AL MUTANABBI

Al MutanabbiIntroduction

The greatest of classical Arabic poets, Al-Mutanabbi (the prophet: 915-965) was also a political firebrand. Born in Kufa, Al-Mutanabbi was educated in Damascus, lived with the desert Bedouin, and participated in revolutionary movements.

During his 948-957 imprisonment he started writing poetry, which attracted the patronage of the Syrian prince Sayf 'd Daula. Political activities unfortunately obliged al Mutanabbi to flee to Egypt and thence to Baghdad. For a while he worked as court poet in Shiraz, but his opinions again made enemies, and he was killed by brigands on a journey to Baghdad when bravado got the better of common sense. Al-Mutanabbi was the master of the exuberant panegyric, as impossible to render into adequate English as the very different Pindar, but arousing the greatest enthusiasm in native speakers.

Arabic is very different from the Indo-European languages in its letter forms, grammatical structure and sounds. Its poetry is quantitative, and builds on rich oral traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia. Poets glorified the legends and achievements of their tribe, and this very public role later transferred itself to the patronage sought of rulers in the urbanised Islamic world. Increasingly rhetorical and innovative in its imagery, this badi style was combined with gnomic phrases in superb control of the language to furnish the splendid eulogy (and sometimes lampoons) of Al-Mutanabbi His Diwan (collected poems) are famous for their long-lived qasida and madin. The classical period ended with the 1258 sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, but Al-Mutanabbi has been an inspiration to poets trying to recapture an earlier vigour and purity — to poets like Nasif al-Yaziji (d. 1871) and Mahmud Sami al-Barudi (d. 1904).

Islam created a distinctive civilisation that is still alive in various forms in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, etc. Chief among its literature was poetry, to be freely quoted in home, palace and bazaar — as readers of The Arabian Nights will know. Poetry was written for speaking, or singing even, and modern Arabic poetry can retain something of that fervour and majesty of expression. Hence its importance to the west, where an appreciation of a 1000 years of Islamic poetry (Arabic, Persian and Urdu) could help to reinvigorate what has become somewhat apologetic and introverted. That said, contemporary Arabic poetry now generally looks to the west for inspiration, envying its greater freedom of political and social expression.

To appreciate its literature, you'll need to understand something of Islamic history and thought — with which the Internet can help enormously. The Arabic Poetry section of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) has a helpful introduction and bibliography. Literary reviews tend now to be specialised, but R.A. Nicolson's Literary History of the Arabs (1914) and H.A.R. Gibb's Arabic Literature (1926) are still very readable.

Suggestion: Anthology of Arabic Literature, Culture, and Thought from Pre-Islamic Times to the Present. Bassam K. Frangieh. Yale University Press. 2004. $60.00

For the serious student of Arabic: selections from 70 works ranging from pre-Islamic poetry and prose, through selections from the Qur’an and writings of the golden age to the present day. A handsome volume, well-received and issued with recordings on CD. (Non Arabic readers may like to consider the cheaper An Introduction to Arabic Literature by Roger Allen.)

Learning Arabic

Commercial sites for learning Arabic include: babel, shariahprogram, al-bab egyptian arabic, mulilingual books unrv and arabic school software.

Free information can be found on ukindia, hikyaku, hejleh, search language and academicinfo.

Online Arabic-English-Arabic dictionaries are at: websters, applied language, almisbar, yourdictionary, and etcaco.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

Arabic Poetry

Arabic is very different from the Indo-European languages in its letter forms and structure. Its poetry is quantitative, and builds on rich oral traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia. General introductions can be found at britannica, Arabic poetry, muslim philosophy, and islamcity.

A very readable introduction is still R.A. Nicholson's A Literary History of the Arabs (CUP, 1956). More specialist is Julie Scott Meisami's Orient Pearls: Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

Al Mutanabbi

The greatest of classical Arabic poets, Al-Mutanabbi (the prophet: 915-965) was also a political firebrand. The poet was the master of the exuberant panegyric, arousing the greatest enthusiasm in native speakers. His Diwan (collected poems) are famous for their long-lived qasida and madin. The classical period ended with the 1258 sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, but Al-Mutannabi has been an inspiration to poets trying to recapture an earlier vigour and purity.

Translations can be found at arberry etc.

 

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.