. We have room here to share the first three of his more than 100 quatrains:


Wake! For the Sun, who scattered into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.


Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
Why nods the drowsy Worshiper outside?”


And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted—”Open, then, the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.”

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The Abbasid period witnessed a flowering of Arabic science and math, of Arabic history and philosophy; of Arabic literature and arts; of all aspects of Arabic culture. Arabic poetry from this era has its own special beauty and charm. One of the age’s most noted poets in its early years, Abu Nuwas (756-814), composed poems in a variety of styles: al-Madih (panegyric verses); al-Hija (satiric verses); al-Thardia (songs or the chase); al-marsia (elegies); and al-Zuhdia (religious poems). His love poems (ghazal) and wine poems (al-khamriya), however, are regarded as his finest works.

Abu Nuwas held that the pursuit of pleasure was the supreme goal of his life. His risqué attitude toward life often earned him condemnations from the Caliphate and religious leaders. A cursory reading of one of his most famous wine verses helps explain why:

Don’t cry for Layla, don’t rave about Hind!
But drink among roses a rose-red wine,
A drought that descends in the drinker’s throat,
bestowing its redness on eyes and cheeks.
The wine is a ruby, the glass is a pearl,
served by the hand of a slim-fingered girl,
Who serves you the wine from her hand, and wine
from her mouth—doubly drunk, for sure, will you be!

Arab rulers of the age had a great passion for poetry, as did their people. One of the foremost poets from that time was Ibn Mu’tazz, the son of Abbasid Caliph Al-Mut’azz (861- 908). Born and raised the beneficiary of royal patronage, educated by some of the greatest scholars of the Abbasid court, he composed poems often compared favorably with those of Abu Nuwas. He wrote charming, graceful, lucid occasional poems reflective of his passion for culture.

A contemporary observer of al-Mut’azz wrote of him, “I do not know a poet who is more perfect and amazing in his craft than Ibn al-Mu’tazz. His art is so light and so delicate it can scarcely be detected.”

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The breadth and complexity of Arabic poetry reflected the vast swaths of Asia, Africa, and Europe conquered by the forces of Islam beginning in the time of Muhammad and extending over a thousand years to the centuries-long ascendancy and eventual fall after World War I of the Ottoman Empire. The enduring nature of Arabic poetry throughout those many centuries and its continuing flourishing in the present-day world will be the subjects of our third, concluding article in this series slated to appear in these pages in December.

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