Poetry in the Arab-Muslim World

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Poet Council of Al Hakam II, Caliph of Cordoba

Poetry is highly regarded in the Muslim world. Partly because of its association with the Qur’an and god, poetry has traditionally been considered the highest Arab-Muslim cultural form. Most of the Arab world's most famous literary figures have been poets. They have often been regarded as men blessed or cursed with special talent denied ordinary men, in some cases from demons. Among the most popular subjects of Arab, Persian and Muslim poetry are the exhalation of God, praise or rulers and odes to nature and romantic love and mysticism.

Charles F. Horne wrote: “Arabic poetry is based largely on harmonies of sound and striking turns of phrasing. Hence most of the poems are brief; and a poet's fame depended upon a few brilliant couplets rather than on any sustained melody or long-continued flight of noble thought.” [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 205-234]

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Poetry was “an important means of artistic expression, instruction, and popular entertainment. There were poems that praised a tribe, a religion, or a potential patron; some that poked fun at the poet's rivals; others that evoked the power of God and the exaltation of a mystical experience; and still others that extolled love, wine, or sometimes both (you cannot always be sure which). [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu /~]

Muslim poets wrote love songs rich in betrayal and sensual imagery, usually accompanied by musical instruments. Even Muslims who are illiterate can appreciate poetry because they recite and hear the poetic verses of the Qur’an every day. Today many sheiks and rulers around the Gulf region are amateur poets who love the art form and take their work very seriously.

In the pre-Islamic era poets acted as storytellers, historians, judges, philosophers and counselors. With the arrival of Islam, the rich language of the Qur’an because an expression of poetry in itself. In the courts of Baghdad and Damascus, poets were held in the highest of regard. Many famous poets seemed to have had drinking and women problems.

Websites and Resources: Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University guides.library.cornell.edu/ArabicLiterature ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ;
Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Persian Literature & Poetry at parstimes.com /www.parstimes.com ; Arabic Poetry web.archive.org ; Arabic Poetry from Princeton princeton.edu/~arabic/poetry ; Thousand and One Nights wollamshram.ca/1001 ; 1001 Nights fairytalez.com ; Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Burton, gutenberg.org ; Islamic Stories islamicstories.com

Qur’an, Poetry and Printing

In his book Introduction to Islam, Dr. M. Hamidullah writes: "Another art peculiar to Muslims is the recitation of the Qur’an. Not accompanied by instruments or music, and not being even in verse, the Qur’an has been an object for recitation purposes, since the time of the Prophet. The Arabic language lends to its prose a sweetness and melody hardly to be surpassed by rhythm verses of other languages. Those who have listened to the master singer, or Qari, reciting the Qur’an [or calling the faithful to prayer] know that these specialties of the Muslims have unequaled charms of their own."

The Qur’an was the first book ever written in Arabic. Because it was considered sacrilegious to use machines to make the Qur’an, the first printed copies of the sacred book we not made until almost 300 years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible. In the 18th century the Turkish sultans allowed books other than the Qur’an to be printed on presses, but even then calligraphers in Istanbul protested this action by parading with their reed pens and ink wells in a coffin. It wasn't until 1874 that sultans allowed the Qur’an to be printing on printing presses, and even then, only in Arabic.μ

Types of Arab Poetry

Popular styles of poetry included: 1) the qasida, an ode that originated in pre-Islamic times with accented meters and with a single rhyme running throughout it; 2) the muwashshah, a style that emerged in the 10th century and had a pattern of rhymes that appeared in a series of lines repeated throughout the poem. Among the most popular subjects were the exaltation of God, praise or rulers, odes to nature and romantic love and mysticism.

Nabati is a kind of poetry performed in bedouin dialect that is much loved by Persian Gulf Arabs. It dates back to 4th century Arabia, where poets were revered as messengers inspired by God, elevating their particular tribes sense of pride.

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “ Arabic literature did not begin with the Qu'ran. In the ka'aba [the "cubic" temple in Mecca which was kept as the central shrine of Islam after all the religious statues had been removed], there were a number of poems "hanged" on the walls. Some of these "hanged poems" were allowed to remain after the Muslim order was established. They allow us some insight into the literature of pre-Islamic Arabia. It is common to note that the definite unit of such poem is the line. Each line was polished to perfection, with overall poetic structure less important. The result is commonly described as a "string of pearls". Whether such an approach is correct is open to question, but it certainly impacts our reading of the Qur'an, a text which also seems to lack any overall organizational principle, but which is full of highly polished lines. [Source: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

Famous Muslim Poets

Abu Nuwas by Khalil Gibran

Abu Nuwars was a companion of the Baghdad Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He wrote many tributes to wine and appears to have been quite a rouge. One of his most famous lines goes: " How can you but enjoy yourself/ When the world is in blossom," And wine is at hand?"

Yunus Emre was a 13th century poet who wrote about universal love, friendship and divine justice. He lived in Anatolia from about 1228 to about 1320 and was a member of a Sufi sect of Muslims. His poems were about the search of spirituality, emphasizing the soul of the individual rather than formal religion. Emre once wrote, “ We see all of mankind as one...Whoever does not look with the same eye upon all nations is a rebel against truth...God's truth is lost on men of orthodoxy. One of his most famous couplets goes: “ God's truth is an ocean, and dogma is a ship." Most people don't leave the ship to plunge into that sea."

Among the cherished Andulcian poets were Ibn Zaydun (1003-71), an exiled Cordoban who often wrote about his homesickness for his hometown; Umar ibn al-Fatid (1181-1235, a Sufi poet who wrote about love and intoxication; and Judah Halevi (1075-1141), a Jew who used Arabic style and wort in Arabic and Hebrew. Poetry in Andalusia was enriched by the presence of a number of peoples, languages and dialects.

The Spanish-Moorish poet Ibn-Hazm wrote “The Ring of the Dove” (1022) about "the union of souls" which "is thousand times more beautiful than that of bodies." He also wrote: "The lover's soul is ever seeking for other, striving after it, searching it out, yearning to encounter it again, drawing it to itself it might be as a magnet draws iron."


Al-Mutanabbi (915-68) is a legendary Arab poet born in Kufa whose names means “oracle." When he was young he served as a court poet in Aleppo, Cairo, Baghdad and Shiraz. He was involved in politics and was murdered in a tribal feud by an assassin who picked him out at random, not realizing he was a respected poet and sage. One of his most famous lines goes: “Not everything a man longs for is within his reach, for gust of winds can blow against a ship's desires."

Al-Mutanabbi by Khalil Gibran

In a tribute to his patron in Aleppo, who had just recovered from an illness, Al-Mutanabbi wrote: “Glory and honor were healed when you were healed, and pain passed from you to your enemies...Light, which had left the sun, as if its loss were a sickness in the body, returned to it...The Arabs are unique in the world in being of his race, but foreigners share with Arabs in his beneficence...It is not you alone I congratulate you on your recovery; when you are well all men are well."

In the early 20th century, Charles F. Horne wrote: “ Most noted of all the Arab poets was Mutanabbi (905-965). His fantastic imagery and extravagant refinements of language were held by his admirers to be the very perfection of literature. More than forty commentaries were written to explain the subtleties of his verse. Such, indeed, was the intensity of Mutanabbi's poetic ecstasy that he fancied himself a prophet and began to preach a new religion, until a term in prison persuaded him to cling to the accepted form of Muhammadanism. In one well-known passage ridiculed by the great French critic, Huart, Mutanabbi says of an advancing army that it was so vast "The warriors marched hidden in their dust, They saw only with their ears." The commentators explain, perhaps unnecessarily, that this means that the warriors' senses were confused by all the tumult, so that while they thought they saw, in reality they only heard the clamor of the marchers around them. In translation, Mutanabbi's verses lose all value. Deprived of their Arabic melody they seem mere bombast and absurdity. This, in fact, is the general charge which must be made against the later Arabic poetry. It too often degenerated into empty sound. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 205-234]

Persian Poets

The Persian provinces produced some of Islam's greatest scholars and poets: Nizami (died 1203), Hafez (died 1390), Saadi (died 1292) and the 10th century Samanid figures Avicenna and Omar Khayyan. Iranians love Sufi poets. Many of great "Persian" poets and literary figures were in fact Tajiks from Central Asia.

Omar-Khayyám (1048-1123) was a Persian mathematician who enjoyed drinking and writing fatalistic poetry. He is famous in the West for his Rubiayat, or quatrains, but he was best known in his time as a mathematician and astronomer.

Omar-Khayyám wrote: “I sometimes think that never blows so red/ The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled." “Rubaiyat of Mar Khayyam” was a popular book in the Victorian era. Produced by an American expatriate Elihu Vedder, it was filled with images of skulls, owls and lizards set to Omar verse.


Al-Ghazali by Khalil Gibran

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1111) is one of the great poets and thinkers in Muslim history. He made great contributions to Islamic theology, philosophy, literature, science and legal scholarship. In Baghdad in 1095 he suffered a nervous breakdown due to questions about his faith that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He went to Jerusalem and recovered by doing Sufi exercises and concluded that God could not be found in reason and rationality but was more likely to be discovered using the rituals of Sufi mystics who aimed to have a direct relationship with God. He returned to Iraq 10 years after his breakdown and wrote his masterpiece The Revival of Religious Sciences, which became the most quoted text after the Qur’an and the hadiths.

Al-Ghazali was sort of like of a Muslim equivalent of St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas: someone who wrote beautifully and was able to bring religion down to earth so that it could be understood by ordinary people. In addition to writing about deep philosophical issues he also wrote about music and what heaven is like and argued only infallible teacher was Muhammad. Al-Ghazali wrote: “Gleams of the truth will shine in his heart. In the beginning it will be like the rapid lightning, and will not remain. Then it will return and it may tarry. If it returns it may remain, or may be snatched away.”

In “The Revival of Religious Sciences”, al-Ghazali offered insight into prayer and knowledge of God and provided spiritual justification for Muslim rules on ordinary activities such as washing, eating and sleeping so that Muslims could feel they were doing something more than just following rules. Other works include “The Deliverer of Error” and “The Incoherence of Incoherence” .

On Disciplining The Soul, Al-Ghazali wrote: “"If his aspiration is true, his ambition pure and his concentration good, so that his appetites do not pull at him, and he is not distracted by the hadith an-nafs (discourse of the soul meaning egotism of the soul) towards the attachments of the world, the gleams of the Truth will shine in his heart. At the outset, this will resemble a brief, inconstant shaft of lightening, which then returns, perhaps after a delay. If it returns, it may be fleeting or firm; and if it is firm (thabit), it may or may not endure for some time. States such as these may come upon each other in succession, or only one type may be present. In this regard, the stages of God's saints (awliya) are as innumerable as their outer attributes and qualities". (Translation by Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad).

Modern Arab-Muslim Poetry

Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008) is a Palestinian poet who often dealt with the themes related to the future of his homeland. He helped write Palestine’s declaration of independence in 1988. In 1996, he said, "We Palestinians badly needed to shift from the heroic image to simple, normal life. The Palestinian cause is coming to an end.” His famous poem “Identity Card” was published in his first collection “Leaves of Olives” (1961).

Nazil al-Malaika (1922-2007) is one of the most important modern Iraqi female poets. Her second collection, “Shazaya wa ramad” (1949) rejected the form that has been used in classical Arabic poetry for 15 centuries.


Al-Ghazali by Khalil Gibran

The Syrian-Lebanese poet Ahmad Said (1930-) writes under the name Adonis, mortal lover of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Adonis’s 1971 poem “The Funeral of New York” has been compared with T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.

I asked, and they said” the branch
swathed in flame is a sparrow.
They said: my face
was the waves, the world's face a pile of mirrors
a lighthouse, and the sailro’s sorrow

I arrived and the world in my way
was ink, each gesture a phrase
I did not known that between it and me
there was a bridge named Brotherhood
made of steps. Prophecy and fire.

I did not know that my face
was a ship that sails inside a spark.

Adonis is considered one of the premier writers of the Arab world. Mentioned as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize, he was condemned by Arabs for attending a UNESCO conference in Spain attended by an Israeli delegation and for once saying that Israel should recognized a neighbor. He believed that poetry “should be a change in the order of things.”

Adonis was born in Syria. Regarded by many as rebel writer, he is considered a pioneer of the modern Arabic prose poem. One couplet goes: “The sea does not have time to chat with the sand,/ It is always busy with producing waves.”

Nizar Qabbani

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), a former Syrian diplomat, is one of the Arab word’s greatest poets. His sensual, romantic poetry was not only published in books and periodicals but also put into song sung by Syrian and Lebanese singers. He lived in London after 1967.

Nizar Qabbani

The suicide of his 25-year-old sister, who apparently did it escape an arranged marriage, had a profound impact on him. Many of his poems addressed the experiences of women in traditional Arab society. His most famous collections are “Habibati” (1961 “My Beloved”) and “Al-rasm bi-al-kalimat” (1966, “Drawing with Words”).

In his poem “Drawing with Word”, Qabbani wrote:

When a man wishes a woman
he blows a horn
But when a women wishes a
man she eats the cotton of her

Zajal Poetry from Lebanon

Zajal is an old form of improvised Arabic poetry that enjoyed its heyday in Lebanon before the 1975-1990 civil war. According to AFP: “ Experts estimate that Lebanese zajal, the performance of colloquial poetry partly sung and accompanied by basic percussion, runs back some 500 years and has its roots in Syriac, a now-extinct dialect that preceded Arabic. In Lebanon, the art originated in the religious services of Christian monks, who improvised partly sung hymns in Syriac. Traces of zajal were also found in 10th to 12th-century Moorish Spain. While zajal is also practised in Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Lebanese form, with its themes of nation and woman, was the most popular in the region from the 1960s until the civil war began. [Source: AFP, December 30, 2010 ]

“Artists engage in hours-long challenges punctuated by traditional percussion instruments such as tambourines or derbakes, Arabic hand-held drums, and topics can range from the political to the erotic. Joseph el-Hashem, an 80-year-old known as the “nightingale of Damur,”remains one of Lebanon's most famed zajal performers. “As darkness falls, far from prying eyes/My beloved to me calls/Intoxicated, the wine of burning lips I kiss/Frozen no more, my soul finds bliss,” is one of his verses.

“Another household name is Khalil Rukoz, who gained fame for an audacity that often shocked religious leaders. They say I know no God, my godlessness knows no end/That I rebel against the system, under no shackles will I bend/I say to them: I have no faith in a dull yesterday, in an illusory now/Justice and reason, by these I do avow,”reads one of his verses.

“Traditionally an emotional oratory duel between two men, zajal once drew crowds of tens of thousands who revered its artists as poets of the highest order. It also enraptured fans who sat glued to their black-and-white television sets for the shows. In the years after the war, however, the art dwindled as more modern forms of entertainment gained popularity and the audience for zajal was relegated to a handful of nostalgic admirers.”

Internet and Television Help Bring Zajal Back to Life

Zaghloul al-Damour (Joseph el-Hashem)

Zajal is making a comeback with the help of Facebook, YouTube and television. AFP reports: “The advent of the internet with its online forums and popular social networking websites has seen a rising fan base among young people. “This is pure poetry... may God bring back those days where people used to express pure feelings and love, with no divisions among Lebanese,” Fady Hanna Sharara wrote on one of the dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to zajal. “What a fantastic oral tradition of verbal sparring! What a great atmosphere of joy,” wrote another fan who identified himself only as “George Smiley”. [Source: AFP, December 30, 2010]

Ziad Abi Shaker, a zajal enthusiast who is working to gather and preserve a comprehensive television archive of the poetry, said zajal was a “lost art” that has “few admirers among the younger generation.” Another fan, 40-year-old engineer Abi Shaker, says he has stepped in to fill the void with an ambition to make zajal recordings available in digital format for younger generations. ^^

“Video links now abound on Facebook to other sites such as YouTube, where thousands of people have viewed old footage of classical zajal performances. Advertisements and billboards for zajal nights have sprouted up across Lebanon, known in the region for its richness of culture, as demand for the shows rises steadily. While zajal was once staged in theatres, today's version takes on a more festive air, featuring dinner and drinks. Fans today can enjoy mezza, an assortment of appetisers that include hummus and baba ghannoush, to the rhythm of the zajalists' quatrains, washing them down with traditional arak, the aniseed-based alcoholic beverage. ^^

“Private television channel OTV has also played a major role in the revival. In the past year, 10 young zajal novices have received honorary awards from OTV under the auspices of Mussa Zgheib, a legendary name in Lebanese zajal who hopes to see the art fully return to its former glory in his lifetime. “The best-known poets have passed on or are aging,” Zgheib told AFP. “I wanted to do something for zajal... before I retire.” The winners are already booked for events in Lebanon and Syria, and several other candidates, mainly men, are hoping to try their luck in making a name for themselves in zajal. ^^

“Georges Aoun, the creator of a zajal show on OTV, said he wanted to stand apart from local programmes modelled after “American Idol” and the popular diet of reality television shows. “I remember when I was seven-years-old, I would watch them mesmerised on television,” said Aoun, a university professor. “So I thought, 'why not look for young talent to revive zajal?'” he told AFP. “It is time to renew our heritage.”“ ^^

Arab Poetry Television Shows

One of the most popular television shows in the late 2000s was “Million’s Poet”, a program broadcast on Abu Dhabi television that featured poets competing in an American-Idol-style format with the winner taking home about $1.4 million. More than that 20 million viewers watched the final which featured poets performing Nabati, a kind of poetry performed in Bedouin dialect that is much loved by Persian Gulf Arabs, with the winner determined by the endorsement of a panel (60 percent) and the vote of the audience (40 percent), which voted using text messages.

The hostess of the show appears in a glamorous abaya. The panel of judges takes their job seriously, in the words of Hugh Tomilinson of the Times of London, eschewing “high-waisted trousers and catty put-downs for traditional Arab dress and rigorous analysis of their language, passion and use of rhyme. Contestants have been known to faint on receiving poor reviews.”

In 2010, more than 10,000 entrants were whittled down to five finalists. The winner was a Kuwaiti Nasser al-Ajami, who also too the title “Prince of Poets, 2010.” In second was another Kuwaiti Falah al-Mourki. Perhaps the most remarkable finalist was Saudi housewife Hissal Hilal who, draped in a black abaya and face-covering niqab, won $817,000 for coming in third with vitriolic piece called “the Chaos of the Fatwas” that lashed out at Muslim fundamentalists, comparing suicide bombers to “monsters wearing belts,” and accusing them of “preying like a wolf” on those who seek progress and peace.

Hilal told the Times of London, “I entered the competition because I felt that this was my chance to speak to a lot of people to express my feelings about life, love and the situation we are in today. I felt I had to say that across the Arab world we are afraid of extremism and the effect it has had. What sort of society do they offer us? They offer nothing but fear, I hate it so much.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Joseph el-Hashem from Vintage Beirut and TV show, Al Arabiya

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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