From Nights & Horses & the Desert - An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature
Edited by Robert Irwin:
Most of what we know about Arabia in the age of Jahiliyya, the pagan period of 'Ignorance' prior to the preaching of Islam, both concerns poetry and has been transmitted in the form of poetry. According to a ninth-century philologist and biographer of poets, al-Jumahi, 'In Jahili age, verse was to the Arabs the register of all they knew, and the utmost compass of their wisdom; with it they began their affairs, and with it they ended them.' According to another saying, 'Poetry is the public register [diwan] of the Arabs: by its means genealogies are remembered and glorious deeds handed down to posterity.' According to the fourteenth-century North African philosopher-historian, Ibn Khaldun, 'The Arabs did not know anything except poetry, because at that time, they practised no science and knew no craft.'
Pre-Islamic poetry composed in the Arabian peninsula (as well as in what is now southern Iraq) celebrated the values of nomadic, camel-rearing tribal life. Poets boasted of the tribes' exploits, commemorated tribal genealogies and celebrated inter-tribal feuds and camel raids. Metre and rhyme were mnemonic aids in preserving a tribe's history. The poetry they produced enshrined the tribal values of desert warriors: courage, hardihood, loyalty to one's kin, and generosity. The theme of vengeance features prominantly in early Arabic poetry. the Jahili Arabs believed that dead men in their graves become owls and, if a man's killing was unavenged by his kinsmen, then the owls would rise from the earth crying, 'Give me to drink! Give me to drink!' Poetry was also used to convey wisdom and moral precepts with a more general application. Aphorisms in verse formed part of the common conversation stock.
The Prophet Muhammed is said to have declared that 'Verily eloquence includes sorcery'. In pre-Islamic Arabia the boundary between writing a poem and casting a spell was far from clear. Poetry was commonly referred to as sihr halal (legitimate magic). Tribal poets saw their poetry as a kind of sorcery by means of which one could build up one's own strength and weaken that of one's enemies. Poets were inspired by jinns. A qarin means 'companion', but it has the special sense of a jinn who accompanies a poet and inspires him, thus acting as his genius. Not satisfied with inspiring poets, the jinns were also known to compose poetry in their own right. The soothsayers (kahins) of the Jahili period made use in their incantations of a rhythmic form of rhymed prose, known as saj', as well as of a crude, folk-poetry metre known as rajaz. In the very earliest period the distinction between a soothsayer and a poet was blurred.