Poetry: Islamic Poetry

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Since its emergence in the Middle East early in the seventh century, Islam has been practiced in many different cultural and linguistic areas throughout the world. As a result, Islamic religious poetry has been composed in a wide variety of languages. Among these, Arabic and Persian are distinctive for their transnational, or cosmopolitan, nature. Alongside these two classical languages, Islamic poets have employed a host of other languages, ranging from Bengali and Chinese to Swahili and Urdu. This article will summarize the development of Islamic poetry in Arabic and Persian, the important languages for classical Islamic literature, and will also commenti briefly on the nature and character of Islamic poetry in the regional vernacular traditions.


Since the Qurʾān was revealed in a culture that prized the poetic arts and the beauty of oral expression, these values affected the role of poetry in many Muslim societies, both Arab and non-Arab. In pre-Islamic Arabian society, poets (shaʾirs) enjoyed a special status, along with soothsayers (kahins) ; they were believed to be inspired in their utterances by their relationship with spirits and jinns. As a result, their words had a particularly powerful spiritual potency. Not surprisingly, when Muammad began to recite the particularly beautiful verses that eventually came to comprise the Qurʾān (which means literally "the Recitation"), his opponents accused him of being a poet. In response to such accusations, the Qurʾān (for example, in Chapter 26) clearly distinguishes between a poet, who is driven by egotistical desire, and a prophet, who utters the truth that is revealed to him or her by the one God. Although the Islamic scripture criticizes poets who compete with the Divine Word, the Qurʾān displays an acute sensibility to the spoken word, both for its aesthetic qualities and for the ethical values espoused in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry (such as generosity, valor, and hospitality), albeit in a new religious framework. Indeed, for the believer, the inimitability of Qurʾanic eloquence serves as proof of the scripture's divine origin.

Many poets ranked among Muammad's most dangerous opponents, including Kaʿb (d. c. 630). His father Zuhayr had composed one of the "Hanging Odes," the seven most celebrated poems of pre-Islamic Arabia. According to tradition, these odes, because of their polished eloquence, were embroidered in gold and hung from the walls of the Kaʿbah. When Kaʿb eventually decided to convert to Islam, he offered his allegiance to Muammad by presenting him a poem of praise. In response, the Prophet gave Kaʾb his cloak (burda ); consequently, the poem came to be known as the Burda, or Mantle Ode. This poem ushered in a new genre of panegyric poetry in praise of the Prophet that was to become ubiquitous in all Islamic literatures.

The transaction between the poet and prophet simultaneously rejects some pre-Islamic values and transforms other values in the new religious worldview that was heralded by the coming of Islam. As Michael Sells points out in Approaching the Qurʾān, instead of being draped with the Hanging Odes, the Kaʿbah, the most sacred site of Islam, was adorned with a black cloth embroidered with verses from the Qurʾān. Most importantly, poetry, which had once been shunned for representing the ideals of paganism, was brought into the service of Islam. Indeed, later Muslim poets proclaimed that their work was the "heritage of prophecy," referring to a tradition that calls the tongues of poets "the keys of the treasures beneath the Divine Throne."

The tradition that had begun with pre-Islamic poetry continued to develop throughout the history of Arabic and other Islamic literatures. Muslim poets adapted the pre-Islamic genre of the qasida, the monorhyme praise poem, for religious purposes. Instead of praising a ruler or a poet's patron, the qasida was now used to praise God, to eulogize the Prophet, or to laud and lament the martyr-heroes of Shīʿah Islam. In the ninth century, as the focus of Sufism or Islamic mysticism shifted from extreme asceticism to an emphasis on an intimate and loving relationship between devotees and God, mystics began composing exquisite mystical love poetry in Arabic. Drawing upon the qasida 's amatory prelude (the nasib ), with its themes of remembering and longing for a lost beloved, this poetry depicted the many aspects and phases of lovethe anguish of separation, blissful union, endless striving to be worthy and faithful, and longing for physical death and spiritual union with the Divine. Prominent poets included the Iraqi woman mystic Rabʾia al-ʿAdawiya (d. 801), the Egyptian Dhu al-Nun (d. 859), and the Baghdad natives Sumnun "the Lover," (d. c. 900), Shibli (d. 945), and the great "martyr of love" al-Hallaj, executed in 922.

After a period of decline in quality and quantity from the mid-tenth century onwards, Arabic mystical poetry experienced an efflorescence in the thirteenth century with the emergence of two great writers, the Egyptian Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235) and the Andalusian Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 1240). Ibn al-Farid drew upon the heritage of the traditional qasida to compose exquisite odes on mystical love, including the Khamriyya (A Wine Poem) in praise of the primordial wine of divine love that intoxicates everything created, and the Taʾiyya (a qasida rhyming with the letter "t"), which recounts in high-flown imagery the soul's journey to God. Though more renowned in the history of Islamic mystical literature for his dense prose works, Ibn al-ʿArabi, inspired by his love for the daughter of a Persian Sufi, composed a collection of mystical poems entitled Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Ardent Longings), whose imagery recalls the pre-Islamic qasida. In order to prevent the work's amatory and erotic imagery from being read literally by opponents determined to accuse him of moral corruption, Ibn ʿArabi wrote a commentary highlighting the esoteric meaning of the work.


By the time of its renaissance in the thirteenth century, however, Arabic mystical poetry had begun to be overshadowed by works composed in Persian, which was rapidly becoming the major language of religious poetry in many Muslim lands. The spread of Persian as a literary vehicle was facilitated by the rise of dynasties of Persianized Turks who, by the fifteenth century, controlled a vast territory, stretching from Anatolia in modern Turkey, through Iran and Central Asia to southern India.

Although Persian poets adopted the form of the Arabic qasida for the religious panegyric in Persian, their forte lay in the refinement of two other genres: the masnawi and the ghazal. A distinctively Persian form, the masnawi, a lengthy poem with rhymed couplets, was initially used to compose epics recounting the heroic deeds of Iranian rulers and champions. In a religious context, Persian Sufis favored the masnawi as a vehicle for explicating ethical and mystical concepts through anecdotes, tales, and romances. Among the early poets who employed this form was ʿAttar (d. c. 1221), the author of the Mantiq at-Tayr (The Bird's Conversation). Ostensibly a narrative concerning a group of birds on a quest for their mythical king, the Mantiq at-Tayr has come to be regarded as one of the classic Islamic expositions of the mystical journey and spiritual development of the soul. The most famous masnawi ever composed, however, was the Mathnawi-yi maʾnawi (Spiritual Couplets), by the most beloved of Persian mystic poets, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273). This monumental work, consisting of some thirty-five thousand couplets, has been called the "Qurʾān in the Persian tongue," since later generations have considered it to be an encapsulation of the spiritual and esoteric teachings of the Arabic scripture for Persian speakers.

In addition to the Mathnawi, Rūmī also composed a collection of ecstatic poems called the Divan-i Shams-i Tabriz. As its name indicates, this work was dedicated to the memory of his spiritual mentor and soul mate, the enigmatic Shams-i Tabriz. Tradition holds that Shams's mysterious disappearance caused Rūmīto become a poet, pouring out in the poems of the Divan his heartbreak at the loss of his beloved friend. For the Divan, Rūmī chose the most important form of lyric poetry in Persianthe ghazal a short poem with loosely arranged couplets united by a single rhyme and common meter.

By convention, the ghazal' s central theme is unfulfilled love. The rules governing the ghazal' s prosody exercise such tight constraints on poets that they must resort to a vast stock of conventional images and motifswine and tavern, nightingales and roses, attractive young boys and veiled ladies, disheveled tresses and ruby lipsto draw analogies. Skillful ghazal poets effortlessly interweave these images together while engaging in intricate verbal acrobatics, making it difficult to grasp the real meaning of their poetry, as it subtly oscillates between the spiritual and the sensual. Is the lover drunk with wine, wild with passion for a handsome boy, or intoxicated with God? Although the meaning intended by the poet can be vague, audiences nevertheless delight in this ambiguity, thus accounting for the popularity of the ghazal in Persian and Persian-influenced cultures.

The supreme master of the ghazal in Persian was Hafiz (d. 1390). Generations of Persian speakers have regarded his collection of ghazals, known as the Divan-i Hafiz, as a source of wisdom to consult when making important life decisions. Like Rūmī's Mathnawi, the Divan-i Hafiz is believed to contain the wise voice of the mystic who has been fortunate enough to commune with the transcendent reality. And like Rūmī's poetry, the verse of Hafiz and other Persian mysticssuch as Sanaʾi (d. 1131), ʿAttar, and Jami (d. 1492)has inspired and informed seekers on the spiritual quest. As a result, Sufis have commonly regarded the incorporation of verses of poetry in rituals such as the samaʾ (spiritual concert of music and poetry) as a means of triggering a mystical experience.

Poetry in the Regional Vernaculars

Arabic and Persian were the dominant languages for Islamic poetry until the fourteenth century; at that time, poets in other regions began adopting local languages for composing religious poetry. Many of these poets pioneered the development of literary traditions in these regional languages. In her book As through a Veil, Annemarie Schimmel compares the role of these Muslim poets, many of them Sufi, to that played by Christian mystics, nuns, and ascetics in the development of European vernaculars such as German, Dutch, and Italian.

To be sure, Muslim poets hesitated at first to experiment with composing religious verse in the vernacular. In some areas of South Asia, for example, anxiety about using a local language ran so deep that poets thought it necessary to apologize to readers. Many of these pioneer poets would have agreed with the Afghan poet Bayazid Ansari (d. 1585) when he commented: "God speaks in every language, be it Arabic, Persian, Hindi, or Afghani. He speaks in the language which the human heart can understand." Love for their mother-tongues, as well as the growing popularity of vernacular poetry among populations who could not access literature in the Arabic and Persian traditions, eventually resulted in a blossoming of regional vernacular poetic traditions from the eighteenth century onwards. Significantly, in the case of those languages which lacked a standard alphabet, poets used the Arabic script or adaptations of it to write their compositions.

Arabic and Persian poetry continued to exercise varying degrees of influence on the development of regional poetic traditions, however. Thus, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu poems are so heavily steeped in the Persianate traditionfrom the appropriation of genres, such as the ghazal and masnawi, to the wholesale adoption of conventional Persian symbols and imagerythat it is impossible to truly appreciate poetry in these two languages without an awareness of the Persian background. The form of the Arabic qasida was adopted into a wide range of languages, often with adjustments in meter and imagery to suit local tastes. Indeed, in some instances, the qasida inspired the development of entirely new literary genres. For example, the madah is the religious praise poem in Sindhi, the syair is used in Malay for composing poems providing instruction on mystical themes, and the qasidah moderen in Indonesia is a genre of didactic religious poems set to popular music.

Islamic vernacular traditions also reflect an astounding array of poetic forms derived by various literary cultures around the world. Although these are too numerous to be discussed in detail, Muslim poets co-opted many forms of secular poetry, often in the form of songs, in order to compose different types of religious poetry. For instance, in the region around Bijapur in southern India, Sufi ideas were transmitted by songs sung in Dakhini Urdu by women as they performed daily tasks, such as spinning cotton or grinding grain, while in Tamilnadu, poets adopted the kappiyam, a long narrative poem that traditionally had related the stories of gods and the exploits of human heroes. In Senegal, odes retelling the history of prophets or praising Sufi masters employed forms traditional to Wolof praise-poetry. Hindi-speaking poets in North India used romantic ballads to create lengthy mystical allegories in verse; the most important example is the Padmavat of Malik Muammad Jaʾisi (d. after 1570). Along with vernacular forms, poets also adopted local literary conventions and adapted Islamic religious concepts and ideas to local cultural contexts. These adaptations helped Islam spread rapidly throughout many regions of the world.

Since vernacular poetry mediates between the community of believers and their religious tradition, much of this poetry tends to be didactic in character, addressing topics such as beliefs, fundamental rituals, ethics and morality, and the transitory nature of the world. Poems praising God, the prophets, and important religious personalities in Islamic history are also ubiquitous. Poetry composed under the influence of the Sufi tradition, particularly in Turkey and South Asia, tends to attack barren intellectualism and rote ritualism as paths that cannot lead to salvation. Instead, these poems laud the path of love, in which the believer develops a loving relationship with the Divine Beloved, as an interiorized form of religious practice that leads to the spiritual development of the soul. As expected, many Sufi poems also extol the virtues of the Sufi shaykh whose guidance helps the believer to traverse the spiritual path.

Poetry in Honor of the Prophet

One subject common to all Islamic poetry, whether in the classical Arabic and Persian traditions or in the regional vernaculars, is praise and love for the Prophet Muammad. As devotion to the Prophet Muammad binds together Muslims from diverse cultural and national backgrounds, this subject provides an appropriate summation for this survey of Islamic religious poetry.

The tradition of composing poetry honoring the Prophet began in his lifetime, when his companions, Kaʾb ibn Zuhayr and Hassan ibn Thabit, glorified him in verse. In subsequent centuries, innumerable poets have composed naʾts, or poems in praise of Muammad, in practically every language of the Islamic world. Since poets have employed a variety of styles, genres, and literary conventions, the figure of the Prophet is indigenized to different literary contexts. A Sindhi poet, for example, following the conventions of Sindhi mystical literature, may address him as a bridegroom and portray him in Sindhi garb, while a Tamil poet, influenced by the pillaitamil (baby poem), imagines him as a baby within a Tamil landscape. Notwithstanding these cultural differences, however, the poetry shares certain themes: extolling the Prophet's character, virtues, and beauty; recalling the events in his life, such as his birth and his ascension to heaven (the Miʿrāj ), or describing the various miracles he performed; expressing hope for his intercession on the Day of Judgment and beseeching his assistance in difficult circumstances; and exalting the esoteric aspect of association with the light of prophethood. The leitmotif of this poetry, however, is love. Poets fervently express in different languages their powerful, all-consuming love for the Prophet, the Beloved of God as he is frequently called, using a range of symbols and ideas. The twentieth-century Urdu poet Muammad Iqbal hints of the theme's power and universality when he declares, "Love for the Prophet runs like blood in the veins of the community."

See Also

allāj, al-; Ibn al-ʿArabī; Ibn al-Fāri; Iqbal, Muammad; Literature, article on Literature and Religion; Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah; Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn.


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Lewis, Franklin. Rumi: Past and Present; East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetryof Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Oxford, 2000.

Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Schimmel, Annemarie. As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam. New York, 1982.

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Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qurʾān: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Ore., 1999.

Sperl, Stefan, and Christopher Shackle, eds. Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa. 2 vols. Leiden, 1996.

Ali S. Asani (2005)