Poetry in Arab World from Pre-Islamic Era to Abbasids and its Effect on Modern Poetry

Poetry has been a major tool to express the state of a community. Arab poetry played a great role in establishing, maintaining, and destroying political systems in Middle East and North Africa region from pre-Islam to now. It was used to promote religion, Sultans, and governments because it had a magical effect on people. They listen to it because of its beauty, so it can easily stick in their minds. Arab poetry or “Chi’ir” is totally different from novels, articles, or other form of Arabic literature because it is very advanced in term of language. Arab Poets or “Chu’ara” were playing with words by using the powerful ones that can affect people quickly when they understand the meaning. It cannot be easily interpreted that is why it was used to ruin the reputation of a Sultan without being caught quickly. It has many deep meanings that serve several purposes besides the ones that we already discussed. It is still used in education nowadays. It is a part of primary school program. However, they do not talk about pre-Islamic poetry because it is very different than the Arabic that is taught in schools. They teach students the types of poetry which are the free and the traditional. In pre-Islamic era, there was a single type of poetry which is the traditional. It had strict and hard rules to follow that is why it was very advanced. Each poem should have strict number of “paragraphs” and a unique song at the end of each line called “Quaf’ia”. It is the part that allows to people to sing the poem. In addition, each poem should belong to a ringtone called “Baher”. Arabic poetry has 16 ringtone or “Baher”, as they are named technically. On the other hand, free poetry appeared in 20 century. It served several purposes such as nationalism, love, and revolution of Arab peoples.  Nizar Qabbani used the free poetry to talk about love in an artistic way. Mahmoud Darwich used it to talk about the Palestine-Israeli conflict and show the words, from the power of words that he used, his opinion as a palestinian poet. One of Abu Al-Qasim Shabi’s poems is as a national anthem of Tunisia. It is a revolutionary poem that encourages people to change destiny because they have the power to do so. It was used to motivate people to push the colonial powers out of their motherlands which the language was not important because in North Africa region, especially Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, the Amazigh poem was a major tool in reaching people who do not understand Arabic. In fact, they were the soldiers of the Moroccan army at that time.

Pre-Islamic era poets put the foundations of Arabic poetry. The culture of this era was oral and what is discussed now in books is what the authors of after Islamic era transmitted to us. So, it is, somehow, biased because some actions of the pre-Islamic era were prohibited later on. For instance, the description of the girls’ bodies was allowed in pre-Islamic era and prohibited after Islamic  It was known by the dark age of the Arab peoples. In fact, it was not as Muslim authors described it. It is known as “Jahilia” which means the ignorance age. However, it is not the case because the level of language and the power of “Quraish” leaders’ speeches was advanced comparing to nowadays leaders’ speeches.  “Mu’allaqat” are the long poems that were in pre-Islamic era or “Jahilia”. They are written with a pure artistic language to describe the lives of Arab people in the Arab peninsula at that time. They were hung in Kaaba because of their importance. It is the origin of their name “Mu’allaqat” because it means, in Arabic,  something that is hung. They can be divided into seven types. Each type is known by a poet who are Harith Ibn Halza, Imru Al-Qays, Zuhair Ibn Abi-Salama, Tarafa Ibn Al-Abd, Amr Ibn Kulthum, Antara Ibn Shadad, and Labid Ibn Abi-Rabiaa.  Each “Mu’alaqa” talks about a different topic depending on the interest of each poet.

Harith Ibn Halza is one of the great poets in pre-Islamic era. He was writing about his tribe “Baker Ibn Wael”. He wrote “Mua’lasa Fakhriya” which was about promoting his tribe. In other words,  he wrote the pride poem in “Mua’laqat”. He was proud of his tribe, and Arab people were using his name to describe a prided person in their daily life by saying to him that he is prouder than Harith Ibn Halza. This “Mua’laqa” talked about the daily life of his tribe and pushing people to prepare to war.

Imru Al-Qays is one of the famous poets of pre-Islamic era. He wrote about love. He described in his “Mu’allaqa” his love to Leila who is a girl from his tribe. His story with Leila is similar to the one of Romio and Julliet. Qays and Layla story is a famous love story in the Arabic culture. He was known by describing girls’ bodies in his poems which was not accepted after Islam, so the authors who talked about him described some of his poems as obscene. He has been inspiring Arab poets such as Nizar Qabbani.

Zuhair Ibn Abi-Salama was writing his poems in one month and prepare them in one year which means “Hawl” in Arabic. His poems were called “Hawliyat” because of their long preparation. His poems were respectful in the sense that they were accepted after Islam. He was eulogizing people with what they are known with. Omar Ibn Al-Khattab named him the poet of poets due to his beautiful style. He was writing about what he knew about, so his poems were genuine.

Tarafa Ibn Al-Abd is considered one of the best poets of the pre-Islamic era. His poems are about ethics, Humanity, life, and Arab peoples  traditions at that time. He tried to show the shining side of the Arab peoples by describing their daily lives and how they were helping each other.  In addition, he was describing the tools and the industrial development that they were achieving. Historically speaking, his “Mu’allaqa” helped researchers to know the lifestyle of Arab people in pre-Islamic era and comparing it to after Islam in order to know what changes Islam brought to the Arab culture.

Amr Ibn Kulthum is another great poet from the pre-Islamic era. His poems were about motivating people to participating in the wars against his tribe. He was proud of it, and that is why he talked about it in a prestigious way in his poems. He was thanking brave people who belong to the same tribe. He described them as models of the others.

Antara Ibn Shaddad is one of the famous poets of the pre-Islamic era because he wrote about his love story and its relationship with the slavery life. Antara lived a different life from the other poets because his father is his owner according to slavery rules. He talked about his father’s wife because she was the source of its problems. She told his father that Antara is harassing her just to see him beaten every time. The interesting part of these stories is that she talked to his father to stop beating him whenever she felt that it is enough for him what he experienced. Antara’s poems were seeing the Arab culture at that time from another angle because he talked about the miserable life of the slaves. He showed to the world that the slaves can love as well. He is known by his poems about Abla who is his lover and cousin. He loved her, and he wrote long poems about her describing his deep feelings towards her. She was one the beautiful girl in his tribe, and he was meeting her secretely because meeting a girl at that time was prohibited. He went to his uncle in order to marry Abla. His uncle completely refused because Antara was a slave and black. He talked in his poems about the racism and how the slaves did not have the right to marry. The exact end of the story is not known because some authors said that he did not marry her and others claimed that he married her even if her father refused. Their story was inspiring many writers because it is seen as a love story model nowadays especially after the formalization of human rights.

Labid Ibn Rabia is the last poet of “Mu’allaqat” because he lived after Islam for a long time, so he is one of the poets who experienced the pre-Islamic and post-Islamic eras. He wrote about the hospitality of Arab people, wine, love, and pride of the belonging of his tribe. After he became Muslim, his poetry changed because he did not talk about what the Islam prohibited such as the obscene description of the girls’ bodies and wine. Labid is one of the poets that we can touch the change that Islam brought to the Arab peoples in the Arab peninsula at that time. Some of the topic that were dominant in the pre-Islamic era were prohibited after words. So,Islam changed the topics that poets can cover in their poems.

The era between “Jahilia” and Islam was a critical era because poetry was seen as unethical action that the Muslim can do because poets in “Jahilia” were known by drinking wine and obscene description of what the Islam prohibited. So, it was a critical time which changed the topics to the pride of belonging to a tribe, motivation to participate in wars, and promotion of the Islam and prophet.  

Hassan Ibn Thabit was one of the famous poets of that era because his poems were all about prophet Muhammad. Before Islam, Medina was divided into two tribes “Aws” and “Khazraj”. Hassan Ibn Thabit was the poet of “Khazraj” and Qaiss Ibn Khatim was the poet of “Aouss”. He was defending his tribe and talking about wine as a major element in the Arab culture at that time. After Hassan joined Islam, he changed totally the topic of its poems to the life of the prophet Muhammad. He wrote his poems to defend Islam and push people to join it. He was taking it as an intellectual war against people who attack Islam at that time. He was considering defending Islam by poetry is like defending it by weapons.

This transition era gave a birth of a new type of poetry. After the conflict between Muawiya and Ali which is the source of the division between Shia and Sunni, poets were in both sides. They were communicating their political opinion through poems. In the Amaoui State, a new types of literature was born. It is the Islamic literature which is another variation of the “Jahilia” literature in the sense that it respect the new rules that Islam set up to Muslims. In addition, another type of poetry appeared called “Naqa’id” which is about writing a poem that promotes a poet and ruin the reputation of the others. Al Akhtal was one of the great poets in Amaoui state because he was promoting Amaoui caliphs and firing the other poets who did not agree with the caliphs with his strong words. Jarir is another famous poet of this era. He was in a war with Al Akhtal because they were exchanging harm poems which showed to the Arab community the powerful mastering of the language and its beauty in transmitting messages without any offensive or disrespectful words. The other type which was dominant at that time is praise poetry. It served political purposes because the level of Arabic language of these poets was extraordinary that is why they were special and important in any era of the Arab history. Al-Tarmah Ibn Al-Hakim was one of the famous poets who were writing this kind of poetry. The new type is “Zuhd” poetry. It is what the Sufi movement used later on to express themselves. Hassan Al-Basri, the founder of the Sufi movement, used this kind of poetry to show to people the rules of Islam and push them to join it. In addition, he used it also in “Da’awa” to attract people to religion and forget the life to work for the life after death.  It appeared because of the effect of Islam on Arab people. They were looking for a way to get closer to Allah. “Zuhd” poets were different because they were not social. They believed that the real life is after the death. Poets should contribute in sharing Islam and defending it as well.

After the Amaoui state was destroyed. A new Islamic state appeared which were the Abbasids. They were more open-minded, so the topics of their poetry were more rich. In addition to that, other words were added to Arabic because of the translation of books from other language to Arabic. Moreover, the poetry had changed because of the new lifestyle of the Arab people at that time. The translation of the books influenced the topics of the poetry and changed its language. It was a revolution in poetry’s history because it started to use non-Arabic words. So, the poetry started to get out from the traditional and pure Arabic words that were used in pre-Islamic era and Amaoui state. This change produced open-minded poets such as Abu Firas Al-Hamadani, Abu Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi, and Abu Al-Alae Al-Maarri.

Abu Firas Al-Hamadani was a great poet in Abbasids era because he was the cousin of Saif-Al-Dawla Al Hamadani the governor of Aleppo at that time. The governor was discussing with Ulama and poets the situation of the State. So, he was meeting with Al Mutanabbi, Al Farabi, and  Abu Firas. Abu Firas became Amir of Manbij, but he faced some political problems with his ministers. Thus, they put it in jail for more than 7 years. So, his poems were about the patient and his hard experience in jail. His poems were full of negative emotions because he was suffering and transmitting what he was feeling in jail.

Abu Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi played a major political role in Saif-Al-Dawla state.  He was one of the decision makers in the state. He was proud of himself and his race. He was writing about himself in his poems. He was dreaming a lot that is why his friends were amirs and caliphs. He was praising them to get money and authority. He wanted to be a wali in the Abbasids state. He was writing about Saif-Al-Dawla. He lived a luxury life because of that. However, other poets wanted to create the conflict between him and Saif-Al-Dawla in poems. They succeeded to create it, and he leaved Aleppo. He traveled to Egypt, and he wrote poems against Saif Al-Dawla asking him about the cause that let him to trust the other poets. The same story appeared again with Kafur the governor of Ikhshidid dynasty. He talked also about the failure of some aspects of the intellectual revolution that appeared in Abbasids dynasty from his own experience and failures. He described how he was living in a luxury life and ended up with a miserable life. It was the main cause of the critical change in the topics of his poems. He stopped promoting caliphs and started talking about his miserable experience. His poems played a major role in illustrating the change between Amaouis and Abbasids dynasties. After the Mongols burned books in Baghdad and defeated the Abbasids dynasty,  the Arab world was introduced to a new era which is less productive and creative that what they experienced with the Abbasids. It was known by decadence age or “Al Inhitat”.

Abbasids played an important role in making Arab people more open-minded by discovering other cultures. However, as Al Mutanabbi stated in his last poems, the Arab world was facing a critical failure. So, the level of the poetry was decreasing. The important productions of that era was “Al Muqaddimah” of Ibn Khaldoune and “Lisan Al-Arab” of Ibn Mandour.

Arab world inherited some western concepts such as the political parties. They played a major role in creating the Arab renaissance movement or “Al-Nahda”. So, the poetry and literature, in overall, recovered from the critical status that it was facing. The topics of poems were enriched again because some of the Arab poets were living in western countries, and they integrated the western culture in poetry. In addition, the poems were fighting the concept of tabous. A new type of poetry was born based on the introduction that the Abbasids’ poets provided. They introduced the concept of free poetry which was different than the traditional one that was inherited from the pre-Islamic era. However, at that time, they changed just some aspects of the formatting of the poem. In “Al-Nahda”, they totally changed the free poetry because they changed even the ringtone that the poem should have. It served several purposes because of the development of the Arab world. Some poets chose it as a way to defend their nations such as Mahmoud Darwish. He used it as a tool to share with the entire world the Palestinian thoughts about the Palestine-Israel conflict. It was used also in the national anthems of several countries. For instance, “Al Qadar” poem of “Abu Al-Kassim Al-Shabi” is the official anthem of Tunisia nowadays. It was easy to understand comparing to “Mu’allaqat” which helped this new style to serve in promoting nationalism. Another example of the use of the free poetry is Nizar Qabbani. He used it to express his emotions towards women. He broke the taboo of talking about women in a sexual way. Ahmed Shawki was a great poet of that era. He wrote a lot of poetic stories for children that influenced the famous french poet “Jean de La Fontaine”.

To sum up, poetry is a powerful tool that can influence people easily. It was used by most of the Arab governors to control their peoples and to promote themselves. It was improved to share the political opinions and promote nationalism after the introduction of free poetry in the Abbasids era. It participated in identifying the history of Arab people before Islam and in defining their life style.


Daif, Chaouki. History of Arab Literature. Beirut: Dar Al-Maarif, 2008.

Hourani, Albert. A History of Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.

Hussein, Taha. On Pre-Islamic Poetry. Cairo: Egyptian General Book Authority, 1926.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. Early Islamic Poetry and Poetics. Farnham, Surrey, Uk: Ashgate/Variorum, 2009.

Image Copyright: The Walters http://thewalters.org/assets/img/products/CT3970.jpg

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