A Brief, Wondrous History of Arabic Literature
Truth, Beauty, and the Poetry of Islam
There is perhaps no other literature so closely allied to the history of its people as is that of the Arabs. The monotony of nomadic life, the rise of Islam, the Arab conquests, the imperial luxury of early Abbasids, the interaction and cross fertilization with other civilizations (notably in Spain), the decline and overthrow of the Caliphate, the period of cultural stagnation, the reactions and inspirations owing to the colonial encounter, and the eventual reawakening of the Arab world to form the vibrant independent states of today—these are all faithfully reflected in Arabic literature, the ups and downs of which parallel the fortunes of the Arabs themselves.
In al-Nadim’s Fihrist, written in 988 AD, the author catalogues all known books in Arabic on the subjects of philology, history, poetry, theology, law, philosophy, science, magic, foreign religions, fables and alchemy. This remarkable work, in the words of H.A.R. Gibb:
…reveals to us how enormous was the output of Arabic literature in the first three centuries of Islam, and how very little has come down to us. Of many authors we possess only small fragments, and the great majority would otherwise have been completely unknown to us even by name.
Comparison could be made here with the corpus of Old English literature dating from the same time as the greatest period of Arab culture and also incomplete. But, as suggested above, the West was culturally inferior to the Muslim world during these centuries and the loss of a part of its literature is not as significant. We would need to turn to the 16th and 17th centuries of Western literature and contemplate the effect of being without the majority of works produced in the Renaissance in order to appreciate how posterity’s careless abandon can result in a more random selection than any anthologist’s.
A purist would rightly insist that Arab literature per se—that is, in Arabic and by pure-blooded Arabs—is confined to those centuries immediately before and after the Islamic dispensation. From the so-called “Golden Age” onwards, following the astonishingly far-reaching Arab conquests, there were increasing exchanges of influence and intermingling with other cultures. Literary Arabic became obsolescent after the rise of the Ottoman Empire and it was largely owing to the determination of the small core who kept the language alive (especially in Egypt) that Arabic literature enjoyed a powerful renaissance in the late 19th century.
The Holy Book of Islam has of course held—and continues to hold—primacy of place in Arabic literature. The Qur’an contains several verses referring to the “Arabic Qur’an” and several branches of Arabic writing stemmed from the need to elucidate it. Even the pre-Islamic qasidas gain their pre-eminence in part due to the philological value they bring to this process, particularly since some Qur’anic suras (chapters), notably the early Meccan ones, are phrased in a similar way to them. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the symbiosis between religion and literature so clear-cut as in the culture of the Arabs. For Westerners accustomed to reading the Bible in a variety of translations, this has proven hard to appreciate, even though the influence of the Jewish and Christian scriptures upon the literatures of Europe is challenged only by Classical models. Hellenic, as well as Persian and Indian influences are also discerned in Arabic works, but these cannot be compared to the Qur’an’s role as both exemplar and inspiration.
The most essential point about Arabic literature is that it stems directly from the Holy Qur’an—pre-Islamic poetry notwithstanding. Apart from some 1st century AD graffiti (which hardly counts as literature), we have no evidence of writings in Arabic before the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Illiteracy was widespread and the select few who could read or write learned these arts from teachers outside Arabia. This was, however, no bar to a fundamental appreciation of poetry among the Bedouin nomads. Many individual tribes preserved an oral tradition by the use of rawis, who earned a living purely by memorizing and reciting poetry:
Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, words in themselves seem to have retained something of their ancient and magical power; the man who, by skilful ordering of vivid imagery in taut, rightly nuanced phrases could play upon the emotions of his hearers, was not merely lauded as an artist but venerated as the protector and guarantor of the honour of the tribe and a potent weapon against its enemies.
The predominant, indeed almost the sole form of poem, was the qasida, a complex type of ode which made constant use of rhyme, the purpose of which was to convey in rich imagery the evocative experience of tribal life. These qasidas were written down in the 8th and 9th centuries AD; scholars of the time realized the importance of preserving the old poetry both for its own merit as the begetter of the developing poetic tradition and for its inestimable value in shedding light on the language of the Holy Qur’an. Some of the suras—particularly the early Meccan ones—are phrased in a manner not unlike the pre-Islamic qasidas rather than the standard form of high-minded expression in Arabic.
As the earliest examples we have of Arabic poetry—the authenticity of the majority having been conclusively established—these odes are especially remarkable for their refinement, one might almost say “perfection.” The themes themselves are simple, desert ones portraying the purely observable. There are no devices such as simile but frequent use of personification and direct association. It is the manner in which these themes are treated and the form in which they appear that reveal a long-established prior tradition:
The technical complexities of the earliest known poems are so highly developed that one can assume poets had been composing and reciting their verses for several centuries previously. Form and style do not spring forth fully armed without generations or even centuries of growth.
The finest poems of this period appear in collections made after the rise of Islam. Especially worthy of mention are the Mufaddaliyat (compiled by the philologist, al-Mufaddal), the Hamasa of Abu Tammam (emulated, if not matched, by the Hamasa of his pupil, al-Buhturi), the Kitab al-Aghani of ‘Abu’l Faraj al-Isfahani, and, above all, the Mu’allaqat. The last-named collection is made up of seven exquisite odes by as many poets (though another three are sometimes added to make ten in all). These odes, which constitute the most precious literary heritage of pre-Islamic Arabia, were composed by Imru al-Qais, Tarafa, ‘Amr ibn Khultum, Harith, ‘Antara, Zuhair and Labid. These poems and others by their contemporaries form the authentic voice of pre-Islamic life or the Jahiliyya (Days of Ignorance).
In the poetry of the sixth century we hear the Arabic language as it was spoken throughout the length and breadth of Arabia.
In addition to the abundance of poetry, some prose-tales were also passed on through the rawis, but whereas all the poets’ names are known, the prose belongs in its entirety to the realm of folk tradition. As such, it is of little interest as literature although as early as the 8th century AD folktales from elsewhere were translated into Arabic and given literary form which greatly enhanced their value in the eyes of the scholars (see below, Kalila wa Dimna).
The period immediately preceding the coming of the Prophet Muhammad saw increasing dissatisfaction – particularly among thinking men—with the Bedouin way of life and its attendant superstitions. Small wonder, therefore, that poetry went entirely out of favour when new religious ideals supplanted the inherited values. The practice of writing poetry came virtually to a standstill as converts flocked to the Prophet in their thousands to hear the divine revelation. After his death in 632 AD it became necessary to preserve in written form what had been divinely revealed to the Prophet and which was regarded by believers as the Word of Almighty God. The result was the Holy Qur’an.
The first suras of the Qur’an were collected in 633 AD and these were written down with immense care to ensure that the Divine Word would be reproduced undiluted and unadulterated. Many of them—and more especially the later chapters—must have seemed highly obscure and esoteric to early scholars. Even today, much of the intricate imagery needs detailed explanatory annotation. Several branches of Arabic literature stemmed from the need to elucidate the Qur’an including grammar and lexicography. The Arabic language itself became the sacred language of Islam. The significance of this is hard to appreciate in the predominantly Christian Western world since the Bible is read almost exclusively in modern translation – most impressively in the English rendering known as the King James Version.
Arabic thus became the widespread language it remains to this day (despite the intervening age of depression), its influence moving hand in hand with that of the new religion during the first three centuries of Islam.
* * * *
Abu’l Hasan Ali ibn Hisn
A bough is weeping in the stream.
Green island, green. . . And I dream.
A pigeon moans, disquiets me …
Her breast is lapis lazuli,
Her throat a pale pistachio-green,
Hazel the wing she turns to preen.
Her throbbing throat disquiets me.
Over the ruby of her eyes
She flickers lids of pearl
With an edge of gold …
But when she cries
Her note disquiets me …
She sits the branch as if a throne,
Hiding her throat within a fold
Of her bright wing …
And still her moan
Is in the air, disquieting me.
But when my tears are my reply,
Above the branch she spreads her wings
Bearing my heart away, to fly
Above despair and mortal things
Where I can never go …
Ah where? a weeping bough, I do not know.
Translated by Harold Morland
* * * *
Gibran Khalil Gibran
A link between this world and the next; a sweet fountain from which all thirsty souls drink; a tree planted on the river bank of beauty covered with ripened fruits desired by hungry hearts; a nightingale flitting among branches of words and singing melodies that fill the heart with gentleness and peace; a white cloud appearing in the twilight and rising and growing and filling the face of heaven and then pouring rain upon the flowers in the field of life; an angel sent by the gods to teach men divine knowledge; a bright lamp that no darkness can overcome, nor any bushel hide, filled with oil by Astarte, the goddess of love, and lit by Apollo, the god of music.
Clad in simplicity and fed upon gentility, he sits alone in nature’s lap to learn the miracle of creation and remains awake in the stillness of the night awaiting the descent of the spirit. He is the husbandman sowing the seeds of his heart in the fields of [feelings] so that mankind may feed upon the plentiful yield. This is the poet whom men ignore in this life and only recognize when he forsakes this world for his sublime abode. It is he who asks naught of men but a mere smile and whose breath rises and fills the horizon with beautiful living images; yet he is refused both bread and refuge by his fellow-men.
How long, O man, how long, O universe, will you erect mansions in honour of those who cover the face of the earth with blood, and ignore those who give you peace and joy and the beauty of themselves? How long will you glorify murderers and tyrants who have bent necks with the yoke of slavery, and forget the men who spend the light of their eyes in the darkness of the night to teach you the glory of daylight, those that spend their life a prey to misery so that no pleasure may pass you by? And you, O poets, who are the very essence of life, you have conquered the ages despite the cruelty of the ages; and you have won the laurels of glory plucked out from the thorns of vanity; you have built your kingdom in the hearts, and your kingdom has no end.
Translated by S. B. Bushrui
* * * *
Iram the Many-Columned
Our city fled
So I ran to see its roads
I looked—I saw nothing but the horizon
I saw that the fugitives tomorrow
And those returning tomorrow
Were a body that I tore on my paper.
And I saw—the clouds were a throat
The water was walls of flame
I saw a yellow sticky thread
A thread of history hanging on to me
With which a hand that inherited
The race of puppets and the dynasty of rags
Was pulling at my days, knotting them and undoing them.
I entered the ritual of creation
In the womb of water and the virginity of trees
I saw trees trying to seduce me
Among their branches I saw rooms
Beds and windows resisting me,
I saw children to whom I read
My sand; I read to them
The chapters of “The Clouds” and the verse of “The Stone”;
I saw how they traveled with me
I saw how behind them shone
The ponds of tears and the corpse of rain.
Our city fled
What am I? An ear of corn
Weeping for a skylark
That died behind the snow and the hail
And did not reveal its letters
About me and did not write to anybody
I asked it as I saw its corpse
Lying at the edge of Time
And I shouted, “O icy silence
I am a homeland to its estrangement
I am a stranger and its tomb is my homeland.”
Our city fled
So, I saw how my foot changed into a river roaming in blood
And boats going far and growing larger
I saw that my banks were a drowning
Which tempted, and that my waves were wind and swans.
Our city fled
Rejection is a broken pearl
Whose remains settle on my ships
Rejection is a woodcutter living
On my face—gathering me and kindling me
Rejection is distances that distract me
So that I see my blood and beyond my blood.
My death talking to me and following me.
Our city fled
So I saw how my shroud shone on me
And saw—I wish death would grant me a respite.
Translated by Issa J. Boullata
From DESERT SONGS OF THE NIGHT: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature. Edited by Suheil Bushrui & James M. Malarkey Used with permission of Saqi Books. Introduction Copyright 2015 by the authors.