Early Life . Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Ju‘fi, known by the nickname al-Mutanabbi (The One Who Claimed Prophethood), is often considered to be the single most important Arabic poet, and certainly he stands above the other writers of his time in historical stature. The classical age of Arabic poetry had passed by the time he began his colorful career. Born of Arab parents in the Iraqi city of Kufah, al-Mutanabbi fled with his family to escape the Qarmati Ismaili schismatics who captured his home city in 924, leading him to spend more than two years with the pastoral Arabs of the Kalb tribe in the Syrian desert to the west. After returning to Kufah in 927, al-Mutanabbi devoted himself exclusively to poetry, thus showing great precociousness from an early age. At first his models were the two great poets of the preceding century, Abu Tammam (804–845) and al-Buhturi (821–897). When Kufah was sacked by the Qarmatis again, he left the city in 928, heading first to Baghdad and adopting the life of a wanderer.
Revolutionary . During the revolutionary upheavals of his time, which ruined Kufah, al-Mutanabbi became a Shi’i in religion and developed a strongly philosophical and pessimistic character. His philosophical attitude led him to an outward denigration and rejection of worldly things, and the constant insecurity in which he lived only confirmed his ideas. After wandering around in northern Syria for a couple of years, he proclaimed himself a prophet, a completely heretical action, and led a revolt in the Syrian desert among the Kalb, his earlier hosts. He was defeated and captured by the Ikhshidid dynasty in 933 and imprisoned for two years until he recanted and was released. From that time on, the name al-Mutanabbi—indicating a false prophet or one who arrogated to himself prophethood—stuck to him. His poems of this period began to take on a personal tone, which elevated their quality, because of the directness his expression.
Patrons . Soon al-Mutanabbi had to seek sustenance again, and beginning in 937 he returned to praising paying patrons for a living. At first, these patrons were lowly officials who did not reward his efforts well, but eventually al-Mutanabbi’s renown spread. During 939–940, he became poet to Badr ibn ‘Ammar, the governor of Damascus, but soon, as often happened, al-Mutanabbi had a falling out with his patron and had to flee for his life to the desert again. After working again for a series of minor patrons, al-Mutanabbi stayed with the redoubtable Hamdanid ruler of Aleppo Sayf al-Dawlah (916–967) from 948 to 957. During his career with this patron al-Mutanabbi wrote his best-known poetry and enjoyed the most munificent patronage, as he celebrated Sayf’s many campaigns against the Byzantines.
Rivals. Yet, al-Mutanabbi also clashed with a rival poet who was as egotistical as himself, Abu Firas (932–968), was a Hamdanid prince and thus a member of the dynasty. When a military plot arose against Sayf al-Dawlah, al-Mutanabbi felt he had to flee again, passing through Damascus on his way to Egypt, where the ruler Kafur al-Ikhshidi became his patron. Scarcely able to conceal his contempt for Kafur, al-Mutanabbi fled again, this time across Arabia to Iraq, where he visited his hometown of Kufah after an absence of thirty-four years and then stopped again in Baghdad. Here too, he faced the jealousy of other poets and writers, including Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, the author of Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs), so he set out once more in 965, this time to Iran to the east. He did not stay there for long. While trying to return to Iraq, he and his son were killed by bandits.
Reputation . After his death, al-Mutanabbi fame continued to grow, especially because of the praise of the well-known linguist Ibn Jinni (died 1002), who had met al-Mutanabbi in Aleppo. Although he was frequently criticized as well, his poetry became a standard for later poets, who tried to emulate or surpass it, and his lines continue to be memorized to this day.
Charles Pellat, “Al-Mutanabbi,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).