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An Overview of Employing Poetry and Poets


An Overview of Employing Poetry and Poets

Published in December 3, 2017

Translated by: Ahmed Fathy


 Commenting on our previous article about poets, the Egyptian Quranist Dr. Reda Amer has written this great comment which we copy here followed by our reply in an article about poetry and poets: (... Allow me, dear Dr. Mansour, to re-publish a comment I have previously written on April 30th, 2016, and it fits your article now about poets ... I tend to think that the verses 26:224-227 about deviant poets apply within our era to media figures who misguide people with falsehoods and lies, and deviators follow them. Of course, poets and poetry were like media in the past eras as they narrated events and wars, etc. and formed the public opinion by praising or satirizing , etc. But the only difference is that media figures are insipid and poets of the past were more eloquent ...).


Firstly: a historical overview of poetry and poets:


During the pre-Islamic Era:

1- Poetry was the domain of pride among Arabian tribes within social gatherings, e.g., within the Okaz market. Poetry was the source of amusement and spreading news within love poems, satirical poems, praise poems, etc. Typically, poems at the time would begin with mentioning a beloved and weeping over the place deserted by her. Poems at the time were not written down; they passed down orally and people memorized them, especially the ten long poems that were admired by all Arabia and were written specially in parchments and put inside the Kaaba. The ten poets of such famous poems were the following: Emru' Al-Qais, Turfa Ibn Al-Abd, Al-Hareth Ibn Hilza, Zohair Ibn Abou Salma, Amr Ibn Kulthum, Antara Ibn Shaddad, Lubayd Ibn Rabeia, Al-Aasha, Obayd Ibn Al-Abras, and Al-Nabigha Al-Zhubyani.     

2- Compiling and writing down pre-Islamic era poems were done during the Abbasid Era, as caliphs were amused by it in their parties. There were many poets at the doorsteps of palaces of caliphs, but there were only few ones who memorized pre-Islamic era long poems. The most famous compiler of such poems was a poet named Hammad the Narrator, but many linguists and historians accuse him of making up many of the poems he 'compiled'; this poet at one time confessed to the caliph Harun Al-Rasheed that he added many poems of his own composition.  

3- Many linguists of the Arabic tongue and historians cast doubt on many poems of the pre-Islamic era based on stylistic analyses; the origin of Arabic grammar depended on these poems and listening to desert-Arabs who never mingled with non Arabs after the Arab conquests to infer grammatical rules. There were two rival schools of grammar in Iraq: that of Basra and that of Kufa. Scholars of each one quoted poems to assert their viewpoints; some historians accuse such grammarians of fabricating poems and ascribing them falsely to the pre-Islamic era. Stylistic analyses show that many such poems were in fact influenced by prosody and poetry meters of the Abbasid Era. This led the Egyptian thinker and writer Dr. Taha Hussein cast doubt on the whole of pre-Islamic poetry.     


During the Umayyad Era:

1- The Quranic eloquence and uniqueness of style dazzled Arabs; the Quran is no poetry and no prose either; in fact, the descent of the Quran made Arabs temporarily (at least for three decades) too busy to compose poems or focusing on hearing them, especially as they were busy in the Arab conquests and civil wars. 

2- After the Umayyad dynasty settled firmly in rule, the culture of tribalism returned with a vengeance by the Umayyad caliphs who were biased for the Arab race and against non-Arabs in general. The Umayyad armies comprised only Arabs and even those who rebelled against the Umayyads in Arabia were certain Arab tribes. Strong, powerful Umayyad caliphs used to strike a balance between the tribes of the Qahtanites and those of the Adnanites and made both parties compete to serve the caliphate and never to be united against the Umayyads. Poetry was employed by the Umayyads as a tool for propaganda and to make Arabian tribes keep busy, away from rebellion or joining rebels, as the caliphs paid those poets to spread satire poetry to propagate the cultural of tribalism, rivalry, and competiveness, and paid poets who praised the Umayyads. The Iraqi city of Baghdad witnessed three major poets of satire paid by the Umayyads: Jarir (who died in 110 A.H.), Al-Farazdaq (who died in 114 A.H.), and Al-Akhtal, the Arab Christian poet of Taghlab tribe, (who died in 92 A.H.). Al-Akhtal was friends with Umayyad caliphs and he entered their palaces while wearing a large cross on his chest. The Umayyad Era never witnessed religious fanaticism; they Umayyads were biased against non-Arabs and collected tributes and heavy taxes from them even if such non-Arabs converted to 'Islam'.           

3- The poet Al-Farazdaq supported the progeny of Ali despite his loyalty to the Umayyads who paid him handsomely for his poems; in contrast, the Shiite poet Al-Kemeet Ibn Zaid used to side to the Hashemites praised in his poems and to satirize the Umayyads in other poems, until he was killed by the Umayyad governor of Iraq, Youssef Ibn Omar, in 126 A.H. Strangely, this Shiite poet was a close friend of a poet of Al-Khawarij named Al-Tarmah Ibn Hakeem, though Shiites and Al-Khawarij differed in religious and ideological notions. When asked about this strange friendship, Al-Kemeet used to say that he and his friend hated the masses. Al-Tarmah Ibn Hakeem was a Qahtanite poet from the tribe of Taye' and he sharply satirized his foes, especially the tribe of Bani Tamim who served the Umayyads. Among the opposition figures was the poet Al-Ahwas (who died in 105 A.H.), banished by the caliph Al-Waleed Ibn Abdul-Malik to an island in the south of the Red Sea. Among them also was the poet Aasha Hamadan who joined the rebels, led by M. Ibn Al-Ashaath, against the Umayyad powerful governor Al-Hajaj Ibn Youssef, and he was captured and killed by Al-Hajaj in 83 A.H. after the battle of Deir Al-Jamajim (i.e., literally, the house of skulls) when the rebels were crushed.      

4- Away from political employment of poets and poems, there was also love poems of platonic live like the poet Jameel who loved Buthayna, Qais who loved Layla, and Kuthayyir who loved Azza. Other poets composed sexual love poems, like  the Qorayish poet Omar Ibn Abou Rabeia (who died in 93 A.H.) and the poet Al-Arjy, the grandchild of the caliph Othman. Sakina daughter of Hussein Ibn Ali was known for her ''literary salon'' where poets where guests at her house. 

5- A poet who was a slave, Naseeb Ibn Rabah (who died in 108 A.H.), was very famous for praising his master Abdul-Aziz Ibn Marwan, the Umayyad governor of Egypt.


During the Abbasid Era:

1- Poetry was a source of amusement and diversion for the first decades of the Abbasid Era; poets vied for money gifts from governors and caliphs, and they grew famous because their poems were written down. Among such poets was Ibn Abou Hafsa who was biased very much for the Abbasids and one of the foes of Abbasids murdered him for that in 182 A.H. The poet Abou Al-'Atahiya (who died in 213 A.H.) praised the caliphs Al-Mehdi, Al-Hadi, and Al-Rasheed. The poet Bashar Ibn Burd lived during the Umayyad Era and the early decades of the Abbasid Era; when he satirized in a poem the caliph Al-Mehdi, he was flogged to death in 168 A.H. The most famous Abbasid poet was Abou Nawwas (who died in 199 A.H.) who wrote sexual poems and who praised the caliph Al-Amin. Other famous poets at the time were Abou Tammam (who died in 231 A.H.) and Al-Buhtury (who died in 284 A.H.).    

2- Poetry was negatively affected during the Second Abbasid Era that began with the caliph Al-Motawakil (who reigned 232 – 247 A.H.), because the rise of the powerful influence of the Sunnite fanatical Hanbali scholars (who controlled and intimidated the masses) and the Turkish military leaders who controlled, deposed, and murdered caliphs while controlling the caliphate. Thousands of hadiths have been fabricated and written down and the masses took interest in them, and no one care very much about poetry; poetry deteriorated for decades until the Hamadan State (in Mosul, Aleppo, and south of Anatolia) encouraged and paid poets like Al-Mutanabbi (who died in 354 A.H.) and Abou Feras Al-Hamadani (who died in 357 A.H.).   


During the Mameluke era:

1- The deterioration of poetry continued as Sunnite Sufi sheikhs and Sufi Sunnite scholars were more prominent than poems; yet, Sufi poems with highly symbolic nature spread all over the Arab world, and the Sufi poems express Sufi tenets of polytheism (united with God, God resides in nature, etc.) and among the well-known Sufi poets was Ibn Al-Fared. When the Mongols and the Tartars destroyed Baghdad, the Mameluke Cairo became he major capital of culture and politics; yet, the Mamelukes never cared for poetry at all; few poets emerged and they were never popular because of their using vague imagery and styles that depend on rhyme more than meanings, and examples of such bad, stultified poems are quoted in the book titled (Al-Wafy) by Khalil Al-Safadi. Lewd words expressed in such poems show the moral degeneration of the Mameluke Era because of Sufism. 

2- An exception of the above point was a great poet named Safy-Eddine (who died in 752 A.H.) who was a merchant as poems could no longer bring money, and his great poem titled (She Said...) was sung by the famous Egyptian composer and singer M. Abdel-Wahab.

3- Poets used to have a profession to earn their bread; one of the famous poets at the time in the Mameluke Egypt was a butcher named Jamal-Eddine Abou Hussein, who died in Al-Fustat, in Cairo, in 672 A.H. This poet was so cultured and wrote lovely poems, but he had to work as a butcher like the rest of his family members to earn his living, and his famous title was (The Butcher); he embodies the Egyptian joking spirit of ridicule. Among his famous lines of verse were in response to the question of why he worked as a butcher:

Do not blame me, my honored Sir Sharaf-Eddine

For working as a butcher; if it had not been for butchery

I would not have earned my bread to eat and compose poems

My profession makes dogs follow me, instead of following dogs

With my poetry of praise to take their money gifts!

4- Some Egyptian illiterate poets emerged and they composed simple poems that appealed very much to the masses; for instance, Ibrahim Al-Mimaar (who died in 749 A.H.) composed witty lines of verse such as the following:

The Prince is God's wrath upon our heads;

As he commits many injustice and then praise the Lord!

He is like a butcher, who praise the Lord and then slaughter us!

5- Poetry in classical Arabic vanished during the Ottoman Era, as stagnation, ignorance, and obscurantism spread for centuries. The classical Arabic was replaced by the Egyptian vernacular Arabic in everyday life and even in the formal letters of governors and in the few books authored to explain works authored in the past. Thus, vernacular Arabic poetry thrived in Egypt at the time; even some authors (e.g., sheikh Youssef M. Khedr Al-Shirbini) penned books to compile and explain vernacular, simple, not-so-eloquent verse that mainly expressed everyday life, especially in rural areas of Egypt during the Ottoman Era, hence its importance socially and historically as a priceless document now.   


Poetry in the modern era:

1- A renaissance within all fields, especially the military and educational fields, began by the governor (and later on king) of Egypt M. Ali Pacha. This bore fruit during the reign of Khedive Ismail in terms of literature and civilization as well as enlightenment and liberal atmosphere – which we regret its loss now. Within such fertile soil, poetry was revived as the obscurantist atmosphere of the Ottomans diminished. Within the first quarter of the 20th century, great Egyptian poets emerged like Ahmed Bey Shawki, Ahmed Muharram, and Hafiz Ibrahim, and many other important poets in Lebanon, and other Arab poets of Lebanese origin who immigrated to the USA and Europe.    

2- Arab and Egyptian poets were preoccupied by their nations that resist European colonizers. Some literati figures wrote prose and verse like Al-Akkad, Al-Rafi, and Al-Minfalouti. People knew them as newspapers, magazines, and books were printed and their poetry  and prose were published. The literary scene seemed to experience a renaissance, but this never lasted for long. Radio, cinema, and TV made most people desert poetry, though some lyricists grew famous for their lyrics for songs (in vernacular Egyptian Arabic and in classical Arabic) that appeared on stage, within radio, cinema, and TV shows, owned and controlled by the Egyptian State. People do not focus on poetry as no great poets like Shawki and Hafiz ever emerged until now; yet, some poets of the 20th century Egypt were outstanding in vernacular/Egyptian Arabic and classical Arabic poetry: Kamel Al-Shennawi, Nizar Qabbani, Ali Mahmoud Taha, Mahmoud Hassan Ismail, Ibrahim Nagui, Bayram Al-Tonsi, Ahmed Rami, Salah Jahine, Hessein Al-Sayed, Sayed Hegab, M. Gameel Aziz, and Fathy Qora, etc. Their poems were sung by famous male and female singers on stage, in the movies, and in TV shows. Vernacular poems were distinguished first by the poet and rebel Abdullah Al-Nadeem (who died in 1896 A.D.). Some writers who write 'free verse' claim to be poets but we personally will never admit that their lines are part of the poetical canon; they are never talented enough to compose poetry lines in rhyme and rhythm.     



  Poetry was like ministry of culture and information to Arabian tribes before Islam and also during the Umayyad Era as it was employed by caliphs for political reasons. Even the opposition movements had their poets/media figures. This stopped as sultans/caliphs depended on clergymen for propaganda and support to justify their grave injustices with corrupt fatwas and fabricated hadiths. Poetry was revived during the liberal epoch in Egypt, but crushed once more by Middle-East tyrants who never develop a taste for literature and who control media figures, businessmen, and clergymen; and yet, the tyrants never get enough and never feel a sense of guilt or shame. 

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