Sacred Texts  Islam  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, [1881], at


LIKE the Iliad of Homer, which was formed from the songs of the Rhapsodists, the Qasīdas of the Mu‘allaqāt are not regular compositions, but consist of short effusions and fragments strung together. But there is this difference, remarks Von Hammer-Purgstall, that "the authorship of the old Arab Prize Poems has been undisputed; and no Arabian wolf has torn the Mu‘allaqāt, like the Iliad, and thrown

p. lxi

the fragments to various authors." This "difference," however, no longer exists; for, while the authenticity of the Mu‘allaqāt as a whole is still allowed, the genuineness of certain passages is questioned by distinguished German scholars. And if we consider that the songs of the pre-Islāmite Arabs, like the Scottish Border Ballads, were preserved for many generations by oral tradition alone (for the art of writing, although known among the tribes of Arabia, was but little used), it will appear more than probable that interpolations exist in the early Arabic poetry. When the collectors, about the end of the seventh century, began to commit the songs of the old Arabs to writing, they found only fragments—but very numerous fragments—remaining among the desert tribes; and they were exposed to very much the same kind of errors and even frauds as were our own literary antiquaries when they went about the pastoral districts gathering fragments of traditionary ballads from the lips of "oldest inhabitants": verses of one particular song found their way into another; and artful rhymesters, who had a fatal knack of imitating the external form and language of the old Border Ballads, occasionally imposed upon enthusiastic and all too credulous collectors of legendary ballad lore. In like manner, it would seem that the collectors of early Arab poetry were sometimes the dupes of knavish Rāwīs, or Reciters, many of whom were themselves no mean poets, but could extemporaneously compose verses

p. lxii

so like in style and sentiment to the genuine old poetry as to render detection almost impossible. Nor are the collectors even above suspicion of helping out the sense of an obscure fragment by interweaving, here and there, a verse or two of their own composition.

Professor Ahlwardt, Herr Von Kremer, and other eminent German Orientalists have of late years subjected the reliques of ancient Arabic poetry to a thorough critical examination, with the object of separating the spurious from the genuine verses. The sudden transition from one subject to another, so common in the longer qasīdas, furnished most favourable opportunities for interpolation. To distinguish such interpolated passages must necessarily be a work of no small difficulty; and very frequently the student can only detect errors and inaccuracies by finding the rules of Qasīda composition violated. For instance, only the hemistichs of the opening bayt, or couplet, should rhyme with each other; and if two or more such couplets are found in the same poem, they must be interpolations, or opening verses of other poems. Again, it is the rule, with very few exceptions (for which there are always obvious reasons), that a Qasīda begin with an address to a mistress—lamenting her departure, generally; and where this is wanting the poem is incomplete, if not altogether spurious. But errors of this kind must be obvious to every student, and require no great critical acumen for their discovery.

p. lxiii

[paragraph continues] A much more difficult task is, the recognition and separation of verses which have been ingeniously composed and inserted by the Reciters, or even by the collectors, in order to connect fragments together. It is not easy to bring to the investigation of such a subject as this a mind perfectly unprejudiced. If the student brings to his task a pre-conceived notion of what the old Arabs would (or should) say about certain things, and finds in the poetry sentiments which go against his theory, he is prone to consider them as interpolations; and thus, consciously or unconsciously, the critic, in the process of investigation, will be more disposed to establish his theory than to elicit the truth. But the learned Orientalists who are engaged in sifting the early Arab poetry are certainly actuated by no such narrow motives; and the importance of the work they have undertaken can hardly be over-rated; since, without being assured of the genuineness of the pre-Islāmite poetical remains, accurate knowledge of the old Arabs themselves is impossible. Nevertheless, some of the conclusions at which they have arrived have been questioned by other scholars.

We are told that the collectors and critics were led by a strong religious sentiment to eliminate from the early poetry all allusions to pagan customs and false deities; yet in two of the Seven Prize Poems references to pagan superstitions still remain. Lebīd, in verse 76 of his Poem, alludes to the "camel doomed to die at her master's tomb"; and ‘Antara, verse 70,

p. lxiv

refers to the pagan superstition of "birds of the brain," a belief strictly forbidden by the Qur’ān. * In the Romance of ‘Antar, said to have been composed in the 8th century, allusions to pagan deities and idolatrous customs of the old Arabs are very frequent; but perhaps the "strong religious sentiment" had evaporated on the introduction of profane science into Islām. However, if the collectors were imbued with so fervent a religious spirit as to eliminate references to idolatry from the early poetry, it seems strange that they should have allowed the numerous allusions to wine-drinking to remain: for the frequent mention of wine in modern Oriental poetry is to be explained by its mystical meaning.

But the same pious critics, who so carefully eliminated from the poetry all reference to pagan superstitions, substituted, it is said, sentiments in consonance with the doctrines of the Qur’ān. This, it is well known, was done by the authors of the Thousand and One Nights, in the case of Tales

p. lxv

derived from Hindū sources; but it does not follow that the native poetry of the old Arabs was treated after the same manner. Herr Von Kremer takes exception to verses 27 and 28 of Zuhayr's Mu‘allaqa, in which mention is distinctly made of the omniscience of God and of the Book of Reckoning, as being alien from the spirit of the old poetry. The same objection, if just, would also apply to verses 85 and 86 of Lebīd, where the dispensations of Providence are recognised, and to verse 25 of Imra’u-’l-Qays, and verse 81 of Tarafa, where the Creator is plainly mentioned. But, besides their numerous false deities—for which the Arabs seem to have entertained but small reverence about the period when Muhammad began his great mission—there existed, more or less, among the several tribes of the Peninsula a belief in Allahthe God. Indeed, as Mr. C. J. Lyall has very justly observed, * "without assuming such a faith as already well known to the people, a great portion of the Qur’ān would be impossible: that revelation is addressed to men who join other gods with God, not to those who deny Him;" and to bring them back to the worship of the one sole God—to concentrate their faith in Him alone—was the great object of the Prophet's mission.

That the remains of Ancient Arabic Poetry have been tampered with—altered and interpolated—by the grammarians, collectors, critics, and others, is

p. lxvi

now, however, proved most clearly: such is also the case with our own early traditionary poetry; and human nature is essentially the same in Bussora and Kūfa, and in London and Edinburgh. But it is gratifying to know, on the authority of so learned, acute, and painstaking a scholar as Professor Ahlwardt, that, while much of the so-called Ancient Arabic Poetry is decidedly spurious, and not a little doubtful, there still remains much that is the genuine offspring of the untutored but brilliant and vigorous genius of the pre-Islamite bards.


lxiv:* In verse 57 of his Mu‘allaqa, Imra’u-’l-Qays, according to Sir W. Jones’ translation, alludes to idolatrous rites: "virgins, in black trailing robes, who dance round [the idol] Dewaar"; but this rendering seems to be erroneous. The original

fa ‘anna la nà sirbun, ka-anna ni‘āja hu
‘adhārà dawārin fi melā‘in mudhayyali

[paragraph continues] is thus translated by Mr. J. W. Redhouse:

"Then there appeared unto us a herd [of wild oxen], the heifers whereof [from their tails] were, as it were, maidens of Dawār in long-trained mantles."

lxv:* In the interesting and valuable Notes to his translation of Zuhayr's Mu‘allaqa: Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society, 1877.

Next: IV.—Arabian Literature Under the Khalifate