Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Desert Muse

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.


Ridwan said...

Interesting extract.

There is a verse in the Qur'an that is aimed at challenging those who thought (think) it mere prose to produce (write) verses that are similar in power and beauty.

I expect that the Prophet may have been criticized for just being a wayward poet and the verses are a response to those who may have called him a sorcerer too.

I am reminded that Socrates (via Plato) bemoaned the poets and the arts for distracting from reality.

The theme of distorting reality via words (poetry or the print media today) is universal, no?

Our more modern era has its 'poets' too.

I was at an excellent bookstore (Prestige) in downtown Nairobi where I saw some of Norman Finkelstein's books yesterday.

Though Finkelstein is not a poet by any stretch, he is nonetheless a sorcerer for many, just like Arundhati Roy, Samir Amin, Chomsky, or the late Edward Said.


Dreamlife said...

Interesting and educational :)

But if jinn inspired those poets (or some of them), who's to say that other poets of the time - and even poets of today - are not inspired in the same way?

It begs the question: where exactly does inspiration come from?

Anonymous said...

so are you inspired by jinn or is the poetry you write yours demon ?

desert demons said...

Ridwan - I think you are referring to the following verse:

قُل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الْإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَىٰ أَن يَأْتُوا بِمِثْلِ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ لَا يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرًا

Say: "If the whole of mankind and jinns were to gather together to produce the likes of this Qur'an they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support

(Sura 17 Verse 88 - Sura Al Israa (The Night Journey)

SubhanAllah - nothing comes close to these verses

Another one that stands out in terms of poetry is:

وَمَا عَلَّمْنَاهُ الشِّعْرَ وَمَا يَنبَغِي لَهُ ۚ إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا ذِكْرٌ وَقُرْآنٌ مُّبِينٌ

We have not instructed him (the Prophet) in poetry, nor is it meet for him; this is no less than a message and a Qur'an making things clear

(Sura Sura 36 Verse 69 - Sura Yasin)

As with all preceding Prophets, the message sent to Muhammed (saw) was the same simple, clear message - belief and submission to the oneness of the Creator. Each of the Prophets, having lived in different times when certain arts or crafts were popular, were delivered the message with means to counter the experts in those fields.
I'm quite fond of the story of Moses (AS) who lived at the time when sihr (magic) was most popular and entertaining, and he was asked to compete with the famous sorcerers in creating illusions but when he threw his staff, it devoured all their falsities!

Your trip to Nairobi sounds fruitful, even if only for the books! :-)

Dreamlife - there was no condemnation in the Qur'an of the poets themselves. I think Ridwan captured it well in saying that "the Prophet may have been criticized for just being a wayward poet and the verses are a response to those who may have called him a sorcerer too."
Interestingly, there is an entire Sura (chapter) in the Qur'an called Ash-Shu'araa - the Poets, which begins with Allah addressing the Prophet (saw) telling him not to despair. It also retells the story of the sorcerers and Moses (as). The chapter ends with the condemnation of the poets who spread evil and draws a clear distinction from those who engage in the remembrance of Allah.

Anon - After remembering Allah and His verses I should not be giving you this tongue-in-cheek answer - read my name and figure it out - perhaps I am the muse, the inspirer.

Ridwan said...

Thank you for adding nuance and detail to my comment.

The verse from Sura Al Israa was exactly what I was thinking about.

The verse from Sura Yasin is powerful. Thanks for putting these two together ... 'till now I have not done so.

It makes so much more of a coherent argument that is lost if one just reads the Qur'an like any other book.

Perhaps this explains why so many in the West and elsewhere miss the complexities (and contexts).

Your post and comments here are thoughtful, thought provoking, and inspiring.

I like that your blog embodies the same and more.

One of my absolute favorite places to go now :)

Perhaps you will even allow us (Aboriginal News Group, ANG) to link/re-post some of your gems from time to time here:

I am liking Nairobi but miss being in South Africa too.

Books are too expensive in South Africa. I can't tell you how elated I felt just going from shelf to shelf and seeing books that speaks beyond Oprah's reading list and the New York Times bestselling list.

Be well my friend and keep writing.



desert demons said...

Ridwan, I'm honoured and humbled by your comment.
Please feel free to re-post any of my posts onto ANG.

So you haven't moved over to kindle yet? I can't seem to find joy in electronic books.
I need to feel, smell, and bond with books! They're animate and each of them develops a personality. Perhaps that's why I find it hard to part with any of mine.
Happy book shopping!

Ridwan said...

Thanks desert demons. Your work here is impressive and deserves to be read widely.

ANG gets lots of hits all around the world.

I have not even seen a Kindle yet I am sad to say, I think.

I remember a friend of mine who lives in the Florida Keys was talking about her Kindle almost two years ago and I was confused.

"What is a Kindle,?" I asked. She never replied and I think she may have thought me whack for asking.

I love books too. In Portland, Oregon, I would spend Saturday nights at Powells Book Store.


What a magnificent place and you can buy new or used books for excellent prices.

In fact you can do research on just about anything at Powells.

I was always reading three or four books at a time and it was not even denting my budget.

In SA it is disheartening. The government taxes books heavily as you know (we pay Vat on books!).

The result is that we are not a reading nation, well except for newspapers and magazines.

I put Steve Biko's "I Write What I Like" on a required reading list for a politics class I taught last term and students complained that there were not enough copies to be found at the campus bookstore and local bookshops.

In fact only about four copies made it to the class of 43 students. One of which came from the campus library.

Today I saw five brand new copies at a local bookstore and the owner told me he had no problem getting more almost overnight.

Something is amiss in the book trade in SA.

Sorry for the long comment :)

I'm still buzzing about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi!

Peace to you,

desert demons said...

Ridwan - Just received an immaculate copy of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party from Powells!

Ridwan said...

That is amazing desert demons. So you know how amazing Powells is.

I found some treasures there over the years too. I don't know how they do it but they can give Amazon a run for their money especially on classics and hard to find books (music too).

And the coffee is not bad in a town that knows it coffee.

Geez I sound like an ad hey?

Thanks for the fun back and forth today.