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Poetry in Arab History

Hello Poetteers,

I always wondered about the role poetry played in Arab history.

History

Poetry held an important role in pre-Islamic society where the poet either praised a tribe or criticized other tribes. Mock battles in poetry where they would have one poet of one tribe get up and oppose a poet of another tribe in place of real wars. In a market town not far from Mecca, they would host a regular poetry festival where poets from all over Arabia would come to compete and recite their poems in front of judges. These judges were either a poet themselves or critics. "Each year the festival’s winning poem would be transcribed in golden letters and hung on the door of Ka’bah in Mecca for the whole year."

Politics

Through poetry, you can learn about the tribal history. Arab poetry shows us that art and politics are connected. "The tribes relied on poets to recount news and offer political commentary. They kept a record of triumphs, defeats, marriages, and deaths. The poem itself reflects the principles, the values, the customs, the traditions."

The Prophet

The prophet Muhammed (PBUH) enjoyed poetry where there was wisdom. He would recite lines from other poets in several gatherings including when he helped others work. It's said that he even set up a pulpit for the poets. The prophet Muhammad had his own personal poet. Also, his wife Aisha memorized lines of poetry. The Prophet was once riding on a camel and he asked to hear some lines and continued to ask for more.

Quran

Poetry was an oral tradition. After the revelation of the Quran and the written record of it, it led poetry to shift from the oral tradition to a written one. The Quran has a chapter called The Poets, Al Shu’ara. Every chapter in The Qur’an is named after something that is immensely important. It divides poets into two types of people. One is the poets who are paid enough money to say whatever you want it to say. For example, it said one should stay away from poetry that would distract them from their duties, make them unlawfully angry or lustful.

The other poet is the one who speaks from his heart and shares the truth. We are not limited to religious poetry but pieces that are good and pure especially those that talk of justice, freedom, courage, and truth. The Qur’an says we are actually responsible to protect your heart so that your soul doesn’t die. It also says we are taught how to speak about what we need and what was in our heart. "Words are meant to speak the truth. That’s what words are for." 

Rumi

Rumi was a Sufi Muslim poet. "Sufism is a mystical interpretation of Islam and it emphasized the allegorical nature of language and writing." At times it would take on the language of love poetry to convey a love of God. His works are full of religious content, sometimes referring to the Quran. Some translations removed the religious content because they couldn't understand what is said. It's important to recognize the culture and history behind his work. 

Poetry Form

The qasidah is the Arab form of an ode where it praises an influential person. All the lines end rhyming with each other. It is 50 to 100 lines long and divided into three parts. The first part is about feeling nostalgic about a beloved. The second part is about their journey, which includes descriptions of wildlife and danger. The last part praises the tribe and criticizes other tribes.

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SourcesHistory of Arab Literature | Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics | What Happened to Poetry? | Arabic poetry | Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi | Did the Prophet or the Companions Partake in Poetry?

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