Story of a set of seven poems which still remains a relatively unknown treasure that Arabic literature gifted to the world.
Arabic literature is one of the oldest and perhaps the most well documented ones. 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.
Literature is not born 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 important to have some understanding of the era when Al-Mu’allaqat was written and observe the societal conditions 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 CE. But we don’t have much information on the era, except for the last two centuries at best (Al-Maktaba al ‘Asriyah li al Tiba’a wa al Nashr (1974) by Umar Faroukh). 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, ie treatment using honey, cupping, etc. The culture was mainly based on legends and folklore.
The brilliance of the Arabs was to be found in their language. Often they would offer metaphors that will prove their intuitive linguistic prowess.
An astounding barbarism that was very much rooted in the culture was live burials of baby girls due to fear of decreased provision. Most of the people worshipped 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 rightly 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. Ahmad Al Faadil in ‘Taarikh wa ‘Usoor al Adaab al ‘Arabee (2003)’ 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.”
(translation by author)
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.
The poems became so popular that the Arabs started venerating 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.
But the name could also originate due to the understanding that the poems were engraved in the hearts of the people. Sometimes, the kings would become very fond of a poet’s work and would ask the poems to be hung and preserved in the treasury, which is another possibility behind the naming. Other evidence suggests that the poems could be names so because the Jahili people were often afraid of the poems being destroyed or eaten by monkeys, rats or moths, and so they would fold them inside a cylindrical body and hang it up on the wall.
There are some other names for these sets of poems, Abu ‘Abdillah Al Husayn Al Zarzooni mentions in his book ‘Sharh al Mu’allaqat al Sab’’ (1993). Some of these are: 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 Al-Mu’allaqat stayed with people and survived. 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.
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-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 consists of 102 verses. Interestingly he is also the youngest to die among these poets, at the age of 26.
Zuhayr’s work was highly 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 men 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 and lived to be 110. 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 emergence 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 about 150 years (Sharh al Mu’allaqat al Sab’ (1993) by Abu ‘Abdillah Al Husayn Al Zarzooni). 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 Mu’allaqat al ‘Ashr waAkhbar Shu’ara-iha by Ahmad al Ameen Al-Shanqeeti). Noted Arab litterateur Abu ‘Ubayda opined that the most beautiful poems in the Mu’allaqat are the ones by these three: ‘Amr, Al-Haarith and Tarfah (Al-Shanqeeti).
These poems possess a wealth of information about the society, economics, culture and tradition, wars and truces, etc of that period.
Significance of such a literary work can hardly be exaggerated. But it makes sense to look at it from these four perspectives:
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. scholars and litterateurs have been researching, explaining and writing on the Mu’allaqat from a very early age. Some of the modern day writings on the subject include Sharh al-Mu’allaqat alSab’ by Al-Zarzoony, Al-Mu’allaqat al-‘Ashr waAkhbar Shu’ara-iha by Ahmad Ameen al-Shanqeeti.
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.
Historical Significance: Mu’allaqat is a gold mine for historians, especially those who have interest in the Arabs of the Jahili era. These poems possess a wealth of information about the society, economics, culture and tradition, wars and truces, etc of that period.
Religious Significance: Its significance in deciphering the Islamic canonical texts is evident, as these texts contain many words and expressions of that era and these poems help decoding their meaning. Many Islamic scholars and their students often memorise and study these poems for exactly the same reason.
The scope of this article does not permit to bring forth the whole ocean except for few drops. Mu’allaqat remains a pleasant surprise the Arabic literature gifted to the world. These poems deserve to be further researched and studied for various reasons. They are the proof of the genius of ancient Arabs despite the fact that they lived a very primitive life, devoid of civilizations of big cities. Perhaps a very simplistic way of life helped these poets delve into uncommon depth and produced unique expressions of selves.
Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan is a writer based in Dhaka. His book ‘Sahaj Quran’ is an exegesis of selected chapters from the Quran