Islam and Poetry

By Nadia Cassim

 

My Greatest Need is You

Your hope in my heart is the rarest treasure
Your Name on my tongue is the sweetest word
My choicest hours
Are the hours I spend with You —
O Allah, I can’t live in this world
Without remembering You–
How can I endure the next world
Without seeing Your face?
I am a stranger in Your country
And lonely among Your worshippers:
This is the substance of my complaint.

Rabia al Adawiyya

According to Professor Maqsood Jafri of the Islamic Research Foundation International, when exploring the viewpoint of poetry in Islam it is important to note the following: The Quran “should be read and understood in totality of its message and spirit. Its verses are local and universal”¹. Thus, the context and time in history upon which the verses in the Holy Quran relating to poetry are based should be thoroughly examined.

In Arabic, the language in which the Quran was revealed and in which Islamic poetry is rooted, a poet is referred to as “Shair”. A Shair is a wise and sensitive individual; an individual with a higher consciousness and “nobler human ideals”¹. He can be defined as a propagandist, soothsayer or historian, depending on the role that he plays. A poet is thus born a poet, much like a Prophet is ordained to be a prophet. His skill cannot be taught, it is a God-given talent².

Prior to the revelation of the Quran and the establishment of Islam, Arabic poetry was considered the “earliest form of Arabic literature”², expressed first in its oral form and later in written form. There are two main categories of Arabic poetry namely, rhymed and prose. Rhymed poetry which predominated at the time included “meters of rhythmical poetry” also known as “Seas”. This form of measuring poetry would require adding or removing consonants or vowels. Arabic poetry can also be characterized as classical, traditional or modern².

In pre-Islamic Arabia, a poet would represent his tribe. Alongside him would be a reciter who learned the poem by heart and narrated it to an audience -This method was later adopted to memorize the Quran in the Islamic era by the Huffaz. Over a period of time there would be an unbroken chain of poets, apprentices taking over from their masters and staying true to the traditions of their predecessors ². Notably, pre-Islamic poetry paid attention to eloquence- in particular the usage of strong vocabulary- and wording as well as romantic and sentimental preludes².

Around the 8th Century, a tradition labeled “Saba Moalleqat” also referred to as “the hung poem” was adopted. Here, poetry was hung on the Ka’bah. This tradition continued in the Islamic era when verses of the Quran were hung on the Ka’bah too, in particular Surah Al-Kausar by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself¹.

Islamic Poetry

Some of the early Islamic poetry came under criticism when praising subjects against Islamic teachings such as gambling, sex and alcohol consumption. As a result, Quranic verses on the subject of poetry were revealed. For Instance, it is stated in the Holy Quran Surah Ash-Shu‘ara’ (The Poets) verse 224-227

“224. As for the poets, the erring follow them,

225. See you not that they speak about every subject (praising others right or wrong) in their poetry?

226. And that they say what they do not do.

227. Except those who believe (in the Oneness of Allah Islamic Monotheism), and do righteous deeds, and remember Allah much, and reply back (in poetry) to the unjust poetry (which the pagan poets utter against the Muslims). And those who do wrong will come to know by what overturning they will be overturned

The Above verses categorize poets “in two classes. The evil ones and the righteous ones. The poets who speak evil are condemned. The poets who preach nobility are praised”¹. Thus, contrary to some beliefs that poetry is prohibited in Islam, it is clear from the above verses that it is not. If poetry is written to spread a divine or noble message, then it is surely permitted. Furthermore, reference to poetry is made in the Quran when refuting the allegations made by enemies of Islam that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was nothing but a poet who led men astray:

“And We have not taught him (Muhammad ) poetry, nor is it meet for him. This is only a Reminder and a plain Qur’an( surah Yasin, verse 69)”

 

Oftentimes, Arabic poetry was recited in the Umayyad Courts.  Court poets would often express their viewpoints on love, sin, religion and the afterlife, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in Islam. These poets would be accompanied by court singers as well². Well-known Islamic poetry was often expressed within the Sufi tradition. Sufism is a mystical interpretation of Islam and “it emphasized the allegorical nature of language and writing”¹.After the 13th Century however, Arabic poetry died down with the rise of Persian and Turkish Literature².

 

Allah

I tried to find Him on the Christian cross, but He
was not there; I went to the Temple of the
Hindus and to the old pagodas, but I could not
find a trace of Him anywhere.

I searched on the mountains and in the valleys
but neither in the heights nor in the depths was I
able to find Him. I went to the Ka’bah in Mecca,
but He was not there either.

I questioned the scholars and philosophers but
He was beyond their understanding.

I then looked into my heart and it was there
where He dwelled that I saw Him; He was
nowhere else to be found.

  • Jalaluddin Rumi³

 

 

Footnotes:

¹ http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_201_250/islamic_concept_of_poetry.htm

²http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_poetry

³ http://www.islamicedfoundation.com/poetry/jrumi.htm

 

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